Roleplaying

Using “Yes, and…” in Tabletop Roleplaying

The best part of running a roleplaying campaign is using the crazy ideas your players think up. The hardest part of running a roleplaying campaign is using the crazy ideas your players think up.

These crazy ideas may not always be great, but you’re supposed to run a campaign for your players, not just for yourself. Coming up with novel ways of solving problems (or creating them) are how players have an impact on your world. Even if you think you have good reasons for telling the player that their idea would never work, eventually your players will just stop trying to think of interesting solutions. Letting the ideas of your players shape the direction of the game will encourage more creativity and buy-in from your group, and the end result is more fun for all. Just remember two little words:

Yes, And…

“Yes, and…” is a technique in improv theater for moving a scene forward. Improv is a series of takes and gives: you take the last thing that your stage partner came up with, and add a small piece to it before giving it back. Neither actor can steer the scene alone, and trying to keep tight control of the situation will leave your partner floundering each time you block them with a “no.”

Roleplaying is a kind of long-form improv. There are rule structures to follow, and as the game master you can provide more direction to a scene than the other participants, but it is still a group of people playing characters without a script. Everyone needs to work from the scenario that is established, and adds additional information for others to use. As a game master, “yes” confirms that a player’s contribution is valid, while “and” provides new information that keeps the scene’s momentum going.

Consider the following scene where the GM doesn’t feel comfortable saying “yes” when her players choose something unexpected.

GM: The vessel serving the Crown rounds the atoll south of your damaged ship. It turns to make chase, but a strong headwind blows from the west that you can use to slip away.

Player: I’m going to turn us about. Have the crew close the gun ports before we approach, but keep the cannons ready to fire if needed.

GM: Wait, what?

The GM pauses the game because she’d planned on a chase scene to get the party to the next port where her story continued.

No one is going to be satisfied with that outcome. Players feel like they don’t have real agency, and the GM knows that by forcing them in a direction, she has lost some of their enthusiasm for the story.

Let’s see what it looks like when the GM is willing to say “yes” to unexpected ideas.

GM: The vessel serving the Crown rounds the atoll south of your damaged ship. It turns to make chase, but a strong headwind blows from the west that you can use to slip away.

Player: I’m going to turn us about. Have the crew close the gun ports before we approach, but keep the cannons ready to fire if needed.

GM: You turn about. Your ships are now on course to pass each other.

Player: Okay, what does the Crown’s ship do now?

This is starting to look better, but since the GM does not provide feedback on how player actions are reacted to, the game stalls while players ask for information needed to inform their next move. Using the full “yes, and” technique would look something like this:

GM: The vessel serving the Crown rounds the atoll south of your damaged ship. It turns to make chase, but a strong headwind blows from the west that you can use to slip away.

Player: I’m going to turn us about. Have the crew close the gun ports before we approach, but keep the cannons ready to fire if needed.

GM: You turn about. Your ships are now on course to pass each other. The Crown’s vessel slows, and while their gun ports remain open, the Marines on deck stand at attention and do not take aim.

Player: Keep our soldiers below deck and near the hatches, I am going to stand at the prow where I can be seen.

That extra bit of feedback provided by the “and” immediately lets the player know what the result of their choice is. Now they can decide how they want to continue.

Since roleplaying has a rules structure in place, this improv technique can be used in other ways as well. For example, if they ask to try something requiring a roll that your first instinct tells you will never work, you should be willing to tell your players to:

Go Ahead and Try…

If there is a critical piece of information that your players should know, by all means, you need to tell them before acting in a way that will get them killed. But a game master should never try to push their players to back down from an action because she personally doesn’t think it should succeed.

GM: The captain of the Crown’s ship levels a steely gaze at you. He proclaims that in the name of the Queen, you are commanded to surrender your ship and crew.

Player: I’m going to ignore his command, and give friendly greetings and an offer of “tribute” to the Crown. I request that I be allowed to discuss matters of interest in his cabin.

GM: The opposing captain is far too disciplined to ever consider a bribe; you shouldn’t try that.

The game comes to a halt as the players try to think of alternatives that they are less interested in pursuing.

Telling players that they are making the wrong choice is never a good idea. At best they will back down and feel discouraged; at worst, they’ll stop voicing new ideas and stick to what they think are normal (a.k.a. boring) solutions. Instead, use it as an opportunity to raise the tension. Success may be unlikely, but the greater risk, the greater the reward.

GM: The captain of the Crown’s ship levels a steely gaze at you. He proclaims that in the name of the Queen, you are commanded to surrender your ship and crew.

Player: I’m going to ignore his command, and give friendly greetings and an offer of “tribute” to the Crown. I request that I be allowed to discuss matters of interest in his cabin.

GM: Bribing an officer of the Crown is a serious offense. Go ahead and try, but I hope you roll well.

The players know that she is giving them a chance to change the direction of the narrative. Mentioning that it won’t be easy also communicates that the stakes are high, and they will feel greater satisfaction if they are able to pull it off. Of course, sometimes a critical roll like that will end up failing. In that case, you can still apply “yes, and.” Simply tell them:

You Succeed, But…

Some failures can just be bad for your game. These failures either close down a plot thread or put the party at a disadvantage disproportionate to a typical roll.

Player: Well darn, a total of 6 on my Charisma check.

GM: That won’t be enough. The captain takes offense at your attempt of bribery and orders his vessel to open fire.

Combat begins, much to the party’s dismay.

The party would now start at a serious disadvantage during the combat because they tried something they thought would be more interesting than a battle or chase sequence. Actions should have consequences in a roleplaying game, but having a scenario hinge on a single die roll will only discourage the group from thinking of creative solutions. You should instead think of a resolution that keeps the scenario moving forward while still reflecting the outcome of the roll.

Player: Well darn, a total of 6 on my Charisma check.

GM: The captain considers your words for a moment before indicating that you should come aboard. As you enter his cabin, two marines take firm hold of your arms. Your words were less than convincing. He will let you have your say, however. The captain indicates that you should speak.

The failure of the roll puts the player in less than ideal circumstances, and the stakes for continued failures are made clear. However, the game master has given the player the opportunity to turn a bad situation around. Depending on what other wild ideas that the player has in mind for their next roll, she might want to tell them to:

Add +2 for Style…

Applying the technique of “yes, and” to roleplaying is meant to avoid the creative discouragement that a “no” causes. To take the idea a step further, find ways to encourage especially good solutions to problems with a bonus to a player’s roll.

Player: I let the captain know that we have discovered the rival pirates’ plan to raid the Crown’s convoy. I know we were thinking about beating them to it, but I have a better idea. We will provide the captain with the pirate’s plans and assist in their capture in return for half the bounty and a pardon of our own crimes.

GM: You definitely have the captain’s interest, but he needs convincing. Make another Charisma check with +2 bonus. He’s thinking that if the two of you can pull this off, it will certainly advance his career.

Giving bonuses for good ideas will excite your players and challenge them to find unique solutions. Some might think that generosity in dice bonuses will make a game too easy, but I personally feel that if a player comes up with a good idea for improving their odds, the rolls should be easier.

 

As you practice using “yes, and…”, you’ll find that it becomes easier to use the crazy ideas your players think up. And as you do, you’ll improve both the pacing of your game and the enthusiasm of your players.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Alverant

    Just don’t do anything involving time travel. It should be avoided for the sake of the other players who don’t want their pasts and current plot hooks altered.

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