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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
The benefits of blindtesting aren't so much about balance (though they can inform that) so much as allowing the author to know that there are assumptions they're making about the routine end-user and how they'll use the system that may be faulty. Its obviously true that a couple hundred playtests isn't going to be as revealing as the (presumably) at least couple thousand you'll get once its released in the wild, but if you manage to avoid pre-selecting too badly for a subset of users, you can at least find some way around your own expectation blindspots.
 

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Runestones

Villager
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.
Hi Puddles. I am a coder. Totally agree, why write 3 lines when you can write 1? Why repeat when you can do it once?

I do worry about a few things though:
  • Do people value rules by weight?
  • Is there not an intrinsic pleasure in browsing through 200+ manual.
But on the other side, I definitely believe that we lose a lot of would-be gamers because they are just over faced with the rules. I have often thought even the ever-present Monopoly would never get off the drawing board in the modern world because it's too complicated.

I have managed to write a complete rule set in 1,700 words (with some caveats) - less I think than Monopoly's rules ;)
 

Puddles

Explorer
Hi Puddles. I am a coder. Totally agree, why write 3 lines when you can write 1? Why repeat when you can do it once?

I do worry about a few things though:
  • Do people value rules by weight?
  • Is there not an intrinsic pleasure in browsing through 200+ manual.
But on the other side, I definitely believe that we lose a lot of would-be gamers because they are just over faced with the rules. I have often thought even the ever-present Monopoly would never get off the drawing board in the modern world because it's too complicated.

I have managed to write a complete rule set in 1,700 words (with some caveats) - less I think than Monopoly's rules ;)

I also love big books with lots of content, but love it even more if it is very modular and each section is quick and easy to grasp allowing you to expand upon it at your own pace! :)
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Hi Puddles. I am a coder. Totally agree, why write 3 lines when you can write 1? Why repeat when you can do it once?

I do worry about a few things though:
  • Do people value rules by weight?
  • Is there not an intrinsic pleasure in browsing through 200+ manual.
But on the other side, I definitely believe that we lose a lot of would-be gamers because they are just over faced with the rules. I have often thought even the ever-present Monopoly would never get off the drawing board in the modern world because it's too complicated.

I have managed to write a complete rule set in 1,700 words (with some caveats) - less I think than Monopoly's rules ;)
I'm a coder too and very much believe a lot of code is too long but being short can be bad if it's too short. I want it to be easy to comprehend so short but not too short.

I also love big books with lots of content, but love it even more if it is very modular and each section is quick and easy to grasp allowing you to expand upon it at your own pace! :)
I think options like spells, feats, etc.... are different from rules. I also think rules the GM can use to generate things or make out of game decisions are not as big a deal as those used in the game session. The session needs to flow easily.

For example, I think the rules in ACKS at the table are pretty simple. I think though that ACKS gives DMs a lot of rules for campaign building and management. Those rules are mostly out of game die rolls so having to look through a table is no big deal. It's like treasure tables. Don't roll those at the table. Roll ahead of time if you use them.
 

Runestones

Villager
I'm a coder too and very much believe a lot of code is too long but being short can be bad if it's too short. I want it to be easy to comprehend so short but not too short.


I think options like spells, feats, etc.... are different from rules. I also think rules the GM can use to generate things or make out of game decisions are not as big a deal as those used in the game session. The session needs to flow easily.

For example, I think the rules in ACKS at the table are pretty simple. I think though that ACKS gives DMs a lot of rules for campaign building and management. Those rules are mostly out of game die rolls so having to look through a table is no big deal. It's like treasure tables. Don't roll those at the table. Roll ahead of time if you use them.
Yes, I agree - you can have much reference stuff as you like: monsters, spells, treasures, etc. Core rules though - absolutely need to be short. Of course, a lot of stuff just doesn't need saying these days - there is an established 'way' of doing things. In some ways this is my biggest problem I face - 'cognitive dissonance' - which is to say - everybody expects the rules/tools to do something specific, the same thing it normally does - but some of my stuff works totally differently.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Yes, I agree - you can have much reference stuff as you like: monsters, spells, treasures, etc. Core rules though - absolutely need to be short. Of course, a lot of stuff just doesn't need saying these days - there is an established 'way' of doing things. In some ways this is my biggest problem I face - 'cognitive dissonance' - which is to say - everybody expects the rules/tools to do something specific, the same thing it normally does - but some of my stuff works totally differently.
Good points. I would even venture to say that many house rules are not good. For me the minimum requirement, is the DM be upfront. Obviously the players need to explain if they object to a rule change. I think though if I can live with the rule I will defer to the DM. If the DM is a good DM, then I can defer more because all the rest of the good things he or she brings to the table is worth some less than best rules pain.

And I think absolutely a core rule change is far more perilous. I also think any change should to the best of the DM's ability fit into the pattern of the rules. I also think that "realism" changes are also perilous mainly because D&D really makes no pretensions to realism and often the rules exist more for balance. For example, giving the Rogue a sneak attack with a bow is to me a completely different skill from what we think of as traditional back stabbing. So I could empathize with that DM's desire to be more realistic. The problem is they put that ability in to balance the Rogue. They don't care about realism. That is the problem with the house rule.
 

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