Archive for April 4th, 2011


Evolution and Runaway Selection in RPGs

Peacock, thy name is vanity; likewise the RPGA

When we talk about new role-playing games versus old ones, it’s tempting to draw a parallel to evolution. New and shiny ones must be better than their progenitors because they’ve had thirty-plus years in which to evolve, right?

The subtler fallacy here is equating evolution with progress. Natural selection is blind; it’s not tirelessly working to produce a better organism, it’s just rolling the dice on a bazillion character sheets and tossing them into an arena. If, umpteen iterations later, you find that fighters predominate and wizards have become extinct, this doesn’t really mean that fighters are better, just that they happened to be the ones who got along best in this particular arena.

I call this one subtle because, unlike evolution, there are in fact lots and lots of intelligent beings working night and day to make a role-playing game that is actually better than its predecessors. After we raise a glass to these stalwart champions of progress in the field of RPG design, I’ll point out that over time, lots of things that happen in gaming look more like blind chance than intelligent design. Great ideas get forgotten by future generations, while bad design gets ensconced (or, probably even more often, good design gets misunderstood for the worse by a generation of players, who then write it into the next wave of rules). Marketplace pressures seem more random than planned; no hardcore fan of RPGs doesn’t have their own list of good games forgotten because they didn’t sell, and others whose commercial success was undeserved when judged by system quality alone. And, as I’ve said here before, the new generation of design often addresses the things that its ancestors didn’t do well, rather than actually improving on the things that previous games did best. Seen in the right light, the supposed march of progress turns out to be a ring-around-the-rosy. Meet the new boss OSR, which is the same as the old boss precisely because it’s rebelling against its immediate predecessors.

The fallacy I think is easier to see is that, when we think about evolution, we almost always conceptualize it only in terms of natural selection where the most fit organisms survive. Sexual selection, the evolutionary driver we don’t usually think about, makes the more obvious counter-argument against the idea that newer games must be better. As Berkeley’s website Evolution 101 puts it,

It might be tempting to think of natural selection acting exclusively on survival ability—but, as the concept of fitness shows, that’s only half the story. When natural selection acts on mate-finding and reproductive behavior, biologists call it sexual selection… Sexual selection is often powerful enough to produce features that are harmful to the individual’s survival. For example, extravagant and colorful tail feathers or fins are likely to attract predators as well as interested members of the opposite sex.

I think that it’s more intuitive to think about how runaway sexual selection can invalidate the myth of progress in RPG design because we tend to lionize those who design games but mistrust those who buy them. I believe that my favorite designer is working to make a game that’s better than the ones he has at home; that’s why he does it, right? That’s natural selection for fitness. But it’s also easy for me to believe that this better game won’t survive because consumers are going to be attracted to the hardback with the full-color illos of the gorgeous woman with big fake boobs and not enough clothing; that’s sexual selection.

(Note that in this analogy the thing that gives a RPG a competitive advantage unrelated to the quality of its system doesn’t have to be actually, you know, sexy or even sexualized. A cover that grabs the eye and makes a sale regardless of the contents is what we’re talking about as sexual selection here; I just couldn’t think of any examples, like lots of guns or mecha robots, that weren’t open to charges of being sexualized imagery.)

This big dangling sac carries a high survival cost, outweighed by its advantages in sexual selection. Remind me to tell you about female hyenas sometime.

To make this theory more concrete, here are some examples of what I see as sexual selection in RPGs – cases where you get a ginormous peacock tail or cricket sperm-packet not because it makes you more fit to survive, but rather because it helps you close the sale &  become omnipresent among the next generation.

  • The RPGA. It seems to me that WotC’s RPG design has, over time, moved in the direction of extremely comprehensive but thoroughly dissociated rules which fetishize balance between the players, discrete packets of encounters, and the highly predictable outcome and goodie-yield thereof because this helps them find mates in the organized play community. I don’t think this is at all the same as “fit for survival in the larger marketplace,” because over time the RPGA has undergone its own runaway sexual selection. An emphasis on character optimization and grinding to level up, and the associated habit of steadily purchasing new RPG material, tends to drive away more gamers than it attracts in my experience. But these same characteristics, along with its high organization and visibility, allows the RPGA to inordinately draw the attention of the folks who decide what kind of RPGs WotC should be making.
  • Employment for game designers. I don’t think it’s ever been proven that some variation on the Monopoly model, where you just have the one game and sell it unchanged for all time, wouldn’t move more units of D&D than constantly selling new editions and supplements. What I do know for sure is that, if you did that, there’d be no work for guys who want to make a living doing D&D design. Like most gamers, I dream about having the job Gary Gygax invented for himself at TSR. Can I really say that if I became lead designer at WotC, I’d put myself out of work by calling a halt to the supplement treadmill and the edition cycle that keep me so well exercised? I strongly suspect that the design spaces of 4E and similar modern RPGs – elegant, complicated, balanced, precise, leaving lots of little techy holes to be explored and filled in – are another kind of peacock’s tail, whose effectiveness at convincing game designers to make more of that kind of game is way out of proportion to their fitness in producing satisfying play experiences among the total population of everyone who might like RPGs.

Since this post makes a blah blah sound but is long enough already, here’s a quick Joesky tax:

When you’re playing a RPG and need to introduce a new personality, roll 1d6. Odd means that personality is male; even is female. I find that the White Sandbox is unexpectedly full of powerful female characters after using this rule for over a year. Better yet, they surprise me and often circumvent stereotypes because I think of their role and personality first, then find out what their gender is.

The size of the number signifies age, so that 1 is a boy, 3 is a man, 5 is a grandpa; 2 is a maiden, 4 is a mother, 6 is a crone.  Doug Kovacs points out that RPGs (and fantasy in general) has plenty of beautiful young ladies and ugly old ones, but a 1 in 6 incidence of plain middle-aged women is unheard of (in part, he says, because they tend to get art-directed away when he tries to draw ’em).

Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2011
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