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
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?
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.