Designing a Dungeon: Part 6—Read Aloud Text

In the sixth installment of our series on designing a new dungeon crawl adventure for the patrons of the World of Aetaltis Patreon, we talk about writing great boxed (read aloud) text.


Step 1: We talked about choosing a map. Maps are really fun to draw, but there are times when you want something that's ready to go. In this case, I picked a cool map from Dyson Logos available in in his map pack on DriveThruRPG.

Step 2: We came up with the original purpose of the adventure site. After a bit of back and forth I settled on a dwarven Diplomatic Entrance to a Deepland Hall. After that I came up with a rough idea of what all those rooms were used for when first built.

Step 3: We picked out the major threats our players will face, settling on some kobolds, a party of filthy bandits, and a big nasty troll.

Step 4: In 'How It Came to Be' we put together a history for our ruin that we can use to guide us as we start fleshing out the rooms.

Step 5: We looked at how to outline the room and talked about the importance of identifying a a purpose in the adventure for each room.

Step 6: Read Aloud Text (aka Boxed Text)

It’s time to start writing up the actual room descriptions. Your typical RPG room description includes two key elements: the boxed text and the GM text. If you already know the difference between these, jump ahead to the next section. If you don't, read on.

The boxed text is the text that the GM is expected to read aloud to the players when they first encounter the room. Usually this text is formatted differently from the GM text, or more traditionally, it’ll have a box around it. (Hence the name "boxed text.")

The GM Text is everything else in the room description. This might include secret background info for the GM, special rules you might want to include, or details about the monsters and their likely combat tactics.

To Read or Not To Read

Some GMs HATE reading boxed text. These folks will often complain that reading the boxed text straight from the book is awkward and artificial.

I say thee, nay!

My feeling is that reading boxed text aloud isn’t the problem. The problem is badly written boxed text.

I get it. I’ve read more than my share of groan-worthy boxed text description in my day. You know the stuff, where you instantly regret reading it as soon as you hear the words coming out of your mouth (followed by laughter from the players). Despite this, don't chuck the boxed text so quickly.

You see, if you’re a GM, you should do whatever works for you. It's your game!

BUT if you’re writing an adventure, I believe you owe it to the GM to include the boxed text. It all boils down to a key aspect of my game design philosophy:

“Do the work so the GM doesn't have to!" 

If you include boxed text and the GM doesn't like it, she can skip it! But if you DON’T include it and the GM needs it, you’re forcing her to do work that, frankly, she's paying you to do!

Even if you’re just writing the adventure for yourself, improvising a room description (even for a room you created) in the heat of GMing a game can get tricky. At the very least, if you think through the description in advance and write it out, you'll have an outline to go from. Your description will sound richer, you won’t forget vital details the players really need to know, and your delivery will be smoother. All of these things make the game more fun for everyone.

With that out of the way, let's get into the actual writing.

Don't Tell the Player How Their Character Feels

Absent mind control magic, only the player can decide how their character feels. As soon as you start dictating emotions, you steal their autonomy, which they then feel a need to defend. This almost always leads to interruption or even arguments.

Let's look at a bad description:

As you enter the chamber, the sight before you fills you with terror. Half-eaten corpses are strewn across the floor, and the odor of death turns your stomach.

Seems harmless enough, right? But here is the immediate response you’ll get from players:

Bob: Uh, I don’t think so. My Drothmal has fear immunity, so he won’t feel any terror.

Sarah: And my dwarf has Iron Stomach. She never gets sick.

You could argue that the GM should just tell them “Come on, people. You know what I mean.” But what you’re hearing from the players is a natural response to being controlled. The players feel a need to exert their independence, and a dramatic scene devolves into a short discussion about character abilities and autonomy.

So how do we avoid this? Instead, create a scene that evokes the response you want from your players. Let's try that description again:

The floor of the chamber is littered with half-eaten corpses. It appears that they were literally torn asunder, ripped limb from limb by whatever monstrous fiend left the fresh, claw-toed footprints in the blood on the floor. Off to your left you hear a gurgle and a weak sob. It comes from one of the victims, a young Erinoran man who is impossibly (and barely) alive despite the violent removal of all his limbs.

In this case, I described something that truly IS terrible instead of just saying it's terrible, offered one of those gut-tightening, “OMG THAT IS FREAKING HORRIBLE” moments when we introduce the doomed, sobbing victim, and finally, gave the players the idea that “Um, those clawed footprints are fresh. IT MIGHT STILL BE HERE!”

Will the characters be filled with terror? Some of them might, but it will be the player’s decision to have their character feel this, not the GM's.

Don’t Tell the Players What Their Characters Do

Again, players control characters, not the adventure's author!

GM READING ALOUD: You enter the room and approach the center of the large chamber--

Bob: Oh, hell no. I never said I was going into that room.

SCREEEEECH—the story grinds to a halt!I Just describe what’s there, provide any other sensory data the character might pick up, and then let the player tell the GM what their character does and how they react.

“But what if there is something they only see when they reach a certain point in the room?”

That’s when you use some extra boxed text. Write the first boxed text, then include whatever GM text is appropriate at that time, and then right before the extra read aloud text you want to insert, say something like this in the GM text:

If the characters reach the middle of the room, read the following aloud:

...and then insert another box of text that describes the additional information.

Use Multiple Senses

When describing the rooms, if you include more than just what they see you’ll create a richer scene. Sounds are easy to include  (or even describing the lack of sound). Odors are a little trickier, but olfactory cues are extremely powerful to humans. A good scent description can really bring a scene to life.

Touch is great, but using touch is a little dangerous. As we discussed, saying something like “The surface is rough to the touch.” will almost certainly result in a player crying out “WHOA WHOA WHOA! I’m not touching that damn thing.”

Here are two ways to get around this. The first is to use touch sensations the character/player doesn't have control over. Examples include vibrations in the floor, a soft breeze on the skin, or a sudden change in temperature. These types of touches deliver the sensory information but leave the player in control of the character.

Another trick is to describe something in a way that lets the player imagine how it would feel IF their character touched it. Here is an example:

The tabletop is gouged and battered. Sharp splinters protrude from the surface, and a napkin has snagged on one of them, tearing the fine, crimson cloth.

A description like this allows the player to imagine what the table feels like without forcing their character to touch it.

Clearly Point Out the Exits

It’s important to include the exits in the description, but keep in mind that the players might enter a room or place by any number of directions. It's good to avoid phrases like “As you step through the southern doorway you see….”. Just describe the room they see, not how they are entering.

In terms of text placement, I like to list exits at the end of the description in a simple, clear fashion. In most cases, the location of exits is more like "game material" than true color text.

There are doors on the north and west walls, a small trap door in the ceiling, and a passage leading off to the east.

Separate the Creature Descriptions

Keeping creature descriptions separate makes it easier for the GM to describe the room even if the inhabitants aren’t there when the players arrive. There are a plenty of reasons NPCs and monsters might not be in the room, and as a GM it’s a pain to try to delete the monsters from the room’s read-aloud description. Typically, I drop the creature description in after the room description, with a lead in like this:

If the goblins are still alive and in the room, read the following:

At which point I’ll offer a description of the creatures, where they are in the room, and what they are doing. Admittedly this goes against the “first thing you notice” rule I talk about below, since typically you notice living creatures and people first. By describing creatures second, however, you can piggyback on the room description you just gave when describing the creatures.

Add Some Action Text

The last bit of boxed text I like to use is action text. This is text that describes some change in the environment. Maybe the door bursts open and the goblins charge in, a trap goes off, or some previously unseen bit of important information is revealed. Again—a GM can come up with this on their own, but if they need it, don’t force them to write the description themselves.

Keep It Short and Sweet

Now that I’ve pushed you to include all sorts of cool descriptive elements, I want to change gears and encourage you to keep your descriptions short and sweet. Unless you’re one hell of an orator, the players are more interested in doing than listening. When describing the room, give them enough to get started, but allow them to discover the details through exploration and interaction.

A good rule of thumb is to describe the first three things a person would notice when they walk into that room. This approximates the way humans consume information about their surroundings. You can hone your skills at this by paying close attention to the first three things that catch your eye when you enter a new place in real life. It's fascinating to observe what things grab your attention, and what you gloss over on the first glance.

Another tool for keeping things brief is to describe classes of objects. For instance, you could describe a room like this:

...a sitting room with dwarven-made oak furniture so ancient the lacquer has gone to black.

No need to describe every piece of furniture. You can always offer specifics if they decide to explore the room further.

This example above also highlights another bit of related advice. Go ahead and tell the players what the room is! For example, in real life if you walk into someone's bedroom, you aren't going to think of it as "a room containing a bed, dresser, and armoire." What you're more likely to think is “Oh, this is someone’s bedroom.” Unless guessing what the room was used for is part of the challenge, just tell the players what it is. They’ll fill in a lot of the details for you and it'll keep the game moving.


Whew! Now THAT was a lot of info. Let’s call it a day, and I’ll spend some more time on those 31 room descriptions. I kind of wish I’d chosen a smaller dungeon map! Talk to you soon.

If you missed Part 5 in this series, you can find it here.

Marc Tassin is the creator of the World of Aetaltis and the founder of Mechanical Muse. He's been gaming since 1985, and he's also a published author and game designer. He's had the opportunity to write for some of his favorite RPG products over the years, including Shadowrun and Dragon Magazine. You can find him at Gen Con every year, usually lurking about near the Exhibit Hall or the Writer's Symposium rooms! To support his Aetaltis patreon, just click here!

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