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Improve your D&D campaign with this improv technique

If you have even just the most basic understanding of improv comedy (which, full disclosure, I have only the most basic understanding of improv comedy) you've probably come across the idea of yes, and. Yes, and means that when another performer comes to you with an idea, that you accept it (Yes) before building on it (And).

For example, a performer might begin a scene by approaching you and saying 'so, Alex, are you all ready for your driving test?'. Not the most exciting example perhaps (so sue me) but let's look at it. This example is an offer of the world and scenario within which the scene will play out. A 'No' response to this offer would be to simply shut it down and say 'no. I'm not going'. Obviously not a great scene, which doesn't give the other actor much to work with. A 'Yes' response might consist of 'of yeah, I can't wait'. This perhaps offers slightly more to work with, but not much if we're honest. But a 'Yes, and' response though might be 'Well, yes David, I am - but I can't seem to find my glasses!'. This accepts the premise of the scene, but also builds upon it - giving the other actor something to work with. Perhaps they'll try to convince you that your eyesight isn't that bad, and you should take the test anyway, or offer you their own glasses, even if they're the wrong prescription. Whatever. You get the idea. And from there the scene can continue - with each actor riffing on and building the suggestions of the other.

Why is this idea important for DnD though? Well, what is DnD if not a game of improv? Sure, there are elements that you as a DM will have prepared in advance - but, to paraphrase Mike Tyson, 'everyone has a plan til their players punch them in the face'. Or, you know, something like that. Improv skills then are an essential tool for any good DM then, and yes, and is a great place to start.

How might this work in practice? Effectively it means that if your players make reasonable requests or suggestions about what might be present in a scene, that you default to yes. The brilliant thing is that it rewards your players creativity and takes the story in new and interesting directions.

My partner once asked if her character had any chocoloate in her backpack 'yeah, of course!' - which led to her chatting to a goblin, introducing him to chocolate and persuading him to give up violence and begin a new life as a baker. He was thrilled with the idea, quit his role with the murderous band of goblins and became an apprentice baker in a nearby town - and in the process becoming a charming recurring NPC who would occasionally send her new magical cookies to try. Fun, right? I mean, sure, I could have said no - and she could have just stabbed him to get through to the next part of the dungeon. But by rewarding her ideas and defaulting to yes, I gave her the opportunity to make the world that little bit richer, and for new potential story avenues to become available. Not only is this fun for your players, but it's fun for you too! It lets you embellish your world on the fly, in collaboration with your players. For a creative storytelling game, this literally is what it's all about.

A few drawbacks

The benefits of yes, and are pretty clear then - it rewards players, makes the world more interesting for you, and in short, just makes stuff happen within the world you're creating. There can be problems with this approach as well, though. Namely, if your players realise that you say yes all the time, they may start to take the piss.

'DM, is there a chest of gold in this room? What about any magic items? Spell scrolls?'. If you start saying yes to all these things, then pretty soon your players will become overwhelmed with items - which will make them lose their appeal if suddenly they're commonplace in your world. You also run the risk of the world seeming less perilous if they feel that they can get away with any hair-brained scheme to get out of whatever new mess they've got themselves into. If they find themselves locked in a jail cell and ask you 'did the jailor just happen to drop the keys beside the bars?' how much less interesting is it to say yes and let them walk out, than to let them come up with a more interesting, elaborate escape plan? Sometimes saying yes can be a disservice to the story you're all telling together.

How can we resolve this apparent paradox, then? Personally, rather than thinking in terms of yes, and, I sometimes find it useful to think in terms of yes, but. Yes, but still incentivises players to make suggestions, and encourages you as DM to grant them - but instead of just granting them blindly, you also give unintended consequences that your players are going to have to consider and weigh up whether it's worth taking the risk.

If your player asks 'is there maybe a ladder propped up against the wall so I can climb over?' rather than simply saying yes, perhaps instead you say that there is an old and rotten ladder there and you're not sure if it will take anyone's weight - then if the player decides to use it, you can roll to see if it collapses under their weight and they have to take some falling damage. Or if someone asks if there's a ship in the harbour that they can steal, rather than just saying oh absolutely, you can say yes - but perhaps there's somebody stowed away on board who will only come to light when they're out on the open sea. You get the idea.

Giving consequences (and often potentially negative consequences) when your players ask you for things will still incentivise them to do so - but it also shows that they can't always get everything they want, and that there are going be be unintended consequences sometimes when they ask for things. Again, this is a massive part of what makes the game fun - when it's unpredictable for both the players and DM alike.

All this said, though, keep in mind that sometimes the answer does have to be no. This isn't a failure of your improv skills, or evidence that you enjoy shitting on your players' creativity. No. Instead, sometimes what they ask is just going to be outside of the logical constraints of the world you're in.

Now, you are in many ways the arbitrator of what is or isn't logical in the world you create. You set the tone, and from that your players will get an idea of what is or isn't beyond the realms of possibility within the adventure. And this will change from campaign to campaign - if I was running a gritty, tense, horror-themed adventure, then there would probably be fewer goblin bakers. But if a player asks for something that you don't believe is within the realms of possibility (or is too over-powered, or will completely destroy an encounter or plot twist you've got coming up) then don't be afraid to say no.

Maybe offer an alternative, maybe not - you'll have to make a judgement on a case by case basis. If you can keep the world somewhat consistent though, overall I believe that that will lead to a much more interesting and rewarding adventure than one where anything goes all of the time.

How to navigate between these two positions then, of trying to say yes and knowing when to say no? Well, as I said, you'll have to make a judgement on this in each situation - but as a rule of thumb, I try to say yes way more than I say no - perhaps 90% of the time. Try saying yes more in your own campaigns, and see where it takes you. Probably not where you planned, but hopefully somewhere fun!


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