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?