On Adventure Design, A Solved Problem

Boxed text, stat blocks, book size, and design. How much information to put into a module?

These are solved problems.

In design, there are factors that go beyond taste and get into actual facts involved in the human interface.

If I put heavy black lines behind my text, that makes my text illegible. That's not to say illegible text or the aesthetics of heavy black lines can't be to your liking,

Boxed Text


You get two sentences, or about 18 words. You can want it in a module, you can think it's great, you can make whatever defense you want. But it's been examined here. The facts are, in a social situation, it is exceedingly difficult for human beings to listen to oration as opposed to conversation.

I'm on this blog AND in a terrible powerpoint somewhere!
But what if I'm no good at coming up with descriptions from outlines?

Well, then, I'd say your approach is incorrect.

You aren't doing that. If you are "coming up with descriptions from outlines" then it's a sign you haven't prepared. What you are doing, is telling someone something about what's in your head. Can you describe to a friend what the interior of your car is like? Your house when you were growing up?

What you should do, is be able to imagine the environment inside your head. This is easy for content you create and more time consuming for content you buy.

Note how I am very explicitly not saying that the module should tell you what the environment is like.

The impression is given by the setting and atmosphere. A module named "The dire caves of the were-rat terror!" Should have dank caves with shadows, flickering torchlight, ancient half-submerged objects that things can jump out of hammer horror style.

The module should never use boxed text for that. The module should use the room description to describe what the characters can interact with in the room! Check out my series on Set Design if you want my theory on that.

What about the lack of poetry in the room outline? Doesn't the outline format take up too much space?

Brendan asks these questions over here at Necropraxis.

These comments result from a lack of a published example of set design. This is something that will be rectified shortly.

His example given in the article of highlighting the important features was in fact the very method my father used to prepare an adventure. The examples used in the set design series are specific personal examples directly from my notebook. They are not how one produces a published set design.

What I am saying, is that the highlighted portions of his example are literally examples of what can be written to the left of the arrow

E.G.
Guard Room w/Teleport Corridor 4)
Racks of weapons-> 15 swords, 30 spears, 3 hvy. x-bows, 200 bolts, 10 shields
Floor is strewn deeply with rushes, cracked and slightly buckled->Similar to rest of tower
Last 10' of the corridor is completely pristine->Floor nearby is cracked and buckled
|->*One Way Portal to location T between rooms 7 & 8.

A simple perusal of the number of lines required for any of my examples compared to the number of lines required for the actual written text rather succinctly addresses the format size complaints.

19 comments:

  1. It's a super interesting topic. I'm keenly interested in information structure and ease of use at the table. Have you ever polled the crowd to find out whether folks prioritize usability vs reading pleasure? It really cuts to the core of the RPG experience - is it a live performance at the table (of the DM describing the vision in their head of the setting) or is the hobby primarily about reading said adventures.

    Incidentally, the word count between the two examples is something like 112 to 57 - almost have the size.

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    1. I would like to see a One Page Dungeon or similar sized adventure using this approach so that I could form an informed opinion.

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    2. @Alex

      I think the one page dungeon is an essentially a different format. There is not enough room on one 8.5 x 11 sheet to put in this kind of hierarchical information. The OPD must necessarily leave more to the imagination (which is fine, but different), or attempt to encapsulate only a rather small area.

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  2. I love your room description short-hand. I think it's one of the better concepts to come out of in recent years to aid in gaming. I've been using it and translating modules into this format and it's been great.

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  3. I have been blogging a dungeon and thinking about this very thing quite a bit. I remember being a ten year old, playing D&D and having the DM read the boxed text to us.I almost always missed something important and obvious that he read and I don't think it was only because of my youth.

    The way I do it now is similar to the way you do, but I prefer prose to shorthand. If there are obvious details that cannot be ignored (such as monsters or a huge treasure in plain view) I describe that first. Then I give a paragraph to describe the room in general. The next paragraphs to describe each room feature in more detail (if it needs it). For example, this is where I give traps and contents of chests, or the trick portions of a statue or fountain.

    http://castletriskelion.blogspot.com/

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  4. I think your method is cool. However, there is not a single best method. For example, here is another way of recording contents of an adventuring environment. Rather than stepping directly to say one is best, I think there is room for different approaches for different effects.

    http://fictivefantasies.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/scaled-lords-swamp-domain.pdf

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    1. That Scaled Lord key is sweet... I like the table format and bullet points. Seems like a very useful layout.

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  5. Not solved until there are examples in print.

    Publish a section of Numenhalla and prove me wrong!

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  6. My own modest efforts are ripped of of Aos over at Metal Earth, but basically involve a GM style box that indicates atmospherics and key room elelments for reference and then explains them below. I did it bestest so far in my Gorgon adventure here:
    http://dungeonofsigns.blogspot.com/2012/12/tempus-gelidium-full-pdf.html

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  7. I'm currently running a game based on the module B-4 The Lost City, for AD&D 2.0. Loads of boxed text. I completely ignored those boxes as I reworked the module to my own tastes and followed C's advice.

    Was very easy to run the game.

    I will say, however, trying to write these notes by hand on paper requires a little forethought. Best to write the set notes on scratch paper first, then make a game copy that is organized later, as you never know how much space text is gonna take up, and adding something later gets difficult.

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  8. Writing flavor text also takes more time. You're spending time trying to structure sentences into a way pleasing to the eyes and ears. I personally agonize every little sentence, so I simply list details. My players also seem to remember the layout better if I simply list off what's in the room. If I write a little narration, they tend to forget/overlook details. Lists are also practical in that they lay out potential objects for players to interact with. For example, if you list off all the furniture in the room, that might prompt them to look under a chair or ask what's on the coffee table.

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  9. I'm afraid I don't think you've made the case here Courtney. Here's my reply:

    http://arsphantasia.wordpress.com/

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    1. More specifically:

      http://arsphantasia.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/in-defense-of-boxed-text/

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  10. It should be noted that when you say "it's been examined", you're citing the same team that was justifying the creation of the Delve Format in that timeframe. You know? The worst adventure format the industry ever came up with? So you might want to take Decker and Noonan with a grain of salt.

    Ultimately you need some methodology for clearly distinguishing "what the players should immediately be told" from "what the PCs can discover through investigation". If you don't do that, then your module or your adventure notes will be a confusing mess and difficult to use. Properly executed boxed text is remarkably effective at providing this distinction. And, in fact, properly executed boxed text will generally use the exact same amount of verbiage to provide that information as if it wasn't in a box.

    If you're no good at delivering scripted material, of course, you should then follow the same advice given since the dawn of the industry: Summarize it in your own words.

    You're using bullet points and bold text to make the distinction. And since your material serves only to refresh your memory and doesn't need to be polished for publication or capable of communicating a clear creative vision to a different GM who's not in the room with you, you can get away with abbreviated information. Which is great advice: GMs really shouldn't be prepping their adventure notes as if they were writing for publication. But you're performing a weird conflation of "don't bother polishing your text" and "boxed text doesn't work" which doesn't actually make much sense.

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    1. Well, I think "reading to people from boxed text" doesn't work. I think if it's short enough that it just covers the relevant information, that means "Textblock" isn't the best presentation for that format.

      I'm saying that in a published adventure that the job of the writing is to provide a reference for what is relevant for the DM, and to provide, through simple verbiage, a sense of a scene.

      Explicitly, I'm saying telling the DM a bunch of stuff because it matches your 'clear creative vision' is the problem

      That said, just because the credibility of Decker and Noonan is shot because of the delve format, doesn't make their observation about the uselessness of boxed text untrue.

      Thanks for the comment.

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  11. Actually, it seems logical there should be a stat block format for rooms. It could be a simple list with hidden objects highlighted, followed by a description that gives more details about any encounter within.

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    1. @cyrad

      The problem with stat blocks is that they tend to encourage fill in the blank syndrome, which is somewhat contrary to what I actually want out of a description. I don't want someone to run down a checklist (lighting, dimensions, humidity, etc), but rather a short list of what is important in the area, which will generally be idiosyncratic.

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  12. It is my belief, based on my experience, that those defenders of boxed text, are not actually reading the text to the group aloud.

    My personal experience, of many games is that I have never since 1986 seen an instance of someone reading boxed text ver batim where players were engaged. I just think that out of all the places I've played games and with all the people where boxed text was used, I would have seen that once.

    Perhaps someone could post a hangout video where boxed text was read, and people were clearly engaged as proof that it actually happens?

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    1. The arguments made why boxed text isn't a problem frequently mention several points.

      Argument A) If it's done well, it isn't a problem.

      If it is done well, i.e. doesn't assume where the players will enter, somehow takes into account dynamic environments, clearly and succinctly presents important information to the players, then having the information in text form is not the best method to present that information.

      Players will be asking questions about the environment and the text I just read, and I'm going to have to pick out the responses and details from a box of text.

      B) If you get the information, you should give it in your own words.

      Saying that boxed text isn't a problem because you don't read the boxed text is the rule 0 argument. The boxed text is presented because it is intended to be read.

      C) I don't think creatively or atmospherically enough on my feet.

      This might be a stylistic choice, but personally I don't need "atmosphere" for playing chess, or munchkin, or any other game, including D&D.

      That said, this comment boils down to "I don't want to prepare." (By imagining the space, really understanding the module before it's run), and to that I have to say:

      You're right. If you are just looking to run something off the shelf with little prep, then boxed text is going to work for this.

      But that doesn't make all the above problems or issues with it as a minimal use format go away.

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