The Unneccesary Evil?

"Character is much easier kept than recovered. Except in the original Tomb of Horrors. It's hard to do either there."

Last 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, but the questions and comments posted after that column have brought up many good points.  So this week I am going to try to bring some of that commentary into wider focus.  Plus, I get to say that Chris Sims agreed with me (at least that’s the way I’m interpreting it), so that’s just too exciting to pass up!

The issues I have talked about in the last couple weeks—and many of the issues I will discuss in the future—all boil down to one overarching concern: enjoyable and smooth interaction in the game.  For most of us gamers, we enjoy the hobby because the various interactions involved offer us something positive.  We might seek the interaction of imagination and combined storytelling with the other participants.  It might be an enjoyable mathematical interaction between the individual player and the rules.  It might be the nearly supernatural interaction between the Mountain Dew and the Funyuns.  For each of us it is different, but it is always about an interaction on some level.

Types of Interaction

"Funyuns have healing properties. When mixed with Mountain Dew, they may also lead to resurrection. If your resurrection lasts less than 12 hours, consult your alchemist immediately."

The levels and types of interaction within a game like D&D (or any other RPG you want to talk about) are numerous and complex. I dare say that when something goes wrong in a game, chances are fairly high that something has gone wrong at one of those points of interaction: either something is interfering with a proper interaction between the game and the participants (or among the participants), or the interaction is not meeting the expectations of some of the participants.  For example, Johnny the player thinks his gaming chops are the baddest in all of gamerhood, and he expects to always “win” every combat.  Sally the DM thinks that the published adventure she is running should be run exactly as written, with no adjustments permitted—and if the characters perish a horrible death, that is the players’ fault.  I don’t think I need to explain with diagrams and full-color illustrations how this could end badly.

The situation just described is only one example of a potential situation where the interaction could go wrong.  If you take a second to ponder all of the interactions possible in one round of combat, in an encounter, in an adventure, in a campaign, in a setting, in the rules themselves, and elsewhere, the simultaneous breakdown of many interactions can make a session of D&D look like a cockfight breaking out at a PETA rally.

When I discussed boxed text last week, I was touching on just one tiny aspect of just one instance of this interaction: specifically, the role boxed text plays in the interaction between the players and an encounter.  The bulk of the comments about that column reflect that people think about boxed text what Thomas Paine wrote about government: “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

No Boxed Text At All?

"Did I say no boxed text?! Er, I meant all boxed text!"

So while many agreed that boxed text is often flawed and better when it is brief or removed completely, my fellow Critical-Hitter (Critter?) Chris Sims—whose knowledge of game design dwarfs mine like Yao Ming standing next to Gary Coleman—goes the intellectual full monty and says that boxed text is not needed, period, full stop.  If I were a braver man, I would have come out and said the same thing.  Alas, the Don Knotts in me is too strong, and I waver.  I have too often been handed a four-hour, seven-encounter, sixty-page adventure 10 minutes after the game was supposed to start and told, “Here, run this adventure and make sure the table has fun.”  With no prep time at all, boxed text—even in its most flawed form—can be better than nothing: the proverbial necessary evil, and hopefully not an intolerable one.

The question that follows is obvious: what is the best way to support the DM in describing the current game situation to the players?  Or, since I am supposed to be doing this writerly thing of always hearkening back to the main point, I’ll rephrase: what can an adventure designer do to assist the DM in fostering smooth interaction between the encounter and the players?

Let’s answer the question with another question or two.  What sorts of information need to be communicated to players at the beginning of an encounter, both in terms of what the characters would experience, and also in terms of what the players have to accomplish within the game?  What information needs to be imparted as the encounter progresses?

Setting and Tone – This is the information that the characters would know: what their five senses would tell them based on their current location and situation.  If there is any tone or mood that the encounter is meant to convey, the details should also hint at that so that the players can roleplay effectively.

Terrain – Terrain that would affect an encounter needs to be highlighted.  The tricky part is deciding how much information to provide.  Do you tell the players exactly what each piece of terrain does?  Do you hide the effects of the terrain until either the characters or some other creatures interact with the terrain?  Would an appropriate skill check be enough to reveal the terrain effects?  Would the skill check cost an action, or could it be done as a free action?

One way to smoothly introduce the terrain’s impact without harming the flow of interaction is to have the terrain first affect the bad guys, either positively or negatively.  An extra minion running into the area crackling with electricity and exploding in a shower of gore gets the point across better than boxed text or skill checks could.  The bad-guy boss tipping over a shelf of crates onto the PCs is a less-than-subtle but highly effective way of showing the interactions possible with the environment.

Monsters, Traps, and Hazards – Like terrain above, the players need to be aware of the threats they face.  But how much information is too much, and how much is too little?  The 4e rulebooks are quite clear and emphatic in stating that the players should know what is happening in the encounters.  I am in agreement with that philosophy about 75% of the time.  However, I am also a DM and a player who likes dealing with a little bit of adversity and surprise.  I like to have to learn the hard way how best to confront a monster or deal with a trap.

One of the best examples of this is the rule in the 4e Player’s Handbook on monster knowledge checks.  I have a love/hate relationship with this rule.  I love that the rule allows players to learn something about the monsters, particularly when the characters might be struggling to overcome a high resistance or immunity, or are getting lambasted because of a specific power or trait.  However, I hate what such checks, when used as standard operating procedure for a party, can do to the flow of a game.  About 20% of the tables I have run do this in every combat encounter:  At the beginning of combat, the first character to act first rolls knowledge checks for each of the monsters, asking for all of the information they would know based on the results of the check.  So the game stops while I read everything for one monster, then the next, and then the next.  The first player acts.  Then the second player makes more checks to pick up any information that the first player may have missed.  So back we go to the stat block, reading more.  This gets as tedious and destroys the excitement of a game more thoroughly than would using instant replay to review every pitch of a baseball game.  I generally try to sum up all the information into one quick sentence to maintain flow, but often players ask for more information or some explanation that slows the game anyway.

Replacing Boxed Text?

So again we are left with the question of the hour: if not boxed text, what?  The simple answer would be that the DM prepares adequately, taking notes and highlighting the important things to tell the PCs.  Then no clunky boxed text is needed.  But where does this leave the DM who does not have time to prepare or is running a published adventure without the chance to read it over first?

I don’t think we can come up with an answer that can solve this completely, but we can make some considerations in the format and layout of the encounter:

  • We can place important points about initial encounter circumstances in a bullet list or special area.  This would always include lighting conditions, the height of ceilings, and other sensory information.
  • In the section of the encounter where terrain is mentioned, we can put the more visceral fluff information at the beginning and the more mechanical information at the end.
  • If there is a section on monsters and their tactics, we can give a quick description of the creatures and how they act.  We can again place more descriptive text near the front and more technical details at the end.
  • We can create sections for special information that might be needed to describe special circumstances that occur as the encounter progresses or at the end of the encounter.

I would love to hear from adventure designers, DMs, and players about other problems of interaction at the beginning of a combat encounter, and how adventure designers might be able to supply or place information in order to make that interaction smoother, especially if there was no boxed text.


  1. First!

    “We can place important points about initial encounter circumstances in a bullet list or special area. This would always include lighting conditions, the height of ceilings, and other sensory information.”

    This came to mind as I was reading the first half of the article, then when I saw it was already mentioned in the second half of the article I went, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

    Basically, published adventures should give the DM the required information in a quick, clear, and concise manner, then let him/her paraphrase rather than having to read verbatim the boxed text. Allows for much more flexibility while still conveying the proper information.

  2. Great post! I don’t like read-aloud text and many people I know don’t like it either, and yet I find myself reading it if it’s there. For me, the main reason is I get nervous when I run other people’s modules. Usually so little detail exists that I can’t imagine myself there and, if I can’t imagine myself there, it’s hard to make it feel real for my players. At least the text is usually a snapshot of the world. I can start with that small amount and then build as the players ask questions.

    Some might reply that I should be able to create my own read-aloud text and make the module my own. While I agree in principle, the truth is that I’m just not there yet. It’s a vicious cycle. Too many modules lack the detail I need to feel comfortable telling the story so I don’t run them and because I’ve run too few modules, I lack the confidence to tell stories in worlds others created.

    In the end, while I would love to see the end of the read-aloud text, I want to see some tools and tutorials to help newer DMs first. The play script at the end of Fiasco is a great example as it brings into focus the flow of game play in a way describing the game never can, at least, not for people like me.

  3. To me it boils down very much the same as every “is it art?” argument, in that there is a big difference between GOOD boxed text and BAD boxed text. I generally find it incredibly useful as a “this is what the designer would say if he were running this module”, but in the end I typically read through it very quickly to myself, and then read it out loud again but paraphrase about 50% of it into my own style of reading so that the only tip the players get that this is boxed text is that my head is down and reading something rather than looking up at them (which is the norm).

    With regards to the monster knowledge checks, if any of my players or parties started doing the “several minutes of automatic monster knowledge checks” I’d have no choice but to teach them a lesson until it stopped. My encounters would start with such high action during (or even before) the first round that if they wasted time trying to analyze the monsters they’d be dead before they ever acted. As such, my players don’t do this, but typically one or two of them will make a knowledge check within the first few turns and I’ll happily give out some useful information that can help them, but I always balance it or supplement it with information that they learn during the course of fighting the monster anyway.

    I am a big fan of the suggestion of mixing fluff and mechanics into the boxed text like you suggest in this post!

  4. It’s funny, when I DM my own game, I never write boxed text. Instead I write sketchy shorthand notes, one or two word descriptors, and then just let fly at the gaming table with my own off-the-cuff explanation of what the party sees at encounter time. But for the few adventures I’ve self-published, like “Curse at the Old Inn” and “Bane of the Warlock”, I felt the adventure was “naked” without including some boxed text.

    I already include a break down of the encounters as you discussed, bullet pointing general terrain info, lighting, and the rest. But I still include boxed text for that initial dramatic effect, to let both the DM preparing the module as well as the Players share in my mental “scene”. I think all DMs envision what their encounter would look like if it were a scene from a movie, and a little boxed text helps to relate those images.

    I think the important thing is to keep the boxed text short, sweet, and dramatic, and use bullet points to handle other descriptions, so you don’t drop a “wall of text” on the party… or the DM for that matter!

  5. I don’t mind the read aloud text, it helps when you don’t have much preparation time to run an adventure. It also helps me digest the information that I have read about the whole encounter. One thing to keep in mind is that it can really help new DMs and even new players as the boxed text should have all the pertinent information in it. For experienced players and DMs its not strictly necessary. I guess its like having to buy a set of stabilisers with a new bike whether you can ride or not. I think there is a perception that all role players are very creative people especially with word play, but many are not. while that might sound like hand wringing on behalf of newbies there’s also the good business sense that makes products that can be appreciated by as broad a range of players as possible. For something like 4E I would suggest that heroic tier adventures should have boxed text but for paragon and epic play they aren’t as necessary as you can assume a level of experience of the players and DM.

  6. As a DM I have screwed up box text at every opportunity for 30 years. If the text isn’t wrong, its not clear. If its not clear, it sets the wrong tone. If its perfect, my players interrupt. If I make it this far, I stutter and stammer ’cause nothing went wrong.

    I find that box text detracts from trying to set the feel and tone of what is going on, and it pulls me out of trying to keep the attention of the players.

    In my own adventures I have no box text and I wing it based on the tone I’m trying to set. Bullet text… now that makes some sense to me. I will do that for written encounters.

    Incidentally… I recently played B3 using Castles and Crusades rules, and I noticed that they had a few time wasting encounters that were save or die, snake poisons you. It occurred to me that this fits 4e just fine. I can set some tone by having a minion snake bite a character, Stealth on Passive Perception to detect. 5 ongoing damage isn’t lethal but it sets the tone. The players stop for 5 minutes while the wound is tended, and dang, the player is down a surge.

  7. “But where does this leave the DM who does not have time to prepare or is running a published adventure without the chance to read it over first?”

    Exactly where s/he deserves to be.

    If you don’t have time to do it properly, don’t bother doing it at all.

  8. @Tom – I disagree with you completely. Why on earth would a DM deserve that?

    Almost every convention I go to, I come fully prepared to run events that I sign up for. And then I get there, and find out that one of our DM’s had a flat tire on the way to the Con and we need someone to step up and fill in for them. Whenever I can, I step in to help, and I end up running cold. Without the box-text, I would have nothing. And you think I deserve that?

    No sir. The box text is a great tool. Box Text is like training wheels for someone who is just starting to ride a bike. It keeps you from falling over on your face. Sure, you probably look a little silly when compared to someone riding a bike without them, but don’t worry about that. You’ll get there too if you just keep at it.

  9. With regards to the boxed text, this serves only as a way to highlight the start of an encounter. The only person who ever really reads it is the GM, so the bulleted list idea is a perfect replacement for this. only the GM will be able to relate the situation at hand to the description in the text, unless the writer of the adventure is very, very, very good at scripting their adventures to limit the opportunities the PCs have, and generally most players will find a way around this. The next section after the boxed text normally describes the encounter in more detail anyway, so the boxed text is ideally placed to serve as such a light summary for eyeballing the contents of an encounter.

    As for Monster knowledge checks, the easy way to handle these without breaking blow is to have the PCs automatically take 10 on these checks and provide relevent information right up front with the description and the rest of the features of the encounter. You can also do this with a whole host of other passive skill checks too, like Spot or Listen checks, and include these right up front. Then if the PCs decide to interact more with the encounter, they can make active checks – but that’s going to take time and detract from any combat in the area.

    Just remember that normally, such checks don’t allow you to reattempt to spot something you’ve missed or remember something you’ve forgotten unless the circumstances have changed, and this can be used to enforce an “out of combat” rule – after defeating a new monster, the PCs might wonder what that was and see if they know anything else in case they encounter more of them in the future. This also means if the PCs know what they might face beforehand, they can make such checks and prepare before entering the encounter, for which the PCs should be rewarded.

  10. In my own adventures, I’ve never written boxed text for the same reason I don’t read it: it’s not necessary. It’s a crutch for people who think they have to play the module the “right” way instead of the way that they feel it should be written.

    Then again, I tend to play it fast and loose, changing metaplots and monsters on the fly, that I’m not sure why I bother to write any of it down 😉

  11. Alphastream says:

    It would be interesting to take an example of boxed text, such as you posted on your last blog and try to come up with how to convey that in the same space but better and without the BT. I am the wrong person to try, being a seriously wordy person.

  12. You know what that list of bullet points at the end of the post reminds me of?

    A stat block.

    A stat block for every room, encounter, etc. can gather the information in a logically consistent way, and it can sum the most pertinent numbers of the monsters, traps, skill checks, and so on which the players will encounter in that room.

    If I were to create such a block for a location or event in an adventure, I would do what Shawn suggested originally and “put the more visceral fluff information at the beginning and the more mechanical information at the end”: put the numbers after the fluff, and arrange the fluff in outline style to provide quick, single-phrase guidelines for the DM. This way the DM doesn’t have to skip down past all the numbers and search through paragraph-style fluff (i.e. boxed text) to find the important information which the characters need first.

  13. Mixing descriptive elements one might use at the beginning of the encounter with stuff used later, such as trap mechanics or monster stats, is a road to ruin. A bullet list—or as RMDC suggests aptly, a “pre-encounter stat block” of elements the players/characters can see and must know—is the path for me. It serves as a tool for the DM to describe the encounter area, but has few if any ways to descend into the hells to which poorly composed boxed text can take us. It also serves just fine as a replacement for boxed text when prep time is a problem.

    Monster knowledge is a whole other topic. I sometimes use passive knowledge for monsters, conveying only that information that is readily advantageous for the players to know. Players can make checks, but regardless of the rules, they don’t receive detailed accounts that require me to read the stat block. “This demon resists lightning, shoots lightning, and it has a wicked area lightning attack it can use intermittently. It’s a weak melee combatant, but it can spit lightning at will when threatened with melee attack.” That’s about enough.

  14. Shawn Merwin says:

    Some great thoughts and comment here. The consensus seems to be that it would be great to eliminate boxed text, but it would be best if some sort of “encounter stat block” could be used in its place. Some sort of standard formatting like this, if done correctly, would make it easier for the DM to find all of the relevant information at the time when it was most relevant. This in turn would also assist the DM in having the tools and information necessary to paraphrase and tailor the flow of the game to meet the needs of the party.

    So has anyone seen something like this in a product already being published? The encounter format for LFR adventure arranges information is this way, but the sections are more broad: Setup, Terrain, Tactics, Troubleshooting, and Ending the Encounter. I think those are too broad to be truly helpful, but they could hold subsections that might be useful. Hints from WotC (and Steve Winters latest DDI editorial) seem to imply that changes to adventure formats might be coming. It’ll be interesting to see that if they make any encounter/adventure format changes like they did with monster stat blocks.

  15. What most of you guys seem to be saying is BT is Bad but lets use our own homebrew BT. Whether this is done as an ad-hoc style, stat boxes, fluff n stat etc….. All you are doing is substituting one framework for another. It’s not genius it’s been done for years and anyone worth their gaming salt would, instead of whining, sort it out themselves.

    BT is a necessary mechanic as RPG’s are in the main, only limited by those that are participating. So giving a nudge in the right direction or giving an idea on flavour/ setting is most useful. Ultimately those that write published quests/dungeons/settings, will find it impossible to to lay down something as BT that will resonate with all readers. It’s designed to be inspiration not verbatim, as is standard with all decent RPG’s.

    Those who claim inexperience/lack of confidence for not doing their own thing. Fair play, but don’t cry when someone else writes something you don’t like. Take responsibility. Eg if you you’re in a DND classic fantasy setting, read novels, watch films and use blogs to create as much source material as possible. Instead of trying to start visualising entire worlds/campaign focus on the next adventure only and don’t be afraid to pilfer as much of other people’s material for your game in order to describe scenes or encounters. Finally don’t be afraid to make mistakes, if you’re not as experienced as other DM’s, who cares? You only get better by ‘doing’. Put it in the context of a sportsman, Did Mohammed Ali become the heavyweight champion without taking some big punches? Also talk to your group, ask them to help (even if thats being a little more patient whlst you’re trying something new) if they are so anal they can’t be bothered to help you, they are only hurting their own experience and you may want to ask why you’re socialisng with them in the first place.

  16. And I made my first pass at essentially eliminating block text from an encounter write up tonight. 1 sentence that introduces the encounter, then I used the categories given in this post to organize the information: Setting and Tone, Terrain and Illumination, Monsters, Traps and Hazards.

    I’d be very interested in hearing feedback on if that is enough information for people when combined with the maps etc or if more would be needed.


  17. There’s a pretty clear heirarchy in my mind:

    Good boxed text is better than no boxed text. No boxed text is better than bad boxed text.

    Good boxed text is short, clear, and comprehensive without assuming PC actions. (Evocative is a nice bonus, but only as long as it doesn’t overly interfere with the “short” or “clear” requirements.)

    Good boxed text is better than no boxed text because it is flat-out invaluable to have a clearly demarcated “at first impression the PCs should know all of this and no more” description of the area. Read it verbatim, summarize it. Whatever. It’s just useful to have that demarcation. It’s the easiest way to establish a common, foundational understanding of the area at the gaming table while avoiding the loss of important details that happens when everything is indiscriminately spread across a dozen or so paragraphs of text.

    No boxed text is better than bad boxed text (partiularly bad boxed text that assumes PCs actions or fails to be comprehensive) because it either (a) lulls you into a sense of false security or (b) tempts you into using the bad text before you realize it’s a mistake.