To Read Aloud, or Not to Read Aloud: that is the Question

As part of my ongoing design of Gloamhold and its innumerable shadow-drenched, doom-shrouded halls I’ve been thinking deeply about the nuts and bolts of adventure design. Here, I’m not talking about what monsters lurk where or what treasures they might guard. I’ve done that top-level plotting about the dungeon’s various denizens.

 

Rather, I’m talking about the physical layout of the book and what material to include to make the GM’s job as easy and frictionless as possible. As well as plotting what to include, it’s also important to decide what not to include.

On the face of it, this kind of design might not seem particularly exciting—and it isn’t—but good design is so much more than an exciting set of monsters in an interesting room guarding some cool glittering treasures. A product’s usability is critical. Only an idiot designer or publisher doesn’t keep in mind the eventual end-user (the GM) when designing a dungeon.

A badly laid-out or organised book fails the GM. It might mean:

  • The GM gets frustrated and doesn’t run the adventure (which is bad).
  • The GM has to put a lot of extra effort in getting ready for the session (which is bad).
  • The GM spends a lot of time vainly hunting for relevant information in the adventure’s text resulting in slow or fragmented play (which is bad).

If a book is badly laid out, it doesn’t matter how amazing its content is. If a GM can’t use the book, or has to put significant extra effort into using it, the book fails. If the text is badly laid out or contains the wrong information its an impediment to fun. All such impediments must be crushed.

For example, I remember running an adventure in which the PCs encountered an adventurer living in a room deep in a monster-infested dungeon. The first 800 words of the encounter—or so—were devoted to the adventurer’s detailed background. That’s a lot of words to read before actually getting to the room description, details on how the trapped adventurer reacts to the PCs and so on, given he essentially attacks the players as quickly as possible. It felt like the entire 800-words were just there to justify the adventurer’s presence in the dungeon. That’s a lot of words to justify a fight.

(As an aside on the subject of design, I’m colourblind and so sometimes when I print out an adventure I can’t actually read some of the text because the words blends into the page’s decorative background colour. For me, this creates a significant problem—and, is one of the reasons I love the old-school style illustration style).

As part of my Gloamhold design, I’ve been bravely buying and reading as many other megadungeons as I can get my hands on. Obviously, Undermountain features in the list as does Greyhawk Ruins and Barrowmaze Complete. I noticed one thing the other day: none of them, except Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk (written for 3.5), use significant amounts of read aloud text.

For me, read aloud text is a staple feature of adventures. It’s something I’ve included in my adventures without thinking. I’m now beginning to wonder if that is a good—or bad—thing. On one hand, read aloud text is great: well written read aloud helps the GM quickly and easily set the scene. On the other hand, read aloud text requires the GM to look down at his book and not up at the players.

So, here is the question: could the space filled by read aloud text be better used?

Do you like read aloud text? Do you never use it? Let me know, in the comments below.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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29 thoughts on “To Read Aloud, or Not to Read Aloud: that is the Question

  1. Read aloud text is hand-holding for new or less experienced GMs. So it depends, somewhat on where you are aiming your adventure. Ideally you want to note the significant items/NPCs/atmosphere that the characters will perceive when they enter the area/room.

  2. As a less experienced GM, I like text-boxes, which contain all the relevant information the PCs should have when entering the room. I find it quite distracting if I have to search for all bits and pieces in a book, which I need. However, I hardly ever really read the text aloud as it is. For me, it’s more an example of how I could inform the players about the situation. Obviously, the information needed also dependents very much on the experience of the players. Do they, e.g., already know what a hobgoblin looks like or not? However, the bottom line is, as a GM I appreciate if all the information that the players need to have is nicely put together in the description of a room or encounter. BTW, I really like the way you have organized in the information in your adventures so far.

  3. The read-aloud text is the “point of contact” between the author’s vision and the players. That said, I do prefer that blocks of read-aloud text be 20 words or less, as anything longer and my players start to wander.

    • I think you are right here. The length of the boxed text is critical. If it is too long, eyes glaze over and the entire thing is a waste of time. I’m getting the scene that the overwhelming amount of people appreciate boxed text even if they don’t actually read it. That’s fair enough. Using it, though, to set the scene for the GM makes it a very handy piece of an adventure.

  4. There is a certain blithe arrogance of “Boxed text? We dont need no stinking boxed text!” And Ryan very helpfully posted a link to “why boxed text is counter productive” (thankyou ryan). I agree with the observations of the author in that link: you get 2 sentences and that’s it. Head down and looking at text in the communication process means you lose the audience- you are now performing and no longer conversating and the performance is stiff and an unegaging- (its the days of the 1700s when preachers wrote their sermons and read them word for word).

    However, i think that boxed text does serve a purpose: for the inexperienced and time strapped. While I might be blithely arrogant about boxed text I would reread all the boxes for immediate prep before players showing up just to get the gyst and highlight specific words and details.

    I think purpose text box fills can be obtained without text box by presenting information differently. I’m just spit balling here but what if you listed Atmosphere, Details, and Stats in bold. Atmosphere would have a short string of words or phrases. Details would have bullet points and stats would have have stats. Pretty much all the pertinent info in a format that a modern evangelical preacher would recognize- an outline that facilitates a sermon style that is more engaging. If you needed more like say NPC reactions those would be in simple bullet points- * passionately hates elves and etc.

    So yeah text box is counter productive but I think what it really is is an outdated presentation of information and that a different presentation would facilitate the purpose that text box is attempting to fulfill. If you use it, keep it limited or force the inexperienced GM to act more like an experienced one and simply give him bullet points to force him to make eye contact with his players again and not bury his nose in text.

    • I have to agree with Tom V. If the purpose of the “Read Aloud” box is to give the GM a fast take on the area or character, there may be a better way to present that information. I have rarely read directly from such boxes and when I have been a player and the GM has read from them it has been difficult to stay engaged. I like the bullet point suggestion. It may also be useful to have short sample statements to help flesh out an NPC.
      I guess the one point at which I find something like a “Read Aloud” box useful is for written text the PCs find. However, for this I think a handout is much more useful.

  5. It has suddenly occurred to me that your original concern was focused on the end user, the GM. But the issue of text box goes to the end, end user the player, or is that end user 2.0? Your was does the adventure meet that needs of the GM and facilitate him using your product. The secondary concern here with text box is does the end end user find the product engaging and exciting, do they enjoy their experience?

    Both GM and players are consumers here. The GM buying your product is the primary consumer like the soccer mom buying groceries and the players are the kids eating those groceries. If the kids dont like the food and refuse to eat it or give the mom a lot of flak over it then she’s going to stop buying it.

  6. I rarely just read the text in a text box to my players as is but I do find that it gives me a good idea of how the author envisaged the room being described. Beyond that odd phrases leap out at me that I wouldn’t come up with that I underline so that I remember to use them when describing what the players see. I also find that shortish read aloud text helps me to get a feel for things when I first read through the adventure by bringing an area to life for the GM.

  7. I’ve been seeing many responses to this question along the lines of experienced/new GM line. While read aloud text boxes are great for new GMs experienced ones can use them too. It allows you to get on the same page as the adventure’s designer, to be able to get the feel for the tone and general impression of the setting. Even if you, as a GM ultimately decided to use your own descriptions, it gives you a nice framework to start from. Also, read-aloud boxes are great for (private) public speaking practice. I use these in my down time with a recorder to be able find a comfortable tone of voice and train it so it becomes natural. Nothing brings players out of the suspension of disbelief quicker than a GM stumbling around with a bunch of ummms, and uhhhhs, and hang-ons.

  8. A bit of text can be an useful springboard – a phrase or two to inspire the GM as to an unique NPC’s conversation style/personality. I think that’s what Tom is getting at with atmosphere…. Otherwise, reading large amounts of text just loses the players…. I do have one exception; that’s where the NPC speech, inscription, etc. is carefully worded. Besides the classic examples, I’m thinking of the movie “The Sixth Sense” where there are 2 meanings to both scenes and words with the 2nd meaning only seen in retrospect at the end of the movie – changing the viewer’s entire viewpoint/interpretation. I ran a fantasy campaign structured that way and would have dearly loved text boxes to check my wording, etc.

  9. I am pretty much a homebrew kind of DM, but I will write out some setting descriptions and read them verbatim. It is a great way to strike a particular tone for the players.

  10. Yes to the read aloud text box. I work 60 hours a week and don’t have time to completely and utterly grok every room, etc. Without the description, I have to go through every part of the room/encounter description to piece together how I should present it. And come game time, I’ve probably forgotten some of the details anyway. Especially when the party went the OTHER way instead of the way I was fully prepped for. Also, I have ADHD which means my memory for detail sucks. So even if I study the encounter, my mind may still blank out a bit at the table. So I say absolutely keep it.

    I generally don’t read the text completely as is, I’ll interpret it on the fly into my own way of presenting, but it clearly helps.

    Also, curse those adventures that don’t have it — I’m looking at YOU Dungeon of the Mad Mage! What I’ve done for DotMM is buy the Fantasy Grounds version so I can type in the text I want to read.

  11. It depends on the adventure. If the situation demands it then yes, but when it becomes too domineering then it can be a hindrance. A well laid out adventure will need very little read out loud text because the description of the locale makes it easy for the GM to interpret it, but on the other hand, it does help GM’s especially the new ones. When I write an adventure I do create small parts which are “read out loud”, but I keep them to a minimum.

  12. I really like read-aloud for spoken words by major NPCs. I find it difficult to give them all a different personality. I don’t really need it for room descriptions, as I think the PCs should get information by asking, interacting and searching. It’s much more fun to facilitate an exchange than just read the information.

  13. Absolutely, flavor text helps assist the DM what the author original vision and as a jumping point to roleplay from. It is very rare to find a GM that can RP as well without flavor text. Crit Roll does a good job RPing descriptions on the fly. Most DM’s do not have that vocabulary.

  14. I don”t read aloud myself when I run games and as far as I know neither does my DM. I read through the material so I know whats coming but in game systems geared towards creative thinking I think that reading aloud is a touch rail-roady and less immersive. I get pulled in when my DM is speaking smoothly and looking at us. The only time I can think of being read to is when its an important historical fact or story that is really important to get right to make sure we know the facts. I don’t think its bad for people to read out loud,mind you, especially new DMs I just personally feel like it limits me a bit.

  15. I envy DMs who can hold a lengthy adventure’s many details in their head but I’m a fan of SHORT box text. I find three or four sentences (*maximum*) can be a huge help to snap into focus my recollection, and the PCs’ first impression, of the scene of the moment. Just enough to prompt interest and questions.

  16. Personally, I like reading the read-aloud text when I prep an adventure. In practice, though, I almost never read it word for word. I did when I first started out, but I’ve been DM’ing for almost 40 years. I still like having read-aloud text boxes and I even put them in my own Homebrew adventures because it gives me an easy to find refresher about an area or situation.

    Or maybe I’m just so old that I expect them and it’s all nostalgia…

    Either way, I vote to keep read-aloud text boxes in campaigns.

  17. I’ll weigh in here a second time. I think the important question is, “What is the problem or pain the ‘Read Aloud’ box is intended to address?” The follow on is, “Is there a better way to address that?” From the comments I have read, it is useful for many DMs for there to be a quick (2-3 sentence) summary or highlight of an area, encounter or character.

  18. Text boxes aren’t just for inexperienced DM’s. I ran my first mission in 1979. I have DM’d in three different countries. I have DM’d at a conventions and game days… and after almost 40 years of sitting behind the screen, I still use text boxes. As I’m writing the module, I write every tiny detail about the room: the encounter (living, undead, or mechanical), the sights, the smells, what they hear, etc. Each room can have a full legal page or more to itself.
    By using the box (actually, I color code everything: blue for read aloud, black for general information, green for treasure, red for monsters), it allows me to 1) define the scope of the room/encounter for the players in as succinct a manner as possible, and 2) by reading the first line of yext to myself, I know what the room or encounter is at a glance and don’t need to do more than glance over it to refresh my memory or to grab bits of important information.

  19. I like the Read Aloud Text. However I will now always rewrite it my own words and include the information I find that’s needed, keeping it to 2-4 sentences. I Rewrite it mainly to help me remember whats special/important features of the room, and most of the times I can tell my players in a more natural way about the room then a hold on let me finish reading all of this before you start asking question way.

  20. First and foremost, adventure modules are supposed to be technical documents. That is, they should convey information to the user in the most efficient manner possible. Usually, that does not mean boxed text.

    As the GM, I need to know what’s going to be the first thing that players see when opening a door. Imagine your own house – the open the front door and . . . ? A short hallway opening to a larger room beyond. The can see the TV on, and hear children playing. To the immediate right is a door, in front of which are several pairs of shoes. There, I just described what you see. Now, interact with it. I don’t need to tell the players the wall color is an off-white, and the floor is wooden, or the door handle is brass-colored. Certainly, I don’t need to tell the players this is the entrance where visitors should remove their boots prior to entering.

    I may need to know the sizes and types of shoes, because a player may start looking through them. I may need to know what the reactions the children will have, and how long it will take the parents to discover the intruders. But giving more that a couple sentences obscures these details.

    Plus, what happens when the players retreat and come back later? The text box may become worthless, as the children are no longer playing, the TV is off, and the shoes are gone.

    Each room does not need a detailed history. Read-aloud text is very useful for padding a module, and adding perceived value to the buyer. But I need a document that lets me run an adventure, not tell me a story. There can be value in the text, but always question “does it really need to be there?” Often, it doesn’t or need to be significantly trimmed down.

  21. I think it’s a mistake for the designer to leave these text boxes out. People are free to use them how they see fit reading word for word or not but they do hold value.

  22. I think you should read some of Bryce Lynch’s reviews of OSR adventures over at tenfootpole.org. He’s really good at dissecting adventures on their usability at the table, for the DM. You’ll also be able to see his opinions on many a megadungeon, and even some of your adventures. And let me say up front, he’s as little a fan of Paizo NPC backstories (we all know who you’re talking about) as you are, AND of read aloud text.

  23. back when i used traditional published adventures as a DM i got a lot out of read-aloud text boxes. that was mostly during the 90s. when read-aloud text wasn’t provided i tended to underline or highlight what was relevant in order to quickly find it on the page. i admit there were times when players wanted to get into the room and start adventuring and i slowed them down and even temporarily silenced them as i read through the entire box.

    i think i might have mentioned this before in other posts, but when i began playing again in the last few years i abandoned traditional published adventures. the published adventure design style i use know entirely throws out maps and rooms and replaces them with a flexible flow-chart system, where any “room” can be accessed by any other, and the important bits (called “keys”) the players find in each room are equally mobile, ending up in whatever room you need them in — which is to say, wherever the narrative and pacing of the moment demand them.

    this style of adventures are referred to as “instant adventures” and are put out by Monte Cook games. there are so far two books of ten adventures each out there, and a third book is currently in the works. even when i’m not using a published “instant adventure” this is the style i build toward. this style has revolutionized our play style. no longer are critical details left behind in a room the adventurers didn’t search, no longer is the plot held hostage to the whims of the players going off entirely in their own direction. wherever the players go the plot keeps up with them, whatever they do they never “go off the map.” the illusion of a hard map underneath the game is still there, but it doesn’t interfere with play like it used to in the old days. i really can’t recommend it enough. truly i wish the entire industry moved over to this kind of presentation. it is far simpler to read through, far easier for me to get ready for a game. the entire flow chart tends to be 2 pages of introduction, 2 pages of flexible rooms and “keys”, and 2 pages of advice for how to expand the adventure should the players want that.

    this style gives me a huge amount of room to sprinkle in details from Raging Swan products to flesh things out.