It's Okay to Just Say No

A mantra I've heard—mostly from the story gamers camp—is, when prompted by a player with a question or suggestion, to either "say yes" or "roll the dice" (I've also seen "say yes, and..."). Interpreted literally this means that, no matter what the player asks or suggests, the GM must always say yes or roll the dice.

Having pored through a few threads and posts on the subject, it's pretty clear that most don't interpret it that way (which leads me to wonder why it's phrased that way at all), and think it's perfectly fine for GMs to say no in various circumstances (which of course vary).

I only found one post that said to ask the player if they felt that their question, suggestion, or action was plausible; if they could figure something out to just give it to them, but if they can't roll anyway.

I still disagree with it (especially the "roll even if the player can't cook up a decent explanation"), but not because of improbable scenarios in which players will make ridiculous requests like asking for magic items, thereby forcing the GM to either comply or roll to see if they get what they want anyway. No, my problem is the notion of just giving players whatever they want, and/or letting them do whatever so long as there's "nothing at stake", it's "not a big deal anyway", and so on.

The way I run my games is, simply put, a player tells me what they want to, and I determine if it's a definite yes, definite no, or—most often—an "I dunno so lets roll the dice to figure it out". For example, a character tries to bribe a guard. I can decide that the guard is absolutely loyal, so no amount of money is going to work. I might also decide that, yeah, he can be bribed, but depending on how much money is offered will determine if they have to make a Diplomacy roll or not.

I don't care if the player has a "totally cool idea", or if it's in the "best interest of the story". Those aren't part of the equation, because if you, the GM, make decisions based on "cool ideas" and "good story", then you're just creating the illusion of wit and success: the characters don't succeed due to the player being clever or resourceful, they "succeed" because the player was able to persuade the GM to give them what they wanted, or otherwise adjust the scenario in their favor.

This does not mean that I just deny everything players ask for. If they want a rock, and ask if there's a rock lying about, and I think that there would definitely be rocks lying about, then I say yeah, there's a rock. It's only when they want a rock of a very specific size and shape that I might say no, or roll if I think there's a chance but I dunno. Factors like time, the environment, the inhabitants, and so on influence my decision, not how badly you want it.

(Note that this also don't mean that I won't mine the players' theories and suggestions, and the characters' backgrounds for adventure material. It also doesn't mean that I'll never change my mind when provided with compelling evidence: it's entirely possible for me to change my "no" to a dice roll, or even to a yes. Just depends on the situation.)

Back when I ran the original A Sundered World campaign, the players tried all sorts of crazy things, like throwing a chest brimming with treasure at a red dragon to distract it long enough for them to escape. The warlord player had jumped into the campaign after 1st-level, so I ruled that he would have accumulated some wealth (in addition to his astral vessel), though I still required a roll to see if the dragon went for it (which, fortunately for them, it did).

What made those moments really awesome was the fact that the players knew I wasn't obligated to "say yes or roll the dice", or "say yes if they explain it well enough, and let them roll the dice even if they couldn't", or whatever. They knew I could say no, because I had said no before. If I said yes, it's because I genuinely thought that whatever they were asking for or trying to do was a certainty. If I told them to roll, it's because I genuinely felt that whatever they were asking or trying to do was possible, but I was uncertain.

I once had a player that was running a changeling something-or-other. Rogue, I think. The party was in a dungeon, and there were wraiths, and for some reason she wanted to use Bluff to convince the wraiths that she was also a wraith. Were I am adherent to "just say yes or roll the dice", then despite the fucking absurdity of her declaration, I would have had to choose one (obviously I'd go with rolling, because that would be the only chance I had of maintaining some semblance of reason in the campaign).

Thankfully I'm not: I told her that while she could change her skin black, she couldn't change her clothes, and also couldn't make herself partially transparent, so there was no fucking way it would work. It wasn't even a case where I pegged the DC so high she couldn't make it, or said that she could make it on a natural 20: it was just an outright no. She didn't like it, and that's fine: you don't always get what you want, not everything goes your way, etc.

The important thing was that, again, it reinforced the fact that when I tell a player you just do what you wanted to do, find what you wanted to find, or I dunno let's roll the dice, they know I'm not just pulling punches or playing nice, because I can and will just say no.

A Sundered World is out! If you for some reason don't want the entire setting, you can just snag the races and classes.

The Fighter is geared up and ready to go! Unlike the default Dungeon World fighter, your skills matter more than your special "can sometimes be lost but not really" weapon. There are a variety of fighting styles to choose from, including the ability make a DEX-based fighter.

Grave Goods is the latest magic item compilation in our 10+ Treasures line. If you want nearly 30 undead-themed magic items, some monsters, and advice on how to make your own, pick it up!

Lichfield is available for public consumption. If you want a concise adventure with a Silent Hill feel, be sure to check it out! Primordial Machine is also out, so if you want to catch a glimpse of A Sundered World, now's your chance! Finally, we've updated If These Stones Could Scream.


  1. I agree in spirit--it's the MC's role to be the final arbiter of plausibility within the story world. But in your example of saying "No," you robbed the player of significant agency, which tends to break immersion. I would have approached it a little differently...

    Changeling: Shit, there's undead? I quickly change my face to a deathly countenance, hunch my shoulders, and adopt a shuffling gait. I'm hoping they will take me for one of their own and attack someone else first...
    MC: Adorable, but they're not buying it. They can smell your tasty flesh and now they've got the drop on you, since you were playing dress-up while everyone else was getting out weapons.

    It's more of a "Yes-and" approach. I don't like to get my players in the habit of asking if they "can" do something--to do it, just do it! And we'll see what happens. Sometimes it works, sometimes there's a roll, sometimes it's just not plausible. That's more of what's meant by "say yes or roll the dice."

    1. @Marshall: Your response sounds like we both did the same thing: the player wanted to do a thing, she tried to do a thing, and it was ruled that that here thing was an auto-fail. The difference is that you went with zombie instead of wraiths.

      Were (D&D) changlings able to make their clothes and body look transparent and smoky, I probably would have allowed a check. That was really the problem: there was no way, with the abilities she had, that her changling could have done anything more than change her skin and hair black.

      What would you tell a player that tried to do something that their character physically could not do? Like, flap her hands and fly, or convince a frog-person that she was also a frog-person, despite only maybe having green skin?

    2. @Marshall: To go with your example, it would really depend on how zombies operate in the game.

      If they just attack things that don't look dead, then a changeling trying to look dead might work. If they rely on scent in some fashion (which is how I gathered they worked in The Walking Dead), then it would be a no-go.

    3. What I would tell a hero who wanted to fly just by flapping their hands (given they're not Peter Pan) is, "Well that doesn't accomplish much beyond you looking silly," and if it was an especially tense situation, "...and your frantic gesticulating draws the attention of the sentries atop the wall."

      Turn your skin green in an attempt to pretend you're a vodyanoi? "They're baffled; they've never seen a human with green skin and they inquire as to your parentage." Or if it's more tense, "They're insulted by the attempt to deceive them--they ready their weapons and advance threateningly."

      My point is that I don't like just saying, "No you can't do that," because it tends to break the immersion. In the story, the adventurers don't know if their harebrained schemes will work until they try. Sometimes it's interesting to leave the outcome to chance, sometimes it is certainly going to succeed or fail based on the conceits of the story. Where we agree is that it's the MC's prerogative (imperative, even) to arbitrate when to call for a roll or not. The difference is my personal taste runs toward narrating the consequences in a "yes-and" fashion (even when that's "Yes and you don't get what you want because it makes no sense") as opposed to just saying, "No do something else with your action."

    4. @Marshall: Ah, that might be the breakdown then.

      To clarify, if the player attempts to do something without knowing the odds or consequences or whatever, I'll still let them try (though I might give them a rough approximation of the odds).

      It's when they try to do something and their character really should know that it's not possible that I would let them know that it won't work.

      So, for the player saying that they're going to flap their arms to fly, I don't see a problem telling them up front that there's no way that'll work (though if they want to waste their time flapping their arms, go for it).

      Case in point with the changeling, I frankly don't think that the player understood the limitations of the changeling's ability (ie, it only works on YOUR body, and you cannot go transparent and wispy).

      She still wanted to try, still rolled, and I still said no, they aren't buying it. :-P

  2. I first ran into "say yes or roll the dice" when playing Dogs in the Vineyard. It was the only thing in the GM-only rules section. I've been a strong proponent of it since, but I so agree with your article here. But all you're really pointing out is "that is what the rule is, but (as a player) stop trying to abuse it." Obviously there are reasons to say "no" to a requested action (almost came up in our DitV game: GM heavily considered saying no, but as it was supposed to be a short solo scene to give the PC some background, having the burning building collapse on the NPC was not a totally unreasonable way out of the situation. It stretched the limits on what "just say yes" was intended for, and resulted in a much cooler ending).

    1. @Draco18s: I'd intended to make this post for at least few months (maybe longer), after someone in my G+ stream brought up the whole "say yes or roll the dice" thing, and how it was super amazing and that saying no just shuts the player down or somesuch.

      I spaced it, as I am wont to do, until I'd seen a few more articles talking about it crop up. Initially I thought proponents of say yes or roll viewed it as an absolute, but while searching around realized that some might, but some don't.

      You might be correct that I'm just pointing out the rule and that players shouldn't abuse it, and that's fine. I--as a person not really into "story games"--just wanted to chime in on the discussion, why I think it's okay to say no, and when.

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  4. So, as has been stated by multiple sources the "Yes... AND" is an improv technique that has been adopted by Tabletop gaming groups without much explanation as to how it's really supposed to work. In improvisational acting, if you say "No" to someone's suggestion you shut down the scene.

    For example, I was running an improv workshop where two actors began a scene where the only prompt to inform the scene was their physical positions, in this case they were standing directly face-to-face. One actor immediately had the idea that they should be in a gunfight, to which all they did was say "DRAW." Actor number two decided to take it in a completely different way and ran over to the wall to begin "drawing." Actor 1 immediately began admonishing Actor 2 ("No dummy! Your gun!") which effectively shut the scene down instead of carrying it forward. One way to "Yes... AND" this situation would had been to pretend to play pictionary or perhaps even become a teacher in an art class as opposed to doing the improv equivalent of stomping your feet and saying "That's NOT what I wanted!"

    That is what "Yes... AND" means. It asks the individuals to find a logical, cooperative way forward whenever something unexpected happens. Conflict should never be created through "No, that's not what I wanted you to do." That tends to create dissent among the ranks.

    Part of me really wonders where all of the "I'm going to do crazy, illogical thing!"-type players come from. Because that seems to be more the problem is DMs who run for players who do that think that tools like the "Yes... AND" reward that type of behavior. At that point, if you're getting a lot of players who just pull things out of thin air it would be more beneficial to sit down and have a chat about that, rather than acting as if it's the tool's fault.

    1. As I mentioned at the start, I think most proponents of yes, yes-and, and yes-or-roll-the-dice aren't using it to make absurd demands (and if they are, I think most GMs aren't complying). They also seem to be cool with the GM saying know in various circumstances (which, again, makes me wonder why it's phrased the way it is).

      But, RPGs aren't improv acting, and I think that giving the players everything they want so long as it's "not too crazy" dilutes actual creativity and success. For a good DM at least, saying no isn't about browbeating others into doing it the way you wanted them to, but informing the player that, no, whatever it is you wanted/wanted to do just isn't possible.


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