Is Box Text Always Bad? NO

I wasn’t planning on writing another post on this topic.

But lest anyone think I’m kicking a dead horse here check out Courtney Campbell’s latest post on this topic.  Campbell is just one among quite a few who revile this device.  But he offers a sustained critique of its alleged inadequacies.  So let’s examine these.

We lack the Attention Span To Concentrate on Box Text

Campbell makes use of a well-worn distinction between focused attention, a short term response to stimulus that attracts the attention, and sustained attention, a prolonged episode of attending to a particular task.  The former is what allows us to recognize and respond to items of immediate concern in our environment.  The saber-tooth tiger in the tree, or the raspberries in the bush.  It is fairly short in duration, usually lasting only a few seconds and rarely more than 8.  The latter is what allows us to accomplish temporally extended tasks or follow the moves made in a complex argument or chess game.

Campbell also cites evidence that the average person can only concentrate on about 4 (give or take) things at the same time.  Based on the above distinction and this evidence for short term memory capacity limits his argument proceeds as follows:

P1.  Listening to Box Text requires focused attention;

P2.  Focused attention is insufficient to allow us to concentrate on box text;

  Therefore,  it is not the case that we have the attention span for box text.  QED

The second premise assumes, reasonably, that the majority of box text entries are either going to take longer than 8 seconds to read, or contain more than 4 items (or both).

Thing is, premise 1 is false.  Focused attention, recall, has to do with attending to immediate stimuli  of concern in one’s ‘actual’ environment.  Things like loud noises, specific odors and visual cues like vibrant colors and moving objects.  This is the kind of attention needed for hunting and gathering.  It is an instinctive, pre-reflective sort of activity.  By contrast, attending to words, whether spoken or written, requires sustained attention.  It is a reflective activity concerned with determining meaning. Listening to a verbal description, like that of a boxed text, is also an imaginative activity.  One is engaged in simulating mental images (among other senses) out of the words being read.  The reflective and imaginative nature of this activity render it a higher order form of attention.

The issue at hand is not that we can only focus on an orated description for up to 8 seconds.  That is a red herring.  The real issue is that the attention needed to sustain such an activity is prone to distraction by more immediate stimuli.  But this is nothing new (as teachers the world over can attest), and it is the same problem that all of us game masters face whenever we are running a session, whether or not we use boxed text.  Let’s face it, players are prone to distraction.  Dice stacking, side conversations, text-messaging. These are all things which routinely occur throughout the course of a game session, even in the middle of combat!  It is not in any way a problem unique to the reading of box text.

As to the point about short term memory limits, well and fine.  But again, why is this a special problem for boxed text?  Whether or not you use boxed text you are going to have to describe the features of the room to your players.  Any room description that contains more than 4 items is going to be saddled with the potential problem of deficient memory retention.  Why should it make any difference whether the description was given in the midst of conversation or read aloud?

Boxed Text is Functionally Inept 

Another argument Campbell makes is that the raison d’etre for having boxed text is to have a clear partition between the information about an encounter immediately available to the players, and that which is only available to the referee.  However there are actually  two distinct functions which such a partition should serve: (a) to separate the content into these two divisions, and (b) to make the content easy to refer to.  While boxed text handily achieves the first function it altogether fails at the second.  It buries the relevant information within imposing wall of text.

I’m inclined to think that boxed text actually serves useful functions in addition to the primary one mentioned (e.g. presenting the features of an encounter in an evocative manner in order to stir the imagination), but I agree that delineation of content is an important function as well.  What I’m not ready to grant is the assumption that boxed text needs to fulfill the second function mentioned.  I think it certainly can do so (all one need do is apply some visual indicators, e.g. boldface, to key elements within the boxed text). But why think boxed text must fulfill this function?

Well presumably because this is the only place within the dungeon room format that this information will appear and so it had better by accessible.  However this need not be the case, a dungeon room format might legitimately duplicate this information in an accessible manner elsewhere.  By way of example, in the modified dungeon room format I outline immediately following the boxed text description are bullet points of the main features of the room (in boldface) which include further descriptive and mechanical information about these objects should the players investigate.  This method does not merely distinguish between what information the players have access to and that which the referee has access to, but what information the players gain through investigation. And it does it in a manner that is clear and easy to reference.

With this in mind I think Campbell’s critique is only really damaging to certain instances of boxed text (mainly those of 80s and early 90s), but not to boxed text as such.  Despite the provocative title of his post I don’t think those among us who prefer boxed text have been given ‘definitive’ reasons to change our box loving ways.


12 thoughts on “Is Box Text Always Bad? NO

  1. What I don’t see in your argument is a positive reason for including boxed text in modules – although perhaps this is a function of my attention span! 🙂 As far as I can tell, you want the boxed text mainly to help DMs who are not skilled in improvising the description. But surely most DMs are capable of noting down how they would describe the room before-hand, and (plausibly) this practice would also make them better at improvising descriptions.

    Was there something I missed?

    1. 🙂 No, you haven’t missed anything. I haven’t offered a positive account of boxed text. Mainly because this and the previous post were just intended to offer rebuttals to the negative arguments I’ve seen.

      But as to positive reasons, I do think that offering a bit of description that involves the senses is a good way of encouraging your player’s imagination, as well as in some cases to set the mood of the scene. I know that not everyone feels the way I do, but even as a player I find that these descriptions help me to better simulate the scene/room.

      Now I’ll grant that being able to do this on the fly is a skill that all referees ought to attempt to become somewhat competent in. And a bit of preparation before game time certainly helps. However I think even a talented and seasoned referee would have trouble generating spontaneous sensory descriptions for each and every room of a mega-dungeon. In addition I don’t see how a referee could prepare such information for a mega-dungeon in advance without committing it to paper. So there at least is the start to a positive argument for box text.

  2. This came up in the other conversation on G+.

    Boxed text, traditionally, requires focused attention. Much like if I were to read ten names out of the phone book, it lists items in the room, creatures, and various features. Attempting to assimilate auditory stimulus in this way requires focused attention. It is exactly what focused attention means – paying attention to parse data we are being given. It is exceptionally hard with transitory media (audio/video) for us to maintain that focus.

    It is apparently super-popular to try to redefine what focused attention is, to try and make it resemble sustained attention! Anyone can listen to a story, right? A podcast? That requires sustained attention!

    But those things are conversation or narratives. Those are exactly the kinds of things sustained attention can follow. Yes focused attention is paying attention to threats, noises and dangers in the wild. It is also what’s requires to remember a phone number you’re given, doing addition, and parsing information you are given. This is what boxed text is forcing you to do

    But the point was made that the boxed text being referred to wasn’t providing a list of features and objects of interest in the room. It was “Setting a scene.”

    Now, I have never met anyone in thirty years and thousands of people I’ve played with that sat around and read descriptive paragraphs to ‘set scenes’ thirty or forty times a session. But that isn’t the whole of gamers, and perhaps there’s someone out there that plays role-playing games because the game is frequently interrupted with being read to out of a storybook.

    That isn’t why I play the game, and I’ve never met anyone who’s played the game that way, but clearly it’s possible that dude exists, so whatever. Boxed text is probably just swell for that guy.

    But as a Dungeon Master that requires content it has all the drawbacks I listed above. And since I, nor any player I’ve ever had the pleasure of gaming with has ever request more sitting around and being read to by adults, the boxed text has all the problems listed in the article.

    1. I’ve done a bit more research on attention and have discovered that your use of “focused” attention was correct; I had been mistaking the “focused/sustained” distinction with a different distinction, that of “exogenous” vs “endogenous”.

      Exogenous (exo- outer gene- origin/cause) attention is a stimulus driven form of attention orienting. We are hard-wired by evolution to attend to changes in our environment, such as motion and loud noises. This is not something we are generally in control of, our attention is just naturally attracted to certain stimuli. Endogenous (endo- inner gene- origin/cause) attention on the other hand is an intentional, goal directed form of attention. This occurs whenever we choose to orient our attention on a particular item or task. It is executive function. Focused and sustained attention both reply upon the executive capacity of endogenous orienting. This article has more information on this.

      Anyway that all aside let’s get back to the argument at hand. So let’s now grant the first premise of your argument, viz,, that listening to boxed text requires focused attention. What about the other premise, that focused attention is not sufficient to allow us to pay attention to box text? I think this is an exaggeration. One way to demonstrate this is to show that if true your argument’s conclusion would prove to much. For it would turn out to be the case not only that we can’t pay attention to boxed descriptions, but to any descriptions at all, including those room descriptions that you want to give your players “conversationally”.

      The reason for this is simple. Anytime one is required to pay attention to a list or set of details they will need to use the same array of executive functions (e.g. endogenous orienting and memory). This is true regardless of what format the details are given in (in a book, a play, a conversation, a speech). Likewise there will always be the threat of “attention capture” by other stimuli as well as memory load limits. So the upshot is that if our executive capacities are not fine tuned enough to allow us to listen to a description read aloud then neither will they suffice to allow us to listen to the same description given in a different form.

      “Ah”, but you say,”that’s just where you’re wrong, conversations and narratives involve sustained attention, not focused attention, so it’s all good!” I don’t know whether or not in general this is true (on what basis do you make these claims?). But regardless when offering an itemized list of information the problem will be the same.

      So say you are describing a room to your players without box text. Either you do this all in one go, listing all the information they have immediate access to, or you break this up into bite-size chunks, allowing them to interject with questions and comments. If the first, how is what you are doing really any different from reading a box text? If the second, admittedly you gain the advantage of reducing information overload but at the expense of allowing even more opportunities for the attention of your players to wander. These interjections creates space for all manner of rabbit trails. Players might get fixated on one thing mentioned and by the time you move on they are no longer listening but thinking about that object. This is a familiar experience. It’s easy for our attention to drift in a conversation. Frequently I find myself focusing on a point someone has made and a minute later find I’ve not been paying attention to anything they’ve just been saying. Or that instead of listening to what they are saying I’m busy trying to think up a response to something else that they’ve said. This “selective” focus means that in a conversation we don’t always attend to everything being said. Presenting all of the information up front gets around this problem but has the disadvantage just mentioned. So whichever way you go I don’t see how a conversational model offers any gains in player attention over that of a boxed text model.

      1. Except, your reasoning is all backwards.

        We aren’t saying “here is boxed text, what will happen when it is read?” What we are doing is looking at people listening to boxed text, seeing that their eyes glaze over, that they aren’t processing or listening to the information, and generally waiting for it to end. Then taking that data, we are looking for why.

        The why is the problem with focused attention.

        The reason “expense of allowing even more opportunities for the attention of your players to wander.” isn’t a problem, because them investigating a room, asking questions, and following the various rabbit trails is literally playing the game. They like it! It’s fun to investigate. Their attention drifts to whatever they are interested in, when they investigate it.

        Look at it this way – They may choose to not look around the room. Then if they wander into some shenanigans, it is their fault. It gives them agency,

        instead of the often mentioned situation where they are ignoring the boxed text because they are eager to play and not really processing what’s being said for biological reasons to what’s being said anyway, and you either have to re-explain it to them after, or deal with their hurt feelings because they got burned because they wouldn’t jump through the hoop of being quiet and attentive in a room full of their friends, instead of, you know, playing D&D

  3. I’ll be completely honest, I never knew boxed text was such a controversy. I’ve been playing from a very young age, and I’ve been in groups that used it, didn’t use it, or used some variation of it. I never really remember anyone ever getting bored with a short paragraph of description.

    I think that, probably, the majority of people playing DnD are probably ambivalent with this issue, and will make use of the information you feed them whether or not it’s through a boxed text description or a back and forth between the DM and the players.

    I am in agreement with Tad in that I think it does more help than harm, and even those that don’t like boxed text can simply use it to feed in chunks or as the baseline for how they set the scene.

    Badly written box text is as bad as a badly written adventure, and I don’t think that reflects on the issue of boxed text in general because there is boxed text that isn’t badly written.

    As an aside: Merry Christmas Tad! I’ve enjoyed your blog quite a bit so far. I enjoy the deep discussion you provide when it comes to a favorite hobby.

    1. It’s fascinating that you claim that there is well written boxed text. I’ve seen that claim before. I have seen any citations of examples, just the claim that somewhere, boxed text exists that is well written.

      I’d be very interested in any examples. It isn’t the first time I’ve asked.

      1. Been away for the last few days. Thanks for the Christmas wishes RP Craft, hope you have a lovely holiday as well!

        In reply to your earlier comment Courtney, “my reasoning” just follows the structure of your own argument. Your claim, recall, is that 90% of box text is poorly written, but that even the 10% that isn’t is bad. The reason being that it requires focused attention to listen to box text and we haven’t got this in sufficient enough quantity. The argument structure is deductive, not inductive.

        On the other hand if you are attempting to support the second premise of your argument based on the inductive inference that whenever you’ve read box text to your players in the past their eyes have glazed over you’ve got a whole new set of problems. The first of which is that by your own admission 90 percent of the examples of box text out there are bad and this fact by itself might account for your players’s inattention, as well as the widespread antipathy toward box text within the OSR community. A second problem is that there are quite a few people out there who have not encountered problems when reading box text to their players. RPCraft if only one example, in those forums you linked to earlier there were plenty of folks who came to the defense of box text. So as it stands, any inductive inference from the evidence you sight would just amount to a hasty generalization.

        As the other point (about player agency and descriptions), fine, but you still need some some device that answers the question “what do your players see when they open the door?” Unless you decide to not tell them anything about what they see until they ask you about it presumably you will at the very least need to list off the general features of the room. My point was simply that your argument about the limitations of focused attention would just as easily be a problem for doing this as it would for reading a box description.

      2. A) It’s Cite
        B) that reply doesn’t contain the fabled example of “good” boxed text.

        The reason my argument on the blog starts out with the example of “We aren’t talking about bad boxed text” is to preemptively address the argument, “We’ll, everything you are saying is true, but only about bad boxed text.” Personally, I’d love to see an example of good boxed text. It’s amazing how hard it must be to locate, being the trouble people have producing it.

        C) Many people will defend things, because they are deluded or unable to see the negative effects of their choices. Ever been in a drunk tank? Met a drug addict? How about know anyone that is a bore at parties. Their support of it doesn’t indicate any inherent value, compared to observational complaints about attention wandering, a real, physical, drawback noted again and again.

        D) It is clear that player led questioning is a simple and engaging technique for the players. You have a list of what’s in the room. Then they dynamically engage you in play. (DM:you open the door, a chamber lies beyond. P1: how big is it? DM: narrow, perhaps fifteen feet across, and about fifty feet long. P2:how many exits? Etc.) As opposed to making them sit still, be quiet, and read to them, making them wait till they play again.

        Surely you can see how a Socratic method is effective at transmitting information? The players are asking what they want to know. The answer to their question, is presumably, short, containing the information they are seeking. As opposed to a long difficult to reference block of text containing all information front-loaded into something that is going to be read by someone who’s not a professional orator.

  4. You are correct that I haven’t yet offered an example of a “good” boxed description. However this is neither here nor there. In my replies all I have sought to do is offer rebutting reasons to your arguments. It was never my intention to offer a positive account, nor was this necessary to rebut the arguments you gave. I think that the reason you believe a positive account is necessary is because you assume, based on your negative experiences, that the burden of proof lies with anyone who wishes to defend boxed text. On the contrary, I think the burden of proof lies with someone such as yourself who wishes to make the strong claim that boxed text are ALWAYS bad. That is a much stronger claim than simply observing that many (or even most) instances of boxed text are bad, and consequently, requires stronger evidence. I don’t think that what you have provided meets this threshold – and that’s ALL I have tried to argue.

    Having said that, one of the first posts I plan on writing when I come back from holiday will be on the art of descriptions. It won’t be a specific defense of boxed text per say, but rather will more generally apply to any description one gives of an encounter our sequence of events. However what I will say will apply to boxed text and I’ll offer some examples. So stay tuned.

    Regarding C, two points. First, the data here includes voices from players who haven’t had problems listening to boxed text. Second, while perhaps some of the defenders of boxed text are of the sort you mentioned it looks like you are making a sweeping claim about all of them merely as a way of dismissing their voice from consideration. An ad hominem attack such as this does not actually strengthen your argument and moreover is in poor taste.

    As to D, OK, I have no particular problem with the approach you outline, and I can see why you are attracted to it; it isn’t vulnerable to the criticism that players are being overloaded with a bunch of info all at once. However I’m still not convinced that it is superior to using boxed descriptions. I think both approaches have certain advantages and disadvantages. One advantage that boxed text has for instance is that we would expect that players opening a door to a dungeon would be alert to their surroundings. A boxed description (or itemized list) offers your players a quick summary of all that they would observe upon a cursory survey without them having to specifically ask for what would be obvious to them. I will cover other advantages of descriptions early in the coming year, but for now I’ll just end by reiterating that I am not criticizing your method I am simply allowing that other method, including boxed text, may have merit as well.

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