This is a topic I've talked about before, but given a small conversation in my online campaign yesterday, I thought I might take another shot at it. I could say, I'm going to take another shot, but instead, I ought to say, I am taking another shot.
Things were going along as usual, with the players saying, "I will" do this or that, and I griped about it as usual and a brief discussion popped up. I promised to write a post and we buried it for the campaign.
Butch made a good argument that the future tense is common in every day life:
"Consider the difference if a co-worker says, 'I'm going to lunch,' and your reply is: 'I'm going with you.' (whether you like it or not) or 'I'll go with you.' (if it's OK with you) The difference between 'I go to the bar' and 'I will go to the bar' may be subtle, but in my mind, what I'm saying is, 'Assuming I can, I go to the bar.'"
Then James C. followed with:
"As the arbiter of all activity, nothing takes place without the DM's approval."
And although I understand perfectly why both players feel this way - indeed, that they are even trained to think this way - I have to say that they couldn't be more wrong.
These are two different issues. The first, that from Butch, is the issue that I tried to handle in the linked post above, but I think I got too clever and missed getting the point across.
D&D is a game played with words, and as such, exact words are important. In fact, the words themselves are meant to take the place of actions - they're not, therefore, merely expressions, they are surgical indications of exactly what the character does, and at the moment the character does them.
The reason this is usually not so is because of the way in which, generally, players approach their character's actions. There is a very, very strong tendency on the player's part to compress time and leap way ahead in what actions they take.
What do I mean? Let us say that the players have just left a given dungeon. They're loaded with loot, they're tired and beat up, and one will say, "We will return to town." Take note of the future tense.
This is working into Butch's point about the conditionalism of stating the character's action. He can't guarantee they will get back to town, so it is better, he argues, to put it in the future tense just in case you don't get back to town..
But I argue that the REAL problem is the choice of words - specifically, the choice of verb. The verb return itself implies something that has already happened. You can't return until you've gotten there. The verb, and not the question for permission, is what defines the necessity of the future tense.
Consider an alternate verb: "We head for town." Simple, resolute, and in no way dependent on the DM's permission. If I cock my head and lift my foot, I have, without question, "headed" for town. I may get stopped on the way, but getting stopped will in no way change the fact that I did, beyond a doubt, head in that direction.
Players constantly pick verbs which are intended to compress time ... which is something they learn from DMs who either fail to do so, or who suck at doing so. I can't express how many times I have to hold up a player, on or off line, who rattles off the fifteen things they do once they arrive in town, as though these things can all be done at the same time ... and all expressed in the future tense, of course. "Town" has its own particular issues where it comes to D&D. "Town" all too often means "safe zone" or the "nothing can happen to me there" zone, and players treat it that way because they are trained to do so.
But understand ... it is one thing for a player to remark to his friends, "When I get back to town, I'm going to have the biggest steak" and another for the player actually in town, telling the DM, "I'll have the steak," and then marking the cash off the player sheet. We talk like that to the server, because we know the steak will be arriving at some point in the future - but if the future is now, the verb should also be now. "I eat!" is a verb I rarely, if ever, hear a player use where it comes to provisions. It is always, "We will have a day's provisions" - never, "we eat a day's provisions."
I originally made the point that players adapt this sort of future-tense to describe their actions because they've learned it is a way to side-step the reality of actually doing a specific thing in the moment of doing it. If I speak in the future tense, I have one last chance to avoid getting axed by the DM. I can fall back on, "I didn't say I did it, I said I was about to do it. I haven't done it yet!" This is the permission element both Butch and James alluded to.
So an experienced gamer will develop phrases and ways of speaking that improve one's chances of survival. Everytime you make a definitive statement - "I turn the knob" - you risk death. Better to say, "I will turn the knob." You might still get killed, but every bit of an edge helps. Besides, one time in ten it will force the DM to ask back, "You turn it?" which is a red flag. The DM will never ask that question if the red knob were perfectly safe, so the smart player backs off and says, "Oh, wait ... maybe not." And another inexperienced DM misses that chance to kill a player.
The desire is to have the players speak only in verbs which as players they can be absolutely certain of doing - no matter what freaking permission the DM offers.
This is where I take umbrage with James' statement, because the DM is NOT the arbiter of ALL activity. The players are entitled to absolute agency in performing actions they can perform. No matter what, they can always 'try' to do things. They can try to return to town. They can try to turn the knob. Even if the player is held, frozen, magic jarred and soaking a delusion potion through their skin, no matter what the fuck the DM has to say about success, the player can still TRY. So long as the player indicates that they are trying, the DM can stuff his or her fucking permission. The player doesn't need permission to try.
All things being equal, the player is perfectly entitled to take a wide variety of actions. They can cast a spell ... they may not be able to discharge the spell, or complete the casting, but they can damn well begin the casting and the DM can just suck it up sideways. If there's nothing immediately in the vicinity of the player that would stop the player, the player can and indeed must be acknowledged to have completed the casting, for those are the rules of the game, which the DM must abide by every bit as much as the players. If the player picks up a sword, and there's no fundamental reason time and space has been altered regarding this particular object, then by ZEUS and His Green Apple Trio, that fucking sword is picked up. And that is how it goes. There ain't no future tense about it - the player enacts upon his or her agency to alter the world with the words that player uses, and the DM is not empowered to stop the player.
Naturally, some swords cannot be 'picked up.' But then there better be a damn good reason why the player's agency is thwarted ... and the player better have the right to pound his or her fist on the table and demand that answer be a good one when it presents itself, or hell should break fully upon the DM's head. Because Player Agency is not to dismissed lightly. Agency is the soup and crumbly crackers of this exploitation, and without it there is no damn game.
So exercise a little agency. Put it in the present tense.