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