I like yes-and-no-buts and I cannot lie

Okay, so this post starts by talking about improv theatre, then moves into roleplaying, then into writing, then maybe back and forth between gaming and writing for a bit?

I dunno, I’m writing this bit at the start. Which is probably a bad move.

Anyhoo, moving on.

One of the truisms of improv theatre – which I used to do a lot of back in my 20s, a revelation that should shock exactly no-one – is that you never block an offer. An ‘offer’, in this case, is an idea from your co-improviser, or the audience, or whoever, and ‘blocking’ is the act of shutting that idea down.

The obvious block is saying ‘no’ and negating someone’s offer:

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘What are you talking about? I’m not Sherlock Holmes and I’ve never touched drugs.’

More subtly, you can block an offer by saying ‘yes’ to it, but not actually building on that offer – you accept the suggestion but don’t take it anywhere.

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘I don’t know, Watson. My reasoning skills have shut down due to all this coke.’
I didn’t watch this and I do not regret that decision.

So the rule that improv students internalise is ‘yes and’ – you accept the offer and you extend or build on it.

  • ‘Good lord, Holmes, how will you solve this mystery while you’re all fucked up on cocaine?’
  • ‘You fool, Watson! This cocaine energises my reasoning faculties, leading me to the inescapable conclusion that you murdered all these fish cultists!’

Once you get enough experience, you realise that ‘yes and’ has its own problems, and there are other ways to manage offers, but it works at the start. And it’s such a simple, powerful principle that it’s managed to escape the gravity well of improv and get taken up in other creative quarters, such as gaming and writing.

But I’m not convinced that that’s always for the best.

Okay, moving on to gaming, specifically roleplaying.

99% of RPGs involve some kind of success/failure mechanic – either at the granular task level or the larger scene level. D&D kept it simple at first – everything was pass/fail, succeed or don’t. Over time, critical successes and failures crept into the lexicon – you could get a very good success with extra benefits, or a very bad failure with extra you-drop-your-sword-and-your-pants-at-the-same-time.

Over the course of, jesus shit, 45 years(!) (!!!), RPGs (as a whole) have expanded to allowing six different levels of payoff or detail in success/failure outcomes. We can define these using the language of improv, which has definitely influenced RPG discourse:

  • Yes-and: You succeed and you get something more in addition
  • Yes: You succeed and you get what you want
  • Yes-but: You succeed but something goes wrong, or you get somewhat less than what you want
  • No-but: You fail but something else goes right, or you get something to mitigate the failure
  • No: You fail and don’t get what you want
  • No-and: You fail and something else goes wrong; it’s even worse than not getting what you want

(I’m far from the first to block things out this way; the Freeform Universal RPG (FURPG), which I have never read nor played, also does this. Apparently.)

Sure, Google Image Search, this will do.

Over the last few years I’ve been running a lot of games that lean into the more complex outcomes, such as the various Powered by the Apocalypse games, and spinoffs like the excellent Blades in the Dark. These games generally revolve around four outcomes:

  • Yes-and
  • Yes
  • Yes-but
  • No-and

These aren’t equal weightings; yes-and is vanishingly rare (if it’s an option at all), while no-and comes up all the damn time. More importantly, a straight no is off the table. You can’t just fail and hit a wall; failures always add complications to the story. (As do some successes.)

As a GM, this is fuckin’ awesome. I want complications, I want messiness – goddamnit, I WANT DRAMA. And I love that these systems not just give me opportunities for that drama, but that most of these games give me guidance about what kind of drama and complications will suit the story we’re putting together.

But – you knew there’d be a but – I’ve come to realise that this kind of dynamic doesn’t always work for players. There are players that find this frustrating or stressful, because nothing is ever straightforward or low-stakes. Obstacles never just sit still, or allow characters breathing room to try again or think of new approaches. When everything is shifting and dynamic, aiming for maximum drama, some players feel stressed and pressured, missing the chance to brush off low-stakes failures and move on.

And to be 100% clear, there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. Games are meant to be fun; if a players isn’t having fun, that’s not their fault, but the fault of the game/game-master for not meeting players’ needs.

Thinking about this kind of GM-player divide has made me think about what players get out of games, and what readers get out of stories. Sometimes we don’t want drama; sometimes we want harmony, or simplicity, or just relief from this dumpster fire of a world.

We need to remember that sometimes we want stories to help us feel happy.

Which brings us, FINALLY, to the writing part of the post.

Here’s the thing about writers – we love to fuck over our characters.

WE LOVE TO SHOVE OUR CHARACTERS FACE-FIRST INTO THE DRAMA TOILET AND FLUSH FLUSH YEAH TASTE THAT DRAMA AND PEE-WATER FLUSH

…ahem.

But is that what our readers always want? Is that always what’s best for the story? Does everything have to be yes-and/no-but all the time? Or is there room to pull the stakes back – to make some challenges less dramatic and more enjoyable or even cathartic for the reader? To live in the land of yes/yes-and and have no truck with no-but?

And if we do that, how do we show it?

In fiction, yes and no outcomes tend to be kind of invisible. If your daring thief/spy easily sneaks past the guards, the story usually skips past that scene in one line to get to the dramatic bit. If they fail to slip past but don’t get caught, the next scene is usually them acknowledging that, trying something different and focusing on that instead. Simple outcomes don’t translate well into prose; all of our tools are about portraying the tension and drama of complex outcomes. ‘Thank U, next’ works for songs, not so much for stories.

But I think we need to consider this, especially in a ‘tumultuous’ (i.e. THE WORLD IS ON FIRE) time when so many readers look to fiction for support and comfort as much as they do challenge and drama. We need to think about easy victories and minor defeats – what they can add to our stories, and how we portray them in ways that develop and cement our characters.

Because without these small victories, these cankers and medallions (yes that’s a reference sorry), some of the readers that we want to engage are going to bounce off out stories.

And fool that I am, I want to engage everyone.
I want us all to get the yes (and occasional yes-and) outcomes that we crave.

WRITING UPDATE: I’m about halfway through The Obituarist 3: Delete Your Account and there is precious little yes/yes-and in this story. I’m okay with this; after Kendall got his [REDACTED] bitten [NOPE] by a [SPOILERS] in the second book, I figure what few readers remain are reconciled to him having nothing but bad days from now on.

I too am having bad days, though – specifically, days where our lease doesn’t get renewed and we have to look for a new house YET AGAIN. This will likely slow down my writing schedule, ‘cos house hunting is a full-time occupation rivalled only by the actual packing and moving process.

But I’m keeping at it.
Will let you know how it goes.

One thought on “I like yes-and-no-buts and I cannot lie

  1. I’ve told you my concept of “the warm place”: the quiet, happy scenes in a story where the characters just gets to hang out and enjoy being in the story’s world. It’s the scene where the battlesore adventurers get to lay down and rest in the beautiful Ancient Elf Forest, or the spacefarers watch twin suns rise over an alien planet, or two friends have a cup of coffee and trade dumb jokes.

    In books and movies, these scenes act as a contrast to the danger. And they help build the audience’s emotional engagement with the story: if we enjoyed reading the banter between James and Paithoon, we’re going to care whether or not those two kids can make their relationship work.

    Interestingly, I’ve notice a few roleplaying games now have rules designed to encourage “warm place” style scenes. In Tales from the Loop, for example, the weird-science-mystery-solving tweens recover from their wounds and emotional troubles by spending a scene in their secret hideout.

    My players took to this rule like a duck to water. They decided to make the abandoned school caretaker’s shed their hideout. And so they’d limp back there after getting battered around by evil robots and family dramas, make a cup of tea, and plan out what to do next while they healed.

    It made the game, and the story, richer.

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