Wingin’ It: Saying “Yes” Leads to Better Gaming

I am an improviser. That is, I perform improvised comedy on a stage about once a week. I still consider myself to be a novice, but I’ve been studying the art for two years and it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. The skills that I’ve learned from improv have applied to every aspect of my life, and this definitely includes gaming. Wingin’ It will be a series of articles that touch on improvisation skills and how those skills can help make gaming run more smoothly, for both players and gamemasters.

One of the basic tenets of improvisational theatre is the idea of saying “yes, and…”. Whenever presented with a statement of fact (often called an “offer”), it should be accepted graciously, acknowledged and built upon. Doing so gives context to the situation, expands on the established world, and keeps the scene moving. Denying or contradicting the offer, saying no, can bring a scene to a halt while the improvisers struggle to find a new context to play with.

An offer is a gift, a fact that you didn’t have to come up with yourself, and the more established facts there are in a scene, the easier the scene is to play. By accepting offers, you’re letting your fellow improvisers help you out. Saying “yes, and…” invariably leads to better improvisation, and the same can be applied to gaming. The following tips are primarily for gamemasters, but can also benefit players.

Start with “Yes”

There will come times in any gaming session where a player will offer up some information. As a gamemaster, you can either deny the offer or go with it. Let’s say, for example, the players in a traditional fantasy campaign have gotten themselves into a fight in the evil king’s throne room. When it comes to Bob’s turn, he states: “I jump from the balcony, grab hold of the chandelier, and swing to the other side of the room.” You only gave the barest description of the room, and never mentioned a chandelier.

You have two options: remind Bob that there isn’t a chandelier, and that he has to think of something else to do, or assume that the chandelier has been there all along and let Bob attempt his action. The first option disrupts the game, slowing the pace and jarring Bob’s sense of what’s going on in the scene. He made an assumption, and now you’re contradicting it, so he has to rethink the whole situation. If you say yes, on the other hand, Bob can carry on his merry way, and now there’s a chandelier in the scene that everyone (including the bad guys!) can interact with. Bob is happy, the game kept moving, and the scene has richer detail. It’s a win-win situation.

Another example: Jack is playing in a cyberpunk campaign, investigating a series of murders in which the victims’ cybernetic components have been removed. He suggests to you that he’s going to go visit his cousin, who runs a semi-reputable street clinic nearby, to see if any suspicious parts have turned up. If you say no, Jack has to search elsewhere, hopefully finding the original clue you had planted: a street urchin who saw too much. If you say yes, you’ve expanded the world by adding a new character that you hadn’t considered, and you can always use the street urchin in a later scene.

Now Add “And…”

The brilliance of saying yes is that it allows you and your players to build off each other’s ideas, brainstorming while you play. Whenever a player adds a detail into the world, try to say “and” by follow it up with more ideas of your own. This will continue in turn, and the game will out with you having to do less work, and the players feeling like they have some creative control.

Consider the example above: Bob swings across the room on the chandelier. What else can we add to this to make things more interesting? Whether or not Bob succeeds at his acrobatics, we can say that the chandelier breaks and it comes crashing down to the ground. Perfect. Now a small portion of the ground is strewn with broken glass and metal, adding interesting terrain where you hadn’t considered it before. And perhaps another player suggests to you that the lit candles in the chandelier fall onto the room’s elaborate rugs. Were the rugs there before? It doesn’t matter: they’re there now, and they’re on fire.

Adding information in this way can really fill out the scene without having to have planned much ahead of time. All you have to ask yourself in any given situation is “if this, then what?” Quickly think of the consequences of any new information, and incorporate those consequences into the world: if the chandelier just held more weight than it was supposed to, then it’s probably weakened and might fall.

Saying “yes, and…” works especially well for elaborating on the details of the world. If a character has some interesting facts in his or her background, why not run with them? Jack’s cousin, the one you hadn’t planned for, will need some defining characteristics. Jack might be able to provide some for you, but you could also make a quick decision and run with it. Let’s say the cousin is a drug addict. If that’s true, then perhaps he’s been looking the other way in exchange for some hits of a popular new drug. Therefore, he probably has some interesting information, but might not be too eager to reveal it, given that doing so will probably cut off his drug supply.

And Sometimes “But…”

In traditional roleplaying games, a lot of the yes/no questions are answered with a roll of the dice. That is, a player says what he wants to do, and the dice decide if he succeeds of fails. The real question is this: what exactly do success and failure mean? Generally, success is easy to define: the player accomplishes his goal with a minimum of fuss. The trouble comes about when defining failure. Many GMs that I’ve played with have used an all or nothing approach: if a player fails his roll, he is stopped from doing what he planned. This creates the problem of the scene not advancing in any way. Often times the player can just try again, or be forced to think of something else to try. But just because the dice say no, that doesn’t have to mean that nothing happens. Instead of failure meaning “no”, consider saying “yes, but…”, allowing the action to go forward, but throwing in a further complication

For example, Bob fails his roll to swing on the chandelier. The “no” option is to have him fall in the middle of the floor, no where near where he was hoping. I would suggest something a little more supportive, the “yes, but” option: assume that Bob makes his swing, but the failed roll means he lands awkwardly and suffers a penalty on his next action. Perhaps he also lands a few feet away from where he was hoping. This way, Bob doesn’t have to spend his next turn going to where he wanted to be; the action keeps moving and Bob doesn’t feel entirely incompetent.

Jack decides to hack into his cousin’s computer, hoping the medical records there might give him some clues, but he fails his hacking roll. He could end up sitting there, staring at an “Access Denied” message, wondering what to do next, or he could find the files he’s looking for, but have accidentally tripped off an alarm that seals the clinic and automatically calls the local authorities. Now Jack has to deal with the police, while hoping that this incident hasn’t scared off the killer from showing up again.

About “No”

Sometimes it’s okay to say no, if a player’s offer is just too wild, nonsensical, or game-breaking. If Bob suggests that the Big Bad Evil Guy is deathly allergic to water, you might want to think twice about whether or not that makes sense in the established context of the world. Also important is whether or not the new information will make for a good game. Such a weakness for the evil bad guy doesn’t make any sense, and would probably turn what is supposed to be an epic fight into a boring water balloon toss. Remember that, as a GM, you have the power to say no when you’re players’ offers aren’t being particularly constructive.

Be careful about saying no when you don’t quite intend to: remember that setting a high enough target number can be the equivalent of completely denying the action. If Bob needs to roll a twenty to avoid falling flat on his face, he might as well just stay where he is. So set the target numbers at a reasonable level, and then consider failure possibilities that offer complications, rather than complete denials.

In the big scheme of things, you want to be saying yes as much as possible. Given any offer, the question you should ask yourself is “why not?” If there isn’t a good reason to say no, just say yes and move forward. Your game will be more interesting and run more smoothly for it.

Have any questions, comments, or criticisms? Comment below and let me know.

[tags]improv, yes, roleplaying games, wingin’ it[/tags]

6 thoughts on “Wingin’ It: Saying “Yes” Leads to Better Gaming

Add yours

  1. Nicely said! I like the segue from improv comedy to gaming; it works well. I’ve always thought games tended to be more interesting if the GM was flexible and willing to work with the players’ ideas; in particular I like the “yes, but” approach to failure when appropriate.


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