Tabletop RPGs: Index

Question: Does my tabletop roleplaying game need an index?
Answer: Yes.

Okay, okay, there are many exceptions to this rule. If you’re putting together the spiritual descendent of Kobolds Ate My Baby, sure, an index might not be necessary. If you’re planning on putting most of your resources into an online update system (*koff* WOTC *koff*), investing in text-based aids might not be a wise use of your resources. If you’re short on time and money (and what tabletop gaming company isn’t?), it might be impossible to take the time to put together a good index, which has to get built sometime between the ever-squished layout and print stages. Investing in a really good Table of Contents section might serve you better in that situation. From a practical standpoint, I understand that most splatbooks and many main rulebooks simply aren’t going to have the resources to put together a good index.

Tabletop games are technical documents, though, and an index gives your readers one more way to try to understand and use the book you’ve spent so much time on. This entry summarizes some of my favored indexing practices as described in other, far more thorough guides, and I try to tailor my examples to roleplaying games so that you can see what I’m saying. As with most things gaming, there’s more than one right way to put an index together, and I look forward to hearing about alternative ways to approach this particular beast of a topic.

Explanatory Text

Most roleplaying game books will have a running header for each section of the book, and the index is no different. It’s reasonable to keep the running header simple — say, Index.

If the index has a way to mark special sections, be sure to have a key that describes the notation system. A single key at the beginning of the index is fine, but one that can be reprinted on each page of the index is even better. Gamers tend to go straight to the part of the index where they need information from, which means that they won’t see the key you so kindly provided back at the first page.

If an entry breaks up across two pages, make sure to use notation like continued or cont. It’s better, though, to try to avoid broken entries and use layout to put all of the information for a particular section on one page. Again, people are going to want to go right to the topic they need. Don’t make people turn pages. Turning pages is work, and work sucks.

Also Listed As and See Also

So here’s where the judgement part of building an index really start to come into play. Hopefully the game will have removed jargon and avoided reskinning common-use terms (in other words: no renaming months or other commonly used words). Even with hardcore jargon removal, though, similar terms might crop up. A player looking up health, for example, might reasonably be looking for information on health stats, which in your game falls in a group called the core stats. Rather than simply refer people to core stats, it’s nice to provide all of the information people will need right in that one place. In other words, instead of:

health stats, 145-146
   (see also: core stats)

You might consider an entry like:

health stats, 145-146
   (see also: core stats, 140-144)

Providing the extra information takes up space, and since space is one of the most precious commodities in a gaming book, and an index is notoriously not-useful, it’s best to save these kind of cross-references for high-use concepts.

Sample of Pathfinder's Index
Sample of Pathfinder’s Index

Subheadings

A good rule of thumb: if you have five or six page number entries after a heading, that’s a good time to consider using subheadings.

At the same time, try to avoid the mistake of turning your index into a list. Lists of items (e.g., lists of table, lists of powers) are great, but they serve a different function than an index, the best of which display material in as-used and logical ways rather than chronological ways. So for example, rather than:

skill descriptions
   acrobatics 180-181
   arcana 181-182
   athletics 182-183
   bluff 183
   diplomacy 183

try going with

acrobatics skill 180-181
alligators, in sewers 17
alignment 19-20
arcana skill 181-182
athletics skill 182-183

baby seals 112
ballistics 23
bluff skill 183

damage types 55
diplomacy skill 183

Splitting up each entry into its own component lets a reader look up just the thing he or she is interested in (say, acrobatics) rather than having to remember that in this index, it’s filed under S for skill. For a great example of editorial judgment, check out the Pathfinder index page above.

Typographic Shifts

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Typographic shifts — bold, italics, and other font style changes — are a privilege. Use them sparingly and preferably only one at a time.

Keeping the font in the index plain, legible (generally meaning larger than 9-point), and non-italicized helps people use the index. The smaller or fancier the font, the less useful the index is. Style changes like bold or headings can divide sections, such as alphabetical shifts, but it’s even better to use negative space to do this.

Negative Space and Typography in Mutants & Masterminds
Negative Space and Typography in Mutants & Masterminds

GM Material

Some games like to have secret, game master-only sections of their books (Deadlands, dear, I’m looking at you). This raises problems for the index, though, which might have players and GMs looking up material. A couple of approaches will work here.

  • List only player-safe information in the index.
  • List GM-specific information, but label it with some kind of graphic or typographic shift and generalize the language.

For example, rather than list

Joe Snarl, villainous mastermind 32

try

villainous mastermind GM32

It’s also possible to have two indices for a work, one for players, and one for GMs, but I recommend against this approach. Habit born from every other index every used means that players will turn to the very back of the book for the index and expect to be able to use everything in it. Keeping the index player-safe and in one location (preferably the back of the book) is important.

Front Matter, Back Matter, Notes

Important information hidden in title pages or introductions should show up in the index. For example, consider having an index entry to guide people to your list of playtesters.

Simple Index in D&D 4th
Simple Index in D&D 4th

Number of Columns

The number of columns in an index depends entirely on how much space you’re granted by the book’s size. That said, a standard 8 1/2 by 11 book can in general support four short or two to three long columns comfortably. Five or six columns generally requies shifts in font that are difficult to read. Columns are not necessarily created equal, though — check out the difference between the Dungeons & Dragons index and the Pathfinder index, above.

Tables and Figures

If a table or figure pertains to an index topic, it’s a very good idea to list the table as a separate and marked entry. For example, try:

health, stat 23-45
   in character creation, 15
   loss, 77
   regeneration, 80
   regeneration table, 81

Another way to do this that’s a bit more difficult to read but saves space is to use of the few typographic shifts to indicate a table reference. In the example below, the bold 81 indicates that the page reference has a table on it. (And this is the kind of information that’s useful to note in the index key, which appears on each page).

health, stat 23-45
   in character creation, 15
   loss, 77
   regeneration, 80, 81

Left Justification

My preference is to stick with left justification rather than something funky like centered text. Giving English-speaking readers a strong left-hand edge to skim along is an important part of a useful index.

Fun

As a technical communicator, I tend to crush most of the fun out of the documents that I work with. However, leaving some fun in the index is a great idea both for keeping your own team sane and for rewarding the few brave souls willing to use the index. I would have sworn that fun was an unlikely part of an index until I took a careful look at the Dresden Files index, which not only accommodates material in two different books (a player and a GM book), but also makes me grin every time I have to use it.

Dresden Files Index
Fun in an Index (Dresden Files)

Additional Reading

The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, Volume One: Your Story. Evil Hat Productions, 2010.

Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, 4th Edition. Wizards of the Coast, 2008.

Chicago Manual of Style. 16th edition. The University of Chicago, 2010.
Check out the sections on indexing; they are succinct but very helpful.

Mutants & Masterminds: RPG, 2nd Edition. Green Ronin Publishing, 2005.

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Paizo Publishing, 2009.

2 Comments

  1. A good post! Thanks! I’ll try to keep in mind your recommendations. I am a big fan of the comprehensive and well organized index and consider a good index a must for any rules book and very helpful for supplements.

    • Four Color Critic

      Thanks! We’re definitely in agreement here — a good index can be incredibly helpful. As someone who’s struggled with index creation, I have a lot of sympathy for anyone willing to give it a go. (Also Game Soapbox looks interesting; I’m going to have to check it out soon.)

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