On the No-Sell in Roleplaying

Roleplaying games are, by and large, cooperative efforts between the players and the game master. Even RPGs that have competitive features or revolve around player-GM conflict are based on a fundamental acceptance that the entire experience is consensual. We’re all agreeing to take part in a story/game/experience where our choices and actions determine the course of events affecting the world and our characters.

With that in mind, one of the things that can be very difficult to deal with is when one or more participants at the table engages in what I like to call “No-sell behavior.”

What is the No-Sell?

In improve acting and (especially) professional “sports entertainment” wrestling, “selling” means that an actor reacts as if he had been hit hard when the attack did not make contact or was harmlessly light. “Selling” the hit reinforces the story that the wrestlers are telling on the mat; it helps the audience buy in to the action and carries forward the narrative.

In professional wrestling, a wrestler who does NOT react to a hit is performing what is called a “no-sell.” Effectively, to “no-sell” means that the actor refuses to acknowledge or accept the hit; sometimes this is done to tell a different story (i.e., “I’m too tough to be hurt by that!”), but most of the time, it actually harms the experience because it makes the choices of the other actors have less meaning and definitely less impact. In a roleplaying game, I use the term “no-sell” to indicate that one of the participants is refusing to acknowledge or engage with events occurring in the game.

Here are some examples (taken directly from my own experiences in RPGs) to show what I mean:

During a game of Dark Heresy, one of the player characters was a Tech-Priest who had replaced half his brain with a cybernetic implant, designed to make him more difficult to affect with fear or insanity. The player used this concept to act unimpressed and indifferent about even extreme situations of horror and madness. While the player no doubt believed this choice reinforced his character’s resilience to such effects, it actually undercut the effectiveness of the scene for the other participants—and made the Gamemaster question why he put so much effort into building and describing the event in the first place.

Another player has built a character with a tragic backstory. Over time, the player chooses to portray his character as a hot-headed man of action who rarely gives in to displays of emotion other than confidence or anger. During a long-term campaign, the character eventually runs into people and events from his own backstory in a scene designed to evoke strong emotions. The player chooses to have his character simply shrug during the scene, responding to questions and provocations alike with one word: “Meh.”

A player in a D&D game spends a significant amount of time building up a cover identity as a feared underworld leader. During a scene in a town, the player character assumes this “cover” and attempts to assert some authority over criminal agents. The Gamemaster ignores the cover identity and goes strictly by the die roll when resolving the scene. The player is left with the impression that the time and effort placed into developing the story of the “feared underworld leader” identity was wasted.

Why is the “No-sell” bad?

A no-sell can actively frustrate participants in an RPG: it is not hard to think that a refusal to engage with the scene is also a refusal to acknowledge the effort, choices, or actions of the players and GM alike. In addition to potentially causing some hurt personal feelings, a no-sell can undermine the intensity, emotion, or flow of a scene in the game. Imagine the climactic scene in the Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader reveals the truth about Luke’s father. Now, imagine the same scene where Luke simply shrugs and responds with “I don’t care.” The tension and impact of that moment simply drains away, leaving it hollow.

When can a “No-sell” work in an RPG?

The urge to no-sell during an RPG can be understandable; some tropes of famous pop-culture characters—notably Batman, Wolverine, and the Punisher—involve dismissing events of intense emotions, pain, or physical discomfort. It is tempting to emulate those tropes when the player character is meant to be such a “badass.” Sometimes, if done well, a no-sell can actually ADD to the drama of a scene and increase the stakes in a good way. Various confrontations in Dragonball Z have done this successfully, as one example.

For a positive experience using a no-sell, it is important to communicate with your group. This can be as simple as saying out loud “This is an intense moment, but I think it would be very cool if my character was able to take it in stride.” Explaining your motivations for wanting to no-sell the moment can turn a negative experience into a positive one, just by getting the other participants to buy-in to the no-sell’s embellishment.

How do you deal with a “No-sell?”

There are basically two choices on what to do when a no-sell comes up during an RPG. You can ignore it, or you can communicate about the issue. In a convention game or a one-shot, ignoring the issue can be the most productive choice—as long as the incident isn’t overly disruptive to the experience. In a campaign or home game, however, it is usually better to address the situation by communicating. My suggestion is to take the person aside and discuss the situation with them. Clearly state why you feel the incident was a no-sell, and why that is a problem. Ask them if there’s another way the scene could develop that doesn’t involve a refusal to engage.

As a player, you can look at the no-sell as an opportunity to showcase something about your character. Maybe this is the time for your badass warrior to show a bit of concern for his own life; or perhaps this is the moment to step up and claim that you’ve “seen bigger, and better!” Roleplaying involves so many different possibilities that this will have to be judged on a case-by-case basis, but always try to respect the other participants’ efforts and choices in building the scene, especially if you plan for your character to “no-sell” the situation.

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