Monday, September 15, 2014


The single comment I received to Friday's global warming post reminded me of Nassim Taleb's black swan theory, which I admit I haven't considered in years.  The post wasn't that popular, leading to the question, how many climate change economists does it take to predict the inevitable end of the world?

Apparently, all of them.

Taleb is an interesting fellow, engaging, informed, fair-minded and so on.  I am not one of his 'crowd,' so to speak.  But it is worth discussing his ideas about fragility and the reverse, that he argues must be called 'anti-fragility.'  Let's do that.

To quote Taleb: "If you do a top down, optimized system, it's going to be fragile.  If you let systems develop on their own, they'll be anti-fragile.  And this is how Mother Nature works; this is how evolution works."

What, then, is an anti-fragile D&D world?  Without question, it is a world where the game or adventure is simple enough that a given number of people - preferably only a few, as too many increases the number of relationships between individuals, increasing fragility - sit at a table and play, without preparation, without complex goals, without a long term plan necessitating the return of individuals at later sessions.  Why?  Because preparation can fail; because specific goals demand willing participation from all individuals; because there's no guarantee that the players who have come today will play again.

Thus, we have a single-session adventure that can be run on very little notice between a minimum number of people who accept that the game is going to be about gaining experience.  And this, dear reader, is exactly the sort of game that dominates the experience of role-players.  That is because every departure from these basic principles of play increases the inherent fragility of the game, stressing relationships between the players and the DM, until the centre does not hold and the campaign goes wonky.

The problem, however, with inherently anti-fragile systems is that they fail utterly to address the needs of the individual.  Nature, for instance, is a spectacularly coherent system.  Despite cataclysmic events right up to the level of exploding stars and galaxies, the natural universe as a whole simply plods on, billion year period by billion year period.  Which is great for the universe.  Sucks for us, though.  Everyone dies.  As a 'system,' it fails 100% where it comes to providing us with any of the basic things that make life worth while.  To provide those things - extending life, making life interesting, accumulating knowledge and relaying that knowledge forward, etc. - we're forced to make wholly fragile systems that Mother Nature necessarily abhors.

So it goes.  The alternative to fragility is a more certain death in undeniably less pleasant circumstances after a less fulfilling and less meaningful existence.  Thus my fundamental issue with Taleb and anyone who turns too much to nature as a template for design.  I find myself remembering the words of Rose Sayer, played by Katherine Hepburn, in the African Queen:  "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."

Where this applies to the above quoted 'standard way' of role-playing - anti-fragile throughout - it doesn't take long before one is very quickly BORED.  Yes, it is easy to get together without making any commitment to future games.  It is easy not to require the players to think more about their characters or the world.  It is easy if we don't need time to prepare.  It means that if you and I and others are sitting around in Jim's mother's basement, without a thing to do, we can always say, "Hey, let's play D&D!"  It doesn't matter who the DM is, because we have a rule book, we have a module, we can make simple-simon characters and start rolling dice.  So easy!

And as we get older, where the vast segment of the role-playing tribe is tired from their jobs, tired from extra work they had to bring home from the office, tired from picking up the kids or the last fight with the spouse, tired from the housework and the yardwork and paying the bills and doing the taxes and seeing Grandma at the home and having to pick up stuff from the store for the social event that's coming up next week that we have to make arrangements for and pick up Aunt Trish from the airport and on and on, it is so much easier if we don't have to pile on designing a world or designing rules to run the world we can only run one week in six - maybe - because that's the only time Dave and Rob and John can all free themselves from their schedules in order to play.  Fuck, life is hard, and doesn't make room for role-playing.

So if we're not all too tired to do more than drink beer when we get together, surely we're only going to have enough energy to run a module while we keep shit simple - because none of us are ready for another thirty-five minute argument about whether or not a lightning bolt will electrocute a mage standing in water.  Fuck that.  Let's keep this game simple.

Do we truly wonder why people quit playing?  When it happens that their 'lives' dominate them so much that they can't play a game that is reduced in complexity to the level of Monopoly?  Fuck.  If this is all that D&D could be, I'd have quit it myself decades ago.

The difference between this style of role-playing and Role-Playing - capital 'R' capital 'P' - is the game's potential fragility.  The spectacular degree to which the game can be made fragile, to where it is not easy!  Unlike other games - unlike even computer games, that are spectacularly more involved for the programmer than for the user - role-playing allows everyone involved to increase the complexity of the game, as the game is being played.  The player, if allowed, is entitled to purposefully expand the power, influence and inherent nature of their character in a manner that the DM must cope with, even as that compensation becomes elaborately difficult.  The DM, in turn, may at any time, during the course of the game, kick the experience up a notch, on the fly, based on nothing more than whimsy or inspiration.  Role-playing is not natural.  It is as near to Calvinball as mutually accepted structure will allow.
The ensuant pandemonium is made possible by the same engine that applies in the cartoon to the right:  the commitment of the players.  Those participants who have chosen to play a deep game - or perhaps have the opportunity to play the deep game - that I have been describing choose to do so over the petty, workaday, banal existences that most embrace because they are too gawddamn tired to lift their faces from nature's mezzanine. To compensate for their chores and grievances and self-enslavement to careers they hate, as well as the fact that Aunt Trish can't take a fucking cab like an adult, they've denied themselves the pleasure that comes from indulging in fragile things.

What matter is that the game is hard?  What matter is it that it requires our being hit with the ball or singing at the tops of our lungs or jumping until we fall down?  Life begins with hard.  "It's supposed to be hard.  If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.  The hard is what makes it great."


  1. Hi Alexis,
    I disagree with your premise that the over simplified easy game is anti-fragile. It is not so much the complexity and interdependence of systems which makes fragility but the over-optimization within the system that prevents adaption to change.
    Simplicity isn’t of itself robust or anti-fragile. I think Taleb’s issue is that the complexity of human systems tends to add to their fragility because that nobody knows how it all works. Noone understands the knock-on effects of different shocks or changes to the system even though governments try to apply controls to parts of the system.
    Anti-fragile is one that responds to shocks by changing and getting better at dealing yet-to-be experienced shock.
    The super simple and soon-to-be-dull game may be robust (resistant to shock) to the point of inertia, but does it evolve? The railroad is fragile – it breaks if the player want to do something else or the players immersion is broken by the DM “keeping things on track” .
    The player immersion and agency are parts of that system which have to work for it all to continue.

    Your game in your world is anti-fragile. It changes and evolves according to your philosophy and your work as DM and responding to some of the shocks your players apply. You have changed and evolved as a DM. If a mage in your game says hey, bugger adventuring, I want to set up a vineyard, they can. Is that classic D&D, not really. Is it player agency, yes… is it awesome that you can try anything in that world, definitely.

    Making the game applicable to the individual not about the system fragility or otherwise…it is you the DM. Player freedom of action, interacting with your world and moderated by DM makes the game complex and immersive. This may be why others keep changing campaigns or gaming systems, because they feel they cant evolve with players, so just hit the reset.

  2. I strongly disagree, kimbo,

    The base-game I describe isn't anti-fragile because it is simple, but because it is SELF-CORRECTING. It does not demand any specific outside planning in order to ensure that it plays reasonably well.

    As soon as you begin PLANNING, you make any system more fragile. I do not believe that you have a clear understanding of Taleb's premise - but then, that's very easy, since Taleb is quite poor at specifying anything. Black swan did very well mostly because people were free to read into it any semblance of order that personally appealed to them. I believe that this is what you are doing here.

  3. To that I should add: My world, definitively, is EXTREMELY fragile. If I die, it's gone. Irrevocably. If we built a bridge on the basis of one single strut that could never, ever be replaced, that in turn could be guaranteed to give out within 50 years, that would be considered reprehensible design.

    You're not looking at the whole picture. You're selecting the part of the picture that appeals to you.

  4. "What, then, is an anti-fragile D&D world? Without question, it is a world where the game or adventure is simple enough that a given number of people - preferably only a few, as too many increases the number of relationships between individuals, increasing fragility - sit at a table and play, without preparation, without complex goals, without a long term plan necessitating the return of individuals at later sessions. Why? Because preparation can fail; because specific goals demand willing participation from all individuals; because there's no guarantee that the players who have come today will play again."

    My takeaway - based on the quote, out of context - is that top-down systems are less robust than those evolving in response to specific stressors, shifting requirements, etc.
    In a previous life, I was a trial lawyer working almost exclusively with the nastier kind of felonies. I now handle (along with more routine matters) fairly complex environmental litigation. Obviously, what I'm typing here after a few beers has the implied internet comment prefix "lol IMO"

    Call the "fragile" system a "trial strategy," which is virtually useless in any truly contentious environment. The other attorney(s) is an angle shooter, witnesses do the stupid things and inexplicable things that witnesses do, the judge has a tee time or didn't get his cigarette, and so on. That construct is fragile and is useless if stressed. If any of your design assumptions prove incorrect, or if necessary conditions aren't met, then the fragility of that system becomes evident. This is the case even if the system is simple to the point of elegance.

    The "anti-fragile" system in my hypothetical evolves from a legal pad, observation, and adjustments. (And possibly a "weed carrier" second chair if you're helping out junior lawyers.) (I am a Luddite, I believe laptops introduce a possible technical roadblock that's an unacceptable risk in trial practice; my legal pad never has technical difficulties.)

    This kind of system is NOT simple ... it hasn't been "optimized" prior to implementation and it isn't dependent on the validity of initial assumptions, but there are many, many "switches" that, even if simplified to binary, lead to a pretty complex decision tree. The number of decision points is obviously not infinite but might as well be. This is a potentially very complex system. (Or construct if you want to split hairs, I think of "system" as something more specific than the quote generator probably does.)

    The system that results from this "organic" (again, imprecise but everyone knows what it means) process is robust because it's evolved in response to the specific stressors to which it's exposed. If designed correctly (and I'm using binary language again), it can withstand one or more load-bearing parts giving way. It will bear up under the stressors which it has any "reason" to think it'll be exposed to. It's "anti-fragile" in the sense I think Taleb (?) is driving at.

  5. And it has been built upon 15 centuries of lawyers testing the stress points, Scott. Testing, testing, then building precedents to shore up the structure.

    There's nothing that says four players in a role-playing game can't build a complex campaign; only that if that campaign is anti-fragile, then none of the participants will be pushing a separate agenda on the others. There is an agenda, inherent in the game, that everyone understands; but troubles arise when I as DM or I as Player try to force my personal perspective onto the others, either from my position or my will-to-power by virtue of my personality.

    All the crap that exists behind my world, that I share here, are practical structures to support my efforts to produce a world that ISN'T agenda driven - a sandbox, where I can answer questions as diligently and usefully as possible. But fundamentally, the actual PLAY is organic, as you suggest.

    Yet my world is still fragile - more fragile than the law, which will sustain itself after all our deaths. That is the real genius of law - that you and anyone else will walk in the same path that tens of thousands have walked in before. Because it is effectively the only rational path.

  6. To finish this thought (now that my commute is done):

    In the video I linked, Taleb claims that there is no 'opposite' to fragile - thus his need to create the word anti-fragile. This is bullshit. The opposite of fragile is durable; also, tough, sound, healthy, strong, firm, able and unbreakable. But those words have clearly understood meanings, while 'anti-fragile' could mean whatever Taleb decided it meant - making it easier for him to jimmy the system.

    Let's look for a moment at the puzzle without the nonsense word. Let's ask if the law or my world or anything associated with the ordinary game is 'tough' or 'durable.' I don't think my world is - because I might die. I think the law is durable, as it continues upon the same fundamental structure built up over centuries.

    I would like to see a game system built to be durable; which would mean it couldn't depend on any one individual, or upon any one specific set of rules, or even genre. It would have to be flexible, changeable, decipherable and it would have to ALLOW for any kind of game play or added design.

    I don't have that in my world, though many of my principles will outlast me now because I have written them down. I promote durability. I wrote a book promoting a larger concept to gaming. This was the point.

  7. "That is the real genius of law - that you and anyone else will walk in the same path that tens of thousands have walked in before. Because it is effectively the only rational path."

    Unfortunately, in the practice of law, the law is often unimportant. My being correct has never been a guarantee of a good result. (And, thankfully, my being incorrect has never guaranteed a bad result; I have to take some stupid positions.)

    Many judges are either inattentive, motivated by something entirely outside of the law, or absolutely batshit crazy and they barely even give lip service to precedent or sane jurisprudence. Elected judges are political animals, and appointed federal judges in the US are former political animals who were appointed to lifetime terms and aren't answerable to anyone. Either way, they can rule by fiat and most appellate courts are overloaded enough that even indefensible bullshit rulings might not be heard by the next level up.

    A judge with whom I once worked closely would tell me what he'd decided, often before the case was over, and instruct me to go find law that supported his decision. (And there's a reason we often refer to the jury as the twelve-headed jackass.)

    Anyway, back to the fragility issue. After having viewed the video, I think the speaker's imprecision with his terms makes it difficult to really engage ... he blurs the line between vernacular and "term of art" uses of "fragility." It's difficult to argue with someone who doesn't define their terms. (That another thing that's troubling/exciting about the law - even artfully drafted statutes etc. with well-defined terms are susceptible to enough interpretation to allow for creativity.)

    Apologies re: the prolixity, but these are subjects of interest to me.

  8. Yeah. Because prolixity has never felt quite at home here.

    Listen, if this isn't a place where people can't prattle on now and then, I'm running the wrong sort of blog.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.