Five ways to create more usable game books

In my last post, I accused Wizards of the Coast of showing increasing indifference to making game books usable at the game table. Now I have five suggestions for creating more usable documents.

Break the content into short, labeled chunks

When readers try to find something in a game book, they often flip pages and scan for the nugget they need. This works best when the book breaks the information into concise, labeled chunks. The chunks must be stick to a single idea, so nothing important gets stranded without a label. The labels must stand out for easy scanning. Color headings jump out. Mixed case reads quicker, even though misguided designers seem to favor all upper-case titles. Hanging titles serve particularly well, but as much as game publishers love tiny, 8-point text, I’m certain the prospect of adding white space would send them in a paroxysm of weeping.

When I read an adventure to run, I will write my own labels in the margins of any copy I can mark. This way, when I must find some fact at the table, I can easily scan the pages.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

What goes wrong? Some authors and editors eschew frequent sub-headings because they dislike “wasting” space that could be devoted to burying more words in unbroken columns. I get it. Everyone passionate about writing, myself included, loves every precious word from their keyboard. Also, the discipline of labeling chunks of can introduce a uncomfortable rigor to the creative process. It can be a pain.

Nonetheless, your readers benefit. Plus, the process helps you organize. Adding a label atop a description of the villain’s plan could help you notice that the tidbit belongs somewhere else. Game authors, repeat after me: I do not create worlds. I write technical documentation.

DragonQuest appeared in 1980 with now-obsolete numbered headings, but remains more usable than new books

DragonQuest appeared in 1980, but remains more usable than most new books. The obsolete numbered headings existed to enable cross references in an era when publishers literally pasted strips of type into a page layout. Note the use of red to highlight titles.

Use lists, tables, and graphics to communicate

When you page through a text book, what seems more approachable: (a) column after column of gray text, or (b) lists, tables, and graphics? Lists help readers see organization. Tables establish patterns and communicate them visually. You can see me use the power of tables in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads” and “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?” And we all  know that a graphic may be worth a thousand words.

With the Ptolus source book, Monte Cook took inspiration from travel guides. Note the cross references and use of color to highlight.

With the Ptolus source book, Monte Cook took inspiration from travel guides. Note the cross references, white space, and the use of color to highlight. You can find what you need to know.

What goes wrong? Many authors of game books come from writing fiction, or from journalism, or just from writing reports. None of these backgrounds emphasize using tables and other visual tools to communicate.  For example, when USA Today first appeared, critics disparaged it for dumbing down journalism with bullets and graphics. Most authors seldom consider alternatives to paragraph text.

Also, tables can trigger problems with publishing. Your typical game author submits manuscripts as Microsoft Word documents, the poor bastard. (What’s wrong with Word? I could spell out the application’s shortcomings, but author Charlie Stross, creator of the Githyanki, brings a delicious savagery to the job.) After editing, someone converts Word to an application like InDesign, a process that may make hash of tables, and then someone jams the tables into a new page layout. Everything goes much smoother if everyone sticks to plain text.

Meanwhile, the graphic people work in another department. Better to just muddle through with words.

Add cross references linking content to related information

Ambitious adventures like those offered for this year’s Dungeons & Dragons Encounters seasons feature an intertwined cast of characters, locations, and events. As I prepared for a week’s session of Scourge of the Sword Coast, I found myself endlessly flipping pages, chasing related information. I spent nearly as much time searching as reading. A generous number of cross-references would have made the book immensely more usable. To be fair, Scourge includes a few cross references, as rare a four-leaf clovers. The book needed 10 times as many.

What goes wrong? So many things. If the authors compose in Word, any cross references they create will probably die in translation to InDesign. If more than one author contributes to a work, they cannot cross reference each other’s material. By the time the editing and layout folks have an opportunity to add cross references, they face a closer deadline, and probably have as hard a time finding content as I did.

Include an exhaustive index

Allow me to make an outrageous proposal: Adventures should have indexes. This may seem outrageous because adventures have never featured indexes. But the early adventures never exceeded 32 pages, and a list of keyed locations hardly merited one. Modern adventures that mix locations, characters, and a plot all in a 100-page sandbox must do better.

Meanwhile, everyone agrees that a core game book deserves an index, but their indexes have shriveled. As a general guideline, a typical game book should feature a index equal to 7% to 10% of the length of its content. Instead, core rule book indexes wither to a shameful 0.3%.

Book Percent of pages for index
Player’s Handbook, second edition 2%
Player’s Handbook, 3.5 edition 1%
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook 1%
Player’s Handbook, fourth edition 0.3%

The 4E Player’s Handbook includes such a disgraceful index that someone who calls himself the Propagandroid created a custom index to supplement the book. The index remains tucked in my PH, another symbol of Wizards of the Coast’s disdain for their customers in 2008.

We have yet to see the fifth-edition players handbook, but the over-under stands at an embarrassing 0.5% of pages devoted to the index.

What goes wrong? Start with the same technical road blocks and deadline crunch that dooms cross references, and then add a big dose of misplaced priorities. In an interview promoting Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster’s Forgotten Realms, Ed spoke about the book’s lack of an index.

“My original outline that was approved for the book had a four page index at the end, and [the editors] said, ‘Four pages on an index? Come on! That’s four pages of stuff!’” Ed is not so misguided as Wizards staff. He goes on to say, “I would have rather had the index.”

By trading index pages for content, editors may have their readers’ interests at heart, but they only serve readers who never use their products in play. Should game books be intended for play, or just to be browsed and forgotten?

Create play aids

A play aid can include anything ranging from a timeline and a list of characters for the dungeon master, to player’s handouts and maps. Scourge of the Sword Coast seemed so desperate for a player’s handout that I created one. Why should I have to? In a PDF-only product, the editors cannot blame a limited page count. In the early days of the hobby, virtually every game included reference sheets, but they rarely do now. Living Forgotten Realms adventures, authored by volunteers, typically do better job of including player handouts. Could this be because the volunteer authors spend more time running their own adventures than the pros?

What goes wrong? Authors get no glory for creating play aids, unless they write for organized play and join the game masters who bring their adventures to the public game table.

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