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Narrative Phrases

Posted By John Arcadian On February 19, 2009 @ 9:00 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

Every person has a particular style of speaking. Different phrases and sayings commonly creep into our personal lexicons and come out as the commas and semicolons of our speaking. Since being a Game Master is a form of public speaking, certain of these phrases get uttered over and over during the course of our sessions.

These common phrases are picked up on by the players, and often trigger certain Pavlovian responses. Take a look at your GMing style and what phrases it includes. What responses do they trigger, and what sorts of game related things do they preface.

Some Phrases That I’ve Known

  • So . . .
    Usually said in relation to wanting more explanation from the players or the Game Master about what is going one. It generally results in someone making a sewing needle motion with their hands.
  • Roll . . .
    Whenever I am calling for a roll I say this, but unfortunately in a way that triggers: that beautiful bean footage?

  • When last we left our heroes . . .
    The players usually start explaining their actions and how they tie into the beginning of this session once someone utters this. It is kind of the preface to a recap.


Some That I’ve Picked Up From Other Sources

  • At this particular moment…
    From pushing daisies, it prefaces a flashback scenario that gives the moral of the upcoming episode.
  • The facts were these…
    Also from pushing daisies, it introduces a monlogue by the narrator, who is going to lay everything out on the table.
  • Turning to look at the camera
    While, not a narrative phrase per se, it functions in the exact same way. When someone, I.e. Ferris Bueller, turns to look at the camera and begins telling something to the audience, it functions in the same way as a narrative phrase. It changes the story being told, and reveals something outside the scope of what the characters know.
  • A long time ago, in a galaxy far away…
    Sets up the story as something that, while possibly similar to the audience’s world view, this story will play by its own rules and will not follow things the way the audience expects.
  • I’ve got a bad feeling about this…
    Something bad will happen, but it WILL be awesome!

Now, if it seems like this article is a little sparse on tips and ideas that’s because it is meant to be. You can’t make rules or judgments that stretch across multiple people’s personal lexicons. While there are some phrases we may all share in common, and they might be telling of certain shared concepts, what means one thing to one person might mean something else to another.

At this particular moment, I would like you to tell me the rest of the story. What phrases do you commonly use as a GM? What phrases do you use as a player or hear from players? What are some great phrases that can be ripped from other media?

When last we left our commenters . . .

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Narrative Phrases"

#1 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On February 19, 2009 @ 10:12 am

I’ve got a few, but one that I recently realized I’m overfond of is “only to find that…” to set up a reversal or similar plot twist.

“Our heroes sought the madman Eliath, only to learn that he and the wizard who sent to them to Sigil, Morard, were one and the same.”

#2 Comment By BryanB On February 19, 2009 @ 10:40 am

I probably have used this one too much over the years…

“Do you guys remember (when) (that) (the) X ?”

That usually gives away the fact that a recurring NPC is about to take the stage once more.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On February 19, 2009 @ 10:53 am

@DarthKrzysztof -I don’t think I’ve ever used “only to find that”. It definitely fits with a reversal or plot twist. When do you find yourself using this? After players have figured these things out, or as you are giving them the information?

@BryanB – How do the players react to knowing that a recurring NPC is going to come back? I’ve found a huge disconnect between player memory and what characters might remember. Is this the kind of mental jog that gets the players back into familiar territory with the NPC?

#4 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On February 19, 2009 @ 11:36 am

It usually popped up in recaps. Maybe it’s just my love of plot twists and cliffhangers, but I realized I was doing it a lot.

#5 Comment By BryanB On February 19, 2009 @ 11:45 am

@John Arcadian – In many cases, the players like to see a recurring NPC come back into the spotlight. It helps give the game continuity and if the players had a bad run in with an NPC, it can often be time for some payback.

Of course when they see an NPC that the PCs crossed, the tension mounts as the PCs wonder, “Ok, what the heck is she doing here!?”

In cases where the NPC did the PCs wrong, the PCs almost never forget them. Sometimes, it can be just one or two of the PCs that remember an NPC but one is all it takes. :)

#6 Comment By ShadoeKnight On February 19, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

“And then it sees you…”

That’s the most iconic I use as DM I think, but I’m fond of,
“So that happened.”

Uttered in a deadpan when something immense and dangerous occurs which is from the movie State and Main. Right after Alec Baldwin crashes the station wagon he’s driving he pops up and says it.

#7 Comment By John Arcadian On February 19, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

@ShadoeKnight – “And then it sees you…” sounds like a great way to let the party know they failed their sneaky rolls! I can see the delivery of “So that happened” being awesome after some incredible action. I might have to check out State and Main to see what other gems it holds.

I’ve found that movies are great to study for dialogue. They can really help you pick out what kind of clues you give off with your speech.

#8 Comment By nolandda On February 19, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

Oooo. I must make use of “The facts were these…”

This raises the question about how cinematic you want your game to be. Should you narrate “scenes” with events and NPCs that there characters have no way of knowing about?

I have never had a character address the camera, but that is another cinematic trope that night be interesting if used carefully.

#9 Comment By Tony Graham On February 19, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

I use “You suddenly realize…” as a clue to my players that they have badly blown an Awareness/Perception roll in the recent past and the consequences are coming down around their heads.

I use “Something familiar about…” as a clue to inform players that they have missed something or aren’t putting 2+2 together and getting 4. It usually revokes a response along the lines of, “Oh, crap!”

“You’re feeling good. Sorta invincible.” Typically accompanied by the hand-sign from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, lets my players know that heal/save-throw/blessing worked.

#10 Comment By John Arcadian On February 19, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

@nolandda – Pushing daisies is an excellent show and has lots of nifty little narrative apparatus like that. The more you edge towards narrative tools the more cut-sceney your game does get. Cinematic can apply to more than just the cut-scenes though. It is very cinematic to have the players describe their characters actions after they’ve rolled a hit, especially if you give them free reign as to what happens.

@Tony Graham
What’s in the flask, Egg? Magic potion?
Egg: Yeah.
Thought so, good. What do we do, drink it?
Egg: Yeah.
Good, thought so.

#11 Comment By CoarseDragon On February 19, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

This question will fill the players with dread.

Are you going to [open] [touch] [move] the [thing]?

#12 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 19, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

“Game on.” Spoken slowly and with authority, to get the game restarted after a humorous anecdote or other tangent.

“…So, where were we?” Usually follows the above, once the ruckus settles down.

“I convert it/him into experience points.” When I’m playing, and the GM asks what I do.

And I often refer to questgiver NPCs as ‘Basil Exposition’. :)

#13 Comment By Swordgleam On February 19, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

Two I picked up from my old DM are, “You may certainly try” and “You don’t know,” both said with specific inflection. They work a lot better than, “Oh god I have no idea if that works,” and both instill fear in the players quite well.

One I use on a semi-regular basis is, “What do you think?” which is usually code for “That’s one of the stupidest ideas/questions/plans I’ve ever heard.” (The bar for ‘stupidest plan ever’ gets raised on an almost session-ly basis. My favourite is still their plan to put a sabotagued nuclear generator near the goblin’s base and hope for them all to die of radiation poisoning.)

“Hold on a second.” Because I can only write so many notes at once, and when debate is flying fast and furious and everyone’s gods are chiming in, there’s a lot of writing to be done.

#14 Comment By JackSmithIV On February 20, 2009 @ 12:19 am

No no no, I’m determined to win for “worst habit” here.

So I think a lot on my feet. I run story-intensive games that work out wonderfully, but one of my best DMing skills in improvisation. This leads to a busy mind, however, and sometimes there’s just a lot to keep track of. One of these examples of initiative. I’m so concentrated on keeping track of everything else (I think I do a great job), including narrative, I often rely on the players, shouting out a quick “who’s next?”. They catch on and inform me rather quickly. But oftentimes, I’ll just say it. After they complete their first action, after they make just about any standard.

The worst though is it just creeps into _everything_. Even out-of-combat narrative. “Who’s next” ends up infiltrating any other intended phrase, such as “What do you do”, or “What do you say”. Or when I’m supposed to do something as simple as describe a room.

#15 Comment By John Arcadian On February 20, 2009 @ 8:54 am

@CoarseDragon – I’ve had some pretty chaotic neutral players in my day. Mind you, not characters, players. There was one who took a giant tooth, which was bathed in holy light in an enclosed room that was filled with mystic elven singing, and stuck it in his mouth to see what would happen. Oh wait, that was me . . . .

That phrasing can definitely fill the players with dread, but do you find that it also points out that this could be something important to them, or do you use it sometimes to misdirect them and keep them on their toes?

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Game on is popular with one of my players, but with a more . . . yelling to get over the din of whatever distraction is going on.

@Swordgleam – You may certainly try gets brought up a lot in our games too. The guy who is GMing our current game falls back to the “I have no idea if that will work”, but not in the exact way. We tend to raise the bar for stupidest plans, but we generally make them work. I think that if he went with your “You can certainly try” attitude and phrasing more than the “I have no idea if that will work” we wouldn’t feel like we could get away with the stupid plans so much.

@JackSmithIV – I think we’ve all done that as GMs, letting battle pacing creep into other elements. If we, as GMs, follow the reading our players path and become reactionary to their ideas we often have a harder time shifting gears to get into the narrative. Being a GM is a fine line between leading the players into the story and letting them control it.

#16 Comment By peter On February 20, 2009 @ 10:06 am

the thing I find myself saying the most is: are you really going to do that.
It always makes the players panic and reconsider their actions. I used to say it to make sure they didn’t do to stupid things when we just started playing, since they 3 out of 4 players were new on this roleplay thing.

but now I also use it when they seem to be doing well.

#17 Comment By Bercilac On June 18, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

I’m reminded of the opening word of Beowulf, “Hwaet,” which Seamus Heaney translates as “So,” the poet’s throat-clearing, the dive into the story without delay. Phrases I use:
When last we left our lovely heroes… You need the extra alliteration!
Roll it. Meaning: you think you can do that? Prove it!
Good question. Meaning: not telling.
All of a sudden… Spoken loudly, used to interrupt player debate that I think is dragging on too long, to force a decision (or at least a reaction).
All hell breaks loose. It always does.


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