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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

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?
Expanding on this point: IMHO the meaty parts of lore are the parts that actually serve as functional plot hooks, whether they are in-universe factions, magic artifacts of ancient history, or cosmological drama that has in-game ramifications that the players will engage.
 

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Expanding on this point: IMHO the meaty parts of lore are the parts that actually serve as functional plot hooks, whether they are in-universe factions, magic artifacts of ancient history, or cosmological drama that has in-game ramifications that the players will engage.

The issue though is you never really know what can become meaty in the hands of the GM. I do agree things can get lost in the lore. But I also think these kinds of rules (similar to the rule on say brevity of text we have in the OSR), while they start from a good place, often lead to products I don't enjoy. For example, some stray legend about an Ogre God who fell in love with an Elf Queen, might be pointless meandering to a lot of GMs, but some might choose to make that story the basis of some artifact plot hook (i.e. maybe the Ogre God Wrote some moving love song to her, and to this day the melody still has power over Ogres----and finding it would prove useful because the kingdom is being invaded by a massive horde of Ogre tribes). This may not be a great example, but the point is, when I am coming up with adventure ideas, one of the first places I look is to the lore, to see if there is anything I can build on for an adventure hook.

My view on design and design principles is you often have a thesis-anti-thesis dynamic that plays out over time. Lore gets too deep, so designers start scaling back on lore. Then it reaches a point where people don't have lore to chew on, so designers start expanding lore again. There is a sweet spot I think. And I think books that hit that sweet spot, feel less pinned to their time. But I do think we can lose too much flavor that the GM needs if we dig into this principle too much.
 

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."

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​


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​

Learn to Love Constraints​

Laws of Game Creativity

Nielsen's First Law of Usability

Law of Inevitability

Sturgeon's Law

Law of Varied Preferences


Your Turn: What game design rules of thumb would you add to this list?
For once, I agree with Lew. I know, I'm shocked, too.

I'll note that one of the "rules" in Elementary Ed is that it's always better to give a prompt, as 90% of students require one.

So those two, and maybe a couple dozen more, out of how many hundreds, or thousands, of games published in the last 50 years?
Tens of thousands. Seriously.
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.
Disagree partially here. One problem I've seen a lot is not explicating core concepts to a common reading level.
Look at the success of 5E... it's written to an 8th grade reading level. Most of Palladium's cores are written to 6th grade reading level. D&D 4E was wordy, but nothing that my 6th grade students couldn't parse (noting that the gamers tended to have 8th grade and higher reading levels).
I'll note that WEG's Star Wars works out to about 7th grade level. Pathfinder, likewise, feels about 9th grade reading level

If they can't understand it, they won't play it.
Rules need to be accessibly written. If they aren't, they don't get used much, and are likely to be used wrong when they do get used.

If it's hassle, Many won't use it.
Complex subsystems that involve a lot of record keeping or calculations tend not to get used.

The key exemplar for both is the AD&D training rules... the bookkeeping was a hassle, the rule was easily misundestood, and very few people used it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Disagree partially here. One problem I've seen a lot is not explicating core concepts to a common reading level.
Look at the success of 5E... it's written to an 8th grade reading level. Most of Palladium's cores are written to 6th grade reading level. D&D 4E was wordy, but nothing that my 6th grade students couldn't parse (noting that the gamers tended to have 8th grade and higher reading levels).
I'll note that WEG's Star Wars works out to about 7th grade level. Pathfinder, likewise, feels about 9th grade reading level
What level would you say 1e was written to? It seemed to do well enough.
If they can't understand it, they won't play it.
Rules need to be accessibly written. If they aren't, they don't get used much, and are likely to be used wrong when they do get used.
More important even than this, they need to be unambiguous. This was where Gygax often tripped up in the 1e rules; he either couldn't find a way to clearly say what he wanted said; or he'd leave out obvious things that should have been included; or he'd be inconsistent from one place to another.
If it's hassle, Many won't use it.
Complex subsystems that involve a lot of record keeping or calculations tend not to get used.

The key exemplar for both is the AD&D training rules... the bookkeeping was a hassle, the rule was easily misundestood, and very few people used it.
You're right in that over-complexity tends to mean something won't get used, particularly if there's a simpler and-or more intuitive way to achieve the same ends. That said, trying to shoehorn too many elements into universal systems (examples: in 3e, the d20 for everything instead of d% sometimes; in 5e advantage-disadvantage instead of +/- bonuses) goes too far the other way IMO, reducing granularity and cutting off design options.

Having some things within the game work on a roll-under-stat system, others work on roll-over-target, still others work on d% rather than d20 - nothing wrong with this at all, as it allows for better tools to be used for each different task. All the rules need to do is make it clear which tool is expected to be used in which situations.
 

What level would you say 1e was written to? It seemed to do well enough.
The PHB seems to be about 9th grade, but the MM and DMG more like college freshman or HS senior/Gr 12. (I'll note that, in 6th grade, I had a college level reading comprehension score on the standardized tests. So reading it in 7th and 8th really wasn't an issue for me, but some of my friends had major issues.)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The PHB seems to be about 9th grade, but the MM and DMG more like college freshman or HS senior/Gr 12.
Cool, that was about my guess as well but nice to have it confirmed from someone who knows this stuff. :)

And that's my point: I'd prefer a game be written to that Grade 12/1st-year college level as it'll then at least give me a first impression of not having been dumbed down.
(I'll note that, in 6th grade, I had a college level reading comprehension score on the standardized tests. So reading it in 7th and 8th really wasn't an issue for me, but some of my friends had major issues.)
I guess I've just never seen D&D as a kids game, though it seems many here started playing quite young.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
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.

Agreed that it's possible to take it to far. It's best in moderation - do it to streamline, stop before you oversimplify.

Though a subsystem designed for a specific task has no indication that it is a better total fit then a general purpose subsystem that is well understood by the players and plays well with the rest of the mechanics so it's easy to adjudicate when different parts are applicable. Look at AD&D 1st with everything having it's own subsystem, and not even any commonality if rolling higher or lower was better. Moving to 3ed where there was a universal mechanic of d20+modifiers to meet or exceed a target DC was a amazing simplification. And you knew how spell X would interact with context Y. If this gave a +2 to these type of checks, t wasn't that it wouldn't affect grappling or whatever because that was a separate subsystem and they didn't think to put in another set of "oh, and here's how it interacts with yet this different thing".

Even with superiour subsystems, it's still worth evaluating if they are worth their weight. Because proflieration of subsystems makes rules more complex which means more need to reference and less the rules getting out the way to let you play. It slows down play which is a huge cost. It may be that having these five great subsystems make combat too slow and players are waiting 20 minutes to get back to their turns and are disengaging, yet if we evaluate them and keep the three that add the most for the least weight we have a good system.
 


clearstream

Be just and fear not...

Game Quality is Proportional to Playtest Cycles​

There is an assumption here that each playtest cycle encompasses an iteration of revision (after all, why playtest if you can't or won't change anything?) Games with more playtest and revision iterations are typically far higher quality that those with less. Good case studies for this can be found in the histories of Nintendo, Half-life, Minecraft, D&D, Cosmic Encounters, and many, many more. The passion of the designer for their game is frequently crucial in driving sufficient playtest cycles. In a sense, this law is a statement of the obvious: more refinement leads to a game being more refined. Games are never perfected - opportunities to notice and make improvements are open-ended - so it is important to be sensitive to the efficiency of your playtest cycles. Which leads into an important corollary -

The More Efficient Your Playtest Cycles, the More Feasible it is to Achieve Higher Quality​

This is why methodically developing your test pipeline is critically valuable in game development. Recruiting and engaging players who represent your audience. Having an efficient way to supply them with prototypes, encourage them to play, and then to collect and analyse feedback. You will hear this emphasised by 5th Edition designers in conference streams: they took a very deliberate approach to recruiting cohorts of players, supplying them drafts of the rules, collecting their responses through online survey tools, and analysing those responses.

I suspect a characteristic shared by many successful game designers is their ability to set up and drive playtesting, and willingness to revise. It gives their games an edge, all else being equal. That's worth pointing out because superficially it can feel like great design is all on the creative side - the outpouring of ideas - whereas many of our most cherished games were achieved as much by of the other side of the equation: the repeated testing and revision of those ideas. This leads to a few useful observations -

Successful Game Designs Build on the Shoulders of Others​

Just as Minecraft built on Infiniminer, DOTA built on Warcraft, Pathfinder built on D&D, a game designer should thoroughly know their field. Other games are in a way the cheapest possible prototypes for your own game: they might have tried the rule you are thinking of and either shown how to solve it, or shown how current solutions are lacking... offering you an opportunity to finesse it. In a way, a game built on the shoulders of another, is just another iteration of test and revise! The first question to ask yourself when thinking about a new design is - what else is out there already that is like what I am thinking of?

Games that are Inherently Easier to Revise have an Edge​

Magic the Gathering was simply super-easy to revise, permitting rapid cycles of playtest and revision.

The Most Important Factor in Game Design is Empathy with Your Audience: Solving Problems They Care About in a Way that is Better Than and Easily Differentiable from Current Solutions​

I think PbtA is an excellent example of this. It was designed by passionate gamers who intuitively noticed an opportunity to solve a problem for their RPG playing audience (and themselves!) in a fresh way. It turns out that game designer as representative of game player can end up delivering some pretty good games. The reason in a word is empathy.

This observation also tilts toward commercial design. One way of putting the work of a designer is that we design things for use. So it is vital to appreciate the use of the things we design and thus vital to empathise with the users of those things. Completing the circuit - it turns out to help if we ourselves are one of those users. However, a difference between amateur and professional design is that the latter may be paid to adopt an audience, while the former are frequently already in that audience.
 

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.

I think it depends on whether you're doing games-as-art or games-as-commerce. To the degree you care about the latter, writing a game intended to make you happy is only relevant to the degree there's a decent market that shares your views. If you're doing game-as-art this doesn't matter nearly as much, of course, but at that point you need to look hard at how much money you're putting into the project.
 

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.

There are also games where a PC can actually get, well, its hands on cosmology (in the sense that they can influence things to some extent at that scale) so it becomes more relevant, but they're the exception.
 

While not responding to anything in particular, I also want to concur with Clearstream above; one of the big problems I've seen with RPGs across my time in the hobby is that they're chronically underplaytested, to the degree of often getting no apparent blindtesting at all. I suppose that's fine if you literally only want to write for yourself and your own gaming group, but for any attempt to reach beyond that at all its extremely likely to produce one or another degree of failure states.
 

practicalm

Explorer
Provide meaningful choices for your players
So many options end up being traps for players that do not look at the effectiveness of the choices available to them.
If there are multiple options make sure that each of the options are attractive in some way that is broadly equal. This can avoid having some options be required thus eliminating player choice.
If 90% of players make the same choices, the other options are probably not good enough.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Provide meaningful choices for your players
So many options end up being traps for players that do not look at the effectiveness of the choices available to them.
If there are multiple options make sure that each of the options are attractive in some way that is broadly equal. This can avoid having some options be required thus eliminating player choice.
If 90% of players make the same choices, the other options are probably not good enough.
Another facet of that is Maximise the Number of Valid Strategies, with the similar implication that - as you say - each of the options should be attractive in some way that is broadly equal.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer

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.” 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?

I would say this depends. Sure if you are Wizards of the Coast, you need to be thoughtful. We have many cautionary tales to go on in that regard.

The problem for a small designer is that doing that research is likely costly and in the end probably won't work anyway. I would say at minimum design a game you love. Unless you are completely out of the ordinary, that means you've included at least a few others. The real trick in my view is asking yourself the question "Would I really love this game if someone else had written it?" You can't love a game because it's your child. You have to love it because to you it is a great game and if someone else had written it you would have been very happy to pay for it. For small game designers, I believe that would be enough.

It kind of goes back to the concept of "To thine own self be true". I on occasion have thought of writing a novel. The book never measures up. I never think to myself - I would love reading this book. So I throw it in the garbage and try again later. I won't produce crap by my standards even if someone out there might like it. I honestly feel if I ever write something I really love then others will love it. But honest to oneself is key.
 

I'll still note that its all very fine to "write what you love" but even in the modern period of PDF games, there's usually some costs involved in a decent looking document, so if you're going to ignore finding out if there's actually a market, make sure to keep those costs well down.
 

Joe Pilkus

Villager
"No rules survive first contact with players"

This is my take on Helmut Von Moltke the Elder's military axiom. In essence, playtest your game, but you must also know when enough is enough and get it out the door. Even after hundreds of playtests, they are no match for the thousand playthroughs your title will receive when it's published and on Gaming Tables.
 

Agreed that it's possible to take it to far. It's best in moderation - do it to streamline, stop before you oversimplify.
Conflation of written for a lower reading level with simpler rules is incoassuming a strong correlation

Good example: the rules for Axis and Allies are written to 6th grade reading level, but the processes aren't exactly simple. The complexity of the combat and research rules doesn't require them to be explained in 9th grade level text... and while a college reading level version might save 2 pages, those 2 pages were better used for the wordier but more accessibly written version, as it hit the space under a LOT more christmass trees that way!
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
"No rules survive first contact with players"

This is my take on Helmut Von Moltke the Elder's military axiom. In essence, playtest your game, but you must also know when enough is enough and get it out the door. Even after hundreds of playtests, they are no match for the thousand playthroughs your title will receive when it's published and on Gaming Tables.
There are several ways playtests benefit game design, and not all of those are to do with surviving first contact with players. One way, which I think that framing speaks to, is playtesting for clarity and balance: proving that the game system is both accessible and reasonable.

On another axis - unrelated to surviving contact with players - there is the opportunity to investigate (develop a feel for or understanding of) variations. Say for example one has a game entity (like a character class) possessing a half-dozen traits, with ideas for a few score options for those. One assays instantiations - i.e. plays each so far as necessary to understand them - and then carries forward what is proving good.

Because of combinatorial effects (in this example, permutations of sets of 6 members with 40 options for each member, no repeats) a game designer uses their judgement to choose interesting sets, and then benefits from each playtest cycle that tests a permutation. They are limited to testing only part of the space - so each test is like a light cast into a black box: it illuminates some of the volume.

I think many game designers end up publishing a game with still further options that they would have liked to have tried out, but did not have time to do so. In the end, one has to go live with a robust version - last minute inclusions are often a mistake. I guess what I am saying is that - yes - there is a way in which it is right not to expect playtesting to solve balance prior to putting your game in the ingenious hands of players* - and there is a degree to which that incompletely describes the purpose of playtesting.

*You can possibly see how this speaks further to playtesting, for instance how contemporary game designers are taking advantage of findings from community testing.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Conflation of written for a lower reading level with simpler rules is incoassuming a strong correlation

Good example: the rules for Axis and Allies are written to 6th grade reading level, but the processes aren't exactly simple. The complexity of the combat and research rules doesn't require them to be explained in 9th grade level text... and while a college reading level version might save 2 pages, those 2 pages were better used for the wordier but more accessibly written version, as it hit the space under a LOT more christmass trees that way!
I didn't talk about lower reading level, so I don't think you are responding to me.
 

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