In Dungeons & Dragons, a common practice among Dungeon Masters (DMs) is to hand-wave new rulings for the sake of convenience, or with the belief that they’re enhancing the game by simply saying yes. However, I’ve come to realize that this approach, while seemingly beneficial, may actually be more limiting than many of us think. Simple answers keep things moving but ignore the fundamental truth about creating adventures. Running a TTRPG isn’t just about adjudicating the rules, it’s about creating opportunities for characters to risk it all to pursue their goals. Every question asked in a game is an opportunity to create a new adventure, so let’s talk a bit about this.
The Underappreciated Art of Saying No
The art of saying “no” in modern D&D doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves. A straightforward “yes” can be a quick fix, a way to feel good in the moment because it seems like we’re enabling our players, who in turn feel gratified for getting their way. But this isn’t the kind of game-play that fosters deep enjoyment or lasting investment. It’s a basic facet of human psychology: the easy win often fails to satisfy in the long run.
Additionally, it ignores the very important role the rules play. That is to define a common core experience for everyone at the table. Establishing a common and consistent vision of how the world works is an extremely important element of creating any shared experience. Tossing that aside with a simple yes, while easier, undermines the shared experience.
But while “No” is a complete sentence, it also doesn’t mean things have to end there.
The Missed Opportunity in the Simple Answer
While saying “yes” or “no” can keep the game moving and be an adequate solution in some cases, I believe we’re missing a significant opportunity. Rulings that fall into the grey areas – the edge cases – offer a golden chance to weave new elements into the world and present challenges to players by creating new adventures. Imagine a scenario where learning a new technique, acquiring a magical item, or forming a bond with a key character becomes part of the quest. These are opportunities to use abilities in innovative ways, enriching the game’s narrative.
From a DM’s point of view, the best answer to every question isn’t a yes or no, it’s a new adventure.
“Yes, If…” vs. “Yes, And” and “Yes, But”
Many advocate for “Yes, and” or “Yes, but” as the secret sauce to effective GMing. While these approaches have their merits, I propose that “Yes, if…” holds significantly more potential value for a game. The phrases “and” and “but” often lead to immediate, transactional outcomes, which, though useful, don’t contribute substantially to the overall adventure. On the other hand, “Yes, if…” places the onus back on the players, challenging them to pursue something more, to push their boundaries and achieve new results.
As a single example, I had a player in my D&D game who believed they could counterspell an ability if they had the same spell prepared. That’s not how it works, and I wasn’t going to rewrite the entire counterspell system on a whim. However, the player was communicating something they thought was interesting to me, so I would be a fool to ignore it. So, I had them make a history roll to recall writings of wizards who seemed to have been able to do this, and they could find out more by researching in the library at Candlekeep. This led to an entire adventure to recover lost lore of that Wizard order who could modify their spell focus to give them this ability. Ruling-wise, it was just a bound magic item. The whole thing worked out very well and it gave the entire party a new adventure to pursue.
(For the record, I realize ‘Yes, if…’ is just ‘No, but …’ in disguise but keeping things framed as a yes is powerful to frame things in the players mind as an opportunity.)
The Real Thrill of D&D: Beyond Convenience
By resorting to easy rulings for the sake of convenience, we risk diluting the true excitement of D&D. The essence of the game lies in using every opportunity to create new adventures, presenting challenges that players can overcome and be rewarded for. “Yes, if…” is more than just a response; it’s a philosophy that encourages deeper engagement, creativity, and a richer gaming experience.
In conclusion, embracing the “Yes, if…” approach can transform our D&D sessions from simple pastimes into epic adventures filled with meaningful challenges and rewarding experiences.