Troubles With Green Box Text

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1169

RPT Platinum Patron Lee asks:

I still struggle with “green box text” vs. map building.

Do I spend my time providing 3 sentences of description, or do I spend an hour drawing a great map?

I find writing those 3 sentences very intimidating for some reason, like I am not giving enough information. Green text has always been a problem for me.

Flip side is that my create map time takes way too much time.

Great question, Lee. Thanks!

Green box text and maps have specific and different purposes in my mind.

So I would not replace one with the other.

Here’s what I mean.


Maps are a reference. They are a visual representation.

So it depends a lot on what your maps look like.

Standard maps visualize the position and distance between notable markings.

You might have terrain as an additional layer of information. That affects things like travel times, flora and fauna, and types of adventure sites.

Maps might also have icons that could represent theme, vibe, or representative thumbnail of the place.

Complex maps might note rises in elevation, weather patterns, community boundaries, trade routes, and other great material made accessible through visuals.

But these a great description do not make.

Green Box Text

Well-written boxed text prepares you to improvise.

It jogs your imagination with specific points to describe.

Sometimes boxed text is meant to be read aloud. I’ve never enjoyed this as player or GM. It sounds unnatural, and most adventure authors write for beautiful sentences, not clear speech.

Plus, the constant improv builds that muscle, each rep increasing your brain pathway for that skill.

If writing boxed text causes writer’s block or perfectionism, here are a couple of tips:

Start With a Visual

I find making a description of art much easier.

So as part of your prep, find a good image and log it.

Explore the image. Scan over each detail. Look deeper into it, behind things, and near shadowed areas.

Doing so ensures you “see” all the details so they jump out, begging for a good description.

Use Campaign Logger’s new image feature, or something like Pinterest, to make a fast scrapbook you can open while GMing to prompt inspired descriptions.

First Impressions

Boxed text should stage an encounter so players understand a few starting Choices interesting enough that players make one.

You need not provide much starting detail, and that hopefully takes some pressure off.

First, you need to orient players. Give them basic facts of where they’re at, when, how they got there, and any big details like that so Player Fog of War evaporates to the point of first impressions received.

Second, call out any notable objects, clues, or mysteries. Especially mysteries, as in, hints of cool stuff that needs interaction to discover more about.

Finally, call out any apparent dangers. This will prompt players into action.

This is all about what characters perceive in the first few moments. Green text need not be omniscient nor entirely accurate in terms of a quick glance made under stress.

Be Curious

Look at everyday things as if for the first time.

Like with art to practice visualizing things for better descriptions, study life.

Look at rooms and think how you’d describe the space, function, furnishings, and vibe.

Look at people and imagine them as 3 Line NPC descriptions.

And especially look at real life scenes with motion such as four way intersections, cash register lines, and social events. Try to take it all in. Then start examining the pieces. Then zoom back to the big picture of what’s happening and what’s notable.

Visualizing how you’d describe everyday scenes is quite helpful when it comes time to describe situations involving multiple NPCs and objects interacting or in motion.

It’s What You Pay Attention To

What you know well you will feel confident describing.

Change your perceptions to be better at in-game descriptions. Like when a friend buys a yellow car and you suddenly see yellow cars everywhere.

Maps are better as fast references so you can handle gameplay logistics.

Descriptions and green text are better as cues so you can launch encounters. I hope this helps, Lee.