Always say, ‘Yes…’

Honestly, this little piece of contested GM advice is one of the few issues debated online that I feel has strong arguments on both sides. I am certain that there is a clear and distinct genesis for this idea, but I am most familiar with the form it took from the lineage of players who grew up playing Call of Cthulhu (Pre-Delta Green).  I’ll get to that in a bit.

For me, ‘Always Say Yes’ is not a consistent problem, but around the time I was opening the first Vampire: The Masquerade books, to see if the game matched the simple elegance of the cover, and the wry tone of the afterword, I had begun to notice that I had a tendency to let my imagination be the only one in the room. Players were encouraged to interact with my imagination as cleverly and actively as they were able, but in the end – my imagination was the baseline of reality. That tendency needs to be opposed, and it is in addressing things like this that I feel we become better as players. Recognize your weaknesses or tendencies, and work at countering them.

If a player asks a question such as, “Is the bridge made of wood?” A GM, once the inevitable chorus of, “No, it’s made of Witches!” has died down, has two options: confirming that it is indeed constructed from wood, or informing the group that the bridge is made of something else. In my experience, this sort of situation usually arises when you have sauntered off into seat-of-your-pants land. Players can sense when you are just winging the setting descriptions and NPCs.

I think it is important, when a player asks a question like this, to ask both yourself and the player, why they are asking. Get them to explain the core of their idea. I think it is a mistake to just say, “Sure it’s made of wood!” and I think it is tedious to say, “For a Style Point (or whatever name the system gives them) it can be!”

Getting players to get into the habit of sharing their thinking with each other, and talk as if they were actually in a scene with comrades, is a very important part of real collaborative roleplaying. Yes, I said ‘real’ and I mean it as opposed to ersatz. Imagine how interesting, vibrant, and most importantly, collaborative your game would be if, instead of staying out of character, interrupting the flow of the game, and asking an OOC question: Is the bridge made from wood?, the player interacted with the scene and fellow players, “Is the bridge made out of wood?  I can’t tell…? If it is, we can…insert wicked and often cool player idea here>.”

Not only is this faster than the yes/no OOC process, it seamlessly blends collaboration and interaction. Players can continue to interact in-character, while the GM goes on to the next step: evaluating the impact of the bridge being wood or not.

In a game like Call of Cthulhu, in many cases, saying ‘yes’ simply isn’t going to matter. If I had to guess, I would imagine that many of my generation of gamers hit upon the core idea of ‘Always say yes’ (couched in their own sort of mental phrasing*), by accidentally creating annoying futility and frustration in their players instead of  fun futility and ‘fear.’  Those that chose to get better at running the game, would have had to have noticed that being too controlling of details, (letting your imagination be the only one in the room) especially details that do not specifically need to exist in a certain way to allow players to have a good story with which to interact, is a real fun-killer.

Worried Player: “Is there a weapon in the room… like, uh… an old shotgun or something, over the mantel?”

Fun-Killer GM: (hadn’t considered it one way or another, and knows that it will not be of any use against the “Dread Thing in the Attic”) “No, and in this game and genre, guns aren’t much use anyway.”

GM Translation: Stop asking questions.

Baffled Player: “Screw this, then. Let’s go back to our office and call the client. We can refund her money tomorrow.”

If the possession of a gun is useless, then denying its existence is pointless. Let them have it – especially if the having of it allows the players to get more into their characters, or enhances the mood you are all creating together.

Clearly, if the player had asked if there was a spell book on the mantel, that is a different kettle of fish…. or it ought to be. That doesn’t mean, I am saying one should say ‘No,’ to the existence of the Granpa’s Ol’ Time Spells and Remedies on the mantel. I mean, you have to get into their train of thought, and get them talking, sharing their creative process and logic chain with you and each other – in character.

There very well might be a  spell book – or something in that vein – somewhere in the house, and it might be very useful at some point, or it might not, but wondering if it exists, going to get it, flipping through it, and getting further confirmation of the ‘not-rightness’ of the house, are all proactive things which build momentum, and keep the players going forward through the layers of the onion, instead of backward and out of the story. There might very well be an obvious spot on the mantel where a book was kept, but the space, and disturbed dust beckon the players to look for it…

You don’t need me to explain how ‘Always say yes’ works. I have digressed.

Anyway, I think for me – and others – the trigger for recognizing this need came from a negative place. What I mean by that is, we learned to “say yes, or yes, but” to whatever players ask for, because, ‘It won’t matter.’ Getting there is just the first stage of development. To develop as a GM, shift that negative into a positive, and actually elevate play around the table and behind the screen, it needs to be more than allowing someone else to contribute to the landscape of the primary imagination. It needs to be about opening everyone’s mind to the details which may or may not exist, and interacting about and with those details with the other characters.

Once that happens, it ceases to be about ‘yes’ and ‘no’ entirely.

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2 Responses to “Always say, ‘Yes…’”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Part of the frustration I’ve felt, I think, comes from the fact that somewhere along the line I learned that the point of these games was to be a proactive player (and conversely, to listen really well when you DM to see how players are being proactive).

    I didn’t realize that it was such a problem in the hobby (that is, “fun-killer GM”) as to influence game design the way it has. And I also still think a fundamental part of the GM’s role at the table is to be the one who can (when necessary) say No.

    Also — 4-6 players all thinking and obsessing about a problem will come up with soooo many things you as the GM did not think about. Be led by your players, enjoy what they come up with and incorporate it into the game. Do that, and they probably won’t ever even be able to tell when you are winging it.

  2. Carol Dunster says:

    I am learning, when my players say, “Is this bridge made of wood” to ask them what it is made of. I try to ask them to do a lot of the description for me. I discovered that one of my regular players and describe an elven village instantly that is way more interesting than what I had in mind. If he left something out I needed – like a common meeting place, I just ask him to describe that too. Then another one describes the marketplace and what is in it. Then, if we go shopping, we know what is there! (Whether in game or out) I can always add something I feel the plot needs when they are done building the town. 🙂

    I’m not the most imaginative DM, so letting them do a lot of the lifting is great for all of us! Thanks for reminding me to shift that to their imaginations! Our second campaign together has a couple of new players and I’m more tense about getting my encounters sorted out, I need to remember to let the game breathe and let the players take more responsibility for the settings!

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