The Power of “No, But…”

It’s very easy in the story/indie game community to embrace and fall into the cult of “Yes, and…” and the improv idea of accepting offers. I mean, I certainly have, because it’s a more fun mode of GMing and playing than the traditional refusal.

But there are times—maybe not often, but still they happen—where saying “Yes” is not as powerful as saying “No, but…” I learned this many years ago when Josh Roby ran a Full Light, Full Steam[1] game possibly the first Nerdly Beach Party. We were in this gondola, and I wanted to shoot at someone or jump out of it onto something or whatever, I forget the motivation. But I do remember this paraphrased exchange:

Me: Do the windows open? I want to [shoot/jump/whatever].

Josh: Totally!

Me: [Pausing a moment] Wait.. how about if they don’t? It would be cooler if I had to shoot the glass.

Josh: …Yes. Okay, roll.

That moment of play has stuck in my head for over five years. So when hear requests for fictional clarification in order to know if an action is possible, “Yes!” isn’t my only go-to. “No, but…” followed by an offer of action, intrigue, or some other interesting obstacle is a powerful tool. (Similar with “Yes, but…”, where you accept the narrative request as possible while revealing an interesting or anxious consequence if the action is taken.)

Though “No, but…” can be easily used to shut an idea or person down, either intentionally or accidentally, used well it creates opportunities where simply saying “Yes” doesn’t. So put a little “No, but…” in your GMing diet.

– Ryan

[1] Josh’s games are genius, and FLFS is no exception. He would say it’s very dated at this point, but even in its time it was a rather underrated work.