Y is for Yes!
In some ways, a Dungeons and Dragons game is very much like improvisational comedy. Though rules describe how certain aspects of the game go, and the Dungeon Master generally has some idea where the plot is heading, so much more of what happens is dependent on the players’ actions and how the DM responds to them.
The main rule of improvisation is to say Yes, no matter how bizarre the action, take what the other actor does and run with it. When the DM does the same for his players they’ll have more fun because they’l know they can try anything.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything they want to try will succeed. The trick is for the DM to come up with a quick ruling on just how likely it is that their attempt will succeed. While some things they try should be extremely difficult, if the action is even remotely realistic there should be at least a tiny chance at success.
I failed at this concept in an early game. I don’t remember all the details, but my players had managed to acquire several components for making gun powder. I was very opposed to the idea of gun powder in the game. At the time I thought it would imbalance the game, and so I basically said ‘No’ and though they tried to get me to change my mind, I basically said “I’m the DM and what I say goes.” I now know how horrible that was, and in some ways this post is along overdue apology for that game session.
Instead of saying “No”, I should have let them give it a try, allowing them either Intelligence of Wisdom checks to make the attempt. If I were to do it again today I’d give them a small chance of success (5-10%) along with an even greater success at an explosive failure (15-20%). Then at least they’d have felt they had a chance. There’s no telling what ideas they might have kept silent about because they felt I’d never let it happen.
Even if they’d succeeded in making the gun powder, I could have included a chance of failure, to maintain the explosives as risky to use. I’m sure some failures could have been as much fun as the successes, but we’ll never get the chance to know.
Perhaps it doesn’t apply everywhere, but when you’re the DM, “Just say Yes!”