Yes, and…but.

‘Yes, and…’ is an improv principle that seems largely beloved by the TTRPG community, often at the top of lists when people are discussing good practice for role-play. It’s generally held to encapsulate a kind of supportive attitude to building upon and running with others ideas – which, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. So why am I frustrated every time I see this recommended on social media as something for players or Game Masters to keep at the forefront of their mind?

Because it never seems to be accompanied by the right context.

Aptly, a little context on where I’m coming from in this discussion: my background is performance first, gaming second. I’ve done a little formal improvisation training (a variety of workshops covering different practitioners’ approaches and tools, plus levels 1 & 2 with the Free Association in London) and have years of practical experience in the kind of narrative, longform, bouncing-off-performers-and-audiences style of improv often required in performance that’s simultaneously immersive and interactive.

And with that experience, I totally grant that ‘yes, and…’ can be a useful thing to keep in mind. But sometimes it gets held up in gaming circles as the first thing improvisers learn, or the most important principle in improvisation. And that’s where I argue: no. If anything is the starting point, the most important thing, it is listening.

‘Yes, and…’ focuses on what you can add to a situation. Listening focuses on what the other people in the situation are doing. ‘Yes, and…’ means nothing if you don’t know what you are saying ‘yes’ to. Listening is precisely what tells you that.

‘Listening’ here is meant in a very broad sense: it’s not just what you hear someone say, or even the tone of their voice or suchlike. It’s all the signals that they are giving off. In a role-play scenario, for instance, this might be: their character keeps avoiding answering a simple question; they’re holding a valuable item close to their chest; their miming actions that are suggestive of feeling cold; they’re conspicuously not talking at all, even though this is a subject their character would be invested in.

[Are you reading that and thinking ‘not talking might be a character thing to riff off of but couldn’t it just as easily mean that someone’s not having a good time playing, or something else that isn’t a character choice to ‘yes, and…’?’ Absolutely! Listening is also really important and valuable in safety at the table because it’s about being attentive to people around you, so has brilliant purpose beyond role-play!]

Something that’s stuck with me for several years, from an improv workshop, is that a lot of people think improv is about making something out of nothing, when actually it’s about noticing what’s already there. How someone walks into a scene – if you’re being attentive to all the little signals given off by their speed, their rhythm, their level of confidence, and so on – already gives you loads of material to bounce off of. Listening is essential to noticing what’s already there. That’s why I say comes before any ‘yes, and…’-ing and, if anything’s the starting point of improv, it’s listening.

I wonder if ‘yes, and…’ gets so gleefully used and positively spoken of in gaming circles because it places the spotlight and focus on what you can do in what seems to be the most active way. It’s about what you’re going to say, or act out, or describe. (Yes, in a spirit meant to be supportive of others, but I dare say we’ve all played with people who’ve thought they were doing ‘yes, and…’ but were spending their time in games so focused on what their ‘and…’ could be that they lost sight of what all the other players were doing.)

Arguably, listening is a less enticing sell of a concept. It’s far more focused on the invisible work people do at the table (yes, the effects of listening – richer interactions, more sensitive and specific responses to other players and characters, etc – are visible, but the act itself isn’t so easily registered as ‘yes, and…’-ing). It’s a harder thing to do. Really intently ‘listening’ to other people is hard, and exhausting, but incredibly rewarding and useful if you put the effort in.

I also think that, for all it’s often positioned as a collaborative move, ‘yes, and…’ is too easily co-opted by a mindset of ‘what can I add here? What cool or clever addition can I make?’*. Listening can’t possibly be divorced from the other person – or the present moment. ‘Yes, and…’ without proper context or understanding can lead to a preciously planning mindset, where players aren’t playing the current scene but what they want to try and make happen (they’re basically trying to do 3 ‘yes, and…’s at once to get to some personally imagined endpoint). Listening has to be now. It’s responding to what other players are currently doing, not anticipating what they’re about to.

All of that is why I’m desperate to see listening pushed as a valuable role-playing and improv principle, more so than ‘yes, and…’. And explicitly so – some people out there might be rolling both into one under the ‘yes, and…’ banner but listening is important, useful and powerful enough to be properly spoken of and acknowledged on its own!

*Yes, there’s a different and much more productive/interesting read of those questions that’s more about identifying your unique perspectives, skills and strengths as a role-player/storyteller and seeing how you elevate gameplay in ways others might not, but that’s another more upbeat blogpost entirely.

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