top of page

Remember Read-Alouds?

Me neither.

Also known as 'boxed text,' recently mentioned here and there by various RPG bloggers, read-alouds made their first notable appearance (at least in the TSR universe) in 1980's 'Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan' (Harold Johnson/Jeff Leason). This module was intended for tournament play, so the idea was to unify GM descriptions to standardize challenge for various player groups. Heaven forbid a GM forget to mention 'cold, damp stone' and screw up my chances at a trophy!

Yeah, it was a little weird.

Here is that very bit. The big debut of a concept that 'sailed a thousand ships' in our hobby. This particular read-aloud is really all about the rocks, the various sounds rocks make, and tells me I'm breathing heavily. For the record, I was barely winded, happily leaning on a granite pillar. My character never sits down.

Anyway, read-alouds are a ripe topic for various hot takes about the so-called 'OSR,' calls to cooler techniques or newer ideas, how read-alouds were a gleaming god of immersion, or how Carl fell asleep that one time while I was reading a boxed paragraph. LEt's face it, it's a fun, polarizing topic that calls out GM style in a really direct way.

Thing is, I'm not going to talk about game-mastering. Y'all know me, I throw the Hail Mary. I run for the endzone. So let's open this pit up with a hefty thesis...

Premise: Read-alouds provide a window into imaginative cognition, serving to illuminate our good and bad creative habits.

Premise: There is a qualitative difference between effective description and ineffective description, primarily found in actionable detail.

Premise: No one wants to be read-to unless going to sleep or humoring a friend.

Thesis: Tight, effective read-alouds are a potent 'progressive overload' exercise for the creative mind.

You know how we do things around here. Let's dig into Premise 1...

Yuri comforts baleful Lara, forced to film a Russian civil war story in Spain.

Boris Pasternak's epic 'Dr. Zhivago' was a super-effective sleep aid for decades.

The 8th highest grossing film of all time, despite learning little from solid boxed text.

The great thing about read-alouds is found in their other nickname: boxed text. Yep, this text is in a box, y'all. At first that just seems descriptive of the obvious situation, but lean back a bit. The box is king here... confining, limiting, highlighting. When there's a box, things have to be compacted. When things have to be compacted, the proverbial men are separated from the proverbial boys (pardon the gendered expression, it's Saturday here). It's easy to call out to brevity, but a box? There's no room here!

What we choose to put in the legendary box provides a view into the mind (and skill level) of the writer. Suddenly, every word counts. This is an RPG? Well, I'd better be careful what I say and don't say. Say too much, give too many clues, and meta-gaming slams my mood into gadget-turns and cheesing. Say too little? Players are rolling dice just to see their feet. In short, when writers (and imaginative thinkers) are pinned down to DESCRIBE a scene or moment in a limited space, you can learn a lot about their habits overall. Some chaff at the limited space. Some revolt, filling it with rock sounds. Some throw up their hands, resorting to bullet points to avoid wasting words on prose and conjunctions. No shade on all these responses, but join me in seeing that confinement illuminates the creative habits of the chronic descriptor.

Premise 2 gets natty. Nowadays, no one likes to really talk in depth about what 'quality' means. The recent wave of anti-intellectualism on planet earth has made many of us hesitant to say much of anything about absolutes. Let's stay calm and power through... to do that, I need to holler about actionable detail.

Tomb Raider had endless oceans of hanging vines and gray bricks. Oh look, a thing!

Actionable detail gives us a clear way to evaluate the effectiveness of a brief description in TTRPGs. Sure there's wet stone everywhere, and a bunch of scary gloom stuff, but is there a lever I can pull? A skeleton I can search? Too much actionable detail makes the moment a board-game-space. Too little makes it a snippet of a novel, telling me how I feel. Right in between these two is the perfect read-aloud. 'Terrified, bored, and breathing heavily, you see a large red button in the rough-hewn stone wall. Press it to jump ahead to the conclusion of this blog.' Wait, that's a terrible example.

Premise 3: Dude, please stop reading to me, I am not 7. Let's face it, being read-to is a sleepy experience. But, isn't this whole about text to-be-read-aloud? It is, but honesty is our armor here, folks. If you can admit this with me, you'll almost have to join the thesis gang as we party on. Short version? Just because WRITING read-alouds is an effective creative crucible, it doesn't mean you should torment your friends with reading aloud. Use the tool much like you would use a barbell... oops, I jumped to the thesis.

"Bloody, all but beaten, you stumble into the inner crypt. The tomb is thick with death, cloaked in grief unanswered, retribution too long slumbering, a dread that rotting bones keep and the living abhor. The cold here makes sticky the blade and pale the skin, plaguing your company with shivers and memories home-too-far. What will you do? Honey? What will you do?"

In weight training, progressive overload is used to build muscle. Strength is steadily pushed up to and beyond its limit to force growth. The body doesn't like being outmatched, so it adapts. The creative mind is no different, and rather than weight, you're going to push for compaction. You're going to push toward, up to, and beyond your creative capability to compact your actionable ideas.

I guess you could just write any amount of text, then select it and push the BOXED button. You could, sure, you could also suck eggs, jump over soda cans and call people mean names. Don't. Moving on.

Give yourself a FIXED BOX and write in it. I trust you... you know exactly what size looks cool on a page, or in your notes. Drawing the box first is like choosing a big ass barbell. Can you do it? Only one way to find out. In both cases, it's time to sweat.

With a combination of brevity, actionable detail, and flavor, I'll give myself about fifty words. First, the awful version:

Lamenting your situation, you flop on the huge stone. Around you, terror abounds. The fright of a lightless ceiling and crawling floor haunt you. The corridor is rough-hewn, covered in creepy markings from a time before men. In the distance, a flickering light is seen, but weird gas obscures the source.

Wow. Okay, let's try a little harder.

You are in a long corridor of hastily-cut stone. A distant light is seen to the west, obscured in a cloud of gas. Something is moving on the floor, nudging your feet. In the opposite direction is the door you just sealed, thumping sounds beyond. The same markings you saw earlier are here, preserved, easily seen in detail.

First one? My mind is one either A) I ain't tired bro! or B) Weird gas? The rest is sleepy time. In example 2, I get directions and four solid clues of things-to-do. There is a difference. Now, to really own my original idea with this convoluted blog, I must delete the read-alouds above. Just like real life, I have to leave the barbell IN THE GYM.

I never wanted to read to my friends, never wanted to be THAT guy, never wanted to bring back 1980. I wanted to push a little progressive overload on my descriptive brain, provide actionable detail BY HABIT, and put in the reps to improve my imaginative compaction.

Did I achieve it? Nah, I got another 20 sets to put in.

Stay thirsty.


1,144 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Jul 02, 2023

Wow... You've done it, Hank. You have brought me back decades (38 years, now!) in the past to when I was first introduced to a boxed text. What a journey I was about to go on.

Nowadays, if I am using a published adventure, I like to break down the sentences into bullet points. It allows me to adapt the delivery to my audience by using a mix of my own words and the writing of others.

However, when I create my own adventure or scene, things are different. I still put words in a box but this is only for me (the GM). The box's function is to capture the mood I want to create in a scene I…


Jul 01, 2023

Fill boxes. Delete boxes. Spit bars.


subscribe to the RPG Mainframe

Join the Runehammer email list to get EMAIL alerts for new posts from Hankerin!

Hail, Shield! Thank you for subscribing!

bottom of page