Setting the Scene

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 13 September 2010

In my last post, I mentioned that some people wish to do away with boxed text. This caused a fair bit of discussion on Twitter and ended with me admitting that I often feel lost on how to set a scene in D&D, particularly for published adventures.

For me at least, I have a hard time knowing how much information to give all the PCs at the beginning, after they've entered a new room. I've read the warnings about DM monologues and reading 6 paragraphs of boxed text. I realize that coming up with and conveying lots of intricate detail is more about self-pleasure than it is about being useful to the players.

Sometimes I feel like I know a ton about what I'm not supposed to do and very little about what I should. Add to this that I’m probably learning to DM in the reverse of how you should, meaning I’m a newer DM for experienced (and smart) players, and my anxiety gets pretty high. I'm thinking through this problem in hopes that some of my ideas will help those of you in a similar position and that I can get some tips from you all.

First, I should detail a few assumptions on my part. To me, every scene should have a place in the story and should have the chance of revealing at least one detail about it. I say chance, because players should always have the choice to not care about the story the DM wants to tell. I'm not a big fan of encounters for the sake of XP alone. I also try to give my players hints about what's going on without hitting them over the head with a big clue stick but DMs, and groups, will vary on how they feel about that.

When creating or reading a scene, I like to list the goals for it. What about this scene is important enough to have us play it out? If it's to spot the item they need to retrieve, I need to provide clues that the item is in the room or, at the very least, that they might want to more thoroughly search an area or two. If it's to introduce an NPC, the descriptions I give should reinforce what they should remember about him or her. The problem I have with many published adventures is I often don’t immediately grok why this scene is there.

Once I understand the goals, I start working on the details, or as I like to call it, the “texture.” When I create encounters, these details work together to tell the story. So if I’m dealing with a scene where the PCs should guess that the tailor maybe isn’t everything he claims to be, some of the details I might write down are overly blunt shears, bolts of fabric that look old, a lack of customers, and perhaps an abnormally long wait time on orders. I would also write down hints that point to who he is, in this case perhaps someone dabbling in necromancy which he practices in the basement: an overly scented shop, dim light, an aura of the arcane, and a book left open behind the counter.

With goals and details in hand, I can start playing the scene out in my head. Which items are the PCs likely to notice first and who will notice it. All of the PCs will be able to see or otherwise sense some of this information while other bits are more specialized. For divvying up the latter, it's useful to have a list of their skills and and any modifiers or feats that apply, such as the level of light they can see in. If you can get a summary of their backstory and some of their personality quirks, all the better. You can use the passive skill scores to guide you as you decide what information they might know.

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it can be, especially for a newer DM. The brain has an awesome ability to recognize and assimilate patterns, but it takes time to do so. A newer DM just hasn’t seen hundreds of encounters and maybe hasn’t seen another person DM yet, so they have to do a lot more conscious work. The nice thing about boxed text, when done correctly, is that can serve as a short-cut for creating those patterns. Running encounters is a bit easier because a lot of the hard work was done already and, with each one, they get a better idea of how much information to give at the start. In addition, the boxed text can provide the start point for their own hacking, much the same way we hack on monsters.

So while I’m all for moving to another system in modules for more advanced DMs, I hope that something like boxed text sticks around for the beginners. And I hope more products come out for beginners that are focused only on them instead of serving multiple masters. So what about you, how much information do you give out at the beginning of an encounter and create your own boxed text for a published adventure?


I was trying to fit what I thought of your post into a Twitter message, but it quickly outgrew the medium, so here it is instead.

I'm in another situation with boxed text that might not be terribly relevant, but just to throw it out there: I don't game in English. It would be a little silly, seeing as both my players and I are Danish and thus speak Danish, though I've heard of people doing it. My dilemma with boxed text in the modules I run is therefore whether or not to translate it. I usually don't have an awful lot of time to prepare - hence the modules in the first place - and I like to use it to insert tidbits of ongoing story in the otherwise dangerously dungeongrindy official modules from Wizards, so I generally don't make it a priority to translate ahead of time. Doing it on the fly leads to a lot of "uh" and "what's the word for 'brazier'?" so that usually gets skipped too.

So what do I do? Well, we always play on a battlemat, so I sketch out the encounter environment and give my players the lowdown on what the symbols are as well as 2 - 3 other tidbits of information, only one of which is usually something that I think is relevant to the encounter. Inevitably the other little details will from time to time get pounced on by the players and inevitably the encounter becomes more memorable because of it. So generally I keep the infolevel rather low, but that reflects the fact that my players are around 60 - 40 in favour of fights instead of talking encounters. That's each individual player, not the group as a whole. This means that the picture each player has in his head might be a little bit different from the other players', but it hasn't been a problem yet (and we're at level 15 now).

The last thing I'd like to comment on is: what do I use boxed text for, then? Because I don't find it worthless. I use it in my prep to get a sense of the mood that the encounter is supposed to convey. This I'll try to incorporate in my short description and in the roleplaying of the enemies.

Phew, that was a bit. And to think this comment started life as a Twitter message :-)

PS: Just found the site. Great to read about your experience as a new DM. I'm doing 4e "how you should" - as an experienced DM with players who've NEVER tabletop RPG'ed before, and it's also great.

I find myself in complete agreement with you.

As a player, one of the things I find most frustrating is the lack of descriptive detail that would help guide me as a player on actions to take withing the context of an encounter. Box Text (or heck, any prepared description) helps to prompt this process, especially for the new DM.

Players (IMHO) need two forms of guidance. They need the scene to be set, and the important hooks to start the investigative process in moving through the scene.

First, as good as mini's and maps are, they will not be enough to create a great scene for players. The scene sets all the things most important for creating an enjoyable experience. The smells, sounds and appearance of things relevant to the encounter that give the players imagination something to work with and guide them to look for the hooks in the scene.

I understand the fear of DM monologuing, I mean, I've been present for it myself on more than one occasion. But we must not let that swing the pendulum to far in the other direction and arrive at a lack of detail. Remember, the DM's job is to set the scene and lay down a framework to hang the narrative of the encounters and other story elements off of. If there isn't any detail, there is nowhere to go.

This is why I agree with you. Your creative thought process for building an encounter is excellent, and I applaud you. I also agree that it makes encounter building time consuming, which is why I agree with you re: Box Text.

Good box text is something I would rather have but not need, than need and not have.

I must be missing something.

Admittedly, I haven't been following and reading about this topic a lot as a going concern, so I may be ill-informed as to what lies behind this discussion. It has shown up as a blip on my radar in this or that tweet here and there, though. This comment is an immediate reaction to a fairly cold read with little context.

Having gathered that there are a great many people who want to do away with boxed text in adventures (or just a few vocal ones?), I am mystified by the impulse. I simply do not see the point of axing boxed text on principle. A great many people don't use the actual encounter content and tactics, either, but as a DM I'm still pretty glad that the material is there for me to use, modify or ignore as I see fit.
On a similar note and for the record, I'm the kind of DM/player who's really happy to see the focus WoTC put into flavor text in the MM3.
Even when I'm very well prepared and have sat down ahead of time to think everything through very thoroughly before meeting up to play, boxed/read-aloud text serves as a very useful at-a-glance outline to help jog my memory so my mind is quickly able to access what I've planned as I switch to the next encounter. And without boxed text, I'd be working with no net; forced to be well-prepared at the start of every encounter with no one to help me when I've been less thorough or when I've had less free time in my life this week. What's so great about that?
So, in all earnestness, what's the deal? Why are people seemingly so infuriated by boxed text that they must quash it?
It would be rhetorical and caustic of me to ask if people simply wanted less content for their money, so I won't pretend to ask such a thing seriously. Surely people who want to do away with boxed text must be presenting options which accomplish the same things as boxed text, only better.
If they are, I suppose hearing about some of these options might give me context and aid understanding. But until then, getting rid of boxed text in adventures seems like, at best, a "solution" to a problem that doesn't exist. Worse, it would actually create problems for me.

Long live boxed text, boxed text all around, viva la boxed text.

I'm not part of the group, but I believe part of the issue is that word count and space on a page are valuable resources and having boxed text means we don't have something else. On top of it, writing good boxed text is hard, especially since the PCs might do something that totally invalidates it. The suggestion by some is to come up with an encounter stat block, something one could glance at and understand the important bits of information for the encounter.

As you say, there is a segment of the DMing population who absolutely despise boxed text. Even though I despise the way the boxed text is sometimes presented, I do not hate the fact it exists.

First and foremost, I like boxed text because I can't be nearly as descriptive as it when I am summarizing from DM's notes. (unless the notes are my own, in which case I'm not so much referring to the notes as the picture in my head) Boxed text can give an adventure a much more story like feel than a DM just summarizing.

However, I do not like that many modules have boxed text with no clear moment that is appropriate to read it. I am thinking of the times when the boxed text has a long detailed description of the room leading up to introducing the baddies that are there. If there are baddies in the room the players need to hear that first and then need to deal with them; the rest can wait till the baddies are gone.

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