GM Tips – Say No to Never Say No


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10 May 2023
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We explore when no really should mean no

One of the most common pieces of advice you hear as a new GM is that you should say yes. We learn that if the players want to do something, we should find a way to make it happen, with the lingering implication being that saying ‘no’ is a sign of poor play.

And, most of the time, this advice is useful.

When we start out our GMing careers, many of us launch into campaigns with rigid ideas of what the players are going to do. We expect them to fight the giants, and base all our prep-work around this idea. So, when they ask to negotiate with the raiders, or lure them away, or bribe them to return to their mountain fortress, we panic and throw down barriers. We say ‘no’ because we’re not sure what will happen if we say ‘yes’.

Getting comfortable with going with the flow in these kinds of situations is an important skill for GMs. However, this well-meaning bit of advice can sometimes get folded into the blanket assumption that you should never turn down a player’s request, or rule that something can’t happen. We can end up in a situation where we’re afraid to say ‘no’ to the players.

This is nonsense. There are plenty of situations where you can turn down requests or rule that something is out of whack with the tone of your game, and still feel confident in your GMing abilities.

 

PRESERVING THE SETTING

Sometimes players have ideas that just don’t vibe with the world you’re playing in. They might want to play as a homebrew dragon race in your low-powered fantasy hexcrawl, or rock up as a heavily-armed soldier for a Call of Cthulhu game set in a sleepy New England college.

In these cases, you are not obliged to bend and break your setting just to accommodate the players’ whims. This isn’t just for the sake of preserving your own vision of the game, either, as the other players may well feel that their own enjoyment of the world is being rather ruined by the presence of something that just doesn’t fit in with the tone the rest of you are working to create.

So long as you are up-front about it during campaign prep – ideally during your Session Zero – the players really shouldn’t have too much reason to complain about restrictions.

This does vary somewhat with the tone of the game you’re playing, of course. There’s probably more wiggle-room for playing around with anachronistic, steampunk-ey firearms in the swashbuckling fantasy of D&D than in the relatively straight-laced world of Runequest, for example.

Often, it’s worth trying to meet a player half-way, and try to work out an idea that captures the general gist of their desires without breaking the world. Okay, they can’t actually play as a dragon, but they might be able to roll up with a warrior whose family line was cursed by a dragon. They can’t rock up to the Call of Cthulhu game with an M16 in their back pocket, but a teacher who was traumatised by WWI and still keeps his old service revolver in his desk fits perfectly with the theme of the game.

 

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AVOIDING STUPID ROLES 

Even in a fantasy world, some things are just impossible. A human being – especially a low-level one – cannot lift a mountain. A thief cannot cross an open, well-lit room without being seen. A fast-talking rogue cannot persuade a king to give up his throne with a couple of sentences.

Sometimes, though, players like to try and do things like this anyway. Either they massively overestimate their character’s abilities, or forget that the in-game world still runs on something approaching actual logic.

In these cases, it can be tempting to let the player roll anyway, and narrate the results of the inevitable failure. However, this can often suck the verisimilitude right out of the game, as the rest of the party sit back and watch their friend try something completely impossible. Worse, there’s always a chance that the player in question rolls really, really well. This can lead to awkward situations where the whole table cheers, and you have to choose between playing along with a pile of absolute nonsense or being the wet blanket that’s dragging your friends back to reality.

It’s much easier, and smoother, to head off the potential problems before they strike. Even if you don’t actually say ‘no’ outright, you can explain that the task they’re about to attempt is clearly, obviously impossible. There is no chance of it succeeding, and if you do let them roll, it will be to see whether they can maintain some dignity in their failure, rather than seeing if they actually succeed.

 

MANAGING YOUR WORKLOAD

One of the downsides of many RPGs is that the GM gets left with the lion’s share of the paperwork. Not only are we expected to run the world and think up characters and situations for the players to interact with, we handle all the monster stats and hit points along the way too.

Sometimes, players can accidentally start to push the game in ways that can add heaps of new work onto this already towering pile. They might want to examine a bookshelf in the wizard’s arcane lab, and ask for the title of each and every volume. Or, they might walk into a bar and demand descriptions and names for every one of the patrons clogging up the tables.

This can certainly add an air of reality to proceedings, but it’s also an absolute nightmare when it comes to the paperwork. Who wants to spend their precious prep-time sketching out dozens of minor NPCs, or doing the maths on whether the players’ cunning business proposal would actually turn a profit.

In these cases, you are not obligated to play along and spend three hours plugging away at random tables. You can just say no outright, or – if you’re feeling clever and/or cruel – delegate the task back to the players. Ask everyone at the table to think up some funny book titles, or sketch out some NPCs they might want to meet.

 

NO NASTINESS, PLEASE

This is probably the most important one. Sometimes you can say ‘no’ because the game is about to take a turn you really won’t enjoy.

To leap back to the example of the giants from earlier, while you could and probably should go along with unconventional plans, you’re well within your rights to throw out the veto if the party decides that, hey, raiding and pillaging these poorly defended villages looks like fun. If the entire table agreed that the tone of the game was going to lie in heroics and hijinks, you don’t have to be cool with GMing six months of petty banditry and wanton murder.

On the more extreme side of things, you can also throw down a very firm ‘no’ if the players decide to indulge in behaviour that makes you – or anybody at the table – uncomfortable. This might mean laying down a rule that the good guys don’t get to torture anybody, or it might mean that someone can’t decide their paladin is horrendously prejudiced about elves.

Saying ‘no’ is a powerful tool at the table. It’s probably not one you want to use all the time, but it’s certainly useful when it needs to be. 

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