No at the gaming table.

A reaction to Learn to Say No to You Players over on Gnome Stew.

The instances when he says specifically to say, “No,” are not times to negate the player. His examples below are also not times to just say, “Yes.” They are all examples of miscommunication at the table and each one should be a prompt for a conversation to occur.

It’s the right time for “No” when:

A player asks for is more work than you can currently handle – Biting off more than you can chew, even at a player’s request is a good way to become bitter, overworked, and burned out. Being realistic about your limitations and workload can keep your games and friendships running smoothly. Not doing so is a good way to bring your hobby crashing down on your head like a house of cards.

This might be a solid sign that this article was not written for me because I can’t figure out what this means. I am going to guess that the player wants something new made for them, a new class, lifepath, etc. Rather than no, something like, “We decided on a concept for this game knowing that these options would fit in best. Could you come up with a new character idea or re-tool the concept to fit the game better? We’re all here to help.”

The request requires more work than the potential payoff – If your player asks you for an entire rewrite of a base system when an existing option would be close enough, or wants you to insert their custom backstory or setting which would be an awkward fit at best it’s a good time to say “No” In some cases, the right answer is “Next time” but that’s just a “No” in disguise.

Huh, again fear of extra unnecessary work. Again a sign that maybe the player doesn’t want to play this game. Let’s not forget to use this one once in a while: “Not wanting to play this game is okay. We’ll still be your friend if you sit this one out.”

“I’d like to give the game a go as written; its what we have agreed to play and honestly, don’t want to spend the time and effort to re-write the rules. Are you interested in giving this a try?”

It would ruin the mood and concept of your game – Of course, this assumes that you and your players are enjoying the current mood and concept of your game. If it’s time for a change, or you trust the player in question can handle the difficult element gracefully, like a well-timed comic relief character in a serious campaign, then by all means say “Yes”, but otherwise your answer should be “No” (or again, “Next time”).

Again, I feel like this is a sign that the concept of the game has not been properly communicated. If a player is making up a character who is comic relief…y’know, this is another sign of disconnect between me and the author of the article. Comic relief characters are alien to me unless I am playing a goofy game.

Funny, laugh out loud moments happen at the gaming table, even funny things in game but not characters who are jokes.

Also, don’t say, “Next time,” when you mean, “No.” C’mon now. Be upfront and honest with the other people you game with.

It violates your setting – Save this “No” for gross violations, but if something a player is asking for literally sticks out like a sore thumb and requires a block and tackle to suspend disbelief, it’s OK to say “No” (or, surprise! “Next time.”)

See above, another sign that the player either doesn’t understand the genre at the table or isn’t the least bit interested in it.

It’s disruptive – Nothing about the “say ‘Yes’” culture makes or should make you a doormat. If a player is asking for something disruptive or obviously is just pushing something to be a jerk because they know you feel obligated to say “Yes”, it’s the perfect time for “No”, or ever “Shove it!” if you’re feeling bold.

Disruptive…huh. When something disruptive is going on at the table, it is time to take your GM hat OFF, time to put the character sheets away and talk like grown-ups in the real world, sitting at a real table, playing a real game about fake shit. It is time to talk about what is going on and not about fictional shit.

the fun is at the expense of other players’ fun – Unless there are extenuating circumstances, a GM has to balance everyone’s table experience, which means that you can’t allow a request by a single player to outweigh the enjoyment of everyone else at the table.

This is time for, “Dude, you just shit in Aaron’s bed, man. What is up with that? I am uncomfortable with that move.” Time to stop being a GM and start being an adult talking to another adult about how the collective good time is being effed with.

You’d have to stray too far from your comfort zone – By all means, push your comfort zone, but don’t be afraid to say “No” when it’s pushed too far in a single go or when it’s too short notice.

I think we agree on this one but should be followed up, hopefully, by a conversation or a break from the game.

P.S. None of this has anything to do with Say, “Yes,” or roll the dice, nothing the least.

Monkey King Say Yes or Roll the Dice by John Harper

P.P.S. Sons of Kryos Motto: Talk to yer players.

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40 thoughts on “No at the gaming table.

  1. I was in the middle of replying to that article, checked my Google Reader, saw this, and realized you were saying everything I wanted to but better! Score! ::quits word processor::

    The same thing happened with the Walking Eye podcast.

    Judd, you’re awesome!

  2. See, this is why playing in our campaign was a nice revelation to me – everything you address here made it mature and workable. Okay, granted, we never as far as I know had to take a break and say “You’re shitting in Xs bed” but we were talking pretty much every session about what was working and what wasn’t. I hadn’t seen that before, and it was cool.

    And while I don’t remember which game it was for (I think maybe it was the Diaspora one), I remember I just couldn’t decide on a character concept and we talked it through. That part about “We’re all here to help” applied.

    Mac Mercury wasn’t quite comic relief (anyone who had “initiated planetary destruction” in his back story doesn’t qualify) he was so insanely goofy to play… but it was never because he was inherently comic relief, but more because his defining characteristics made him over the top. Similar, but significantly different.

    • Mac Mercury had really funny moments. We all did. Our Danger Patrol game was founded on the foundation of Planet X and Air Sharks. And its a goofy game and Pete ran it pitch-perfect.

      But its cool when we take gonzo characters, give them depth and still not take them too-too seriously. That was amazing stuff.

      “We’re all here to help” is huge, probably worth its own blog post. Fostering a table full of people committed to making the game fun for everyone, rather than leaning entirely on the GM/Daddy/Patriarch to create fun from behind his magic screen is probably why I’m still interested in this hobby.

  3. Yup! Well said!

    I was just thinking about how roleplaying games offer a LOT of opportunities to get better at speaking like an adult to other adults, and this has little to do with roleplaying characters and everything to do with the cooperation required to play in such a game together.

    • Thanks, Rachel.

      Yeah, stopping the fiction train and putting on our grown-up pants is something I almost never see suggested in gaming advice. Maybe because people don’t like trains and pants.

  4. My guess what happened, because I have seen it before, is that he mixed up “say yes or roll the dice” and the meme “consider yes.”

    A side note: My favorite bit is the strawman he sets up where people who use “say yes or roll the dice” are simply autocratic followers of the RPG Guru Vincent Baker. As opposed to it being something we intelectually approve of.

    As much as Frank Covey irritates me, his first habit “seek first to understand” is an extremely important concept in intelectual discourse. If you are going to deride someones position, it might be a good idea to know what it is.

    Also I might take a moment to point out that this should not be a GM v. player here. It should be a case where everyone at the table has the chance to have some discussion with everyone else at the table. Instead of “GM talk to your players” it should be “Players talk to each other.”

  5. I don’t contest any of your points. They’re well thought out and poignant. But remember that though Baker’s “Yes or roll the dice” was a large influence on our current “say yes” culture, it’s not the same thing, and the intent and execution aren’t always the same either. And of course, you have to take into account that Baker’s motto has traveled a lot further and faster than it’s context, meaning that it’s possible that to the majority of people touting it as a mantra, it may not mean anything close to Baker’s intention.

    • Hi Matt,

      The sort of “say yes” stuff you’re talking about?

      Was much more influenced by the ideas that a) every game could do everything for everyone and b) games could actually function even when the group isn’t actually trying to play the same game:

      http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2009/12/19/a-way-out/

      Like any other game, the rule of Say Yes assumes everyone’s actually on board to play the same game, and not doing stuff like, “I’m going to make a Navy Seal character in your Wild West game”.

      People not honestly buying into, and living up to, the social contract of playing the same game is the root, even if “Say Yes” got painted onto it at a later time.

      • I agree 100% Almost every time you’d need to say “No” in a game is because something’s confused, someone’s being a jerk, or there’s some extenuating circumstance. It’s not a fault of the game, and if it is the fault of a philosophy, it’s NOT the fault of Baker’s (as intended anyway).

        Actually, to back up a moment, I would like to clarify what exactly I meant by my first two reasons to say “No”.

        #1 is when you just don’t have the bandwidth for one more thing. ie: “Please add this back plot/organization/monster/idea/run an additional game/whatever.” “Man, I’d love to but I just don’t have the time for anything beyond what we’re doing now.”

        #2 is when you’re being asked to house rule or design something for the game that’s a shit ton of work for little payoff. These aren’t big deals in and of themselves, but when someone says “Can you redesign 3.0 grapple so I can makle a grapple character?” “Not this time. That’s a lot of work and I don’t think it’s a good investment of my time.”

        And for what it’s worth, I don’t think “Not this time” is a lie. Asking the GM for stuff before an extended game begins is a lot different than when it’s in progress, IMO, so if you want to play a navy seal in my western game, a “Not this time” is fine. Next time maybe we can play something appropriate for what you want.

        • Hi Matt,

          If you haven’t yet, take a look at the link I put up.

          The problems you’re talking about aren’t new – they’ve been around a lot longer than Vincent Baker’s games- just take a look in old issues of Dragon and you’ll seee the issue of pushy players and unreasonable requests.

          It’s less “When to say no” and more “If we agreed to play Game X, why are you pushing for it to be Game Y?” Those issues need to be deal with before the game, and people doing it in the middle of the game are being thoughtless and perhaps, disingenuous even.

          Say Yes has nothing to do with that, and “Cult of Baker” seems like a very strange way of putting it.

          • I had read, and enjoyed the link immensely. I think it’s a very practical and down to earth discussion on the fundamentals of a lot of the underlying problems in RPGs.

            I think one of the reasons that RPGs get treated like a special case is that they’re often so cumbersome (or were) that you couldn’t actually play the rules as written, so this culture of “ignore what you don’t like” and “Make up your own houserules to make things fit you” grew into the gaps rather than make rules that were 100% playable without a degree in accounting. That’s one of the things I love about today’s simple RPGs, they’re actually playable as is rather than playable if you ignore the parts you don’t like.
            (interestingly enough, “ignore what you don’t like” wasn’t the industry’s first response. You can find Gygax in those same early dragon magazines explaining that if you’re not calculating your encumbrance to the cn, that you’re not playing HIS game and that you’re not welcome at any convention where HIS game is OFFICIALLY played, and that if a con isn’t playing the OFFICIAL version, they’re a bunch of shysters whose con you should avoid like the plague.)

            Because of this attitude which is more or less ingrained in a lot of the RPG audience today, I think it takes a handful of introspection to realize the underlying cause of disruption is “I don’t want to play this game” and while every gamer is capable of seeing that, some would rather just roll some damn dice already, which is where you get the gamers who are rabidly anti-social contract because they don’t want to deal with that “nonsense” when they could be gaming. (as opposed to those who are rabidly anti-social contract because they feel it’s a co-opted term that we ought to find a new word for)

            OTOH, not all the “Say no” things I tagged are necessarily symptoms of this particular dynamic either. There are other reasons to say “No” like simple lack of bandwidth.

          • And because I completely missed it, If you read down a few comments so I don’t have to re-type, I’ve explained that the Baker crack maybe wasn’t the best choice in the world, but that I think the slogan has been co-opted into a larger tapestry of “the player is always right” attitude despite what it actually was intended to mean (and still does in the proper context)

      • Oops! I hit the wrong reply button with that one. Let’s see if I can get it right this time. :p

        I’m not talking about an established cultural subgroup. I’m talking about the general attitude that seems (to me anyway) to be constantly pushing “say yes.” even in the face of good reasons to say “No”.

        That’s really vague and based on my own impressions and I apologize for that. I can’t really point to anything and say “It’s this right here.” (which is why it’s not really about Baker, though I think Baker often gets misinterpreted and pressed into service) It’s just the feel I get lately.

        • Hi Matt. I didn’t even realize that you were the author of the above-linked article. Welcome to the blog!

          Its just a feeling? Because all I have to go on is the article you wrote.

          According to your article, “you can’t use an area of effect ability without hitting three members of Baker’s cult of “Say ‘Yes’ or roll the dice.” ”

          Besides being kind of insulting, it suggests that this is a problem that is everywhere.

          • I suppose it might be taken as insulting. I intended it more as amusing, but I could see how it might be too far. Of course I’m the jackass who wrote “Star wars should Die in a fire” so my “lighthearted tone” clearly goes astray from time to time. In all honesty, I try to keep it in line and given my record I’m actually improving on that front. That’s all just a long-winded way of saying “Sorry that it was too far for your comfort”

            While I used Baker as an attempt to be amusing, it wasn’t really the intended thrust of my article. Much like Star Wars before it, it’s just a high profile part of the community to poke a little fun at.

            As for my “feelings” I see “say yes or roll the dice” all the time and honestly, even the people who say they know what it means can’t always agree (see the responses to my article where there are several alternate theories, as well as I can follow them) You seem to be an expert, so I’ll trust your interpretation, but I think it suffers a lot from people seeing it and running with it w/o ever reading the original material or context and I think it, misinterpretations and all, fits in well with the the player is always right attitude that was modern gaming’s backlash against poor rat bastard GMing from early RPGs that it gets used where it shouldn’t.

            And it’s what I called the “culture of yes” that I’m calling out in my article. Given the level of “That’s not what “Say yes or roll the dice is about” I’ve gotten as opposed to actual discussion of what I intended to say, it’s pretty clear I’ve thread jacked myself with my offhand “humor”, but I guess that happens from time to time.

            • Hi Matt, I am wondering if you have accidentally conflated two ideas that became popular in some parts of the hobby around the same time. Say Yes, or Roll The Dice from Dogs, and “Yes, and…”/”Yes, but…” that has brought over from Improv Theatre. While the terms are kinda similar they are wildly different in implications.

              • Probably. I’ve read Dogs, and I’d love the opportunity to play it some day (but so far haven’t gotten a group to bite that hook) but I’ve never really DIGESTED it, and I think it gets mis-quoted, mis-used whathaveyou a LOT, especially given some of the more in the know interpretations I’ve seen kicked about since my article went online. So while I was just joking around about it, It doesn’t REALLY fit, though I don’t think that’s an uncommon misconception from what I’ve seen. Of course, when someone (like me) publicly makes the same mistake it obviously doesn’t help matters any.

            • Matt, as evident from my reply above, how your article related to Say Yes or Roll the Dice was the last thing on my mind. The whole Say Yes was a post-script.

              Before you posted, we weren’t talking about Say Yes… at all but the points in the article and my response to them. If you want to discuss that, please do.

              • I must have completely misunderstood you then. It seems the entire gist of your article is that nothing in MY article has a damn thing to do with “Say Yes or” So I need to go back and re-read what you said. Maybe I’m just thread-jacking EVERYONE today. leave it to me to screw up everyone’s articles a t once. :p

              • It’s amazing how I can miss “P.S.” and see your final line as a big conclusion to the rest of the article instead of how it was intended. Chalk up another one to me being a bonehead. I’m pretty used to it by now.

                It’s most certainly me projecting, since of the 11 replies to my article, over half are “that’s not how “Say Yes or…” works” so I see your final line and think “Not more of this!

                I swear. I ought to just make it a policy to get a good night’s sleep before I say anything on the internet. It’d save me a lot of foot taste.

                Anyway, I agree with most of what your article says. It’s very astute, and the only points where I’d disagree I’ve mentioned earlier and aren’t disagreements as much as “I originally wasn’t clear. Lemme fix that”

                I think your take is more sophisticated. My take was “Hey. I know it’s popular right now, but you don’t have to say yes to every outlandish thing that hits your table. It’s OK to say No.” Whereas you’ve done a good job of looking at WHY these outlandish things hit the table, and some alternatives to a simple “No” which is great. I’m glad, despite my initial misunderstanding of what you were saying, that the stew site provides auto link backs so my article leads to yours.

            • The entire gist of my article is that most of the instances of saying no that you mentioned are times where a disconnect is occurring and a conversation needs to happen to get the table back on the same track.

              The post-script was that nothing in the article had anything at all to do with Say yes or roll the dice.

              • My favorite kind of internet arguments are the ones I can walk away from saying “Now I get it.”
                Fist Bump!

  6. It is SO overlooked in gaming advice. I mean there’s, “Don’t be a dick,” which covers a lot of ground in so few words that it’s easy to just accept as obvious and not consider what it means practically.

    I find the moments of excellent civilized communication around a game are almost as invigorating as a great story within the game. They leave you feeling connected, heard, empowered and they can turn a crappy game into a worthwhile experience.

    But I’ve certainly had my share of less than ideal communication, which the “learn to say no” thing kind of points to. I guess this happens more when the GM is given social power, not just in-game power. I’ve had players grant me that power before and I hate it. Definitely time for an honest conversation, not just a “no.”

  7. Actually, since all of you guys seem more knowledgeable about the specifics of this than I, I’d like some clarification on a bit of lore I dredged up while searching for some links for my article:

    According to at least one random guy on RPG.net, “Say Yes or Roll the Dice” didn’t originate with Baker and Dogs, published in 2004(?). Instead, it’s claimed that “Say Yes or…” was born as the Monarda Law in 1999 in the Game Nobilis. Here’s a link to the Nobilis Wiki and the official interpretation of the Monarda Law:
    http://nobilis.wikia.com/wiki/The_Monarda_Law

    Is this essentially the same as “Say Yes or…” or is it fundamentally different on some level?

    I think it could be argued that the concept itself (or both concepts if they’re not the same thing) is probably almost as old as RPGs themselves and that while it may have been codified in ’99 or ’04 or whenever, it was probably in Gygax or Arneson’s toolbox from the beginning, but that doesn’t make it’s “etymology” any less interesting.

    • I was going to ask if it was the Nobilis yes thing (which was all I remembered it as).

      They are entirely different.

      The Monarda Law is a guideline for keeping a diceless game about immensely powerful immortal beings flowing and interesting.

      SYoRtD is about when to go to the dice during the course of a game so the sins of the town are laid bare and the players can get to an interesting conflict or render judgment on the town.

      They are both for the GM but that is where their similarities end. Other than that they don’t really have much to do with one another.

      • You know, I think the plain English names of tenants like “Say Yes or…” kind of do them a disservice. I’m thinking also of “Step on up”, which as far as I know is in NO way related to “Yes or…” but which both suffer from the same problem in my mind.

        That problem is that they’re far more robust and complex than their simple catchy names can contain. So you have people hearing them, saying “O.K. I understand English. I understand those words. I understand them in that order. Got it. That was easy.”

        Only they don’t got it, because the “titles” are deceptively easy and the titles are shorthand for larger constructs, so you have the potential every time someone talks about the rule/theory/whatever and uses the name for ease to create a misunderstanding where someone thinks they get it but they don’t. And because this is the internet, those opportunities are permanent, and people who have it wrong can almost immediately start creating more opportunities to get it wrong.

        You never had this problem with Thac0, or Botch, or The Monarda Law because the titles themselves don’t have any meaningful content to misunderstand, so If I want any chance to understand them, I have to dig up more complete info.

        It almost seems like in an effort to be accessible and Easy to pick up, Simple English titles run the risk of making themselves a muddled mess forever.

        • Matt, if they are too simple people assume they know what they are without reading them. If they are esoteric and jargon-y they alienate people who haven’t read the articles in which they were defined.

          This isn’t a problem with any particular theory. This is a problem with folks not taking the time to read things. And as far as I can see, there’s nothing to be done but to gently let folks know that they are mis-informed when we find them to be mis-informed and once folks get too tired of doing that, just assume folks will take the time to search it out on their own and read up.

          • Yes. Agree.

            I wasn’t trying at all to say it was a problem with a theory, but maybe a semantic style?

            There ought to be a middle ground where it’s simple and related for ease but doesn’t give the impression that you know it all just from the title.

            I think of the list above “botch” is probably the best. It’s got a clear concept and intent, but it doesn’t tell you a damn thing. You KNOW looking at it that you have to go read more to understand it, without it being as much of a cryptic mess as THAC0.

            Anyway, it’s just an observation I thought was interesting.

  8. What’s kind of funny is that I’ve had this exact discussion on ENWorld. We start talking about “Roll the dice or say yes” and suddenly I have people posting about, “Well, what if your player wants to have an armored ’78 Trans Am in your Forgotten Realms game, huh? HUH!?! You’re neutering the DM!”

    It’s nuts.

    • What if the player grabs your dog and threatens with a knife?

      Me: What?

      Are you going to say yes or roll the dice if a player, stopped playing, got up from the table and threatened your beloved pet dog with a knife!?

      Me: I’d…I’d try to stop them, take the knife away or-or call the police.

      NO, BAKER SAYS YOU HAVE TO SAY YES OR ROLL THE DICE SO WHICH DO YOU DO YOU FUCKKING SWINE?!?

      Me: Uh-huh.

  9. At the risk of sounding patronizing (thats not my intent) I have to praise both Judd and Matt_N for the way that this discussion has gone down. I would use this as the perfect example of “how to have an actual discussion about a disagreement on the internet.”

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