Adventures, Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, OSR, RPG
I’m enjoying the new wave of old school adventures, but the reality is that we’ve learned a lot about adventure design and what makes old school good over the intervening years since I first started running 1e adventures.
During the 1e days, we saw the advent of “boxed” or “read-aloud” text. I tend to blame this on the tournament usage of the original published adventures – the goal being to standardize the game experience for each play group, regardless of the DM.
Standardize it did. Players around the world fell asleep, looked off into space, and generally felt their brains leak out of their ears.
9 Sentences. On top of which it predicts the future for the party (upon approaching…) instead of leaving that up to them. The only thing it doesn’t do that some boxed text insists on doing is truly controlling the PCs with “you stand in shock…” or something similar at the beginning.
Back in 2005 when Jesse Decker and David Noonan still worked for Wizards of the Coast, they did some awesome hands-on research at the GenCon D&D tables. They watched and observed.
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. Among the questions I heard from players who’d supposedly been paying attention:
- “How come the floor is slippery?”
- “What color is the dragon again?”
- “There’s a big lever on the wall?”
- “Wait, the lady in the room is a corpse?”
- “Who’s Karthos? Is that the guy we’re fighting?”
Over the course of four days, I saw otherwise smart players get stymied because they missed a salient fact within boxed text. I saw otherwise engaging DMs read through boxed text, then get frustrated because they wound up repeating and paraphrasing all the information in it anyway – often in the middle of the action.
The full article is here: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/dd/20050916a
So, OSR adventure writers, get rid of the boxed text. Or if you insist that it is needed, reduce it down to one or two SIMPLE sentences. But really, replace it with a point-form list of things seen in the room. That makes it easy for the DM to present the salient information in a conversational manner without having to dig through all your “beautiful” prose.
That’s not boxed text, that’s garden-variety bloated DM info that happens to be surrounded by a box. Boxed text is intended to be read out verbatim to the players.
Dyson Logos said:
Indeed, my bad.
For some reason, module A4 included boxed and unboxed text, NEITHER of which was to be read to the players.
I’ll replace it with some boxed text from another module.
We all know what Dyson was getting at, and it’s a very valid point. I suspect there is a disconnect occurring with module authors – they are writing an adventure in a text format, but are forgetting that adventures are to be EXPERIENCED, not read. While a descriptive paragraph is fine for a novel, it is usually painfully boring to listen to, ESPECIALLY when a paragraph or more is read aloud all at once. It is a huge break in the flow of gameplay.
In the absence of a prewritten adventure, information at the gaming table is usually passed along conversationally or by player request in tiny bits every minute or so, not in a big chunk at the opening of a scenario.
The players are told they are approaching a cave mouth, then they are told it has a closed stone door. As the players approach, usually one will ask if there are inscriptions, the GM then describes the text border carved into the door and the red gem inset into the center of the door. When the door is opened, the GM may say there is a waft of stale dusty air that blows towards the characters from within the pitch black interior, etc, etc. The two sentence rule sounds like an excellent quick guideline.
It is terrible pacing to bring the game to a complete halt just to describe every detail of the dungeon entrance before resuming play. Even in “real life” we don’t experience things that way. No one stops outside a building and mentally surveys every aspect of the entrance before continuing inside. Once inside, the average person will be lucky to describe any aspect of the exterior. As we approach a place, we simply look for the entrance and walk through. Module writers should present their info in the same way. Instead of one block of text, liberally scatter many snippets to be read as needed, presenting only the most immediate info that the circumstance would reasonably dictate as being of primary importance..
Tad Davis said:
I think you’ve made some good points here, but I think a good dungeon room format can accommodate these insights whilst still employing boxed text. So let’s take these points one by one.
First, I’m not sure I buy the “Experienced/Read” dichotomy. Literature, as a medium, invites us to experience a narrative by means of our imaginative capacities of sympathy and simulation. We identify with the emotions and concerns of the protagonists and we are drawn into the world through descriptions that evoke our senses. To be sure, RPGs are a different medium than literature, one that relies upon collective story-telling via conversation. Prolonged monologues may be a hindrance rather than an aid to this form of storytelling. However, I am inclined to think that brief descriptions, particularly when they include evocative sensory imagery can actually aid in the process of immersing us within the game world.
Second, you make a good point about the way that we naturally experience the world. We take in general features though (unless we are paying close attention) generally are not consciously aware of the all. It is only when we consciously attend to various items that we become more fully aware of specific details pertaining to them. A good dungeon room format ought to be able to model this. Thing is, I think a dungeon room format can do this while still using a boxed description. Here’s how. Keep the boxed description brief and general. Describe only those things the PCs would notice upon an initial cursory survey of a room, and use evocative imagery (and other sensory data) to set the scene. Elsewhere in the dungeon room key place more info about each of the items you’ve just described, so that if players investigate you can further describe what they find.
This format should be brief enough not bore your players to tears, and should help to captivate their imagination. I’ve offered a model (which is a variation of Courtney Campbell’s model) of this over at my blog:
More recently, I’ve written some responses to the sorts of concerns raised by Dyson (and those within the article he cites), as well as others. At the end of the day I think that Boxed descriptions can actually be a helpful device but unfortunately to date it has been poorly utilized, so much so that most people who have had experience with them have an ingrained dislike of them (which is too bad to my mind)
Adam Bragg said:
At first I thought you were refuting my point, but I can’t disagree with you because you’re saying the same thing I did, just in your own words. Colour me confused. Ah well, maybe it sounds better when you say it.
Tad Davis said:
Perhaps it is I who was confused; I thought you were putting forth the idea that Boxed Text was a poor way of conveying information because: (a) They are usually too long, and this inhibits the “experience” and “pacing” of role playing, and (b) They usually contain far more within their descriptions than what an average person would be perceive upon first entering a room. I was agreeing that boxed text often is guilty of this but was arguing that it needn’t always be, and I offered a model for how to employ it more effectively. Have I misunderstood what you were saying?
Vindication! I came to nearly the same conclusion in my last game. My limit was three sentences instead of two, but my sentences are usually pretty brief.
Basically what I noticed wasn’t that details were being missed but that more than three sentences of my talking put the players in audience mode. I told and they listened. Then I had to fight with them to get them out of passive response mode.
Over on Hack & Slash, the author deals with this exact same issue with a solution that is very similar to what you suggest (a bullet-point list) with some cool formatting. Might be worth it to check it out:
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Rikhard von Katzen said:
Doesn’t stop WotC from publishing shitloads of florid boxed text in they’re overpriced garbage adventures.
WotC moved the referenced article, find it here:
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