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Worlds of Design: Game Design Rules of Thumb - Part 2

In the first article I outlined some rules of thumb I think are important to keep in mind when designing games. Here's a few more.

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Article courtesy of Pixabay.
A law is valuable, not because it is a law, but because there is right in it.” - Henry Ward Beecher
As a reminder, these rules of thumb are not listed in any particular order. I consider them all important, and speaking of which, here's my two contributions:

Laws of Management

Tn these two statements chaos is by definition undesirable. The first one:
The increase in chaos is proportional to the square of the number of people involved.”
In other words, the bigger the (design) group the more complex things are going to be. Four people (=16) are less than half as chaotic as six (=36 units of chaos).

The second one is something you can do more to control.
The increase in chaos is proportional to the cube of the number of people in charge.”
You don't have to have very many people in charge before you increase the chaos a great deal, and the lesson here is have just one person in charge. One person = 1, two persons =8, three persons = 27 (units of chaos).

Law of Problem-Solving

Well understood problems are best solved by one person; poorly understood problems are best solved by groups of people.
This rule of thumb is actually a scientific observation. Think of adding up a column of numbers manually. Would you rather have a group do this, or one person, especially keeping in mind the group costs a lot more money? If you have one person who is good at adding columns of numbers, that's usually all you need. Use groups to solve problems only when that makes sense.

Laws of Productivity

If you don't make the prototype you are not going to get anywhere.”
I hope this is obvious. You've got to start somewhere, and any game has to be created to be played.
Playing other people’s games rarely helps you design games.”
This is not to say that you shouldn't play games. You need to have played enough games to know them generally, but game design is not about you playing games. For many (but not all) designers, being a designer makes them look at the inner workings of a game, which often results in less pleasure in playing.

Law of Ideas

“‘Great’ ideas are dime a dozen because almost all of the ideas people think are great, are not.”
Ideas are worthless in some sense, because everyone has game ideas just like virtually “everyone” has fingers. Even the best idea can be poorly executed and often is. Many would say there are no great ideas only great games. and we usually don't know they’re great until years after publication. Further:
You have to work at getting ideas, you can’t just wait for them to float by.”
Yes, there are exceptions. But in general, there's a big difference between coming up with ideas and acting on them.

1-10-100 Rule

"Fix problems now to save problems later."
This rule which comes from W. Edwards Deming and is part of what's now known as Total Quality Management (TQM). It’s a rule of thumb. Find the problem, something that needs fixing, early in a production process, and it costs one unit of effort, money, whatever to fix. Find it after production but before it's released and the cost to fix is 10 units of whatever. When the product is out in the public's hands, a problem costs 100 units to fix. Deming was interested in assembly-line manufacturing, but it applies to game design as well. And that's of course why we playtest games. We try to playtest them a lot, to find problems early in the process.

Law of Emotion

The game is not ‘my baby’."
This one is very difficult for game designers who have spent so much time and energy invested in a game. You may feel that way, but to everyone else it’s just another game amongst many. If you treat it like it was your baby, you are more likely to screw it up by retaining things that should be ditched. And by not seeing flaws because it’s Yours.

Law of Exhaustion

The more exhaustive (long) the rules, the more often a reader will get exhausted (or not start reading them).”
The rules of a board game can be too long, but this primarily applies to RPGs. This mileage may vary depending on the kind of game you're trying to create, but generally speaking if you want to make a game broadly appealing, the more complex and comprehensive the rules the less the audience willing to play it. The longest RPG ruleset I’ve heard of is 700,000 words, the equivalent of more than seven novels of average length. Not something I’m going to read to play a game . . .

Law of Separation

"A game requires rules, but does not require settings or adventures.”
I think it's important to keep these separate in your mind. Including a setting or adventure (or both) with a set of rules helps players get going, but those are not part of the game. The game is a set (description) of mechanics. You can have a good setting and a poor game (tabletop Dystopia Rising). Or a bad setting and a good game.

So that's my list.

Your Turn: What have I missed, in your experience?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Emerikol

Adventurer
In the first article I outlined some rules of thumb I think are important to keep in mind when designing games. Here's a few more.

It is rather interesting how well these rules apply to the profession of computer programming.

I've always thought computer programming was a far more creative process than was well understood and that the industry suffered for that lack of awareness.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Law of Separation

I think it's important to keep these separate in your mind. Including a setting or adventure (or both) with a set of rules helps players get going, but those are not part of the game. The game is a set (description) of mechanics. You can have a good setting and a poor game (tabletop Dystopia Rising). Or a bad setting and a good game.
I feel this one is dated and only half the answer. Right now there are two valid paths out there that are both selling and popular. "Big tent" games, where the above is true, and laser focused games like Blades in the Dark that provide strong mechanical support for a very specific feel and setting.

And even for the "big tent" games, it's only mostly true. Someone once told me "a good rule system allows you to play to the archetypes and tropes of the campaign. A great rule system encourages it." So, for example, having a game that caters to both the general tropes of the genre you are going for (high fantasy, swords and sandals, whatever) as well as being able to handle setting specific rules without having them felt bolted on is important.
 


I think the separation of setting and mechanics is a gross oversimplification for RPG's.

No RPG can be played without a setting (unlike abstract boardgames). In an RPG you are inhabiting a world with your characters. The setting mechanics are modelling the physics of that world. Every mechanical decision you make shapes the world the characters inhabit and the experience of the players. If you've got a magic system, there can be magic in the world. No magic system in the rules? Then the default for games set in that world is no magic. That's a huge difference.

Furthermore, the setting and particularly the sample adventure are vital tools for showing the GM who buys the game at least one viable way the system and world are meant to interact in play. The Keep on the Borderlands was AT LEAST as responsible for shaping the first play experience of millions of people as were the basic D&D rules.

As Blue says above, the best games foster a play style where the physics of the mechanics supports the physics and story structures of the world. RuneQuest plus Cults of Prax is a very different beast from D&D with "pick a god, here's a paragraph and a couple of extra spells, off you go". If you want a pulpy story where heroes get captured by bad guys all the time, a combat system where knockouts are easy and dying is hard will do a much better job than a gritty system which models concussions, shock, blood loss and broken bones.

Sure, you CAN run a mega-powered superhero game with the Jane Austin roleplaying game rules. But I submit that you'd have more fun running it with a purpose-built system. Even generic games like SWADE or HERO or GURPS recognise the need for setting-specific options, feats/edges/powers... all sorts of rules. Rules which foster the sort of story the game needs to tell.

And still they mostly play like and feel like SWADE or HERO or GURPS.

For sure there is a difference between detailed setting and genre. You don't need to provide 200 pages of world history in the rulebook information; I'd say it is more valuable to have a discussion of what sort of worlds you can run in the system. But I think you need to be alert to what sorts of worlds your system is intended to support, and an example setting and adventure is a good way to do it, not least because it gives the new GM a huge leg-up on running that first session for their friends.
 

I feel this one is dated and only half the answer. Right now there are two valid paths out there that are both selling and popular. "Big tent" games, where the above is true, and laser focused games like Blades in the Dark that provide strong mechanical support for a very specific feel and setting.

And even for the "big tent" games, it's only mostly true. Someone once told me "a good rule system allows you to play to the archetypes and tropes of the campaign. A great rule system encourages it." So, for example, having a game that caters to both the general tropes of the genre you are going for (high fantasy, swords and sandals, whatever) as well as being able to handle setting specific rules without having them felt bolted on is important.

I see it more separate than that, as I feel there are three paths and not two. You have the very focused systems that are meant to work in a specific setting and feel and do not adapt well at all to other styles. Then you have the mid-range games that are good for a specific setting and feel, but can fairly easily be adapted to other styles. And then you have those "big tent" systems, as you call them, where the rules are as generic and setting-neutral as possible. To me, D&D is a mid-range system, while the truly neutral ones are systems like GURPS or BRP.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I see it more separate than that, as I feel there are three paths and not two. You have the very focused systems that are meant to work in a specific setting and feel and do not adapt well at all to other styles. Then you have the mid-range games that are good for a specific setting and feel, but can fairly easily be adapted to other styles. And then you have those "big tent" systems, as you call them, where the rules are as generic and setting-neutral as possible. To me, D&D is a mid-range system, while the truly neutral ones are systems like GURPS or BRP.
I agree with you about the three.

BTW, D&D is regularly described as big tent, and the even more open are usually described as universal or generic.
 

Laws of Management
Tn these two statements chaos is by definition undesirable. The first one:
[SNIP]

Law of Problem-Solving

Well understood problems are best solved by one person; poorly understood problems are best solved by groups of people.​

This rule of thumb is actually a scientific observation. Think of adding up a column of numbers manually. Would you rather have a group do this, or one person, especially keeping in mind the group costs a lot more money? If you have one person who is good at adding columns of numbers, that's usually all you need. Use groups to solve problems only when that makes sense.
I thought I'd quote these two just in order to question the very first statement "In these two statement chaos is by definition undesirable."

Why? Why is chaos undesirable rather than something that should be constrained but some is wanted? Your "law of problem-solving" actually demonstrates why some chaos is incredibly desirable. If there's no chaos in a situation then the problem should be well understood. And therefore optimal play involves there being just a single player. Meanwhile when the situation gets messy and chaotic you want there to be a group doing things.

I'd also argue that for a standard tabletop RPG it is objectively better to have the entire group of players involved than it is to have a Cyberpunk Netrunner/Shadowrun Decker situation where one player is off playing a mini-game (or the rogue is managing a solo infiltration or the wizard a solo scrying).

I'd therefore say that Too much chaos can bring a game down - but with too little chaos the game gets predictable, boring, and a lot less fun. Chaos is something that should be managed rather than automatically reduced.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I think I mentioned it in the other thread, not re-inventing the wheel is good. If you want to use your d1.93 w/quadratic equation for extreme grappling rules it's going to be like "uh ..." Don't be too surprised if it does not sell vs a 5e based rules set.

Setting is also to me kind of what sells, I mean if, it has hard sf rules for something like planets or spacecraft, cool. Also it can be used for inspiration, or little pieces used spread out.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I thought I'd quote these two just in order to question the very first statement "In these two statement chaos is by definition undesirable."

Why? Why is chaos undesirable rather than something that should be constrained but some is wanted? Your "law of problem-solving" actually demonstrates why some chaos is incredibly desirable. If there's no chaos in a situation then the problem should be well understood. And therefore optimal play involves there being just a single player. Meanwhile when the situation gets messy and chaotic you want there to be a group doing things.

I'd also argue that for a standard tabletop RPG it is objectively better to have the entire group of players involved than it is to have a Cyberpunk Netrunner/Shadowrun Decker situation where one player is off playing a mini-game (or the rogue is managing a solo infiltration or the wizard a solo scrying).

I'd therefore say that Too much chaos can bring a game down - but with too little chaos the game gets predictable, boring, and a lot less fun. Chaos is something that should be managed rather than automatically reduced.
I think he's referring to chaos during design, not during play.

That said, some chaos during design can also be a good thing as it's often true that multiple heads are better than one.
 

To me, D&D is a mid-range system, while the truly neutral ones are systems like GURPS or BRP.
Having played quite a lot of GURPS (although not for years) I'd strongly dispute that GURPS is neutral. First it's a toolkit rather than a complete system; you need to set an awful lot of toggles for any game. Second GURPS always has its grit and its heft; it will always be a bad system for running e.g. a Leverage game. I simply don't believe in the "truly neutral system"
 


Emerikol

Adventurer
I've always been a system guy but an implied setting is obvious. Rules imply the world works a certain way and thus as world builder you have to construct something that fits those rules. That is what I'd call the implied setting. D&D traditionally has always had a pretty strong implied setting.

So I don't think the debate is about implied setting nor is that rule mentioned above. The key is how intrinsically tied the game is to a particular setting. How much work would it be for a GM to extract the games setting out of the rules and play it in their own world? I for one don't want a game that makes it very hard to do that. There are popular games though that do exactly that so on the success meter I'm not sure it's relevant. Either approach can sell. D&D has always been setting neutral. Runequest always had Glorantha by default. World of Darkness is tightly tied to it's world setting.

And before anyone says "I can vary a lot about the world while playing in X", I agree but there is a distinction and you know it.
 

Professor'sLab

Villager
It's where everyone plays a druid -
In the first article I outlined some rules of thumb I think are important to keep in mind when designing games. Here's a few more.


As a reminder, these rules of thumb are not listed in any particular order. I consider them all important, and speaking of which, here's my two contributions:

Laws of Management

Tn these two statements chaos is by definition undesirable. The first one:

In other words, the bigger the (design) group the more complex things are going to be. Four people (=16) are less than half as chaotic as six (=36 units of chaos).

The second one is something you can do more to control.

You don't have to have very many people in charge before you increase the chaos a great deal, and the lesson here is have just one person in charge. One person = 1, two persons =8, three persons = 27 (units of chaos).

Law of Problem-Solving


This rule of thumb is actually a scientific observation. Think of adding up a column of numbers manually. Would you rather have a group do this, or one person, especially keeping in mind the group costs a lot more money? If you have one person who is good at adding columns of numbers, that's usually all you need. Use groups to solve problems only when that makes sense.

Laws of Productivity


I hope this is obvious. You've got to start somewhere, and any game has to be created to be played.

This is not to say that you shouldn't play games. You need to have played enough games to know them generally, but game design is not about you playing games. For many (but not all) designers, being a designer makes them look at the inner workings of a game, which often results in less pleasure in playing.

Law of Ideas


Ideas are worthless in some sense, because everyone has game ideas just like virtually “everyone” has fingers. Even the best idea can be poorly executed and often is. Many would say there are no great ideas only great games. and we usually don't know they’re great until years after publication. Further:

Yes, there are exceptions. But in general, there's a big difference between coming up with ideas and acting on them.

1-10-100 Rule


This rule which comes from W. Edwards Deming and is part of what's now known as Total Quality Management (TQM). It’s a rule of thumb. Find the problem, something that needs fixing, early in a production process, and it costs one unit of effort, money, whatever to fix. Find it after production but before it's released and the cost to fix is 10 units of whatever. When the product is out in the public's hands, a problem costs 100 units to fix. Deming was interested in assembly-line manufacturing, but it applies to game design as well. And that's of course why we playtest games. We try to playtest them a lot, to find problems early in the process.

Law of Emotion


This one is very difficult for game designers who have spent so much time and energy invested in a game. You may feel that way, but to everyone else it’s just another game amongst many. If you treat it like it was your baby, you are more likely to screw it up by retaining things that should be ditched. And by not seeing flaws because it’s Yours.

Law of Exhaustion


The rules of a board game can be too long, but this primarily applies to RPGs. This mileage may vary depending on the kind of game you're trying to create, but generally speaking if you want to make a game broadly appealing, the more complex and comprehensive the rules the less the audience willing to play it. The longest RPG ruleset I’ve heard of is 700,000 words, the equivalent of more than seven novels of average length. Not something I’m going to read to play a game . . .

Law of Separation


I think it's important to keep these separate in your mind. Including a setting or adventure (or both) with a set of rules helps players get going, but those are not part of the game. The game is a set (description) of mechanics. You can have a good setting and a poor game (tabletop Dystopia Rising). Or a bad setting and a good game.

So that's my list.

Your Turn: What have I missed, in your experience?
While playing other people's games may not assist in aiding your design, I certainly advocate to my clients that they should undoubtedly have exposure to a great many games and have "read the literature" of titles in their respective genre.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
While playing other people's games may not assist in aiding your design, I certainly advocate to my clients that they should undoubtedly have exposure to a great many games and have "read the literature" of titles in their respective genre.
I mean who could argue with that? Anyone who wants to master a profession of any sort has to be aware of what the masters before have accomplished.
 

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