The Misunderstanding of “Say Yes”

Basically everyone has heard of the common improv rule of “always say yes”. This is because improv theater can’t afford to slow down and solve a conflict, it’s designed to run full speed ahead and often creates hilarious results. There’s a reason why improv comedy is rampant but improvisational drama doesn’t work quite as well.

A lot of GMs run into this issue in RPG games. They think they need to say “yes” to the player’s ideas. Otherwise they’re breaking the rules of improv and railroading their players. Their games often resemble the absurdities of improv comedy sessions because they follow the exact same rules.

There’s nothing wrong with this style of play. There’s nothing wrong with improv comedy. However, following this rule often turns more serious games into exercises in absurdity.

Games are not about saying yes to the players. You’re supposed to say, “Yes if…” or “Yes but…”.

In Chess you aren’t allowed to just grab your pawn on the first move and take your opponent’s king. That wouldn’t be fun. Games are largely about overcoming obstacles. Figuring out how to checkmate the opponent’s king while following the rules of Chess is what creates the gameplay to begin with.

When a player asks if they can have a pet dragon I don’t say yes. I say, “Yes, if you can find a dragon egg and hatch it with a magical spell.” Where do they get a dragon egg? Suddenly there’s motivation for a quest. If a player asks, “Can we get the rival crime gangs to help us fight this crime lord?” I say, “Yes, but you’ll need to arrange a meeting with their leaders and convince them face to face. And they do not trust outsiders easily, so you’ll have to figure out how to earn their trust.”

This is a much more productive mentality than “just say yes” when it comes to RPGs.

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