D&D 5E To boxed text or not to boxed text

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
@Maxperson, @QuentinGeorge - here is the post that I am elaborating upon (as I understand it - it's not my post):

The two of you have made it clear that you do not regard boxed text as the niche tool this post describes it as. You are happy to have descriptions prepared in advance but don't regard that as part of getting ready to run a railroad.
Yes, and our way is the common way to use box text. True railroads are relatively rare.
That's your prerogative, of course. But on the flip side, you can probably infer what I think and what I take @chaochou to think: namely, if I'm not planning to run a game with pre-determined content and scenes (ie a railroad), then boxed text is not a useful tool.
That I can agree with. It wouldn't be useful for your playstyle.
Again, the thought - at least, my thought but I believe also @chaochou's thought - is that if the game is not a railroad then that stuff will be worked out in the course of play via player-GM interaction.
And this is incorrect. Playstyles that are not your playstyle do not equate to railroading. Railroading is a very specific and negative way to play, where you force players down a path. If that force is not being applied, then there is no railroad. There is nothing inherent to boxed text that implies railroad. Heck, it doesn't even imply a linear, non-railroad game.
 

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Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
This I do not have a problem with.



It is not a straw man argument, but you just made one.

By design, boxed text is meant to be read aloud, correct? And most of the time, that text is going to be in English. But quite often, your campaign is not being run in English. So you are interrupting your session with reading text aloud in a different language. That is jarring, and one of several reasons I listed for disliking boxed text.

It is a completely fair argument.

That's not what you initially said though. You said that only a small percentage of D&D players run the game in the same language as the text language is of the material in front of them. That's not a fair argument because it goes against everything we know about the game and the players. And if true, then you need to provide some sort of data behind it. Saying "Lots of countries speak languages other than English, German, Spanish, French, Japanese, etc" (all languages the game is translated into) does not mean that only a tiny percentage of players play in countries where those languages are their primary language. Do you know how many countries have English or Spanish as their primary language? It's a lot more than 2, and when you add in the other available languages, and look at where the game has sold, it appears you have it backwards. It's not a tiny percentage who run the game in the same language as the books, it's a tiny percentage of overall gamers who run the game in a different language than what is available in text.

I.e., it's not about the # of countries that don't have one of those languages as a primary language, it's about of all the people who play the game, where do they live. Maybe because we just had an election, but this reminds me of the argument "I won more counties in the US, so I should have won the election." when the great flaw in that is that it's ignoring where the people actually live. How many live in Orange county CA vs Wallowa county Oregon. How many D&D players live in the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Mexico, Central&South America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand vs how many live in Denmark, Iran, or Romania? Is it truly only a tiny %?

I don't necessarily disagree with all of your other objections (they are your opinion and preference and are welcome to them). I just can't see the logic behind saying that one of your top objections is that "only a small percentage of players run the game in the same language as it's written."
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I think Imaculata's complaint about boxed text makes perfect sense. As someone who plays in English but is bilingual, as often as we can be used to switching between languages, in some contexts it can still be bewildering, esp. when you brain is trying to read one language as the other (common when languages share alphabets, for example). It might only be a second of cognitive dissonance but it can be a stumbling block.

That said, I think that is a good argument for why they don't like/use boxed text and not an argument against boxed text in general.

As I said above, I like the box itself, but if it held a bullet point list instead of a prosaic description that'd be okay as long as the box is still there.

The notion that boxed text = railroad is absurd. That is like saying, having stat blocks ready for monsters the PCs may encounter is a railroad.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
I think Imaculata's complaint about boxed text makes perfect sense. As someone who plays in English but is bilingual, as often as we can be used to switching between languages, in some contexts it can still be bewildering, esp. when you brain is trying to read one language as the other (common when languages share alphabets, for example). It might only be a second of cognitive dissonance but it can be a stumbling block.
I don't disagree with how that can be off-putting. The part I disagreed with was the claim that only a small % of players play the game in the same language as the rules text language.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I don't disagree with how that can be off-putting. The part I disagreed with was the claim that only a small % of players play the game in the same language as the rules text language.
But that is irrelevant to this discussion in general, regardless of its veracity, thus I see no point in engaging with it. I also think Imaculata was speaking colloquially and not trying to make a specific statistical claim - so no need to be pedantic about it.
 

pemerton

Legend
The notion that boxed text = railroad is absurd. That is like saying, having stat blocks ready for monsters the PCs may encounter is a railroad.
There is nothing inherent to boxed text that implies railroad. Heck, it doesn't even imply a linear, non-railroad game.
I think it is obvious that boxed text implies that the description of the setting, and perhaps also of events occurring, is pre-determined.
 


kenada

Legend
I don’t like boxed text. It usually means that I’m going to have to re-key the adventure to make it usable at the table. What I like is keys organized into information hierarchies.

The top-level items are the obvious stuff, but I can go deeper or not based on what makes sense, and it gives me a good tool for providing additional detail to the PCs as they explore a scene. The Alexandrian did a decent series on keys several years ago, but now I just point to Winter’s Daughter as an example of a key done right.
 

Asisreo

Patron Badass
Players can get frustrated when they don't know what they can interact with. Good boxed text immediately describes the scene and briefly mentions obvious interactables.

Boxed text in adventures can be presumptuous but good boxed text only shows a perspective which can be guaranteed based on the activation of the boxed text itself. For example, if a boxed text read:

"As you open the door, they see an abyss of pure black darkness envelop your field of view."

It makes the assumption that the players enter the room by opening the door and that the players can only see black when they enter. This is, imo, a poorly implemented boxed text. A well-implemented one would go as follows:

If the players open the door, read the following:
"You see an abyss of pure black darkness envelop your field of view."
If the player opening the door can see through darkness, instead read:
"You see an abandoned labratory with scientific equipment beyond repair sprawled onto the ground. A key is left on top of a folded paper on a desk, isolated."
Then it goes on to describe the room in the description text.

This accomplishes 2 things. If the player doesn't open the door, the boxed text isn't relevant. Its making no assumptions because it only uses the action which is guaranteed to have happened based off of its own activation.

It also makes sure a player that can see through the darkness gets an accurate description without being left with darkness they should be able to see. It doesn't assume any special vision, though, because not only could it not be darkvision, it could also be a light source. Even magical darkness can be dispelled so its important that the DM can still give a boxed response.

My main issue usually comes when boxed text takes too long or tell your players what their characters do or feel.

"You tremble in your boots as the dragon imposes himself, you are terrified." Is horrible boxed text. Not only is it telling your players how their characters feel and do, but its assuming they're wearing boots!
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
It makes the assumption that the players enter the room by opening the door and that the players can only see black when they enter. This is, imo, a poorly implemented boxed text. A well-implemented one would go as follows:

If the players open the door, read the following:
"You see an abyss of pure black darkness envelop your field of view."
If the player opening the door can see through darkness, instead read:
"You see an abandoned labratory with scientific equipment beyond repair sprawled onto the ground. A key is left on top of a folded paper on a desk, isolated."
Then it goes on to describe the room in the description text.

This accomplishes 2 things. If the player doesn't open the door, the boxed text isn't relevant. Its making no assumptions because it only uses the action which is guaranteed to have happened based off of its own activation.
I think that building in a lot of conditionals would ultimately make the boxed text too cumbersome to use. Honestly, it shouldn't be too much to write it one way and then expect the GM to paraphrase as necessary.
 

One of the worst recent examples I know of of boxed text, is in Lost Mine of Phandelver at the Redbrand Hideout. The boxed text for the Cellar reads:

The door opens onto a five-foot-wide landing fifteen feet above a large cellar, with stone steps descending to the floor in two short flights. Another door stands beneath the stairs to the north. A large stone cistern occupies the western part of the room, whose walls are lined with kegs and barrels.

So, there's a LOT of problems with this boxed text, and it is a prime example of the sorts of things that often go wrong when boxed text is provided in a module.

-First of all, the boxed text poorly describes what the room actually look like. If you were to try and sketch this room, based purely on this description, you wouldn't even get close.

-Second, the boxed text presumes that the players know what a cistern is. I know what it is, but I would not expect a lot of people to know. Especially if they are not native English speakers.

-Third, the boxed text presumes the players know what north is. Upon first entering the space, the door would most likely be to the right of the players.

-Fourth, the boxed text neglects to mention a third door, which is most definitely there on the map.

-Fifth, there is no foreshadowing of the secret door that is there at all. And that is really something that I would personally include as a DM.
 
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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
One of the worst recent examples I know of of boxed text, is in Lost Mine of Phandelver at the Redbrand Hideout.


The door opens onto a five-foot-wide landing fifteen feet above a large cellar, with stone steps descending to the floor in two short flights. Another door stands beneath the stairs to the north. A large stone cistern occupies the western part of the room, whose walls are lined with kegs and barrels.

That boxed text seems fine to me. I have definitely seen A LOT WORSE. I don't expect boxed text to explain every detail of the room, just what is immediately visible/notable on a quick look around without searching. Things like the exact dimensions for the room for mapping are a question a player can ask once they are in there and doing the mapping (or can see from it drawn on the battle mat).

The same goes for the possibility of a secret door (unless it is particularly easy secret door to find).

As for knowing what a cistern is, well again a player can just ask what it is or you can replace it with "a tank for storing water" on the fly.

But yeah, if you are getting that little utility from the box text just read aloud I can understand the frustration. However, I do think changing it on the fly or ahead of time would not be that much more work than coming up with a coherent description from a bullet list.

That said, some people (and I am not saying this is necessarily you, Imaculata) want a room description that is basically - what are the monsters? what are the treasures? what are the unusual features? and don't care about much else (if they even get beyond the first two)
 


That boxed text seems fine to me. I have definitely seen A LOT WORSE.

Oh absolutely. But I felt that using an absolutely terrible example of boxed text would not be a fair example. After all, lots of things are terrible when you pick the most flawed example of it. But that wouldn't make for an honest discussion. So I went with a more common, yet flawed example in minor ways that are more typical of boxed text.

I don't expect boxed text to explain every detail of the room, just what is immediately visible/notable on a quick look around without searching. Things like the exact dimensions for the room for mapping are a question a player can ask once they are in there and doing the mapping (or can see from it drawn on the battle mat).

Agreed. I don't expect exact dimensions, but I think the boxed text should give me an accurate image in my head of what the room roughly looks like. Where doors and stairs are, where furniture is. And sure, further details can be given as players start to investigate.

The same goes for the possibility of a secret door (unless it is particularly easy secret door to find).

This is more of a personal preference. I think there should be something to possibly draw the players to investigating where the secret door is, to prevent the players from overturning every single room and exhaustively searching every wall sconce and keg.

As for knowing what a cistern is, well again a player can just ask what it is or you can replace it with "a tank for storing water" on the fly.

I wouldn't expect every DM to know what a cistern is either. I think the module should make sure that it doesn't refer to specific kinds of architecture that the person using the book may be unfamiliar with, unless it also provides a description of what that thing is.

But yeah, if you are getting that little utility from the box text just read aloud I can understand the frustration. However, I do think changing it on the fly or ahead of time would not be that much more work than coming up with a coherent description from a bullet list.

Well, here our opinions differ I think. I think a DM should be able to use a boxed text right out of the box, without having to proof read every boxed text in the module. The point of boxed text is to take away some of the preparation, not to create more preparation.

That said, some people (and I am not saying this is necessarily you, Imaculata) want a room description that is basically - what are the monsters? what are the treasures? what are the unusual features? and don't care about much else (if they even get beyond the first two)

I think that is a worthwhile discussion to have. What DO people expect boxed text to be and do?
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
That boxed text seems fine to me. I have definitely seen A LOT WORSE. I don't expect boxed text to explain every detail of the room, just what is immediately visible/notable on a quick look around without searching. Things like the exact dimensions for the room for mapping are a question a player can ask once they are in there and doing the mapping (or can see from it drawn on the battle mat).
I have to agree. I generally prefer the boxed text to give out the salient details and, with the exception of the visible door across the room, I think it generally does that. Everything else can be handled as the PCs engage with the details.
 

Hussar

Legend
One of the worst recent examples I know of of boxed text, is in Lost Mine of Phandelver at the Redbrand Hideout. The boxed text for the Cellar reads:
I see nothing wrong with this text.
So, there's a LOT of problems with this boxed text, and it is a prime example of the sorts of things that often go wrong when boxed text is provided in a module.

-First of all, the boxed text poorly describes what the room actually look like. If you were to try and sketch this room, based purely on this description, you wouldn't even get close.

Seems fairly clear to me. You have a landing looking down into the room at one end, with a door below the stairs and a round water tank at the other.

-Second, the boxed text presumes that the players know what a cistern is. I know what it is, but I would not expect a lot of people to know. Especially if they are not native English speakers.
Writing modules for non-native speakers is NOT the job of WotC. I'm sorry, but, it's not. What language level should we be shooting for? CEFR A2? Nothing outside of the first 2000 most common words? ((About a 1st grade native level English speaker?)) Sorry, but, non-native speakers are not the target audience here and never have been.
-Third, the boxed text presumes the players know what north is. Upon first entering the space, the door would most likely be to the right of the players.
Good grief. Really? Using cardinal points is just for clarity since most people draw maps aligned north to the top.
-Fourth, the boxed text neglects to mention a third door, which is most definitely there on the map.
Ok, fair enough. Is it visible from where the players are presumed to enter the room? If yes, then sure, it should be mentioned.
-Fifth, there is no foreshadowing of the secret door that is there at all. And that is really something that I would personally include as a DM.
Why would you do that? Telegraphing secret doors? That's a DM preference, but, certainly not something to criticize about. And, frankly, if you want to do that, just add it.

People pretend that having a boxed text somehow mind controls the DM who is no longer able to adjust descriptions for the group. How much hand holding are you expecting?
 

Writing modules for non-native speakers is NOT the job of WotC. I'm sorry, but, it's not. What language level should we be shooting for? CEFR A2? Nothing outside of the first 2000 most common words? ((About a 1st grade native level English speaker?)) Sorry, but, non-native speakers are not the target audience here and never have been.

Do all native English speakers know what a cistern is? Probably not. Its not just a matter of catering to non-native English speakers in my opinion, but a matter of not presuming everyone is familiar with medieval architecture.

Good grief. Really? Using cardinal points is just for clarity since most people draw maps aligned north to the top.

If I run a module, I do not want the module to presume my party is looking at a map. There might be a map, or there might not be. Either way, the direction north has very little meaning to my players. If instead I say, straight ahead of you is a door, that is much clearer.

Why would you do that? Telegraphing secret doors? That's a DM preference, but, certainly not something to criticize about. And, frankly, if you want to do that, just add it.

It is indeed my personal preference. You are free to disagree with it.

People pretend that having a boxed text somehow mind controls the DM who is no longer able to adjust descriptions for the group. How much hand holding are you expecting?

Isn't boxed text exactly that? A hand hold?
 

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
I do not favor boxed text in the form of a verbose description intended to be read to the players verbatim, set apart from the room description through typography. I tend to skip over it when I run a publish adventure, then find trouble when important details are in the boxed text and not repeated below.

But, the GM still needs information about what is immediately visible in the room, and it needs to be at the top of the description. But I prefer it to be terse, with interactive elements called out in bold, and matching bullet points below to give more detail when needed.

Here's an example from a recent session:

C2-B. Larder​

Candlelit. 15’ x 30’ x 10’ (arched)

Raw meat rests on stone slabs. Shelves hold fresh herbs, as well as centuries-old flour and spices. Barrels collect dust in the back. There is a small statue of a pig on the north wall.
  • Meat. Laid flat on cool stone to preserve it. Some is human flesh.
  • Herbs. Gathered from the Westwood Forest. Hawthorn (5sp), Basil (2cp), sweetbalm (1sp)
  • Statue of a pig. Brass. Rolled on its back, patting its fat belly, belly button extruded. Pressing it opens a secret door to the pantry.

Some context is lost without the map or surrounding room keys. I could probably improve it if I were working on a published adventure, but it does the job and isn't difficult to write.

My descriptions are often even more terse, eschewing complete sentences, but I've noticed that I still tend to prefer to have the things in rooms doing something. Meat rests. Shelves hold. I find this easier to take in than raw bullet points. The goal is to give the GM (in this case, myself), the tools needed to visualize a scene, and then let them describe and embellish it. It's a learning process.

The Alexandrian has a great article series on the subject, which I believe was posted earlier in this thread: The Art of the Key
 

Do all native English speakers know what a cistern is? Probably not. Its not just a matter of catering to non-native English speakers in my opinion, but a matter of not presuming everyone is familiar with medieval architecture.
"Cistern" isn't exactly archaic language. I have known the term since 1st grade if not earlier. Even if I didn't, though, there are a lot of terms used in every genre that isn't "common usage." If you don't know what a work is, look it up. It is how everybody improves their vocabulary, including native speakers.
 

"Cistern" isn't exactly archaic language. I have known the term since 1st grade if not earlier. Even if I didn't, though, there are a lot of terms used in every genre that isn't "common usage." If you don't know what a work is, look it up. It is how everybody improves their vocabulary, including native speakers.
Everyone has a cistern in their house! It’s part of your toilet. It’s not an obscure word.
 

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