We Can Do Better Than Boxed Text

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Read aloud boxed text in RPG adventures is helpful, but it also has some issues. Over the years, various adventure designers replaced boxed text with bullet points, simple opening paragraphs, and other methods. Yet it seems that at least in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, we keep coming back to boxed text because it is what many Dungeon Masters prefer. Despite that, the problems of boxed text really haven’t gone away (at least for me). I think we can do better (but I don’t know it all, and I’m hoping you’ll join me in a discussion about the strengths and weakness of boxed text in the comments of this blog post).

What Boxed Text Does Well

Boxed text is great for establishing what the player characters immediately sense when they enter a new area of an adventure location. Everything the GM needs to disseminate is contained in a single, easy-to-identify place. If boxed text is left behind with nothing to replace it, then how does a GM know which details of a room to call out to the players and which details to keep hidden until further investigation (especially if the GM didn’t have a ton of time to prepare)?

Boxed text is also good for conveying the tone of an adventure. The descriptive words used by the author in boxed text immediately inform the GM and players of a location’s mood and the story’s genre. Without those words, the GM is left hanging and must parse and translate the tone from other text in the adventure, imposing more work on them.

What Boxed Text Does Not So Well

While boxed text is meant to be immersive, even the shortest boxed text can momentarily break the players out of the adventure’s story. This is all because of a sudden shift in the dynamic between GM and players. The game quickly and momentarily goes from a collaborative story to a mini-lecture from the GM. This lecture mode causes many players to tune out. I’ve seen so many otherwise engaged players’ eyes glaze over when it’s boxed text time that I have to think it’s more than just bad form on their part. These players miss critical information when a game goes from collaborative to lecture then end up asking questions that lead their GMs to basically repeat what was in the boxed text. These issues surrounding boxed text are even worse if a GM has trouble reading text aloud (a problem many people including myself sometimes have).

Why not just paraphrase the boxed text? For me, and for many others, this is easier said than done. Paragraphs of text aren’t easy to parse for paraphrasing, especially if you haven’t had as much time to prepare as you like (or it’s been a while since you read the boxed text). While paraphrasing is always an option, it isn’t smooth with boxed text. I also find that the longer the boxed text, the greater the need to paraphrase, but with more words in a paragraph also comes more difficulty paraphrasing.

Then there is the issue of variables with boxed text. Creatures mentioned in the boxed text might be missing from an area because they went to investigate a disturbance elsewhere, or a hulking dragon isn’t mentioned so the GM gets to that after describing the cracks in the wall, or the boxed text doesn’t mention the room’s furniture was actually tossed about because the cleric cast the earthquake spell outside before entering the dungeon. The same factors that make boxed text difficult to paraphrase also make it hard to change on the fly.

There’s one other issue with boxed text. It doesn’t put everything that’s in the room up front. It only mentions the things the player characters immediately notice. In some cases a hidden trap or enemy might be buried after paragraphs of descriptions and mechanics in a description. As a GM I love having all the information about each adventure area up front, and boxed text only gives me part of the picture.

Burn Bryte’s Method

When it came time to write adventures for Burn Bryte, the design team came up with a new way of using bullet points that I think takes the great parts of boxed text and help alleviate some of the clunky issues surrounding narrative text. The following text is from the playtest Burn Bryte adventure, Burning Daylight:

“Whenever the players’ characters enter a new area, the place is first described in bullet points.

  • Bullet points written in italic type are details the characters are aware of as soon as they enter or get near the area. These bullet points can be read aloud or paraphrased.
  • (Bullet points contained in parentheses are hidden from the characters until they investigate further or overcome an obstacle.)”

One-sentence bullet points are easier to parse for narrative flow, paraphrasing, and modifying for variables than paragraphs, but they normally lack the descriptive tone and distinction of player knowledge vs GM knowledge of boxed text. By writing specific bullet points so they can be written aloud verbatim and denoting others as GM-only knowledge, we combined the best of both worlds. Here’s an example of what it looks like in action:

  • A massive pink primate that walks on four legs and has a protruding jaw stalks around the room.

  • All manner of gym equipment is pushed off to the sides of the room in piles. Broken targeting robots, sparring weapons, weights, and other athletic supplies are covered in dust.

  • If the cultists have not left to investigate a disturbance elsewhere, add: Three robed Kith’uks clean their laser rifles with brutal efficiency, seemingly comfortable with the giant pink monster walking around them.

  • (A floor safe is hidden beneath a pile gym equipment in the south end of the room.)

What Do You Think?

I am no expert, and I’m just one dude with a blog and an opinion. Boxed text has been around longer than I have! If you feel motivated, please chat with me in the comments and let me know what you think of boxed text and of the Burn Bryte playtest approach to descriptive text. Thank you for reading, and double thanks if you comment.

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