The Alexandrian

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We started by looking at how player declarations (or the lack of one in terms of passive observation) trigger the process of making a ruling. Then we broke that declaration down into intention, method, and initiation. Now we’re ready to move into the real meat of the rulings process: Resolution.

Resolution is the bridge between intention and outcome. In many ways, you can think of it as a test: The character’s intention is being tested and the result of that test is the outcome of the action. In the most basic terms, therefore, resolution determines whether the character succeeds or fails at their intention. (Although, as we’ll shortly discover, it’s not always that simple.)

DEFAULT TO YES

Banksy - Follow Your Dreams Cancelled

The easiest ruling for a GM to make is, “No.”

Player: I want to jump over the chasm.
GM: No.

Player: I want to convince the Duchess to support Lord Buckingham.
GM: She refuses to listen.

Player: I ask around town to see if there are any rumors of an ogre in the area.
GM You don’t find any.

When you use “no” everything is simple: There are no complications. No consequences. It’s clean, tidy, and definitive in its finality.

That makes it an incredibly useful tool. It’s also why you should basically never use it.

What you actually want to do is almost the exact opposite: Default to yes.

Player: I want to jump over the chasm.
GM: Okay, you’re on the other side.

Player: I want to convince the Duchess to support Lord Buckingham.
GM: She listens to your proposal and agrees to its merits.

Player: I ask around town to see if there are any rumors of an ogre in the area.
GM: Old Man Hob says that a farmer named Willis was complaining about an ogre killing his sheep last month.

“No” inherently stagnates the action. It leaves the situation unchanged. “Yes”, on the other hand, implicitly moves the action forward: It creates a new situation to which both you and the players will now be forced to respond. Now that they’re on the other side of the chasm, what will they do? How will Lord Buckingham respond to the Duchess’ unexpected support? Will the PCs hunt down Willis’ supposed ogre?

The other reason to default to yes is that, generally speaking, people succeed at most of the things they attempt. You want to drive downtown? Find some information by googling it? Book plane tickets to Cairo? Those are all things which are generally going to happen if you decide to do them.

YES, BUT…

The problem with always saying “yes”, however, is that it lacks challenge. It’s boring and it’s predictable. (It’s also not reflective of the way the world works: Failure, or potential failure, is part of life.)

This means that we need to add another tool to our repertoire: Yes, but…

Player: I want to jump over the chasm.
GM: You leap over the chasm, but as you land on the other side the floor collapses under your weight, sending you plunging down into an abyssal pit…

Player: I want to convince the Duchess to support Lord Buckingham.
GM: She listens with interest to your proposal and seems intrigued, but she wants you to promise that her ancestral rights to the Eastermark will be guaranteed.

Player: I ask around town to see if there are any rumours of an ogre in the area.
GM: Old Man Hob says that a farmer named Willis was complaining about an ogre killing his sheep last month. But as you’re speaking with him, you notice a shadowy figure watching from the corner of the tavern…

“Yes, but…” adds to the idea proposed by the player. It enriches the player’s contribution by making a contribution of your own. Unlike “no” it doesn’t negate. Unlike “yes” it isn’t predictable.

NO, BUT…

That all sounds great, right?

But what happens if what the players want contradicts the known facts of the game world? For example, they want rumors of an ogre, but you know there are no ogres in the area.

You may think that this will bring us back to “no”, but we’re not quite there yet. Generally speaking, the only time “no” is acceptable is if the intention directly contradicts the reality of the game world. So before we get back to “no”, we’re going to make a pit stop at No, but…

Player: Can I find a wizard’s guild?
GM: Yes.

Player: Can I find a wizard’s guild?
GM: Yes, but you’ll have to go to Greyhawk. There isn’t one in this town.

Player: Is there a wizard’s guild in this town?
GM: No, but there’s one in Greyhawk.

Player: Is there a wizard’s guild in town?
GM: In 1982 Berlin? No.

As you can see, No but… is in many ways just Yes, but… looked at from a slightly different angle. Where a clear distinction does exist is when the method by which the character is attempting to achieve their intention isn’t viable: “No, that won’t get you where you want to go. But here’s an alternate way you could achieve that.”

THE SPECTRUM OF GM FIAT

Collectively, let’s refer to this as the spectrum of GM fiat:

  • Yes
  • Yes, but…
  • No, but…
  • No

The reason we default to yes – i.e., default to the top of this spectrum and work our way down it – is because any requests being made by the players generally reflect things they want to do. When they say, “I want to do X,” what they’re saying is, “I would find it fun if I could do X.” And unless you’ve got a really, really good reason for prohibiting them from doing those things, it’s generally going to result in a better session if you can figure out (and offer them) a path by which they can do the things they want to do.

Sometimes they’ll reject that path. (“I don’t want to go to Greyhawk. It’s too far away.”) That’s OK. That means they’re prioritizing something else. But give ‘em the meaningful choice instead of taking it away. Choice is, after all, what roleplaying games are all about.

Banksy - Bomb HuggerAnd one of the great strengths of Yes, but… is that it’s actually quite difficult to game the system:

Player: Can I build a nuclear bomb?
GM: Yes, but you’re going to need to figure out some way to get your hands on enriched uranium. And if the government figures out what you’re doing, the words “terrorist watch list” will be the least of your problems.

(Sometimes, of course, you might be dealing with a troll player who keeps asking to fly to the Andromeda galaxy during your World War II campaign. But if that’s routinely happening, then you’ve got a problem that needs to be dealt with in ways that have nothing to do with action resolution.)

If you’re really struggling to avoid No, another useful thing to remember is that a close cousin of Yes, but… is, “Tell me how you’re doing that.” Which is basically the same thing, except that you’re prompting the player to think of their own “but”.

Player: Can I build a nuclear bomb?
GM: Okay. Tell me how you’re doing that.
Player: Well… I’ll need to find a source of enriched uranium. Can I make a Contacts check to see if one of my old Russian buddies might have a hook-up on the black market?

This last exchange also points us in the direction of the exit ramp which will carry us away from the spectrum of GM fiat: “I’m not sure. Let’s find out.”

This is the point where both the GM and the player turn collectively towards fickle fortune (i.e. the game mechanics) to seek an answer. Of course, the GM’s role is not yet complete: If resolution is the process of testing the character’s intention, then this is where the GM designs the test.

Go to Part 5

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7 Responses to “Art of Rulings – Part 4: Default to Yes”

  1. Joe Nuttall says:

    I fell into the trap of saying “No” to perfectly reasonable requests a few times before I realised that it was because I knew the situation the characters were in, and I knew how I expected it to turn out, so when they suggested a course of action I hadn’t thought of I had a tendency to say “No”. Then I realised that not only was this a boring or unfair thing to do, half the time their idea was better and more inventive and interesting than what I expected them to do. So now if they want to kill the Hellhounds by taking the meat they found in the store room and lacing it with poison they found in the chest and throwing it through the door into the Hellhounds chamber – my first thought is “why not?”.

  2. Charlie says:

    Another great article, *but* 😉 I have a question:

    Tying this to Prepping Scenarios, what if the PCs decide to walk away entirely from the scenario. Say the entire session is built around the mysterious disease that’s plaguing the Valley, and you’ve built a robust scenario(not a plot) so they can tackle it in a any way they want. But, as it turns out, they decide to walk away entirely from it. Or say they go in a completely different direction, you’ve prepped a town with several adventure hooks but they, as your example suggest, decide to go to a Wizards Guild in Greyhawk, and say you don’t have material for the city. How do you solve the problem? Yes, Yes but… or No?

  3. john says:

    @Charlie: Could any of those elegantly-crafted adventure hooks plausibly result in brigands attacking random people on the road to Greyhawk? http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/640/roleplaying-games/reactions-to-odd-wandering-adventures Even if they decide to press on rather than turning back, or following up on any of the clues those brigands drop, the fight or evasion sequence buys you some out-of-game time to adapt.

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    Couple things I’ve written in the past dance around this:

    Players Who Won’t Bite
    Ruining Adventures

    In general, if your players aren’t interested in whatever scenario you’re proffering, then you’re probably better off letting that scenario go and seeing where they take you. A few things you can do to lessen the blow of wasted prep:

    – Take the lessons of Don’t Prep Plots to heart. If 90%+ of your scenario prep takes the form of flexible tools, then you’ll generally be able to find ways of using those tools later. (If you buy a hammer and nails and then the project gets cancelled, you don’t need to throw them away. You’ll find a use for them soon enough.)

    – As I mention in one of those links, the question, “What do you want to do next session?” is incredibly useful in making sure your prep is pointed in the right direction.

    – Just because the PCs don’t engage with a particular scenario, it doesn’t mean that the scenario will vanish in a puff of smoke. What’s more likely is that the situation will continue to develop and there will be consequences. And it’s likely that those consequences will later cross their path… which is when all of those tools you prepped earlier can come off the shelf. (This is less true if you’re running an Odyssey-style travelogue campaign.)

    But sometimes you just have to chalk it up and write-off otherwise promising prep. The worst example I’ve had in the last decade or so was when I had to throw out a 70 page dungeon. (The PCs said they were interested in going there at the end of one session, but half of the party wasn’t firmly committed and at the beginning of the next session they managed to convince the others that it wasn’t a good use of their time or resources.)

    (There can be a metagame advantage to this, however: It can feel immensely empowering for your players when they realize that you’d rather throw out material than railroad them.)

    The flip side of what you’re asking, though, is what you can do when the players go some place you weren’t expecting them to and for which you have no prepared material. Some times that’s just a matter of improv. (And having robust improvisation tools like random generators can help with that.) In other cases it’s taking a 15 minute break to quickly assemble some notes. In some cases it’s saying, “Okay. We’re going to stop there for the night.”

  5. Charlie says:

    @John: That was another interesting read, too bad I need either to get a book like that or make up my own encounter tables, but that’s a good solution to make things up on the spot.

    @Justin That was most helpful. At risk of sounding like a major ass kisser, I have to say your blog is a goldmine for inexperienced GMs(and probably experienced ones as well). I had like the worst writer block because bad prepping ended up in bad gaming sessions which ended up in me leaving roleplaying altogether for 8 long years, now I’m actually looking forward to create a scenario to play. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    I was able to figure out exactly why I had better gaming sessions in my first years when I was just 12-13 years and would just draw a map, key the locations and just roll with it than when I would spend countless hours writing backstories of NPCs, political situations, henchmen, etc and then see it all go downhill at the very first session of the campaign. It was all plot and contingencies. I’d just wish I’d seen the mistake sooner. :(

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    You’re not alone. Sometimes it feels as if the whole hobby/industry has conspired to make GMs miserable while making it difficult for new players to join the community.

    Re: Random tables. If you want to jump start your collection of improv seeds with a D&D slant, see if you can track down a copy of AEG’s Toolbox or Ultimate Toolbox sourcebooks. (The real trick, though, is that you don’t need a lot: Just enough to jump start your creativity. I’ve gotten good results just rolling random pages in a Monster Manual.)

  7. Charlie says:

    It’s not just the hobby, but also a big part of the community. Not only the way the entire community seem to think a good gaming session is just blindly following a plot, but also at some point it seemed like trying to get out of the railroad was “bad gaming ettiquete”. Sometimes even the players berate you for trying to think out of the box as a Player like a weird case of gaming Stockholm Syndrome. I have a Bumbling at Freeport-like story that happened to me as a player, but I’ll just share it in the appropiate section just so that I don’t derail this discussion anymore. :)

    That Toolbox book seems just about what I was looking for, thanks again!

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