You’ve seen “March of Progress,” the famous illustration depicting the parade of modern man’s evolutionary predecessors, from apes to Cro-Magnon. If for no other reason, it’s famous as the setup for a thousand visual gags. As a gamer, the one you’ve probably seen most ends with modern man devolving back into a hunched-over Neanderthal typing furiously on some internet forum. There’s also the one where the fully evolved guy bellies up, after uncounted millennia, to a coin-op arcade machine as though that’s what lured him out of the primordial goo in the first place.

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Like chimps have become people, games have also evolved. Not that the analogy – or the graphic – is perfect. As you read about “March of Progress,” you learn it wasn’t meant to communicate the idea of inexorable, one-way development that slowly replaces the primitive with the more evolved until Homo sapiens is replaced by Homo futurificus with a head the size of a watermelon and godlike psionic powers. Evolution is more accurately thought of as a branching tree with dead ends and parallel development of related species. But whatever you think about Scopes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster and all the brouhaha between them, there’s no question that games have evolved from the decisions of intelligent designers. Looking back on the march of games through the lens of evolution can highlight both the genius and the shortcomings of today’s games.

For these purposes, let’s split out two main evolutionary branches of gaming. On one branch, we have games that primarily involve the manipulation of playing pieces in relation to each other. Call them “competitive games.” The monkey in this picture is the ancient game Senet, or maybe the Royal Game of Ur. Modern man probably looks something like Dawn of War II. These are games that one player wins decisively by trapping stones (Go), capturing kings (chess) or blowing up the enemy’s HQ (take your pick, Commander RTS). Victory conditions exist even for the versions of these games that are played solo.

On the other branch, there’s a strain of games that’s developed much more recently in evolutionary terms. Roleplaying games are less about the manipulation of playing pieces on a physical or virtual board and more about the changes brought about and experienced by players as they negotiate a game world with verisimilitude. This avatar-centric, non-competitive gaming subspecies is a bit harder to see in the uni-browed predecessors of the modern RPG than today’s bleeding-edge games.

The modern roleplaying game grew out of the older, more competitive style at some point between H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, which many consider to be the first modern tabletop war game, and Jeff Perren and Gary Gygax’s Chainmail, the precursor to Dungeons & Dragons. While roleplaying became its own concrete genre with D&D, its players still carried out a lot of the action by moving painted lead figures around on dry-erase battlemats and felt like they had won when they killed the level boss. A lot of people still play D&D that way today.

But even then, the roleplaying game was moving away from its roots as a competitive game. For one thing, the opposing sides were no longer symmetrical. Roleplaying games divided participants into a group of players in one camp and a Game Master (or, in D&D‘s case, a “Dungeon Master”) in the other. The Game Master was more a referee than a contestant. As time passed, pen-and-paper RPGs instructed their Game Masters more and more strenuously that their proper role was to provide a challenge and tell a story, not to win. The 1984 tabletop RPG Justice, Inc., for example, has as its first rule “a Game Master is an entertainer.” It goes on to instruct the Game Master that “you will find much more satisfaction in the thanks [the players] give you for an enjoyable evening of gaming than you will in killing off all of their characters.”

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Although explicit “victory” conditions persisted in RPGs – bring the murderer to justice, overthrow the crime boss, kill the evil wizard, etc. – they became more open-ended and began borrowing from the creative and critical vocabulary of dramas, from short stories to TV shows. Now, in a modern tabletop RPG like Primetime Adventures, the players and their characters essentially make up their own goals on the fly, modifying or abandoning them at will with their invented back stories and free-form personalities the only governing authorities. (See also, for example, Second Life.) These games have multiple, infinite or perpetually postponed endgames, and concern themselves more and more with character arcs, dramatic climaxes and openings in medias res.

But as I stressed earlier, “March of Progress” isn’t meant to illustrate a one-way street where one species replaces the last one wholesale and whole hog. Today, there are plenty of sub-categories among both tabletop and computer RPGs, and they plant their flags all across the spectrum from Chainmail to Second Life. We see games as close to improvisational theater as those in the Scandinavian Jeepform style, and as close to competitive games as the PvP-oriented MMORPG of the moment. Reasonable gamers can argue about whether these fringe cases even fit roleplaying’s core definitions, much like reasonable scientists also argue about what, exactly, constitutes tool use among primates.

Regardless of the taxonomy of these outliers, allow me to make a modest proposal: Maybe now, in 2009, it would pay to eradicate a few of the more vestigial characteristics of the earliest roleplaying games, the ones that just aren’t helping us move RPGs onward and upward. Maybe it’s time for marching progress to leave the roleplaying game’s appendix in the dust of history.

Consider this: Back in the day, Dungeons & Dragons gave us six primary characteristics – Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma. Each was represented by a number on a scale, but the most important statistic for determining a character’s overall effectiveness was its level. Fallout 3, the game of the year in 2008, has seven primary characteristics represented by numbers on a scale, including Strength, Intelligence and Charisma. Agility stands in for Dexterity and Endurance for Constitution. Levels? Check, and now as then, they boil down a character’s overall potency to a single number.

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Fallout 3 isn’t a bad game, and it doesn’t stand alone in committing this particular failure of imagination. A determined ludo-archaeologist could unearth Strength and Levels in the many progeny of D&D from one end of GameStop to the other. But it’s a perfect example of how far roleplaying hasn’t managed to come in 35 years. For everything that Fallout 3, Mass Effect and the others bring to the table, what’s the point of the Strength and Levels, for crying out loud?

Computers have given us instant mechanical resolution instead of mental math and a bag of dice. (Remember Rolemaster? Insert your own “roll”/”role” pun here and grab a Blatz from the fridge, old-timer.) They’ve brought the ability, via the internet, to roleplay anytime and with anyone, instead of only on game night and only with campus buddies. They’ve given us fantastic – and still improving – visuals for the worlds they’ve created. But why do they continue to thrust numerical values for Strength and Levels in our faces? They’re the gameplay equivalent of slowly spreading spider cracks in the windshield of your car – all you want to see is the road, and all you can make out is the glass between you and it, constantly inhibiting the sense that you can fly. Every inessential statistic, every number the player doesn’t need to know to navigate the game world, is a distraction.

In fact, it turns out that Strength and Levels – that is, all of those inessential statistics clinging to new games for no reason other than they were present in old games – aren’t primordial, monolithic, or inevitable. Designers of both pen-and-paper and computer RPGs are questioning these assumptions. On the tabletop side, designers have given us a slew of games in recent years that blow your father’s Oldsmobile – the one that ran on Strength and Levels – into outer space. If you haven’t played or heard of Dogs in the Vineyard, to cite just one example, get thee to a game store. It’s not that it doesn’t have statistics that the player can see – it lives on paper instead of in RAM, so it has to. The thing to notice is that Dogs is relentless in pushing players into meaningful conflict over the things they claim to care about, and making sure the consequences live up to the stakes the players are proposing. Its roots are recognizable, but it also looks forward, and there’s nothing vestigial hanging off that puppy. If roleplaying prioritizes the changes wrought and experienced by player-avatars in a realistic world over the quest for bigger and bigger numbers, it’s light-years ahead of whatever dungeon-crawl game came out last month, where the conflict is no more dramatic than what happens between a bishop and a pair of pawns.

And that’s not bad, as Progress goes.

Jeff Tidball is a freelance writer and game designer. Through the magic of V.A.T.S. he can hit a typo in the head with 99-percent accuracy. Come say “hi” at gameplaywright.net and jefftidball.com.

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