TLDR: don’t say “no” to your players unless there is no way around it. And there is almost always a way around it.
Recently, as you all know, I have had some positively terrible luck in my roleplaying games. Right now I am one for seven – one good experience out of seven games. Although all the games have been D20 based, in the end I have concluded that the horrible result has not been because of the system, but characteristics of how the various GMs ran their games.
Since the last game, I have been thinking about what went wrong with the various games, and although I can critique the various GMs on a number of issues, the most serious comes down to one little word: no.
I’ve been GMing a long time. And I have committed just about every mistake that it is possible for a GM to make at one point or another. So when I criticize other games and other GMs, I don’t want anyone (especially any of the GMs who might find this site and recognize themselves as one of the GMs I am talking about) to feel as if I am trying to be superior. Believe me, everything I talk about here, I have done myself in games. But the problem of “no” appeared in every one of the games that I had problems with recently, and in addition was conspicuously absent from the one game that I didn’t, so it seems to me that it must be a common problem, and one that is worth addressing.
—used to give a negative answer or reply to a question, request, or offer
As a GM, it is your job to make your players feel supercool. The axis of your imaginary world revolves around them, or it should. Nothing happens in the world that doesn’t affect them in some way. Sure, for purposes of verisimilitude there are farmers farming and laborers laboring and conjurers conjuring and space pirates pirating – but until any of these intersect with the characters that the players are playing, they’re just window dressing or, at best, foreshadowing of something coming up that will make the players feel supercool.
Notice that I am talking about your players, not their characters. Characters are a tool, a fiction, a bunch of words and numbers scrawled on a piece of paper. They are a device by which players access fun. Ultimately, as a GM, it’s all about the players and not the characters. Characters should be seen for what they are – a collection of information that tells you how the player wants to have fun and look supercool. If your player has a wizard, then they are telling you “I want to have fun and look supercool by being Gandalf – casting spells and exploring old tomes and being really, really smart!” If your player has a monk, then they are telling you “I want to have fun and look supercool by being Bruce Lee – getting all badass with my bare hands or some exotic weapon!” Players come to games to have fun and to feel supercool.
There is very little in roleplaying that makes a player feel less supercool than telling them ‘no”.
Why is that? Because usually what you say “no” to is some idea that the player has had that they think is brilliant and awesome and will let their character do something badass and supercool. It’s seldom statements like “I hit the ork with my sword” that GMs say “no” to – it’s usually clever ideas like “I use the magical glue to attach the bead of fireballs to an arrow, then shoot it over the liche’s shoulder and past his army of undead to blow up his phylactery!”
Why would anyone say “no” to this idea? Well, there are several reasons, including, but not limited to
- It’s a hassle to figure it out and rule on it. Is there a “to hit” modifier for gluing the bead on the arrow? What’s the AC of the phylactery?
- It could make the climactic combat less climactic. If the player succeeds on turn 1, your big combat is over and the other players are left with little to do
- You need the liche to escape for a later scene.
- You spent HOURS on that liche, making him cool and interesting and evil and impressive, and by God he is NOT going to go down in one round from an arrow.
- The scenario doesn’t mention anything about taking out the liche with a bead of fireballs and some glue.
Some of these reasons are better than others. But in my opinion, NONE of them are worth saying “no” to the player. Because this is exactly the sort of ingenious, clever idea that is going to make that player feel supercool. The player will likely talk for years about nailing the liche with a bead of fireballs and some glue – KABLAM! WOOT! Eat that, you bag of bones! Its the sort of impressive in-game moment that should have everyone at the table high-fiving. In other words it is exactly the sort of moment that everyone games for.
Do not shut this moment down by saying “no”.
This is your moment as GM – this is what you are at the table for. This is what separates your game from one of those numbered “pick your own adventure” books. This is where you need to shine, to improvise, to make sure both that the awesome moment HAPPENS and to see to it that the other players have fun too. But saying “no” is not shining – saying “no” is an example of GM failure, not GM creativity or GM inspiration.
Another thing that I saw commonly in many of the games that I considered poor was GMs saying “no” to players a) before the player had a chance to finish explaining what they were trying to do, or b) without understanding of what the player was trying to accomplish. DO NOT DO THIS. This is not just blocking a character from a fun, supercool moment – it’s a dick move. It is disrespectful. It is rude. Nothing says to a player “I really don’t care” more than interrupting them or saying “no” to them when it is clear that you haven’t taken the time or made the effort to understand what they are trying to do. Even if what the player is trying to do is blatantly against the rules/isn’t going to work/totally screws with another player in a way that isn’t agreed upon you should at the very least do the player the courtesy of listening to what they have to say before saying “no”. If you take the time to listen and understand what the player is trying to accomplish, then you might be able to suggest alternatives to get them what they want, without having to say “no”. And if you DO have to say “no” in the end at least the player will feel that you heard them out, which feels much better than being dismissed.
Which brings me to the worst reason to tell your players “no”. Several of the games I was involved in were published scenarios, and I observed GMs consistently shooting down any idea or proposed plan that moved the characters off the plot of the scenario. Worse yet, I saw GMs shooting down any idea or proposal that moved the characters off of how the GM thought they should play the scenario. My fellow GMs, for the love of all that is holy DO NOT DO THIS! It reduces the players from vicarious protagonists of the story to mere dice rolling machines to generate some random results for your story. Yes, it’s hard to see the players going wrong in a scenario – wandering the forest and not getting to your dungeon, spending time interrogating someone who doesn’t know anything, blundering into the ogre den, flying to the wrong planet. But all these things are fundamentally necessary for players to have fun, because they allow the players to feel that their decisions matter within the framework of the game. Most of us are not J.R.R. Tolkien. And I’ll let you in on a secret – even the writers of published game supplements aren’t J.R.R. Tolkien – if they were they would be writing best-selling novels, not game supplements. I bring this up to emphasize that however good you may think the storyline of your adventure is, players are not playing it to listen to your adventure short story. They are playing to interact with the story that you have written up, to make their mark on it, and to use it as a foundation to have fun and be supercool. It is not just desirable for players to be able to go off the rails of a given adventure, it is a necessary requirement for a good game. Player decisions have to matter, and that means that they have to have the potential to make both correct and incorrect decisions – to be really supercool or to fail badly. If your story calls for the characters to travel through a forest to get to the ogre den, and halfway through the forest they decide that they want to chop down trees, start a lumber business, and use that to finance some magical item they feel that they need before taking on the ogres – GOOD FOR THEM! As long as the players are having fun then what they are doing is good.
So when SHOULD you say “no” to players? There are a few instances where it is appropriate. But I would argue that even in these instances it is better to find an alternative solution if possible, and say “no” only as a last resort.
- When a player is actively disrupting another player’s agency in the game or somehow making the game less fun for another player, it is totally OK – and even required – that you tell them “no” if you can’t find some alternative course of action that satisfies them. This is another part of your job as GM – to make sure that all the players are having fun and that nobody is spoiling the fun of anyone else.
- When a player is attempting an action that simply is not allowed by the rules (for example a fighter in D&D trying to cast a spell from a wizard’s spellbook) it is OK to tell them that no, that doesn’t work.
- When a player is attempting to do something that flagrantly violates genre or otherwise wrecks the setting/mood.
- When the player asks a question for which the answer is “no” (for example, “Is there any Mountain Dew left?”)
In conclusion – saying “no” to players should be avoided as much as possible. It robs players of agency, shoots them down when they are at their most creative, and often imposes the GM’s narrative on the players rather than allowing them to form their own narrative within a framework set up by the GM.