Having taken Alexis's DMing master-classes last fall, and having been back in the DM saddle for nigh on half a year now (after three years of absence), I've been working hard to shore up my weaknesses. Both the classes and my new influx of practical experience have shown that one of my weaknesses is hesitation. Just plain difficulty with making a decision quickly.
In order to combat this, and in order to get some more experience with performance (which is part of what a DM does), I've signed up for and begun taking comedy improv classes at a local theater. The course runs for two months and next week will mark the halfway point.
I can tell you that I'm having the time of my life. I wish I'd done this years ago! It's incredible fun and I've earned some genuine praise from the instructor and from my fellow students.
So the questions now are: is it working? Is it improving my ability to improvise? Have I noticed an improved ability to give answers to players under fire?
Well ... the jury's still out. But I've got something to talk about that I've been ruminating over.
The group improv principle of "say yes" dictates that one should never shut down an "offer" that another performer makes during a scene. Whatever they suggest, take it and run with it. And whatever you suggest, they take it and run with it. This process of mutual building is key to satisfying scenes and producing laughter in the observers.
This is old hat to any DM who's done even a little reading. Many DMs, looking for advice, have turned to the established theater arts to find it. "Say yes" has gotten its due as a tactic for responding to player inquiries which promotes expression and creativity.
But what happens when it comes to rules questions? What happens when the players want to drink just half a healing potion instead of all of it, and get some benefit?
You've got to say "no," of course.
During a session part of my job is to head off at the pass any player schemes which rely on a lack of understanding of some rule. My game is hard and dangerous -- the players have a healthy fear of falling, for instance -- and I want it that way. It makes the players rely on each other, and it makes the satisfaction of success sweeter when challenges are actual, well, challenges.
What I've been ruminating on is whether or not there's a tension between these two concepts: "saying yes" to preserve momentum and to recognize when the players are on to something, and "saying no" when there's a rule in place and the players have no case for overturning it except to try and sneak some benefit. (To roughly paraphrase the two kinds of input.)
So far my answer is NO, there is no tension. It's just that the different principles apply to different parts of my job as DM. One applies to evaluating player ingenuity, and those interactions with the game world which are more freeform. "Say yes" helps me preserve momentum when the party is on a roll. The other applies to assessing the rules at hand and squashing misconceptions, tangents, or (rarely) deviousness. "Say no" keeps my hand on the tiller, modulating player energy and throwing up roadblocks wherever they get carried away on an incorrect course, one which I know to be a waste of time or invalid.
What do you think?
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