Read My Lips

Read aloud text, or boxed text, as it’s sometimes called, has been a staple of D&D since the earliest adventure modules. The shaded boxes told Dungeon Masters what to say to players, typically verbatim, and often at length. Boxed text comes from an era in which the rules for how a Dungeon Master should run his or her game were just that–more like rules, and less like guidelines. So the question is, has read aloud text in adventures outlived it’s usefulness, or does it remain relevant as a tool or as part of the tradition of D&D and other roleplaying games.

(Photo attribution: flickr • skvidal)

Audience is Important
I put the question to Twitter, and by and large, the Game Master’s there felt that read aloud text was useful only in that it contained important facts to be conveyed to the players. Most people did not read the text verbatim. The resounding opposition to traditional read aloud text, in favor of something such as bullet points, suggests the biases of that audience, though. The folks who responded are experienced Game Masters, who are accustomed to improvisation and adaptation. In that respect, perhaps the most appropriate place for traditional read aloud text is in adventures for new Game Masters, such as in in the Dungeon Master’s Kit. The adventures in Dungeon magazine, for example, might not mandate the same treatment.

Convenience
Dungeon Masters have an awfully lot to worry about. Read aloud text is a boon to the lazy DM, or the DM who doesn’t have time to prepare. It can give him or her a much needed break during the session–a singular place where the Game Master is not put on the spot to conjure dialog or a description out of thin air. Yet is the convenience an illusion? How often do we Dungeon Masters start reading a passage and then begin modifying the text halfway through it, or cut it short with a “blah, blah, blah?” Maybe the the characters have torches instead of sunrods, or maybe the mood is wrong, or maybe the read aloud doesn’t contain an essential detail the DM wants to convey. I think anyone who has ever relied on read aloud text has had the same experience: reading a pasage and realizing it is silly, doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t contain the important information. Some GMs can just excise or improvise on the fly, but if you’re not one of those people, a question then: Is there some better way to communicate with you, so that you can communicate effectively to your players?

My Words in Your Mouth
We DMs have all read boxed text that sounds contrived, forced, or awkward. We’ve read swathes of text, in which we stop halfway through after players get that dazed look in their eyes (level + 3 vs. Will). One of the fundamental problems with read aloud text is that it causes you to disengage with the players. On Twitter, @TheSheDm pointed out the importance of eye contact. Reading the text in advance helps, but each glance down at the page tells the players that they’re on the railroad. The more you can avoid reading directly from the page, the more your players will feel as if they’ve paved their own way through an adventure. I like the point @childlikerobots makes: read aloud text should have an objective. It might be to set the scene, or it might be to drop an important detail about an area, or to communicate details about the plot. If you simply read a block of text on the page, it’s not necessarily clear what the important elements of the text are. Is it the walls, which are made of red stone, or is it the skeleton, lying in the corner. If the DM can’t tell what’s important, the player certainly aren’t going to be able to.

Some writers have no problem with read aloud. To others, it’s a thorn of ongoing pain (save doesn’t end). In most D&D writing, we aim to have a neutral, homogenous voice. There’s a temptation for many writers to use read aloud as their chance to be novelist. Read aloud text is an opportunity to have your words spoken aloud, bright and beautiful, to all who will listen (a.k.a., the other five people at the table). This is D&D, not high art. Text that “tries too hard” usually just ends up being verbose and awkward. I’d say good read aloud text usually has the following traits:

  • Contains important information.
  • Contains concrete details.
  • Show, don’t tell. (“The room stinks” isn’t as good as “The room is rife with the stench of decaying bones.”)
  • Contains new information (I don’t need to know the walls are still made of stone).
  • Succinct. Not more than fifty words.
  • Is not dialogue.
  • Doesn’t impose opinions or actions on the characters (e.g. “You look around, confused at your surroundings” or “As you bend over to examine the crevice, you find a small niche within it.”)
  • Scrutinized for homonyms (e.g. “A guerilla stands in the room, glaringly menacingly.)

Not All Words Are Created Equal
I agree with the point that @Deadorcs makes: In general, read aloud is bad for dialogue and good for setting a scene. It’s difficult enough to put words into the mouth of a DM, without making it dialogue. Trying to capture the proper inflections, tones, and mannerisms in dialogue is even more challenging. With that being said, we do just that in the next season of D&D Encounters, Beyond the Crystal Cave. Why is that an exception? Because sometimes read aloud needs to evoke a specific mood. You wouldn’t use the same words or speech for boxed text in Ravenloft that you’d use in Madness at Gardmore Abbey. The best read aloud text creates a mood, as well as images. If it’s just intended to convey the fact that a room is 20-by-20-feet with stone walls and a treasure chest in the middle, perhaps that’s best left to the GM to convey.

The Compromise
So boxed text has its uses. It can convey mood, help new DMs, and, as @MetaDM points out, creates a shared experience in Organized Play. By the same token, read loud text can be confining to the experienced DM, or the Organized Play judge who needs to liberty to adapt to groups that go off the beaten path. Many of those polled on Twitter seemed partial to bullet points, which we’ve used periodically in adventures. However, that solution forsakes inexperienced Game Masters, lazy GMs, and tradition.

Perhaps what is needed is a combination of two approaches. A block of read aloud could have a couple sentences to convey the most basic details, or to allow a transition into dialogue by a non player character. After that, the most vital information could be part of a series of bullet points. This approach has the advantage of providing the DM with a useful transition, while not diverting his or her attention away from the table for too long, or putting too many words that sound awkward in his or her mouth. Ultimately, it would be great if every Dungeon Master were equipped with the know-how to create instantaneous descriptions that conveyed the mood and details of a scene. However, we must appeal to a gamut of Game Masters, so perhaps am approach that takes into account the wide variety of DM is best.

Example

When the characters enter the area, convey the following:
The forest clearing is deserted except for an animal carcass lying in the middle. The grass is trampled, and the foliage is smeared with gore.
• The animal carcass is a female dear. It has deep claw gashes in it.
• The blood on the foliage is fresh.
• The grass is heavily tread upon, as though by several large creatures.
• A trail of gore leads into an opening the woods.
• The creatures that killed the dear left tracks. The tracks were left bipedal, wolf-like creatures (Nature moderate).

Of course, more of this information could be associated with skill checks, but I’d caution against using that mechanic too heavily. One wouldn’t want to make all of these pieces of information require skill checks, because it could resulting in stymieing the flow of the story.

I’ll leave that discussion for another day, though.

21 thoughts on “Read My Lips

  1. Great post. For my groups where I am the Dungeon Master or storyteller, I go with the senses. Describing smell, sight, sounds, tough, and sometimes taste, helps to develop the scene for the player’s minds-eye. From there, you can embellish and describe in greater detail–but it is a good place to start.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Matt. Describing the senses is a great tool for immersion, although I would say you want to be careful not to make it seem like a checklist. Sometimes, it’s not important to describe a room’s smell, or sometimes there simply aren’t any notable sounds.

  2. I’m curious have you seen any of Tony Dowler’s microdungeons? He made one called The Purple Worm Graveyard that’s pretty entertaining – http://planet-thirteen.com/Purple.html . A microdungeon is basically an attempt to describe an adventure in the stingiest word count possible; relying on the game master to expand the short description into an engaging encounter. There is zero read-aloud text. Below is an example from PWG. The name of the map area is followed by a collection of phrases that highlight the relevant action in the scene. More detailed information is listed in a paragrah or two below.

    “9. Burial Chamber
    Musty, low-ceilinged burial chamber, poorly
    mummified bodies, recent corpse on a stone table,
    battered coffins, scattered refuse

    Four Maggot Nagas chewing on the recent corpse. If
    they hear the PCs coming, they will hide and use
    voice mimicry to try and scare the PCs off.
    A full search will uncover 1d4*8 gps in miscellaneous
    coins, a 40gp gem, and an illusionist scroll with 1
    random level 2 spell.”

    I picked up the print version at GoPlayNW this year but it looks like there is an Apocalypse World playtest doc that has essential the same information minus the awesome artwork. Check it out if you want to see more examples of micro encounters. http://planet-thirteen.com/ApocD&D/ThePurpleWormGraveyard.pdf

  3. I’ve been doing something similar for a while at my blog and I’ve evolved it a little over time to the form used in this post: http://dailyencounter.net/2011/08/29/winters-reach-jargeshs-treasure/

    The format is:
    A single short sentence that sets the seen.
    At A Glance – information, in dot points, that the PCs can notice quickly.
    Features of the Room – a more detailed description of the non-xp awarding parts of the room including mechanical elements such as difficult terrain.
    Monsters, Traps & Hazards – a more detailed description of the xp awarding parts of the encounter and notes on special mechanical elements. The stat blocks are not included at this stage rather they appear at the end, or would if I was including them for a paper product.

    The problem I’ve had is getting any feedback on this arrangement, a few people have said they like it but I’ve never had more than 1 or 2 positive comments, and never a negative one.

    1. I can totally help out with a negative comment. Wait, that’s not what you want? Ok, ok.

      I like it, actually. I think your example is pretty clear and has good bits for the DM. I think it would need to be stated somewhere, since the format is different, whether there is ever any non-in-character “PCs learn this immediately” type of information. Also, is there anything in other sections, ever, that a DM should describe up front? Boxed text has such clarity to it in terms of those questions.

      I am still curious whether watching average DMs run with something like this would lead to the conclusion that this is an improvement. I do think this kind of format is good for experienced DMs and for home play.

  4. One of the things I struggle with is length. When we break down a paragraph of boxed text into bullets, and assuming we want to convey the same things (*), we end up with more space taken up on the page. (*: I make this assumption because many new judges don’t feel comfortable just whipping up a really engaging description of the scene).

    Another issue I have is with what the encounter looks like to the reader, especially an organized play judge (with varying degrees of having pre-read the material). The boxed text becomes a solid anchor that orients the DM: this is the intro, containing player information!. When we strip that out and replace it with bullets we no longer have a nice separation into the next segment (often some out-of-character DM information, such as an overview of events, then terrain details, NPC information, talking points, monster tactics, and finally the monsters/traps/hazards. It can all start to look really similar when we take that first part out. We end up having to either use a lot of headers or really work on how to let the reader/judge easily discern what they need. This may sound like a small thing, but I actually see it as a fairly big deal.

    It is something to explore further. Should encounters have standard headings that break up information (monster tactics being an obvious one)? If we take away boxed text, does the experience under your average Organized Play judge improve or worsen? How about Encounters? How about Dungeon? I can make some guesses, but I’m not sure I would guess correctly. I kind of think that to test it you have to write an encounter, make some boxed text you don’t include, give the encounter without BT to the DM, and then watch how it plays out, holding the version with BT in front of you. Then you have to do it a bunch of times. Only then would I personally be convinced I knew what was better for most cases. Until then, my hunch is that we are better off with it than without. And, we probably can benefit from providing better info to the DM in all cases. Many encounters have events. They are dynamic. We should help DMs portray those changes. Bullets seem a good way to do that because player-triggered events are usually true improv colored by player actions.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Teos. I think what you get at in the last paragraph is something I elude to in the post: Different adventure mediums require different presentations, customized to the audience. This need might speak to another need for our adventures—some kind of rating to express the type of adventure (dungeon delve, investigation, exploration) and to what sort of DM it is aimed (Beginning, Advance, Organized Play, something else?).

      Of course, customizing each adventure’s content and format to a specific audience is time consuming, so perhaps you’re right. Better to leave more read aloud text in than not.

  5. Great post, Greg. The Living Greyhawk people poked into this issue 5-6 years ago, and came to basically the same conclusions — boxed text is best used sparingly, but it’s an important guide-post for many DMs, especially when the DM is running something that they don’t know very well.

    I struggled with this recently in a solo adventure, where the text *was* the DM. That “adventure via instruction” style reminded me again how much I like our newer module-writing approach in _Ashes of Athas_: each encounter includes a list (often bullet points) of the goals of the encounter, rather just than a set of instructions for accomplishing the goal. The encounter description then provides a set of guidelines for *one* way to accomplish those goals, but we (try to) cut the bond created by “Do this, that, and the other to accomplish that”. While the familiar static instructions are comforting to write and simpler to write, the less explicit form tries to create a more interactive experience at the table. So far, we’re seeing a lot of success with the approach.

    1. We tried something like “goals of the encounter” in the current D&D Encounters season, and I think it was was used to great effect. It’s definitely something I’d like to explore adding to the new adventure format.

  6. I’m a DM that happens to like boxed text. I’m not “lazy” however I am time-constrained. I’d rather spend the few extra hours I can spend on D&D actually playing D&D, not preparing for D&D. Also, sometimes I am playing Friday evening after a long work week, and I’m not at my best and brightest. Boxed text ensures a certain level of presentation. Even when I can prep ahead of time, I often write my own boxed text so that the right tone is set. I can prepare the words ahead of time, so the presentation is not subject to the whether I got enough sleep the night before.

    I would hate to see this staple of published modules disappear.

  7. For modern adventures I prefer the bullet points (and would love to see more of what you suggested) but for the old, TSR era adventures (back when they were modules) that were written well before my time as an roleplayer I love to read the boxed text verbatim. I feel it adds a bit to the experience of playing in and running one of the original adventures for the game.

  8. Very interesting post, Greg. Maybe it’s just me, but even though I consider myself an inexperienced DM, I like what’s been presented here. I think the short description followed by some bullet points is a nice format.

    I disagree that there’s a break in flow. I think the above example has a good flow, moving from obvious information to information the players could discover with a little work. Then you flow into the DM’s area.

    I do like the idea that Teos suggested above about testing whether the boxed text is necessary.

  9. I like it! It’s quick and to the point, and the bulleted section provides an optional, attractive list of possible talking points for the DM that he or she can easily manipulate or discard at will.

  10. As the gentleman at PAX prime that talked to you about when your blog was restarting, I I firstly want to say that this entry is an excellent place to pick back up. Keep the good stuff coming!

    Secondly I have seen box text as a starting point to build off of since I started playing D&D. Even when I was 12 years old and running games for my friends in my mother’s kitchen, I never read aloud word for word. It was easy for me to summarize and then transform it to suit the people at my table. But having seen a number of my friends who are long time players make their first trips behind the screen for one-shots and short games, I can see the value in having very explicit box text. Introverts with little experience behind the screen, or no improv experience can use the text to get comfortable as you say. I feel that while a summary and bullet points might make those of us with significant DM “chops” happy, we’d only be leaving the newbies and fresh faced kids out in the cold.

    1. I’ll certainly try to keep the posts more regular. I’ve brainstormed enough topics to get me through the end of the year, so that’s promising, as long as work doesn’t get too overwhelming.

      What you say speaks to the reply I gave to Teos above—I wonder whether there’s a need to separate adventures by the intended audience. For something like D&D Encounters, which has more inexperienced DMs running games, we should have very explicit boxed text. For Dungeon magazine articles, I’m less convinced they’re necessary. On the other hand, two formats doesn’t necessarily help anyone.

  11. When done right, I think read-aloud text is a real boon. I think the ideal text conveys information that allows the players to immerse themselves in the world and facilitates them imagining the scene before them. With everything that the DM has to juggle, it is sometimes difficult to remember that most areas/scenes/encounters/etc are new to the players, and although the DM may have a perfect representation of it in his/her mind, the players are often working with a blank slate. Read aloud text is a reminder that the players sometimes need a picture painted for them.

    As an aside, I often struggle with remembering to describe monsters to players. This is particularly important when you have players that are new to D&D or the many fantasy tropes familiar to RPG players. I find I have to remind myself that the image I have in my mind of the monsters in an encounter comes from creating the encounter and poring over the stat blocks, but for the players it may be their first time encountering these creatures. Because I rely heavily on miniatures, I tend to forget this, and although minis and tokens help to get the idea across, they may not fully spark the imagination of a player the way a phrase like “A monstrous humanoid with dripping fangs, swinging a massive flail wildly above his head” might. That’s something I wish the Monster Manual products did: Gave a concise description that DMs could use as read-aloud text to describe the monsters to their players. I either end up making a page with these descriptions in my notes, or using digital tools try to add them to the stat blocks so I can see them when the monster acts. But of course, this just adds to my prep time.

    Anyway, the nice thing about providing read-aloud text is that if a DM doesn’t want to use it, he can just ignore it. Plus, if done correctly, anything that is important that is mentioned in the read-aloud other than just color (for instance, mentioning a chest, or statues, etc.) should be further detailed later as a “feature” (with accompanying rules elements like DCs, etc.) and thus a DM who skips the read-aloud text won’t actually be missing anything he needs to run the area.

    As a last note, the bullet list idea isn’t bad, but oddly enough might be confusing to less experienced DMs. I think one of the hard things about learning to DM is knowing how much information you can/should give to the players. Read aloud text is obvious: you give them all the information. But when other details are just provided as a list, I think new DMs may instinctively treat that as DM-only information that is only doled out to players upon skill checks or upon direct prompting.

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