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Glossary of key phrases while DM:ing

A lot of GMs find great utility in phrases like “let’s there cut!” and “how does it look like when you do that?” in how they can concisely bring clarity to a situation and improve pacing. However, those questions snap the players out of the character’s head, if they weren’t already out of it. The following glossary is a set of phrases designed to keep play anchored to the experience of being in the dungeon, not feeling like you’re writing a movie script about the trip to the dungeon.

What do you do?

Always say this, all the time, a lot. It’s is the “prompt” for the players. “You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here. What do you do?” Especially say this after some sort of block. “The stone slab doesn’t budge. What do you do?” The one exception is when you’ve just said something to them as an NPC. “What’d ye fancy folk be wanting in an inn like this?” The second exception is when you said something that requires mechanical work for them, like giving them a DC.

What are you doing, exactly?/How do you do that?

Ask clarifying questions when players don’t convey their execution clearly. “We search for traps” “What are you doing, exactly?”

What are you saying, exactly?

When players shortcut over RP scenes that you want to play out. “We ask her for the map.” “What are you say to her?” Only do this when there’s uncertainty. If there’s no conflict, do still answer them in character as the NPC, but you don’t have to dwell on what they said diegetically to initiate the conversation.

That is how it is / That is how it is, now / Weird right? But that’s what you see

When there’s an object or event in the shared imagined space that’s unusual or surprising and the players express doubt. “It’s ridiculous that there would be a tiger here!” “Weird, right? But that’s what you see. What do you do?”

When you [part of multi-part action]…/ As soon as you [part of multi-part action]…

When the players chain multiple executions and effects together in one statement, and you need to time rewind in order to settle the earliest uncertain one, if any. “We wrap the body in a carpet, go to the street, hail a cab to the harbor and dump the body in, looking at the black water as it sinks.” “Would you make an encounter check please?” “It’s a one” “When you’re waiting for a cab, with the rolled up carpet, you notice a trio of greybearded men in short shoulder capes and black suits staring at you from the other side of the street. What do you do?” Don’t do this if there’s no uncertain executions. In that case, just go along the full chain. “OK, the body is in the water. What do you do?”

Does that seem reasonable?

When you’re not sure you’ve got buy-in from the table, or when you want to make sure you’re making a good ruling. This is an immersion-killing phrase so use sparingly. In my experience when you’re making a more mechanical ruling, it’s good to ask if it seems reasonable, but when you’re describing diegetic elements, it’s better to just stick to your guns. The upside is that if the mechanical rule is iffy, it’s great to have them sign-off on it before the consequences of that rule hit the table. You are sacrificing immersion now that will pay off later.

It’s [time&circumstances]. What do you do?

A way to go to a new scene without speaking in camera terms like scenes and cutting.

[Character], where are you, and who are you with?

A way to introduce a new (probably dramatic) scene without speaking in author stance / story game terms.

Scratch off one… / Scratch one…

Scratch off one arrow, one ration etc.

How long would you be willing to do that?

Sometimes the players say “we wait until something happens” and you can’t really go like “OK, a year later someone discovers you. You each take 365 exhaustion levels from starvation”, or and can’t do “OK, three days later, it happens” either (because what if they would’ve given up after two days?). You need to know how long they would be willing to do the waiting / sailing / digging or whatever it is they do.

You could always go moment by moment or hour by hour. Rolling each encounter check one at a time. But that’s a surefire way to get a slow and boring game. According to the salience time zoom principle principle, there aren’t any questions that need resolution until something actually does happen.

Only ask this when you know the situation. You can’t be making up the answer after you know how long they would wait. That’d be fudging. But let’s say you know that the people they are waiting for have already left town and won’t be back for a few months. And the players and their characters are thinking “We’ll wait here for a few hours until they come back”. That’s an example of this kind of situation. Another situation where this is applicable is when you know that there are encounter checks every second hour in this particular dungeon, but the players don’t know that yet.

How many times do you do it?

Similar to the time span question, but when they’re doing something repeatedly, like “I smash the button over and over again”. You can then go “The fourth time you press the button, you hear a loud click. What do you do?”

That’s [time span], so that’ll be [number] encounter checks. OK?

A way to request for a decision point to end, or fast-forward, a “scene” without camera terms. In finchian D&D a lot of things don’t require skill rolls, but do cost “torch time”.

One hour passes. Make an encounter check. What do you do?

Alternatively just play it out [time unit] by [time unit].

While you’re busy with [main action], [other combat action] happens.

If they are trying do more things than they have action econ to spend.