A game master can say no when running a tabletop rpg. It doesn’t always have to be ‘yes and’ or ‘no but’. For the sanctity of the game!


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Random Encounter

Forrest A. on Horror, Suspense and Tension

Great episode, gents. Twilight Zone is still my favorite TV show of all time. I leverage some of those same moves every time I run or write a horror scenario. They’re hardwired into my brain at this point. Incidentally, I love love love what Sean had to say about “cadence”. Sometimes, lowering your voice and slowing down so that Each. Word. Counts. can convey a real sense of impending dread. When you’re really, really scared, a second can feel like an eternity. You can set this pace with your players merely through controlling your voice. Want to really freak your players out? Get up close (after everyone’s vaccinated, of course) and whisper something to them in a gentle, terrifying way. Works. Every. Time.

Blake comments on Horror, Suspense, Tension

Sean mentions tension and suspense, both are important to leading up to horror. You need to space out things so the characters are not immediately in fight/flight mode, they need time to build up fear/presumptions about the situation.

I think pacing is important in horror. The movie/session does not start with the bad guy standing in the rain at the holiday park with all the victims already dead. The movie starts with the crew going to the holiday park, then someone goes missing. Then the weather turns bad (or there’s an internet outage, or people start getting sick). More bad things happen, this time closer to the pcs so there is more evidence.

Senses! maybe the blood just won’t wash off your hands, or you feel cold even though the sun is shining, perhaps you keep seeing movement in your periphery but there’s just regular things there when you turn your head. Using other senses help flesh out what the characters are going through.

Linking the current situation to their past/personal lives can help too, when they investigate the abandoned cabin there is a photo that looks JUST like your uncle, or this place smells just like the cabin at your childhood summer camp.

As Brett mentioned humour can have a place, but it needs to be in context. The victims (cough) characters can be out in the woods, something leaps out at them-its a startled raccoon. It’s still genre-wild things out in the woods, but it’s not a real threat, it still lets you know the heroes are getting scared. then 10 minutes later the next thing out of the bushes (or even standing calmly in front of them) is a killing machine.

John H. writes in

Hey gents,
Thanks for responding to my last long (and bold?) note in your recent show. I’ll try to keep this one shorter, but wanted to follow up on a couple of things you guys said:

1. Regarding Genesys, and the idea that it’s really built for Star Wars: you’re right, in a way. Every Genesys game can work in any setting, but the ways that stories are told are very Star Wars-y: high action, dramatic changes in fortune, a little swashbuckly, cutting through clusters of mooks to get to the big bad dude, etc. You can run it with fantasy pirates on unsailed seas or cybered-up criminals in a megalopolis of the future, but the feeling of those stories will always be sort of similar to what you get in Star Wars. While I know some people would disagree strongly, I don’t think it’d work very well for Cthulhu investigators or four-color superheroes, but it covers the middle ground pretty well.

2. Definitely keep an eye on Cortex. I made some bold statements about it, but consider this: a Bay Area tech company (Fandom) has just invested several million dollars in this project, buying the rights to the system and hiring a game design crew. This is the same company that has brought us all our favorite fandom pages (like Wookieepedia) and the app that makes 5e usable (D&D Beyond). They’ve already invested in two IPs (Masters of the Universe and The Dragon Prince) and it sounds a lot like they’re in negotiations for several more. The game system that’s under the hood has been playtested, evolved, and refined ever since Sovereign Stone came out in the 90s, across a lot of different settings (Dragonlance, Smallville, the MCU, Firefly, Leverage, and more) and has already been the subject of lots and lots of fan hacking. The game-building toolkit (the only thing Fandom has published so far) is a good one, making it easy for GMs to build custom games quickly, based on 20 years of hacking and playing. But they’re also lining up a lot of other things:

– Tools for GMs to quickly build custom games online, the way players can quickly build D&D characters in their D&D Beyond app
(Imagine being able to select a few mods, type up a setting blurb, and print out a full rules booklet for your prayers based on your selections in the online game-building tool)

– A marketplace for game designers to sell those games (as Wizards does with the DM’s Guild)

– An internal process for Fandom to very quickly churn out quality, thematic games based on licensed IPs
(Easy for amateurs to build means easy for pros to build too)

I’ve given it a fair amount of thought, and this looks like an 8-figure investment that might just pay off. It has the potential to bring in lots of new players (with their licensed IPs) and to lower the bar on GMing and game hacking (with their online tools). Look out also for synergy with some of Fandom’s other products (like personalized wikis for your homebrewed settings.)

Plus the system is cool and flexible, and gives me an excuse for messing with piles of poker chips and rolling handfuls of polyhedral dice at the table, which is always a good time.

Good day and good gaming!
John H

Ray Otus chimes in on saying ‘no’

In my own experience running “old school” games there is definitely a time to say a flat “No.” It is when a player says his character takes an action that simply isn’t possible – like trying to play a piano to entertain some NPCs when the character has never played piano before. (Unless, the player suggests that the PC making a fool of himself on the piano would be entertaining.)

Peterson talks about the core definition of a role-playing game as a game in which you can “try anything.” I agree with that in the sense that a player has no limits on what they can try with their character, other than the constraint of what makes sense in the fiction itself. A thief in old school D&D has a good chance to “climb sheer surfaces,” even at level 1. When presented with a wall of glass, would you let the thief try to climb it? I would say “No” unless the thief had suction cups attached to his hands.

Blake tells us when he says ‘no’

For me it’s about genre, for some Fantasy includes steampunk automatons and vehicles, for others it does not. So i’ve had to say No to steampunk or firearms requests and suggestions when i’ve been running a dark ages/bronze age conan sword-n-sorcery style game.

In any games you want to keep the conversation going, so you say No that’s not right for this system/setting, but you can do X or Y instead? give them some parameters – not everyone is as familiar with the genre or subgenre as you may be.

Wayne comments on saying ‘no’

If a player is using “character motivation” for being a dick at the table, absolutely. This isn’t common, but saying “no” is a skill good GMs develop in order to redirect, or if necessary stop a course of action or inaction that will result in a bad time, hurt feelings, etc.

In one case I had to say “no” to a character. I had a player make up a PC that had no motivation to adventure, and thwarted the game for a week. I had to go to the player and give his PC the hard “nope.” (I learned a great lesson. Now I simply ask the players to come up with that motivation as a hard requirement to play.)

I’ve had to give a hard “nope” at a con game when a player began a line of inquiry with a NPC that was obviously going to lead towards another player’s “line” (as in lines and veils”). I shut it down and did not explain at the table – again could not figure out how to do so w/o hitting that line.

I’ve also had to effectively say “no” when engaged in historical/cultural RPGs – only to reinforce the themes and mores of a game. For example, running Bushido back in the 80’s or L5R in the 90’s with folks who were not yet keyed into the cultural norms of those societies. In some of those cases it was not a hard “no” but rather… “Your character can absolutely do that, but I’m sure your character knows that by disobeying your superior in court they will shame them publicly. Blood is likely to flow in seconds. Is that the intention of your PC?”

Die Roll

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About the Author
The 'S' of Gaming and BS podcast. Besides producing and hosting the show, Sean enjoys long walks on the beach, running rpg's, and killing player...characters.