Yes And is the first and most important rule of improv acting — and role-playing games are 90% improv. The Storyteller might have a plot planned, but they have to be ready to react and respond to what the players do in that story. And the players themselves are constantly reacting to the story, NPCs, and each other. Shutting the players down is a recipe for making players unhappy — especially if it’s an ongoing issue, so saying yes and playing off of everyone’s contributions is a vital skill for both Storytellers and players.
But there’s another half to Yes And — No But. It’s a rule of improv and writing both, and something worth any Storyteller’s time to cultivate. Storytellers can’t allow the players to do everything that they want. To quote Tombstone, “We got to have some law.” The reason that player characters have stats and character sheets is to define what they can and can’t do, so we’ve all agreed already that there are boundaries. It’s not unreasonable for the Storyteller to put some limits on things.
Obviously we still don’t want to make a habit of shutting players down. Matthew Mercer has developed his way of saying No But without making players feel stymied — “You can certainly try.” It’s a way of saying that players can attempt anything that they want, but can’t expect to actually pull off every single idea. There’s a chance to succeed, at a high difficulty; but hey, head’s up, those chances are slim.
Why is No But so important, though, when Yes And is the most common advice? Because the players’ ability to act within the game world is important, but so is acknowledging the limitations of the world and game. Storytellers have to balance giving the players freedom and agency, keeping a story arc on track and… basically making sense of the game and plot.
I’m Costorytelling a game with my friend and we planned a story arc in which the party gets embroiled in some deadly legal trouble. We have a courtroom scene all set up, with witnesses, drama, and a bunch of other awesome stuff. It’s a nice break from dungeon-crawling and monster-fighting, plus we get to be in a real Law & Order style crisis scene! One of our characters even has an official rank, and she was going to be named as our council so that she could call witnesses and question them, object to things; the whole shebang.
But as soon as our legally-challenged player character got arrested, he asked for a lawyer and our Storyteller Yes And-ed the shit out of that. Yes, there’s a lawyer! He came up with a name, described how the man looked and acted, spoke in character. Yes, the lawyer would help us build a case and then present it in court… While all of the player characters sit on the sidelines and watch.
After the game session, he talked to me as Costoryteller for help, because he had painted himself into a corner. His Yes And lawyer now gets to call and question witnesses, object to things, and do all of the things that we had planned for the player characters. And because the lawyer, the prosecution, the judge, and most of the witnesses are all NPCs, he set himself up to spend an entire session talking to himself. By saying Yes And at the wrong time, he accidentally took all the agency out of the players’ hands.
So here’s where No But comes in. “Can we have a lawyer?” the player asks. The Storyteller answers, “No, but… as an official of the city, another player character has the rank to represent you in court!” It moves the agency back into the players hands and basically the party still gets a lawyer; but one of the players gets to fill that role now.
The thing that Storytellers need to remember is that Yes And is for everyone at the table — the players are supposed to Yes And the Storyteller, too! The Storyteller gives them constraints, throws challenges at them (like the absence of lawyers), and lets them react and play off it. It’s not the Storyteller’s job to always be the one reacting, and being on your back foot constantly like that is exhausting. If nothing else, lob the ball into the players’ court for a while so that you can catch your breath. And remember that the players want to react to your plot and world! That’s the whole point of being the player. They need challenges and barriers so they have to get creative.
Yes And and No But are the two sides of the role-playing coin, and you have to use both to get the full value out of that coin.