On the whole I don’t think all that highly of either ranting on the internet or creating in response to perceived flaws in something. For example Houses of the Blooded (while not to my personal tastes) sounds a lot cooler when you sell it on its own merits instead of on the ways it’s not like D&D. On the other hand I really want to have a fantasy RPG of my very own, something just right for me and my friends. Slime Quest, my planned fantasy spinoff of Slime Story, is looking like it might just be that game some day, which has me really excited to make it happen. There are a lot of reasons why I want this, including but definitely not limited to the things I do and don’t like about 4E and the subcultural baggage that it comes with.
I probably shouldn’t bother with online forums, at least not quite so much as I have been lately. D&D Essentials (along with the interview with Mike Mearls that appeared in The Escapist) has revived the nonsense we had to put up with surrounding 4E before and after its release a couple years ago. This time around there are at least far fewer factually incorrect complaints about 4E (in 2008 those accounted for something like half or maybe even two-thirds of what I saw). People are at least arguing based mostly on actual reality. On the other hand, the identity politics side of things is alive and well, not to mention I still feel like a huge portion of complaints against 4E read like reasons to drop D&D entirely, and especially 3.x. It’s weird to complain about tieflings and dragonborn when you’re playing a game where half-dragons are not unknown, it’s weird to complain about classes being too rigid when you can play a game without any classes at all (i.e., one of the vast majority of RPGs that aren’t D&D), and it’s odd to say 4E doesn’t encourage role-playing enough when D&D was pretty much only the best system available for role-playing during a brief period in the 70s when it had no competitors. While it’s low on my list of reasons for working on Slime Quest, part of me does want to proudly display a middle digit and proclaim that I have my own awesome fantasy game to play.
I have said that I design games that I want to play with my friends, and I’ve realized that this isn’t always true. In fact some of the games I want to make have a sort of distantly hypothetical audience; I’m not sure if I can actually pull together a group that would play Raspberry Heaven the way I meant it to be played, for example. Slime Quest on the other hand looks like it would be more or less perfect for that group, because it’s going to build on what we like about 4E and hopefully avoid some of its problems. 4E has been a big hit among us, even with the people who weren’t the slightest bit interested in D&D before that. For my part I always liked the bizarre worlds of D&D (especially Planescape), but the actual game never became anything like what I wanted to play until 4E. 1E (which I stumbled across at the local used bookstore) was just strange to me, 2E was intriguing but nonsensical, and 3E we tried out and got tired of after a while.
4E clicked for us in a lot of different ways. It’s like D&D, only your characters have something of the heroic stamina that you would actually expect a fantasy adventurer to have. Old-school D&D is great as a game about a bunch of nobodies struggling to survive in a very dangerous world and eventually making something of themselves. It’s not as great as the game about fantasy heroes it sometimes claimed to be. In 4E, first-level characters, while nowhere near immortal, aren’t disposable weaklings, and recovering from getting hurt doesn’t require weeks of healing or a literal miracle from a deity. The MMO players in our group like the optimization and tactical combat, while the non-MMO players like the awesome fantasy settings and can enjoy the tactical aspect of the game without feeling like total failures for not putting double-digit hours into character optimization. That’s not to say I’ve been totally satisfied with the game, but on the whole it’s been head and shoulders above most of the other games we’ve tried long-term, particularly in terms of the actual rules contributing to our fun.
The major things I want to keep from 4E is the interesting tactical combat and characters with clear roles and interesting in-game abilities. However, I want to make the tactical combats a bit simpler and quicker, and I want the game to encourage role-playing and characters with some personality. The former is pretty easy, and in Slime Story I already have the makings of the combat system I want. The latter will be trickier (especially in terms of marrying it to a game with tactical combat), and I’m still in the process of working out how to go about it. I don’t really find complaints about “dissociated mechanics” to be terribly compelling, least of all coming from people who like older versions of D&D, but one way or another I do feel that I want to make a game that’s a bit better at generating interesting stories at the table.
There has also been some talk of the new D&D being less about the influences that lie at the game’s original roots. Gary Gygax originally made the game a mishmash of all his favorite sword and sorcery novels–Conan, Dying Earth, and so forth–and grudgingly added Tolkien stuff in later at his friends’ insistence. It seems like in an important sense D&D stopped being about that stuff and started being more about itself and its spinoff novels, to the point where I’d welcome some video game influence simply because it would make the game’s fiction a bit less incestuous. But then the thing is that in the case of the people I play with, influences culled from novels are basically irrelevant to most of the group. References to Conan only hold sway if they fall into the most memorable bits of the movies (“Hear the lamentations of their women!”), and the likes of Jack Vance are off the radar entirely. In stark contrast to that, video games and anime are what we’re all about. Concepts culled from Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest are much more recognizable to us than ones drawn from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien or Robert E. Howard. Slime Quest is going to be unapologetically getting inspiration from anime and video games.
The setting of Slime Quest (the continent of Galania) isn’t going to be anything astonishing, but I do like having the opportunity to do some stuff that the official and implied D&D settings largely avoid, both in terms of cultural issues and simple surface stuff. Religion is a prime example of this. While religion is ubiquitous in D&D settings, it tends to be a vague polytheism, with plenty of meddling gods (and until relatively recently full game stats for them), but very little sense of what kinds of practices these religions involve or how they fit into people’s daily lives. Although I’m not going to make such things central to Slime Quest, it isn’t going to totally ignore them either. Galania is home to both a monotheistic religion (the Church of the One God) and animist/shamanism religion, which have been forced to more or less coexist for pragmatic reasons (for now). It’s also got firearms, trains, airships, a postal service, and some other nifty stuff. (Also, an organization called the Happy Slime Club.)
As we very quickly found out when we first started playing and those kobold slingers really messed us up. 30 hp goes by a lot faster than you’d think.
Or rather, recovering from losing HP, which can at (vague, undefined) times represent mere fatigue rather than injury.
One really wonders how much the ranger class’ design has been informed by a need to make Drizzt a viable character.
In Other News
I got Apocalypse World in print from the FLGS, though I’m still reading through it. The writing style is very Vincent Baker, though it’s weird to get 300 pages of it at once. I also got the PDF manual of FreeMarket, but haven’t had a chance to do more than skim it a little bit. The good news is that if I really wanted to I could put together the materials to play without too much difficulty, which is fortunate considering I really can’t afford the $75+s/h for the boxed set. A friend picked up some RPG stuff for me from Japan last month… hopefully we’ll actually get a chance to meet up in person before too long.