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Hot Button: Reading the Boxed Text

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On December 18, 2008 @ 7:58 am In Hot Buttons | 22 Comments

Back in the Reagan era, it was considered a cardinal sin in my gaming circles to read boxed text in published modules (which was High Gygaxian for “adventures”).  We didn’t want to listen to the Dungeon Master (yep, this was during Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Golden Age) drone on in a monotonous tone about the room description, when all we really cared about is that it was a 15ft x 20ft room with a door to the north and something short and nasty glaring at us.

It was the mark of a lesser DM (and later “GM”) that read boxed text. As players, we expected the GM to read the boxed text on her own and paraphrase it for us.

Of course, this had its downside. In our circles, GMs got used to paraphrasing the absolute minimum necessary, and this carried over to her homebrew adventures. The result was that, if a GM bothered to really describe a room in her homebrew adventure, then the AD&D session would suddenly turn into an episode of CSI: Greyhawk (“There’s a tapestry on the wall? Don’t touch it, Bobbin! You said that there is a hippogriff depicted…are its eyes looking at the ornate chair or the bugbear fur rug? It’s just staring blankly, like at the opposite wall? Break out the picks, guys! There must be a secret door there!”).

As I matured (which is High Waltese for “I’m old enough to remember watching Star Wars IV in the theater, when it was just called “Star Wars”), I found that I didn’t mind boxed text so much. It helped with immersion, and I found that a good description can really set the atmosphere and mood.  When I began my D&D Freeport campaign a couple years ago, I found myself reading boxed text all the time. This has carried over into my Pathfinder Rise of the Runelords campaign.

So today’s hot button is this: Do you routinely read boxed text or do you tend to paraphrase or handwave it? Do your players listen when you’re reading boxed text, or do they mentally check out until you’ve finished?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Hot Button: Reading the Boxed Text"

#1 Comment By Cole On December 18, 2008 @ 8:28 am

Mentally check out. My players have told me directly that if they want detail they will ask me for it.

#2 Comment By MadBrewLabs On December 18, 2008 @ 8:31 am

On the rare occasion I use published adventures I read the text, though I’m not afraid to drop details or embellish.

My players usually listend to what I’m saying.

#3 Comment By LesInk On December 18, 2008 @ 8:48 am

I want to point out that there really are three types of text boxes.

The first, is a static description of a room or area. Reading it tends to require note taking as the details collect into “too much” for a person to remember.

The second, tends to be more of atmosphere reading where you might describe a busy town street or an eeriely dark chamber. The description does require note taking as the players really only have to hear key phrases or words out of the whole thing.

The third is more like a script out of a movie where NPCs are going into monologues or speaking with other NPCs. For role players, this can be the most exciting as it usually plays out more like a movie.

Over the years, RPG moved out of the dungeon and into the movies. The 10’x10′ room description no longer is important as I find players yearn for story more than they yearn for 100 details in a room to solve a 7-part puzzle. (Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for it).

And finally, sometimes the the text box information is just plain wrong or confusing. I cannot count the number of times I ran a game where I read the text out loud of a pre-built module and then looked at the map and they were not the same…. Argh! And if you customize the module … here there be dragons.

#4 Comment By Sektor On December 18, 2008 @ 8:52 am

My players would also check out when I read it aloud. Instead, I prefer to paraphrase it.

Unfortunately, I’m kind of bad at paraphrasing, because I have not enough confidence in myself to remember everything that needs to be told. I’m afraid I will forget important details (no matter how small the box is), so I will automatically skim over the text and summarize it quickly.

And that’s where problem number two comes up: I’m not a native English speaker, and even though I’m very good at it, my players prefer to play in our native tongue. So while skimming over the text, I have to translate it on the fly. I tend to choke on my words, which will in the end have the same effect on my players as just reading aloud.

That must still be the biggest flaw I have as a GM. I’m hoping I can improve on that quickly.

#5 Comment By nblade On December 18, 2008 @ 8:54 am

I’m with Madbrew on this one, I tend to use the text, but add or subtract detail as needed.

Of course this should be done with care. I have found that sometimes, if I had read the straight boxed text, the players would have picked up on a clue that they otherwise missed.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On December 18, 2008 @ 9:13 am

I tend to read boxed text if it is available or make up my own guidelines with general room feel. The other thing I’ll add is having the players make a general search or spot type of roll to pick out important details. That way they don’t obsess over head positioning on statues and other such things.

#7 Comment By LordVreeg On December 18, 2008 @ 9:19 am

Is module/canned adventure use really so prevalent in today’s gaming world that this is pertinent? I’m in the same generation as you Walt, and was already gaming when I saw episode IV in the theatres, and to me the original intent of Gygax was for people to do as he did and create their settings and the adventures to go along with it, and it was only after they saw they amount of money that could be made on these that the original creative dynamic was muted.
I know it is off-topic, but I recently nearly stopped going to the ‘Critical Hits’ site because it felt like 3 out of 4 posts were reviews about canned product.

Allright, enough of that. I Personally go heavily into detail with everything, as it confounds the ‘appearance of an important detail’ issue you mention above. Of course, one of my 2 gaming groups is on day 6 of within-game play after 16 sessions, so we may be statistical outliers…
But there is no mentally checking out.

#8 Comment By Rafe On December 18, 2008 @ 9:44 am

I’ve never used a module – not out of some sense of elitism but simply because I’ve never found that they offer much in terms of flexibility and my players like to know they can go in any direction that makes sense.

That said, in my own adventures, I have “text boxes” and I read those verbatim. They don’t tend to be long and my player enjoy descriptions above and beyond the dimensions for the room, specifically atmospheric tone and description.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On December 18, 2008 @ 10:26 am

It depends on the module, the text box, and the (real life) setting. If I’m running an RPGA module at the local library, I’ll read the box text pretty directly– it’s likely I haven’t had it long enough to do a good job of “improving” it without losing key elements (as nblade and sektor mention). If it’s horribly written– or even confuses me with the text in hand– I’ll try to paraphrase it.

In home games, I don’t write down box text, so it’s not a big issue.

When I’m playing, I try to pay attention to the box text; usually there’s something useful or mock worthy– either way, there’s something to encourage listening. When the box text runs over a full column (which has happened), I definitely fall into audience instead of participant.

Basically, short box text is fine, long box text is a challenge. Done well, box text can enhance the feel of an area or help immerse in the world; bad box text is the bane of the DM and the whole group.

#10 Comment By Sarlax On December 18, 2008 @ 10:31 am

I haven’t used modules in a long time, but I used to with frequency. I never liked reading off of the page to the players, so I learned to just glanced down, memorize, and say it to them while making eye contact. I’d say it as if I were coming up with it then, or as if describing an actual room from memory. I think it helped quite a bit in keeping attention and making a room more memorable.

#11 Comment By deadlytoque On December 18, 2008 @ 10:45 am

Unlike Lordvreeg and our host, I’m only old enough to have seen Return of the Jedi in theatres, but like several of the commenters, I’m wondering “are box adventures really so common in the industry that this is a major issue?”

The arguments against modules are well-trod and don’t need me to reiterate them, but if I were to run a module (or a preview quick-start where I don’t actually own the rules in question), I would read the boxed text, because chances are I’m doing it with no prep-time. If I had prep-time, I wouldn’t be running a boxed adventure.

#12 Comment By Kameron On December 18, 2008 @ 11:45 am

I’m a boxed text reader, though I often find myself rewriting the provided text to include more atmosphere or provide info from the “DM text” that I think the PCs should know. I also make sure to use inflection for a little added drama.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 18, 2008 @ 11:57 am

I read the boxed text aloud, and have almost always read it. I even write my own adventures with boxed text (except that it’s bolded).

Then again, (brag) I’m very good at reading text aloud with the proper inflections and emphasis (/brag). No droning monotones here.

#14 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 18, 2008 @ 11:59 am

Oh, and I’ve been gaming since before the Reagan era, so it’s not a new thing for me…

#15 Comment By Tommi On December 18, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

Once I used a premade adventure. My English pronunciation was (is?) bad enough that boxed texts simply did not work. Hence, no boxed text. (Also, no premade adventures.)

#16 Comment By nblade On December 18, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

@LordVreeg – Sadly, I have limited time. It is usually faster for me to read through and use a module than to create something myself. That is not to say I haven’t use my own stuff, just that with some of the time constraints, it’s more likely that I will use a published module.

#17 Comment By Volcarthe On December 18, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

i use the boxes and add extra, trivial details in so my players are always not exactly sure if it’s important or not.

my favorite text boxes are the “movie scene” ones.

#18 Comment By peter On December 18, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

since we play in dutch,I translate the boxtext in dutch while reading them. And I happen to shorten them here or there. although I kinda like the level of detail these prewritten descriptions give to the game. In my own games I am usally to lazy to come up with such wonderfull descriptions

#19 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 18, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

I’ll paraphrase — only if I think the language particularly stilted or mood-breaking. But that’s the exception, really. On the whole, I’ll read anything that helps the players have fun or adds to the adventure.

What a great post!

#20 Comment By Bookkeeper On December 19, 2008 @ 5:11 am

I used the boxed text in my last campaign, but I’m planning to ditch it for paraphrasing in my upcoming one. I find boxed text to be a bit like dialogue: you need to rehearse it in order for it to sound natural.

#21 Comment By LordVreeg On December 20, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

@nblade
That’s kind of why I went for the interogative mode. Despite the time spent online on RPG sites, I somehow feel less in touch with the gaming community than I did a few decades ago. And my time spent on the CBG has shown me that despite their putting up with my iconoclastic and idiosyncratic nature, I am often the ‘outlier’. I’m really not sure how prevalent the use of premade adventures is.

And Telas, there should be a little more bard in all of us…would that all of us were as lucky as you.

#22 Comment By Samuel Van Der Wall On December 21, 2008 @ 4:59 am

If it is there, I read it. It’s a good way of practicing certain parts of your public speaking skill.


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