This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007.
A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Considering how focused roleplayers are on plundering and looting, it’s surprising how little stealing we’ve done from the world of improv. Like us, sketch comedy troupes use collective, on-the-spot creativity to make entertainment out of nothing. And they don’t even need d12s. Or whatever it is that we need when we say our hobby is like playing cowboys and indians, except with rules to guarantee that the dead stay down when they get shot.
Let’s hijack one of improv’s central principles right now. That fundamental principle is “never negate.” In an improv, you never merely cancel out another participant’s action. Imagine that you and I are performing an improv together. We’ve been given a location by the audience — a construction site — and that’s all we’ve got to work with. You start the skit by sitting down and miming as if you’re removing your lunch from your lunch bucket. Then you say, “Too bad we’re getting fired today, huh? And here I was, just a week away from retirement.”
Now, my mental wheels were already turning the moment I heard the words ‘construction site.’ I had a whole different direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to establish that we were merely amateur construction enthusiasts at construction worker fantasy camp. Maybe my idea was funnier than yours, but now that you’ve taken the lead, I can’t simply negate what you’ve done to clear the decks for my concept. The principles of improv forbid me from simply saying: “You are completely mistaken, Pete. We haven’t been fired at all. In fact, we are amateur construction enthusiasts attending construction worker fantasy camp.”
Instead, I have to set my thought aside and build on yours. Since I’m trying to be funny, I need to add a twist or reversal, or at least a set-up that my partner can turn into a joke. Such as: “Yeah, you kill one measly supervisor and they get all safety-oriented on your ass.” All of our mental prep work — all sixty seconds of it — is out the window, and we’re off in an unexpected direction, flying blind, creating in the moment. This process generates the energy and sense of surprise that makes improv seem funny — often much funnier than the exact same material would be if rehearsed it and polished into a finished sketch.
In the above example, I’m not negating you’re idea, but I’m not just accepting it and parroting it back to you, either. I’ve returned your serve while putting a new spin on the ball. I’ve said, “Yes, but.” Yes, we’re getting fired, but we deserve it — if anything, we’re getting off easy.
Few roleplaying game sessions present situations as open-ended as the very beginning of an improv sketch. There are game rules to take into account, PC backstories to keep consistent, and a certain amount of world detail and plot preparation you hope to preserve. Within these parameters, though, the ‘yes, but’ principle is a powerful technique to engage your players by rewarding their creativity while at the same time keeping them on their toes.
Let’s say you’re running a game in a landlocked fantasy nation with a vaguely ancient Bronze Age feel. A player building a new character, inspired by her recent purchase of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, really, really wants to play a pirate. Your initial response, based on the logic of your world and the prep work you’ve done, is simply to say no. It’s crucial to your geopolitical story arc that the kingdom be landlocked. That pretty much rules out naval piracy. However, you’ll have a much better chance of keeping that player happy, and having her contribute positively to the game, if you can give her part of what she wants. Say, “yes, but…”
“Yes, but in this setting the equivalent of the pirate is the bandit in the hills. The bandits in this world are the same unruly, rum-swilling outlaw types with stolen, ragtag finery and a perverse code of brotherhood you’re thinking of when you use the word pirate. But instead of attacking seafaring ships, they raid caravans from horseback.”
Maybe you hadn’t given any thought to bandits in your setting before now. Now you’ve allowed your player to help shape your world, by making your bandits into pirates with the serial numbers filed off. You’ve given her the feel she wants, while changing the details to preserve the campaign elements you need.
“Yes, but,” can be a useful tool during play, too. Is there a magic item shop in your fantasy city? You’ve decided that there isn’t. Not only do you find this gaming convention too ridiculous for belief, but you’ve also established that the city is ruled by a rapacious robber baron. If such a shop did exist, he’d surely have confiscated its wares long before now. However, when the players look for a magic item shop, tell them why, and then hit them with a “yes, but”:
“Here’s what you learn after a few minutes of asking around: there used to be a magic item proprietor in town, but the Black Baron absorbed its contents into his treasury. Now it’s run by one of his stooges, even though it hasn’t sold an item in years. If adventurers show up to sell something, the Baron’s goons confiscate their treasures and give them the bum’s rush out of town. If they show up to buy, the shopkeeper wheedles as much information from them as he can, then reports them to the Baron. The original owner fled the city and supposedly lives in the cave network by the river. He and a number of other exiles are looking for adventurers willing to aid in the baron’s overthrow. Rumor has it that he squirreled a few of his items out of town before the Baron’s tax collectors swooped in. Maybe he’d still be able to arrange a swap for you.”
Though you haven’t given the adventurers exactly what they want, you haven’t slapped them with a flat no, either. You’ve provided both a plot hook to follow up on, and a way of achieving their underlying goal (buying or selling a magic item) that doesn’t violate your own tastes or campaign logic.
“Yes, but” can, on the other hand, assist you in improvising additional conflicts challenges into what would otherwise be flat, uninspiring scenes of information gathering. Does the spice merchant know anything about the abduction of the high priest, the players wonder. You decide that the answer is “yes, but”: he saw one of the perpetrators, but will provide the information only in exchange for a favor: the adventurers must first forcibly persuade a decadent young noble to leave his daughter alone.
Though you don’t want to go overboard with side missions like this, the occasional instance can inject variety into your session — and also provide play opportunities for players who are more interested in butt-kicking, infiltration, intrigue or puzzle-solving than investigation.
The usefulness of this technique, however you choose to use it, stems from its origins in improv. It encourages you to add options instead of merely foreclosing them. Most importantly, it inspires you to think sideways before answering important questions, preserving surprise not only for the players, but for yourself as well.