(BTW, I also feel this deficiency is not only mine, but an aspect of the hobby itself; I read a lot about RPGs but seldom see these things being discussed in depth, or at least not using a common vocabulary. For example, terms like "narrativism" or "dissociated mechanics" are few and controversial. HOWEVER, if you know a place where I can find such discussions, let me know in the comments!).
First, we must separate a few different topics of discussion:
- Game design.
- Book design.
- Page design.
- Table design.
Even though one can use the word "design" for all these topics, there are some obvious differences.
For example: in RPG context, game design usually refers to something immaterial, that is independent of the book itself. Rules, for example. A weapon that deals 1d6+3 damage, but 2d6+3 on a critical hit is a game design choice.
However, there are material aspects to RPG design. The most obvious ones are the book's visuals: fonts, margins, colors, art, etc.
The most common RPGs books have interesting unique aspects that are not common in other books, mostly because, in addition to being "books" (in the sense of "a thing that you read through") they are teaching manuals (like school books, etc.) and reference books (like encyclopedias).
Manual: a book that gives you practical instructions on how to do something or how to use something, such as a machine:
Encyclopedia: a book or set of books containing many articles arranged in alphabetical order that deal either with the whole of human knowledge or with a particular part of it.
Maybe a better term would be "reference book", a book intended to be consulted for information on specific matters rather than read from beginning to end (source).
This is another topic that seems ignored in our hobby: we often use the same books for BOTH functions. But our children's books are not like encyclopedias; they teach things in a linear fashion.
If you get the 5e PHB, for example, you can see that the usual pattern is:
- This is what "race" means, how to use it. ("manual")
- List of races. ("reference book")
- This is what "class" means, how to use it. ("manual")
- List of classes. ("reference book")
Another thing to consider is that some books are designed to be referenced at the table. While I usually avoid checking rules from the PHB/DMG during the game, it is obvious that the monster manuals are very often used in this way.
This means that these books must give you the information you need QUICKLY; a concern most encyclopedias and reference books don't need!
In this sense, wasting your time (with page-flipping is bad design); which is why most monster manuals will prefer lots of blank space to making you turn the page while describing a monster, for example.
Let me give you another example of the things I'm talking about:
Darkvision is described multiple times in the 5e PHB, often with identical words (especially while describing races). These would indicate that the designer's chose to treat it as a piece of information to be referenced, not taught.
However, in the "arcane eye" spell, darkvision isn't described. Which in theory would indicate that you need to check other section of the book for the explanation.
The distinction is strange. I would assume you do not need references for your race - you only have one race, you choose race only once, so eventually you'd memorize all that your race does - but many characters have multiple spells (sometimes dozens), and pick new spells every level, etc.
In addition, darkvision is repeated multiple times (for reference), but not discussed extensively (for reflection) - leaving lots of room for mistakes, doubts and errata (for example, the book never discusses if creatures with darkvision prefer to use torches, in order to see colors, or prefer to dwell in the darkness to keep a permanent advantage against other creatures).
In practice, it doesn't bother me - I have darkvision more or less memorized at this point - but it makes me feel as if the designers of 5e have not considered these issues.
Well, this "Manual x Encyclopedia" became larger than I had intended.
There are LOTS of topics to cover in these series... Information presentation, user interface design user/experience design, word count, size and format, drop die tables, analog "technologies" in RPGs, multipurpose mechanics, efficiency/elegance, information waste (on die rolls, etc.), information compression, wasted time on dice rolls, granularity, and so on... will try to tackle them next.