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Indexes: Who Loves Them?

Posted By Scott Martin On March 24, 2010 @ 1:21 am In Gaming Trends,Reviews,Tools for GMs | 31 Comments

I know that I’m a little out of the loop on a lot of things. When did we as roleplayers sign on to loving indexes? I don’t hate indexes, let me put that out there right away. (Put down those pitchforks!) I love them, particularly in cookbooks. But I rarely use an index, and don’t often miss it when it’s absent.

Index of my DMGOn the other hand, I know a lot of reviewers make a big deal about indexes: Martin’s reviews here on the Stew let you know whether the index is an embarrassment or not. So do many reviews on rpg.net.

A few years ago, my D&D3.5 DMG lost a few pages at the end of the book. Pages 311 to 318 went missing– for a while I kept them tucked in the book, loose, but eventually they dropped out of the bag. I doubt I’d ever have noticed if I had only lost the indexes, but I lost a few pages of glossary and definitions, which matters to me a lot more.

A popular early product for 4e was improved indexes. The Gamer Dome hit 2,000 downloads and garnered a lot of praise for producing a more complete index that WotC supplied for their Player’s Handbook.

On the FATE mailing list, I remember (but can’t find) a question that was asked about the index at the back of Spirit of the Century and what lessons they had learned. The Evil Hat guys stepped right up and admitted that their tiered index structure hadn’t quite panned out and that they’d return to flatter indexing for their upcoming products. If you flip to the index at the back of Spirit of the Century, you will notice that it’s set up more like a recipe book, in groups. “One Hand on the Wheel” is listed under Stunts/Details. The drawback is that if you don’t know that it’s a stunt, you probably don’t know to look it up under Stunts… and it’s not listed separately alphabetically, so you might spend as much time hunting though the index as you would flipping through the book. To me, it’s not a big problem: but that it’s important enough to ask about fascinates me.

Aces and Eights has a book index on the website, rather than in the book. I don’t mind the absence of an index, but have no idea who a downloaded index is supposed to serve. I suppose index lovers could download and print it, then add it to their binder or something. Does providing an index online and allowing users to download it mitigate the lack of an index? It only serves those who care enough about indexes to hunt one down. Is an index that you have to download good enough for index lovers?

So, help me figure out what a card carrying RPG lover is supposed to think. Is there a widespread love of indexes and I’m off in the fringes? Does your heart beat more rapidly when you see a meaty index? What do you look for in an index, and how many pages can a book have before an index is needed at all? Or are you one of the people who rarely notices an index at all?

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

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31 Comments To "Indexes: Who Loves Them?"

#1 Comment By whateley23 On March 24, 2010 @ 1:55 am

I’m in favor of good indexes for books of larger size. I don’t always remember where a particular rule or example is when I need it, and an index is perfect for finding those. They probably aren’t needed on books of 48 or even 64 pages, but much larger than that, and they become essential. Indices exist for ease of use of reference products, like larger RPG books.

#2 Comment By Noumenon On March 24, 2010 @ 4:02 am

With RPG books, you tend to look up the same stuff again and again, so it’s wise to make your own index by writing down the page number inside the back cover when you find it.

Ctrl-F makes indexes nearly obsolete for books available in PDF, so it’s probably not worth the money — if you can get a PDF copy, just run to your computer for those tough reference issues.

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On March 24, 2010 @ 4:34 am

I’m constantly looking up rules whenever I prep or play. (maybe once per prep session, and once every few times we play) A good index is a godsend, because even if I remember the general section in the book in which the rule I’m looking for is found, the index gives me an exact page number, so it’s often quicker to check the index and then the chapter in question than pawing around randomly.

I won’t not buy a product that has a poor index, but it’s definitely frustrating to need and not have one.

#4 Comment By Rob Lang On March 24, 2010 @ 6:48 am

In games over a certain length, I like a good index. This is because an RPG needs to serve as something that is read through and a reference manual. A bit like those programming books “Teach yourself X in 24 hours” or perhaps ‘The Illiad’ – yes it is a story but if you need to reference it, an index list of everywhere that Achilles cries like a little girl is useful too.

A large Index is not very useful. It’s all down to picking the right keywords. A keyword of ‘Skills’ isn’t very useful if it takes you to the start of 100 pages of skills. Better keywords are those things that are referred to in more than one place.

#5 Comment By tallarn On March 24, 2010 @ 6:49 am

Indexes are useful early on when you’re learning a system, as they make sure you’ve got a chance to find what you’re looking for. Later, when you’ve been playing the game a while they’re less important as you can normally just flick through the book.

Case in point – the Savage Worlds core rulebook has no index and is continuously frustrating when you’re trying to learn how to play the game. I can’t find anything in that book in less than 5 minutes.

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On March 24, 2010 @ 7:49 am

This also baffles me. I had one reviewer lament the lack of an index in one of my books. When I asked what should go in such an index, I got no response. All of my stat-like things are organized together, I don’t introduce any new terms that are referenced multiple times, each section is in the table of contents, and none of my sections are longer than a page. What should an index have?

#7 Comment By Dunx On March 24, 2010 @ 8:00 am

I don’t love indexes, but I miss them when they are bad. For some reason the Call of Cthulhu indexes seem to be especially spotty (3rd ed and 6th ed are the ones I have) – I can never find the explosive damage rules when I need them.

Maybe the reaction to indexes is a function of the level or type of prep that GMs do? I will readily concede that I don’t know the rulebooks backwards, since I am usually focussing on the story.

#8 Comment By Rob Lang On March 24, 2010 @ 8:01 am

@Swordgleam – how long is your book? How many pages is your contents page? How many sections do you have?

If your book is short, then there might not be any need.

An index is, after all, a lookup system. A series of shortcuts through your book. A contents page is an ordering by type and section whereas an index is an alphabetical lookup. If your contents page is long, it might be unusable because the reader has to scan through what you believe to be the best organisation for a book. Alphabetical lookups are agnostic, they only require you to list recurring terms, link similar terms and group by type.

Wikipedia has some good pointers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_%28publishing%29
I’ve used this page before when creating academic indexes and will use it again for Icar:

#9 Comment By Hawkesong On March 24, 2010 @ 8:08 am

I find an index useful in any book longer than fifty pages; I also am a fan of cross indexing things under multiple entries in an index (especially for core books). I suppose the utility of an index does depend on the user, but speaking for myself I never read straight through a rulebook and make notes or memorize page numbers. I have a friend who does, and I still say he’s batty.
One of my favorite indexes (as an example of what I find most useful) is in the back of the Magic Item Compendium (D&D 3.5, WotC). It has a large appendix that is set up like an index, which lists pretty much every single magic item you can think of in the D&D books. But it doesn’t just list the items (by category as well, so all rings are in one section, all hats are in another): it also lists the page number AND BOOK that the item appears in. This becomes massively useful when I need to look up a magic item description. One of my favorite things to do for prep is the creation of loot hoards. Individual monsters won’t carry much more than coins and perhaps a trinket or a single good weapon/item. But in their lair, all their accumulated wealth would be stashed; so I create a list of what items would be there. However I often don’t include details like page numbers (much less full descriptions!), and sometimes I then find I have to look the item up in the middle of the game. That index has seen a LOT of use.

On a slightly related note: who writes in their books!?! I was raised with a librarian’s sense of how to treat books so writing in my rulebooks is a pretty big no-no. Am I the only one who feels that way these days I wonder?

#10 Comment By Hairball of Doom On March 24, 2010 @ 8:22 am

An all-inclusive index is a marvelous thing; it often contributes to whether I want to buy a book or not.

For example, Old World of Darkness books had abominable indexes, and it’s contents page usually consisted of four or five chapter headers that didn’t explain what was in the chapters. If you wanted to find any rules in there you would tear the pages out in frustration.

However, I purchased Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition specifically BECAUSE of it’s index, which covered everything in every released Shadowrun book at that time. It was ~12 pages of glorious all-inclusive index. If I wanted to find the details of a specific character flaw, I would find it in the index and it would say what book and page in that book it was.

A bad index makes for an aggravating experience. I can’t understand why a bad one even makes it to printing, except for the dreaded ‘cost-cutting’.

#11 Comment By callin On March 24, 2010 @ 8:50 am

More complete indexes!
Virtually every RPG game has a long list of rules and exceptions to those rules. A question comes up and I dont want to read an entire chapter to get to the rule; an index can put me on the page I need as opposed to the Table of Contents which puts me on the chapter.

My biggest problem is that over 30 years I have played many many different RPGs and sometimes (ok, more often than it should) I can forget which rule applies to which game. How is line-of-sight measured? It depends on the game and often the edition. Charge? Grapple? 4E D&D is similar to 3E or 2E or 1E and sometimes the rules blur for me. To get a clear ruling I need to look it up.

Looking up rules also happens alot with a new game as people get used to it. Once you get it down, you no longer need indexes, but until then they are a valuable asset.

My blog- http://bigballofnofun.blogspot.com/

#12 Comment By ColoQ On March 24, 2010 @ 9:04 am

I flat out *need* an index. I admit it: I am a bad DM Monkey. I faked my RPG Rules Law degree. I am less of a capable rules lawyer and more of a rules para-legal.

Each system has a basic set of core mechanics. The d20 system, for instance, is basically: “Roll a d20, add a number from your sheet, compare to other number obtained from somewhere else, & resolve consequences.” This covers 95.9999% of all actions in the game. This is where I focus my attention.

The key is to know what the basic numbers are, and why the numbers are used for any given situation. There is a fundamental logic to the numbers: they represent a real-life analogy to something, (ie: 3.5 style Base Attack Bonus represents general skill at hitting things with sticks).I also remember ancillary, yet generally recurring items that are not part of the core mechanic. Again in 3.5 terms this was things like, AOPs, basic movement rules, how a spell save is generated etc.

Ask me about grapples, over runs, Cleric turning, bardic knowledge checks, the price of half plate, the spell failure chances of different items, which light spell cancels darkness, overland travel rates. Why keep that in my head? Thats why we bring the books to the table. Thats why they made the index.

When I learn a new system the core mechanic is all I learn, I read about the “wierd” actions or other things, so I can be familiar with them when they arise, or so I can suggest them to my players as valid options.

With a good index, I can have the answer in about 1 minute. With a bad one, I end up just winging it, and returning to the base logic of the core mechanic. Sometimes this annoys players, but this is usually the fully pedigreed Rules Lawyer type from the RPG Ivy Leagues.

#13 Comment By Omnus On March 24, 2010 @ 9:23 am

I would say indexes are extremely useful in games with multiple handbooks that reference each other (like the 2nd & 3rd Ed. D&D Core Rulebooks). If you work out of a single book and it’s brief enough, or you don’t separate things from a “player’s section” and a “Storyteller’s section” with clarifications of the way a particular item works, a good Table of Contents serves well enough.

I especially like to see cross-referencing (if not a multi-volume index) for supplemental books. If your new book sheds some light on a older rule, I want to be able to flip open to that rule or item quickly.

That being said, as I become more comfortable with a particular book, I tend to memorize important pages. I’m also a more on-the-fly Dungeon Master, and I rarely stop to look up rules unless there is a point of contention. But if there is a page that I know I will be opening to again and again in reference, I will either tab it (with those wonderful labeling sticky tabs) or a nice ribbon bookmark and a spot of glue. For instance, the Challenge Rating chart and the XP table on my 3rd Ed. DMG for D&D are beribboned. This treatment really doesn’t have a lot to do with an index, but it is how I get around without constantly referencing one.

All in all, a full, complete index is a plus as an aide to help you learn a game. For that reason alone, it’s a part in my consideration for any game. The more complicated or involved the set is, and the more willing I am to buy into a game with multiple rulebooks, the index is a nice item to sweeten the pot.

#14 Comment By BryanB On March 24, 2010 @ 9:25 am

I am a fan of indexes, especially in large books. They are very useful when finding that one rule that gets used once every ten gaming sessions: The rules that no one can remember other than there is some kind of rule in the book somewhere.

Indexes are particularly good when dealing with a crunchy rules system. They make rules referencing a little eaiser when trying to find details on those fiddly bits of rules minutia that all crunchy systems tend to have.

The only time a lack of index will stop me from buying a product is if the table of contents is too broad and the system crunchy enough to need to look things up frequently. For those books, an index is a must have.

#15 Comment By Scott Martin On March 24, 2010 @ 9:26 am

It looks like you’re all over the map too; a few passionate index lovers, a few “meh, never use ‘em”, and a lot of “they’re great at first”. I really like Dunx’s explanation: “I don’t love indexes, but I miss them when they are bad.”

@Hawkesong – I treat my books very well and never write in them. Well, for the building code I handwrote the errata in the margins, but I never write in novels and RPG books.

The points so far have been great. I like Hairball of Doom buying a book because it includes a complete index, and do admit that I love Magic Item Compendium’s index. I look forward to reading more takes on indexing…

And does anyone get the idea of a downloadable index? Would you use it?

#16 Comment By MadmanMike On March 24, 2010 @ 11:33 am

I love indexes. But I’m also a librarian, so that might be a given.

Indexes have an ISO guideline, if you’re interested:

as does alphabetic/numeric organization:

Indeed, there is even a whole textbook on subject of indexing (from NISO press):

Sharn: City of Towers doesn’t have an index (though I think Keith Baker put one together himself) and it is a fact I lament to this day. Finding anything in that book can be a pain. The table indexes in the 3.5 DMG were also a frequent go to for a quick page reference.

#17 Comment By vestenraider On March 24, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

While I don’t actually look at the index when considering purchase, I have been frustrated on more than one occasion by bad ones. There are two basic reasons for this.

First, as ColoQ mentioned, I simply don’t memorize the finicky rules. Whether it’s a lack of brain space or simply a lack of dedication matters not; I need to look stuff up. (This is especially true if the GM screen is useless or nonexistent.)

Second, let’s face it, sometimes books are just badly organized, no matter how cool the concepts or even how tight the rules actually are. Just the other day I was looking up a particular world-spanning Baddie. I had to look in five different places in the book to get the whole picture – and two places in the index, even! Without the (admittedly scatter-shot) index, I never would have found all the information. A book with crappy organization can be saved by a halfway decent index.

That said, we frequently tab up our larger tomes for ease of reference, so the indexes in those books only get used for very specific things.

Also, a poorly done index is as useless as none at all.

#18 Comment By Mairkurion On March 24, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

An index is a must, and a poor index drives me crazy. So far, I’m much happier with Pathfinder’s indices than the original 3.5 core books’ indices.

#19 Comment By Sigurd On March 24, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

I cannot believe anyone, anywhere, at any time, in any country, in any state of mind thought so little of their audience that they excluded an index. They are easy to make. Made once by the publisher\writer they are enjoyed by all the readers\purchasers of the book or whatever.

I may skip whole chapters that don’t interest me but I will always find myself using the index. Unless you are publishing a story where chapter headings suffice there is no excuse for not having a good index. It may be boring to the writer, who knows the material, but for any reader who isn’t going to internalize every comma of your work it is essential.

Most gaming books are lists of rules. Lacking an index to me is a sign of disrespect. You make your work for the reader. Indexes are a mechanical thing and a few extra pages. Don’t assume. Be useful – you’ll sell more books.


#20 Comment By Gamerprinter On March 24, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

I admit if I use indexes quite a bit. Usually after the first thorough reading, I have a good idea on major aspects, but when later referring to this or that rule, having an index to remind me where its at is important.

Regarding a downloadable index? Well, it depends if I thought a book missing an index was a major problem for me, and I even joined the ranks of those who complained about such on the system’s forum – then if the company provided a downloadable index as a kind of errata. Then yeah I might download it, otherwise???

I do like hot-linked indexes in PDFs. Because the Pathfinder Core and Bestiary, for examples, are both such thick books – the hot-linked indexes are essential. Though I find that I have not done the total reading of the Bestiary, having relied on the indexes too much. I missed out on some creatures not doing the total read through – only finding them by accident, because they were listed above or below a critter I had found in the index.


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#22 Comment By Alan De Smet On March 25, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

I love indices. I use them frequently, and when they’re not there, or worse, are poor, I tear my hair out. I recently read Mouse Guard and am in the middle of reading Burning Empires. Neither one organized the information in a way that worked for me, so I spent lots of time cross referencing things trying to build a complete understanding. Whenever I needed to look up a topic, the index would only help about half of time. I spent a lot of time flipping through the book looking for things. It was really frustrating.

#23 Comment By evil On March 26, 2010 @ 10:29 am

Honestly, the index only really matters to me when I’m checking out a new system for purchase or when I’m searching for a specific rule. At those two times, the index is massively important. Since an index is usually a reflection of how logically and smoothly the rules are put together, a bad index means no purchase. During games, if I can’t find what I’m looking for after about 30 seconds of searching, I just throw the book aside and make up a house rule (as a DM, I can do this). Either way, a bad index can kill a game’s flow or lose a purchase.

#24 Comment By Lord Inar On March 28, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

I like an index too, but having tried to do one that was good, and then calculating the amount of work it would take for dubious value (I believe most of the people who buy the products I’ve worked on get a PDF) it just didn’t seem worth it. Therefore I’m now much more sympathetic to books that don’t include one than I was before.

#25 Comment By Roxysteve On April 14, 2010 @ 9:41 am

Depends on the type of game.

I once spent the evenings on an out-of-town training course indexing my copy of Warhammer 40K Rogue Trader.

Well, in my defense, I *was* stuck in Downtown Albany NY.

Indexes are essential to any game with prose rules, second only to well-organized, logically presented rules. I should say that too many editors do not know the essential difference between an index and a table of contents. I’ve several things in my game library that have two tables of contents but no usable index.

However, for non role-player games the easiest and best answer is to abandon the cutesy two square foot bedsheet rulebooks of chatty prose, so popular in games of late (koffArkhamHorrorkoff) and return to the Avalon Hill/SPI/TFG “case” format, a rule-writing style that approached hyperlinking in its clarity and all-but removes the need for an index of any kind (the rules *are* the index).

The nature of RPGs makes “case” structured rules a bad fit though, as a trip through the SPI RPG “Dragonquest” will illustrate. RPG’s benefit from loose rule structuring because most of the material needs to be absorbed (by the would-be GM) *before* play commences. Even GURPS – where assembling a character can feel like AP Calculus – wouldn’t really be improved by presenting the core rules in a case structure. What is needed then is a damn good index that compliments the table of contents.

Indexes break down when important material is in sidebars instead of in the body of the rules, though. Sidebars should be used only for illustrating a rule laid out in the rulebook OR for giving in-game rules that cover the page’s descriptive overview. The key is to keep the page/sidebar roles consistent throughout the rulebook.

Otherwise you need to indicate in the index whether the indexed entry is in the body of the page or in a sidebar so a player/GM doesn’t spend fruitless hours trying to find an obscure rule they *know* they’ve read somewhere in the mishmash, oversized nightmare the publisher has the nerve to call a rulebook.

Do you hear that, makers of Order of the Stick :The Dungeon of Dorukan?



#26 Comment By Sigurd On April 14, 2010 @ 10:59 am

@Lord Inar – Its a mechanical, uncreative process for the convenience of your reader. With computer word processing, I don’t see it as being different from proper spelling, paragraphing and pagination.

Butt ewe kan disgree wif me & l8r pfs wul B lk dis. :)

#27 Comment By Lord Inar On April 14, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

Yeah, I’ll still disagree. There’s usually only one spelling for a word, and grammar is pretty set as well.
I had a much longer reply, but I can see where this will go, so I’ll stop now.

#28 Comment By Sigurd On April 14, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

@Lord Inar – Let me agree with you that I see the cost\profit\benefit analysis can be against a good index. I was over simplifying things and deserve some disagreement.

For me, an index on a manual is a mechanical thing that can be done, so it should be done for a good product. I can respect the caveat that says ‘its extra work’.


#29 Comment By Lord Inar On April 14, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

@Sigurd – No problem. I just wish indexes were easier to generate, or maybe I’m not using the right software (entirely possible, Luddite that I am.)

#30 Comment By scruffylad On April 18, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

I’ll say it right now, I like indices. In part because I’ve used them in other contexts, and found them indispensable.

But when I GM, I’ve also relied on them. Usually it’s in the middle of combat, and one of my players wants to use some sort of combat maneuver that we don’t necessarily see that often. So we need to look it up, and maybe I know that it’s somewhere in the “combat” chapter, but not the exact page. Having the index tell me the page saves me time that I would spend flipping through the chapter. Really, that’s the big plus of an index – the time it saves you in-game. It’s bad enough you have to look up the rule, but if you have to stop and hunt for it first, it just slows the game down even more.

Things I reference all the time usually have sticky notes as bookmarkers. (Like D&D’s infamous grapple rules. We always had to look those up, it seemed.) But for the things that aren’t a constant issue like that, it’s nice to be able to find it quickly in the index, and go straight to that page. So a good index is, imho, pretty essential for a rulebook of any size or complexity.

#31 Comment By DjKen On July 27, 2010 @ 11:34 am

Yes I use indexes to i love them not really because most indexes are hard to read and hard to follow now a table of contents is all i need to find what i need indexes in my mind are point less

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