In Defense of Boxed Text

From: Death In Freeport

Last week I discussed what I take to be the elements of a useful dungeon key format and then offered my own take on the matter which amounted to an adaptation of Courtney Campbell’s approach except with descriptive text.

Around the same time Brendan over at Necropraxis outlined his method for improving dungeon keys.  Like me Brendan is happy to stick with boxed descriptive text as a way of presenting information, but suggests a way to bring relevant information to the fore.

According to a recent post by Courtney Campbell each of our methods is wrongheaded. Boxed text is beyond redemption and we should just let it go.

I disagree, and I’ll explain why.

The Case Against Boxed Text

So what’s Courtney’s beef with boxed text?  Well allegedly it’s just bad design practice. The reason being that ‘in a social situation, it is exceedingly difficult for human beings to listen to oration as opposed to conversation.’  Thus your lovingly crafted evocative descriptions are a waste of time and space since your players won’t listen to them.

Courtney doesn’t himself offer any supporting evidence to back up this claim but rather refers readers to a 2005 Design & Development article by WoTC.  In this article Jesse Decker and David Noonan offer some reflections about boxed text after going undercover at the 2005 Gen Con and observing hours of gaming sessions:

My hypothesis was that boxed text longer than a paragraph probably isn’t worth reading, because players tend to have pretty bad listening comprehension when it comes to boxed text. Their eyes glaze over pretty quickly.  What I actually saw was much more dramatic than my hypothesis. If you’re the DM, you get two sentences. Period. Beyond that, your players are stacking dice, talking to each other, or staring off into space. Time after time, players were missing the actual data in the boxed text – basic stuff, like room dimensions, how many doors exit the room, and number of monsters.

Based upon this observation, and a bit of reflection about what constitutes the essential form of a role playing game Decker and Noonan offer the following hypothesis:

At its heart, a D&D session is a conversation… Boxed text replaces that conversation with oration. Now the DM is doing the talking, and the players are doing the listening… DMs who don’t have – or aren’t using – boxed text are delivering the same information, but they’re doing it in a style the players are used to. Those DMs are responding to player questions, describing the room as they draw it on the grid around the PCs’ minis, and otherwise giving the players an active role in the description.

This article offers the evidential support for Courtney’s claim, and provides a possible explanation for lack of player attentiveness to boxed text.  Reading aloud boxed text descriptions temporarily supplants an RPG’s native form (conversation) with a form alien to it (oration) in a way that discourages participatory engagement.

A Reply

The first thing worth noting is that Decker and Noonan are more cautious about the merits of their ‘research’, and about what implications ought to be drawn it, than is Courtney.

Regarding their observations at Gen Con the two make the disclaimer that this was not a representative sample group and not all the variables were accounted for. Other factors, such as for instance, the volume of background noise at the busy conference, and the fact that most of the referees were reading the descriptions for the first times themselves, might, at least in part, account for the players distraction.

Further, the two make it clear that they wouldn’t be making any immediate radical changes to the standard 3e D&D adventure key format based on their observations.  At most they would be keeping a close eye on the boxed text and experimenting with alternatives to see if they played better at the table.

While one might conclude from this that we ought to abandon boxed text altogether, this is hardly the only conclusion supported by the evidence.  A different take-home lesson might be to conclude that we ought to pay closer attention to the way the built environment around us affects our attention, and seek ways to make it work for us rather than against us.  Another conclusion might be that we attempt to familiarize ourselves, at least somewhat, with the game material beforehand and in game work on better delivery of the descriptive bits.  Initiating ‘best practices’ such as these might go a long way towards alleviating the problem of player inattention.

Admittedly though Decker and Noonan think that the biggest culprit here is the oratory form of boxed text descriptions which ‘interrupts’ the otherwise conversational form of the game.  I don’t think this is quite right though.  Sure, perhaps the default mode of ‘role playing’ is conversation, but that isn’t to say that the game doesn’t employ other forms.

Take for example narration.  There are several occasions in which this form is appropriate.  At the beginning of a campaign a quick overview of the locale and context surrounding the adventure sets the stage for events to come.1  Between sessions in which a lot of time has lapsed a quick summary of the previous session’s events is often a welcome reminder. Finally, as Justin Alexander observes in his wonderful series on the art of pacing, one of the tricks to a well paced campaign is to skip over empty time (‘the boring bits in which nothing is happening’) to get to a point in which the PCs can once again make interesting choices. Doing this well often involves ‘framing the scene’, which in turn requires relating to the players important events which have occurred during the lapsed time, and describing features of the current scene that are immediately relevant.  

Another example is to be found in the conflict resolution mechanism employed in combat (and elsewhere). It is not the case that players and referee typically decide what happens purely through a process of conversation.  Conversation is involved, true.  But generally things get decided by a roll of the dice.  What we have here is another ‘interruption’ of the conversational form, this time by a mechanical conflict resolution procedure.

Thus, a mere interruption of the conversational form doesn’t seem to be the problem.  In fact, perhaps it’s best not to think of these other forms as ‘interrupting’ the conversational form, but rather ‘structuring’ it.  The conflict resolution system provides a mechanism for knowing whether or not a potential action being discussed comes off or not.  Framing a scene provides the players with the background and foreground information necessary for deciding what to do next.

In like manner, offering an orated boxed text description of a room need not be thought of as a separate form that competes with the conversational nature of the game.  Instead it can be thought of as providing the context of the conversation and fixing its subject: ‘this’ is what we will be talking about next.

I am not denying that there is a problem about boxed text descriptions.  It is true that historically they have often caused people’s eye’s to glaze over.  What I am denying is that this is an inherent problem with the format itself.  I’ve already laid out some suggestions for improving upon it in my previous posts on this topic and won’t rehash them here. Suffice to say I remain unconvinced by the arguments I’ve seen against  boxed texts.  So don’t be a hater, embrace the box!

This is true even in sandbox style campaigns.  Players still need to know ‘something’ about the town they are in and what they are doing there in order to make meaningful choices.

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of Boxed Text

  1. I don’t actually care for read-aloud text very much, though I do think it’s possible to embed well-chosen atmospheric text either in “boxed text” or other descriptions, and that can be welcome.

    For me, the primary goal when writing adventure materials in terms of usability should be to make sure that important details are not easily missed by the referee, and I think that the issue of whether or not to use boxed text is orthogonal to this primary objective.

    I see boxed text as another kind of supplementary aid (somewhat like a visual prop) which will work well for some referees but not for others.

    1. I would tend to agree with you here (though I of course do like boxed text). It is supplementary material. If you find that you can get along quite well without it then by all means get rid of it. However I do think that it has some nice features that justify its continued place in the dungeon key format.

  2. Something else to bear in mind about Decker/Noonan here: The ultimate result of this “research” was the Delve Format. You know? The adventure format that was fundamentally broken in its approach and universally reviled? I’d really take pretty much anything they have to say about adventure design with a pretty large grain of salt.

    The primary advantage of properly executed boxed text is that it very clearly establishes what the players should know as soon as they enter the room. That delineation is invaluable when it comes time to run an adventure cleanly and efficiently. When I flip through a published adventure and see a complete lack of structure in terms of how information is supposed to be presented, I immediately know that the adventure is going to be a pain in the ass to run.

    And the absence of boxed text is the first warning sign that the module lacks structure and organization.

    There is, of course, plenty of badly executed boxed text in the history of the industry. (90% of everything is crap and boxed text is no exception.) But here’s the thing: If the boxed text is properly executed, then it takes up no more space or word count than if the information in that text WASN’T boxed and clearly delineated. So even if you don’t like reading boxed text verbatim, there’s still no reason the boxed text shouldn’t exist. All you need to do is what (a) modules have been saying since the dawn of the industry and (b) exactly what you’d need to do if someone erased the box: Summarize that information into your own words.

    1. Thanks for weighing in Justin, nice to get your take on the matter. I’m not too familiar with Delve format to be honest (I’m a late RPG bloomer). So my critique in this blog post was strictly based on the arguments presented in their research and design article.

      I completely agree that the boxed text is a helpful way of quickly distinguishing what players know upon entering the room from that which they only discover upon investigation. Of course I think Courtney’s position is that there are other formats (in particular his own) that accomplish exactly the same ends in less space, and more importantly, that are more effective for conveying the relevant information to the players.

      I actually think Courtney’s format is quite sleek and potentially very effective. Thing is, still think there are some advantages to boxed text when, as you say, they are executed properly.

  3. Oh man, I’m a big boxed text fan. It might be nostalgia, though. All those old adventures from the 70s and 80s with over-verbose boxed text. Who uses the word guisarme, anyway?

    I use a lot of it when I write my own adventures, though they are not in general very profesional anyway. As far as ortation versus conversation: a good storyteller could sell either very well.

    1. “As far as ortation versus conversation: a good storyteller could sell either very well.”

      And this I think may be the crux of the issue. Some may object that D&D is a form of “collective” storytelling and that scripted narration by the referee places the PCs int he passive role of audience, rather than active participant.

      However I don’t think this is right. I agree with you that good economically restrained oration on the part of the referee can actually invite collective participation. It does this both by engaging the imaginations of the PCs and directing their attention to the relevant features of the encounter.

      Thanks for chiming in.

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