Building Rules: 4 Key Questions Every Designer Should Consider

When one wants to extend out a base system to capture the style and feel of a particular genre, one must approach it with common sense and an appropriate aesthetic. Ultimately, there are a few questions which can help sort out the issue each of you should ask yourself when diving headfirst into this sort of design challenge.  Here are four questions I ask myself when filtering through new rules. Let’s address each in turn.

1. Do these (proposed additions) cleave to the core rules?

Extending the core rules should be done rarely, if at all.  Much more common are Edges and Hindrances which modify how the existing rules operate in specific instances. For example, if the rules state characters reduce their movement to half over rough terrain, I could have an edge called Surefooted, meaning the character’s movement is unimpeded by bad terrain. Note: this doesn’t If a new rule is a completely new subsystem, you should strive to adhere to the spirit (if not the letter) of the rules. When developing the Sanity System for Realms of Cthulhu, I used the existing damage track as a familiar analogue and applying it to a new damage model.

2. Do they step on any existing rules?

If an edge is virtually identical or, in fact, identical to an existing rule, it probably doesn’t need to be in there. In certain circumstances, you’ll want to have an edge inappropriate for one genre used in your genre, for example, when we renamed Healer to Doctor for Realms of Cthulhu and made it a professional edge instead of a weird edge. Changing a bit of the text, but preserving the rules was more than a change for change’s sake consideration. What I’m talking about is having an edge which may be something like Heavy Hitter which means you can do Frenzy or Improved Frenzy, but limiting it to only unarmed attacks is moving heavily away from the core rules and is a minor change not really worth making without some appropriate setting or genre underpinnings and is a move towards rules bloat.

3. Are they clear and simple?

Clarity is king. Despite the wonderfulness of the proposed new rule, edge, or what-have-you, if it’s buried beneath an obfuscating pile of offal and meaningless drivel, it shouldn’t make the cut. If it passed the first two questions, you’ll need to see if you can clarify the concept and distill it down to its essence. An example is when I really wanted the various elements to add a tangible, mechanical effect in Iron Dynasty and we were running into numerous roadblocks along the way, I told the team if they couldn’t be cleaned up, we’d kill them, even them they were something I advocated would add value to the setting and give it some of its unique flavor. I came up with a solution which eventually survived vigorous playtesting, and made them stronger than they were in all the previous iterations. However, if it wasn’t keeping this question in mind, they could’ve been muddled. This question is often visited over and over again through the course of a project and all the way into editing.

4. Do they add value for the players (including GM)?

Utility is essential. All rules should add value. We didn’t delve into dealing with computers and hacking and the like in Realms of Cthulhu. We could have, but they wouldn’t have added much to the experience of the players.  We did go into greater detail in how rituals and investigations work–reasonable expectations of the setting. Likewise, in Iron Dynasty, we lightly touch upon how found armor operates–it has to be fitted to the wearer or penalties are suffered until such times as it is fitted. A good rule of thumb on this is think of the setting or genre you’re hoping to emulate and if you can’t think of any more than rare or strange instances when a particular rule would come into play, odds are you don’t need it all. For example, underwater basket weaving does not have a place in any setting I can think of, but I can think of instances where I’ve encountered rules of said ilk. A shorter way to put it is a rule or edge doesn’t need to be included to pad page count. If you have all your rules down and are looking them over, ask yourself, are they cool and useful? If only cool, they are just icing on a cake.

Now, armed with these questions, put your own works to the test. Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!


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