Friday, February 25, 2011

Discussion: When is it OK to say no?

Game Master advice is full to the brim of one bit of wisdom. Seriously, everywhere you look you'll find it there. Odds are you've read it countless times, and I know I've referenced it here at least a half dozen times. What is that piece of advice? Well, it's simple. "Never say no to a character." It can be expanded on, usually with the following "Say 'yes, and...', 'yes, if...', 'yes, but....', but always say 'yes'"

Now, this is good advice for GMs, and especially for new GMs. The idea is that you should never be telling a character that they can't do something, just that they'll have to earn it some how. They'll have to roll really high, get really lucky, work very hard, etc, etc. To the player, you can say no, but not to the character (that is its own ball of yarn though). This advice is good advice because it helps prevent rail roading, and helps you - over time - get better at thinking on your feet and handling what your PCs throw at you.

However, every rule has exceptions. I believe that firmly enough that it is one of the few cases where I will use an absolute. However, in mulling it over I can't think of any situations, even very specific situations, where I would say the right course of action is to say "no" to a character. I can think of tons of ones where I might say no, especially if I was tired or in a mood, but not where I could objectively tell someone that they should say no.

How about you? Are there times - however specific - when you think it is ok to break this bit of advice? Have there been situations where you've flat out said no to someone, and would do it again now that you look back on it with hindisght? Or even situations where you didn't say no, but now think you probably should have (again, looking at it objectively)?


  1. I know how hard it is to say no sometimes. I've almost always felt so guilty afterward that I just end up giving the character a chance at whatever they were trying to do. I hate the look in my players' eyes when they hear that there is something they can't do.

    I've been trying to think of a few times when I've said no and I can only recall one of the new players to my campaign - new to role-playing in general. She was a rogue and wanted to instantly kill monsters. She would describe her actions and jumping onto a monster's back and slicing it's neck or something similar. While it was a great visual image, we were playing 4E and I couldn't bring myself to allow such a thing, especially against monsters that were equal to the characters' levels. My reasoning was that in 4E combat is so important to the rules and to character leveling that if I had given the players easy access to an instant kill I would be taking all that other combat stuff away and spoiling what I know is a lot of the fun for my party. Who needs to slide a target three squares when you can slice it's neck and kill it much more quickly?

    I guess the best reason to ever tell a player or character no is when their actions will spoil the fun for other people at the table.

  2. I mostly say No in character creation. Keeps things from being broken to start off. Everything in game it's either, not yet, yes but, or are you sure you want that because it doesn't fit the world very well.

  3. Onedtwelve, that actually seems less like telling the character no and more like telling the player. The character wants to jump on the back and go for a throat stabby. To which the answer is "Yes, you can try to do that". The end result is "you failed to kill the monster in one hit." Alternatively, that is less a situation of you saying no, and more "the rules say it doesn't work that way, and we've agreed to use those rules." But that could be viewed as a cop out by some, even the person giving it.

    Which I guess is also one of the other problems. There are so many ways to break down a situation where a no isn't a no. Even if it is perceived as one.

  4. I'll agree with you, A.L. Sometimes it's hard for me to know exactly when I'm saying "no" and when I'm saying "the rules don't allow for this." I'm probably saying the latter much more often when the occasion for a "no" arises. I just know that whenever I do prevent a player from doing something it's kind of disappointing for both me and the player. I run highly houseruled, improv games so I guess I'm not exactly the poster child for saying "no" too much.

    I didn't even think of what you said, Atraties. I do often limit character creation and that is definitely a form of saying "no." Of course, when everyone has agreed on a certain campaign setting they should understand that certain things may not be allowed during character creation. There are also certain cases in which the rules that are in the system are so broken, things need to be limited. So I think that in the situation of character creation "no" isn't so bad as long as you have a good reason.

  5. Yeah, Character Creation is a good place to go for it. I think it may be where I've said 'no' the most myself. particularly in Super Hero games where, after agreeing we'd be going for heroic, someone tries for a non-heroic concept.

  6. I was thinking "There are plenty of times when I say no." but if saying no because of the rules isn't really saying no then I'd agree, I don't say no unless it's in character generation.

    With the neck stab thingy, I've learned to handle that by having the character roll for their acrobatics to jump behind the monster and or up on top of the monster. In most cases the player fails and I say "well you'll just have to up your acrobatics" (or equivalent). If they actually pass that then when they stab the monster in the neck I describe why it doesn't instantly kill the monster with things like "The skin of this creature is so hard and rubbery your sword doesn't fully penetrate" and then the monster bucks them or grabs them and they're launched across the room. Desire fulfilled. Of course I actually would give them extra XP for trying something like that.