Blue Box Madness (or: The Dark Side of Writing LitRPGs)

I thought the world of tables would be simple, straightforward. Instead, it is unfolding into a nightmare, corrupting me.

You know how last time I checked in with my LitRPG writing project, I declared that my creative thrill was gone? I’m happy to report that yay, it’s back! But also, damn, I’m not using it for much of anything!

It was only today that I got any creative writing done. And maybe once for thirty minutes last week. And I hashed out some scattered ideas for another project or two that have a big huge “maybe” on it. (All of the scattered ideas were crappy puns.)

I would have been writing edits or totally new material for Catgirl System if I hadn’t pivoted so hard into preparing Book 1 for posting on RoyalRoad and other websites.

And posting on RoyalRoad means blue box madness.

I’m not much of a memester, so you know if I pull out a shitty reference like this, it is serious.

Legend of the Blue Boxes

If you’ve been on RoyalRoad long enough (and probably other LitRPG-centric fiction websites), then you’ve heard about blue boxes. You’ve seen blue boxes. You may have strong opinions on blue boxes.

Pictured above is an example of a RoyalRoad novel with blue boxes in it (Experimental Dungeon Novel).

RoyalRoad makes it easy to insert tables in your stories, and their default color is blue. Many LitRPG authors use these boxes to display character stats and system messages. Note that not all of them do. (And not everything on RoyalRoad is LitRPG.) But enough use them that RoyalRoad users all know someone who knows a blue box personally.

Some people can’t get enough of these boxes. They just poke and stoke their brains in the specific way that, I suspect, any video game powerup does. In other words, there’s something fun about them! But some think they’re going too far, that any boxes at all are Blue Box Badness, that they’re a sign of how shitty the whole genre must be by throwing light on LitRPG’s inherent flaw: they are a game element that overshadows the prose element of what is, after all, prose and not a game.

Some think that when there are too many blue boxes, it bogs down the story.

Well, I’m sorry to say that there are way too many boxes in Catgirl System.

But maybe you’ll be okay with these because they’re not all blue.

How I Was Devoured By Boxes

My original plan was this: make some perfunctory, utilitarian tables ONLY because RoyalRoad seems to demand it, and across all other sites and ebook/paperback/hardcover/what-have-you venues, use no tables whatsoever. For those versions, I would simply keep the formatting I have in my original Word documents: mark off the MC’s stats and other game-system-related messages with centered text, some of it bold.

Alright. So far so good. I then traipsed off to RoyalRoad and began wrapping my head around its editing tools.

Using trial and error along with tips from a friend who really did not want me to end up making nasty, oddly formatted boxes, I created some tables that were not only workable, but somewhat pleasing to the eye. Soon (and by “soon” I mean enough time for my eyes to steam, and after many moments of HTML-related frustration), I had a series of story-ready tables!

Then I gazed into the boxes and realized they had so much more potential.

They could have pretty colors!

So I began making a chart of all the hex codes I predicted I’d need throughout the story, and my Notepad documents full of table HTML multiplied, one for each color variant I would need to keep track of.

“It’s not that much work,” I told myself. “I just do it once and forget it.”

(It is never that simple.)

“Plus, it looks cool. Some people may really appreciate it.”


After that, I began adding tables chapter by chapter to all of Book 1. It was tedious and involved frequent troubleshooting, but straightforward enough. Plus, it helped me catch tiny errors in the chapters—there’s nothing like HTML to help you catch stray non-breaking spaces. Overall, it is a good thing that I had some excuse to comb through every chapter yet another time.

On top of that, now one-fourth of my RoyalRoad stuff was done! Bingo bango bongo. I’ve created ebooks before, so that would prove to be simple. Meanwhile, I had this other program for making print books too. Man, I was just made in the shade.

But then I had a pernicious thought.

“If you make a physical book,” the thought said, “and you do not port over the tables, you will lose all of those pretty colors.”

“No!” I cried, flinging myself out of bed. “I can’t lose all those tables! They just look so fun!”

Then I began to have delusions of grandeur. “What if no other LitRPG author has put their own pretty colorful tables into print? Then I will be the first! I’ll spearhead the revolution! Or at least I’ll achieve the Most Prettiest Story Boxes Award!”

It didn’t help matters when porting Word documents to Scribus turned out to be not so smooth. My italics were lost, and I would need to re-center and un-indent all of my system messages.

“Okay, so I would have to tweak the system messages anyway,” I said to myself. “It’s not that much extra work to just replace those with images, and besides, it’ll look better anyway. And not pixellated. I hope.”

So I began to do what just a few days prior I had told my helpful friend I would not do: screenshot vigorously straight off of the RoyalRoad website previewer. (I’m skipping over the part where I tried to screenshot the tables via pure HTML for higher resolution. Hours later, I learned this wouldn’t work.)

Then I glued the tables one by one into a big image document. Then I deleted the background of the RoyalRoad website and glued all of those tables one by one again into another big image document. Then I saved those all (one by one) and began to port them into Scribus. Then I had to reposition them in Scribus.

And even after that it was still looking janky, thanks to the way Scribus’s text boxes work. I don’t know how to get the frame to hug the edges of the text when that text is spread between several linked text boxes, and I just assume there isn’t a way to.

I typed out my complaints on Discord so the world could know my rage…and while I typed it out, I realized that I could just do everything I was trying to finagle in Scribus using Word and I didn’t really have to mess with text box linking and all that.

So I did that, and it was easier! But still tedious, and something that would certainly be time-consuming.

My helpful friend noted that you can just copy and paste the tables into Word. Not as screenshotted images, but as…pure tables.

I was devastated.

…But I was actually a little less devastated when I copied and pasted a table myself and found that the colors and alignment were off.

…But I became a little more devastated when I next realized that if I expect to make an ebook that’s actually legible for screen readers and the like, that one really, really shouldn’t have tables at all.

So if the paperback and hardback editions do have “pretty” tables, they’ll nonetheless have to exist alongside a more normal-looking ebook edition, one which, indeed, preserves my original table-less system messages. Which just multiplies the work for me.

Still Tempted by the Colors?

I think that…at this point, I might just keep going.

On one hand, I really do want to “optimize” this process so it takes no longer than it needs to. If I can get the tables to look good when I copy and paste them directly into Word, I can use that rather than turning to my image-editing program as a middleman.

On the other hand…

I reached, and fell over, a certain tipping point. When I first discovered how long formatting tables for RoyalRoad would take me, I was almost ready to quit. Then I told myself, “I guess I’m gonna have to take some serious pride in the work.”

Even if nobody else is all that thrilled with the work I’m doing, I’m starting to realize that I am sort of thrilled with the work I’m doing.

If I make several of the most prettiest tables and preserve them in physical book editions, I’ll just get to own that book and look back through it, thinking, “Oh, hey, this is really a cute and fun little project I made back then.” Hours of tedium now will be relaxed pleasure in the future. A hobbyist’s pleasure, not some world-dominating pioneer’s. Once I fell off that tipping point, I was doing it because I liked it. However perverse that now is.

My current plan is:

  • Format all chapters for RoyalRoad long ahead of time.
  • For other websites, copy-paste straight from the Word documents of each chapter. Re-center text as needed.
  • Format ebook using the Word documents. Re-center text as needed.
  • Format paperback and hardback book using copies of the Word documents with RoyalRoad tables inserted as images. Format all the images so they’re exactly 4.33″ wide on the 5.5″ page, and remember to un-indent and center them.
  • Make the paperback black-and-white, but make the hardback in color, because we need all those pretty colors.
  • Add in artwork I’ve already made to the beginning and end as bonuses, along with maybe, just maybe, new artwork. Pictures are fun.

Progress Report

Book 1: 100% done
Book 2: 30% through the solid-draft stage
Book 3: 100% through the first-draft stage
Book 4: 80% through the first-draft stage

If you’ve been on my blog before, you probably know that I vowed to give biweekly updates on my Catgirl System writing progress. I’m VERY happy to report that Book 1 is really seriously done, including all the pesky little edits (and deletion of non-breaking spaces).

Now I am both setting up Book 1 for printing/posting and polishing Book 2. I’m about one-fourth done with that…

Ah, and by the way, the only actual Catgirl story-writing I’ve done for a very long while happened this morning. I have many holes to fill in around Chapter 53, and some new information I’m excited to add. It’s turning out to be more fun than I expected to go back over my discovery writing and add things that make it almost feel planned-out and coherent.

I also decided to put off deciding on deadlines for a while longer. I think I’m near enough to an obsessive state with figuring out these book editions that I have my own inner motivation to tackle and ultimately finish them. We’ll see how it all goes…

Thank you for reading, and Patrons, thank you for Patreonning.

If you think I have gumption, check out my fascination with fictional maps and invented worlds. If you think I have grace, learn about The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a Rankin-Bass special that time forgot. If you think I have spunk, take a look at me looking at comedian women who play slobs.

But if you think I have none of that, you can’t read any more of my blog posts.


2 thoughts on “Blue Box Madness (or: The Dark Side of Writing LitRPGs)”

  1. With all the talk of customizing the colors of the Boxes, this post made me realize that “Stories With Prose Plus Boxes” are technically a completely separate and distinct art form compared to “Stories With Just Prose.” Granted, it isn’t *very* different, but neither was bolded or italicized text when people first started experimenting with that in books.

    I don’t think Boxes are used very much outside the LitRPG and GameLit genres right now — where they serve perfectly as stat boxes, HUD boxes, system message boxes, etc. — but I have a strong feeling that “Stories With Prose Plus Boxes” is a very under-explored space with a lot of room for innovation.

    I don’t have any idea what kind of innovation though, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree.

    1. It looks like the sophisticates out there call it “ergodic literature.” Of course it’d be a very specific sub-branch of that.

      Since tables within prose are just glorified/restricted images, tables can probably be stretched to do most of the things an illustration can. (ASCII art!?!?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discover more from Joi Massat

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading