Yes And Is (Probably) Not Helping You


This has been on my mind for a good long while and I’ve struggled to articulate exactly what my position is. In fact, I’m still not sure that I’ll do this topic justice. Still it’s worth a try, because quite frankly I think the touting of ‘Yes And’ as the key to good DMing has led a lot of start-out DMs astray.

Today I want to lay out exactly why I think that, exactly what should be done instead of ‘Yes And’, and where (if at all) ‘Yes And’ can in fact be useful for your games. Let’s waste no more words, this will be a long one.

What Is ‘Yes And’?

Let’s start with the basics. ‘Yes And’ is a tool used in improvisational performance (theatre, comedy, whatever). It posits that whenever another performer introduces a concept to the scene then best way to respond is with a sentence that begins with ‘Yes, And…’.

Guy 1 – “The airport x-ray machine is malfunctioning!”

Guy 2 – “Yes, and the supervisor will be here to check on us in just 3 minutes!”

The reason you want to ‘Yes And’ in improv is because it serves the dual function of both validating the previous idea (that’s the ‘Yes’ part) and also adding to it (the ‘And’ part). There’s a very simple reason this is powerful in improv:

It maintains the momentum of a scene.

If we did not validate the previous idea then the momentum of the scene would grind to a halt. Here’s an example:

Guy 1 – “The airport x-ray machine is malfunctioning!”

Guy 2 – “There we go, I fixed it!”

See how the scene has nowhere to go now without someone adding something brand new? There is no narrative momentum. This brings us handily to why the ‘Adding’ part that the ‘And’ provides is also important. If we simply validate the previous idea then even though we don’t stop the scene in its tracks we also don’t help it further down said tracks. Here’s an example:

Guy 1 – “The airport x-ray machine is malfunctioning!”

Guy 2 – “Oh no, that’s terrible!”

Guy 2 might have gone along with the previous idea (‘Yes’) but they’ve not introduced anything that keeps the momentum of the scene going (‘And’).

What The Fuck Does This Have To Do With D&D?

Well in a way that’s exactly my point, I don’t think this maxim holds any real relevance to how we run D&D. What I will do first though is lay out exactly why some folks believe it should be used in D&D, then I will discuss why I think that’s wrong.

The general reason ‘Yes And’ has made its way into discussions around how we run D&D is because it can serve the same purpose in our games as it serves in improv. It helps us very easily maintain narrative momentum. If you’re a brand new DM and you’re not sure how to respond to players in a way that stops your game from grinding to a halt then ‘Yes And’ seems like the perfect calamine lotion for your itch.

The first problem I identify here is that it’s not actually a solution, it’s a band-aid. It helps new DMs prevent things grinding to a halt on a moment-to-moment basis, but experienced DMs can already do that without needing ‘Yes And’. Relying on ‘Yes And’ makes it harder to learn more robust tools for maintaining narrative momentum. I will discuss those tools in a separate piece.

The second problem here is that ‘Yes And’ is something that takes place between equal parties in a collaborative storytelling context. D&D is collaborative storytelling, but the parties are not equal. The players and the DM are operating on different layers. The players suggesting something to the DM within the game’s narrative is not the same as an actor suggesting something to another actor in an improvised scene. Go ahead and take a look at all the wisdom out there about why DMs need to say ‘No’ sometimes, that will tell you just how misguided DMs who rely on ‘Yes And’ are that they need to be told that they are in fact in charge of the game and as a result need to be setting the boundaries of what players can and can’t do.

Put simply, the overarching issue here is that not everything should be said ‘Yes’ to. In fact ‘No’ is what puts definable limits on things such that we can problem-solve through them and reach satisfying conclusions.

This is all to say nothing of the unforeseen damage ‘Yes And’ actually does to a game. It does it very subtly and it does it all for very one simple reason:

‘Yes And’ is great for maintaining narrative momentum. It is terrible at maintaining narrative tension.

Narrative Tension Matters More Than Narrative Momentum

Ok in truth you do also need narrative momentum, but all the narrative momentum in the world won’t make a bad campaign good if there’s no narrative tension.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Improv happens on a scene-by-scene basis. D&D does too, but those scenes must then make sense together in a wider narrative context. Improv isn’t bound by this limitation. Improv scenes take place in a vacuum. It doesn’t really matter how a scene in an improv context ends provided it’s entertaining its audience. D&D does, in fact, care about how a scene resolves. This, put plainly, is because D&D is interested in telling a wider story, one that in theory extends well beyond the scene at hand, and thus the scene at hand needs to eventually tie into that wider story.

‘Yes And’-ing your way out of a tense negotiation with the king by burning the palace down is going to fuck you over as a DM if the only combat you had prepared for the session was against the king’s guards. It’s also going to fuck you over if that king was meant to be an important character in the wider narrative later on in the session. You’re going to sit there going ‘what now?’ and the only tool you’ll have at your disposal is to just ‘Yes And’ again. You have entered into a recursive loop of bad improv. All you have is ‘Yes And’s carte blanche for the players to fuck around.

‘Yes And’ begets more ‘Yes And’ until it’s the only thing you have. A more experienced DM will have a number of ways to work that situation into the rest of the session, or even reign in the increasingly wacky action such that it doesn’t break the limits of what their session prep can handle (or what their broader improvisation repertoire can handle). By relying on ‘Yes And’ you are preventing yourself from learning better improvisational tools including the ones that will actually allow you to string these scenes into a wider narrative.

Don’t get me wrong this will all be very fun for the players (especially newer players) so for a time it’s going to very much seem like you’re all running and playing “Good D&D”. The only problem is you leave yourself no real ability to string your scenes and moment-to-moment gameplay into something bigger without it feeling inorganic. It’s like the difference between playing GTA’s story mode and playing GTA, turning on the flying cars cheat, spawning in a tank, and going on a rampage for as long as you can until the cops catch you. Yeah the second is fun as hell, but it gets old after a while, and it’s probably not the reason you bought GTA in the first place.

How Do We Preserve Narrative Tension Then?

Let’s stop looking at improv for guidance. Improv doesn’t give that much of a fuck about long-form storytelling. Instead let’s look to writing. In writing there is a dynamite little tool that will help you go much further in terms of narrative tension and even set you up for payoff.

It’s called ‘Yes But; No And’.

The gist is that any given situation is driven by a conflict question and you will answer that question with either ‘Yes But’ or ‘No And’. Here’s an example. Let’s say the party has to cross a fast-flowing river. The conflict question is ‘Do they make it across safely?’. Here’s two potential answers:

“Yes, but the current drags away your pack and you lose all your supplies.”

“No, and now the river is also infested with crocodiles.”

Both of these do something fantastic, something much better than simply adding something new to a scene. They both increase the stakes. In the case of ‘Yes But’ the conflict is resolved but a new conflict is immediately introduced. In the case of ‘No And’ the conflict is not resolved and is now more difficult to overcome.

You are presenting the party with problems to solve, problems that will require them to engage with the gameplay and their character’s abilities to overcome. You are in essence presenting them with gameplay all while preserving narrative tension.

The best part about this system is it fits so naturally into D&D’s whole premise of rolling dice to determine outcomes. Whether you go with ‘Yes But’ or ‘No And’ is predicated on whether the check was a success or a failure.

Mastering Yes But

‘Yes But’ is pretty straightforward. It is allowing a success to not immediately dissolve all narrative tension. There’s a neat little sleight-of-hand going on in that one source of tension is simply replaced with another (the threat of a dangerous river is replaced with the threat of starvation due to having no rations), but your players won’t notice that the tension now comes from elsewhere. They will simply feel that narrative tension. It will keep them motivated throughout the whole scene.

At the end of that scene (or sequence of scenes) we get to reward players with the biggest piece of narrative payoff we can possibly deliver:


When the players finally get to ‘Yes’ they know that their struggle is finally over. All of that ongoing tension as they move from one complication to the next is released.

This delivering of ‘Yes’ also lets us do something very important as DMs. It keeps the control of where, when and how the scene ends entirely in our hands. The players do not get that ‘Yes’ until they have successfully navigated to it. If they’re crossing through a treacherous jungle they will not get the ‘Yes’ until they are out of it.

Following on from that, the jungle crossing now fits nicely into the wider context of our narrative. It has now become ‘That awful time we had to go through that jungle and nearly died’. It will inform character actions in future (such as when a lord hiring them for a job asks them to cross back through that jungle), it has given them shared experiences as a party, and on the character-level it has delivered an adventure that gets added to the player’s litany of ‘things I’ve done in D&D’. In fact if you do it well enough it might even become something they talk about for years thereafter.

Did you notice, by the way, how that was all described around the context of exploration? That’s right, this narrative approach even delivers you tools to make 5e’s under-supported exploration and roleplay pillars actually satisfying.

Mastering No And

No And is the much more complicated of the two because it’s the one that actually does risk you having a scene grind to a halt. The reason for this is obvious: resource expenditure.

Let’s say the wizard blows her only 3rd level spell slot on trying to get past an obstacle. Something goes wrong (maybe someone got unlucky on a dice roll) and they get ‘No And’-ed. They fail, and now success will be harder to achieve due to the complication we’ve added, and now the wizard doesn’t have her 3rd level spell slot anymore.

If we’re not careful we may leave the party faced with a problem that they simply cannot realistically solve. That causes a problem for us as DMs as we must now either enforce the party’s failure or we must find some way for them to succeed regardless. The former will feel awful if done poorly, the latter will be unsatisfying for the party (as it will be easily perceivable as the deus ex machina that it truly is).

So how do we prevent this from happening?

Well there’s two main solutions and my honest advice would be to utilise both at all times.

Solution 1

Firstly, we should make sure we don’t over-escalate at any given failure. To take the above example, given that we know the wizard is planning on expending her only 3rd level spell slot we probably don’t actually need to add any further complications to the problem at hand. The ‘And’ part of our ‘No And’ is covered by ‘And now the wizard has no more 3rd level spell slots left.

This is also where people talk about ‘Failing forward’ (which I might add is another testy concept, but not one to discard entirely like ‘Yes And’). Failing forward simply means that even in the face of failure something still happens that brings the party closer to success. In a way it’s saying ‘Partially, And’ rather than outright ‘No’. In the case of ‘Do we make it across the river?’ the failure on the roll results in ‘You get to halfway using your proposed method, and now a bunch on crocodiles are infesting the river’.

It’s almost a half-way point between ‘Yes But’ and ‘No And’. I personally dislike it as it feels more like the former than the latter and often pulls punches in terms of the cost of failure. My personal preference is to allow the party to make a decision that sees them opting into a ‘Yes But’ to soften the blow of the ‘No And’.

Let’s say the wizard expends her 3rd level spell slot, the party fails the task at hand, and now succeeding will be harder. I will suggest to the party ‘You could always long rest to get that spell slot back and try again in the morning, but your pursuers will come closer’. In fact often the players will themselves suggest such a solution (“Hey DM can we long rest here?” “Yes, but your pursuers will get closer.”).

This keeps agency in the hands of the players and even sees them taking some control of the narrative itself rather than just their actions within it (by, in this case, choosing to accelerate the narrative tension in exchange for a better chance of later alleviating it).

Solution 2

Secondly, make sure the fail-state is accounted for. If anything you shouldn’t view reaching the fail-state as a problem and instead as an opportunity. The whole reason there is any narrative tension in the first place during a conflict is because there is some assumed chance of failure (with unpleasant repercussions). Sometimes actually having the party abjectly fail is a reminder of this and will provide us a stronger baseline of tension moving forward. What is important though is that the fail-state is not game-ending (or ideally even session-ending).

An example would be the party being pursued by a group of bounty hunters. If the party reaches an obstacle that they cannot overcome due to repeated failures then they will hit the ultimate fail-state of being caught by the bounty hunters. Does this mean the party dies or the session ends? No, it means they have to fight the bounty hunters in their exhausted state (which may in turn result in a TPK, but I digress) or they have to submit to the bounty hunters and get captured (which is probably the smarter decision since the party knows a fight will likely be a TPK).

Now all we have to do is roll out either of the 2 things we would have prepped. We run the bounty hunter combat, or we have the party attempting to escape captivity. In either case we have accounted for this fail-state.

The Subsequent Yes

The ‘Yes’ at the end of a ‘No And’ is similarly satisfying to the one at the end of a ‘Yes But’. In fact, the balance of ‘Yes But’s to ‘No And’s is often what will paint the players’ perceptions of what just took place. If the jungle crossing had a lot of ‘Yes But’s the players will go ‘We were going by the seat of our pants the whole time but we made it, what a rush’.  If it’s a lot of ‘No And’s  they will go ‘We barely made it out of that, I’m relieved but exhausted’.

We want both in our games as they both hit different buttons of satisfaction for our players. With one simple tool we are facilitating a much deeper, richer mode of gameplay than what ‘Yes And’ can deliver us.

I’ve written at length in the past about stringing those scene-to-scene and moment-to-moment pieces of narrative payoff (which ‘Yes But, No And’ is delivering us) into a wider narrative arc. At this point I’ll hand you over to those pieces since this one is getting a little long…

When Can We Use Yes And Though?

The short answer is ‘Anywhere the moment-to-moment gameplay within a scene matters more than narrative tension’.

One-shots, games for younger children, campaigns that are comedic in tone, and so on, are all examples of instances where ‘Yes And’ is actually quite useful. I would posit that ‘Yes But, No And’ can still deliver satisfying gameplay in those situations though.

Which points us towards a deeper truth: ‘Yes And’ is best used when you know that’s the style of game you want. That’s something newer DMs often won’t have a grasp of though, because they’re not yet operating on the level of knowing what different styles of game might exist and which ones they’re interested in running.

This is why I again say it is terrible that we roll out this advice to so many new DMs. We are giving them a crutch that is simultaneously crippling their ability to ever walk without a crutch again.

I would personally recommend any new DM runs a bunch of terrible games without using ‘Yes And’ until they start getting good at running D&D without it before they ever consider using ‘Yes And’ as a tool.


In conclusion, Fuck ‘Yes And’. Fuck it sideways. It’s a cheap tool that delivers us very little. Stop using ‘Yes And’, stop telling people to use ‘Yes And’, stop thinking improv theatre and D&D have anything more in common than they fact that they both require more than one person to function.

Stop using ‘Yes And’, start using ‘Yes But, No And’.

In all seriousness though I think at this point I’ve quite clearly laid out the flaws with ‘Yes And’ and what I think you should look to instead. I did also mention I’ll lay out separately some advice on other ways to maintain narrative momentum within a scene so keep your eyes out for that. If you enjoy my content then do give me some support over on Patreon.

And as always, thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.