For this installment of “Improv for GMs,” I wanted to tackle something that is less of a trick and more of a philosophy. When I first learned about improv in middle school, one of the golden rules was “No Negation.” Negation is not just the act of responding to a question with no, it’s an entire frame of mind. However, it was a decade before I learned of that rule’s opposite: “Always say ‘Yes And.’” (If this sounds familiar to you, they made fun of it on “Arrested Development.”) First, a small shameless plug:
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“Yes And” is a rule, but to demonstrate it, I’m going to walk you through an exercise I stole from a Second City book, appropriately named “Yes And.” This is how the game works:
> All the players sit in a circle and pretend they are a part of a company developing a new product.
>Each player takes a turn adding a new idea about the product. They can focus on any angle of the product’s development and promotion (ex. features, construction, packaging, advertising, etc.)
> Every statement must start with “Yes, And…”
>No statement can repeat what anyone else said.
>NO Statement can contradict any statement made by another player.
Unacceptable: Player A says “Yes, and the t-shirts are red.” Player B says “Yes, and the t-shirts are blue instead.”
Acceptable: Player A says “Yes, and the t-shirts are red.” Player B says “Yes, and they ALSO COME in blue.”
>Play ends when everyone has had at least one turn. (If it’s a small group, wait until each player has contributed 2-3 times, or until everyone’s bored).
I encourage students that the ideas can be as simple as “Yes, and the t-shirt’s made of cotton,” or as far-fetched as, “yes, and the t-shirt lets you travel back in time and kill your enemies before they were born.” Nothing is wrong, so long as it doesn’t repeat or negate a previous statement.
In this game, we see what the “Yes And” mindset accomplishes:
Yes – It affirms the creative elements of others. The statement does not try to edit or undo anything already established.
And – It doesn’t just affirm what others do, it requires you to add something that others can build on, creating a mutual created world.
Now that you got the jist, let me clarify Negation a little further. Here’s a hypothetical scene I love to propose in improv classes:
Imagine two improvers starting a scene. They are not assigned characters or a situation, and are supposed to create the scene from scratch. Person A turns to person B, grabs them by the hand, and says, “C’mon, Grandma, let’s go to the zoo?”
The question: What’s the WORST possible thing Person B can answer?
Inevitably someone will answer, “No, I don’t want to go to the zoo.” I tell them that’s the second worst answer they can give. The number one worst answer would be: “I’m not your grandma.”
The second worst answer negates the action- this results in a boring scene that goes nowhere, and establishes a competitive relationship between the players- subconsciously, if their idea isn’t taken, they lose.
The worst answer negates not just the action, but the universe- if a player makes a statement (i.e. “you’re my grandma,”) that is establishing a FACT. To negate a fact is the same as saying “I don’t exist in the same universe as you,” or, alternatively, “your universe isn’t good enough for me.” This creates a disconnect between players, and an adversarial relationship- on a subconscious level, you’re not just competing, you’re playing two separate games.
Practical Applications: When Would I Ever Use This?
Brainstorm! – The most direct version of this is when brainstorming a new concept. When doing panels on collaborative fiction, I always advise people, write down EVERY idea, and don’t shoot anyone else down. It might seem like a bad idea to you, but everyone else might love it; or, what seems like a weak on idea on its own might be fantastic when coupled with an idea that comes later. If you start a brainstorm by saying “no, that’s stupid” to everyone else, the “storm” will fizzle in no time, with only the most aggressive and swaggering people contributing. Here are further examples:
Brainstorm: Campaign – Use this when setting up a campaign setting with the players. This is especially true of Fate games, which encourage collaborative world and character building. If you have a playful group, you might even play a round of the “Yes And” game, just to warm everyone up.
Brainstorm: Establishing Facts – Even after the campaign is started, don’t be afraid to have the players held shape the world. If a player wants to try a magical ritual that is only loosely defined in a rulebook, before you tell them what’s required for the ritual, ask them; they might come up with something that’s not just fun, but sets a precedent for how magic works in the universe. Once again, Fate has a great precedence for letting players establish scene aspects whenever you come to a new setting- this is a great way to ease players into making small facts, without giving them the reins or throwing them in the deep end.
Brainstorm: Atomic Robo – I have yet to have the pleasure of trying it out in the flesh, but the Fate Core game Atomic Robo actually has a mechanic built around Brainstorming, as the various scientists deduct the origins of a threat and concoct a plan to defeat it. As written, the Brainstorming system is a little competitive, but for a twist, why not make it that the final solution has to be built on the ideas of ALL members present?
Adventures – The Yes And is also really important to keep in mind when running adventures. Whenever a player asks for permission to attempt something off of the beaten path, ask yourself: is my response negating the idea or Building on it? That’s not say that everything a player wants falls into their laps without a catch (some would reclassify this as “Yes, But,”); however, remember that the perfect story in your head isn’t a game, it’s a novel. A game requires collaborators, who are writing the story with you.