Thursday, October 29, 2015

What "Say Yes" Really Means, Part 1

I am an RPG player and rules tinkerer who came into the hobby in the 'new school' age. D&D 3/3.5 was my first tabletop, pen and paper RPG playground. From there I went to D&D 4, Pathfinder, every other OGL system under the sun, and now I am playing mainly D&D 5.

In the design diaspora that was D&D 4, its aftermath, and the announcement of D&D Next, I began wandering the internet in search of RPG wisdom. Little did I know just how vast the halls of the RPG internet realm were, and how much the players of 'old school' games had to say.

Let me tell you, the blog posts were titillating, and the house rules, desirable.

But coming from a new school background, and having no old school players nearby to join in with, I had to take all this information and decode it like some ancient codex. What was it that these old-schoolers were so crazy about, and how did their games appear to have such a laid back and easy-going feel to them, while simultaneously sounding deadly and challenging?

Well, you will have to ask them, not me. I'm sure I couldn't explain it half as well.

But! There was one old-school rule that has clanged around in my head for ages, which I have only recently come to understand. Sort of like how Buddhism has seven stages of enlightenment. Or maybe not like that at all. I don't know.

That rule is this: Say Yes.

So simple! And yet so complex!

At first I thought that Say Yes meant you should never shoot down a player's idea. If the player says they want to attempt something, don't tell them "No, you can't do that" or "No, your character wouldn't do that."

Weeeeeell, that's not really it. It is important to have an open mind, as a DM, and remember that the game is at least partially about entertainment. That doesn't have to mean silliness, but it does have to mean engaging your player characters in events and challenges that they find interesting. So, if you prepared a dungeon crawl based around helping the bartender get rats out of her basement, but your players want to accompany some randomly generated NPC, who they met in the bar, on his trip to some randomly generated town because it sounds like fun, weeeeeeeell.... you better start thinking up possible road encounters.

But the Say Yes rule goes even deeper than that. Say Yes is a rock-bottom credo about where the drama and action are in your game. The more you Say Yes, the more you focus the challenge and drama onto the most important parts of the game, and onto player skill.

Here is a little hypothetical D&D type situation: the party (a human fighter, halfling rogue, dwarven cleric, and elven wizard) is fleeing the underground goblin city, and they are being chased by a half-a'gabillion goblins. They come to a chasm that is juuuuust slightly wider than is comfortable. The wizard has cast fly on himself, picked up the rogue, and safely made it to the other side. The fighter and the cleric remain.

In a world without Say Yes, they ask the DM "Can we jump it?" and the DM says: "roll jump checks." The fighter probably has a 50% chance to clear the chasm. The cleric will almost certainly fall to his doom like a stubby-legged anchor.

What if they asked the DM about their odds of clearing it? He/she might say "eh, not great." But then what? Grappling hooks? Magic? Pitons and rope for godssake? If the DM wants to keep the adrenaline pumping, there is no time for that, in-game or out of game.

And you can't toss a dwarf, obviously.

So what is the solution? Not put any chasms in the game? Oops, we have a heavily armored dwarven cleric, I guess we can't ask the party to jump anywhere this campaign.

In a world with Say Yes, the DM assumes that the characters can accomplish the task before them, though a sacrifice may be necessary. Does the jump have a DC? Some target number that they have to roll a check against? I don't know, maybe.

But should it be relevant? No!

When the players for the fighter and cleric say "Can we jump it?" the DM should say something like "YES, but you think you'll need to ditch the backpacks and weapons to clear the distance."

See what this does? It gives the players a whole scope of options to fiddle around with. It says "Here is the situation, and here are all the variables. Figure out a solution, if you can, and preferably one that doesn't get everyone killed."

Now, those two players are practically running around the table figuring out a plan, "Quick! Toss your backpack over the chasm. You guys on the other side will catch them, right? Can we toss our weapons? What if we tie rope to our belts and then to the ends of our weapons? Could we jump the gap and then pull our weapons over from the other side? Let's try it."

Now you've got compounding variables too, because you have allowed your players to do something other than succeed perfectly or fail perfectly. The DM makes a roll, and the goblins show up just before the party can pull their warriors' weapons over. The goblins grab the weapons and begin pulling the opposite way! Now what? Does the party cut their losses, literally, and lose their weapons? Do they get into a tug-o-war with a whole cadre of goblins? Will one of them be pulled back to the other side?

"But wait!" Some of you may say, "How can they jump the chasm without a jump/athletics/acrobatics check?" Isn't that what those skills are for?

Well, I'll have an answer for you in part 2.

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