Boxed text (also called “box text” or “real-aloud text”) got its name from some of the earliest published D&D adventures, where bits of text were set apart from the rest by a thin black box around it. The DM was supposed to read this text aloud so that the players would know what their characters were experiencing at the time, usually as they entered a new encounter area. This text gave the writer the opportunity to “speak to” the players, pointing out what he considered to be details important enough to mention.
I have a confession to make: I dislike boxed text. I don’t like writing it. Editing boxed text is painful. I don’t even like having to read it aloud to my players as a DM. I understand why it is included in published adventures. A DM relies on it to set the scene for the characters; otherwise, she would have to scan the entire encounter area and figure out what the PCs can sense at first glance. The players can get a better picture of what their characters are experiencing when good boxed text evokes the setting.
Unfortunately, the number of things that can go wrong with boxed text often far outweighs the positives. Before I get clinical on y’all, do me a favor. Read this bit of boxed text:
“Your trip through the Forest of Demise was uneventful. The chittering of forest animals and chirping of birds that serenaded you through the forest suddenly ends, as if the creatures of the natural world shun and fear this place. In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of the ground like an evil, twisted tree reaching up to the sky. As you approach the tower, the crunching of the dead leaves under your feet seems almost deafening in the otherwise silent clearing. As you get within 20 feet of the tower, you realize the place is surrounded by a nearly invisible noxious vapor. As you breathe it in, its stench burns your lungs and makes your eyes water. The hairs on your arms bristle with terror and your heart pounds as an anguished shriek cuts through the silence from within the tower. You can feel the palpable presence of evil. On the door to the tower you see four glowing runes.”
Now picture, if you will, a typical D&D party. For this example, the edition is really irrelevant. We have Pedritar the dragonborn paladin, Brark the grimlock barbarian, Clang the warforged cleric, Dirzzelda the Druid, and Rhuul the revenant rogue. The party is approaching the tower-lair of Lystrango the evil lich of doom. As they move forward, the DM begins to read the boxed text:
DM: Everyone ready? I have your marching order? Great, let’s start with the opening boxed text! “Your trip through the Forest of Demise was uneventful. The chittering of forest animals and chirping of birds that serenaded you through the forest suddenly ends, as if the creatures of the natural world shun and fears this place. In the—“
Drizzelda the Druid: Why?
DM: Why what?
Drizzelda the Druid: Why do they shun this place?
DM: [confused stare]
Drizzelda the Druid: I’m a druid. I ask that squirrel over there why he stopped chittering.
DM: Um. He tells you that he and all the forest animals are afraid of the tower in the clearing ahead. Let me jumped ahead to that. “In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of—”
Brark the Barbarian: Nope.
DM: Nope what?
Brark the Barbarian: Nope I don’t see it. I’m a grimlock. Got no eyes.
DM: Right, ok. “Everyone but Brark sees a tower sticking out the ground like an evil, twisted tree reaching up to the sky.”
Drizzelda the Druid: I talk to it. I can talk to plants too.
Drizzelda the Druid: You said there was a tree sticking out of the ground.
DM: It’s not really a tree. It’s like a tree. “As you approach the tower, the crunching of the dead leaves under your feet seems almost deafening in the silence.”
Rhuul the Rogue: I don’t walk on the dead leaves. I try to be silent.
DM: OK, I guess you can avoid the leaves. But it’s not really that imp—
Pedritar the Paladin: I’m not walking. I’m flying. Remember I took that feat that gives me wings and a fly speed.
DM: Got it. Pedro is flying and Rhuul is tiptoeing around the leaves. Anyway, let’s continue. “As you get within 20 feet of the tower, you realize the place is surrounded by a nearly invisible noxious vapor. As you breathe it in, its stench burns your lungs and makes your eyes water.”
Clang the Cleric: Technically, I don’t have lungs. I’m made of wood and stone.
DM: Yeah, I guess. The point is—
Brark the Barbarian: I still don’t have eyes. They can’t be watering.
DM: Right. I just mean—
Rhuul the Rogue: As a revenant, I am undead. Technically, I don’t know if I need to breathe.
DM: OK, ok, I get it. There’s a mist that is burning the lungs of those of you with lungs and/or that breathe, irritating your eyes if you have eyes, and is generally unpleasant and mildly irritating to the rest of you. Let’s continue: “The hairs on your arms bristle with terror and your heart pounds as an anguished shriek cuts through the silence from within the tower. You can feel the palpable presence of evil.”
Pedritar the Paladin: I can. They can’t.
DM: Who can’t what?
Pedritar the Paladin: The rest of the party can’t Detect Evil. Only I can.
DM: It’s just a general presence of evil, not an actual specific evil.
Pedritar the Paladin: Seems like only I would be able to feel it. It’s a class ability after all.
Clang the Cleric: And I have no hair.
DM: Excuse me?
Clang the Cleric: You said that the hairs on my arm stand up in terror. I’m hairless. Maybe I have some moss or something that stands up instead?
DM: Sounds good to me.
Rhuul the Rogue: I’m not scared.
Rhuul the Rogue: Dude, I was once locked in a coffin with a vampire for a week. A little shrieking from some lich’s tower isn’t going to phase me. And also, I don’t know if my heart actually beats, so it couldn’t pound.
Clang the Cleric: Yeah, I have no—
DM: Yes, I get it. Moving on. “On the door you see—”
Brark the Barbarian: I don’t—
DM: Yes, I get it. You have no eyes and cannot see. Let’s sum this up. “There is a tower in front of you.” What do you do?
As is evidenced above, boxed text can be rife with pitfalls when it assumes character feelings, movements, and actions. Boxed text also needs to be carefully crafted, or it becomes not only unhelpful, but an actual distraction from the game on many other levels.
For those of you who write (or who are interested in writing) adventures and other content for public consumption, the following tips and thoughts are my opinion on the subject. For those DMs not writing adventures that others will be running or playing, they are equally valid for you. You still have to describe scenes to the players during play, and some of these points are equally applicable to you.
Tip 1. Move from the second-person point of view to the third person.
I know this is going to sound radical to experienced adventure designers, but it really is a great way to avoid many of the pitfalls illustrated above. If you do not use the word “you” as the subject of the sentences in your boxed text, it is very difficult to inadvertently include character actions, motivations, or movements that can lead to problems. By avoiding the second-person (“As you enter the clearing, you notice the bloated corpse of a headless dragon”) and using the third-person (“The bloated corpse of a headless dragon dominates the center of this small clearing”), you have avoided moving the PCs when they may not want to move, and you have even given them the chance to enter the clearing from any direction and in any manner they choose. This also makes it very difficult to add bits like “you believe” or “you think” that tell the players what their characters are thinking when it is their prerogative to think or believe anything they want.
While at first it can be challenging to write boxed text in this manner, I have found it very liberating. The process really forces me to think about the encounter in terms of what is there first, and then it forces me to think of all the possible ways that the characters might interact with what is there, rather than making assumptions about how that interaction will take place. It also helps me think about what other sensory information I can pass to the players.
Tip 2. Avoid the novelist/dramatist urge.
Many of us who DM frequently do so because we have so many great stories to tell. This has been the greatest joy of RPGs for me over the years, and the stories I have been able to tell with the help of my editors, writers, DMs, and players will stay with me for a long time. However, boxed text is not the place to unleash that inner novelist. Nothing slows a game more than paragraph after paragraph of boxed text, especially when the DM has to stumble through prose so purple that not even a rainbow wants to admit association with the color. There are three main kinds of problem with this novelist’s urge:
2a. “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Relevant details are fine for boxed text, and maybe one or two little poetic flourishes can add to the players’ feel for an encounter. But piling on the obvious, irrelevant, or overwrought details can make the players lose focus on what is important. My rule of thumb when writing or editing is to leave in only the details about the environment that the PCs need to know about because they will have to interact with them. The stench of a bog or a monster is important if those things are going to play a part in the encounter, especially as a terrain feature or monster ability: the bog weakens a creature entering it, or the monster’s stench is an aura. The smell of flowers in the sunny glade can probably be left out, unless you happen to be DMing for a party comprised solely of elves or florists.
2b. The villain’s soliloquy.
I can give this one a bit of a pass sometimes, because it is such a trope in fantasy (and really in much of our popular entertainment). The characters finally fight their way through the evil mastermind’s fortress, and they come upon him as he is just completing his evil plan. Then he breaks into four paragraphs of boxed-text monologue: first cursing the PCs for being a nuisance, then explaining what his evil plan is, then describing to the PCs what will happen to them after he rips of their heads the spits down their necks, and finishes by talking about his plans to take over the world. (Maniacal laugh optional.) It has taken the evil dude 1 minute, 45 seconds to ramble on , and the upcoming battle is going to take 28 seconds in game time.
As a compromise, instead of having the evil guy do the soliloquy, let him talk with the characters interactively. Give it a little back and forth. That way, if the players are hyped up for a little smack talk, or if they want to know what the eldritch machine of doom will do if the lever is pulled, they can do so. If not, you can get right into the badassery.
2c. The action in progress.
This is similar to the evil soliloquy problem, only it involves action instead of talking. Sometimes it is forcing the characters to watch while some plot point happens, either leading up to combat, or after combat ends, or just a scene in the overall flow of your game’s narrative. The characters just saved the prince, and now they get to watch his coronation. If your players are into it, great. Let ‘er rip. However, chances are even the most invested player is going to start to nod off after the 8th paragraph of text describing the festivities. Again, find a way to keep the passages short, and give the PCs the chance to interact with the scene in some way, even if it is just standing in the crowd and trading quips with each other or an NPC. Better yet, put them up on the royal stage, trying to hold still during the ceremony while a pesky mosquito bites them. (Endurance checks for everyone!)
This sort of boxed text has prompted countless groups to create actual rules mechanics to avoid it. I have talked with far too many players and DMs who have implemented “Interrupt Boxed Text” spells, feats, cards, dice, and powers into their games.
Tip 3. Describe everything the characters can sense, but not what they cannot.
While this might seem way too obvious, it happens surprisingly often. The first is when the boxed text fails to mention something apparent, like the 50-foot-wide chasm between the doorway and the altar. You would be surprised how many DMs read the boxed text, allow the characters to walk into the room, and then say, “You fall into the chasm.” When the player complains about not being told about the chasm, the DM replies, “You didn’t ask.” Yes, this is on the DM, but we writers need to make sure that if we are going to include boxed text, let’s go all the way and do it right.
Less troublesome but equally odd is when the boxed text details things the characters could not know. They enter a room full of closed crates, and the boxed text describes the room, detailing the “large crates full of mining equipment.” The characters couldn’t know that without opening them, so at least let the mystery linger for a bit. Close your eyes and see what the characters are seeing, and let the DM move the characters forward from there.
Tip 4. Avoid “seems to be” or “appears to be.”
Some players are meta-gaming bastards. I love them, but they are. Nothing triggers meta-gaming like the words “seems” or “appears” in boxed text. Those words generally mean that some trick or diversion is in the offing. If something “appears to be” to the characters, it “is” to the characters. Wherever you stand philosophically in real life, perception has to equal reality for the characters or you lose too much in the game. Let those Perception or Spot checks separate the “seems” from the “is.”
Tip 5. Read your boxed text aloud to check readability.
This advice is equally valid for any type of writing you do, but it is practically required for any writing meant to be read aloud. Trouble areas like tongue-twisters, funny sounding phrases, unintended alliteration, and other pitfalls are hard to spot on the page but easy to hear when spoken. NPCs named “Eileen Dover” just don’t belong in an adventure.
If you keep some of these tips in mind while writing boxed text or planning what you will reveal to your players about an encounter area, I think you will see an improvement not just in how you present it to your players, but in how you design it is as well. Unless you are a grimlock, of course.