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Thread: Boxed Text

  1. #1
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    Boxed Text

    Yes, the perennial question - do you like "boxed text" (or "read-aloud text" or "color text") in your RPG adventures? For those who do, what defines "good" boxed text? Do you like just the bare bones, or do you prefer something with a bit of flair?

    As a final question, can anyone nominate an adventure that they think does the whole boxed text thing really well?

  2. #2
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    Good boxed text presents information in narrative voice, not dialogue.

    Bad boxed text
    • presents trigger information in the middle
    • presents dialogue
    • presents player dialogue
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  3. #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by M.T. Black View Post
    Yes, the perennial question - do you like "boxed text" (or "read-aloud text" or "color text") in your RPG adventures?
    Yes.

    When I'm doing my own prep for a series of encounters, I consider boxed text to be the single most important piece of prep I can do. Since you usually don't have visual illustrations, boxed text is the sole source of evocative painting you can do. It's scene framing. It's immersion. It's the clues.

    For those who do, what defines "good" boxed text? Do you like just the bare bones, or do you prefer something with a bit of flair?
    • It should be fairly short so that the players don't tune out. If it runs long, it's better to break it into smaller pieces that are read as the players investigate different areas more closely.
    • It should nonetheless try cover everything that is obvious to the player's senses at the moment, and clues to what might be worth exploring.
    • It should not describe how the players feel or act (unless something magical is compelling them).
    • It should be well written, literate, even slightly florid. The language should be evocative of Tolkien, Wolfe, Howard and those 'Appendix N' authors. It should read like and the players should feel like they are in a good fantasy novel.
    • As much as possible, it should not make assumptions about the player's behavior to that point, so that the DM doesn't have to mentally rewrite it to reflect broken assumptions. This is one of the hardest parts of doing a good job.
    • Dialogue of importance also makes good boxed text, particular responses to queries on important subjects. One nice thing about extensive dialogue samples is that it really helps you play a character. However, long blocks of text are to be avoided unless they represent 'stories within stories'. Even then, try to keep the story fairly short.


    As a final question, can anyone nominate an adventure that they think does the whole boxed text thing really well?
    Different adventures do different parts of boxed text really well.

    I first fell in love with boxed text reading the works of Tracy Hickman. But Hickman could be excessively spare in my opinion, particularly if he thought the room wasn't that important. Although he's never guilty of overwriting or stringing paragraph after paragraph together (which is the far more common problem), he's a bit too barebones IMO. You could also really tell when there was a 'move on, nothing to see here' vibe to some of his writing, and in my opinion that's both bad design and bad writing. But in terms of how he places his text consistently and introduces it, I have emulated that ever since. And you could do worse than following his guide for being terse and to the point.

    Better written though is the boxed text in C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. While the module has many problems, it's some of the best boxed text ever done.

    I also have a fondness for CM3: Sabre River.

    Gygax writes well - witness WG4: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun - but his organization skills are terrible, and figuring out how to turn his text into a description is always a challenge. But in terms of crafting a sentence describing something in a room, he does it as well as anyone has ever done. In an ideal world, you'd also get good illustrations of the S1: Tomb of Horrors sort (still some of the best ever), to go with boxed text, but obviously this isn't going to happen in a typical homebrew.

    A more modern example that I think incorporates 'lessons learned' is Kevin Kulp's 'Of Sound Mind'. It's not perfect - I rewrote some passages to suit my ear when I ran it - but it's overall really well done, both in language and the amount of detail he imparts, and one of the best I have ever read. If you can be half that good, you'll be doing really well.

    Another modern dungeon I admire a lot is Erik Mona's 'Whispering Cairn', but it's useful to compare with Kulp's better and more consistent boxed text. If anything, Mona's best room design and best text is better than Kulp's, but Kulp is a lot more consistent from room to room IMO. The formatting though sucks, as it just doesn't leap out of the page nearly as well as it should. The module is definitely worth your time though.
    Last edited by Celebrim; Tuesday, 13th December, 2016 at 03:17 PM.
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  4. #4
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    Doesn't matter to me. If I'm running a module I know it through to the point where I don't need to "read" anything to the players.
    Well, maybe the exact amount of CP in someone's pockets.... But never descriptions of what's seen, what's said, etc.

  5. #5
    Every time a GM reads boxed text, an improv fairy dies. Save the improv fairies!

    IMO the game works best if you use natural speech, and try to keep what's prepped and what's improv a closely guarded secret. You cant do that with boxed text. Players know what's prepped, and what's off script.
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  6. #6
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    Thanks Celebrim for another very thoughtful contribution. I very much enjoying hear your thoughts on these topics, and I'll try and pick up the adventures you have suggested

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    Psikerlord# - what about those GMs who are not so great at improv?

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Psikerlord# View Post
    IMO the game works best if you use natural speech
    This!
    I never read boxed text aloud. Actually, I believe doing that is a tell-tale sign of a mediocre DM.
    Nothing kills the atmosphere faster than rattling down an 'atmospheric description' written by someone else.
    It's supposed to be an RPG session, not a book reading done by an author, right?

    Consequently, I don't need boxed text in my adventures. I prefer bullet points to give me lists of what's present and use these to give descriptions in my own voice.

    (Actually, it's just the same when I'm giving presentations at work: There's nothing I dislike more than a presenter reading the text off his slides, verbatim. Everyone can read that themselves! Since I'm supposed to know what I'm talking about, I should better be able to summarize and explain it in my own words.)
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  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by M.T. Black View Post
    Psikerlord# - what about those GMs who are not so great at improv?
    I dont think there's any such thing as bad improv when it comes to describing rooms etc (the sort of thing boxed text replaces) - its just paraphrasing what it already there - talking like you always do.

    I should clarify - my earlier comment is in tongue in cheek - boxed text is cool, sometimes it's awesome. Just overall I prefer to hear natural speech from my GM. I had an eye opening experience with a UK GM who never used boxed text, and the game just flowed so well. I have tried to avoid boxed text ever since.
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  10. #10
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    I not only dislike boxed text, I also dislike room-by-room descriptions and things like "there's an exit in the north wall and one in the south". I also like a slightly more interactive description, where the PCs can ask questions.

    For example, when running Death House, when the PCs entered the house, I described the entire ground floor in basic terms. I gave them some atmospheric info (because, hey, Ravenloft - you have to!) and then told them the ground floor contained a hallway with some eerie paintings, a study with a large bookcase and desk, a large red spiral staircase, and a tidy kitchen, with maybe a sentence of description of each. (I don't actually recall the ground floor exactly, so substitute whatever rooms were actually there). Then a player might say "I'm checking out the kitchen" and I'd describe that a bit more.

    I always try to use my own words and describe the area in as natural a manner as I can. Details get filled in as players ask questions, and the long/dry info-dump is avoided.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
    This!
    I never read boxed text aloud. Actually, I believe doing that is a tell-tale sign of a mediocre DM.
    But judgemental, don'tcha think? Different styles suit different people. Some people are great at reading stuff aloud dramatically; I'm not.

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