Roleplaying supplements have become much more “literate” in recent years. Authors slip fiction into the pages to show us things, instead of simply telling us the rules. As a result we become more immersed in the worlds that authors create, seeing them as fully-fleshed realms rather than just sets of rules.
Unfortunately, also as a result, it has become more and more difficult to use roleplaying supplements as reference books during game-play.
I do not believe that these goals–literacy and beauty, and quick reference — are mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to write a roleplaying supplement that shows rather than tells, that has a lyrical tension to it, that enraptures us in the way a good novel does, while creating a book that can act as a reference work.
The key is organization.
Elements of Organization
If you’re going to show something in fiction, you must also tell it in the body of the work. If a GM needs to know a detail about a group’s political practices in the middle of a run, he must be able to pick up the book and find that detail. If it’s been a while since he read the book from cover to cover, then it won’t be obvious to him that the information he needs comes under the section labelled “A Gray Cat’s Shadow” that details an interaction between two characters.
Label everything clearly. If you write three paragraphs on politics, then put the word “politics” somewhere in the subheading above that paragraph. Use subheadings liberally and label them appropriately. Put related subjects close together.
I’ve read RPG books that seemed to do a wonderful job at first glance. They addressed all of the relevant issues, and didn’t leave me at all confused. One month later, when I couldn’t remember all of the details as well and needed to use those books as reference books, I discovered the problem. No real organization was evident. I couldn’t guess based on the contents of one section what might be in the next. The titles of sections gave me little clue. It didn’t help that I knew that the answer to my question was somewhere within the book; I couldn’t stop the gaming run long enough to read the entire thing, and I would have had to in order to find what I wanted.
So this is a plea to RPG authors, whether of professional material, or of material put up on free web sites. Organize your work. Use subject headings that indicate what the reader might find in a section. Sub-head often so that we can find any given piece of information on five minutes’ notice. Keep in mind that even the people who read your work from cover to cover will also need to use it as a reference work during game-play.
Test Your Work
Hand your manuscript to a friend. Ask him to pick a topic related to your subject (politics? a particular rule? a period of history?) and try to find it. Time how long it takes him. If it takes longer than a couple of minutes, go back to the drawing board. Make your titles clearer, even if you think it makes them a little more boring. Add more sub-headings, even if you think it breaks up the flow of your words a little. If your book is particularly long, make sure it comes with an index, or at least a thorough table of contents labeled with page numbers.
Organization doesn’t have to “ruin” your beautiful work; it simply requires you to put more thought into things. This is where an outline comes in handy. If you can’t work with an outline, then go back over your work afterward, make notes about what your major points are, and re-organize until it’s readable as a reference work. One good trick is to reverse-engineer an outline from the finished writing. Does the outline make sense?
Your readers will thank you.