A post that doesn't really go anywhere, as usual.
“Your trip through the Forest of Demise was uneventful. The chittering of forest animals and chirping of birds that serenaded you through the forest suddenly ends, as if the creatures of the natural world shun and fear this place. In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of the ground like an evil, twisted tree reaching up to the sky. As you approach the tower, the crunching of the dead leaves under your feet seems almost deafening in the otherwise silent clearing. As you get within 20 feet of the tower, you realize the place is surrounded by a nearly invisible noxious vapor. As you breathe it in, its stench burns your lungs and makes your eyes water. The hairs on your arms bristle with terror and your heart pounds as an anguished shriek cuts through the silence from within the tower. You can feel the palpable presence of evil. On the door to the tower you see four glowing runes.”
Now picture, if you will, a typical D&D party. For this example, the edition is really irrelevant. We have Pedritar the dragonborn paladin, Brark the grimlock barbarian, Clang the warforged cleric, Dirzzelda the Druid, and Rhuul the revenant rogue. The party is approaching the tower-lair of Lystrango the evil lich of doom. As they move forward, the DM begins to read the boxed text:
DM: Everyone ready? I have your marching order? Great, let’s start with the opening boxed text! “Your trip through the Forest of Demise was uneventful. The chittering of forest animals and chirping of birds that serenaded you through the forest suddenly ends, as if the creatures of the natural world shun and fears this place. In the—“
Drizzelda the Druid:: Why?
DM: Why what?
Drizzelda the Druid:: Why do they shun this place?
DM: [confused stare]
Drizzelda the Druid:: I’m a druid. I ask that squirrel over there why he stopped chittering.
DM: Um. He tells you that he and all the forest animals are afraid of the tower in the clearing ahead. Let me jumped ahead to that. “In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of—”
Brark the Barbarian: Nope.
DM: Nope what?
Brark the Barbarian: Nope I don’t see it. I’m a grimlock. Got no eyes.
DM: Right, ok. “Everyone but Brark sees a tower sticking out the ground like an evil, twisted tree reaching up to the sky.”
Drizzelda the Druid:: I talk to it. I can talk to plants too.
Drizzelda the Druid:: You said there was a tree sticking out of the ground.
DM: It’s not really a tree. It’s like a tree. “As you approach the tower, the crunching of the dead leaves under your feet seems almost deafening in the silence.”
Rhuul the Rogue:: I don’t walk on the dead leaves. I try to be silent.
DM: OK, I guess you can avoid the leaves. But it’s not really that imp—
Pedritar the Paladin:: I’m not walking. I’m flying. Remember I took that feat that gives me wings and a fly speed.
DM: Got it. Pedro is flying and Rhuul is tiptoeing around the leaves. Anyway, let’s continue. “As you get within 20 feet of the tower, you realize the place is surrounded by a nearly invisible noxious vapor. As you breathe it in, its stench burns your lungs and makes your eyes water.”
Clang the Cleric:: Technically, I don’t have lungs. I’m made of wood and stone.
DM: Yeah, I guess. The point is—
Brark the Barbarian: I still don’t have eyes. They can’t be watering.
DM: Right. I just mean—
Rhuul the Rogue:: As a revenant, I am undead. Technically, I don’t know if I need to breathe.
DM: OK, ok, I get it. There’s a mist that is burning the lungs of those of you with lungs and/or that breathe, irritating your eyes if you have eyes, and is generally unpleasant and mildly irritating to the rest of you. Let’s continue: “The hairs on your arms bristle with terror and your heart pounds as an anguished shriek cuts through the silence from within the tower. You can feel the palpable presence of evil.”
Pedritar the Paladin:: I can. They can’t.
DM: Who can’t what?
Pedritar the Paladin:: The rest of the party can’t Detect Evil. Only I can.
DM: It’s just a general presence of evil, not an actual specific evil.
Pedritar the Paladin:: Seems like only I would be able to feel it. It’s a class ability after all.
Clang the Cleric:: And I have no hair.
DM: Excuse me?
Clang the Cleric:: You said that the hairs on my arm stand up in terror. I’m hairless. Maybe I have some moss or something that stands up instead?
DM: Sounds good to me.
Rhuul the Rogue:: I’m not scared.
Rhuul the Rogue:: Dude, I was once locked in a coffin with a vampire for a week. A little shrieking from some lich’s tower isn’t going to phase me. And also, I don’t know if my heart actually beats, so it couldn’t pound.
Clang the Cleric:: Yeah, I have no—
DM: Yes, I get it. Moving on. “On the door you see—”
Brark the Barbarian: I don’t—
DM: Yes, I get it. You have no eyes and cannot see. Let’s sum this up. “There is a tower in front of you.” What do you do?
This is quite entertaining, but it’s also mildly exasperating because I feel like it highlights exactly the wrong problems.
In the example, the problem is very clear: the GM is playing with a group of pedants who have no manners, zero impulse control, don’t understand the plural use of “you”, and are apparently unable to cope with the notion that at any point the entire game might not be primarily focused on their own precious character in particular. This is a fundamental mistake that no amount of GMing advice can overcome.
What the example shows us
Taking a less hard-line view, the problems showcased by the example are:
- Sometimes, a subset of the group (consisting of more than one but less than all) should notice or be affected by something in the environment. If it’s everyone, no problem. If it’s one person, you can easily use their name.
- It’s unwise to narrate a progression in space or time without giving players a chance to respond to the details, and especially to assume you can plan a series of events or observations that might be disrupted by player reactions.
- Players and GMs can visualise events in different ways, because they make different assumptions or remember different details.
- Players don’t always catch everything you’re saying (less charitably, players don’t always pay attention).
- Players can get precious about, over-hype or misunderstand their class abilities.
- Players may have ideas about what their character background can and should imply that the GM may not entirely share.
The article doesn’t really deal with, well, any of these, none of which are specific to boxed text. It also misses out on some of the other problems of boxed text, like assuming players will stand and watch something that nobody in their right mind would (be that boring nonsense or the king being assassinated), let alone a bunch of action heroes. What it seems to think is the problem with the boxed text example is that the text makes assumptions about “character feelings, movements and actions”, and while that’s true, I don’t think this is a great bad example of that; it assumes a certain amount of non-critical action, like ‘approaching the tower’, and otherwise makes general statements about the group as a whole perceiving certain things. It’s not unreasonable to state that a whole group “sees”, “feels” or even experiences an emotion as generic and primal as fear. The example doesn’t ascribe specific actions, past events or attitudes. There is no pulling of levers, nobody is forced to think or realise things their character shouldn’t, and nobody immediately trusts and likes the smarmy Larry Stu character. It doesn’t assume you already fought bandits X, have the crystal Y and intend to hunt down wizard Z.
That aside, the article has some interesting tips on writing “boxed text” that I broadly agree with. I think it’s inclined towards a minimalist writing style, whereas I think scenarios including some description that isn’t mechanically relevant can be useful, not just for helping convey a setting, but also in hinting at what else might be coming up soon or available to find. Leaving in “only those details about the environment that the PCs need to know about because they will have to interact with them” seems to assume you can accurately predict what the PCs want to interact with, which isn’t necessarily true. On the whole though, I think it’s a useful set of tips. And the example is quite funny. Go and read the post, if you haven't already.
Oh, while we’re nitpicking: if your party contains a dragonborn paladin, the edition is 4E. It’s just about possible that a 3rd edition party contains the grimlock and the warforged, but I don’t think it can be anything earlier. Moving on...
Issues with boxed text
I’d suggest the main narrative problems with boxed text are more like this (obviously all are “sometimes” issues):
- It ascribes attitudes, intentions or beliefs to the PCs
- It jars because of changes in tone
- It turns into uninspiring fiction rather than useful or interesting information
- It can focus player attention on trivia, leading them on red herrings if they assume these details must be important
- It assumes the players will follow one particular course of action, including:
- It narrates the PCs standing idly by while interesting events occur or interesting things are seen
- It narrates the PCs not taking sensible precautions
- It narrates the players taking actions that are not obvious, or even counterintuitive
- Worse, it narrates the players taking actions that endanger them or their interests
- At worst, it ascribes attitudes, intentions or beliefs to the PCs that are unlikely, and then narrates them acting on those in ways that are counter to their own interests
There are plenty of cases of boxed text demanding PCs walk into obvious traps, trust obvious traitors, ignore their class or racial abilities, or act in ways that require a particular moral code or mindset.
There are also practical issues in terms of organisation of information. Depending on how boxed text and GM information are arranged, either the GM may miss some crucial information because they don’t remember or notice a detail mentioned elsewhere, or the GM may (through confusion or by mistake) read out more information than the players should have at the time. However, this is by no means limited to cases where some text is in a box and some other text isn’t; it’s just unclear layout.
Personally, if I was writing boxed text (which I don’t) I’d have gone for something like this:
“Your trip through the Forest of Demise was uneventful. The chittering of forest animals and chirping of birds that serenaded you through the forest suddenly ends, as if the creatures of the natural world shun and fear this place. In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of the ground like an evil, twisted tree reaching up to the sky."
Pause for PC questions, reactions, withdrawals to prepare spells, spending three days camped out observering the tower and environs, performing divinations, sending Animal Messengers to allies to get information about the tower, laying traps for possible dangers, scouting around through other parts of the forest, looking for animal remains to discern the nature of the danger in the tower by analysing toothmarks, magically talking to rocks and trees, and so on.
If the PCs approach the tower:
"As you approach the tower, the crunching of the dead leaves under your feet seems almost deafening in the otherwise silent clearing. "
Pause for PC reactions to this unexpected noise, which clearly presents a threat. PCs may suggest that their character would in such circumstances be flying, using elven magic, sneaking or what-have-you, in which case determine the results accordingly.
"As you get within 20 feet of the tower, you realize the place is surrounded by a nearly invisible noxious vapor. As you breathe it in, its stench burns your lungs and makes your eyes water. "
Pause for reactions to vapour, including withdrawal to prepare anti-acid, anti-poison and anti-breathing spells, or exhaustive empirical tests involving a variety of summoned creatures, collecting and alchemising the air, and so on. Reassure players that it has no mechanical effect (at least at this point) and is just unpleasant.
"The hairs on your arms bristle with terror and your heart pounds as an anguished shriek cuts through the silence from within the tower. You can feel the palpable presence of evil.
If necessary, reassure players that this is a primal instinct rather than an emotion as such; heroes don’t not feel fear, they just stand up to it.
If they get in sight of the door:
"On the door to the tower you see four glowing runes.”
What I don’t think are genuine problems with boxed text at all are the complaints in the original example. We get it, grimlock – you have no eyes. But expecting the GM to, every single time they want to describe a feature of an area, either substitute the word “perceive” or say “see, except the grimlock, who probably hears it by echolocation or something, I dunno” would be preposterous. It would probably work out like this:
DM: “In the distance, you see a tower sticking out of—”
Brark the Barbarian: Nope.
DM: Nope what?
Brark the Barbarian: Nope I don’t see it. I’m a grimlock. Got no eyes.
DM: Okay. Everyone but Brark sees a tower. Brark falls down a hole he didn’t see because he has no eyes, and takes 4d6 damage.
In fact, grimlocks have Blindsight, which suggests that they do technically “see” – they just see without eyes.
Similarly, saying that the foul air makes eyes water and lungs sting is a reasonable descriptive shorthand, though given the number of non-living PCs it could maybe have been modified a bit. I’d also note that all of these points would apply exactly as much if the GM was improvising this content, rather than reading something out. If they are problems at all, they are, oh, GM problems, in terms of how information is presented? But see above re: pedants. There is a line between having your character's nature feel important by playing it up, and being a pain in the neck about it. Certainly, I don't think it's reasonable to expect a module designer to anticipate that you might have a cracktastic party with really unusual racial traits, when giving guidance on what an average party will see - that's true whether it's boxed or not.
We can reasonably assume that in all circumstances where it would make any sense (and as informed by the player’s previous actions) the stealthy characters are being stealthy, without having to explicitly acknowledge it. The dragonborn player was right to point out that their character is flying, because the GM won’t know that (it wouldn’t make sense to fly all the time because it’d be ridiculously hard work) but it isn’t in any sense a problem at this stage. The fact that the druid player is either taking the mick or paying no attention is not a problem with boxed text. The fact that the paladin player thinks nobody else should at any time feel a sense of evil* is not a problem with boxed text.
*There is a spell Detect Animals and Plants. This does not mean that only druids and rangers are capable of perceiving the existence of animals or plants.
This feels a bit weird, because I don't disagree with Shawn's conclusions and suggestions, and I quite enjoyed the post; I just think the problem and solution presented have very little to do with one another. He's providing a solution to a problem that exists but he didn't demonstrate.