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.

In Character

The D&D games I’ve most enjoyed are those where the Dungeon Master and players act in character. A Dungeon Master can go to great lengths to create an intricate plot and flesh out his or her world, yet ultimately, the visceral pleasure I get from a game depends on the level of immersion, and the immersion depends on the willingness of players and DM to step in to the personas of their characters.

When I first started playing D&D, back when the Internet was still young, I had few examples of what it was like to run a game. No Chris Perkins podcasts. No YouTube. My group had to figure out everything from the book. We didn’t have James Wyatt’s fantastic Dungeon Master’s Guide, and we didn’t even have the benefit of having someone’s older brother teach us. Instead, we stumbled through the Player’s Handbook and tried to form a game based on how we thought D&D was supposed to be.

That first year was one of blissful ignorance, and yet despite having a DM focused on the complexity of the plot and campaign world, I felt something was missing. I realize now, looking back, that this intuition was correct. What we were missing was character. Oh sure, we were all playing characters, but they were more mechanical constructs than flesh and blood. We hadn’t invested emotion into the characters, because we were caught up in saying “My character checks for tracks” instead of “I check for tracks.”

Now, I realize that talking in character isn’t for everyone. However, I really do believe it takes the game to another level. Every time I start a new campaign, I try to include a few experienced players and a few players who are newcomers to D&D. The new players can watch the experienced players talking in character. The effect is subtle, and the new players probably aren’t even conscious of it, but after a few sessions, “My character attacks the orc” becomes “I attack the orc.” As a DM, that’s one of the most satisfying moments in a campaign, because once that wall between character and player falls down, the game gains an emotional immediacy that isn’t normally present.

As a Dungeon Master, I no longer think twice about talking in the first person when taking on the persona of a nonplayer character, a monster, or a villain. The year I played in Chris Perkins game was very educational. Chris is a creative guy, and his world is vivid and exciting. And yet it wasn’t these traits that struck me about Chris’s game. The thing that makes Chris’s game so much fun to play in is the way he engages you through character. Chris switches between NPCs with the ease that a person puts on and takes off hats. His ability to maintain dozens of different affectations and voices, and keep a straight face through it all, is the quality I most admire in his games. When he acts in character, you can’t help but to be drawn in to roleplaying your character.

Being a Dungeon Master of Chris’s caliber takes years of practice and tough lessons (although rumors persist that he was sent from a dying alien world to bring D&D awesomeness to earth). However, here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned from his game (and my own game), to help encourage you and your players to get in character.

  • DM Tip: Know your NPC’s race, gender, and name in advance. For important NPCs, you’ll probably always know this information, but even for unimportant NPCs, it’s a good idea to keep a list. Consider having a list of random names, races, and associated genders, which you can draw from on the fly. If you’re sneaky, when the players see you consulting your notes, they’ll think the NPC existed all along—they won’t realize you made him or her up on the fly.
  • DM Tip: Jot down at least a single sentence of background for each NPC the players are likely to interact with. If you have some small piece of information you can drop, like what happened to the character’s family, or where he or she came from, your players will assume the NPC is a fully fleshed out character, and they’ll feel more immersed.
  • DM Tip: Establish accents. Do all your drow speak in French accents? How about halflings? My halflings have an Irish accent. Figure out what accents you’re good at, and use those for your most commonly used races. It’s okay if they’re grossly stereotyped accents (Russian, anyone?), because your players will probably just enjoy the extra detail you’ve put in to roleplaying the characters. Check out Dragon Age for inspiration.
  • DM Tip: Encourage players to think in character. I realize that advice is vague, but it covers a lot of ground. I’ve discovered a few tricks for helping players along. First, don’t let them off without a background. Either incentivize backgrounds through something like my Fun Point system, or don’t let them into the campaign without a background that’s at least a couple hundred words. If that’s too Draconian for you, try sending your D&D group a weekly character question. I just started doing this. Prior to each session, I send the players a question like “What’s your character’s greatest fear?” or “What’s your character’s favorite food?” Sometimes, their answers play into an upcoming session (for example, if they’re fighting an id fiend in Dark Sun…), and other times, it’s just an opportunity for them to get in the mindset of their characters and to share qualities of their characters with the rest of the group. I use fun points to encourage them, but some groups might not require incentive.
  • Player Tip: Pick an accent or voice affectation you can do reliably. Also, know what the rest of the group is doing. If you’re using a Scottish accent, and another player is using an English accent, and another is using an Irish accent, you’re going to end up with UK accent stew. If you want to add variety but don’t want to use an established accent, you can always raise or lower your voice. My character in Rodney Thompson’s game was an 80-year-old wizard whose voice constantly cracked.
  • Player and DM Tip: Practice keeping a straight face, especially if your character is going to lie. If you’re like me and have a hard time keeping a straight face when lying, figure out the lie before a roleplaying scene starts. Anticipate what your antagonist might say, and jot down a few quick lies you can use. If you’re a DM, and you pull this off, it won’t even occur to the players to make an Insight or Sense Motive check.
  • Player and DM Tip: If you’re crap at accents, pick a single common word that your character speaks differently. Does your character say “ye” instead of “you.” Does your character always speak in the royal “we” rather than “I.”  Does he or she make everything a question by adding “right?” to the end.
  • Player and DM Tip: Pick a single defining physical trait and a single mannerism for your characters. You can have others, but pick one that you always show off or describe first. Players have to keep a lot of characters straight (including their own and the other player characters), so distilling characters down into a single trait and mannerism is helpful.


What are your tips for getting into character?