Do the Evolution

I realize I could be a little dated. I mean I’m 38 going on 39 the day before Samhain starts. My supposed heyday was about the same time as that of Grunge. (Hence the title of this piece.) Back then, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting (boxed set!) was also the new hotness for the D&D game, and the SSI video games based on it were bleeding edge. (Man, I wish a new Dark Sun video game was coming out for PC or consoles.)

My age, and the fact that I feel life gets better and better, got me thinking about the ways things change. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the way games change.

I started my history with gaming, I realize now, with the D&D Basic Set in 1981. I got the red box, and my twin, Neil, got the blue box—the Cook Expert Set. At the time, neither of us realized that the AD&D game was out there in all its hardbound glory.

We soon rectified that oversight. With our pocket money for doing chores, we bought AD&D books. Despite the fact that we had those hardcover tomes, the boxed sets really shaped the way we played. Sure, we used the advanced rules, but we routed around convoluted bits and anything that was more work than fun.

As the years rolled, and because we had overzealous Christian parents who did away with our D&D stuff, my brother and I expanded our gaming taste. We played the original Palladium Roleplaying Game, Car Wars, Gamma World (Second Edition among others), the first Star Frontiers (dralasites rule), Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP version), and more. I even fooled around with games such as Powers & Perils (now free online), although I couldn’t get others to play it. We later moved on to games such as Rolemaster, GURPS, and the original Shadowrun, as well as the first Vampire the Masquerade and its World of Darkness descendants. (Mage the Ascension, played with GURPS rules, is still among my favorites.) Other D&D grandchildren followed for me, such as Arcana Unearthed (new Evolved) and Mutants & Masterminds.

My time on this planet has allowed me to explore all sorts of games. I played computer games such as Adventure, Venture, Temple of Apshai, The Bard’s Tale, and so on, up to modern games such as Fallout 3 and Dragon Age. Working among a fine gaggle of geeks has allowed me to learn other games, such as Savage Worlds. I’ve also dabbled in indie roleplaying games such as 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars and Fiasco.

What I never gave much thought to when I was younger but amazes me now is that all these games owe their existence to the D&D game. All of them, including those companies other than TSR produced, are evolutionary offshoots of the original D&D game. D&D itself is an evolution of even older forms of wargaming, such as Little Wars and Floor Games by none other than H.G. Wells.

RPGs as Organisms

What if we imagine the original D&D game as the evolutionary link between wargaming and modern roleplaying games of all sorts? I looked again at the basics of evolution before I wrote this, and it seems very relevant. Every derivative game has some part of the original, signs of its ancestry. Like with organisms, variations from the original are introduced in the process of creating a game. Further, more game “offspring” tend to be produced than the gaming environment can support. Traits that ensure survival in a given environment become more common in descendants.

The long and short of all this is that a game cannot remain the same over successive generations in a changing marketplace and hope to survive. It might be able to carry on in limited numbers in isolated ideal environments, the way OD&D still survives among groups who play and love it. If old-school D&D is enjoying a renaissance, that revival is because the game has adapted to the modern gaming environment in important ways. Swords & Wizardry, as just an example, is not the OD&D game—it’s a new animal derived from the old, built to be accessible and free for the new gaming jungle. Still, it lives and breathes only in a carefully cultivated milieu.

To thrive, a game system has to reach its prey, us gamers, and keep us interested. It has to be accessible for new players, yet keep a level of complexity for the seasoned user. It also has to innovate and entertain, this last point based on those among us who read but rarely, if ever, play. (I read tons of games I never played, such as Star Wars d6, TORG, RIFTS, and more.)

The D&D game and its offspring of the same name have always been in a state of evolution, trying to keep up with the changing environment. At times, it evolved too slowly, and although it remained the most widely known of roleplaying games, it almost went extinct.  AD&D Second Edition came about ten years after the original, and the D&D 3e came more than a decade after that. (4e came about 8 years later.) We were graced with the third edition only because some folks who loved the game helped carry on its legacy. D&D‘s diverse descendants almost had to go on without it, and they would have, like any organism does, and might have lived better without their ancestor. (That’s a big maybe that’s also another topic.)

Those descendants changed more rapidly. Shadowrun, for instance, has had five editions in twenty years if you count the most recent 20th anniversary edition. GURPS has had five editions in twenty-five years if you count Man to Man. (The Fantasy Trip might make six versions of GURPS in thirty years, if you’re willing to make allowances. It’s still available.) Vampire: The Masquerade had four revisions in thirteen years. Mutants & Masterminds has had a new version every few years—it was released in 2002 and the third edition is coming this fall (scroll to May 12th).

Game evolution, though, is actually much more rapid than versions of a core game might suggest. Every supplement changes the game. Each sourcebook attempts to adapt the game to its environment and keep the game fresh and young. When system overhauls occur, they’re often based on reasonable forces that call for an improvement. Not the least among these is audience use and feedback, which is easier to come by today than ever before.

Long Live Evolution

The D&D Essentials line might be taken to be a revision of the edition, but to me, it feels more like regular old evolution than any normal revision does. Essentials takes its legacy and tries to thrive in a fresh way. Characters in Essentials can use earlier materials, and non-Essentials characters can play right alongside their newer counterparts. That’s unlike many game system revisions, and nothing like the update from 3e to 3.5.

The Pathfinder game is a more significant system evolution from 3.5 than the Essentials line is to 4e. Preexisting classes receive a working over in Pathfinder in ways that can make past 3.5 materials incompatible or at least in need of serious scrutiny. Changes to these and other aspects of the game can be significant enough that you have to pay attention when using older D&D material.

That fact doesn’t bother me in the slightest, though. Pathfinder is a product of an honest process of evolution, too. It takes hereditary material, gives it a good shake to see what works for the modern environment, and then gives survival a sincere go. Nothing is wrong with that.

If we acknowledge game supplements and updates as part of the evolutionary process, a lot of our games—D&D, Pathfinder, Fiasco, Savage Worlds, and so on—are always evolving. The truth is, and if you’re honest I’ll bet you’ll admit it, we gamers like it that way. In all sorts of games, from the latest Shadowrun sourcebook to the newest Fable video-game release (this month!), we gamers want new stuff to think about, to talk about, and to play with.

My inner fanboy loves game evolution. I express my love by trying out some new games now and then, although admittedly, more and more are electronic games. (Something is to be said for ease and speed of access and play.) Further, I do so by buying a few and even playing a few on an irregular basis. In your way, I’m sure you like game evolution, too, and you put your money where your heart is. Can you fault another gamer for doing the same? It just seems silly to decry another’s evolutionary path when you have your own.


I’ve decided to put my money where my . . . keyboard is. I want to play more games with my fellow gamers. My aim is to expand my horizons and to witness more game evolution. I’ll admit I’m going to favor games I think I might like, but that’s natural. I’m also going to favor games I can play in real time and space rather than virtual, at least for the first part of my trial. My aim is to have fun with potential new friends.

Cameron McNary came up with the title, or I did after failing to completely understand a series of tweets from him. The point is: If you live in the Washington State area and might want to play a game with me sometime, send me an email at the address in my bio below. Include the Thunderdome in the subject, and tell me what you want to run or play.

I’m no Keith Baker with “Have Dice Will Travel.” What I am is willing to do a little roving with my dice, and I might end up in other areas from time to time, such as Virginia and the upcoming NanoCon. I’m also willing to help in a little reaving by running D&D 4e or the new Gamma World occasionally.

I’ll keep you posted on twitter and here. ‘Til next time, I’m out.

12 thoughts on “Do the Evolution

  1. […] Now with the book closed, I have time to breathe and think about the game’s themes. The first and major one is the lack of control by the player. If you’re an optimizer you need to let some of your careful planning go and just work with the character you have, not the character you want, as they say. Even if you can deal with that, however, an Alpha Mutation draw at the start of the encounter can throw a curve ball into all your planning. The second theme is the paring down of powers. Similarly to D&D Essentials there is no longer a giant library of powers to draw on so you have to come up with some better ways to distinguish yourself, for better or worse. The third is just plain silliness. This is a game of android felines and giant tree-people and if you’re not cool with that you should probably keep moving. It’s certainly a game that has fond its own little niche. […]


  2. @Chris: Playing virtual sounds good to me. I’ve been experimenting with GameTable and MapTools, to see how they’d work for a 4eD&D game I’m going to be running online. Currently I’m going to be using Skype and a webcam, and just putting out terrain and minis on the table, and getting the players to tell me where to move their minis. Admittedly, mostly because I’m working on making Hirst Arts 3D terrain, and my efforts would be wasted were I to go completely virtual for the game. It’s possible that it may not be 100% viable, though, so I’ve been checking out GameTable and MapTools to see which is the better option for a backup. GameTable is easier to use, but MapTools seems to have more options.


  3. Alex has a pretty good breakdown of my thoughts above, but I think it’s more than that really. The old systems came back in vogue and some of the old sales methods even (Red box anyone?) not simply because of styistic issues.

    There is also a loop of wants in there and just because you “think” you want something, dosen’t mean you actually do once its tried out. The system may be too combersome and slow, too detailed or not detailed enough. Look at the various detail looks of D&D and it easily falls into this pattern… just as lets say art style does with the above fashion statement. 3rd is clearly Tolkien with the character looks and modern fantasy as far as the clothing and armor. 4th is moreso WoW based in art style than anything I’ve seen.

    Chris, You’ve got some good points on evolution through supplements but I think thats really only applicable in the case of sytlistic considerations unless it just flat out modifies the base rules of the game. Say, a Ravenloft guide versus a fighters handbook. The first is attempting to keep up with fashion (could be steampunk, I’m honestly suprised they’re not pushing that more) the second is attempting to add gameplay depth.


  4. Dralasites Rule! That joke never gets old! (Read the section that describes their sense of humor.)

    I’m actually sort of curious as to why WOTC doesn’t just release some older books. Re-releasing the AD&D core books would be a nice thing to do for the community. That, and perhaps munging all the AD&D modules into one big monster module. (Goodman did that.)

    I’m not sure if I need evolution as you’re describing it. I now feel that more than anything else I want more ‘worlds’ in which to drop my players.

    I do feel the WOTCs new decontented 4e is a step in the right direction. The game is no longer the world. But I also feel that their use of IP and monopolistic control over character generation is limiting my ability to imagine.

    OGLGSL… Apart from Paizo, who exactly did OGL benefit anyways?


  5. I studied both Science (Biology) and Arts (Film) and I think Alex is absolutely right: it’s much more like Fashion Design… because it *is* Design. Any sort of comparison to other types of Design will be more accurate than comparing it to things in Nature. 🙂


  6. @Stuart: It’s true. The metaphor was mostly a fun way to look at it for me. Also, I’m not familiar enough with genetic engineering to make apt correlations. I also wanted to play on some of the images I put in the article, which actually point more to genetic manipulation, too, now that I think of it. The mul from Dark Sun, the D&D clones (not intended to be pejorative), and the Gamma World rat.

    @Alex: Write that article. I’d read it. I have less familiarity with the process of fashion than I do with genetic engineering, though. Much less.

    @Bill: Ah, Wasteland. One of the best games of its time.

    I agree that friends and the table add some magic to gaming, but I experience similar (not the same) magic when I play Borderlands or Left 4 Dead with my buddies. One day, the virtual table will be a good substitute for the actual one. I can’t wait to see the games we play then.

    @Scott: Yep, I left a lot out, too.

    Maybe we’ll have to play virtually sometime. It’s not easy, but it might work.


  7. Nice article. I was thinking about it the other day, how 4eD&D brings back nostalgic feelings for me, since I think it has a similar feel to Basic D&D… simplicity of mechanics, but it adds in a lot of cool powers that I’d wished we had back then. It got me thinking about how it all ties back to Gary and Dave working out all this stuff to run individual people instead of armies, and how that it’s very cool how far it’s come since then.

    We have similar backgrounds, btw. I started with the Holmes edition of Basic D&D back in ’79. I moved on to AD&D in 1980, then tried out Gamma World (1e first, then 2e), Star Frontiers (dralasties DO rule!), Champions, Top Secret, Thieves’ Guild (indie game), and Palladium Fantasy (1e) in elementary school… Marvel Superheroes, Car Wars, GURPS (and Man-to-Man), and Robotech in high school (while continuing on with AD&D), then Star Wars (d6, then d20), Shadowrun, and Cyberpunk in university (again, still playing AD&D, and switching to 2e), then trying out Mage the Ascension after that, moving on to Star Wars d20, 3e/3.5e D&D… culminating in 4eD&D and now Deadlands (run by Craig). There’s a lot I’m missing in there, now that I think about it. I have a list somewhere. I think I topped out at some 30+ different games that I’ve played or at least owned.

    I wish I lived in the NW, since it was cool to play Dark Sun with you at GenCon, but sadly, I am in the SE. You need to come visit Craig so that we can have another game or two.


  8. That was one of the best gaming articles I’ve ever read; it seemed almost-autobiographical of myself, as well.

    I got my wife into the RPG scene in 2000, with the Third Edition, and now she DMs our Thursday night Pathfinder game (this gives me a break, as I run Wednesday night 4E Encounters, Saturday HackMaster Basic, and Sunday AD&D).

    We brought our eldest daughter into the fold when she turned eight, and now, two years later, she runs her own DungeonSlayers (Google it – trust me) and 4E game at school.

    As a former Delegate foe WotC, I love to introduce people to new games once a month at my FLGS. Games like Dreamblade, Hecatomb, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Robo Rally, Vegas Showdown, Guillotine, and The Great Dalmuti. My collection is not limited to Wizards/Avalon Hill games, and I’ll throw together a session of Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, Tales of the Floating Vagabond, Battle Masters, Hero Quest, HeroScape, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, or even Werewolves.

    Sure, I also sat many a night, in front of my Commodore 64, playing the Apshai Trilogy, the Ultima series, the SSI Gold Box games, Wasteland, and Legacy of the Ancients, but it was the good old fashioned pen-and-paper games which had me rolling lots of dice with my friends (most of us wearing Iron Maiden and Judas Priest t-shirts) which are the most fun.


  9. I think what “like seeing new games and what new ideas game designers have come up with” and “The long and short of all this is that a game cannot remain the same over successive generations in a changing marketplace and hope to survive.” point us to a different metaphor. Instead of using evolution, we should look to fashion.

    Fashion needs to change. Fashion goes in circles. Fashion learns from other regions, cultures, times, people. Old fashioned clothes are just as good as fashionable ones, except that they are not a good fit for current tastes.


  10. I’ve always felt the evolution metaphor for game design was rather tenuous and seemed of more benefit to marketing than anything else. In nature an Elephant doesn’t evolve from a Rhinoceros being crossed with an Anteater, but that’s much closer to the sort of change over time we see with games. Game designers see traits in various games they like and choose to deliberately blend them into new hybrid games.

    If we want to use a genetics metaphor for game design it would be something like breeding dogs, or some kind of Mendelian genetics. So in a way a toy poodle “evolved” from a wolf… but not in the way most people think of evolution working.

    All of that aside, I like seeing new games and what new ideas game designers have come up with. Whether that’s evolution or genetic engineering doesn’t ultimately matter… what matters is it a fun game. 🙂


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