GM Advice: How and Why to Say “No”

No.” Is there any more hated word for a player to hear from his GM?

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

In recent years, the trend in the GMing has been to say “yes” or “yes, but…” to your players’ requests. That’s fine as far as it goes, but eventually a GM just has to say “no.” Saying “no”, though, can be unfun. What’s a GM to do?

Why Say “No”

There are three main reasons a GM should say “no” to a player

  • Balance: A player might want to play a race or class the GM views as wildly unbalanced. Alternately, he might want to buy a certain magic item that grants his character Ultimate Power (or an approximation thereof). While the game is never going to be fair – some players are just better at making powerful characters than others – a GM has a duty to make certain the party is at least vaguely balanced (assuming his players care).
  • Flavour: Sometimes the flavour of an option a player wants to choose just doesn’t work in the GM’s campaign. I have a friend who doesn’t allow any oriental themed characters (samuari, ninja, wu-jens and so on) in his game, for example. At the end of the day, the GM has worked hard to make his campaign world his own. He is perfectly within his rights to allow or disallow any option he sees fit if he feels it detracts from his campaign world.
  • Access: If a player routinely asks to use options from a book no one else owns the GM should carefully consider whether to allow such access.  Often, the options in non-core or 3PP books are more powerful than those in the basic game. If only one player has access to them, it’s intrinsically unfair to allow him to use them. This isn’t an ideal situation when the player has purchased the books, but it might be necessary to quash bad feeling among the other players. In reality it’s best to have a house rules handout and make sure all your players have a copy.

How To Say “No”

Given you (probably) play with a group of friends there is an art to saying “no.”

  • Explain: Don’t just say “no.” Explain your reasoning and invite feedback. It’s possible your player might have thought of something you haven’t. You are capable of making mistakes after all…
  • Challenge the Player To Make It Work: Sometimes when you say “no” you are actually saying, “I don’t know how to make this work so I’ll say no.” For example, in my Borderland of Adventure campaign the subject of orc (or other non-standard) PC races recently came up. I first dismissed the idea, but after discussing it as a group we came to a compromise that both I and the players were happy with.
  • No, Unless…: “No, unless…” is a much cooler (and inclusive) response than just “no.” Instead of denying a player’s request, offering conditions is a good way of softening the blow and finding a mutually acceptable way forward. For example, a player in my campaign wanted to play a samurai. Instead of just saying “no”, I stipulated his character would have to come from a certain far away culture. He’d also have to explain why his character travelled thousands of miles from home. In this fashion, the player got what he wanted (as well as a cool character background) and I got what I wanted – a character that while a little odd made sense in the overall context of the campaign. I also got some fun plot hooks out of it.

When Almost Never To Say “No”

There is one situation in which a GM should almost never say “no.”

  • Character Action: A player is perfectly entitled to have his PC act as he sees fit. There may be consequences to those actions – imprisonment, death and so on – but he should still get to take those actions. It’s his PC – not the GM’s. A GM should never say a player can’t have his PCs attempt something.
  • The Only Possible Exception: The only possible exception to this is when a PC voluntarily attacks another PC using lethal force. Such fights rarely end well and bad blood between the players is almost inevitable.

Help Your Fellow GMs!

So that’s my take on how and why to say “no.” Do you have any strategies or reasons for saying “no” to a player? Share them in the comments below and help your fellow GMs say no (appropriately) today!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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16 thoughts on “GM Advice: How and Why to Say “No”

  1. I think you outlined this subject very well, Creighton. The situation where a player has access to a book no one else has has come up many times for me in the past. My solution was to make it mandatory that the player allow other players access to the book or it was disallowed. I was lucky in the fact that my group back then was not super-competitive with one another, but I can see how this situation could become a problem when it is a group of people coming together as strangers at a game store or something like that.

    In my games, I like to let players explore options with their characters, but I also make them support those options with good role-playing and attention. As an example, all of my players wanted their characters to have pets. I approved that with the stipulation that they had to be aware of where their pets were at all times. If not, well, they were generally out a pet or had to take time to search it out if they were not paying attention. This led to many interesting calamities for the PC’s to fall into, but also taught them a valuable lesson about asking for more than they could handle.

  2. Heh, sounds like you were on the WotC forums the last two weeks, because this was a much-debated topic there. 🙂 I’m on your side though.

  3. “Access: If a player routinely asks to use options from a book no one else owns the GM should carefully consider whether to allow such access. Often, the options in non-core or 3PP books are more powerful than those in the basic game. If only one player has access to them, it’s intrinsically unfair to allow him to use them. ”

    This is less of a problem for Pathfinder, given the existence of d20pfsrd.com, which also posts third-party OGC. Obviously, it can still be an issue for non-OGL systems or OGL systems without a dedicated all-inclusive SRD site.

  4. I guess it depends on the group, but I have found that the role of GM has moved from “parent” to “adult” so I/we as GMs never say no.

    Balance, Access and Flavour are always a group decision. The area where the GM sometimes has to make a call is with regards to those things which only he/she knows, but even then it’s explanations rather than mandates (e.g. if you play a ranger with a high Survival skill in Kingmaker you will take away some of the challenge / flavour of that adventure).

    A GM is perfectly at liberty, of course, to state that he will only GM under certain conditions. GMs can’t be forced to do things any more than players.

    Richard

  5. I remember when I was running the Transylvania Chronicle for Vampire: The Dark Ages, I had an issue with the players on this. The first adventure takes place in the early 12th century, and the characters are supposed to be newly-made vampires still beholden to their sires and by the end of the 800-year campaign they’ll have gone from being lackeys to serious power players on a global scale.

    So, to preserve that, I decided to put a cap on starting Generation at character creation: No more than two dots. (My logic being that over the course of the next 800 years, there WILL be plenty of opportunities to increase it.)

    Every. Single. One. Took. The. Two. Dots. And then complained about not being able to get more. One player actually declared “I’m going to go out and look for an older vampire to diablerize!” And then was shocked that this guy wasn’t just sitting there waiting for him to come kill him and consume his power and actually put up a fight. Which he won. Cause that was a really bad idea to begin with.

  6. The other reason I have had to use “No” is when I needed or wanted to turn a player away from my table. This is a rare, and pretty severe, thing to do to someone but there are times where it is nessecary. I have a short list of people that I will not play with anymore, and reasons are always well justified. One person is on the list because he physically attacked me during a game once. Another is on the list because I know that our play styles and personalities are so contradictory to one another that it wouldn’t be fun for either of us.

    Fortunately I have never had to tell someone no as they are approaching a table. That conversation has come well before we have an opportunity to game together, and it is always private, honest, and tactful. I am still friends with the few people on my no-play list, and we still enjoy the occational conversation and casual board game.

    • I am very much in the same situation. I’m one of the only people who is willing to GM for my friends but there are a couple that I don’t like playing with. They act aggressive when things don’t work out their way and take it personally rather than accepting it as part of the game. I’ve also had dice thrown at my head which was fun… I still haven’t actually told them “no” yet but I’ve been holding off doing the next campaign.

  7. I really try to keep power gaming in my group to a minimum. If someone wants something just because it will make them a badass, I usually say no. If they put the work in and come up with a compelling backstory that explains why they have that item, I’ll consider it. With one exception; I play a low magic world, so if they want a magical item…I veto that shit right off the bat. I told my party they will encounter magical items, but that the rarity of them is very serious to me. I think my group is just getting around to the idea of not relying on magically boosted items to help them and becoming a little more inventive with how to use everyday items to their advantage in combat. Which was exactly my point.

    my rambling aside, I enjoyed the article…

  8. I play primarily Pathfinder. When it comes to unusual characters be it race, class or whatever… I typically simply state:

    Classes:

    “If you can provide it in hard copy form and everyone can easily access it, AND I have a firm understanding of how it works, it is acceptable for use unless in the future it proves to be too unbalanced. Should that happen, we’ll either work together to re balance it, or find you a better balanced option. ”

    Races:

    “For purposes of my settings, certain races are disallowed. Custom races are not permitted unless I have created them and have a place for them within my setting with one exception. If you are willing to work with me to create a full culture and place for them within my setting (Global scale…), and balance them aplropriately, they can be played by anyone and will be saved for future use.”

    Other stuff:

    “If it exists in hard copy form and I posess it, nine times out of ten it is open for use. There are few exceptions, such as word casting for example, which is not open for use. Reason: The rules are often too difficult to grasp for other players at the table and therefor not worth the wasted game time.”

  9. I freely admit to being a bit of a control freak. I listen to my players and they respect my choices because I respect their opinions. I have a few things I just strictly do not allow because of balance and flavor of the game. Ultimately the players know that if they don’t like the rules they can start their own campaigns or go home. I have to turn down new players all the time. ( Not because I am anything special, there has been an incredible RPG boom in my town for about a decade now ). The players know when I say no, it’s just part of crafting a game I can be content with presently fairly to them. It’s always a matter of trust.

  10. I am from the “yes…but” crowd as much as possible. I occasionally say “no”, but rarely.

    I don’t frame the situation as the GM can say “no”. Taking a cue from Dungeon World, the TABLE can say “no.”. But we play a narrative driven game and die rolls can really allow players to introduce almost anything. The governor on that is the table itself, I, as the GM, am a player at that table and can cast my vote.

    Still, sometimes you just have to make a ruling. .

    Before I say no, I really try to drill down to get to intent. What does the player expect to happen? What do they want to happen?