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Worlds of Design: Game Design Rules of Thumb - Part 1

There are plenty of rules for game designers and even more for role-playing games. Listed here are principles, extreme likelihoods, and observations of behavior, including some "laws."

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Obey the principles without being bound by them.”- Bruce Lee
I’m not trying to dictate these observations to anyone, they are what I’ve known to work and be relevant. These are not presented in any order of importance: to me, they’re all important.

Murphy's Law​

"Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
We can't really leave out Murphy's Law, but it's pretty extreme. The point for game developers is, don't assume that things are going well, rather monitor what's happening to be sure it's going well, or if it isn’t you can do something about it.

Law of Realism​

"You’re most unlikely to get rich designing games.”
In fact, if you want to get filthy rich, you're better off playing the lottery. Phenomena like Minecraft and Clash of Clans and Terraforming Mars are much less common than enormous lottery wins. It’s hard enough even to make a living as a game designer, let alone get rich. See Owen K. C. Stephens’ tweets about the life of a professional RPG maker.

Learn to Love Constraints​

Constraints encourage creativity, complete freedom discourages creativity. ”
Contemporaries have been taught to dislike constraints, but games are inherently an artificial set of constraints intended to result in interesting play. These constraints have been demonstrated in many arts such as music and painting. When you design a game, set limits for yourself to work within and you'll be a lot better off.

Laws of Game Creativity

Games are 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration."
Most of game design is a form of science and engineering. Furthermore, “you can't wait for creativity to come by and knock you on the head.” It's often an active, not passive endeavor, and while you don't want to discount creativity, problem-solving (the science/engineering part of game design) matters much more.

Nielsen's First Law of Usability

Your design will be tested by users. Your only choice is whether to run the test yourself before launch so that you can fix the inevitable problems while it's cheap, instead of playing expensive catch-up later.”
It's actually a law for website development, but applies equally to game design.

Law of Inevitability

If there's a way to play the game that's within the rules, somebody will play it that way.”
In other words, don't rely on sportsmanship, players being gentlemanly, or any other vague notion to prevent someone from playing within the rules. Instead, design the game so that what you don't like is either impossible or impractical because it doesn't lead to success. Fortunately, we have GMs to sort this out in (most of) RPGland, but it’s better not to have to rely heavily on the GM. This is not about loopholes in the rules. Of course these are undesirable, something you don’t want. No, I’m talking about rules being followed as intended, yet the result ends up with a line of play that you as designer don’t like. You can’t say “but that’s not the way I intended it to be played.” Often, the reason people play in what you might think are undesirable ways, is because they found a strategy that works. Camping in video games (turtling in board games) is the obvious example. If the game rules make camping a successful strategy, some people are going to do it, but you can design a game so that camping is not going to be successful; then there will still be some people trying to camp but it won't bother the other players because they know it won’t be successful, consequently rarely played.

Sturgeon's Law

90% (or 99%) of everything is $#!+.”
This law derives from a statement made by a science fiction author long ago. This applies more to academic debate and research than most of life, but in the era where we've lost trust in many institutions, perhaps it’s becoming more apparent how much of life is stuff you should ignore or stuff not worth bothering with. And in game design, most of the ideas and solutions you come up with will be crud; you have to keep searching to find one that’s right.

Law of Varied Preferences

What you think makes a game good, may make a game bad for many others.”
Beyond debunking myths, the most important thing for learning game design is this law. The corollary is “you are not your target audience” and another corollary is “design games for your target audience not for yourself.” This doesn't mean it never happens that people design games for themselves that become very popular. The video game Doom is an example. It worked for them very well, but you can't rely on that if you want a commercial success.

I'll add more rules of thumb in a future article, but for now...

Your Turn: What game design rules of thumb would you add to this list?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
I'm not sure about the Law of Varied Preference. Innovators create the games they want to play. PbtA is good example. Their personal preference coincided with an undercurrent in rpgs and it became a success. Gygax and Arneson created the game rules for the adventures they wanted to play and D&D became a huge success.
 

Puddles

Explorer
Here's a few of mine that I would add to the list :): (most that I have picked up from others).

Game Design is an Iterative Process
You write rules, you test them, you tweak them, you repeat this again and again until the deadline looms and you run out of time to do any more! Usually your rules will start off with a lot of fat, and this process is about trimming them down to the core essentials.

Don't Be Afraid to Murder Your Darlings
As a designer, it's easy to get overly attached to certain mechanics or rules. Often these are rules that are quite convoluted in the pursuit of realism. You should have no sacred cows, and when something isn't meshing with the rest of the rules, or players are struggling to understand the point of the mechanic. It might be time to remove it.

The Shorter Rule is the Better Rule
If there are two ways of doing something mechanically, or of wording a rule. Go for the shorter one.

Use Language Like A Computer Code
I don't mean to not use natural English, I am very much a fan of natural English than game jargon. What I mean is, apply a consistency to your use of language that means you could input it into a computer without crashing. For example, if in your game, each character has a 'Movement Characteristic' that defines how far they can move in a turn. Always refer to it as a "Movement Characteristic", and refrain from calling it something else like their "Speed", "Movement Rate", "Move Value" or anything other than the defined game term.
 
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Ulfgeir

Adventurer
Form Follows Function
Design the rules so that they actually support the intended setting, and that the cool examples you have in your setting-text are actually possible to achieve for a normal player character. This also means that if you want player characters to behave in a certain way to function within the setting, then make sure that the rules put focus on this.

Exceptions are Exceptions
If you build a game then make sure that the rules are consistent, and that the exceptions where something is allowed to break the rules really are exceptions. Then build rules that will handle those exceptions.
 

embee

Lawyer by day. Rules lawyer by night.

Nielsen's First Law of Usability

It's actually a law for website development, but applies equally to game design.

When I was working in my uncle's office, he had me solve a longstanding problem. His law practice relies on paper. Volumes of paper. Many of the forms he needs are even still required to be typed. Like on a typewriter. And because of the field, a file may have a lifespan of years or even decades.

So the first constraint is "This needs to be a file management system for paper files. Digitization is not possible, practical, or affordable."

Most files aren't thick but there is still activity on a large volume. The second constraint is "The system must work within the office's physical space. It cannot be kept off-site."

And my uncle is "prickly." Very impatient. So the third constraint is "The system must allow for quick access to any file."

My solution was to clear out all of the furniture from the front office, get a bunch of storage shelves, and put all of the boxes and boxes of files onto those shelves. It took several tries.

At first, the layout allowed for storage of everything and walking space. But when you pulled out a box, there wasn't enough space. So the shelves had to get spaced to allow for that. And then again to allow someone to walk by another person who might be pulling a file. And then a third time in case two people needed to pull files from the same general area. And then a fourth time to allow for stepladders.

Next, how to place files. The initial thought is alphabetical. But that's a non-starter because that could put a highly active file on a high up shelf. So instead, we did the grocery store method. Most active at eye-level, inactive files on the top-most shelf. But that means a lot of lifting. So then we modified it so that the most active files were at waist-height. You can pull out a box mid way, slide the file out quickly, and shove the box back in in quick fashion.

And the last problem was what to do about the removal of all of the furniture. The solution to that was to leave an empty level for workspace.

You can plan all you want on paper. But you need to extensively test it out in real world situations to see how it will actually function.

Epilogue: In my current office, we needed to figure out how to keep track of files in the banks of file cabinets as easily as possible. How often should we relabel the cabinets, who would be in charge of that, etc. Solution: Go down to the dollar store and buy a pack of plastic alphabet magnets.

Don't overdesign. Simplest is sometimes best.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
One of my core design tenets is to Focus on Playable Content. Ancient history and cosmology are both very cool, but they don't come up at the table much. It's not that I won't engage with those things, but they are very much are not my first concern. I'm going to look at what my design is trying to do and start with the bits and pieces that will support that at the table during actual play, whether that's mechanics, random charts, fluff text or whatever. What do the players and GM need to make this thing I'm doing really hum?
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I would be very interested in actual rules of game design rather than rules about being a game designer. I understand the two are inexorably linked but I have never written anything for money and could care less about the business side of things for myself. I just would like to see advice on rule making.
 

Aldarc

Legend
One of my core design tenets is to Focus on Playable Content. Ancient history and cosmology are both very cool, but they don't come up at the table much. It's not that I won't engage with those things, but they are very much are not my first concern. I'm going to look at what my design is trying to do and start with the bits and pieces that will support that at the table during actual play, whether that's mechanics, random charts, fluff text or whatever. What do the players and GM need to make this thing I'm doing really hum?
Woah! Focus on Playable Content?! Get that crazy talk out of here this instant!
 


One of my core design tenets is to Focus on Playable Content. Ancient history and cosmology are both very cool, but they don't come up at the table much. It's not that I won't engage with those things, but they are very much are not my first concern. I'm going to look at what my design is trying to do and start with the bits and pieces that will support that at the table during actual play, whether that's mechanics, random charts, fluff text or whatever. What do the players and GM need to make this thing I'm doing really hum?

As a GM though, I often need ancient history and cosmology in order to produce adventure content. For example, if I want a cool ancient artifact, it really helps if there is enough ancient lore in the setting for me to draw from. With cosmology that has a lot of utility in terms of understanding the setting when it comes to stuff like making new monsters (something I like to do a lot when I am running a game)
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
As a GM though, I often need ancient history and cosmology in order to produce adventure content. For example, if I want a cool ancient artifact, it really helps if there is enough ancient lore in the setting for me to draw from. With cosmology that has a lot of utility in terms of understanding the setting when it comes to stuff like making new monsters (something I like to do a lot when I am running a game)
Oh, for sure. What I was getting at is not to focus on less gameable content. Some supplements and rule books have page after dry page of history and cosmology and I find it neither interesting nor useful. Cosmology for example, can also be useful gameable content if you dig into church factions, motivations, connections to characters or whatever - you know, the parts that actually make events in the game work tick along and get complicated.
 

Oh, for sure. What I was getting at is not to focus on less gameable content. Some supplements and rule books have page after dry page of history and cosmology and I find it neither interesting nor useful. Cosmology for example, can also be useful gameable content if you dig into church factions, motivations, connections to characters or whatever - you know, the parts that actually make events in the game work tick along and get complicated.

This I agree with. I think a good example, at least for me, is the difference between the Ravenloft Van Richten books when they were made by TSR (which had lore, accounts, etc but it all seemed to help me make stuff in play). The Van Richten Books published by Swords and Sorcery Studios got lost in the lore and background material in a way that just didn't translate into gameable content for me (same with their setting supplements for Ravenloft). I would say the key difference is the S&SS books felt overly self indulgent when it came to this stuff, without enough concern for how it would be put to use at the table.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Hey, fun! Where were these when I was writing? Anyway, let's see how I did...

Murphy's Law​


We can't really leave out Murphy's Law, but it's pretty extreme. The point for game developers is, don't assume that things are going well, rather monitor what's happening to be sure it's going well, or if it isn’t you can do something about it.
I playtested my way up to a 2nd edition. Of course, that's an endless process...

Law of Realism​


In fact, if you want to get filthy rich, you're better off playing the lottery. Phenomena like Minecraft and Clash of Clans and Terraforming Mars are much less common than enormous lottery wins. It’s hard enough even to make a living as a game designer, let alone get rich. See Owen K. C. Stephens’ tweets about the life of a professional RPG maker.
Yeah, I gave up on that, and decided to make my game free. Mostly.

Learn to Love Constraints​


Contemporaries have been taught to dislike constraints, but games are inherently an artificial set of constraints intended to result in interesting play. These constraints have been demonstrated in many arts such as music and painting. When you design a game, set limits for yourself to work within and you'll be a lot better off.
I decided on a rules-lite game, and found myself often saying "oh wait, I can't add this. That will lead to even more rules..."

Laws of Game Creativity


Most of game design is a form of science and engineering. Furthermore, “you can't wait for creativity to come by and knock you on the head.” It's often an active, not passive endeavor, and while you don't want to discount creativity, problem-solving (the science/engineering part of game design) matters much more.
Sounds more like the law of Game Science, but as one might attest, I didn't force any creative ideas into my game :)

Nielsen's First Law of Usability


It's actually a law for website development, but applies equally to game design.
I used it. Had a blast ;)
Law of Inevitability

In other words, don't rely on sportsmanship, players being gentlemanly, or any other vague notion to prevent someone from playing within the rules. Instead, design the game so that what you don't like is either impossible or impractical because it doesn't lead to success.
Ah, the root of the min-maxer. I have yet to find a "wrong" way for someone to play my game, but I'm sure there's something.

Sturgeon's Law


. . . perhaps it’s becoming more apparent how much of life is stuff you should ignore or stuff not worth bothering with. And in game design, most of the ideas and solutions you come up with will be crud; you have to keep searching to find one that’s right.
I might have had this in the back of my mind when I decided against a rules-heavy game.

Law of Varied Preferences


Beyond debunking myths, the most important thing for learning game design is this law. The corollary is “you are not your target audience” and another corollary is “design games for your target audience not for yourself.”
I did not design my game for myself. But I didn't design it for a target audience, either. I guess it's a game for game designers, so I'm following the Law of Realism nicely...
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Subtractive Design
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Do you need this rule? Can it be simplified and moved to a universal rule instead? Can it be dropped completely and the resultly reduction in complexity and time spent make up for it's lack?

Incentivize what you want to see
Rewards, bennies, advancement - use those to shape how the players want to interact to give the feel you want.

For example, compare advancement in AD&D 1st edition, with XP for gold and defeating monsters with the variant in D&D 5e about milestone rewards. But also compare to a system where you gain advancement by failing at important tasks. Right there it is says it's okay to fail, that a character should be trying things that might be beyond them, that it's not only okay to assume risk, it's the only way to grow.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Sturgeon's law is the most relevant. KISS is good too. Design within spec, such as when I do structural steel for an elevator shaft, it is always within the written specs of the international building code, I could calc something outside of that, but why would I? So if you have a mechanic and there is already one there, use it, only design when you have to.

Do it as an art, but don't get too fancy, and if you do, realize when to scale it back.

Ease of use is a real thing, and also keep it concise, three paragraphs should be the max for someone to read and understand one thing. 10 things could still be 30 paragraphs, except don't be surprised if no one reads it.
 

whimsychris123

Explorer
The corollary is “you are not your target audience” and another corollary is “design games for your target audience not for yourself.” This doesn't mean it never happens that people design games for themselves that become very popular.
I think this might be the most important rule. This was one of the issues with 4e. I actually happened to like 4e, but I think they ignored their audience, who didn't want that kind of overhaul of their game.

It will be interesting to see the direction of D&D going forward as a younger generation has new expectations of the game while an older guard wants something more traditional. I imagine the "target audience" will be younger players, which may leave the so-called "grognard" in the dust.
 

I'm not sure about the Law of Varied Preference. Innovators create the games they want to play. PbtA is good example. Their personal preference coincided with an undercurrent in rpgs and it became a success. Gygax and Arneson created the game rules for the adventures they wanted to play and D&D became a huge success.

So those two, and maybe a couple dozen more, out of how many hundreds, or thousands, of games published in the last 50 years?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Use Language Like A Computer Code
I don't mean to not use natural English, I am very much a fan of natural English than game jargon. What I mean is, apply a consistency to your use of language that means you could input it into a computer without crashing. For example, if in your game, each character has a 'Movement Characteristic' that defines how far they can move in a turn. Always refer to it as a "Movement Characteristic", and refrain from calling it something else like their "Speed", "Movement Rate", "Move Value" or anything other than the defined game term.
The risk here is that by constantly reusing the same specific game terms (and RPGs have a lot of 'em), while your rules text might end up nice and tight it won't matter because it'll bore everyone to death before they finish reading it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Subtractive Design
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Do you need this rule? Can it be simplified and moved to a universal rule instead? Can it be dropped completely and the resultly reduction in complexity and time spent make up for it's lack?
It's really easy to go too far on this and take what was a fine rule on its own and ruin it by trying to shoehorn its concept into a universal rule.

There's nothing wrong with subsystems, for two reasons: one, a subsystem designed for a specific task is almost always going to be superior to a universal rule not designed for that specific task; and two, use of subsystems results in a more modular overall design where changes to one thing have less chance of impacting other things.

And this leads me to one design rule I'd toss in here:

Design for an audience that is smarter than you are. By this I mean never dumb anything down, assume your readers/GMs/players are smart enough to take whatever you give them and run with it, and assume good reading comprehension and literacy skills on their part. If your system is any good and people want to play it, they'll figure it out.
 

Marc_C

Solo Role Playing
So those two, and maybe a couple dozen more, out of how many hundreds, or thousands, of games published in the last 50 years?
Yep. Those who fail have glaring design flaws and/or tried too hard to "please the market" and have no soul. There are of course other factors like liquidity and bad business skills.
 
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