Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Heteromorphic Novelty: A Prelude to Extinction

The approximately six-hundred million year history of multicellular life on Earth is an ongoing story of adaptation, speciation, and extinction.  The story is read in the layers of sediment, that unfold like pages in a book, divided into chapters defined by global mass extinctions.

I spend much of each day metaphorically swimming in Earth's ancient seas, observing the ebb and flow of life and reading the 'pages' of deep time to reconstruct the ancient world, and there is a frequently recurring pattern of morphological adaptation that is as fascinating as it is enigmatic: heteromorphic novelty.  By this I mean the tendency for taxonomic groups, usually at the level of class or order, which have maintained a conservative morphology throughout their history, to produce wildly aberrant forms as they approach extinction.

It is often the case that as you proceed up through a stratigraphic succession, all the species of a given taxonomic group exhibit little change until you start to get close to the group's extinction horizon.  As you get closer to the omega layer you start to see species appearing with bizarre morphological forms that defy the imagination.  If you can forgive my irresistible urge to anthropomorphize, it is almost as though the group is making a desperate attempt to avoid it's fate.

There are many excellent examples of late stage heteromorphy, and it can be seen in many taxonomic groups, most famously, ammonites, trilobites, brachiopods, and bivalves.  For example, throughout the Jurassic and most of the Cretaceous, ammonite shells were a conservative, simple coil:

Jurassic ammonite, Perisphinctes
But by the Late Cretaceous many species had such aberrant shell morphology that swimming must have been impossible for them:

Late Cretaceous ammonite, Nipponites

Similarly, the trilobite order Phacopida exhibited a fairly conservative morphology throughout the Ordovician and Silurian periods:

Ordovician phacopid, Dalmanites
But in the Devonian, when the phacopids went extinct, extreme morphologies arose, such as this specimen from Morocco:

Devonian phacopid, Walliserops
While it is usually misleading to apply evolutionary metaphor to human activity, the human brain is predisposed to recognize patterns, and given how I spend much of every day, I can't help but see some parallels between hetermorphic variation in pre-extinction clades and recent activities at Wizards of the Coast.

For months now, we've been hearing rumours that 4E has been losing market share to Pathfinder; rumours that have now been confirmed, such as recently reported by Cyclopeatron.  Simultaneously we are seeing some rather sudden drastic changes at Wizards of the Coast, such as the discontinuation of their plastic miniature line, and the cancellation of several upcoming 4E books, as well as the release of their line of collectible power cards for 4E.  Greyhawk Grognard has recently made some insightful predictions about where WotC is going with all this, and I can't help but see these sudden changes in direction as the type of desperate innovation to stave off exctinction that I regularly see in the rock record.  Indeed, this recent activity reminds me of nothing so much as what TSR was doing in the mid '90's, and we all know how well that turned out.

I think that the desperate pre-extinction gambits that we saw from TSR, and that I believe we are seeing from WotC, is a result of hobby companies being run, not by the hobbyists that founded the companies, but the executives and corporations that came to own them.  When you know nothing about the hobby, and care even less, it is difficult to understand how to proceed when people aren't gobbling up your product the way you expected.  Just as Lorraine Williams presumed to make management decisions when she didn't know the first thing about what gamers wanted, it's difficult for WotC to salvage their 4E line when Hasbro executives are screaming for profits - especially when they keep laying off the creative minds behind the line and destroying any continuity of vision (as myopic as that vision may have been).

So here's my prediction: we'll continue to see increasingly bizarre 4e product releases for the next few years until WotC's version of D&D ceases to exist as an RPG.  Oh, I think WotC will keep chugging along, and that D&D will continue to exist as a brand name, but that brand will consist of products that have nothing to do with roleplaying games, and will inevitably dwindle to insignificance.  The rest of us will slow down to ogle the car wreck on the highway, then carry on to the beach, playing and publishing the games we love thanks to the OGL, while we surf the ebb and flow of speciation and extinction in the gaming hobby.


Trey said...

There's an undeniable logic to your premise. It certainly has an air of "throw everything against the wall to see what sticks." I guess we'll see,

Cygnus said...

Whew! I wasn't sure where you were going with this post. I was worried that your conclusion would be that the recent proliferation of new "retro-not-quite-clones" was evidence for bad times to come for the OSR! (And especially bad for me, since I'm going to be adding to that fray with my own game...)

But I do agree with where you actually went. Agree or not with Grognardia's description of RPGs as a kind of "transitional technology," but I'd bet there are other examples of weird things happening with other types of products as they were headed for their ends. (Cassingles, anyone?)

Sean Robson said...

Hi Cygnus. On the contrary, I believe the widespread proliferation of old-school games is a sign of health in the hobby. I also think that it is the small-press and desk-top publishing hobbyists that will keep our hobby alive, thriving, and vital. I was only worried during the d20 era, when there was One Game to Rule Them All, but I think our hobby is currently the healthiest it's ever been.

I'm glad to hear that you plan to publish your own game. I'm not one of those who think we have too many old-school games already. The more the better, in my opinion. More games, more options, and more choices, all of which bring something different to the table is a great thing.

Magic Mirror said...

A toast, then, to P. Adkinson & R. Dancey for giving us the OGL? That might turn out to be one of those we-only-realize-in-hindsight-how-much-those-guys-saved-our-bacon kinda things. You know, in an "Irish monasteries after things really started to go south for the the western half of the Roman Empire" sorta way.

Sean Robson said...

Hi Brian. We should definitely raise our glasses to Adkinson and Dancey. As I recently read somewhere, 'they put D&D beyond the reach of any one company to destroy.'

Pontifex said...

Excellent post, Sean. Neat explanation for the bizarre nature of recent releases.

Sean Robson said...

Thanks, Greg. As it turns out, even Ryan Dancey can't make any sense out of WotC's recent actions. He made an interesting post about it on Enworld that is worth reading: