Friday, April 29, 2011

Y is for Yes, Say It and Feel Fine

I was having trouble thinking of what to discuss for my 'Y' entry when I saw this post over at ChicagoWiz...

Actually I noticed James Mal linking it from his blog so I thought it must be worthwhile. It was. Now I resisted my gut reaction upon reading it and went over the entire post very carefully. Indeed Michael Shorten makes some great points and definitely knows what works for him and I am all the way behind that.

Unfortunately my gut reaction is still down there bubbling and gurgling to be heard, so I'm going to give it its say. Please be aware that this is not about a feeling that ChicagoWiz is badwrong or similar stupidity. Just as his post is not about why town adventures suck, this one is not about why they're so great. This is about a feeling I get and have gotten since the earliest days of the hobby when all but a few GMs (including myself) are running the show...

To me, old school is all about saying no.

Now before you set upon me with Power Word Kill, hear me out.

Part of the beauty of the Old School Renaissance is how many of its most stalwart supporters tout the coolness of the days before everything was 'official', when houserules ruled and when you really got the chance to be creative with your world and even the system. That's awesome. Seriously. That is the coolest of the cool. I don't remember it being like that.

I remember a lot of no. Monsters can't be player characters. Level limits. Wizards can't wear armor. Can't, Don't, Shouldn't, Won't. Can I be a rich merchant prince at level 1? No. Can I start the game with a magic familiar? No. Can I have inherited an enchanted sword from my grandfather? No.*

Geez. If I wanted to know what I can't do I'd be paying attention to my teacher instead of waiting for the school bell to ring so I can go play a game about imagination.

Even the rules, constantly adjusted, rewritten and added to by the greats of our blogosphere were viewed such that they could not be changed. Rules as written. Houserules? No!

See, in my happy imagination place (my campaigns) I can say yes to things. I say yes to my players fairly often. Especially if its no skin off my back.

Not long ago, a friend started running Pathfinder. While often saying how D&D is limited and how he has grown beyond it as a gamer, he basically still plays garden variety, old school D&D regardless of the new (ish) fangled system. And that's OK. It's what he likes.

One player in this new campaign, playing a Bard, drew a picture of his character with this crazy big harp. It looked less like a musical instrument and more like a weapon in a Final Fantasy video game. It was sooo cool looking. The GM, my friend, said he couldn't have it.

He noted how unrealistic it would be to lug the thing around in a dungeon. He mentioned how expensive such an item would be to own for a first level character and of course to replace if it was damaged. The Bard player redesigned a more reasonable harp.

Why?! Who the hell gives a flying fig what the item looks like? It's not a magic item. It doesn't give you any bonuses or provide an unfair advantage or hurt the game in any way. Why not say yes?

Well, I can only think of two reasons:

1) If that is not how you want things to look in YOUR game, you shouldn't allow it. After all it's YOUR game. There are no players involved in the creation and maintenance of YOUR game. It's all about YOU, the GM. You're the only one at the table that matters right? If everyone wants to try a town adventure and you don't like town adventures you are not obligated to give it a second thought. The players can go jump in a lake.**

2) You're just so used to saying no to players who do ask for the Moon on a silver platter that you've gotten accustomed to saying no. It's your default answer. Best to say no and than think it over later. No is comfortable. Saying no to an idea means you don't have to challenge yourself by figuring out how to deal with it in your campaign.**

I like saying yes for several reasons:

1) If I say yes you can have that awesome major magical item on day one, you can't get too upset when the monsters and adventures are really tough since you apparently have what you needed and wanted to be able to succeed.

2) Some players are so stunned by yes it's a challenge in and of itself. You didn't think I would say yes to you planning an Assassin Droid in a Star Wars game. Now you have to deal with being one. They're illegal you know. Your existence is against the law. Enjoy!

3) Saying yes challenges me. I don't particularly care for horror or wild west settings and I'm definitely not overly fond of dungeons. Therefore, when my players come to me and say, "Hey Adam, would you run this Deadlands adventure set in an abandoned mine?" My answer is, "Yes!" Why? Because I'm going to find a way to make the piece of poop shine like gold baby! Also, because if the majority of my players are interested in the idea, I feel it's part of my job as GM to at least give it a shot. **

Again I want to reiterate that this is not a stab at anyone or any particular post. ChicagoWiz's entry simply reminded me of something I've been thinking about for a long time. I'm not talking about him or any one GM in this post. I'm talking about why I game the way I do and why I don't play D&D or other old school games very much. The vast majority of them remind me of the days when the GM didn't let you do anything that they didn't like or that wasn't in the book. I found I preferred to be the GM, to find a way to like something about it and to put it in my book.

Say Yes once in a while. I won't cause space madness.***

Barking Alien

*Now I know some of you are reading this and saying, "Well I don't do that. I run an old school game and the players are free to do whatever...". Great. That is awesome. You are that effervescent you. I'm not talking about you. I'm talking about at least a dozen or more GMs I've encountered in one capacity or another over the past 33 years.

**Michael's post inspired me to talk about this idea. This isn't about him or aimed at him. In fact, I insist you go over to his blog and read his post. It's well done, honest and totally valid in all it says. And he's a cool guy. He get's the cool gaming biker dude seal of approval. My Dad drove a Harley when he was young but had to sell it. Got a Suzuki later in life. More impressed by his 1957 Ford pick-up truck which still had it's original engine. Beautiful machine.

***Barking Alien will not be held responsible for outbreaks of space madness brought on by answering yes to the question, "Do you want space madness?" or anything of a similar nature.


  1. I struggled with his post as well. There was something in the tone that I found very off-putting.

  2. I am totally down with the idea that a given person likes doing things a certain way and doesn't like other things. Of course. It's this over all feeling I get sometimes that makes it seem like running a game isn't a team effort. That it's the GM who does all the work, takes all the credit and therefore the players ideas and opinions are denied offhand.

    Again, I am not saying that was the intention of ChicagoWiz's post but reading it stirred up that feeling in me.

    Players are going to ask for some crazy, game breaking things, if you have those kinds of players. Just like I feel I'm not that typical GM, I know I don't have typical players. If you do and you know what they're asking for will wreck your game you should definitely say no. Wait...OR...

    You could ask them why they want it. Maybe an altered, less god-like version will satisfy their creativity and make both of you happy.

    Maybe you can give it to them and then remind them, "Y'know, having an item/ability like that is going to attract attention from other powerful entities. You can have the item/ability but others are going to want to waste you and take it."

    You could give it a weakness or limitation. Want to be Superman? No sweat. Beware of Red Sun, Magic, attacks on your powerless girlfriend, Mom and buddies and a half dozen types of Kryptonite.

    Lots of ways to go and more options are always better. No is the end of options.

  3. In partial defense of the guy who said no to the Uberhaarp, perhaps he wanted to avoid silliness in his campaign? There are some people who just can't play seriously, and while that's fine if you're running Toon or Paranoia, it's less so if you want something less silly.

    Example one: the player in a Changeling: the Dreaming game who insisted that his Eshu look, act, and sound like Johnny Bravo.

    Example two: the player in a Star Trek game who made all of his characters, even the Vulcans, act like Capt. Stubing from Love Boat.

    So maybe he said no because he found the concept silly but didn't want to hurt his friend's feelings?

  4. Silliness? What is silly about a cool looking item? I can totally agree with your other two examples but I don't see how they relate to the harp in the least.

    It gave no bonuses, had no special abilities or unusual powers and looked like it was designed by the guy who designed all the cool weapons and gear for Final Fantasy and other similar Japanese RPGs. Which element is silly?

  5. Beats me, I never saw the illustration. I was just imagining the musical version of the "sword larger than the person with a little tiny hilt" as you see in anime and JRPGs.

    If it didn't look like that, then I have no clue. Perhaps your friend is just a douche?

  6. Heh. Well it is interesting that, even just the idea of a large-ish item is not considered artistic license but that the player creating it is not being 'serious'. Why is that? In my view many over-the-top anime/manga and video games are quite serious. Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, Suikoden, etc. are certainly not comedies.

  7. Well, take a look at this picture. The sword is as tall as she is, and as thick as her thigh. From a strictly realistic point of view, that's ridiculous: even if monstrously strong, she simply doesn't have the leverage necessary to wield that thing in any manner which would do damage, unless it is made out exceptionally light metal (in which case its ability to do damage is suspect.)

    Now you may rightly say, "Why are you invoking realism in a game with magic and dragons and shapeshifters," and I would agree with you 100% because, let's not forget, I invented Pellatarum and my current Pathfinder PC is a gnome who rides an owlbear.

    But the thing is, a lot of people DO get hung on realism, or at least the appearance of such a thing, and anything which breaks this narrowly-defined verisimilitude is silly or strange or wrong.

    Some people strongly feel that their fantasy adventure needs to appear to be gritty and realistic, and that limits what they feel is apropos. Consider it the difference between a traditional Hollywood film and some of the weird, wacky stuff that comes out of Hong Kong or India.

    Some people just think grossly oversize things are silly (myself included) and I think that was your friend's reasoning. I personally think that the "chainmail bikini" is ridiculous, although if you said "it's magical" (god, wouldn't it HAVE to be?) then I could accept it as armor.

    So in the end, it's not that un-serious is comedic, is that it breaks that person's sense of immersion and verisimilitude. Which means that it's a matter of taste, and no amount of arguing about it will produce a right or wrong answer.