When to say no as a DM is an art and has to be done correctly. Most of the time we should say yes or maybe to our players, but there are times to say no.
I have had to say no to my players for a variety of reasons of the years, and sometimes I have said yes and regretted it. This article will cover why, when, and how to say no to players.
The big no’s!
DMs want to accommodate players, but there are a few big reasons when to say no as a DM.
- You cannot make this work.
- It is against your world.
- The player wants to change mechanics.
- If it detracts from other’s enjoyment.
- If it changes the game in any way from normal.
- Anything you are uncomfortable with.
These are the big ones. If any player at any time wants to do something that falls into ANY of these categories, you have the right to say no. In fact, you should say no to your players if any of these factors come into play.
It is up to you as the DM to consider if the player’s request falls into these catagories, but if it does say no!
We will talk about how to say no in a little bit, but here is the problem with always saying yes. Keep in mind, that every DM is different and while I or other experienced DMs might not have this problem, you should consider your own skillset, playstyle, and where you are at as a DM.
Here is a story and think if this is you or would seem familiar.
Player A wants to be a special homebrewed class. You take a brief glance at it but don’t have time to fully look at the class. It seems fine, but in 2 levels Player A breaks the game with an ability that didn’t seem too broken, but when you combine it with a few other abilities Player A’s character makes everyone else become support characters.
In this instance, I was player A and asked the DM to let me play a class we both didn’t know a lot about. This class was actually fine, but I attained boots of levitation and was excellent at shooting a bow. In addition, I had psionic powers to kill anything that could hit me, and for everything else I just floated and shot to death. Especially beasts since those were the main monsters in that game.
The DM should have said no to 1 of these parts, but didn’t know how. In the end, the party just said they sat back and watched as I killed the boss, but the DM still didn’t say no. Luckily, I was kind enough to play another character but the damage was done. The game wasn’t taken seriously by anyone after that and everyone knew I could ‘beat’ god if I wanted.
This situation had a few of the big no’s in it. Consider the big no’s as red flags. You have to be very cautious about what extra things you allow into your game until you are experienced enough. Even then, you might not want players to have unlimited agency to do whatever they want.
But saying no is hard. Most of the time we shouldn’t say no as DMs, so how do you say no?
How to say no
When it comes time when to say no as a DM, it is hard to follow through. That poor DM in my previous example didn’t know how to say no. This let me get away with doing something cool, but game-breaking for his game.
It can be hard to say no in situations like the one above because we both honestly didn’t know it would break the game this much. In situations where the player is asking for something, first ask what they are planning to do with said item or ability.
If the player is honest, they will tell you what they are planning. You now have the information to say no or yes. It depends on you and if you can handle it as a DM. If not, say no and state why.
If the player is not being honest and withholding information, then tell them that you don’t know what they are planning, but the addition that they want to add has too many variables that can break the game. It is a neutral answer that explains why you are saying no, is reasonable, and at the same time lets you be vague.
From these examples, you might have already picked up the key points on how to say no.
- Find out why the player wants to add this item, mechanic, or ability.
- Be open about why you are saying no (even if vague).
- Be strict and confident. Don’t sound like you are considering it. When you say no, have a stern voice and say no or the player will keep trying.
If you do these 3 things saying no will be much easier. Having an open discussion makes the player not feel defensive and understand where you are coming from.
If orcs are not allowed in your world then you need to give a good reason why they are not allowed. For example, tell them some information that they will learn in session 0.
In fact, session 0 is where you should tell your players as many no’s as possible. Tell them why they can’t do something, lay down the rules, expectations, and varients in your campaign.
Going through all this in a session 0 will help you later on so you don’t have to say as much. If you want to learn how to do a proper session 0, then check out our article on it here!
When to say no as a DM for difficult players is bit harder.
Saying no to difficult players
When to say no as a DM is generally for cool ideas that players have, but also for when players are beligerant.
Very rarely, you will have problem players. We have an article dedicated to them and how to deal with them here, but you might not be there yet. A player might just want to do something cool and is very insistent on getting what they want. For these players, you will need to do a little bit more than just saying no as described above.
First, make sure that the player understands the situation since miscommunication can cause a lot of problems. Once you have explained the situation make sure that the player understands. If they still want to continue insisting on something, you have 2 things that you need to consider.
- Can they attempt to do this?
- Is this something that is only doable as a DM?
If the player can attempt to do something, tell them that they can try it. Explain that it will most likely not work, but give them the chance. For example, to climb a slick wall. They technically can, but the DC is ridiculous. For these situations, you will not need to say no. The player will either fail on their own or miraculously succeed and make a great story.
If the attempt requires long term investment, like creating a spell, tell the player how to gain what they want. It will most likely be a long or impossible process, and by the time that a player gets the item or ability, it isn’t that bad due to increased levels.
Both of these situations are great if they can atempt it, but what if they want to do something that only a DM can do?
This is where you just tell them no.
Explain that they cannot change the mechanics of the game, and blame the limitations of the game. A game cannot do everything, so trying to hit an eye on a person is not a door that you want to open unless you are ready and put forth the idea yourself. Explain that this is just how the system works, and while it does make sense we can only do what we are able to do.
When to say no as a DM also applies to any strange situations. Here are 2 situations to give you an idea.
- Can we have a healer NPC?
- I know about this thing, so can my character know about it?
Both seem reasonable, but you need to consider every aspect of the game.
For the first situation, can you play D&D without a dedicated healer? The answer is and always has been yes. The party will just need to be cautious, and you might need to be very careful when crafting encounters. At least, this was the case in previous versions.
In 5th edition there are enough built in mechanics to help the players that they are gods compared to previous versions. It is very hard to kill a player and players get all health back on long rests, can gain health back on short rests, and many classes have some sort of healing built into them.
For the second situation, that is just metagaming. We have a whole article dedicated to metagaming if you wish to read it here. The article is dedicated to explaining metagaming and if you should say no or not.
For these situations, 1 can be answered by looking up the information and another can be answered by just thinking about the mechanics of the game.
You should, if an odd situation comes up, say that you are unsure and will get back to them.
This will allow you time to think about the mechanics and possibly look up other resources if you are unsure. If the player demands an answer now, tell them ‘no for now, but I will look into it.’ That leaves the option open and will give you time to figure out if it is okay or not. Either way, you do not let a dangerous change to the encroach upon your campaign.
When to say no as a DM is tough to determine. We generally want to say yes, but there are a few times when you need to say no.
Look to our big no’s, strange situations, and saying no to difficult players for when to generally say no to players.
For how to say no, look at that section.
I hope that this has helped you learn when to say no as a DM to your players. Hopefully, you have escaped a terrible fate that would have befallen you otherwise.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!