Writing Basics: Introductions for RPGs
This is only the second article I’ve done on “game writing basics” (the first being on Headers for RPGs), and like the first one this is designed to cover a topic that I never got a lot of training on in school. In this case, that topic is “Introduction,” by which I specifically mean the text at the beginning of a product, book, chapter, or section (likely with its own header—these things are often interconnected), that explains what’s actually in that section of text. Ideally, it’s interesting to read, gives the reader some idea of what information is coming and why, and gives some context how that material connects to other books/products/chapters/ or sections of text.
That paragraph right above this one? That’s in introduction.
Like headers, I am moved to write about introductions because there are something I see so many new writers not have any idea how to handle. All to often if I contract someone to write a 5,000 word pdf manuscript that covers a topic, the text I receive leaps right into the details of that topic with no warm-up prose. For example, I have gotten bestiaries that open with the name of the first monster, class write-ups that open with a description of the role of that class, and articles on GM advice that leap into what you should and shouldn’t do at a game without ever mentioning they’re supposed to be collections of GM advice.
An introduction doesn’t have to be very long, but it’s both an important way to set expectations of the reader, and a great way to include some information that applies to a whole section but may not make sense anywhere else. For example, if I had begun this blog post with just “Introductions are the text at the beginning of a new section of writing, and are important for explaining what is coming and why it matters,” anyone reading this article would rightfully wonder both why they care, and why I thought the topic was worth writing about. When used to introduce a new section within a larger text, an intro also lets the reader know the old topic has ended, and that they are moving on to something else. If you have a chapter on weapons, and it begins with melee weapons, a simple 1-2 sentence introducing the section on ranged weapons helps the reader know they have finished the melee section, and are moving on to different kinds of weapons. It delineates the beginning.
That said, while introductions are read at the beginning of a section of text, it’s often useful to write them last. In part, this is because an introduction serves to let the reader know what topics and ideas are going to be covered, and until you’re done writing a thing there’s always a chance that its focus and exact contents are going to shift. At the very least, it’s a good idea to re-read your introduction after you’re done with everything else, to make such it still matches in tone and details.
One great way to get a feel for introductions is to pick up books you don’t remember having introductions, and then finding and reading them. Often you don’t remember an introduction not because it’s missing or bad, but because you only needed it when you first picked up a book, and haven’t looked at it since. This is especially true for books that you frequently reference, but rarely read cover-to-cover, which is true of most readers of most RPGs. Much like a good editor, a good introduction is often at its best when it goes nearly unnoticed.
There are also things an introduction isn’t. It’s not the table of contents, index, apologia, masthead, dedication, short fiction lead-in, or credits page. If it’s appropriate you may cover some of the same territory as an apologia or dedication, but only when those serve as the kind of context a writer really needs to appreciate the words that follow. It also serves a slightly different function than a foreword, and a book can have both a foreword or an introduction, or just one, or have a single piece of text serve as both (and possibly not be labeled as either).
Ideally, an introduction feels short compared to the section of text it introduces. For most game books, one or two pages is normally plenty for your introduction, though if you are introducing a 4-500-page book, even three or four pages is a perfectly reasonable introduction. For shorter things, such as a single article, chapter, or lengthy blog post, a paragraph is likely to be enough (though if you combine this with art and/or an art element this may still take up a full page or even two—for the most part, that’s a publisher/graphic designer decision, but it’s a good idea to study the introductions of your publisher’s products to get some idea of how much text they need). For a short blog post of something that’s just a new header in a larger section, a single sentence is often enough introduction.
In many ways, the simplest way to decide what goes into your introduction is to ask yourself what someone who was asked to read the following text might ask about it, and try to answer those in broad terms. For example, if you asked someone to read a new RPG, they’d be likely to ask what it’s about, and why you think they would benefit from reading it—that information makes for a great RPG intro, as long as you keep it appropriate short. For things that introduce sections within a larger work, the intro just has to cover questions that would be asked by someone who already knew what book they were reading.
For example if you have a book about new equipment in a game, its introduction can assume people know what game it is for. Then if there’s a chapter on armor, that introduction only needs to discuss things specific to armor, since the reader already knows they are reading an equipment book. If there’s then a section on light armor within the chapter on armor in general, a short intro (maybe as little as a sentence) tells the reader that instead of information on all armor, you are now talking about just one subset of that topic.
While writing introductions can be awkward the first few times you do it, with practice it becomes second nature. In addition to helping your writing seem smooth by preparing the reader with a guide and context for each thing they write, it can also help you as a writing by giving you a tool to help define what you are trying to create, which may focus your thoughts during the writing process, as you subconsciously begin constructing an introduction in your head. It can also help you think about how to draw a section of writing to a smooth and satisfying close, so no one ends up feeling left hanging when they come to the end.
But that’s a topic for another day. 😀
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