Rams’ Ten Principles of ‘Good Design’

I was poking around the interwebs, as you do, when I stumbled upon the ten design principles of Dieter Rams.  Rams is an industrial designer who used to work for Braun in post-war West Germany.  He designed some of the most iconic consumer electronics of the period and his functionalist design ethos heavily influenced Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive and their work at Apple.  How could this possibly relate to game design, you might ask?  Read on!

Good design:

1. Is innovative – The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

There’s a reason this is number one.  Innovation creates markets.

There are hundreds of different fantasy roleplaying games; Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Middle-Earth Roleplaying, the Palladium RPG, etc but they all exist in the Fantasy RPG market. The Fantasy RPG market is over-saturated at this point and hasn’t grown significantly for some time.  The success of Paizo and Pathfinder has come at the expense of 4e D&D, for example; they aren’t creating new Fantasy roleplayers out of thin air. Why?  Because there isn’t anything fundamentally different about the experience each of them provides.  You could say they each innovate in different ways in that they may have more realistic combat or more intricate skill systems or more detailed settings but, guess what?  That’s not innovation.  Innovation is not designing a better Fantasy RPG with more or different bells and whistles.  Innovation is offering the player something they’ve never experienced before.

White Wolf’s greatest triumphs, for example, have come from their innovative games: they ignored the dominant Tolkien-based explore-fight-loot model and instead created a World of Darkness interested in modern-day horror and political intrigue.  The times they have branched out into different genres they have met with critical, but not commercial, success.  Why play Trinity when you already own Traveller or Star Wars?  Why play Aberrant when you already own Marvel Super Heroes or Heroes Unlimited?  Why Play Exalted when you already own D&D or MERP?  This isn’t to say that non-innovative games can’t be successful, but think about this:

Magic: The Gathering created the market for card-based games in 1993 that enabled Wizards of the Coast to eat TSR and the D&D gaming line whole by 1997.

That’s innovation.

2. Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Its all very well creating a new experience, but if you don’t make the game playable, you might as well take your dice and go home.  Minimise the amount of crunch to make it easy to pick up and play.  Chess is a complicated game to master, but the basic rules are simple and can be summed up on a single sheet of paper.

Hell, minimise the fluff for the same reason.  The more you can simplify the initial user experience the more likely people will understand it.

Licensed properties have an easier time here as instead of having to explain the world you can point to a book or a film and say ‘read/watch that’.  The problem with licenses is that they tend to limit your audience to those people who were already fans of the original book, film or comic.  If the license has a lot of role-playing fans you’ll be okay, but it’s unlikely that the licensed game will ever be as popular as the original product.

You could go the ‘inspired by’ route, which is a convenient way to describe the game in a hurry.  Recent Kickstarter project School Daze asks if you remember high school as depicted in ‘Saved by the Bell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Breakfast Club, or Brick’ and Fiasco is inspired by films like Fargo, Way of the Gun and Bad Santa.  This short hand can be a little disingenuous (Brick and Saved by the Bell, really?) but it imparts the flavour of the game in a succinct way.

Going back to White Wolf, the settings of Exalted and the Trinity Universe might be impressive, but having copious amounts of detail may actually be a barrier to entry in these cases – if you have to wade through 200 pages of background before you roll up a character it’s not something you can pick up and play.  While the World of Darkness has a rich mythology it can be easily described as our world, but shittier and with real monsters.  The clan system in Vampire: The Masquerade provides another short hand way of getting the players into the game faster – want to play a conflicted musician?  Try clan Toreador.  A loner naturalist? Gangrel.  A rambling madman?  Malkavian.

Remember you are not just competing with other pen & paper RPGs anymore!  If I can choose between playing World of Warcraft with my friends now or spending a couple of hours reading a game’s back-story and rules before creating a character and then sitting down with them, I know that I’m more likely to go with the online RPG because it’s more convenient.

3. Is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the game needs to be beautiful or feature full-colour artwork, but some consideration of how the game looks and feels is essential.

This could also relate to the simplicity and elegance of the rules.  Lumpley Games’ Dogs in the Vineyard has a wonderful set of rules that evoke the flavour of the wild west and the type of game that it wants to play by deploying a system of raises, folds and calls.  It’s evocative because it directly references something that is intimately tied in to the western genre, the poker game, without being a direct copy of it.

Dogs is also a lovely book physically.  It is in a comfortable form factor for reading and carrying about, being small in terms of dimension and page count.  It has only 12 pages of artwork, including the cover, but each is the same sparse style and each reinforces the theme and mood of the game.  The book’s layout is simple, clear and includes compelling stories that reinforce the mythology of the game.  Even though the book is detailed it has a sense of openness created by the wide page borders and line spacing.  It feels like it could be an artefact from the world it is trying to represent.

4. Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Layout and structure should be clear, unless your design goal is to deliberately obfuscate and confuse the gamesmaster or players.

As well as bringing clarity, the layout and structure should also express the type of game you want to play.  That means putting the important and cool stuff in prominent places.  if your game has unique mechanics or an interesting setting, make sure that they are at least summarised within the first few pages of your book.

A problem with the White Wolf’s Aberrant is the main rulebook starts with nearly 100 pages of background material.  This leaves the reader with two impressions: You need to read this stuff to play the game and White Wolf’s background should be important to the gamesmaster’s campaign.  You could use Aberrant’s rules as a basis for your own superhero campaign setting, but the Aberrant back story is tied to the rules in not insignificant ways, particularly the source of Aberrant superpowers and Backgrounds.

The opposite is true for the 4th edition D&D Player’s Handbook, the rules are clearly laid out and lead gently from character creation, through powers and feats, to combat.  But there is no setting to guide you at all.  This is, of course, because D&D encourages many different settings and to give prominence to one in the main rulebook would be to the detriment of all the others.  But consider a first-time player, someone who has entered Barnes & Noble and picks up a copy of the Player’s Handbook.  What they see is a collection of tables, numbers and rules that don’t tell them what it’s like to be a fighter: your hand slick with your enemy’s blood, clad in Starmetal, clutching the Barbed Blade of Hubris and hearing the lamentation of their women.

5. Is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

A friend of mine was running a Warhammer FRP game and the players were trying to get from one part of a village being attacked by chaos hordes to another without attracting any attention to themselves.  They reached a high wall surrounding a church and the GM asked them to make a Scale Sheer Surface roll.  Being inexperienced adventurers, they failed, and kept on failing until they decided it was easier to attack the rampaging beasts of Nurgle than get over the damn wall.

Was this fun for the players?  Not really.  It wasn’t a tense moment where getting over the wall was life-or-death; they eventually found an alternative route and play continued.  Was it fun for the GM?  Almost certainly not, he was trapped as much as they were.  The problem he faced was once you’ve set a difficulty for a task, it’s hard to fudge it in the player’s favour after the fact or back down from the initial set up without losing authority.

Who’s at fault here?  I believe the system has to shoulder some of the blame, as it encourages you to make rolls for uninteresting things by having a skill to roll against.  Is scaling a sheer surface interesting enough to warrant its own skill?  Unless you’re being attacked by something, it’s unlikely that you’ll fail or that the act of climbing will create enough tension for it to be interesting in and of itself.  You could make combat more difficult, and make falling a consequence of missing or botching a roll, but that raises the stakes of the scene and adds to the drama rather than detracts from the session’s flow.

So, why bother creating rules to climb over walls if the only consequence of failing is that you don’t get to climb over that wall?  You could say ‘Why bother creating rules to arbitrate combat if the only consequence of failing is that you fail in combat?’ but this is a little disingenuous – combat encounters give players interesting choices to make and failing in the encounter will have bigger consequences than simply not winning.  There is a growing movement of games that tell the gamesmaster to ‘say yes or roll the dice’, Diaspora by VSCA Publishing and Dogs in the Vineyard for example.  In situations were there is little at stake, the GM should simply say yes.

If the main focus of your game is combat, then outside of combat, could you let the players do what they want?  If you put a mechanical arbitration system into your game it should be fun, not just a barrier to doing what you want to do.  If the players want to do something interesting then you need some way of dealing with it, but if it’s just climbing over a wall, who cares?

Should the system attempt to model or arbitrate the most important aspect of the game?  A game like Call of Cthulhu, for example, could really do with a good system for researching and uncovering knowledge, as that is one of the primary activities of Investigators.  The current method works but its not exactly compelling, is it?  I haven’t played the Gumshoe powered Trail of Cthulhu, but all indications are that this is exactly what this spinoff does.

In essence, the system should not get in the way of having a good time.

6. Is honest – It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Reward behaviour that you want to see.  D&D is clear about the behaviour it wants to see: you fight for experience and loot.  Skill challenges are rewarded, but not as much as combat is, so they seem less than optimal ways to get experience and items.  Luckily for D&D, combat is fun in and of itself, so it’s a win-win situation for player and gamesmaster.

Looking at the reward/experience systems of games gives you an insight into the type of game the designers had in mind when designing it.  Call of Cthulhu and Cyberpunk reward players for using skills, White Wolf games reward roleplaying your character well and Fate rewards players that go looking for trouble.

I don’t know if the designers of Cyberpunk added the life path section to character creation before or after they’d finalised how deadly combat was, but it does make character creation interesting and fun.  It’s a smart move as players aren’t discouraged from taking risks in combat by a clunky and painful character creation process.  Having said that I once spent a morning when I was a kid rolling up eight characters in quick succession, all taken down by rogue headshots, that wasn’t much fun.  I think I carried on with a dim conviction that I wasn’t going to be beaten by dumb luck.  It turns out that, yes, I was.

So clearly there are two ways to reward the behaviour you want to see – make it pay or make it fun.  Good games will do both.

7. Is long-lasting – It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

This is the point where I argue that licensed games are doomed to fail.

To be sure they make money if they’re brought out in a timely fashion, but can you think of any that have stood the test of time as good games in their own right?  The obvious answer is Call of Cthulhu, but I’m not sure that’s your typical licensed game.

Any others?  The success of games like TMNT, the Ghostbusters RPG, Star Wars and Star Trek are heavily dependent on the popularity of the licence.  If the licence falls foul of fashion then no matter how good your game is, people just won’t play it.  Taking a look at the computer MMO market is instructive here, Lord of the Rings is a reasonably successful MMO, but is certainly not a market leader, despite the health of the licence.  The Matrix Online, once heralded as the next big thing in MMOs thanks to the all conquering Matrix licence crumbled and disappeared when interest waned in the films.  There are so many factors out of your control that once you’ve hitched your wagon to a licence that it seems inevitable that unless it’s an evergreen, like Star Wars or CoC, which are already taken, you will struggle when the going gets tough.

8. Is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

You could read this as a call to model every possible outcome through dice rolls or card reveals.  I think, this would be a mistake.  As previously discussed, rolling to see if you can catch a trout, or repair a shield buckle or cook a stew aren’t necessarily entertaining if you’re playing D&D.  They are certainly necessary and need to be entertaining if you’re making a game about fishing, repairing or cooking.

Exalted is a game about conflict on all sorts of scales and every theatre.  It attempts to model every possible way these conflicts could play out, be it through debate, personal combat, skirmish warfare or state and continental diplomacy.  While it achieves the goal of making sure important actions/interactions are modelled, it is debatable if they are always entertaining.  The charm system is heavily skewed towards personal combat, so the other interactions are less interesting as there are fewer options for players.

A different example of thorough design is Fiasco.  Every meaningful interaction during play is settled mechanically; how each scene plays out and what happens to the players at the end of the acts is settled through selection or rolling of dice.  The beauty of Fiasco is that the only random element is the roll at the end of each act, every other mechanical interaction is still dictated by a choice of the players; choose to set up the scene or resolve it, choose a good or a bad resolution.

I’m thinking now about an Exalted playset for Fiasco…

9. Is environmentally friendly – Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

This is a tough one to make fit, but I’d suggest that you make positive games.  What I mean by that is you should make games that, at the very least, aren’t derogatory, anti-social or encourage criminal behaviour.  It’s a fine line, but take the example of Cyberpunk 2020.  Cyberpunk is about rampant capitalism and the destruction of the human spirit in the face of technology.  It’s a depressing concept, but it’s also a warning.  It can, of course, be played as something that glorifies criminal activity.  You can skirt the morally ambiguous line playing mercenary street gangs, but the game itself doesn’t reward you for doing so and has a brutal combat system that kills players more often than not if they do get into combat.

It’s a bit of a joke around our table that if a system doesn’t have a Humanity stat, like Vampire, we feel we have no obligation to be nice, decent people when we play.  That aside, White Wolf show their talent for game design by including the Humanity/Path/Road system.  Not because it tells you how you should play, but because it gives your choice consequence.  The game is designed from the ground up to be an exploration of humanity so it makes sense that there is some measure of a character’s moral rectitude and a mechanism for it to be changed.

It also wouldn’t be a bad thing to offer environmentally friendly products in terms of their production and dissemination.  Specify paper that meets sustainable or recycled standards for print versions or offer an electronic version to reduce your environmental impact.

10. Is as little design as possible – Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

If it’s not important, chuck it out.  Don’t set out to create a 400 page epic.  And if you do get to 400 pages take a long hard look at what you’ve got and ask yourself what’s important and what could be edited down without making the game less fun.

And, as brevity is the soul of wit, and I’ve already been typing for an age now, I shall depart.  Let me know what you think, either here or on Google+.