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Boxed Text

M.T. Black

Explorer
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?
 

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aramis erak

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

Bad boxed text
  • presents trigger information in the middle
  • presents dialogue
  • presents player dialogue
 

Celebrim

Legend
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.
 
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ccs

40th lv DM
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.
 

Psikerlord#

Explorer
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.
 

M.T. Black

Explorer
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
 


Jhaelen

First 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.)
 

Psikerlord#

Explorer
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.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
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.

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.
 

RedSiegfried

First Post
I like boxed text. Whether I use it or not is another matter. I just like to have the option in case I haven't had time to prep much or I'm just feeling lazy or not particularly creative or evocative that day. Thinking back, I seldom read the boxed text exactly as it's presented anyway.
 

pdzoch

Explorer
My problem with box text is that it never seems to suit the situation in the game. Bland descriptions of a room describing dimensions and layout are suitable for an architect, not a adventurer, and do not add anything to a game if you are using miniatures and tabletop that clearly provide that information visually. Even when there is a great description of the room, it always assumes a certain perspective that either reveals too much or too little to the players, so I always have to adjust the description on the fly. A great example of this is Klarg's Cave in the Lost mines of Phandelver. The description is from the perspective of the main entrance from the Twin Pools Cave. However, the characters could have scaled the fissure in the Kennel and entered through the chimney instead.

Instead, I prefer to have the room described to me, the DM, to narrate my own description to suit the situation as it occurs naturally during the game. I like good descriptive writing then too. I will most likely be using the same phrases.

I do not like dialogue script written for me. The dialogue never seems to fit the situation in the game as my players never seem to ask "the magic question" and instead beat around the bush and come at information in weird angles. I do like sample dialogue to help shape the character -- catch phrases, typical statements, etc. While not necessary, it does help me keep from making all my character sound the same.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Psikerlord# - what about those GMs who are not so great at improv?
Here is where it gets somewhat heated, because I'm about to fire back at the 'mediocre DM' theory.

All GMs are not so great at improv. Every GM that thinks that they are great at improvisation is fooling themselves. There are reasons why novels and movies are composed and edited. Yes, a scene can be improvised, some times to very good effect. But even then, the scene usually stays in only because it came off well.

No one improvises well unless they've also prepared well. An improvised scene like the barrack rant in 'Full Metal Jacket' works because the guy improvising the scene is an actual DI, whose practiced scenes like that endlessly IRL. The marvelous improvised 'why are we in detention' scene in The Breakfast Club works not only because the cast is so talented because the director has asked and demanded the cast be in character on and off the set for weeks to the point that Judd Nelson was Bender.

I have no idea where GMs get the idea that they can improvise well. The same GM probably doesn't believe he can get up in front of a mike at the Comedy Club and improvise a stand up comedy routine cold. The same GM probably doesn't believe he can get up on a stage and improvise a one man play. Yet you see GM after GM trying to pull off the equivalent stunt of running a session cold and just hoping ideas will come to them.

In 32 years of gaming, as a player I've never once failed to enjoy an experience when the GM was well prepared, and invariably every bad experience I've ever had came down to (I soon discovered) a lack of preparation (or sometimes too much of the wrong preparation, that became immediately useless when the players went off script). The single most telling mark of a good GM is how hard they are willing to work and how much time they put into their games.

Improvisation takes more preparation to do well than scripting something. GMs that actually pull off improvisation from time to time do so because they spent more time preparing for the scene, not less time. Yes, every GM has to improvise all the time. But to pull this off successfully, you have to do so on the basis of preparation. You want a reputation of improvising well? Prepare harder.
 

RedSiegfried

First Post
I have no idea where GMs get the idea that they can improvise well. The same GM probably doesn't believe he can get up in front of a mike at the Comedy Club and improvise a stand up comedy routine cold. The same GM probably doesn't believe he can get up on a stage and improvise a one man play. Yet you see GM after GM trying to pull off the equivalent stunt of running a session cold and just hoping ideas will come to them.
That's why when I improv a session, it's wrong to say that I improvise alone. I have a group of several other people helping me, and I rely heavily on their contributions.

But yeah, one-man improv that results in something really amazing is a talent few people actually possess and I'm sure even then it doesn't always pan out. On the other hand, I don't have to please everyone when I do a cold session like some standup comedian in front of a paying crowd in a packed nightclub. I just have to please the other people I'm playing D&D with right now, and they usually know me, and they usually are playing with me because they like my style or at least don't hate it (because if they didn't, they probably wouldn't be around too long) so I have that going for me.

Anyway, boxed text.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Nothing kills the atmosphere faster than rattling down an 'atmospheric description' written by someone else.
So write your own. I'm almost always homebrewing anyway.

It's supposed to be an RPG session, not a book reading done by an author, right?
Boxed text is really only the opening sentence in an interactive paragraph, or the opening paragraph in an interactive chapter. It's the way to get started and set the stage. After that the player's are going to poke, probe, and ask questions.

I prefer bullet points to give me lists of what's present and use these to give descriptions in my own voice.
I'm totally ok with that. A bulleted list of important points to cover serves the same sort of purpose as boxed text. What I find though is that mostly you are then just reading bulleted lists and improvising joining and transition language between them. And that's fine. It's a legitimate form of preparation, although I personally can't pull off list to speech that well without rehearsal - repeatedly making the presentation until I can make it sound natural. Mostly, its very obvious when a person giving a presentation is turning a bulleted list into speech, and when it's not it's because the person has performed the speech so many times that they no longer really need the bullet points.

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.
I totally agree, but the analogy doesn't really work if you think about it. You said the reason the analogy fails yourself:

Everyone can read that themselves!
In the case of a module, you aren't passing out text for players to read and then reading it to them. They can't see the text. Thier only interface with the text, in whatever form it takes, is your presentation. It would be awesome if I could put up a slide illustrating every scene and encounter, but I can't put 6 hours of work in on a 20 minute presentation in my campaign. Nor can I rehearse and memorize the text well enough to rattle off the important points from memory every single time.

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.)
Think how much preparation goes into being able to achieve that illusion of improvisation.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
My problem with box text is that it never seems to suit the situation in the game.
I called this out in my initial post as the hardest part of writing boxed text. Invariably, even with boxed text, you have to improvise the wording to deal with unexpected perspectives. That's probably the reason behind Hickman's spare style. He's not writing out everything he's planning to say as a DM, he's just getting himself started with the key idea and he'll flesh it out according to the situation.

Even when there is a great description of the room, it always assumes a certain perspective that either reveals too much or too little to the players, so I always have to adjust the description on the fly. A great example of this is Klarg's Cave in the Lost mines of Phandelver. The description is from the perspective of the main entrance from the Twin Pools Cave. However, the characters could have scaled the fissure in the Kennel and entered through the chimney instead.
That's far an away the easy shift of perspective to deal with. The hardest to keep track of in your head and deal with when trying to describe something is the player's access to light. I find myself ignoring the player's light source 90% of the time just because different characters in the party would be able to see different details, and need to move to different places in the room to see the same things clearly. And are they using a lantern or dancing lights or a daylight spell at this point? I often find I need to work around this by going ahead and lighting rooms in the dungeon in some fashion, just to make the available light somewhat more stable.

Instead, I prefer to have the room described to me, the DM, to narrate my own description to suit the situation as it occurs naturally during the game. I like good descriptive writing then too. I will most likely be using the same phrases.
The key here for me is that whatever pattern is used to describe the room to the DM, has to be as organized and intuitive as boxed text. Gygax required you to skim his rooms for information you needed to convey, and no matter how many times you'd read the module it was way too easy to leave some important detail out and then have to put in an 'oh yeah, there is an X in the room' when the players start taking actions.

I do not like dialogue script written for me. The dialogue never seems to fit the situation in the game as my players never seem to ask "the magic question" and instead beat around the bush and come at information in weird angles. I do like sample dialogue to help shape the character -- catch phrases, typical statements, etc. While not necessary, it does help me keep from making all my character sound the same.
Dialogue script is hard, but I find it sometimes necessary. Generally speaking, even with a well prepared NPC, prepared dialogue is only about half of what you end up saying during the conversation, and like any prepared text you often have to adapt it to the changing perspective. But I get a lot of use out of it.

Finally, I will concede there is one bad point to boxed text, and that's loss of eye contact. Ideally, you could maintain eye contact with the audience as with any good public speaking. Boxed text is basically giving that up most of the time, at least at the start of the scene. But on the other hand, Gygax's rambling descriptions or bullet points are likely as anything else to break eye contact as the GM is forced to skim the information (often across huge blocks of text in a complex room), so it's relative disadvantage rather than an absolute one. Ideally of course, you familiarize yourself with the text that you need only glance at it to get the point across, but realistically that more preparation time than you could manage if it isn't your paid job.
 

Celebrim

Legend
That's why when I improv a session, it's wrong to say that I improvise alone. I have a group of several other people helping me, and I rely heavily on their contributions.
To be fully honest, as a player, I find nothing more insulting than discovering a GM is trying to do this. It's usually the last time I play under that GM, and I usually leave the session mildly angry. If I wanted a story to be principally out of my own head, I'd run the #$%% game myself. I don't get much chance to be the player, because everyone always wants me to be the GM, so I really look forward to chances to just worry about my character and not the whole game world and be sweating to invent most or all of the narrative and purpose to the game. I want someone else to be doing most of the heavy lifting, and to enjoy being in their story and discovering things I did not and perhaps could not have imagined on my own.

For once, I don't want to be the secret keeper. I want to discover vast new vistas.

If I find out that in fact, I'm the one that has been doing the imagining and the DM has just been stringing me along, I feel like I've been slapped in the face.
 

pdzoch

Explorer
[MENTION=4937]Celebrim[/MENTION] is on a tear in this thread. Good reading though.

As a long time DM, I spend tons of time preparing for the adventure. TONS OF TIME. On overall story for the campaign, on the world, on each adventure to drive the plot, for encounter balance, for fleshed out NPCs, for well designed and thought out scenes/encounters (even if not written out fully), for the miniatures (I paint my own), on the treasures and rewards, on character maintenance (I upkeep the sheet for my players), to all the game aids that go into the game (spell cards, treasure cards, initiative cards, maps, handouts, etc). TONS OF TIME because I think the players deserve it.

I've been thrust into situations occasionally where I was asked to DM a game on short notice with almost no time to prepare. In those situations, I feel like a bad comedian who is screwing the delivery of a good joke. You got to know your material. I would posit that the emphasis on "Master" should be in the mastery of the game world, not controller of fates.
 

Celebrim

Legend
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.
Tell me more. I don't understand exactly what technique you are describing here, but as I'm always infinitely curious regarding theory and technique.

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.
This technique, if I'm understanding it rightly, would seem to only work when it's reasonable that the PC's could do a cursory inspection of the entire area, perceive the entire area, and a cursory inspection results in no significant events happening. Otherwise, how could the players perceive 'the entire ground floor'? I'm not familiar with the module, but can you only do this in situation with no closed, much less locked doors, no things that are going to jump out and grab them or any other triggered events? Standing in the foyer, how do you know there is a 'tidy kitchen' to check out, and if you've described it, haven't you also said implicitly, 'There is no danger in the parlor, you can cross it and see into the kitchen without problem?'

It also seems like this technique treads dangerously close to assuming behavior on the part of the players. Knowing some of my players, they'd enter the first room, toss burning oil at everything, leave while everything burned down, and only after that start exploring. That's an extreme example, but how do you deal with non-linearity when linearity tends to be an assumed aspect of reality?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
This technique, if I'm understanding it rightly, would seem to only work when it's reasonable that the PC's could do a cursory inspection of the entire area, perceive the entire area, and a cursory inspection results in no significant events happening. Otherwise, how could the players perceive 'the entire ground floor'? I'm not familiar with the module, but can you only do this in situation with no closed, much less locked doors, no things that are going to jump out and grab them or any other triggered events? Standing in the foyer, how do you know there is a 'tidy kitchen' to check out, and if you've described it, haven't you also said implicitly, 'There is no danger in the parlor, you can cross it and see into the kitchen without problem?'
There aren't any *rules* to it. I use common sense and natural conversation. Often the fact that there is a kitchen just out of sight round the corner is just not an interesting mystery.

There's no way I can lay out a procedure. It's organic.
 

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