Thinking Outside the Boxed Text

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.
DM: Huh?
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.
DM: What?!
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.

"Get near the lich's tower? Are you nuts?"

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.

"Please enjoy a light snack, Mr. Bond, while I find a printed copy of my evil plan. It will only take a moment."

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.

Comments

  1. Good advice all around. I must have patient players, though: they don’t interrupt when I read boxed text. But perhaps that’s because I just stop and glare at them if they do 🙂

  2. Great advice. I can’t count the number of times that players have been fascinated by something in the box text that really didn’t matter and the writers just threw it in for flavor. Any more I basically apply the concept of Checkov’s gun to flavor text

  3. Excellent post, stuffed with wit and applicable advice. I love (and have experienced) the exchange between box-text reading DM and inquisitive players, and the line about “prose so purple not even a rainbow wants to admit association” made me giggle.

    The approach of replacing second-person with third-person is way-smart and easy to use, and the warning about an innocent line like “boxes full of mining equipment” is excellent.

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Jim Hopper says:

    I really enjoyed this article…anxious to try some of the advice out. Thank you!

  5. Hahahaha, the example session was great. And I couldn’t agree more. I think that providing lists of important details and “scene hooks” is a much better idea than boxed text, honestly. The DM does a little research, and they’re prepped. Or, you could have a sub-box with information about those details.

  6. Shawn Merwin says:

    @kato: I think I’ve seen the gamut of players when it comes to tolerance for boxed text. My current home game group consists of a pretty squirrelly bunch. This helps me cut the boxed text stuff to the bare minimum and focus on keeping them involved in the game.

    @Chuck: The “Checkov’s gun” concept (or my imperfect paraphrase) is a perfect way to get my point across: if a gun in present in Act I, it has to go off in Act II or Act III. As other people have stated, giving a bulleted list of important elements within the encounter, to me, is superior to boxed text–assuming the DM has the time and ability to meld them into a coherent narrative to draw the players into.

    @Dixon: Yeah, the whole “get rid of the second-person view” is (according to adventure writer’s who I have edited) a severe fix for the problem. I would never say that any boxed text that contained “you” is bad. But it really does force a writer to take a different path, and sometimes getting out of a habit like that triggers different writing muscles. I suggest people try it at least, see how it feels, get the results, and then move forward in a way that works best.

    @Jim: My pleasure. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment.

    @Andy: As humorous and farcical my example seemed, it is not as far-fetched as some of the games I have run, especially in organized-play games where the players may not be as shy about speaking up. I have so many true stories about boxed text disasters, but I don’t want to drag them out and throw the writers under the bus.

  7. Just to add. Poorly written box text has provided our group with endless amusement and running gags. Such as all evil wizards have giant beds and the best furniture.

  8. @Chuck: It might be fun to dig out some of those most excellent groaners. No need to put it in context to curse the poor author, but just an disembodied excerpt that’ll make me snort soda from my nose.

  9. Alphastream says:

    I really love boxed text. I have fought this tooth and nail, but you are right. I have run a few tests from time to time with RPGA adventures. I run an encounter for one group and perform my dramatic reading of the boxed text. I’m pretty good at reading and looking up for eye contact while I do it, so I can see reactions. Often, the players are looking down, checking character sheets, even talking to another player. Or, they just plain don’t register. Boxed text talks about a strange machine. Combat starts, player hears what another player says and responds “What machine?”

    In contrast, when I do a good job of really knowing the boxed text and then I just describe it to them, I find myself breaking up the BT into small bits. They then respond to the bits, which seems to naturally call forth the other bits. The forest is strange, they are cautious… which sets them on edge when the leaves are so loud. They look around, and find the tower. No one is texting, all eyes are up, players remember more details. I have pretty much jettisoned boxed text with D&D Encounters and will probably do so with LFR as well.

    On the other hand, I will say that adventures do need BT. Without it a lot of DMs will flounder and tables will suffer. DMs that don’t need the BT can ignore it..

  10. I know that for the encounters I put on my blog I try to keep the “boxed text” short. The purpose for me in providing it is to give the DM ideas for setting the scene, not to be prescriptive. I try to keep “boxed text” to no more than 3 sentences.

    The advice for third person was good, and I think I’ll have to work on doing it more often. I’ll also have to give some thought to lists as well.

  11. Your best one yet! I got a good laugh out of the scenario.

    All great advice, most of which I also give my authors! I never thought about the “seems to be” or “appears to be” bit though… totally makes sense.

    thanks for another great article!

  12. Lynn Register says:

    I agree completely, once again you are right on the money…. 🙂

    my 2cents

    That is a pet peeve of mine; never tell the characters how they “Feel.” I the modules I wrote I tried to avoid long boxed text at all costs, giving the players the gist of the scene. Even pausing from time to time if they wanted to interrupt, IF it was appropriate to the scene, IE the big baddie was in his “monologue” and they just wanted to get the business part of the encounter. (“Enough of this chitter-chatter…let’s just kill the guy”). Mood and atmosphere are tricky, but doable in the general “sense”. It’s just like you said, keep it in third person and you (the writer) should be fine. Short and sweet is my motto for boxed text.

  13. @Chuck: You are very correct that some of the best comedic moments and running gags in a game (and a campaign) can be initiated by silly stuff that the writer or DM or players do. From now on when I make mistakes in my adventures, I am going to claim that it was because I wanted to give the DM and players a humorous moment. 🙂

    @Alphastream: Don’t get me wrong: good boxed text can be very evocative to the right set of players and the right DM. When boxed text clicks, it can really add a lot to the suspense, the surprise, and the flow of a game. For some reason I am picturing Sean Molley standing on a chair screaming out boxed text somewhere in Fort Wayne, Indiana . . .

    @ObsidianCrane: Where’s your blog? I would love to see those encounter.

    @DaveKay: Now that you are in charge of Epic play for LFR, I can’t wait to see how those adventures turn out and see if writing Epic-level boxed text is any different than writing it for heroic and paragon play. It would seem that as the players get more powerful and unique abilities, making the boxed text make sense might be harder.

    @Lynn: Who are you kidding!? Characters in your adventures are usually dead BEFORE they get to the boxed text! 🙂

  14. Andrew Schneider says:

    Love it Shawn. This should be required reading for any aspiring adventure writer.

  15. Brian Gilkison says:

    Shawn – spot on… Unfortunately, I should plead guilty as charged on all counts; I dread re-reading the first adventure I wrote for the Living Greyhawk campaign, because I can see exactly where I went wrong as a writer in all those box-texts (and gods, did I write a lot of them!). I keep thinking I’ll get around to writing some more one of these days, whether it be for organized play or home groups, but hopefully I can keep all this in mind…

  16. One other purpose of boxed text is that it provides a “story punctuation” for all the players, including the DM. By reading the boxed text, everyone understands that a new encounter has started. The players are prompted to refocus and prepare for what’s to happen. An experienced DM, like Mr. Merwin, doesn’t need the boxed text anymore because he can punctuate that transition from encounter to encounter smoothly. But most of us mortals rely upon it to keep everyone on the same page.

  17. John du Bois says:

    As a player, DM, author, and editor, I’m very glad articles like this exist (and this one will probably become required reading for LFR Netheril authors). I can’t even read the boxed text in adventures I write. Shawn, I know that you talk a lot about what to do and not to do when doing boxed text here. What are your thoughts on alternatives to boxed text? Which have and haven’t worked (apart from Sean Molley standing on a chair yelling, which made the DM who day jobs as a speech pathologist cringe in pain during the entire boxed text)?

  18. Alphastream says:

    Good question, John. I recall feedback on SPEC2-1P2, Scout’s Honor, where I had a lot of BT up front. I added some BT blocks for what an important NPC would say in response to various questions. The feedback (from an experienced admin) was to leave it out and just give bullets. My experience with bullets is that inexperienced or unprepared DMs will freeze and stumble over adding life to the bullets (and may just read them all out instead of RPing them). Also, BT often does a nice job of conveying tone. The snippets provided insight into the NPC’s method of speech and personality. Because of both factors (but primarily the first) I left the BT in, knowing that the feedback really was sound. Is there a middle path? Would bullets be better for other reasons?

    Oh, and Amnuxoll is not mortal.

  19. I dislike read-aloud text intensely (as a writer, editor, and DM). I almost never use it to describe an encounter area or begin an adventure. If I do use it at all, I loot it for pertinent sensory information that might otherwise be unclear from a description of the area’s features. Even the best read-alouds can be energy-sapping, because even good speakers are less effective when reading rather than referencing brief notes and speaking from them. Poor read-alouds and poor speakers make the situation worse.

    So I’ll go one further: Read-aloud text can be eliminated from adventures without harming the story or gameplay. More often than not, it should be. (By the writer, or if necessary, the DM.)

    Read-aloud text rarely does it’s job as well as just about any DM could do if instructed to dramatically paraphrase the adventure background and lore-related skill checks, as well as descriptions of monsters and features of the encounter area. Such paraphrasing is easy to do while setting up a tactical map and placing minis. It’s almost as easy to do if no such setup is required.

    In fact, a simple, easy-to-scan list of an area’s contents and sensory/skill-related input is good enough. Such a section might also include roleplaying notes for NPCs that give a DM just enough to personalize the situation and relate information the players need. The DM then has a tool for paraphrasing that’s easier to use in an individualized way. A DM using such a list can maintain intermittent eye contact with the players. The list also allows for easier back and forth among players and DM, without the jarring effect of interrupting and restarting prepackaged prose. Eye contact and easy interaction helps sustain a higher energy level at the table.

    Newer DMs might just read a list like this out, but I’d be willing to bet that with the reading comes some necessary paraphrasing and easy pauses interaction. That’s superior to what I see numerous new DMs do with boxed text. And a list l (bulleted or otherwise) is definitely superior if DM training (from rulebooks or the adventure itself) includes examples of how to convert the skeletal information into a nice, interactive description. They should.

  20. Alphastream says:

    I don’t know, Chris. When I was first starting out I recall a few adventures that had no boxed text and I was just so unsure of how to handle that. Now, I see a lot of runs of LFR adventures where I wonder at the lack of flavor and then later I read the mod and see there were all these cool elements about the NPCs, the story… One of the problems I find is that BT is shorter than the text it takes to explain things like an NPC’s personality. Is there a way to not use BT and still make things brief enough that the non-expert DM will bother to make use of that?

  21. Wow! Thanks so much for all the great commentary. Rather than try to answer all of these comments and questions, I am going to cover some of this in my next column on Friday.

  22. @Alphastream: I’m advocating replacing the boxed text with something useful for paraphrased and interactive description. That stuff should take up less or similar space than boxed text often does, unless the designer is waxing purple in that prose, too. I acknowledge that DMs have to be trained to do it, but I’m also advocating the training either in DM toolkits such as the DMG or in the adventure material itself.

    I expect a DM to read and make use of the DM toolkit for a game, and to read an adventure to prepare to make use of its contents. When either of this fails to happen, a DM can go off the rails and the game suffers.

  23. This is a little blog necromancy but…

    Shawn you can find my encounters on my blog: http:\dailyencounter.net (click my name above the post for a link)

    Several things happened over the weekend that just confirm for me that block text needs to go from LFR adventures. I had DMs get stuck on it several times, leaving them with “the block text says” as the only recourse when players were “ah yeah how did we get to this situation?”. There were also modules where there was just way, way to much irrelevant information for the DM to be able to reasonably respond to player prompts and not loose things in the running of the adventure.

    So yes bring on the “Features of the Area” and a short list of the key elements to relate the encounter to the plot.

Trackbacks

  1. […] In Dungeons & Dragons, it’s a chance for the DM to demonstrate writing, reading, and performance ability, as the big bad (see above) lectures the PCs on just how evil, mean, vicious, and puppy-kicking he really is. Any attempts to interrupt this presentation will be met with furious vengeance: “By Sidney Miller’s left incisor, I WILL finish reading this. Shut up your mouths, and tremble before my glorious text.” […]

  2. […] week I wrote about the pitfalls and challenges of writing boxed text (also known as read-aloud text).  I was planning to move to a completely different topic this week, […]

  3. […] Know Your Roll: Thinking Outside the Boxed Text […]