On the Definitive Inadequacy of Boxed Text

I made a statement last week I believed to be a truism. Other people did not and made some comments and asked some questions.

Let's address some of those comments.

Is boxed text bad?


Yes. Yes it is.

Why? Can you prove it?


"You feel afraid and grab your weapon hilt"
"Uh, I'm immune to fear and as a warlock, I don't have a weapon?"
We are not talking about that 90%. What we are going to look at is why "Good" boxed text is bad. Let's look at some facts, facts beyond the numerous, public, repeated, comments about the response to boxed text.

Human beings have limited attention. They can only spend so much.

Listening to boxed text requires FOCUSED ATTENTION: the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things.

The average length of human focused attention is between 6-10 seconds.
More data from the Associated Press.
A textbook explaining these terms, and various theories about information processing.

Focused attention is different then sustained attention. Sustained attention is our ability to focus on tasks. This type of attention allows us to produce consistent results. Sustained attention is what allows us to play D&D for four hours, watch a movie, play a video game or read a book. These types of activities involve participation of our brain which is why we are able to maintain our focus.

Video games and movies? Aren't those passive activities? 

No. Cognitively, they provide multiple sensory inputs and can cause the brain to respond to stimuli. They are specific artistic creations to present only articles of central interest. That is literally the skill of film-making.

But surely I can have sustained attention to boxed text?

Sure, you can force yourself to focus on the dripping water in the sink without thinking of other things, or perhaps meditate by clearing your mind. It is difficult. It is a skill.

It is easier to do, if provided with things that are engaging. But even with videos and other multi-media presentation, you lose 1/2 of all people at 60 seconds. And that's with video!

Can't boxed text have information that is processed as "central interest" and therefore might draw our attention better?

In general, no. "Central Interest" to our auditory system is going to be things like exceptionally loud noises, predator noises, a child's cry, or perhaps information that affects our status quo ("I take damage?!") most boxed text, by definition, is not going to contain those things.

Isn't boxed text the best way to present the information?

Sure, if you only want an absolute maximum of 4 things (cambridge link) to communicate in under 8 seconds, you're golden!

HOLD UP! When a module eschews boxed text, then you will have a module that doesn't have a clear separation between information the players have and the Dungeon Master knows! You need that. 


Well, yes. 

What I'm saying is boxed text, even well written boxed text is the absolutely worst way to accomplish that. Just because a rocket powered sled is faster than walking doesn't mean its an ideal way to travel to work.

The primary purpose of "good" boxed text is that it provides all the information available to the characters, separate from the information the Dungeon Master has about the contents of the room. 

Putting this information inside the interior of a block of text is bad information design. It is decent design for presentation but terrible design for reference. Room information must serve both purposes.

See, the boxed text clearly differentiates between what the players are immediately told, from what they can discover. But it buries the list of things that the players are told in a paragraph sized box of text and then separates those items, from what happens when the players actual begin manipulating those items. So first you have to find the pedestal in the boxed text above, and then you need to find what manipulating it does (or what's on it, etc.) in the block of texts below. That's bad design. 

Brendan suggests using a highlighter to overcome this problem. Well, that's how my dad did it, it should be good enough for me, right?

We shouldn't need to fix the design by marking up the books, the design in the module should serve its purpose!

Well, What am I paying for then!? I don't want a skeletal outline, I want to experience this module! All Set Design is, is an outline.


Well no. A single example of my room, from a personal notebook is not representative of what set design looks like in a product, or a module. That is partially what I'm trying to communicate. I'm working to get some examples of what I mean when I talk about set design out in the wild, rather than a simple one-off example of how a single room is keyed.

I am not suggesting "Bullet points and Bold text" to make the distinction. What I am suggesting is designing the information so that setting and game information can both be presented and referenced in an efficient, pleasant manner.

But how will you communicate the creative vision of your product without boxed text and background information?


To be absolutely clear, to hell with the novelist aspirations of the module writer.
Regardless of their answers, the Hermit raises his hands, awakening the 10 skeletons hidden beneath the earth of the hut, and launches into an attack, attempting to "recruit" the party into his undead army. -Legacy of Savage Kings, Pg 7. Harley Stroh
Not boxed text. Does a fine job of communicating something awesome, besides "monsters attack".

Making people listen to prose, (or read fiction in a rule-book) is possibly the worst way to transmit information about a creative vision or setting. I've often found the only defenders are those who, well, write prose or fiction in a rule-book to communicate a creative vision or setting.

It's not 'the worst way' because of some abstract dislike of fiction. I love fiction. It's 'the worst way' because it is very bad at accomplishing the goal of transmitting that information. 

Short fiction is often skipped, only read by the Dungeon Master, or is unmemorable and not very good at it's stated purpose. (Quick! What's the plot of any book you've read? Now look at your RPG shelf and see how many examples from the fiction you remember reading!)

But beyond those reasons, it literally isn't relevant at the table. What you can buy on the equipment list is. And it is those things, the literal game objects that create the creative vision and flavor. People who play Dungeon Crawl Classics remember that their character started out with a chicken or a shovel. That becomes the take-away of the creative vision.

I want my monies worth!


I agree. I want that same thing from a module you want. I want it to be creative. I want it to be evocative. I want it to provide setting, environment and theme. 

Boxed text is a rip-off that doesn't do those things very well. I want my monies worth from module also. I want something better. 



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