Dungeons and Dragons is a shared experience. Both you and your players take part in crafting the story. Playing the game as a dungeon master also means running the game and having to wrest some of that power away from your players. There are times when you players may want to do crazy things. There are times when the mundane things they do go awry. While you’re the one describing the narrative, they are the ones driving it. To keep this a happy balance, you need to understand how and when to say yes and no to your players.
If you want to be a great DM, you’re going to want to say yes to a lot of the things your players want to do. This means avoiding railroading and letting your group get off track to explore where they want to. Saying yes to your players sounds easy enough, but unfortunately you can’t just literally say “Yes”… or at least you shouldn’t. Let’s look at a few ways to say “yes” to your players the best way.
- Can I jump this pit? While it may be easy for them to do so, ask them to roll an intelligence check. On a success, telling them they think it would be easy says yes without pulling back the narrative.
- Can we get through this gate? “You see a guard atop the the gate tower that you may be able to ask.” This answer tells your players yes, they can explore this area. Even if you didn’t plan anything behind that gate, you open the possibility by introducing some interactions.
- Can we get a night at the inn? “The inn looks very busy, but you notice several keys still hand on hooks behind the counter, and there’s also bell on the front desk.”
All of the above examples are ways you can indicate to your player that yes, they can do something without ever outright saying it. The reason you want to try this approach is that it causes your players to to seek out interactions and primes them for role playing. Really what you’re doing is saying maybe more than you’re saying yes. But you’re also indicating that when they ask questions, you’re not really there to give answers. The world they are playing in is where the answers should come from.
In D&D, saying no to your players is one of the harder things to do. The problem with “No” is that it tends to stop players from being inventive and trying new things. Just like yes, you should never explicitly say no to what a player wants to do. Instead, give them subtle hints that it might not work. For example: “Can I climb this wall?” can be answered no with “You look for areas to gain purchase, but find the rock too smooth and slick to get a hand hold anywhere.” The problem with this can often be player fixation. If they want to climb that wall, they’re certainly welcome to try. Spells, tools, and good old fashioned creativity can be thrown at inane problems and you may for any number of reasons need to say no. But you should always let your players try. “No” comes from from the outcome, and sometime player effort will outweigh your no.
So what do you do when your subtle “No” is ignored or forced into a maybe? Sharpen your no with consequences. Trying to climb a wall they shouldn’t may alert guards or trigger a long fall. This is something to be used sparingly at first. Players should be made aware that there may be consequences to their actions before they insist on trying something that is designed to fail.
When you’ve already said no through the narrative, players may still want to roll for some actions. This actually works out in your favor; now you can say no with dice. If they cannot do something and try anyway, you can narrate their failure. Even on a 20 you can tell them about how at their very best they still cannot quite manage the action. If that doesn’t deter your players then we suggest you stop being subtle. When all else fails, sometimes you just need to tell them no.
When the subtlety of saying no fails to convince your players, you shouldn’t consider it a failure. As mentioned in the introduction here, Dungeons and Dragons is a shared experience. Unfortunately, sometimes your players refuse to share with you. The game relies on both parties working together. When either you or your players try to brute force an outcome, you’re hurting the game for everyone else. Yes and No are are essentially your most powerful tools as a DM. Since you get to decide, use them wisely.