Is “No” a Dirty Word for a GM?

I sold an RPG recently to a guy that I thought would really enjoy the free flowing and modern style of its rules.  Over time I got to talking to him about what he thought of it and he found the book very condescending in telling him what he had been doing wrong as a GM and how he should run his games.  This came as a big surprise as to me I read this book because it is enjoyable to read and offers up some great new ideas but I revisited it and attempted to look at the game from his perspective.

Going back and looking at the book again (and I am not going to name the game as I do not agree with the overall sentiment that the customer had) I could see where he was coming from.  The book tries to get the GM to steer clear of the use of the word “No” so that the game can be a collaboration of the GM and all the players where the player does not feel as if their creativity or ideas are dismissed.  The book talks about instead of saying no, try yes instead, or “Yes, but…” or “Yes, and…”.

I have taken a lot of this on in my own gaming over the past few years and I have become a better GM because of it but I did wonder why “No” was a dirty word all of a sudden.  I think I understand the intent of the writers of the game in question and I do not believe that they meant to make it that way, I think they just wanted to remove the misuse of the word “No”.  I see players, especially dominant, gregarious players using the word “No” in an incorrect manner all the time and at times I need to step in and correct them and get them to take a back seat.  So that begs the question…

When is “No” a dirty word?

There are two situations that are very similar in this circumstance.  One is where the GM uses it and the other is a player does.  The intent, in both cases, is to use no as a controlling factor that denies a player their action despite it being possible and the action that player wants to undertake.  Consider the following two examples;

GM: Your summoner conjures two fine chestnut brown horses to act as bait to whatever may be hiding in the outskirts of the forest and prepares to send them past the trees

Player: I leap on the back of the horse – this is going to be fun!

GM: No, that is a stupid idea. Remember these are being used as bait to draw out the gigantic shadow from the forest – being on the back of the horse is not where you want to be.

 

"no"
A player deserves their right to ride the bait!

Player 1: I try to open the door to the cockpit with my magnetic card reader.

Player 2: No, you are the tank.  Cover me while I do it – you have fewer dice than I do when I try this

In both cases above the use of the word “No” should never have been allowed.  The role playing police should have smashed in the windows and killed the offenders forthwith, but of course that is not the case.  Imagine yourself in the place of Player 1 in both instances.  The use of “No” here impacts directly on you and your fun.  You are told, often, when you start role playing that you can do anything you can possibly imagine, but in reality the above circumstances happen numerous times in a gaming session.

So if that is the case…

Is there ever a time where using “No” is the right thing to do?

Of course there is.  In my mind they are two critical points where the GM should be able to use this, and I am going to use two examples that are a little exaggerated just to point out the times that it is the case;

Player 1: I fly to the top of the dam, having realised that I missed the entrance the henchman went in.

GM: How are you flying to the top?  Do you have a gadget that allows you to?

Player 1: Well, I parachuted in here, I just get the parachute to fill from the updraft of the breeze that strikes the wall of the dam.

GM: We are playing a game that simulates our world.  There is no way that would happen so I think that you had better find another way to get to the top.

 

Sure, it sounds impossible, but I am the player and the player is always right...
Sure, it sounds impossible, but I am the player and the player is always right…

Player 1: I search the room looking for the ancient fork of spaghetti twirling!

Player 2: Don’t do that – you never find anything when you search.  Just hold the torch and assist me while I find it.  You can give me a +2 if you roll above a 10.

Player 1: No, I am going to look for it by myself .

Player 2: Here is the d20, get above 10 and if I find it I will let you use it once.

GM: No, they have said that they want to search for it and I will allow them to roll.  You cannot force other people to do what you want, it is their character.

These are the two situations where a GM should step in.  The first is to support the game and its unwritten laws.  If you are simulating a game where something is impossible you should not allow it just because the player wants it to happen – it breaks atmosphere.  Mind you, there is the proviso that you should listen to the player and if they come up with a reason for why the impossible could be made possible then as a GM it is your role to be open minded to it.

Secondly, the GM, for right or wrong, is also the arbiter of inter-player conflict.  You are there to make sure that the game runs well and that the players have fun.  If you have a player that attempts to control characters other than their own they must be told where their power ends.  It is OK for players to argue in character over roles but if that argument turns into a meta gaming player vs. player argument then the GM should step in.

Conclusion

“No” can be a dirty word.  It is often overused in situations which are judgmental by players and GM’s alike and that can affect the fun that people are having in the game.  The main thing to be, as a GM, with this word is aware of its use.  Just use it as a trigger in your game when you are about to say no, think about is this my own judgmental issues or is their an actual reason for the use of “No”.  The very first example I gave was a direct experience of myself but instead of saying “No, that is stupid” I caught myself and just smiled and said “Sure, you leap on the back of the horse”.  It turned out that due to the repercussions of that action the character was killed by a giant spider.  The player’s actions alone caused that death but they had a great laugh about how silly the idea was in retrospect.  Better than him feeling like he can’t do what he wants to.  Until next time, keep rolling!

1 Comment


  1. The biggest rule of improv acting is not never say NO, and i think thats true for roleplaying as well, thats not to say the GM doesnt need to stop the game to remind people of the setting as why an action would not take place or that players should not stop each other doing stuff and talk about it before acting but just saying NO without talking about why is not helpful to anyone.

    One game system i have read that seems to talk alot about stuff not to do with it was the fate system including giving example of a games that would or not be good to run with it and it some ways it felt like it was saying it was too good for them type of gams.

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