Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

13 May, 2016

When cooperating, don’t deny

A little bonus posting since I missed Monday.

One rule I read about improv that I really like is “don’t deny”. Thinking about it, it’s a pretty good rule in a lot of other situations, too, as denying can derail a situation and take precious time to put back on track. So, let’s take a look at what this means.

Don’t deny in improv

Theatrical improvisation (improv) has some rules to help things go along. Getting up and acting out a scene without planning is hard, and it helps to have some rules. One of the main rules is “don’t deny”. This means that you can’t counter what someone else is saying without a lot of talent and good reason.

For example, if someone says, “Hello, I’m a famous game designer,” it is poor form to deny that by saying, “No you’re not!” This disrupts the other person, causing them to lose the rhythm of the interaction. Your goal in improv is to make your fellow actors look good, and denying their buildup of the scene hurts them and the scene.

Like any rule, this isn’t universal. A denial can be comedic with the right timing and context. But, in general it’s better to build off the other person rather than tear down their ideas for your own.

Don’t deny in tabletop RPGs

Good tabletop RPGs feel a bit like improv, but with less admiration for the quality of the craft that goes into it. So, it’s probably not surprising that some of the same rules apply. Denying someone part of the scene they helped to build up can be harmful to the role-playing. A frequent example is the passively uncooperative character, where someone’s character may not be willing to cooperate, but doesn’t do anything to help keep the scene moving forward. Denying people access to information you might have slows down the scene.

Obviously with RPGs a good GM can help this along. A roll and appeal to mechanics can get someone to open up a bit with information. Or, providing a bit of information from a third party might provide a clue to getting someone else to open up. But, the better rule is for everyone to be thinking about how to move the scene forward.

Don’t deny at work

Game development is a very creative process. It can also feel a bit like improv, in that once you get into a certain flow ideas keep coming. In this case, I think it’s important that you don’t deny someone, but rather work to make them shine. Encourage ideas, build upon them, but don’t just say “no, that won’t work”, especially not without any follow-up; it’s better to say, “well, what about if we consider this aspect….” and riff off of it.

Even when coming up with tasks, I think it’s important to work together. If someone wants to start work on a tool, don’t say “No, you can’t do that yet,” give some support to the idea. If that person is missing some information or the tool needs more planning, work with the person who wants to get the job done to help make that goal a reality. Even if you say, “but first, let’s focus on this other thing before we do that” you can help by focusing that interest on something productive.

Denial isn’t all bad

Most of these situations assume that the goal is cooperation. In improv, tabletop RPGs, and design work, the goal should be to have everyone working together to either build a scene, tell an interesting story, or build an amazing game.

Denial in adversarial situations is, of course, a useful tool. If someone is trying to accuse you of a crime you didn’t commit, then denial may your only option to clear your name! But, you probably need some rock-solid evidence, or a really good lawyer, to successfully pull off a denial.

So, what do you think? What cooperative situations can you think of where denial can do more harm than good? When has denial hurt you in the past by disrupting you?


  1. I forgot which tabletop RPG I read this in, possibly Apocalypse World or one of its spin-offs, but a related golden rule of this sort of cooperative storytelling or GMing is not an outright “No” denial, but more of “Yes, and…(add complication)” or “Yes, but…(add penalty or difficult, meaningful choice or dilemma).” The latter being slightly more adversarial.

    Of course, cooperative storytelling requires a little bit of adversarial conflict to be interesting as a narrative. In a real world setting, cooperative teamwork is generally more productive, aka the collaboration or win-win scenario. The trick is communicating enough for all parties’ agendas to be put on the table, which is often easier said than done.

    Comment by Jeromai — 13 May, 2016 @ 9:15 PM

  2. Jeromai wrote:
    a related golden rule of this sort of cooperative storytelling or GMing is not an outright “No” denial, but more of…

    Yes, this is exactly my point. In a discussion on Google+, I point out two different scenarios for getting past a door locked with a hidden mechanism:

    Player: I try to wedge my fingers between the door and the edge.
    GM: Not enough room.
    Player: I wedge the end of a pole to get leverage.
    GM: Still not enough room.
    Player: I brace against something and push against the door.
    GM: It doesn’t move.
    Player: I swing my weapon against the door.
    GM: The stone doesn’t even chip.


    Player: I try to wedge my fingers between the door and the edge.
    GM: You try, but there’s just not enough room. You do notice that the stone is very precisely formed.
    Player: The work of dwarves?
    GM: You’re not sure.
    Player: I ask the dwarf to come over and take a look at the door.

    The first is just denying the player because he or she hasn’t figured out the secret yet. The second is the “No, and…” approach that gives more information and keeps the game moving.

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 May, 2016 @ 8:18 AM

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