The Badger’s Bite: Just Say “Hell, No” To Boxed Text

The Badger’s Bite is an opinion feature that will run weekly on the site, where I will be a little more candid in what I have to say about the topic of the week. Rawr!

Boxed text is often seen as a hallmark of many old school adventures, but it’s also an anachronism, and as far as I’m concerned a hindrance to not only understanding content but using information presented in a product. It also uses up space that could otherwise be better used, often providing large sets of static description that uses many more words than are needed to convey what can be seen to a GM, who in turn will then have to translate that to what the party encounters anyway. Right there are two major problems: too many words, and doesn’t take into account that the party may not be approaching a particular area as planned by the designer.

The third major problem is that it takes time to read this boxed text, decipher it, and then work out what you’re going to use and discard, which adds cognitive load during running a game as a GM. The GM is constantly filtering and processing information from published adventures, what the players are saying and doing, what else is going on in the world, and trying to make it all stay coherent and make sense for everyone. Cognitive overload is not a GM’s friend.

The thing about boxed text is that it didn’t appear in older Dungeons & Dragons modules until after the first two adventures for D&D were released; B1 In Search of the Unknown [AL] and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands [AL] had no boxed text at all, and these were the modules that everyone was exposed to when they bought their Basic sets. Modules that appeared in 1980 suddenly sported boxed text, including A1 Slave Pits of the UndercityB3 Palace of the Silver Princess [AL], and C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan [AL]. Not only is there boxed text with an introduction for players but many descriptions are given, and in the case of B3 Palace of the Silver Princess, even player action options were written as box text. The purpose of this text was to present the designer’s idea of what the players were to experience as they went through the adventure, such as:

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A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity

The problem is that often the view of the boxed text was myopic from the point of view of the designer by not taking into account that players tend to throw into disarray any presumptions mad about what they’ll do. Information that players would gather by asking questions of the GM was often included in this box text too as well. While this is fine for tournament play which requires a standardized experience, normal old school play is supposed to revel in the aspect of players asking all sorts of questions about the environment and what’s going on and have them survive or die based upon not only what their characters know, but how good players actually are themselves at problem solving and asking the right questions.

Another problem that appeared in some of the earlier adventures such as B3 Palace of the Silver Princess is that some of the use of box text is inconsistent and confusing:

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B3 Palace of the Silver Princess

These three entries mix up three different types of information that would be better not boxed but written as just normal text. Of course, this module itself is pretty notorious for reading more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book than the type of adventure module that we would all become familiar with later. Boxed text became a hallmark of D&D adventures for many years, and has even made a reappearance in the new Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set.

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D&D 5th Starter Set “Lost Mines of Phandelver”

It could be argued that the Starter Set is meant to introduce new players to the game (although there are some arguments that can be made that the product actually doesn’t do that effectively – perhaps that’s a topic for another post in the future, though). The sad situation is that today, boxed text is still used in a number of products. Troll Lord Games’ Beneath the Dome [AL] , written by ex-TSR Alum Jim Ward has it throughout:

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Beneath The Dome

I’d like to say it’s just because it’s Jim Ward that is the author in the product, but in A12 The Paladin’s Lament [AL], written by Stephen Chenault, there’s boxed text as well:

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A12 The Paladin’s Lament

Now, I’m a huge fan of Troll Lord Games and Castles & Crusades, but seeing boxed text in a modern product just makes me cringe. And this series of modules is a fantastic series of modules, but I think it would be stronger still without all of the boxed text. I feel the same way when I encounter box text that isn’t surrounded by actual boxes, such as this example from Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time [AL]:

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Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time

I know that these descriptions are being written to evoke a particular scene and feeling, but it also takes away some of the power of the GM from being the one who is acting as the interpreter for the world. The GM is the lens through which the players see the world. When you start using words or speaking in a way that you wouldn’t normally as a GM, such as reading verbatim from a text, you don’t break the fiction of the setting and adventure, but you do break the established rhythm of the game and the relationship to the GM. Often, it can be so dissonant that it takes players out of “the zone” and can grind games to a halt.

I’m not the only one to have written on this topic. Others such as Dyson Logos, Courtney Campbell, and Shawn Merwin have also done the same. Dyson references some research arising from Gencon by Wizards of the Coast in 2005 that suggests that as a DM you have two sentences to provide information to players.

I disagree with the notion proposed by that Gencon research, but I’m looking at interactions from a different point of view from them, which is mostly academic and rooted in communication theory and knowledge transfer. What I think you have is a limited window of interaction time between players and GMs to relay information between parties. It’s a conversation, a dialogue, not a presentation. Sometimes players will be active participants in those interactions, such as when they ask questions, while at other times they’ll be passive and they may not get all the information they need (which is why there’s often repetition and paraphrasing of information from boxed text). During these interactions, active listening has to take place on the part of the GM and the players to ensure that information is correctly shared. Academia has been studying these type of interactions for years with regards to instructor-student and student-student interactions, and there’s a lot of information there on how to improve engagement in small groups; too much to write into this post, but it informs a lot of my thoughts on adventure and product development.

So, what’s the solution to boxed text in an adventure when you encounter it? Here are some suggestions:

  • Read through the module so you know what the boxed text is being used for. Often a lot of information that’s also important to GMs is held there.
  • Don’t read box text aloud ever. Paraphrase it, or rewrite it so you have the important information to hand for when you need it. Use bullet points, maps or your own system for organizing it.
  • Be an active listener when being a GM and player, and encourage your players to do the same.
  • Use your own voice when describing. Don’t use words you’d never use. Change the words to suit your table and your style of play.
  • Make information relevant when you give it to players. It doesn’t have to be accurate all the time (depending upon what players are doing right now), but it has to have relevance in some way, even if they can’t make the connection to it just yet.
  • Instead of giving out all the information to players, have the players become active participants in examining the environment and asking questions. This is, after all, a hallmark of old school play.
  • Don’t go overboard in descriptive prose unless the situation calls for it and it makes things better, and you feel confident you can do it. Especially don’t do it if’s not your style.
  • Lastly, if you’re a publisher, don’t write box text. Give information that the GM can use. Be terse or wordy if you want, but make sure the information is useful without forcing a singular way to provide information to players.

Some food for thought, and no doubt there are people out there who love boxed text. That’s also cool. Game the way you and your group want to, and nobody loses.

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4 Comments

  1. Chris Paul July 27, 2014
  2. DerKastellan July 28, 2014
  3. David Wilson Brown July 30, 2014
    • Teh Bagder July 30, 2014