What is the most frightening thing in an RPGA adventure? Monsters? Traps? No, it is boxed text. Why does this handy prose scare both players and GMs? It frequently oversteps its bounds and takes power away from everyone playing in the session.
The purpose of boxed (or read aloud) text is to set the scene. When used correctly it puts the characters in a scene and then lets them interact with it. Unfortunately, some boxed text dictates character actions or assigns emotions to characters. The players should make these decisions for themselves. After all, read aloud text does not run the character, the player does.
Providing guidelines for avoiding such pitfalls is much easier than actually writing good descriptions. However, here are some tips to help you along the way. Avoid the word "you" like the plague including derivations like "your" or "you’re." Let’s work an example to illustrate. Here is the original text:
You walk into the orphanage. The crying of the babies brings a tear to your eyes.
The text is straight forward but takes control of the characters. Here is another crack at it without the word you.
Inside the orphanage the babies cry for their lost parents.
The scene is prepared and instead of telling the players that their characters are sorrowful, they are placed in an environment where their characters can choose to empathize with the children's longing.
Here is another example of read aloud text which forces the characters actions:
Gazing up into the cloister you see a dozen bats. Fearing for your safety, you grab the hilt of your sword.
The character is forced into action (looking and grabbing) and told how to feel (fearful). Perhaps a character has a bat familiar and enjoys the sight of the bats or another character doesn't have a sword. Here, the example is rewritten with out dictating character reactions.
From high overhead the faint and eerie sounds of bats can be clearly heard. A dozen or so bats have found sanctuary in the church’s cloister.
The revised text makes no assumptions about the player’s actions or feelings. The players decide how the character reacts to the scene.
Roleplaying is about action and interaction. Using lengthy box text to move the plot along or resolve scenes while players sit idle by is a problem. Avoid read aloud text where the characters sit idly by as the NPCs carry on for an extended time. Allow the characters to interact with the plot, after all this is roleplaying not story time. If you have to have extended interactions between NPCs provide breaks for the players to react to what they are hearing. The players and their characters should be essential to the action and not spectators.
Finally, find a balance for the amount of boxed text in a adventure. When too much information is presented as read aloud text, many GMs feel constrained. It is difficult to amend and customize this information to account for innovative or disastrous PCs while bring the world to life. On the other hand, with too little information some judges find it difficult to lead the party through the adventure. Balancing the amount of text to include is tricky. The best way to gauge the amount of text to include is to run adventures. Get a feel for what is bare-bones essential and cut the rest out. If you’re a GM confronted with a mountain of text – paraphrase. As long as you're true the adventure, nothing is binding you to read these descriptions verbatim.
When used correctly boxed text is a great tool. It draws the players into the scene and engages their suspension of disbelief. It also gives the GM a better feel for the world. Allowing GMs and players to decide the actions makes the game more enjoyable for everyone.