Writing Basics: Headers for RPGs
Headers are the big titles of sections of books that tell you (roughly) what content is in that section. If you want a quick overview of what headers are, how to mark them in a manuscript (which, I should note, is actually “however your publisher tells you to,” though the [H1]- and [H2]-style designations are pretty common if not universal), go check out Rogue Genius Games’ “RGG Writer Guidelines,” which discuss headers and how to let your editor and layout artist know where they should in your manuscript. That’s designed specifically for writing for RGG, but should be a useful overview you can apply to whatever style guide another publisher tells you to use.
That advice, however, is a what and a how, not a why or a where. It assumes you know when you want to have headers, and why you might want them to be different sizes. Why headers are useful and how to decide where to put them and what to call them isn’t something I learned in school, or that I was expressly taught by any editor or developer on any of the RPG projects I worked on. It is often taught, in a specific way, in courses on technical or academic writing, but those tend not to use them exactly the way an RPG does. Creating the right number of headers, in the right order and scaling, is something I picked up by example and self-education, rather than finding any course that taught it to me.
So let’s talk about how headers tend to work, for RPGs. I’ll note that this is my general advice, designed to give you a starting point, rather than an end point. Again, I’m self-taught, and learned to work with the people who published me. If you want an academic discussion of headers, you should find someone with a lot more editorial training and credentials than me.
Headers are titles and subtitles for sections of your text. They act as labels that let the reader know what information is about to be presented, and let the readers scan for a bit of information by seeking a related header. Headers can also be useful when referencing rules. It’s much easier to say “This uses the standard rules for bull rush, as found in the Combat Maneuvers section of the Tactical Rules chapter” than to say “This uses the standard rules for bull rush, as found halfway down page 942, on the left, at the top of the really big paragraph.” By giving a section of text a header, you make it easy for the reader to know what is coming, quickly find relevant material, and safely skip part of a chapter or article if they know they don’t need that information yet.
(There are also some kinds of headers that specific publishers use for game system elements. For example, if you look at the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, every feat and spell has a different treatment of text for the name of the feat or spell. Those are a kind of header, but in general unless a publisher tell you to mark headers at that level you don’t need to. Now some publishers DO tell you to mark such things, perhaps with “Feat Title” or “Stat Block Title” notations, but that’s the kind of thing you can trust your publisher to tell you if you need to notate formatting.)
In many ways, headers are like the names of sections of an outline that you just don’t strip out. I find this a useful way to think of what to call my headers and how to organize them. In general, every major topic gets a header (which we’ll call a Article Header if it is the title or an entire article or chapter, and otherwise call “H1”), and every sub-topic that is UNDER THE SAME TOPIC gets a header one size smaller (each numbered in order, with H2 smaller than H1, and H3 smaller than H2). Not every publisher has an H3 header, while some have H4 or even H5, and some consider an in-line bold (where you don’t change the font size, you just begin a paragraph with a bolded word, perhaps followed by a colon or em-dash) to be effectively the smallest header size.
For example, if I have a chapter called Equipment, then obviously “Equipment” is my article header. If I want to open that with an introduction, then I’d write have just the word “Introduction” as my H1 header. If I then do some general equipment rules as a new section, I have a new H1 “General Rules.” I don’t go to an H2, because my general rules aren’t part of the introduction. However, if after explaining that this is a section of general rules for equipment I want to describe each of those general rules (as examples, perhaps Availability, Cost, Encumbrance, and Durability), then each of those has an H2 header, as they ARE all sub-sections of general rules.
Here’s an example how that might be set up, though exactly how you format your headers is going to depend on your publisher—the writer’s job is to match the publisher’s requesting formatting, not to try to make your Word document match how the text will look in the end product. That’s the layout artist’s job, and your proper formatting helps them know what header should be what size and style.
You generally don’t want to have two headers right after each other, so here you might put a sentence or two equipment in your game. However, some publishers DO go directly from article title to your first H1, so check their house style.
Introduce why your game has equipment, and why characters care. This might just be a sentence or two, or it could be a philosophical essay about loot, treasure, power gaming, and how equipment does or doesn’t define characters in your game.
This is a new section, still about equipment, but not part of the introduction anymore. So it gets it’s on H1, and here you talk about the fact these are general rules for equipment. If there are rules elsewhere that could interest with these (like skills, or crafting, or whatever), you might mention where those rules are found.
This is one specific “general rule,” so it gets a header one size down, an H2 compared to General Rule’s H1. Again, you can often tell what needs headers from a good outline. If you wrote without an outline, you can still go back after you are done and create an outline for a project, which may help you better organize it and determine which sections call of headers, and what kind.
Again the rules on cost are a specific “general rule,” so these get an H2, one size down from General Rule’s H1. At a glance, a reader can tell that both “availability” and “Cost” are separate ideas, both grouped under “General Rules.”
Here you put your encumbrance rules, still an H2, under General Rules.
[H3]Exceeding Maximum Encumbrance
If the core of the encumbrance rules are about determining how much a character can carry, and noting where the weights of equipment are listed, the rules for exceeding encumbrance limits are clearly related, but slightly different. By giving them an H3, one size smaller than the H2 of Encumbrance rules, you make it easy for readers to find this section (which they may only reference occasionally), and give yourself the option to point to just these rules if something modifies them (for examples if dwarves suffer a less severe penalty when they exceed their maximum encumbrance, in the dwarf race write-up you can give that lesser penalty, and tell the reader to “See “Exceeding Maximum Encumbrance” mon page ##” making it easy for them to find these rules).
Since durability is another general rule, it gets the same H2 header as Availability, Cost, and Encumbrance. A reader who gets to the end of the Exceeding Maximum Encumbrance section can tell from the larger header of “Durability” that they have moved on to a new topic.
When determining what your headers are and what to call them, keep in mind that headers are both organizational, and graphic. If a player is going to be looking for a rule section or specific bit of lore fairly often, it aids ease of play to have a header that points them to the right place. Headers can also make a page easier to read—two pages of nothing but column after column of text is more difficult to read through than one with a header or two to break up the monotony and give the eyes something to navigate with. On the other hand, a header called “Everything You Need To Know To Play A Halfling War Baker But Where Afraid to Ask” may be overpowering and look terrible on the page.
Consistency with headers can also be useful. If you are writing up 7 kingdoms, and each one has sections on culture, organizations, population, and threats, having that info groups under the same headers for each write-up can both make it easy for readers to absorb and understand the info, and keep you on track to not forget to mention any cultural notes about Kitchenaria just because you were excited about all the War Baker Guilds you wanted to write about. Keeping the writer on track is another benefit of good, well-defined headers.
As I noted, this is just a starting point on what headers are and how they work. When you are organizing your writing, it can be very useful to keep in mind what headers your publisher uses. If you don’t know, and there isn’t a style guide that tell you, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s a lot easier to know at the outline stage that you only have H1 and H2 options and in-line bolds, than to write a manuscript that assumed you can nest H5s and H4s and H3s to go down multiple tiers of sub-categorization. There are all sorts of things—such as sidebars, and tables, and page treatments, and section breaks, and so on—that can impact what makes sense for your headers, and even what your publisher will let you do. But understanding why you need headers, and how to decide what they should be, is a big jump forward for those without a strong grasp of them.
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