A couple weeks ago, I dove into opening sections to roleplaying game books and game setting books I own. I had thoughts. Such introductions are often lackluster, too much like a textbook and not enough fun. I rambled on about and engaged others on those thoughts in this Twitter thread (click the date in the quoted tweet).
A good aspect of 4e campaign setting supplements, from Dark Sun to Underdark (although too understated there) was an aspect list that defined the setting in about a page. Glad to see it in the new Eberron. It’s a strong starting point and, perhaps, selling point.
— Chris S. Sims (@ChrisSSims) December 19, 2019
What got me started was noticing the introduction for Eberron: Rising from the Last War had a part harkening back to the setting’s first published iteration for Dungeons & Dragons third edition. The current Eberron book has a section on the first page entitled Seven Things to Know. That section starts near the bottom of the book’s first page. In Eberron’s earliest version, a similar section has the heading Ten Things You Need to Know pushed back further into the introduction. Given the opening illustration, that list didn’t appear on the opening spread, which becomes important, as I reveal later. The fourth-edition version of the campaign setting placed those then things, entitled Ten Important Facts, right to the top of the introduction.
The fourth-edition version got it right in position if not content.
Game book introductions should draw us in. They should intrigue us and make us want to delve further. Like I said, too many game intros read like textbook openers. And let’s face it, most textbooks smugly assume you must consume their content to pass your class. With game books, the assumption seems to be similar if not as smug. You have to learn the book’s contents if you want to play, so why bother stoking excitement?
D&D’s fourth-edition setting books repeated the Eberron model of a positive summary of what the book had in store for you. The problem with these intros is they’re most likely to be a hybrid of selling the excitement in the book and the textbook approach. Too often, where they don’t rely on the reader to already be invested in the content, these lists slide into pedantry. Any opportunity to whet our gaming appetites is entirely missed. Instead, details that could be left for deeper reading take the place of lures into that deeper reading. I mean, nothing says excitement like “one hundred years have passed since the previous edition of this setting” (1) in the same way nothing says enduring love like the gift of a spatula… or socks.
Intros need flair. They need to sell the book to someone who might not otherwise care. An introduction must make a potential player care when they pick up the book and skim the first page. A good intro should pique a neophyte’s interest when doing the same, perhaps deciding whether to buy this book for a gamer in their life. The written intro probably has less than a minute to do that. That reality means the introduction must make a quick impression. It doesn’t matter if a newcomer to the game or setting understands it all. It matters if the newcomer thinks the book sounds like something the potential owner would or should like.
Putting aside catchy art, which is more about book covers than book intros, a written opening has two tools to draw someone in. First is a presentation that elicits interest. Second is what the intro says.
The Ten Facts presentation is a good one for drawing interest. That’s where most fourth-edition books start to falter, though. Each one of those ten facts should be summarized in one line or so, easily visible when scanning the page, and compelling when read without further qualification. The fifth-edition Eberron book receives some points for bold headers, making Seven Things to Know easily scannable. But they span two pages, and worse, the bold headers are almost meaningless without further clarification. The explanations quickly move into that aforementioned pedantry. A newcomer is inundated with contextless names and factoids, such as Last War, Khorvaire, Galifar, dragonmarks, jungles of Qbarra, Library of Korranberg, and so on. Why should the neophyte care about these details?
They shouldn’t. And that’s why those details should not be in the intro. (2)
What should the reader care about, then? What should the intro contain? See, you’re pitching your idea to a potential customer, and that’s what your focus should be. I jokingly wrote that these intros should say things such as, “Speed motorized chariots across an unforgiving, dead world, dedicating yourself to the gods of chrome. Fight alongside or against your fellow mutants with steel and fire until you waver, crash, and burn. Then, at last, Valhalla!” That’s not far off, though.
The intro to a game or setting needs to define several elements for the reader. These questions are basic world- and story-building ones. What is this game or setting in two sentences or fewer? (The Setting Search called this the core-ethos statement.) Who are the protagonists (player characters)? What do they do and why? Who or what are the antagonists (or a sample thereof)? What are the conflicts and stakes (low- and high-level)? What’s surprising or unexpected about the game or setting? (The Setting Search asked specifically about magic, which is important for a D&D setting but might not be important in others.)
Your core ethos statement should lead all sell text, which includes a book’s back cover, website and advertising descriptions, and the book’s introduction. Especially in a world of digital previews, it’s very uncertain whether someone will ever read your back-cover text. So, it bears repeating. Descriptive text answering questions that follow the ethos should make up the next part of any sell text. Then you can get into details, such as mechanical content, if need be.
For a book intro, the material should be presented in general terms, building to more detail later. I’m not saying you can’t use specific terms, but any such details should be essential to understanding the setting. For example, you probably wouldn’t leave Sauron and hobbits out of a brief introduction to the world or story of The Lord of the Rings. Iconic elements have a place in intros, but they must be described so they can be comprehended with minimum effort.
It seems to be hard, even in good examples from D&D’s best efforts and other game products that have nice intros, for us designers to leave off what we know and try to think like a beginner who wants to be excited. Worse, some manuals leap directly into instruction, which most honest designers and readers will admit is a snore-inducing way to start. Despite such admissions, that presentation has been done ad infinitum under the heading What is (a) Roleplaying (Game), How to Use This Book, or some other material made nonsense by this context due to the fact that it’s likely to be poorly understood or detail that can wait.
But I digress. (3)
Instead, let me be clear here. The natural progression, easing someone into a game or setting, should hook the reader (strong core-ethos statement), build excitement (show what’s interesting quickly), utilize that excitement to begin instructive phases. Anything that stands in the way of getting to this meat, besides some essential front matter and extremely evocative art, should be excised. No prefaces, no fiction, no in-world letters or redacted records, no elements typical readers ignore. Nothing of that sort. Put it somewhere else.
One of the best intros I’ve seen in my recent research appears in the latest Delta Green Agent’s Handbook. (The Handler’s Guide is similarly good.) I’m betting Delta Green’s designers thought hard about their intro, considering its composition more than most designers do. Either that or they’re that good at their job. Judging by the bylines, it’s probably a bit of both. It shows.
Yet, even as a best-in-class example, taking previously discussed parameters into account, Delta Green’s intro could be better. It should get to the point faster. No essentially blank Overview page and no in-world illustrative notes before the hook. And it’d have a clearer hook if the first three parts of the back-cover text were the first three parts of the introduction text. Some info that comes later in the intro would serve well closer to the beginning. Blah, blah, blahbitty, blah.
Mostly stylistic quibbles. I could defend each one, but that’s not the point.
The point is that a good introduction should hook a reader and not let go. Intro prose serves as a segue into the larger game or setting. This text needs to be thoughtfully and intentionally designed with its purposes in mind. Core among those purposes is marketing through storytelling, in the same way a movie trailer does. Tell a short, compelling tale to make someone want more of that same narrative.
Given the state of the art even in a lot of modern game materials, composing these stories isn’t easy. Sometimes, I think, we forget the audience, which isn’t us (the designers) or even the invested player base. Other times, it seems, we adhere to tradition, with no proof the way we’ve always done it is any good. Both are a sort of somnambulation. They’re evidence that not enough thought was put doing something that must be done in every book.
1) A paraphrase of the first of the Ten Important Facts from fourth edition’s Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide.
2) This is not to say I haven’t written poor intros right in line with this sort of presentation. I aped what I saw in other products. I imagine a lot of others mimic without analysis, too, which is why so many intros are similar and similarly bad.
3) I could write on about how we don’t need What is (a) Roleplaying (Game) (people know) and How to Use This Book (or Repeat Table of Contents) sections. That’s a negative spiral, though. How could these sections be better, too?