This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007. You can find part one here.
A column about roleplaying
By Robin D. Laws
Last month we plundered the gilded halls of improv theory, appropriating for our own roleplaying purposes the “Yes, but” technique. GMs using this technique avoid answering player requests with a categorical no. Instead they look for ways to say yes, but with complications that preserve the coherence of the setting, add additional challenge, or both.
This time we’re going to take the concept to its funky extreme by using it as the basis for an impromptu scenario. Try it next time you’re forced for whatever reason to slot in a fill-in event for your ongoing game, or as a convention brain-teaser.
“Yes, but: The Scenario” works best with a freeform resolution system that allows character creation on the fly, preferably with simple or self-defined abilities. I’ve also run it using just a deck of cards as a resolution system, with a high draw meaning a good result, a low card indicating failure, and an ace indicating that the player gets to dictate the ideal result of his action attempt. However, if you’re the kind of GM who can spreadsheet an exquisitely balanced Champions character in your head, you might prefer to rely on a crunchier rules set.
This scenario is more fun and unpredictable if the rules system you choose triggers comparatively few assumptions about world and expected game play. If you haul out the D&D rules books, your players will likely plug themselves into a well-worn pattern and set about performing that game’s default activity, relying less on their own improvisatory creativity than on an off-the-rack set of roleplaying assumptions.
You can start a “Yes, but” game mere moments after your players get settled in. Game play is character creation.
Inform your players that this game depends on their ability to interrogate you. All communications with you must be phrased in the form of a yes or no question. When given a yes or no question, you may elect to supply more information than the query calls for. If given a question which cannot be answered with a yes or no, or a statement which isn’t in the form of a question at all, you will ask the player to rephrase.
Play goes around the table in a round-robin fashion. Players ask questions in turn sequence, one question per turn.
When you’re satisfied that the group understands the method of play (well, sort of understands — expect a certain degree of hesitant bafflement at this point), start play by pointing to the first player.
Expect even more bafflement. Prompt the player to ask a question. If the player can’t think of one, try the next one in the turn order. If everyone seems utterly stumped, start off with:
“You all wake up at about the same time. You’re in a room together.”
Then, once again, prompt for questions.
Soon, if not instantly, the players will see the open-ended game you’re playing. They’ll ask you questions like:
1. “Is it dark?”
2. “Does the room have a door?”
3. “Am I injured?”
4. “Is there anyone else in the room other than us?”
5. “Am I male or female?”
What you’re doing is allowing the players to define their characters, the nature of the scenario, and even the genre, by the questions they ask. The answer to all of their questions is either a simple “yes” or a “yes, but…” followed by a line or two of explanation that mitigates, modifies, or limits the facts their question has put into play. “Yes but” is almost always the most fruitful answer.
So your replies to the above questions might be:
1. “Yes, but there’s light coming from under the door, enough so you can faintly make out a light switch off to one side of it.”
2. “Yes, but it’s behind a barricade of broken furniture. Someone went to a huge effort to keep something outside from coming in.”
3. “Yes, but not seriously. Just a few scratches.”
4. “Yes, there’s a man in a trench coat. But he seems to be dead.”
5. “Rephrase the question.”
As you continue, the Q&A format will define characters, flesh out a setting, and define a goal for the PCs to achieve.
As players ask questions about their characters, you assign abilities and game statistics to them. Whenever an answer defines a character’s abilities, make a note of them, giving them game statistics as necessary. The first-mentioned abilities get the best game stats. Though courtesy or lack of devious imagination may prevent them from trying it, there’s nothing to stop players from asking questions that define other players’ characters.
Clever players will catch onto what you’re doing and tailor questions to their benefit. The “yes, but” format makes this, challenging, though:
“Do I have a shotgun?”
“Yes, but no ammo.”
“Am I super strong?”
“Yes, but only for a few moments a day.”
“Do I have the key to that door?”
“Yes, but you know there’s a bomb on the other side of the door, wired to go off when a key is inserted into the lock.”
Certain questions tend to foster weird or freakish results if you apply “Yes, but” to them. Unless you want a cast of hermaphrodites and mutant halfbreeds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), questions like “Am I male?” or “Am I human?” should be answered with a simple “Yes.” You control the freakiness level of the scenario both with your modifying descriptions, and by which questions you choose to answer with a plain “Yes.”
The default outcome is a scenario about people who wake up trapped in an environment without their memories. The amnesia option can be fun, as it mirrors the player’s attempts to piece together their characters by asking you questions. You can forestall it, though, by simply answering “yes” to the question “Do we remember how we got here?”
Likewise, the PCs generally wind up trapped by asking “Is there a way out?” Starting out trapped is a good way to foster cooperation between the developing PCs, but again you can vary the standard pattern just by saying, “Yes.”
If the players think they’re playing in a given setting, their questions will be tailored to it. They may invoke existing media properties anyway: “Am I a Brujah?” “Can I perform the Vulcan nerve pinch?” The “yes, but” protocol limits your ability to fight this, but so what? It’s not like anybody’s going to sue you for infringing their intellectual property. Expect the resulting adventure to surrealistically blend various genres.
At some point during the game, the Q&A will prove difficult to sustain as your improvised narrative gathers steam. Depending on how quickly your players catch on and how adroitly they manipulate the format, this may happen as early as an hour into the session, or very near to its natural conclusion. Usually it’ll happen at about the halfway point.
When this occurs, tell the players that you’re switching to a regular RPG protocol. Then play out the game as you would any improvised scenario, placing challenges in front of the players as they head toward an exciting climax that resolves the central problem they’ve established for themselves during the Q&A phase. This sounds like a tall order, but, assuming you can improv a scenario at all, you’ll find that the momentum you’ve established in the Q&A carries you along naturally.
Will next month’s column expand this concept into a screenplay suitable for a major motion picture? Yes, but those not equipped with alien senses will instead perceive a column on another subject, germane to roleplaying.