As a dungeon master, I work to avoid confusion at the table, but from time to time, players misunderstand something in the game world. “If I had realized the standing stones were only 18 inches high, I wouldn’t have tried to climb them.” Sometimes distracted players are to blame, but most of the burden falls on the dungeon master’s ability to describe.
In Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map and Battle maps take over Dungeons & Dragons, I wrote about how maps and minis help everyone understand what is happening in the game. In this post and the next, I want to discuss two more things that help everyone at the table understand.
In 1979, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan introduced boxed text descriptions for the DM to read when the players entered a location. The Hidden Shrine originated as the adventure used for the “Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons tournament at Origins in ’79.” The boxed text provided a way to offer a consistent play experience in a competitive environment.
I know first hand about the importance of consistent descriptions in a competitive D&D environment. As I’ve suggested before, I like playing in the D&D Championship tournament at GEN CON. In 2012, the final challenge required you to close six arcane gates while demons poured out. As the challenge began, the DM dutifully read the boxed text, which included a description of mysterious runes on the pillars in the room. Like any good boxed text description, the text mentioned the runes alongside other, less important details. No one on my team appreciated the runes significance, so we failed to discover that disabling the runes reduced the extremely difficult arcana checks required to close the gates. Later, as we waited for the event results, we all wondered how we managed to overlook the runes. We could not blame the DM’s wording, because every team heard the same boxed text. (Despite the oversight, my team performed well enough to place second. Still, if only…)
The boxed text innovation lives on, but not for its original purpose of leveling a competition. The introduction to the Hidden Shrine advises DMs to “read the module thoroughly several times before play starts.” Now boxed text exists to spare DMs from having to read a module several times. When you have to run a published adventure without a lot of preparation, boxed text avoids the stumbling descriptions that come when you must comb through the text for relevant details.
Boxed text does have a drawback. When most speakers read something aloud, their voice takes a different tone and cadence than when they speak extemporaneously, and that monotony can cause players’ attention to wander. Perhaps too many boxed text descriptions have lingered on descriptions of the color of the sunset and other bits of obviously unimportant fluff. For this reason, when I know the content well enough, I paraphrase boxed text. Still, even for DMs who never read boxed text, it helps. No one has shown a better way to summarize what the players must learn when they enter a room.
Do you think DMs should read or paraphrase boxed text?