Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Boxed text in modules

By "boxed text," I mean the design principle of including, in an adventure module, a section at the beginning of each keyed area which describes what the characters see -- before, then, going into details for the DM about the reality of the situation. Boxed text is written in second person: "You" see this, as opposed to "the characters" see this.

In most cases, the boxed text is used as read-aloud material -- the DM simply reads the description to the players.

As I run through what I think the pros and cons of this approach are, the beginning point is to look at what the text is intended to achieve, and WHY it's intended to achieve that. In other words, when we talk about why, there's an underlying assumption about how a module is supposed to be played -- or, at least, what compromises have been decided upon by the authors of the module in terms of how the module plays most effectively.

So, if I'm going to make any sense with this little article, I have to step up and mention how I think a module ought to be played. That's a bit more than subjective in my case (as editor, publisher, and writer), because you can't write a module without having some of these assumptions in play. A module can't be written if you're not keeping an eye on how to make it work best, and there are choices. If you try to please everyone, you're writing by committee. This has to do with several features of a module that might not be immediately apparent to a reader, including even such things as the size of the font being used.

How I think a module plays best
The assumption I work from is that the strongest gaming moments are when the direct communication between the players and the DM is at its highest level. There's eye contact. The DM is able to answer questions and announce results based on his/her own mental picture of the situation and the environment, without stopping to read something. There is the immediacy of a back-and-forth conversation rather than the sudden gear-shifts involved in changing from direct speech into reading aloud or referencing something. I'm not offering this as a "rule for DMs," I'm just making the observation that -- whatever level it reaches with a particular DM or group of players -- these tend to be when the action is fast and the gaming is strongest.

The upsides and downsides to using this approach as a design rule (and there are downsides to playing this way) are what drive the following opinions.

In Favor: Point #1
The first point to be made about boxed text is, I think, very simple and clear. In the older style of modules (mainly the G and D series, but also B1, etc), boxed text didn't appear. As a result, when the module is actually in play at the gaming table, the DM either has to remember the salient details of the encounter area, or else stop the game temporarily to skim the material. I happen to be an insanely fast reader, and even I have trouble doing this without pausing, or else I lose focus and might miss something a player is saying. Here, I mean when I'm skimming the next room while players are still only approaching it. So here, we avoid one gear-shift. If there's boxed text, the DM doesn't have to suddenly stop, fall silent for a couple of moments, and read (or skim) the room's text.

In Favor: Point #2
This is very much related to point #1. It's about missing an important detail. The faster you remind yourself about what's in that room, the higher the chance that you'll forget to mention something vitally important about the room's description - something the players need to know is in there. The risk is exponential -- it's the complex rooms that require the most reading-through because the room description is longer, which means that they will get skimmed faster by the DM right before playing it, and yet these are the rooms where a subtle detail is more likely to show up -- they are the complex rooms. Boxed text eliminates this risk if it is read aloud.

Against: Point #1
Stopping to read aloud is obviously a shift of gears. It probably creates different levels of shifting, or different levels of problems, depending on the DM and less so on the players. If a group of players simply has a high tolerance for the shift from extempore to reading, it's not a problem at all. And if the DM is superb at reading aloud, it's less of a problem. On the other hand, if the DM has a quiet voice, or reads in monotone, the gear-shift is more pronounced. Whether it's a problem for an individual group, I think it's incontrovertible that the shift in gears exists, and from my perspective that has the potential to reduce the quality of the module in play.

In Favor: Point #3
Since we're talking about a DM who reads in a monotone, we also need to realize that some of us really suck at describing things off the top of our heads. I think I'm really good at this, which is why my initial assumption is that extempore descriptions are better. But many DMs, I think, buy modules precisely because their ability to turn their own visions into rich description isn't very strong. People buy a module for a reason. I don't think this is the most common reason, but it's definitely there -- not everyone is a good communicator. A DM who can read aloud like a silver-tongued devil, but just can't manage to think on his feet about mentioning little details like damp walls or echoing sounds, might definitely prefer to use the boxed text as his tool for setting the atmospheric tone, allowing him to focus on his other skills like monster tactics, or whatever.

Against: Point #2
And THAT brings us to the next negative point, which is that boxed text can force the DM, consciously or unconsciously, into atmospheric descriptions that aren't exactly what he wants to portray. Okay, that's a really, really minor point. Indeed, it's something I totally disregard when writing a module. I think a lot more people, even the ones who don't like boxed text, are still buying the module to see the atmospheric feel of it. Nobody wants to read a bland module, a module that has an inconsistent tone, or a module that keeps telling the DM "you can do this any way you want." If the DM is good enough to distinguish and portray nuances of atmosphere, that DM is almost certainly going to be able to handle the "conversion" from one tone to another.

Conclusion #1
Notice that there is a shift of gears whether you read the text aloud, or whether you skim it quickly to remind yourself of the important details before giving your own extemporaneous descriptions. You either shift to reading (ie, a change in the tone of how things are working at the table) or you pause for a few seconds to refresh your memory (a shift in the pace). A DM who prepares modules with great thoroughness might be able to play without refresher pauses. A DM with less prep-time can't do this, though. This is one of the stark choices to make as an author: who is my audience? I make the decision that more people are buying modules precisely because they have less prep-time available. Hence, that suggests that the modules should have boxed text.

Conclusion #2
The above conclusion, which mentions prep-time, brings up another important point. Everything I addressed above had to do with how the module plays at the game table. But it's also important that the module is easy for the DM to assimilate in the first place. Boxed text isn't just a tool for telling players what they see. It also puts the DM into the shoes of the players while reading. Boxed text can make reading and preparing the module more fun and easier to read and assimilate.

Final Comments
Boxed text can be written badly. Text descriptions of a room can be written in a disorganized fashion and fail to convey atmosphere. A badly written module can't be saved by minor questions like whether they should include boxed text or not.

There are some ways to mitigate those gear-shift changes I've mentioned as being negatives. For example, boxed text can be kept short, so that the gaming reverts quickly back to the extempore conversation across the top of the DM screen. Long, long flowery descriptions will, at a certain point, turn stale and boring. But if they're short, sweet, and evocative, then they will keep things moving as fast as possible, and provide the best compromise in terms of whether you're going to break the pace by reading aloud, break the pace by reading silently for a second, or (possibly the worst) break the pace by discovering that you botched some major detail in the room description.

So I come down in favor of short, boxed text (or italicized, or whatever). The ultimate question is really whether the module is well written, but assuming it's well written, I think this is the best way to make that well-written module function best at the gaming table as a tool for actual gaming.


  1. When I started playing (with BECMI rules/Rules Cyclopedia), a lot of the adventures I had used boxed text. I found them great for introducing me to how things were done - beyond that, I don't even used published adventures any longer. I like my own creations way too much. I use published monsters from all over the place, but nothing else as far as setting. Boxed text is great for the beginner, and the detail-oriented folks who don't want to miss it, but it's not strictly needed. I've often longed to look over those old modules again and re-read those descriptions. I actually wrote my own adventures (keyed by room) in that fashion, with my own boxed text, when I began running.

  2. While not strictly needed as pointed out above I'm more likely to use your module if you include brief, pertinent boxed descriptions of what is immediately perceivable by the party. I'm in favor of it for almost the same reasons that Ohio points out for being against... namely, I'm not a beginner so if I'm using a module its either because it already fits nicely into what I'm doing or I need something to drop into the campaign quickly. Having the boxed text available aids a quick transition from reading to using.

    You mitigate the time spent with your nose in the book by keeping the text brief. If I recall correctly Tomb of the Iron God struck a nice balance here, though I still modified and changed the heck out of it.

  3. I think Chaosium-era Runequest had a much nicer structure than the simple boxed text one that TSR pioneered, which in some ways alleviates the problems you describe (but might, in other cases, exacerbate them).

    I describe the format here:

  4. Great idea for a post and one that interests me a great deal these days.
    Right now, my own preference is to not have/use boxed text. If I use a published adventure, I'd prefer it to be sort of like the TSR D or G adventures --- everything covered in one paragraph. I wouldn't even mind if they reduced the text further --- is it necessary to list how many stools, chairs and benches are in each room of the Steading?
    Part of what I wonder is if people who DM are no good at 'improvising,' should they really be DMing? Perhaps they should they use DMing to try to learn to improvise? I used to play with a guy who was a terrible DM because he would insist on either looking things up (which took a long time) or he would say, "I don't know. I'm no good at making things up..." I know there are different gaming styles, but if you have all gathered to play "a game of the imagination," having one of the central people in the game (the gatekeeper of all action, really) refuse to play fully can make the game more tedious than fun.
    I'm sorry if that sounds elitist, but somehow we allow that some people are 'more talented' at games like basketball but in other games, that perhaps use different talents, we sometimes act as though everyone should be considered equal. Maybe not everyone has the 'stuff' to be a DM. I don't know if I do.

  5. Boxed Text I think are a side effect of the tournament style module. In a tournament with hundreds of players and dozens of referee, the referees got to run the modules with nearly zero prep and be consistent with nearly every other referee at the event.

    The boxed text is a tool to achieve that goal.

    The home game doesn't need this. Instead the referee has the luxury of reading the module through and forming their own ideas as to how to present each room.

    In this situation it is sufficient to say

    Giantess's Kitchen
    The kitchen has three female hill giants bustling around preparing the day's meal. On the two tables in the middle room are the carcaseses of giant aurochs being butchered. In a cabinet inside a three foot high urn of flour is the cook's treasure of 312 gp, and 125 sp.

    The title Giantess' Kitchen and the description of the unusual and important details is enough for a prepared referee to give a full description of the room. The result has the advantage of being tailored to his refereeing style.

    I am having a lot of fun taking the sparse descriptions of Tegal Manor and turning it into Rob Conley's Tegal Manor which would be different than say Matt Finch's Tegal Manor.

  6. Rob, I'm having trouble telling the difference between what would be considered brief "boxed text" and your description of the kitchen aside from the treasure. Are you really speaking against long, detailed boxed text?

  7. When we were kids (when I started playing D&D) we only read passages of text out loud at school. Everyone was very monotone, and it felt awkward and a real change of pace from the rest of the game.

    As an adult, with young children, I'm much more comfortable reading text aloud. So my experience with boxed text now is very different from what it was "back in the day". :)

  8. @JamesC I am arguing against including any boxed text.

    The room description I wrote isn't meant to be read aloud. It could but then some of the G1 entries could be read out loud. It is a description to the referee of what in the room. The referee need to then decide at what level detail to describe the situation. Some will be verbose and some will be brief.

  9. What would work best for me as far as keeping details straight also works best in my teaching and professional presentations. The notes are bullet points and you have to improv off that in discourse. Best if the most obvious things come first in the bullet point list.

  10. As a DM with hundreds of hours of play under my belt, I find it frustrating in the extreme when a module eschews boxed text. It's a valuable quick reminder of what the players see and when they see it, as opposed to what I know about the location.

    When I use a module, it's not because I want a skeleton product that's only going to serve to get my imagination going. It's for one of two reasons.

    1. I don't have anything ready for some reason.
    2. I explicitly want to experience This Module, much in the same way as wanting to read the new Moorcock book or wanting to read that 4th Earthsea book I never got around to.

    In either of these cases, if there is no boxed text, I end up having to write it myself. If it's a free module, I don't mind. If I paid for it, I end up feeling a bit cheated.

    Thus: Include boxed text. Those who don't want to use it don't have to. :)

  11. There is a *substantive* difference between Gygax's boxed text and that of his imitators.

    The point of the box text is to provide vague descriptions of things in the room to be investigated and red herrings in order of noticeable importance, in order to set up the encounter and contribute to player agency (i.e. does this room have a monster, a trick, a trap, treasure, or nothing). I cover this theory in my tricks document. It should literally give you the list of things 'to dick with' that will reveal one of the above.

    It is the tool that allows player agency to be effected. It is the setup for the encounter. Good DM's don't just read good flavor text, They communicate it. It specifically contains everything needed to set up the encounter and nothing more.

    I can't state this strongly enough.

  12. I despise boxed text.

    Most modules are far too wordy. I prefer the terseness of, for example, Judges Guild's Tegel Manor. Any module with such sparse details obviates Matt's first two points in favor of boxed text.

  13. From Tegel Manor:
    C4 40'x20'x20' H Musty and damp-extremely cold. Two-headed axe under bed, +1 Law Sword invisible on N wall.

    I think "Musty and damp-extremely cold" is effectively the boxed text for this room. It's just really, really brief. :)

  14. This topic reminds me of a quote found in Jerrold Blanchard and Gustave Doré's London: A Pilgrimage, which is found in the preface discussing the authors' methods of presenting a book on a teeming metropolis:
    "During our planning, I cited Isaac Disraeli on local descriptions: "The great art, perhaps, of local description, is rather a general than a particular view; the details must be left to the imagination; it is suggestive rather than descriptive." He gives us a good illustration of the writer who mistakes detail for pictorial force, Senderg, who in the "Alaric," gives five hundred verses to the description of a palace, "commencing at the facade, and at length finishing with the garden." If mere detail were descriptive power, an inventory would be a work of high art."

    My preference is for no boxed text. For starters (and this will not be a problem for 95% of the people reading this), we don't play in English, so I can't read it out in any case. And there are all the problems of being lost in detail etc. What I have come to prefer is evocative terseness - phrases, keywords and prose that convey both practical ("tangible") information and ("intangible") mood. There is that room description from Tegel Manor -- I prefer to have more information (and more gameplay-centric information at that), but that sentence at the beginning is very good. I could use it even in an improvisational way.

    A few more examples, this time from my own Khosura, that illustrate my preferences:

    UCI/A-10. Barracks for the low-ranking palace guards. Usually 2d8 men by day and 4d8 by night. Various "cabinet contents" furnishings and treasures.
    This is a classical low-info location. Rather than dwelling on detail anyone can make up, there is a very terse summary of the place's purpose and game relevance. End of the story.

    UCI/A-8. A temple-like, cool hall decorated with vivid frescoes of blue and purple gridwork and water fowl. The hall is bisected by a chasm; 30ĺ down lies the Tomb of Bel Am Arz. The stone bridge crossing the chasm holds a series of empty stone holders with soot and the remains of candles.

    On the other side, four statues, two of naked women and two of naked men, surround a shallow basin. The pool is decorated with splendid mosaics of gold, indigo and royal purple; on the bottom is the pattern of a medusaĺs head, and on the rim the following writing: (...)

    This is a meatier set-piece encounter. The description is gradual, moving from overall mood/style to smaller details. The consequences of engaging the various elements come later, and are similarly economic. All in all, the text is meant to be a guide to presenting a locale, not the presentation itself; therefore, it tries to evoke, not over-describe.

  15. Uh-oh, looks like the spam filter ate my comment. Is it still in there somewhere?

  16. Yes, I got it back in, and it's just above the question about it.

  17. I agress with your "In Favor #3" argument. Not everyone can easily sling a description ala OSRIC p. 153 on the fly. I know I can't.

    ”With the thief scouting for traps in front of the party, you proceed slowly down the corridor. The guttering torchlight throws eerie, flickering shadows upon the walls, revealing darker stone and cruder workmanship than that of the previous level. Unfortunately the torchlight doesn’t shed enough light to see to the end, all you can see by the yellow flame is the corridor continuing on into the darkness 40 ft away. A faint current of icy cold air blows into your faces, carrying with it a dank and mouldy smell as the thief pauses for a mo- ment, looking at something on the damp stone floor before continuing. As you pass by you note the badly dented helmet he was examining. It appears damaged beyond all use. From somewhere behind comes the faint sound of slithering—per- haps the sound of one of the many pests inhabiting the lower levels of the dungeon, or is it something more? After travelling about 60 ft, you arrive at a solid looking door, its heavy wood beams solidly bound with rusting iron. The slithering noise has ceased, for now.”