Welcome to the table! It’s good to see you again!
So, we should probably have quick discussion about what to say at the table. Obviously you will have had a successful session zero (we will go over what goes into that another time), so your players are feeling comfortable with you and with each other.
So what is the most important thing you can say at the table?
Arguments can be made for it being a comprehensive knowledge of the PHB, DMG, and MM. That’s useful, sure. Further arguments could be made for an encyclopedic knowledge of your party’s favorite pop culture phenomenon, and as someone who is always down for a reference pull I’d probably give that line of argument some oxygen. It could be very gently suggested that knowing both the phone number and the delivery menu of the pizza parlor du jour is the most important thing to say at the table. To which I would offer that most sessions you’d only need that once. There is something vital that could, nay, should be said multiple times per session.
It’s not “What do you mean a Nat 20 doesn’t automatically succeed?!”
For a moment, let me step into the nebulous realm of metaphor. Hopefully through this fog, we can find clarity.
Imagine your game as an exploratory expedition. You as a party are all setting out together to see what you can discover. You may have some idea of where you are going, and a rough idea of the direction you need to go to get there. And while you as the GM have the final say in where you head, everyone has a voice in the discussion of it. You all burn back the mist surrounding you together, and you all come to the same sets of crossroads at roughly the same time.
I put it to you that the most important thing you can say at the table is “Yes, and…”
If every crossroads is a decision to be made, and the path to your goal is unknown, then the most destructive thing you can do is close off paths before you have walked them. “No” is the fastest way to make sure your players get shut out of the experience you have so carefully worked to make them part of. Your players are creative too. They may or may not have had the same degree of practice, or access to story telling tools as you. You may all be discovering how to do this together. What they absolutely do have, is an imagination that is fundamentally different to yours. They may see possibilities in your world that you had never even thought of. Holes in the map, as it were. Could they be marked ‘Here be Dragons’? Absolutely, but through discovering those dragons they might allow you to create a new story hook, or an amazing character beat.
Allowing them to make mistakes is how they learn, and how their characters grow. Mistakes can be the best thing that happens to a party. They may also be terrible things that come at great cost to the players. The point is, you will never know, if you keep saying no.
You should also be wary of saying “But…” too often. The Monkey’s Paw is great fun to pull out, and if your players ever find a genie and you don’t indulge in a little malicious compliance then you aren’t having as much fun as you could be. Don’t even get me started on players who still trust the Fae to make a square deal. The thing is, if ever situation is an “Ok, but…” then that’s just a softer “No”.
Let me be clear. You shouldn’t always say yes. Sometimes boundaries need to be drawn, and that’s good and fine. But you need to think of as a seesaw. No’s are very heavy, and sit all at one end. if you want the party to enjoy the ride, those weights need to balance well. And if your players fancy themselves gymnasts? Then you need to make sure that you get them all set up so that you can drop the huge weight on the right end at the right moment, and send them hurtling into the sky to soar or fall as their preparations provide.
To be blunt for just a second, if you want your players to go exactly where you want them to go, and do exactly what you want them to do, write a book. Otherwise you are just frustrating people that came to you to find an outlet for one of the most core human impulses there is, to tell stories together.
To end this on a slightly more positive note, I know that you may have thought about your world for countless hours. You have these grand plans for your adventurers, and amazing things you want them to see and do. But if you allow your players to be fully part of the storytelling, then those things will become the grand set pieces in the tale your party weaves for each other. All you need to do, is when someone makes a suggestion, just say “Yes, and…?”
I’ll see you at the table next session,