You don’t know Project Evolution (at least not the one I’m talking about), and I can’t link you to a convenient description. It’s a rough design for a tabletop roleplaying game I’ve been working on this week. I am running an early prototype playtest this weekend just to feel out the main concepts and mechanics, and thought it would be interesting for you to read about what I’m hoping will work out in my own design this time around.
I apologise in advance, as this post is going to be on the long side (surprisingly, I have a lot to say about my own design). I’ll try to cover as much of the game and overall design decisions thus far, but if you are interested, feel free to start a discussion in the comments about the details.
What is Project Evolution?
The core idea behind Project Evolution is to create a tabletop RPG where the players take on the role of an animal each and work together to survive the ages, evolve and collaboratively build a story in the process. While brainstorming some possible game ideas over the weekend, I became attracted to ‘evolution’ as an easily understandable form of progress or leveling. At the same time, I thought the idea of role-playing or storytelling as animals carrying out relatively normal ‘survival’ type tasks had some appeal as an alternative to variations on ‘a band of people having a go at adventure or drama in setting X’.
I consider games like E.V.O., Spore, and Tokyo Jungle as partial inspiration: semi-simulations of eat-or-be-eaten environments, while allowing the player to progress and build or unlock stronger creatures. Likewise, there are many high profile examples of humanising animal tales which capture the imagination, from the true to the exaggerated fiction. Certainly there is some history for animal-based tabletop roleplaying games (the old Bunnies & Burrows or the more recent Mouse Guard share some similarities to the concept) but I feel there is something more to be built in this design space.
The core ideas of animal storytelling and evolution provide a rich area of relatable background from which to draw mechanical inspiration. It can take hours to explain to a first-timer the different ‘classes’ of a typical RPG, but tell them they can be a mouse, a small fish or a small bird and they’ve got a pretty solid understanding of what they can do and what’s dangerous. Basic questions about the world become a lot easier when it’s firmly grounded in real creatures and things the players already understand.
Whenever it comes time to ‘level up’ or choose any kind of ability in my D&D campaigns, there are always some people (sometimes even the experienced ones) who need some time or help just to wrap their heads around the choices and implications. However, what if the player simply added claws to his or her animal, or got longer legs, or night-vision? As long as the game doesn’t mechanically obscure them, these characteristics are pretty easily comprehensible because they are more tangible (as opposed to, say, ‘increased skill with a bow’).
You could argue that such a setting seems more ‘bland’ than a setting with, say, magical powers, but I’ve got a fun task for you. Go do a quick search for animal superpowers or extreme senses in the animal world, then start imagining them as character abilities, and try not getting at least a little excited at the prospects. I lost an hour of my day link hopping.
Now anyone reading this who has spent some time designing games, whether tabletop or otherwise, will realise that I’ve conveniently been very ‘high concept’ about this game so far. These might be great ideas, but they are just ideas, not a game. The mechanics are, at this stage, rough and still malleable. I am a strong believer in prototyping and testing quickly and often, and my hope is that this weekend will illuminate what works and what doesn’t in this first pass on a set of rules.
With that said, here’s an overview of a few different details and inspirations I’ve pursued with the game, and the effects I hope they have.
Rolling, Rolling, Rolling
Dice-rolling is a staple form of variation in tabletop games, from d20 to GURPS to Fudge, but I wanted to try something a little bit different with the dice in this game. In a recent D&D session, I noticed that there was generally more enjoyment over dice-rolling to decide how an event played out rather than whether or not an action ‘succeeded’. It is perhaps a fine line, but an example would be a roll to see if a conversation takes a friendly or unfriendly turn (neither of which is ‘a failure’) versus a roll to see if a player’s speech has the desired effect. I also wanted to play with the idea of the dice being the players’ common foe, rather than a DM or combat antagonists (partially inspired by this commentary on randomness in storytelling).
Combine these two things, and you get a game where most of the variation is in the environment, and the players adapt their actions, strategies and stories as appropriate. Foraging for food might not have a roll for success or failure, but how much food grows over time is governed by rolls. Using specially evolved fangs to fend off a predator attack doesn’t have a success or failure roll, but the number of predators and frequency of such attacks in the area involve rolls.
As you can see, I had a few different inspirations for the way variation would work its way into the game, and I’m looking forward to seeing what pans out and what needs to be removed or tweaked when we test later.
One other common feature of roleplaying games are the spreadsheets’ worth of statistics. In order not to undermine a lot of the inherent accessibility of the setting and game, I wanted to try avoiding this completely. For now, I’ve pared back the characteristics to what I think need to be represented mechanically, like energy or the amount of food obtainable in the current area.
In each case, I’ve tried to use something tangible to represent the values (like some used batteries we have lying around the house as energy, or small wooden cubes for food) rather than have them simply be numbers on a page. When a player adds some kind of evolution to their creature, it would be nice for that to be a card (pre-made or self-customised) they simply have in front of them.
An Evolving Setting
Often in tabletop RPGs, a Dungeon Master-like figure adapts to the players and sets the pace of the game. I may ultimately find this is necessary for Project Evolution, but I wanted to start by throwing that assumption out. This means that I’ve needed to build evolving settings into the game: every turn the area gets more dangerous and food becomes more scarce (forcing the players to consider migrating to a new, unfamiliar area), while qualitative features like new predators and competition provide context with which the players can creatively interact.
I’m honestly not sure if this will make it feel more like a board game than an open-ended role-playing game, since it is openly procedural (even if there are few direct goals besides ‘survive’), but I thought it would make for a fun and educational experiment. When we playtest this weekend, I’ll be a player right alongside the others.
Choose Your Own Game
When considering the different possible directions a given group of players might want to take the game, I found myself able to think of a small set of potential ‘alternate rules modules’ which a group could choose depending on the kind of game they wanted. While they still need some work, here are the primary examples I found natural and appealing to fundamentally different player groups.
A Survival game ruleset, which focused more on the depletion of food, combat with predators, hostile circumstances and mechanically ‘balanced’ evolutions would appeal to a more challenge-oriented group (say, a group of strategy gamers or puzzle-lovers).
An Evolution Playground ruleset could ease up on the survival elements and merely give the players a wider set of possible evolutions, or more of a framework for making your own, in order to appeal more to an expressive or easy-enjoyment style group.
Finally, I can imagine a Narrative-focused ruleset, with more focus on the characteristics of the story. This could suggest animal personality traits, add fantasy-esque animal politics, or just suggest alternate goals for the sake of encouraging dramatic story arcs for the narrative lovers in the roleplaying world.
Wait and See
This may seem ridiculously self serving, but what I hope I like about Project Evolution is that I and my playtesters actually like it. I have no doubt there will be improvements and rough patches, things to revise and plenty in need of complete change, but going from concept to a first prototype is always an exciting time for a designer. Will my plans and ideas play out, or will the game take on a form or character I hadn’t expected? This post is far from a complete picture, but what do you think?
As always, thanks for reading.