Article Header Image
Saying Yes is a Skill
Save My Game
by Stephen Radney-MacFarland

Back in my days as content manager for the RPGA, I used to get a lot of emails. A lot may be an understatement. It was not unusual for 50 to 100 pieces of electronic correspondence to pour into my overworked inbox in a day, and that's not counting the ones from folks hawking those little blue pills or pleads from Nigerian businessmen desperately needing to unload their cash. These were honest to gosh emails from gamers. Gamers with question. Gamers with problems. A good chunk of those emails came in two main forms: DMs complaining that players were doing or wanted to do something "broken" in one Dungeons & Dragons game or the other; and players asking permission to do "cool" things with their characters, or to tell their DM the cool thing they were doing was not broken.

As you can probably guess, I often received emails from two people on opposite sides of the screen in the same playgroup. Both were cries for help, and the solutions often proved to be deceptively tricky.

While D&D is not a competitive game, it can sometimes seem to have competing goals. When you're the DM, it's imperative that you challenge and sometimes even thwart the PCs. When you're the player, it's your job to soundly thump those challenges wily DMs put between you and the glory and gold your character so richly deserves. While this stress creates the fun and tension of a good roleplaying session, it's easy to lose track of the big picture. The game is really about building heroic experiences among friends. On one end you need heroes that stand out of the throng and who are capable of being larger than life and achieving great feats of daring. On the other end, it's the DM's job to make that task possible, but fantastically difficult. When a player can't do his job, or do it as well as he would like, he starts scouring the rules or looking for ways to make his character cooler. Meanwhile, the DM is left lamenting "broken" rules and having a hard time making the game as challenging as it should be.

A good dose of this is quite normal. You'll have times in your game where a player become excited to the point of anxious to get that next level, start the planned paragon path, or to find that magic items the legends say that is hidden somewhere in the Citadel of Kas. And there are times that even the best DM's plans to challenge are thwarted by a player toy that was forgotten or underestimated. But when a player's frustration mounts because his character can't do cool things, or your DM becomes frustrated every session that her monsters and traps "don't work," these are problems. Something is broken. And in times like these, it is often the first response to limit choice, take away toys, and clamp down on variables. But there is another way. Learn to say, "Yes!"

Let "Yes" be Your Mantra

I don't want to sound too much like some New Age self-help guru, but I think that most games run into problems when the sense of wonder and surprise is leeched from the game. And usually the leech occurs when DMs try to limit rather than expand their toolbox. How can you stop this from happening? You really have to just tap into some childlike wonder.

When I first discovered D&D, I can remember daydreaming for most of an afternoon with copies of the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio on my lap, and just being surprised and delighted with the strange variety of creatures that were there. Yes, some were downright strange and others were ideas that I thought were dumb . . . but I took it as a challenge to place them in my game and have them make sense. I never dismissed something out of hand, because frankly those books were some of my best tools. Sure, I might gravitate toward some favorites that I used again and again, but I had entire books of ideas to mix things up.

Consider this case in point. The cifal, also known as the Colonial Insect-Formed Artificial Life (I'm not joking), was a critter from the original Fiend Folio that featured a back story and a name I thought was absolutely stupid. And I was not alone; in 2000 the cifal was voted the stupidest Fiend Folio monster by the readers of Polyhedron magazine. Still, this critter showed up a number of times in my game as a swarm-of-flies devil that served Baalzebul. What did I change about the monster? Not much, just the name and alignment. It was that easy. My players were scared to death of the poor, stupid cifal, which they knew as bzazels (heck, not even a vast of an improvement on the name front, come to think of it).

The same is true if you look at monsters the other way around. Maybe you have a monster that thematically works for you, but on the first encounter your PCs trash it with ease. Now consider this problem: You have a whole adventure to go and your plans included these guys popping up more often than not. The solution? Do a quick assessment on where the monster's deficit lies, and fix it on the fly. You can make some kind of subtle but noticeable difference to the next encountering of the monsters (a simple "these guys seem faster," "they shimmer with eldritch energy," or "they are wearing better armor" will do), and let the PCs have it. While players feel a sense of accomplishment for beating down a group of baddies fast, that accomplishment wanes quickly with repletion. Players want to be challenged. Oblige them by any means necessary. Give monsters more hit points, better defenses (usually a level raise does the trick), or maybe an interesting power that shoves them in the right direction.

Keep this sense of wonder and flexibility in mind when deciding what you'll allow as PC choices as well. I know there's been a some virtual rumblings about dragonborn and some of the newer D&D races from folks who (like myself) were weaned on Tolkien. But you have to realize that fantasy is a language, and that languages expand and change -- especially when the language is discovered and loved by younger users. When I was a kid, all I wanted to write, draw, and paint was the fantasy of Moorcock, Leiber, Howard, and Tolkien . . . and of course D&D. The adults around me told me I was wasting my time. Often, cruelly and with much certainty, they said the flights of fantasy I loved were dumb, or pedestrian, or childish. They were wrong.

Now the tables are turned, and I'm the adult. It wasn't so long ago that I sat in a meeting at my other gig -- as an instructor at a local art school -- and I sat around and listened to other instructors complain about how the kids liked drawing all this over-the-top anime fantasy. They called it childish, pedestrian, and a waste of time. Guess what: They're wrong, too. What those kids are drawing is the future of fantasy and it's coming fast. If I were you, I'd do my best to understand it and embrace it, and go out of your way to find a fit for it in your game world. Join the conversation instead of denying it! One of the greatest strengths of D&D and roleplaying games as a medium is the shared aspect of it. Sharing is compromise. Sharing is being flexible. Sharing is saying yes. Sharing is fun!

Keeping your mind open to new wonders isn't all about picking monsters and allowing players to have options, though. The philosophy of saying yes is at its most powerful during actual play. In a world where wizards can cast fireball and stop time, and rogues can scale sheer cliffs and steal a gem the size of a dragonborn's egg right under the steely gaze of undead guardians, there is very little a DM should say "no" to. Sure, the blatantly impossible might be out (most the time), and you DMs are going to have to use your best judgment when it comes to the improbable, but everything else should be in the realm of, "sure, and here's what you have to do." One of your best tools for this is the skill system in D&D.

Skills, Challenges, and Yes

If you haven't noticed yet, the skill system in 4th Edition is broad and flexible. That's on purpose. It really isn't there to strictly limit what characters and critters can do, but to give us guidelines for use under a very simple and reliable game mechanic -- the skill check.

Here's just a simple, small example of what I mean. In my game, one of the first things the PCs typically do is try to find out what they can about new enemies with the use of Knowledge checks. They do this to metagame a little (which I admit I encourage . . . I like to reward play skill as well as role skill) plus they know if they roll high enough, I give bonus information. In one game, a size Large lizardlike creature approached, and characters trained in knowledge Nature blew their check to identify it. The player playing the rogue asked he could use Streetwise to recognize it. I said yes, made a significant increase to the DC of the check, and let the rogue roll. One high roll later, here's what I told him: "You recognize the strange lizard from the painted sign of a tavern you often frequent. It's a basilisk. The next time you're in town, you should commend the artist on the sign's realistic depiction of the beast." The player's response: "Cool."

Now technically, by a strict reading of the skill system, this wouldn't be allowed, but what's the harm in saying yes? You want to create a more complicated matrix where a succession of checks leads toward a more complicated goal? That's exactly what skill challenges are there to help you design. When you do this, there is a natural worry that you are not being as "correct" as you could be. Let that worry melt away and remember what you are designing for. Most of you are not writing a published adventure for Dungeon Magazine. You're not writing a supplement. Abstract game concepts like balance and percentile precision play second fiddle to creating a memorable and fun game experience at the table. That's what those abstract concepts are for anyway. They attempt to create a system that is fun, rather than an "infinite" number of play instances. In your games, you have a level of intimate knowledge that gamers and developers wish they could have over that theoretical infinite number of play instances. Don't be afraid to prioritize that very special knowledge above the letter of the rules.

In short, let your players occasionally "outsmart" the skill system when the inspiration (or desperation) arises. Give them a chance for success and failure, put those DCs where you think they belong, and even if the end result is failure, your players will feel like he can try anything that seems reasonable (or even possible) in the game rather than relying on the game to tell him what is reasonable (or possible). It is that level of flexibility that makes a roleplaying game shine over games subject to the binary tyranny of computer programs. Be nimble, be ready, be fun. Sure, sometimes goofy things will occur, and over time you will learn how best to say yes in your game. But take that chance; only fun can ensue. If may feel uncomfortable at first, but with any skill practice makes perfect.

The Mail Bag

It's that time again . . . Let's see what's in the mailbag.

Better Late than Never?
I love playing D&D, and look forward to every Saturday, when my group gets together. My problem is that we are supposed to start at 3:00, but we usually don't start until at least 5:00, and usually not until 6:00. My players are just always late . . . well, at least one of them is, but even when he is not late someone else is. What can I do to get my players around the table on time?

Wade-ing Around Wade

In these situations, the first solution is always to talk to your players. More often than not, things like this really bother folks, and more than one in a group, but no one brings it out in the open because they are afraid of creating a fuss. That's a mistake. Be calm. Be reasonable. Show some understanding, but explain to everyone (not just the person who tends to be late), that you would like to get as much game time as possible so you want to start the game on time. Be open to changing the schedule. Maybe starting at 3:00 is too early, or it's flush up against some other activity contributing to that player's tardiness. Pushing the game start time to 5:00 may just be the realistic solution you're looking for.

Once you've had that talk, here's another, more proactive trick to get people around the game table on time. Keep playable copies of each character's sheet and have each player designate a second, and maybe a third. Start the game on time, and if a player doesn't show or is running a little late, have the second run the character until the player does. This accomplishes a few things. First it makes sure that if a player is missing, his or her character doesn't just drop off the face of your game world. Better still, it ensures that you aren't saddled making decisions for the character (you have enough going on). Lastly, few players are comfortable with the idea of someone else playing their character, even their best friend. Sure they might say they don't mind it, but they are more likely to show up on time when the consequence for not showing up is their character's decisions are being made by someone else.

Opposites Attract
After reading your article, "Marking Marked and Other 4e-isms", I got some of those Alea Tools magnet markers, but they are driving me crazy. The magnets in the tokens are so strong that adjacent combatants keep on attracting and repelling at inopportune times. I like the way they mark things, but man this is annoying. I wish you would have pointed this out in the article.

Paraphrased Pete

So I call this reader Paraphrased Pete, but this is a question (or rather a complaint) I received on our message boards about the article in question. I've paraphrased it to fit the tone and size of the article.

Yeah, I've encountered this too, but while it has created the occasional comical effect, it really doesn't bother me the way it's bugged you. Still, I see your point, and I should have pointed out this issue in the original article. There are solutions though. One particularly message board participant pointed out that you can place a steel sheet under your play surface, to give a focus to the magnet's pull. You can find them at your local hardware store, but bring some magnets with you. I hear that sometimes aluminum sheets get mixed in with the steel, and the former metal will not have the same effect. Feel a little daunted by the prospect of lugging around steel sheets to the game story or the local convention? Well, you're in luck. A company called Dark-Platypus Studios makes a portable and flexible magnetic receptive 1-inch gridded play map. I don't have one myself, but I have heard some really good things about them.

Clog our Mailbox!

Your game needs saving, or you have some game saving advice of your own? Drop us a line with the words "Save My Game" as your subject line. Maybe next month we'll talk about your problem or feature some bit of advice that comes from the mailbag.

You can also join the game saving conversation on our message boards, but piping in on the discussion of DM tips and tricks. Stephen makes it a point to visit and chat with those who agree and disagree with him.

About the Author

Born on a stormy Christmas day, in our nation’s capital, during the Nixon administration, the stars were definitely wrong when Stephen Radney-MacFarland came screaming into the world. Spending most of his impressionable years as a vagabond and ne’re-do-well, Stephen eventually settled in the Northwest to waste his life on roleplaying games.

Once that RPGA guy, Stephen is now a developer in RPG R&D where he doesn’t create the traps… he just makes them deadlier. He also teaches a class on roleplaying design for the Art Institute of Seattle, molding the minds of young and upcoming designers. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Follow Us
Find a place to get together with friends or gear up for adventure at a store near you
Please enter a city or zip code