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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April 11, 2019 @ 9:40 am
But what if… Hear me out…. what if you gave those bullet points a nice cosy home. Maybe something rectangular, like a cube of some sort? 😁
April 11, 2019 @ 10:11 am
I got no problem putting bullet points in a box!
April 11, 2019 @ 12:14 pm
I love good boxed texts, both as a DM and a designer. In my experience, there are two main problems with boxed texts – they’re too long and/or the DM reads them monotonously. The first problem is on the designer. In my scenarios I try keep them limited to 3 sentences which means I have to make sure they’re impactful, tight, and evocative. If they’re not these things why is it boxed text?
The second problem is training and experience. Not everyone is good at reading aloud to a group, and sometimes a DM doesn’t even know they’re bad at it! But it’s a skill like everything else. Read it aloud ahead of time if you can, look at the grammar clues to help phrase it, try to vary the pitch of your voice to match natural crescendos and decrescendos, and look up occasionally from the text to make eye contact.
Those are my handful of coppers! Thanks!
April 11, 2019 @ 1:32 pm
The example you post from the Cellar of Death is a good example of different uses for boxed text based on the context of the scenario. Anytime I see a paragraph break in a boxed text I cringe but sometimes, especially (or perhaps only) for introductions, it can be useful to set a scene. But as a designer I think it’s worthwhile to pay attention to the points where the players can engage with the story.
Callbrax speaks to the PCs in the first paragraph, so they should be allowed a chance to respond. The rest of the boxed doesn’t offer much useful information for the players (there’s a cliff and Callbrax makes a door appear using magic). I’m not sure what Remalia’s horn is? Or why it would bleat? So I have to assume that in context of the rest of the adventure text that makes sense. If that’s an important sound for the players to hear and recognize I would try to call it out in the text rather than couch it in the boxed text.
I hope this doesn’t come across as too negative! I honestly love your adventures and designs, but I wanted to offer some details of how I as a DM prefer to use boxed text and your example was right there 🙂 Thanks!
April 11, 2019 @ 1:39 pm
I keep thinking of more to add 🙂 I also think it’s worth noting that writing for reading aloud is different than writing for internal processing. In the Cellar of Death example, Zaldara’s tower is referenced as a monolithic black tower in the first paragraph. Perfect and evocative! Later, it’s referred to as Zaldara’s lair. I think there’s nothing wrong with using tower in the second reference to reinforce what it is to the players. Keeping that in mind when designing boxed text can help DMs convey critical points to the players especially in longer boxed texts.
April 12, 2019 @ 8:20 am
Hey thanks for all these opinions! No offense at all taken. I used my own text because I’d rather that be analyzed then someone else who didn’t ask to be part of the conversation. Keeping boxed text short, concise, and consistent definitely helps. I also think we can do even better than that to service players and keep it collaborative. Breaking it up as you suggest is another good way to do that.
April 11, 2019 @ 5:11 pm
I like this. I use outlines to organize progressive revelations:
Room (dimly lit) Ornate rug on stone, flickering brazier
-Bookcases: line the walls. Expensive volumes, matched sets and illuminated tomes (valuable)
–Treasure: Book, item 21 “Gronthar’s Alchemical Treatise”
-Desk: Massive. Legs have carvings of tree trunks. (Elvish make)
–Drawer: Locked (DC 15). Key: Item 15
—Letter: Item 23.
—Cameo: Item 24
Since I’m comfortable winging the details, I never have to go into “narrator voice.”
April 12, 2019 @ 8:20 am
This is a cool way to do it. Reminds me of aspects in FATE.
April 12, 2019 @ 4:37 pm
I like boxed text if it tells a story. Like a CCC I;’m working on, it describes different NPCs interacting and then interacting with the PCs, leading to a skill challenge. The boxed text sets up the intro to the “just in the door” skill challenge. However, I don’t like the ones that are pure narrative for the sake of narrative. I struggled with Season 8’s no-read-aloud style but am coming around to seeing it lets the DM narrate as they naturally would and doesn’t put the adventure on a cut-scene mode like in a video game.
April 11, 2019 @ 11:57 pm
I am going to sound like a monster, I know, but almost every problem you mentioned with boxed text sounds more like a lack of preparation issue than a design issue. As a DM, it is your job to know the world you are running.
April 12, 2019 @ 8:23 am
I don’t think you sound like a monster. This has come up in some other response on social media. I disagree. I think being unprepared makes worse problems with boxed text that already exist. Most people use modules because they are short on time (or in an organized play program where adventures are sometimes run by DMs who JUST got asked). I think it’s the job of game designers to write adventures that can be read once then run. If a GM wants to prep more, that’s their choice (and a good one for many people), but one of the great selling points of modules is a GM does not need to do as much prep. Boxed text is supposed to help with that, and in some ways it does, but I think we can create descriptive text that works even better.
Ian Winchester (@chester_dwight)
April 13, 2019 @ 7:42 pm
As new DM of 2 years, I really like that bullet point option. When I’ve run published adventures, I’ve tended to re-write the boxed text in my notes as bullet points in my own voice anyway. This would save me a whole step of my prep!
April 18, 2019 @ 9:44 am
Hey thanks! I’m glad to hear you like it.
April 15, 2019 @ 10:09 am
I love the bullet approach! I think the problem with box text is a break in voice. Even if it’s really well-written, it’s not going to sound like it’s coming from the DM, so that’s going to break the immersion relatively quickly. I really like the idea of the italics and parentheses so it’s easy for the DM to see just by glancing everything that’s going on. And maybe other people don’t struggle with this, but sometimes I feel really nervous (or excited) DMing, and so I can miss or forget things, even in what I’ve written for myself. In someone else’s adventure, hitting that boxed text is like reaching a milestone; the DM gets to take a break for a moment and can read instead of invent. And maybe that brief mental rest instance on the DM’s part creates that zoning out for the players?
The points you’re making about collaboration are crucial too! Does boxed text make players feel invited to the world building and in-game moment? I think you’re correct to suggest that it maybe doesn’t.
Thank you for putting this together! I’m absolutely going to try out bullet points for my next DMsGuild adventure!
April 18, 2019 @ 9:44 am
Thanks, Beth!!!! That’s exactly what I was going for.
DwDnD – Designing Adventures (Part 6) Box Text – Misdirected Mark Productions
May 30, 2019 @ 6:38 am
[…] We Can Do Better Than Boxed Text […]
The Best and Worst of Adventure Formats at Winter Fantasy 2020 | Alphastream
February 20, 2020 @ 5:37 am
[…] Read-aloud boxed text is a hot topic these days, with many authors for or against it. Boxed text is often too long and can stifle open play. It can put players to sleep or make them feel like the game is on rails with limited options. James Introcaso does an excellent job talking about the issues here. […]