Thursday 12 April 2012

The Inviolable Fortress of the Player's Emotions

I hate boxed text in an adventure. I know a lot of you do. Others don't. But there's something special a writer can do with boxed text that's worse than pulling toenails. Sadly, I was reminded of that while reading the otherwise excellent Wheel of Evil adventure by Jeff Sparks. Let me explain.

I know a lot of DMs and adventure writers take seriously the commandment to engage as many of the reader/listener's senses as possible. Thus, in addition to seeing walls and ceilings with precise measurements in feet, the players should be led to hear the whistle of the dungeon wind, feel the dungeon sands underfoot, smell the dungeon dung and taste the dungeon luncheon.

Well, sensations are feelings, right? And feelings are emotions, right? So why shouldn't we describe the characters' rising gorge, crawling skin, or sense of peace and serenity? Why shouldn't it be OK to chase a short description of disgusting stuff with "A feeling of revulsion fills you as you view the scene"? To specify that you feel the malevolence of an area "deep down in your bones"? Or just write something like "this room smells foul and repulses you with its slimy aspect"? (All examples from Wheel of Evil, by the way.)

I'll tell you why not.
This has so many other uses than telling players how they feel.
Firstly ... The first thing you learn in Serious Writer Boot Camp is to show, not tell. Instead of writing "He felt disgusted" say "He wrinkled his nose" or "He turned away, holding his mouth." Or better yet - just describe the scene, subtly tweaking the descriptive language to communicate the point-of-view character's emotions. This is so easy to do with disgust in particular that there is absolutely no need to say anything about the player's or character's reaction. "A pulsing, ridged coil of glistening ochre paste, stinking faintly of sweaty feet, snakes forth with a gaseous hiss from the chapped orifice atop a slivered nipple of bone-white plastic..." Put you off your Easy-Cheese there, but you get the point.

Secondly ... As Craig Heir forcefully and concisely argued here, second person presumes the sort of emotional, bodily or sensory reaction the addressed person is going to take. This violates the mind and soul of your player-listeners, and doesn't respect their characters' special senses or reactions.

Shawn Merwin's excellent advice: use third person when writing descriptive text. This leaves it to the DM to translate this into second person, which is great in many ways. It lets the DM adjust for the special abilities, states or knowledge of the characters. And, basic presentation skills only improve when you go from reading text off a page to improvising from notes. Boxed text enables the stereotypical awkward middle-school dungeon master, monotonously reciting from behind the screen without eye contact. It's okay as training wheels, but fatal to any sense of spontaneity.

I don't mean to single out Wheel of Evil, which is otherwise a very cool, varied and inventive adventure. A while back I bought a CD including Bits of Darkness: Caverns, a play aid filled with creative and well-researched ideas about natural underground caverns. But then there's that encounter ... the one where your players are reminded of the horror of being so deep underground and the horror then invades the characters' minds (no magic, just spontaneous claustrophobia and boxed text) ... and they actually have to make a Will save to avoid running around like decapitated chickens.

What a blemish on an otherwise fine product! Make the players scared, I say. Have them lose their way, blow out their light, make them think the ceiling is about to cave in. Do anything, but leave alone the inviolable fortress of their minds!


  1. So how do you feel about Sanity mechanics? Like CoC?

  2. Nick - Good point. Sanity mechanics don't offend me as much. Probably because they simulate something that is necessary to the genre, and there is no hope in hell of inspiring insanity in the player through good descriptions and identification with the character.

    Maybe I should post again and explain when and why I see different psychological effects as more or less acceptable.

  3. I know you are making good points in the post but I just keep giggling over "taste the dungeon luncheon" so that's all I am commenting on.

  4. Spot on post, Roger... but aside from your main point I'm still a fan of the concept of "boxed text" even if its execution sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. At its best it serves as a means of visually demarcating what should be obvious to characters from casual observation apart from the things need some additional inquiry. I often just bulletize these things when I scratch out my own adventures:

    area 7: tunnel

    - air here is cooler & smells faintly of wet dog and urine
    - faint light can be seen emanating from northwest end tunnel

    any inspection of the floor reveals bones of small creatures, most likely rabbits and other varmits.

    wolve's den down east tunnel: four wolves will be alert if approached unless party takes precautions.

    guard room up the west tunnel: door is shut and barred from inside, light emitting from cracks is from two lanterns. Three guards there are passing a skin of rotgut around and playing dice.

    One could make boxed text out of my bullets above as a means of helping newer DMs. I don't think it needs, necessarily, to be bad prose that foists emotions upon the players... just a practical description of what's there. Most boxed text does this even as it veers into making assumptions on the feelings and thoughts of the players.

    Maybe we could argue for better boxed text?

  5. @James: I agree. I think second-person and read-aloud are the real culprits and have nothing against intelligent, functional organization of information in description. Whether it happens to be enclosed by a box or not is immaterial.