A critical part of many adventures is when an NPC gives the PCs the quest, a summary of the situation, or critical information about upcoming events. There are a couple of ways to present this information: in boxed text, in bullet-point lists, in likely-questions-and-answers format, or just in text informing the GM to convey how she sees fit. This week, I’ll break down a few of these and how and when to use each in your adventure prep or adventure writing.

Today I'll talk about boxed text. This might not be set aside in a literal box—it used to be, and that’s the origin of the term—and might instead be between horizontal lines, in a different font, in bold italics, or set apart in some other way. No matter the format, it’s text intended to be read, verbatim, to the PCs.

I also want to note that boxed text is often reviled, because it’s easy to not do it poorly (droning on too long, and in a monotone). Some of my own boxed text has been awful in this regard! One of my co-workers here at Paizo is of the strong opinion that boxed text should never be used, and we would be best served by removing it entirely from the game. I don’t agree. My points below will help focus your use of boxed text effectively.

The Example:

The earl gestures to several ornately carved wooden chairs in his elegant study. “Let’s get down to business,” he says. “The king’s dinner party is an elaborate affair, and appropriate attire is required. Once you’re there and have made some small talk, you need to talk to Countess Elena Mariposa to obtain the key to the vault, and General Archibald Sulder to obtain the passphrase. Be polite but diplomatic with each of them. Cardinal Happ is likely to try to expose you as my agent; you must not fall for his trickery. Good luck.”

When to use boxed text to convey information:

When you can keep it to a few sentences. The above is seven sentences, which is actually a bit on the long side for boxed text; count on PCs getting bored after hearing only about four sentences.

To set a mood. Note that the surroundings where the PCs are hearing their mission is already quite nice, and the guy there is calling the dinner party an “elaborate affair.” That should convey some of the pending atmosphere to the PCs.

To focus the PCs’ attention. With an introduction like “let’s get down to business,” the GM is telling the PCs “here is what’s important.” That’s probably best followed by a short pause to make sure all the players are paying attention/looking up from their phones/not currently reaching for snacks.

To present an order for tasks. The PCs need to get their fancy clothes before they go to the party, and once at the party they need to make small talk first. Assuming the dinner party scene requires these things in this order, boxed text is a good way to give “do X, then Y, then Z” information. More than two or three things, however, could get lost in the presentation—use another format to convey this information instead.

To give very specific information. The names of the key NPCs the PCs will meet (Countess Mariposa, General Sulder, and Cardinal Happ) are going to be important, and having them right in the boxed text means the PCs won’t miss them. They also know that one of the three—Cardinal Happ—is going to be their enemy.

When you can do so in a way to keep player attention. It’s easy to drone in a monologue when delivering boxed text. Make some notes about how to present it. How would I do it? For the above, I’d pause after “Let’s get down to business,” to make sure I have the PCs’ attention. I’d probably also stand when delivering this text, to convey some of the earl’s authority. I’d probably hold up my hand when listing NPCs, and show one finger when naming Countess Mariposa and another when naming General Sulder. I’d drop that hand and raise the other when naming Cardinal Happ; I’d want to make sure the PCs keep him separate from the other two in their minds, and shifting my body language when naming NPCs does that. If you don’t think you can keep your players’ attention when presenting boxed text, use another method.

Throughout this week, I'll present some thoughts about these other methods!