Raging Owlbear, Complex Games Apologist, and Runeslinger on “Just Say Yes” and RAW

Thursday , 11, May 2017 12 Comments

This is right now the most interesting discussion happening in tabletop gaming.

First off, Raging Owlbear opens up with a humdinger of a blog post. It’s about a deceptively simple situation: do you let someone in a recent edition of D&D alter the racial bonuses for their elf or not? The Owlbear comes down hard on this going so far as to say that you’re playing it wrong if you don’t do it his way.

Now… this is an interesting argument because it is applying a cross-game gamemastering rule of thumb– “say yes or roll the dice”– to something that is in an entirely different context. (That was about GM rulings for things that the players wanted to do that were sort of outside the scope of the rules.) Furthermore… if you spend a lot of time delving into vintage rpgs, playing the rules as written is about the only way to find out what those rulesets are even though almost nobody would have played them that way back in the day.

If you want to get lost in the weeds on this, you certainly can! Fortunately, The Complex Games Apologist is here to provide a measured and articulate response:

Why do gamers have such a hard time seeing eye to eye on this…? Runeslinger has an explanation:

People can definitely get confused about ‘just say yes’ and how to use ‘yes/no, but’ when running a game that requires a centralized authority to implement challenges rather than plot.

There is a different perspective on this and when you take away the exasperated tone of the original article, I imagine it would make more sense to people.

If you grew up rolling stats and qualifying for classes, then the suggestion of allowing a bonus swap, or running a game in a way where tailor-making a character and setting elements is possible can seem ridiculous or just never even occur as a thought. Making choices versus challenges is a major part of play, even in chargen.

For those who grew up selecting class first and using point-buy or roll many D6 and drop the lowest for chargen, it will seem arbitrary and ridiculous to quibble over where the bonuses get assigned. To them, it is just a skin that they are designing as their vehicle to enter the ‘story.’

Likewise, the decisions and authority needed by a GM running an ‘explore and survive’ game will be very different from one who is collaborating with their fellow players to create a world and its stories together.

It’s apples and oranges, but to many, too many, both people are talking in raspberries~

Needless to say, if changing the attribute bonuses of an elf character is really that big of a deal, then changing the hit dice for the thief class is right out.

There’s really only one answer to people that would suggest such a thing: #NotAtMyTable.

12 Comments
  • Brian Renninger says:

    My answer is yes but, only if the player wants to DM the game and the chargen system chosen is determined before any characters are created. Then you can set the ground rules ahead of time. To me it’s about social contract. When playing a game the social contract is to play by the rules. Asking to change the rules violates that contract and it’s a player who is probing to see how far the DM will go. It’s passive aggressive crap and results in every ruling potentially being up to negotiation. A DM has enough to do.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Agreed. This sort of thing is a red flag to the DM; in my experience, any player that does something like this is going to be trouble sooner or later.

      Not to mention that suggesting that every ruling is open to negotiation is a guarantee of disaster.

  • Aaron B. says:

    I’ve come around to the idea that, at least with the old D&D, the more slavishly you stick to the rules, the better. Looking back, I think the problems we had came from having certain expectations of how the game should work and trying to fudge the rules to accomplish that, which probably imbalanced things in ways we couldn’t foresee.

    It’s like Monopoly: I could rarely get other family members to play Monopoly when I was a kid, because everyone used house rules like putting money on Free Parking, which caused games to be all-night marathons until everyone was sick of it. I didn’t learn until I was older that if you play it exactly by the book, it’s actually a fairly tight game that usually wraps up in less than two hours. Changing the money in/out balance makes it a completely different game.

  • Bryce Byerley says:

    Actually, the proper answer is #NotAtYourTableEither but I am old and curmudgeon-y.

  • Ingot9455 says:

    An old friend of mine had a pat answer to all such things, “Sure, but just realize that I’ll be changing the enemies you face appropriately.” If you wanted to play a super-heroic character with 18s in all stats, it’s just a piece of paper! Write it down, enjoy your bonuses!

    The enemies you face will be appropriate for someone with all those bonuses, and he was a sufficiently good gamemaster that it would be seamless. (And probably over-the-top good.)

  • Douglas Cole says:

    I’d probably say “yeah, sure, whatever” to most bonus swaps, but only because in 5e when push comes to shove that is moving a 5% success change around. I have other things to worry about.

    The reverse argument applies, of course. Looking at a requester and saying “dude(tte), you’re quibbling over 5%, just play your character” is the shoe on the other foot, because I have other things to worry about.

  • A note:

    “Say Yes or Roll the Dice” came specifically from a game called Dogs in the Vineyard. The game is set up to drive toward conflict, often escalating to violence. And the question is “Will the Character keep escatalling to violence.”

    It’s important to keep this in mind when reading the rules found in the game:

    Per the rules:

    “Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes. If nothing’s at stake, say yes to the players, whatever they’re doing. Just plain go along with them. If they ask for information, give it to them. If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there. If they want it, it’s theirs. Sooner or later— sooner, because your town’s pregnant with crisis— they’ll have their characters do something that someone else won’t like. Bang! Something’s at stake. Launch the conflict and roll the dice. Roll dice or say yes. Roll dice or say yes. Roll dice or say yes.”

    It’s important to note that this is horrible for other games. But in the context of Dogs in the Vineyard it works really well.

    When that game came out that notion took hold and metastasized — as ideas do. People applied it to other games. People applied it as a general principle.

    Here is how Luke Crane used it in the rules for Burning Wheel:

    “Vincent’s advice is perfect for Burning Wheel. Unless there is something at stake in the story you have created, don’t bother with the dice. Keep moving, keep describing, keep roleplaying. But as soon as a character wants something that he doesn’t have, needs to
    know something he doesn’t know, covets something that someone else has, roll the dice.

    “Flip that around and it reveals a fundamental rule in
    Burning Wheel game play: When there is conflict, roll the dice. There is no social agreement for the resolution of conflict in this game. Roll the dice and let the obstacle system guide the outcome. Success or failure doesn’t really matter. So long as the intent of the task is clearly stated, the story is going somewhere.”

    Keep in mind that Burning Wheel’s rules are very specific as well. So as a general principle “Say Yes, or Roll the Dice” works very well.

    So, to be clear… in Burning Wheel (for example) the Referee says, “No, you can’t just do that” all the time. And that either means “No… you can’t do that at all,” or “Well, we won’t just say yes to that. Roll the dice and find out what happens.”

    Chris Chinn over at Deeper in the Game translates the healthy application of the principle like this:

    “If you want to export it, then there’s basically two ideas you’d be using:

    • Characters succeed at things within their ability unless something is at stake that matters for the focus of your game.

    • Drive play towards those conflicts about the things that are the focus of your game.

    “If your game is tightly designed, this is pretty easy because the mechanics and the advice in the game are already pushing you this way.

    “If your game is designed without a tight focus, or, worse, just badly designed, then you have to do a lot of work to figure out what the focus of the game you are going to run is going to be, and you’ll end up ignoring a lot of the skills/powers/mechanics, etc. that aren’t going to be used. You’ll need to tell the players about this so they don’t waste time creating characters with abilities that won’t get used, or spending time learning rules that won’t matter.”

    What Chis is touching on there is that applying this principle to certain games is going to create a mess. And certainly people yanking it out of thin air and applying it mindless has produced messes.

    To be honest I’m not sure how “Say Yes, or Roll the Dice” has anything to do with this conversation. But I wanted to offer some context for the phrase.

    • Jeffro says:

      That may be where it originated but when I use the phrase I am referring to the more general game mastering advice that is derived from it.

      “Say yes or roll the dice” means (for me) that by all means you should keep the game moving. There is a whole world of things you don’t even need to roll for– something contemporary gamers tend to not grasp. If it’s iffy, make a ruling and roll for it. Again, contemporary gamers reflexively reach for the rulebook just a bit too much.

      What does that have to do with the conversation?

      Well… if you are going to attempt to play “Rules As Written” in a game where you almost have to do that sort of thing…? That sounds like a contradiction. I don’t think it is, personally.

      “Is there some kind of pipe wrench or something like that in this basement?”

      [Nothing in the rules or adventure module says so one way or the other.]

      GM: Yes

      “My fighter takes off his armor and quietly creeps up to the orc camp.”

      [There is no skill or rule for this.]

      GM: Uh… roll d20 less than your dex and it worked.

      “I rolled a 4 for intelligence. Can I swap stats around so I can play an elf?”

      [GM winces as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.]

      GM: No, we play 3d6-in-order like Moldvay intended.

      • Also, I want to echo Runeslingers final paragraphs. He makes the point that whether switching out details on a starting PC matters greatly to the PURPOSE of the game and the game style at hand. Without considering this the whole argument becomes a non-issue.

        So, for me, will I as Referee say yes or no to the Player for his request to switch some stuff around on the PC sheet? It absolutely depends on the game and kind of play we are going for…

        “For those who grew up selecting class first and using point-buy or roll many D6 and drop the lowest for chargen, it will seem arbitrary and ridiculous to quibble over where the bonuses get assigned. To them, it is just a skin that they are designing as their vehicle to enter the ‘story.’

        “Likewise, the decisions and authority needed by a GM running an ‘explore and survive’ game will be very different from one who is collaborating with their fellow players to create a world and its stories together.

        “It’s apples and oranges, but to many, too many, both people are talking in raspberries~”

    • Jon Mollison says:

      Great background, but applying “Yes or roll the dice,” in this case is engaging in sleight of hand. As you describe it, “Yes or roll the dice,” applied to character actions or the in-game environment. It was never meant to apply to wholesale rule changes such as the one that was the impetus for this conversation.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “Can I roll an elf with…”

    “NO ELFS!”

  • Alex says:

    Not fudging die-rolls in our current game has led to some hilarious in-game conceits. For whatever reason, wolf-cultists have rolled consistently bad on their checks to petition the wolf-god, and have consistently rolled the “supplicant vomits a wolf” result, and the wolves have consistently rolled “frightened” and run away into the shadows of the city whenever it’s happened. So, aside from instigating one big demon invasion that washed the city in blood and is still reeling from, the wolf-cultists have become something of a running joke. At this point, we take them, give them blankets and hot soup, tell them everything will be all right and we won’t have to knock any more of their teeth out if they’ll just tell us who they’re working for.

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