On Memetic Stability (I)

Welcome back.

Last time we talked about memetic weight, presented some of the challenges that we can face when designing purely using that as our lens, and ended there. This week we talk about the idea of memetic stability.

This post will be in two parts. If you’re reading this in the future and both parts have already been published, I recommend that you give yourself some reflection time in-between the two; at least five by-the-clock minutes between them. These concepts are personal, not academic, so it’s good to step back and consider whether you agree with me or not.

If memetic weight describes how strongly a thought resonates within a given audience, then memetic stability describes how much that thought has in common from audience member to audience member.

I was recently talking to a fellow GM about a Forgotten Realms campaign we were jointly in charge of, and I brought up the question of how the origins of D&D didn’t even have other playable races (in Chainmail, minus the Fantasy Supplement), and then it expanded to the core of the human, elf, dwarf, and halfling, before further expanding as the game matured (Gygax 28).

I asked him what race he would have added on if we could go back in time to those core four and he was to add a fifth, and he answered kenku.

“Kenku?” I exclaimed, because of course kenku are entirely the invention of D&D – they exist in no media I know of outside of the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, and your average Joe won’t have any idea of what a kenku is.

For those not in the know, by the way, here is a kenku below, and here is an article about their history in the Dungeons & Dragons universe.


My fellow GM explained to me that kenku are his favorite precisely because of their obscurity. “That’s why I like it, there are very few kenku (in media) for people to copy the character of. Usually means the kenku you get are pretty unique to D&D.”

Kenku are one of the best examples of decent memetic stability while having almost no imprint upon the cultural consciousness. Their design shows one of the advantages of making a new race from scratch – the designer is the one providing the expectations to players in the flavor text, and as such players will have a fairly unified idea of what it is that they’re playing, though they may find it a bit difficult to relate to this new race.

Gnomes, which I’ve already spoken about at length, are a great example of a race with high memetic weight, but low memetic stability. Most people who read fantasy will be familiar with the gnome, but their familiarity is often with very different gnomes. Some people think of the garden gnome and ponder how this rotund ornament could become an adventurer. The designers of fifth edition had World of Warcraft’s tinker gnomes in mind. A lot of the AD&D fanbase remembers gnomes as effectively the Kender, but with engineering capabilities. Finally, those who joined D&D in 4th Edition will most intuitively associate gnomes with fey. As you might imagine…this potentially creates a disconnect for players. Woe to the person who imagines a Harry Potter gnome, pesky and useless, for a D&D game:

pottermore gnome
(JKR/Pottermore Ltd.)

You’ve also got races with both – dwarves in virtually any fantasy setting are basically expected to be gruff, loyal, and somewhat stubborn. The word “dwarf”, used in a fantastic context, reliably means those things, to the point that an overly jovial or whimsical dwarf would be considered subversion.

Of course, when designing races, if we solely take things which are already both popular and also relatively standardized, it is hard to make our worlds stand out. It is with this in mind that I want to tackle some of the problems I mentioned in the last post, one by one.

  1. It is possible that familiarity impedes your idea of what a race should be.

I think that one of the best solutions to this issue, if you want to take a familiar idea and put a twist on it, can be found in Terry Pratchett’s writing. He is the late author of the Discworld series, and he does an excellent job of making his races different from bog-standard fantasy without making them utterly alien to the reader. For example, here is one of his footnotes about dwarves:

“[Him] – The pronoun is used by dwarfs to indicate both sexes. All dwarfs have beards and wear up to twelve layers of clothing. Gender is more or less optional.”
(Pratchett, Guards 344)

Dwarven beards are definitely a familiar attribute, and their association with mountains makes the layered clothing reasonable as well. Sir Pratchett takes these aspects of “dwarfhood” which most are familiar with and uses them to make a statement about how they treat gender.

He does this with his elves too:

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.
(Pratchett, Lords 142)

Again, there is something familiar here – the whimsicality described in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps, or the appellations given to benevolent fey in fairy tales – but Pratchett throws a wrench into things with his sixth line: “Elves are terrific. They beget terror.” He then follows through by establishing that the elves in his setting are an adversary, an antagonist, and that they’re evil from the perspective of the heroes of the story.

It really is elegant if you can successfully mix the familiar and the unfamiliar. By weaving in the known associations of a race, you can make your own twist seem a lot more approachable, a lot more familiar, than just saying “my dwarves are blue, have gills, and also all of them are sailors”. I see this latter approach a lot when folks first get into world-building, and I do understand the impetus behind it; there’s an urge to innovate, to be different. Just bear in mind that when you create such a divide between your idea of a race and the common conception of that race, you’re just making your own work that much more unapproachable.

When you do this, understand that you’re introducing your own memetic instability to an existing concept. You trade off the stability of the idea with the novelty that you’re about to introduce. Make no mistake: this is a trade. If you continue to ask your audience to accept more and more such trades, they will at best tire of it and at worst become completely unable to comprehend what you’ve created. Terry Pratchett’s twists are definitely something to learn from, but Discworld is comic fantasy and he was a renowned author. Both of these grant him more wiggle room than you might have.

  1. Memetic weight comes with things which are familiar to us, but this means that it often covers things which are also generic to us.

If you’ve got some very “out-there” race which you want to include, go for it. Those ideas are often the most adventurous and thus most intriguing, even if they’re risky and have fewer precedents to help you implement them. By no means should this blog bar you from pursuing more ambitious ideas.

However, do so strategically. The easiest thing in the world to do is to make sure that your game still has the option for choosing something more familiar if you’re aiming for a broad audience.

You can also use memetic concepts from outside the scope of your race to make the alien more familiar. For example, consider the following piece of artwork:Yongyi Lee Bad

Yongyi Lee Good

The role-playing traits expected from a mechanical race is one which may or may not be clear to the player – it depends on how many robot-focused narratives they are familiar with. However, the designer of these Oriental Robotics (Lee’s term) gave them a very clear set of Asian aesthetics, which provides the audience with a second memetic link by which to understand the race. A person might play them based on their understanding of autonomous robots/warforged/constructs in general, or they might play them by pulling from Chinese culture, using their art design as a cue.

When you stack on cues like this, be sure not to overdo it. If we were to make an evil cat race wearing Russian ushankas while playing basketball, that would probably resonate on some level to any viewer, but the picture as a whole is dissonant and overwhelming.

I’ll also highlight my own race, the entoma, as an example of me using multiple angles to help make an otherwise alien idea more familiar. Beetle-people don’t really have any good representatives in fiction, but hiveminds do, and I created my beetles as a hivemind race, hoping that the label would help accelerate a player’s understanding of them. Real life beetles don’t form hives – that behavior is mostly attributed to bees, ants, and termites. However, I chose the form-factor of the beetle for the entoma because I thought it was less intimidating and easier to illustrate as “cute” – a subjective value, but one which has successfully increased folks’ interest in them who would otherwise be intimidated. Finally, I emphasized to my artist that I wanted pictures of them to reflect common human poses and behaviors.

The meditative pose and their clumsy flying definitely helps to humanize them, to make them feel more familiar, and to bring them a bit more down-to-earth. You can use take the lessons I learned for your own races as well. If you really want a player to feel that your rainbow-colored, god-touched, winged salamander race is approachable and familiar, get them to clothe themselves in the garb of a recognizable Earth-analog culture, or pose them so they’re doing familiar and down-to-earth things, such as tripping down the stairs or starting up a garden.

All of these ways are strategies to make the unfamiliar familiar, thus encouraging players to dare to try them out.

  1. You may frankly not prioritize memetic weight.

This third point is an important one…it requires us to assess the tools discussed so far: associative/dissociative design, memetic weight, memetic stability. Why do they matter to you? Should they matter to you? Maybe they are useful for you as a lens to analyze things, but as a tool they fail to give you design insights, or even hold you back from making the race you want to make.

This is a worthy point to discuss all on its own, but as it brings the focus away from the uses of memetic weight and memetic stability to resolve issues with a race, I’ll be discussing it in the next post.

I’ll see you next time.

Works Cited

Featured Image is a sculptural piece from Gravity Glue.

Lee, Yong Yi. “Beyond Human – Character Design.” ArtStation, ArtStation Challenges, 1 July 2017, http://www.artstation.com/contests/beyond-human/challenges/22/submissions/20335.

McLaughlin, Colin. “Get to Know the Kenku.” Tribality, Performance Check, 7 Feb. 2017, http://www.tribality.com/2016/09/07/get-to-know-the-kenku/.

Pratchett, Terry. Guards! Guards!: A Novel of Discworld . Gollancz, 2014.

Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies: A Novel of Discworld. Gollancz, 2014.

Rowling, J.K. “Gnomes.” Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, Apr. 2016, http://www.pottermore.com/explore-the-story/garden-gnomes.

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