We have discussions around here that folks in other sorts of jobs might find odd. One day, we discussed what sort of sensory overload a beholder experiences, what with the eleven eyes and all. Another day, we might have a meeting about the best ways to evoke the feel of a sewer adventure. But the other day, as Bart, Steve, and I sat around avoiding real work, the topic of conversation turned to read-aloud text in adventures.
Steve had just read an adventure submission that featured an ambush encounter, which opened with some read-aloud text.
“You know,” Steve observed, “read-aloud text basically tells the players that they’re about to start an encounter. You might as well drop the 5-foot-square grid right over the characters’ heads. If you’re reading text to your players, they should just roll initiative. Read-aloud text is one of the ultimate metagame tip-offs.”
And he’s right. Sure, there might be other ways to metagame an encounter. Most of the time, that doesn’t matter much. Players are often already expecting the next encounter. But it can certainly wreck the mood if you’re trying to lay an ambush or spring a trap on the characters. As soon as you break into read-aloud-text voice, the players know something is up.
That’s a bummer.
Read-aloud text can be evocative, if done well. When executed perfectly, it sets the scene, gives the characters information relevant to the encounter, and evokes the proper mood. Good read-aloud text can help an encounter the same way a good soundtrack can help a scene in a movie.
In Organized Play events, especially competitive ones, it’s a great way to level the playing field and ensure a fair experience is had by all the players. I remember playing in the D&D Open at Gen Con many years ago, and more experienced players in my group made everyone at the table listen closely to the read-aloud text. Sure enough, if we were paying attention, the read-aloud text almost inevitably revealed some clue that helped us in the ensuing encounter.
Bad read-aloud text, on the other hand, can be as destructive as good read-aloud text can be helpful. It might presume character action.
As you open the cupboard door and peer inside ...
And it might presume monster action.
... the goblin inside leaps out and bites your face!
Both of which are best left in the hands of players and DMs.
Bad read-aloud text is clunky and sounds like, well, text that’s being read aloud. If I wanted to listen to a story, I’d bring my blankie and go find a grandpa.
All of which amounts to more reasons why we need to be discerning about read-aloud text. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s an element of an encounter I often pay the least attention to. I want to dig into the nitty gritty of the encounter, check the setup, make sure the tactics and terrain make sense. But DMs everywhere need to remember: When you’re running a published adventure, the first contact a player will have with an environment or encounter is nearly always the read-aloud.
If you’re running a game, always read the text quietly to yourself before reading aloud to your players. Try to sound natural. Even better is taking a highlighter to it and focusing on the key elements of the text so you can paraphrase and make it sound less stuffy, less story-timey. Maybe best of all, throw some evocative text into non-encounter areas or roleplaying encounters. Give the read-aloud text treatment to your area descriptions whether there’s an encounter brewing or not. Not only will your adventures (published or home-brewed) feel more immersive with a greater focus on evocative descriptions, but your characters will likely be lulled into falling prey to more ambushes!
How do you feel about read-aloud text? When you run published adventures, do you use it as written? Do you paraphrase? Do you generate the equivalent of read-aloud text for your home-brew adventures? And tell us about a time when using evocative, descriptive language improved your game. You can send your feedback and answers to firstname.lastname@example.org or post them on the D&D Insider community page.