By Davis Lazowski
Saying ‘yes, and’ is one of the most important mantras in modern improvisational theatre. Saying `yes, and’ means amplifying and accepting what the other actors put forward. It means never saying no, and rarely saying ‘no, but’. Improv actors see ‘yes, and’ as key to their craft, because, they say, saying no is no fun. It doesn’t advance the plot. There’s no good way to respond to a ‘no’.
Role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons are essentially improvisational theatre. It’s a group of people crafting an imagined story, speaking as imagined characters, together in real time. And yet in role-playing games, participants often do not say ‘yes, and’. Players fight, and often stop one another from achieving their goals. I have always been puzzled by this difference. Where does it come from? Would role-playing games do better with more ‘yes, and’?
I think the relative prevalence of ‘yes, and’ comes from a difference of goals. Improv actors want to entertain an audience. They prioritise humour and joy over character consistency and continuity. But players in a role-playing game seek agency and characterisation. They want to have a good time— but they want their characters to feel powerful, and to feel like theirs. Saying yes often means compromising, so that the other members of your group have some ownership over your character’s actions. While players might often say ‘yes, and’ to preserve group cohesion, their willingness to do so only goes so far.
Would role-playing games work better if players did always say ‘yes, and’? I think the answer is undoubtedly yes. I know that as a player, I’ve always felt best in groups which are listening to my character and supporting it. Being in a receptive environment is fun!
But it’s hard for a group of player characters to always agree. And conflict is not as bad in a role-playing game as in improv theatre. First, if your conflict takes a ten minutes to resolve fruitfully, that’s a small slice of your campaign, not a fifth of the show. And in a role-playing game, there is a dungeon master who can resolve and mediate conflict. So the plot doesn’t stop with player conflict. But it still sucks, for players and the dungeon master, to have to rule ‘for’ or ‘against’ a player. Whoever loses out feels almost as if the rules are against them.
How to avoid this? I think a dungeon master should strive to craft an environment which creates as much ‘yes, and’ as possible. By knowing their characters, the dungeon master can often turn conflict from a source of ‘no’ into a ‘yes, and’ opportunity.
For instance, say your party has a lawful good ‘Thou shalt not steal’ character and a true neutral ‘I will take what I want’ character. If you have them race through a mansion filled with valuables on their way to defuse a time-limited bomb, there will be conflict you can’t adequately address. Things will be stolen or not stolen, and because the important plot lies elsewhere, someone will feel like the party brushed over their characters’ views and said ‘no’.
But say instead that you approached the party, telling them that there was a lucrative opportunity to steal from the richest man in town, who is well known to abuse his workers and whose downfall would likely do the common person a lot of good. Should they take this opportunity or not? Now that you’ve made the character friction a focus, both players can take all the time they need to air their views. In this space, saying ‘yes, and’ means continuing the argument! Ultimately, one of them might lose the argument. But they’re both likely to leave feeling good, because they’ve been given the time and space needed to develop their characters.
This is only a small example of how powerful encouraging ‘yes, and’ can be as a dungeon master. Next time you’re dungeon mastering, think: how can you encourage ‘yes, and’?