As a Game Master in a table-top or pen-and-paper RPG, it is important to know when to say “Yes” and when to say “No” to your players. As referee, it is your responsibility to enforce the rules of whatever game you are playing. Sometimes the rules aren’t very specific on how to resolve a particular scenario. Then, it’s your job to make a call. As the GM, you are likely going to have the greatest impact on how much or how little the other players at the table are going to be able to enjoy the game. So it’s important that you do your best to make the right call as often as possible.
In my experience, it is best for the GM to say “yes” as often as possible. Generally speaking, your players know better than you what will be fun for them. Also, a player’s ideas are often going to be way cooler than yours, so just roll with it and see where the ride takes you. This can yield results that are truly surprising, which is a lot more fun than just watching everything unfold exactly as you intend for it to.
Saying yes can be dangerous when it allows one player to infringe on the fun of another player. Don’t forget, even though you’re the GM, you’re still a player too. Don’t say “yes” if doing so will absolutely ruin your fun. However, as the GM, you do need to be a little more yielding than other players, and don’t get too attached to those antagonists (players will eventually kill them).
An especially good time to say “yes”, even if it means bending the rules of the game a little bit, is when allowing a player to do something will just be very cool, very fun, or very appropriate for the setting/theme of the game.
Again, I’ve found that it is best to say “yes” as often as possible, and that means you should only say “no” when you really have to.
Say “no” when a player suggests or requests something absolutely ridiculous, but be loose in your definition of ridiculous. When a player wants to leap tall buildings in a single bound (assuming you’re not playing in a game with super-powered characters) you should probably say “no”. A good guideline for this is to watch the reactions of the other players at the table. If they’re rolling their eyes or otherwise displaying incredulous looks, then the answer should probably be “no”.
Say “no” when a player wants to do something that will spoil the fun of any other player. Having guidelines or expectations for certain things going into your game might help avoid these scenarios to begin with. For example, it might help if players go into a game knowing that murdering each others' characters in their sleep is not acceptable behavior, even if the rules might allow it.
Say “no” when a player proposes a course of action that would completely wreck your campaign. This has to be an extreme situation. For example, if you’re planning a campaign that revolves around defending a remote village from local threats, allowing the players to make a quick journey to a nearby city to acquire some item they want might be a slight distraction, but it won’t wreck the campaign. Demolishing the village and slaughtering the villagers would wreck the campaign.
Saying “Yes, but” or “No, but”
This is the principle of compromise. If you say “yes” to every player request or suggestion, you may quickly lose your handle on the game. If you say “no” to your players too often, they might feel boxed in and the game may lose its appeal. Often times, it is better to find some middle ground. Whenever you’re tempted to say “no”, ask yourself if you could say “no, but” or even “yes, but”.
For example, a player wants to permanently disable your antagonist’s getaway vehicle. You might be tempted to say “no”, because it would spoil your plans of making this character a recurring villain. Instead, try saying “no, but”. Perhaps they player can’t disable the vehicle, but they do manage to tag it with a tracking device. Or, try saying “yes, but”. Perhaps they do disable the vehicle, but the villain absconds with another vehicle parked nearby. He still gets away, but he has to abandon his henchmen or the loot he’d just stolen.
Random chance is sometimes better than an outright answer. When you don’t know whether to say “yes” or “no”, sometimes it is best to have a player roll for something. Even if the game doesn’t have specific rules to cover the situation, use the basic framework of the game to devise a logical means of resolution. If what your player proposed seems dependant on their character’s intelligence, have them make a roll based on whatever intelligence-type stat the game uses. If there is no applicable mechanism within the game, have them roll any die, giving them a number to roll better than that would provide a fifty/fifty chance for success. Adjust their odds a little one way or the other by giving them a slight bonus or penalty on the roll, trying as best as you can to reflect the believable odds of what they proposed having success.
When do you think a GM should say “yes” or “no”?