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I have in my years of playing RPGs seen many possible orders for the chapters in an RPG, and somehow they always feel off to me because some parts are feeling as if they are in the wrong spot. Let me explain by dissecting a couple core books as example:

The core book starts with an introduction to the idea of RPGs. After that 5 big chapters named for each of the themed elements: the world description, the basic mechanics (including combat rules), then Character creation (subchapters for character options, skill descriptions, merits/flaws, spells, and equipment), followed by more advanced mechanics (mostly more character options) and then the GM chapter.

Typically for Shadowrnun, there is in-character fiction between all chapters. In the 20th Anniversary edition, the chapters but for those fictions are a Primer to RPGs, General World History, world description, basic mechanics/concepts, Character Creation (as overview), Archetypes/example characters, Skill chapter, Combat chapter, Magic chapter, Matrix chapter, GM chapter, NPCs, and finally Equipment.

In classic Werewolf fashion, the start is a comic (not a fiction as in vampire). Then the book is in 3 big "books" with subchapters. Ignoring the books, the chapters are Introduction to RPGs and Werewolf, a world history, then PC options (where they sneakily put character trait descriptions!), THEN character creation rules (with descriptions of skills, merits/flaws, etc), Supernatural abilities & toys, THEN the basic rules, followed by how to run more complicated stuff (including combat), then the description of the parallel-world (Umbra), then the GM chapter, the NPC chapters (allies & Enemies) and finally more play options in the Appendix (among others: Merits/flaws).

2nd Edition starts with a non-indexed primer of what an RPG is, then comes the world's history and society, then the basic Rules (including rules for character creation), a few archetypes/sample characters, then a mega chapter called "Adventuring" (contains: more in depth rules systems, character & plot progression, equipment), then character options (implants, species differences, more implants), then combat & advanced combat.

Problem statement

As you see, it is conventional to start with some sort of primer "What is this book?" and a world overview, but then options diverge on what should be presented in what order. It appears that character creation is just as often presented before the basic rules of how you play as it is after, or as part of the basic rules. Sometimes subclasses of mechanics get their own chapters that are easy to find, other times you need to look back to the character creation for information that would be required during play... It seems like each RPG has its unique approach to sorting and none is perfect.

Question

Is there a method to the madness, in how the theme and design of the game result in a better or worse order of chapters that can lead to benefits in play or how one handles the book organically?

Remember: Answers should be backed up, such as by referencing the reception of specific chapter orders in reviews, exploring industry standards, or referencing experience from publishing from the writer, editor or publisher side.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Answers should be backed up, such as by referencing the reception of specific chapter orders in reviews ~have you seen such a thing in a review? ~ exploring industry standards ~ What Standards? ~ or referencing experience from publishing from the writer, editor or publisher side You may get some response there as a few users here have published games. (but I don't see them post very often). Now you tell me: how is this not opinion based? 😕 \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 8 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ It feels to me that labeling this as being opinion-based is an answer, and makes much more sense as an open question answered with “no, it’s entirely a matter of opinion,” than it makes sense to close it. In other words, whether or not it is a matter of opinion doesn’t, itself, seem like a matter of opinion. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented May 8 at 21:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast demonstrating that there is no perfect order is a valid answer \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented May 9 at 18:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ We used to have "too broad" as a category. I think this fits that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 10 at 0:08

2 Answers 2

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If there is an ideal order—there probably isn’t—no one knows it

Everyone’s just guessing. They’re trying to imagine they don’t know anything about a game that they know intimately, and then trying to imagine how to get that person up to speed quickly. It won’t be the way they got “up to speed” themselves—for them, that was the game-development process, but the whole point of paying them money for doing it is so that readers can skip that. But now they have to impart what they’ve figured out/decided upon, in a much more direct and convenient way. This is, to put it mildly, an extremely difficult problem.

There are numerous other problems, too. A core rulebook isn’t any one thing: it’s sometimes, to some people, a reference manual. To others, it’s kind of, sort of, a novel, or maybe more like the world-building appendices that you sometimes get in the backs of fantasy or sci-fi novels. For others, it’s a primer and tutorial on how to play, possibly from scratch, possibly even unlearning things from other games.

And—at least according to discussions I’ve had with industry contacts in the past—for a lot of people? It’s an art book. There are a lot of RPG books that are sold because of cool pictures, probably with the idea that someday the purchaser will read it, but that day never happens. But where an actual art book would just get put back on the shelf, the unread text induces a sale. This is, obviously, way outside the realm of “game design,” but if you want to make money, it’s something to keep in mind—there isn’t enough money in this industry, so if you want to make a living this way, you need to scrabble for all you can get.

Relatedly, to the publisher, the book is also an advertisement. You want people to not just buy this book, but the other books, too. Again, art is going to play an outsize role in that. But a lot of it is about just getting people excited, whether that’s text or pictures. And that kind of becomes an actual game-design concern again, because getting people excited is—arguably—the point of the game. At the end of the day, that’s what “fun and games” are all about. And you want them excited for the thing you’re actually delivering, and you want to understand what your audience is excited about, so you can deliver what they’re looking for.

But those goals are interrelated in extremely complex ways, and at least some of the things you could do in the interests of one of them may come at the cost of others. That’s important here, because it means any order that’s “ideal” for one of the book’s goals almost-certainly isn’t ideal for the others.

Thus, my answer is, really, that there is no such thing as an ideal order.

But, out of recognition that this is, in many ways, an extremely nascent and underdeveloped field, we can hedge on that. It’s probably impossible to have a single ideal order. We can’t be truly certain that there isn’t, at this stage, but “probably” is an easy thing to be sure of.

The other thing we can be sure of is that, if there actually is some ideal, no one’s figured it out yet. I’m honestly not sure how to back this up, because it’s so obvious to me: the mere fact that all of the products you list did it differently is, itself, pretty strong evidence. The fact that individual publishers change how they do it, trying different things, is another. And just the endless complaints about the books and how much their organization makes them less useful than they could be—for some particular purpose—are another. Those complaints are ubiquitous, and for good reason: no one’s really satisfied with things. That might be because we’re doing it wrong and we need to get better, it might be because it’s impossible to do all the things these books need to do perfectly at the same time, and it might be—almost certainly is—both of those things.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I concur with everything in this answer, but its worth pointing out that the order a book of this kind is presented in may have little connection to the order its read in. I routinely skip over the "What is an RPG" section that appears in just about every main book for a major line and often read the detailed mechanics sections of main books last regardless of where the designer put it. I still haven't read the Sailing Rules (or the section on Sailing Charms) for Exalted at all despite having been both a storyteller and player several times each now. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 8 at 20:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your answer (and I know you were in the business for a bit) strikes a "makes sense" chord with me. I like it. Is there any detail you can share form the game you were working on, (what, a decade ago?) that speaks to how the games was to be presented/organized, and the process you all went through to agree on an order of presentation? \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 8 at 21:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast There was a lot of discussion, some strong opinions... and after the fact, strong feelings that we’d gotten it wrong. I remember the typesetter, in particular, feeling he’d made too “clean” a book because he’d been thinking of it too much as a reference manual. Unfortunately, that’s about the only specific I remember. I can’t even really remember what we settled on, for order—probably something D&D-ish, but I’d have to check the book again for specifics. Been a long time. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented May 8 at 21:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ Agree completely. Also worth noting that the different focus of different games means there never will be a single ideal, eg the original 3 Traveller black books gave mechanics for operating in a practically undescribed sci fi campaign setting, where in Shadowrun it is arguably more important to the players and GM to understand the setting than the rules mechanics. So, in the former there is no "setting" chapter per se, where in the latter the history, economics and society are each detailed and vital. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 9 at 0:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I guess there might be better orders than others, and it seems the only thing everybody can agree to is "Put what is an RPG at the front". \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented May 9 at 18:09
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The designers of D&D asked themselves the same Question

In the first few minutes of this video interview Chris Perkins talks about how they are structuring the new "5E" Dungeon Master's guide coming out later this year. He explains that the 2014 DMG was structured poorly, as it first tells you how to create your own campaign world, something you really don't need to get starting DMing. He said this is one of the things they are fixing with this new version. It will be structured in a way, that first gives the reader practical tips on how to get started running your game and puts more advanced Dungeon Master knowledge you don't need to get started in later chapters.

This is of course a Dungeon Master's Guide and not a Player's Handbook, but it is still considered one of the Core Rules books of D&D, which is what you are asking about. Regarding the new Player's Handbook I recall him saying a similar thing: that they want to first include an explanation of how to play the game and then character creation options afterwards. I was however not able to find the source for this as of now, only the one about the DMG. Perhaps someone who knows what I am referring to can help me out here?

I don't believe an "ideal" order can be found as this is a subjective statement and opinions on this will vary, both from person to person and from game to game. But if you want to know what practical experience has taught game designers on this topic, I believe this is as close as you can get.

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