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Only Say Yes to a Yes

“Say yes” is a fundamental principle of just about every shared creative process. “Yes and”, “yes but” — either way, say yes. And it is absolutely good advice for role-playing games. Accept what other people contribute. Embrace what’s been said as established truth and build on it. Don’t contradict it.

But there’s a big caveat that doesn’t get mentioned: You should only say yes to another yes. Don’t say yes to something that contradicts what we’ve already agreed to. Don’t say yes to someone else’s no.

People are not always good at saying no, but it is vital to the health of your game and everyone’s fun.

The Interlocking Chain of Yes

Every single role-playing game is an interlocking chain of yes’s, all the way back to the very start.

Yes we agree we are going to play Traveller. Yes these are our characters. Yes we’re on a spaceship. Yes the ship is dubbed the Clever Goose. Yes we’re low on fuel. Yes we just went into orbit around a strange planet. Yes a missile is flying towards us, etc.

If we don’t agree about something or don’t know what’s true — does our spaceship have a shuttle, did my lightning bolt kill the orc — we stop and figure it out until we do agree. Maybe we just discuss, maybe we roll dice, or maybe the rules say a particular player decides. The methods vary in different games, but either way, we establish what is true or we agree that we don’t know the answer yet.

That agreement is the bedrock that makes our shared imaginary enterprise function. A long time ago, Vincent Baker said that the very nature of role-playing games is that we all have to agree about the truth of the fictional world or we can’t play. That’s exactly right. If I think you’re inside the house and you think you’re outside the house, nothing we say to each other is going to make sense.

Every additional thing that happens in the game, whether it’s saying your character draws their sword, declaring someone’s hair color, or scanning for a cloaked ship, is another yes in the chain. We have agreed that all that previous stuff was true, and we just keep adding more. Each agreement builds on all the previous agreements.

Along Comes a No

And then someone comes along and breaks the chain. They say something that contradicts what we’ve already agreed to or established. We agreed early on that there wasn’t going to be any AI in our game, but then a player starts describing talking to the Clever Goose’s onboard computer…

It’s an easy mistake to make — we’re creating whole worlds on the fly, so there’s a lot to keep track of. Someone gets so excited about an idea they come up with that they don’t stop and think about how it conflicts with something we already established. They’ve introduced a contradiction to our fiction.

What do you do? Politely say no. Stop and say “hey, we already said that X was true, so doesn’t what you just said go against that?” Reminding everyone what we had all previously agreed to shows that you aren’t arbitrarily saying no because you don’t like the idea, you’re helping us stick to what we built together. They said no, whether they realized it or not. You’re just pointing it out.

You may feel like you’re being the bad guy, but you’re doing everyone a favor by identifying a contradiction before it sows confusion.

Saying no to a no is really just the start of that conversation. It declares that we have something we need to untangle. Maybe we talk about it and decide it’s something we want to change. That’s fine, but any revision has to be a conscious decision we all agree to. Revisions and changes must walk in, announce themselves loudly, and be welcomed by the table. They cannot sneak in under the cloak of night.

Why Not Just Say Yes?

But if someone is excited about an idea shouldn’t you just let it slide and embrace it, no matter what we said before? Isn’t it more fun to just say yes?

First of all, you should always call out contradictions to keep your fiction working. If you don’t identify and resolve contradictions, things will stop making sense and the game will grind to a confusing halt.

And second, when you’re tempted to embrace every new idea that comes along, remember that everything already in the fiction came from another player. By introducing a contradiction, this player is stepping on someone else’s previous contribution. We should all try to respect the original contribution we agreed to.

And everyone else is effected too, because we have all been building on that idea we agreed to, no matter who introduced it. Even if the same player created the very thing they are now contradicting, they can’t just change it without everyone’s consent. Once an idea is committed to the shared fiction, we all have a stake in it.

Don’t Break the Chain

It’s worth mentioning that safety vetoes (X-card, etc) are an entirely differently beast. If someone wants to remove something because it makes them uncomfortable, we absolutely should, no debate. Which is precisely why we have a distinct “safeword”, so we know it’s a special case.

Are creative contradictions something to watch out for more in GMless games, because there isn’t a singular authority figure who declares what is true and what isn’t? Yes, I think so. Instead it’s all of our jobs to keep the game working. You may recall that in Microscope, “don’t contradict what’s already been said” is an overt rule, but it’s really an underlying principle that makes all role-playing games work.

So don’t break the chain of yes’s. And if someone else does, be brave and say no. Everyone’s game will be better for it.

    Ben Robbins | August 19th, 2021 | , , | show comments