Monday, May 2, 2011

Layout is More than Fonts

I raised a question on twitter the other day regarding summaries in RPG books. The question was, if you’re going to provide regular summaries (of rules or example), where should it go - at the beginning of the chapter, or at the end?

For context, the question came up in my mind as I was reading a game I like very much, and which looks quite nice, but has what I consider a dysfunctional layout. One of the things I found it particularly lacking in was any kind of summary of material, which is doubly a pain because the order that rules are presented in is a little peculiar. I found that I really wanted summaries, and found myself considering the best place to put them.

There were, of course, a few out of the box responses, including a small amount of dislike of summaries, but the divide in answers was interesting to me. The split came along a peculiar axis, one that should have been obvious in retrospect. Those who wanted summaries at the end of the chapter focused on readability and flow. Those who wanted them at the beginning of the chapter emphasized the importance of easy reference - finding the start of a chapter is easier than finding the start of the next chapter (assuming you remember the order) and flipping backwards, or so the thinking goes. The one or two compromise positions I encountered (such as calling out summaries in visually distinctive sidebars or boxes) were definitely trying to find a middle ground between reading and reference, but they tend to be situational at best.

This question - reading vs. reference - is one of those very sticky issues you end up wrangling with when you really get into designing a book. It’s a hard question to answer, and there’s no single formula for success, except to say that a game which does not consider both of these approaches often ends up feeling crappy in a way that it can be hard for a reader to put their finger on.

Now, personally, I am in the "Summaries at the beginning" camp, for three main reasons. The first is reference - I agree it's much easier to find this material at the beginning off a chapter than the end, though wherever you put it, it's definitely worth using layout to call it out so it's easy to find on a flipthrough. The second reason is a bit more cynical - I have read enough RPGs that I no longer trust an author's assessment of the novelty of his game. A summary skips the breathless prose and lets me make judgments for myself.

The last reason is, I think, the most essential: it's a frame rather than a review, and that helps the reader while challenging the writer. As a reader, I can quickly scan the summary and, if it's written well, with not get tripped up on terminology or basic concepts that follow. I may have some questions that the summary didn't answer, and hopefully I will find those answers in the text. The flipside of this is that writing a good summary forces the author to write good text. If there's a decent summary, then the hard question is "what else do you really need to say?" As a writer, this can be BRUTAL. Some ideas really can be conveyed very succinctly, and padding them out to 1000 words does a disservice to everyone. If the summary comes afterward, it's just a restatement and refinement, so nobody really notices that you padded. If it comes first, it frames things, and it makes it easy to notice that you're wasting words.

Now, what's crazy is that this is only a very small thing. It's a single decision among many that you need to make when you put together a book. But like many of these decisions, it has a HUGE impact on how good your book is going to be. To be unkind, even if your game is brilliant and your rules are fantastic, if you don't consciously make this sort of decision, then it can kill your game dead. I'm not saying that there's only one answer to these question - handle summaries however you think is best, for example - but if you don't think about these things then you're begging for trouble.

It can be hard for the writer to ask these questions because they have such a personal relationship with the text. A good editor will push these points, but that depends a lot on the editor's role in the project. A good layout guy can make up for a lot of mistakes of this type, but it's a shame when they have to. But the real danger is that these points pass without comment or thought.

With that in mind, it seems I might want to return to this, and run down a few other red flags and questions a designer might want to ask about how a game can and should present information. Seem like a worthy topic to folks?


  1. This is a problem based upon the assumption of linearity. And it is precisely the kind of thing I aim to solve with my new interactive format. By making the book into a non-linear hyperlink-based resource, reading the book in the traditional sense becomes unnecessary. Questions of "before/after" become moot.

    I think we may be moving past "reading" in the way that we envision it. We are moving into a hyperlink based information system, linearity is going away.

    RPGs can adapt to this, or die.

  2. I for one would love to see more posts like this. These are exactly the things I'm grappling with on my own long-delayed game--indeed, the very things that have made it such a slog to get it to a final-edition state.

  3. @greg I am a huge booster of trying new formats and using new technologies, but as far as I can tell, we've been about to round the corner to a hyperlinked world since 1994 (there was a FANTASTIC article about just that in the New York Times that year). Now, I'm not being a naysayer - sooner or later it will become true, and with advances in technology it grows more likely each year - but it's not here yet. I think an information transformation is constantly happening, but a lot of it is still in the experimental or half-assed phase, so I'm leery.

    That said, if I continue down this path, I definitely will get into ideas for approaches other than a standard book, with an eye on the tradeoffs they provide.

    @sabrecat Excellent! Useful is the goal.

  4. I wonder if this an issue that science can answer- if we assume that comprehension and retention are the primary goals, I would see if there's any studies about seeing a summary first brings about increased clarity and retention when reading the description, or if a summary afterward hits it home.

  5. This is something I need to do more of. It's also something that a graphic designer should point out to the project manager at some point as a useful addition to the layout. :)

  6. I actually think there is a qualitative difference between a conclusion (a summary at the end of the chapter) and an abstract (a summary at the beginning of the chapter), regardless of whether or not you introduce a distinction in the formal layout.

    Ideally by reading the abstracts I should learn the structure of the entire work, but the conclusion provides a summary of what was discussed in the chapter. They serve different purposes.

    But we may only read a rule book once in a linear fashion (if that, as we often skip to the bits that interest us), no matter how much work the author puts into it. The rest of the time we either follow certain explicit threads (such as character generation), are looking for specific details, or our reminding ourselves of the appropriate structure of those details (such as the combat sequence).

    Done properly, the case note system used by SPI worked very well for a linear system. Take a look at how they structured it, especially the fact that the use of different font types allowed you to easily locate the required data. It made looking up a specific reference/procedure quite easy, although it was rather dry reading. It's in fact a portrayal of a hypertext system with the abstracts of each section provided by the bold text. Use that to identify the relevant points, use the normal text to confirm that you have indeed got the right section, and then tunnel down into the relevant cases by using the same procedure in the smaller section of the rules. Their major problem was to refer to specific case notes by number without any reference as to the subject matter of the case note (by which I mean you had no detail available about [15.231] except by going to that section).

    I'm afraid I'm with Greg these days. But then, for the games I am actively using, I've reduced the PDFs to atomic data, and linked them in various ways, of which only the most basic is linear. The rest are simple decision tree searches for these individual nodes, often with separate paths determined by their nature (as defined by tags). But to do that I do need to use custom software. And it doesn't create the abstracts that make navigating the structure easy (in other words you have to know what you are looking for). But it does allow interesting cross-referencing between data that doesn't need meta-structure (usually in relation to descriptions of places, where you can create spacial and temporal linkages with adjacent geographical locations and historical timelines).

    Sorry for babbling. Anyway, to answer your question, my preference is for an abstract at the beginning of each section. But that the abstract shouldn't summarise the chapter. The actual summary doesn't need to be attached to the individual chapter, and in fact having a free-floating summary (such as in a separate book that also serves as an index to the main rules) is more convenient, although less-likely now that boxed games are no longer the vogue.

  7. "The one or two compromise positions I encountered (such as calling out summaries in visually distinctive sidebars or boxes) were definitely trying to find a middle ground between reading and reference, but they tend to be situational at best."

    Would you be so kind to elaborate on this? I'm very interested in this kind of compromises, from a graphical designer perspective.

  8. @Lobo it was twitter, so it was not too involved, but the basic idea was that if you make the summary graphically distinctive enough to be easy to spot on a a flipthrough, it's position becomes less important. If, for example, the bleed included darkened parts marking the pages to flip to (I'm sure there's a technical term for that) then they'd be easy to find.

    It's reasonable enough, but I'm a belt and suspenders guy, so my thinking is that if you can make them visually distinctive, why not do so and _also_ place them usefully.

  9. Could also do a summary at the end of the /entire/ book for easy access, which doesn't really help that much with initial comprehension, but makes it much easier for reference.

    Probably doesn't help as much if there's pretty simple chapters, though.

    This can be combined with summary at start/end of chapters if desired, but that would up page count.


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