It might be useful to consider a book as a physical space through which the reader's attention wanders.
Entrance: where the reader starts reading.
Exit: where the reader stops reading.
It's not the only tool for designing an RPG book, and it can easily be extended to ridiculousness, but it might be a useful approach when planning or laying out a book.
Fiction generally has one entrance and one exit. A reader starts the book at the beginning, reads linearly, and arrives at the end. Chapter markers (optional) serve as waypoints when reading is not continuous, but they are not navigational; no one opens a book for the first time, finds the table of contents, and skips to Chapter VI: Sleary’s Horsemanship without reading the preceding chapters.
Novel layout tries to make the continuous reading process as smooth as possible.
Books of Poetry
Most poetry compresses easily, but each poem needs space to breathe. Poetry is contemplative. Moving on to the next poem is not necessarily encouraged by layout choices. Poems are sometimes linked or grouped editors or by poets, but there's rarely a correct or incorrect reading order. Poetry layout gives space for the mind to linger.
|Random page from Teen Vogue.|
The layout of a magazine is designed to appeal to a casual browser. Reading a magazine linearly, cover to cover, in order, with each article linking into the next, is not common. Readers skip ahead, flip through, see what grabs their attention, and read that. Bits that don't appeal are ignored.
Callouts grab the reader's eye. A large quote, black bar, a bit of boxed text; they yank a browser from drifting-thought mode into reader-mode. Advertisements mix with content. Stories mix with other stories. Magazines are mostly designed to fill time.
Every page needs to be an entrance, but magazine design includes few exits. It's like a casino. Articles lead into other articles. Images grab the eye. Magazines aren't designed to be reread or referenced, so there's a basic table of contents, but no effort at landmarking or condensing content.
Textbooks / General Nonfiction
A typical nonfiction work in any field has several entrances and exits.
- Linear (to gain a full understanding of the subject).
- By chapter (to brush up, check a reference, learn about a specific topic, etc.)
- By term.
- Internal cross-references.
While a novel may or may not include a table of contents and descriptive chapter headings, a nonfiction work of any length must (to support by-chapter entrances), and should also include an index (to support by-term entrances). Academically dissected fiction can use nonfiction tools.
Nonfiction works often include illustrations, charts, or pictures, which can serve as landmarks but are not intentionally placed for that purpose. Some textbooks use colour coding or other visual clues as a navigational aids.
Instructions are purely linear: one entrance at step 1 and one exit at the final result. They need to support very discontinuous reading (as the reader hops between the instructions and the object), but actively discourage nonlinear reading. Short instructions serve as their own index and table of contents.
Good instructions break a processes into discrete sub-processes (assembling one section of a chair first, measuring and mixing your dry ingredients, etc.) and mark out typical failure points. How many times have you read "taking care not to..." in a recipe? Little exclamation marks or boxes mark out difficult or easily confused points, or points where instructions branch into multiple paths.
Instructions are not a tutorial. They tell you what to do, but not why, and rarely explain the relevance of each step.
Manuals typically incorporate sets of instructions attached to an introduction and some appendices.
- Linearly reading a manual might be a best practice, but nobody actually does it.
- By section. (Installation, Part #s, Warranty Info).
- By problem. (How do I replace this part? Why is it making this noise? Can I use this type of soap?)
How a manual addresses by-problem entrances is a key measure of its utility. Manuals, more than instructions, include warnings.
Novels are like a long hallway with a painted mural.
Collected poetry is like a circular gallery with statues in it.
Magazines are like an open-air market. There might be lanes or clusters of stalls, but you can browse in any direction, and every stall is vying for your attention.
Textbooks / General Nonfiction are like a connected line of rooms, each one with a door to the outside world, or a museum, or an art gallery, or a shopping mall.
Instructions are like a line of rooms, or a long hallway with a series of linked pictures, each only making sense in the context of the previous image.
Manuals are a series of long galleries radiating from a lumpy central mass.
Relatively few nonfiction books have to handle the challenges RPG books typically cover. A cookbook can safely assume the reader will sart cooking one recipe and end with the same recipe. Instructions for repairing a car do not need to instruct the reader what a car is, how to drive, the purpose of a garage, or the history of the Interstate Highway System.
For some multipurpose RPG books, the closest structural equivalent is a holy text, with all the associated baggage.
Here are a few tentative examples of RPG entrances and exits.
Entrances for a typical player-facing class-based splatbook, like the 5th Edition PHB:
- Linear (but skimming) to see what options are available. Art and summary blurbs help a lot.
- Class-specific entry, to reference during character creation or leveling up.
- Ability-specific entry, to reference as needed or when there's a confusing rules situation.
Since most of the entrances focus on a specific class, it makes a lot of sense to clearly landmark each class with a heading and eye-catching art. If abilities are shared by two or more classes, but not by all of them, it makes sense to duplicate the information instead of having the reader flip to a different section. Readers dip in and dip out.
Entrances for a typical dungeon:
- Linear, to get a sense of the dungeon or decide if it's worth running.
- By room, during a session, as needed.
- By NPC/faction name. Essentially, checking who these people are, why they're here, and what they want.
- For a dungeon-specific tool, like a random encounter table.
For most dungeons, a good table of contents works much better than an index. Clear choices when it comes to room order, including intuitive/flowing numbering systems and breaking a dungeon into sections, help with navigation.
Entrances for a typical bestiary:
- Linearly, to browse for ideas, or just for reading pleasure.
- By creature name, as directed by a random encounter table or reference in an adventure.
- By problem, but only if the reader already knows the bestiary contains tools/appendices to solve that particular problem.
Indexing takes a different form. Instead of presenting the same information as the table of contents (a list of creature names in the printed order), it might include.
- An alphabetical list (if the printed order is not alphabetical).
- By terrain type, then by name to the creature.
- By creature level / HD / difficulty, then by name to the creature.
Since every bestiary entry needs to be its own entrance (in theory), repeated formats and visual landmarks help with navigation. Bestiaries designed to be read instead of referenced can employ layout tricks to hinder exits and encourage further reading. Entries flow into each other; hints in one entry are resolved in another, etc.
Entrances for a typical GM Guide:
- Linearly, to fully understand the system (as written). Ideally, like a textbook, concepts explained in early chapters are built upon in later chapters.
- By problem. How do I handle wilderness travel? How much does a chicken cost? What are the core assumptions of this system. What do I do? Heeeelp!
GM guides (whether presented separately or as part of a single book), tend to act as a catch-all for any problems the author anticipates a GM might encounter. Organizing and indexing them is a difficult challenge. It's useful to know every time daggers show up in Macbeth; it's less useful to know every time they show up in the GM Guide. The index entry for "dagger" should point to the rules for daggers and (unless it's actually useful) nowhere else.
As a manual includes warnings, a GM guide can include sections that focus on potential errors or misunderstandings, or differences between this system and what the author considers "conventional" play.
Setting books that focus on at-table utility tend to support or even encourage non-linear reading; setting books that are designed, intentionally or not, for the reader (or the shelf) tend to follow a novel-like linear flow. There's no right answer. Some books are designed to load concepts into a GM's head before a game. Some are designed to be referenced during a game. And some aren't designed at all, but created by publisher mandate or perceived customer demand.
|Second image via McMansionHell |
Whitespace and Design
There's a difference between minimalism and the acres of beige carpet surrounding the bed of an overscaled American McMansion. Whitespace is not nessesarily wasted space, but it's very easy for a RPG book to feel bloated or empty. The reader wanders through vast oddly shaped rooms with a few bits of information spread on unloved side tables or stuck in high cupboards.
The clunky shots and long pauses in The Rogue's Tavern  aren't pillow shots or moments of stillness. They're just the result of working on a budget, in a hurry, in a relatively new medium, and not quite managing to hit competence. Robert F. Hill directed 16 films in 1936. Quantity over quality, I suppose.
Back on topic. Low information density (or too much whitespace) feels most egregious when it leads to:
- Tool mediocrity (i.e. all the entries on this table are the same, just with different primary colours in the text).
- Tool disconnect (i.e. the explanation/detail/term I want is on a different page or in a different section and there's no good reason for it).
- Tool absence (i.e. I expected/wanted a tool to be here and instead there's a blank space).
It's very easy for information density to cross a line into impenetrability. Density does not nessesarily help with entrances and exits. It can trap, mislead, or bore a reader. Page after page of identical tables and two-column text is not ideal.
Side Note: tool absence is not an issue if the text, context, or format makes it clear that the tool will not be provided. It's only an issue when the reader expects to find something and doesn't.
Look at all this density.
Fear of excessive whitespace can also encourage an author/designer to insert filler: badly designed tools, repetitive or sluggish text, long meandering descriptions of things that don't matter to anyone and fail to help with the book's stated goals. The density of information has gone up, but the density of relevant information has dropped.
Finally, if the primary goal is to convey a tone or a theme, especially with a
limited pagecount format like a 'zine, use every trick at your disposal. I still remember the "Number Appearing" text from "Broken System #000" even if it took me an hour to track down the author and the original format.
If you're searching for a design vocabulary, architecture might be a good place to start. Architects tend to write interesting articles and worry about unusual problems.