Tag Archives: Slime Quest

D&D 4E’s Influences and Problems

WOC2173672_500Strap in, it’s another meandering post about D&D!

When people talk about what influenced 4E, the first thing most people bring up is MMORPGs, especially World of Warcraft. It got turned into a catch phrase by 4E’s haters, and was routinely used without supplying any context that would give you a clue as to why it was a bad thing (or even a thing that mattered one way or the other). That it draws some ideas from MMOs is undeniable, though it’s also pretty clear that they carefully adapted those ideas to the medium at hand, which is why (for example) 4E’s Defenders are very different from a typical MMO Tank role. (They have to be in a game that doesn’t have any kind of aggro mechanic.) Although hardly anyone noticed, another thing that the designers have explicitly said they looked at was European board games, which is where for example a lot of the razor-sharp turn-handling mechanics came from. Mike Mearls and some of the other designers are also sports fans, and a lot of elements of 4E, especially with martial characters, make vastly more sense when you explain them in terms of basketball. Some people will rail about fighter marks being “mind control,” but sports fans seem to instantly grasp what defender marks represent if you explain it in terms of how defense works in basketball. A few times people have also tried to bring GNS theory into the list of influences, good or bad, and while Mearls and company were definitely aware of Forge theory and such, the rigor and focus of the design had so many other sources that I think it could have easily come about if the same team had never once heard of the Forge.

The one huge, glaring thing that routinely gets left out of discussions of 4E’s influences is D&D 3.5. Late in 3.5’s life people were exploring the limits of the system in ways they hadn’t quite done before. This was when terms like CoDzilla and Pun-Pun became widely known, and the D&D team, being the foremost group of people who were working on D&D as their actual profession full time, had to be listening to what the fanbase was saying. Not listening was one of 90s TSR’s biggest mistakes after all, and WotC launched their D&D venture with the aim of paying attention to what their fans wanted. 4E’s downright obsessive focus on game balance is clearly a reaction to the massive imbalances that character optimizers were able to unearth in 3.5. Charop still exists in 4E, but it’s nowhere close to the same level, and more importantly outside of extreme charop the difference in performance between a suboptimal and optimal character isn’t so massive as to totally obviate the suboptimal character. As someone with limited experience with 3.x and very extensive experience with 4E, whenever I looked through 3.5 books I was always struck by just how much wound up being familiar. The differences are considerable and important, but 4E is nonetheless a game that could only have come from people totally submerged in D&D 3.5 and the fandom around it. 4E is the game for which the Tome of Battle and Star Wars Saga Edition were intermediate steps, and which compared to any non-D&D game is pretty obviously an offshoot of the lineage that 3rd Edition started. To me it’s a reminder of the level of myopia that focusing too much on D&D alone can cause us.
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Arianrhod 2E: The Focus System

ara2e_jyoruI wound up getting a copy of the Advanced Rulebook (上級ルールブック) for Arianrhod 2nd Edition, F.E.A.R.’s dungeon fantasy RPG with an anime/JRPG style. The book includes advanced classes (that characters can take at level 10), prestige classes, new skills for the base classes, items, guild skills, monsters, traps, dungeon objects, and optional rules. The thing in it that I found the most interesting is what the designers call the Focus System (FS for short). The Focus System is something a lot like Skill Challenges in D&D4E, but better in pretty much every way. There’s even an FS Check Management Sheet, which isn’t quite as insane as it might look. It has spaces for three FS checks, and F.E.A.R. is just really big on making sheets for things.

An FS check goes in rounds, and one of the neat things about it is that you can have an FS check going at the same time as combat. Making a check for the FS uses your main action, so you have to choose between that and attacking. During the FS check a character can make Progress Checks or Assistance Checks. A Progress Check is a check[1] on the attribute (or other appropriate check) determined by the FS check’s specifications, and you gain or lose Progress Points according to your margin of success, anywhere from -2 to +4 (with a special bonus of +1d6 plus 1 per die that rolled a 6 on a Critical), and your ultimate goal is to accumulate enough Progress Points to complete the FS check. However, an FS check has a limit on how many characters can make Progress Checks per round (2-4 in the examples), so other characters can make Assistance Checks during the initiative phase, and if successful they give a +2 bonus to another character. A typical FS check needs 10 to 20 Progress Points to proceed (10 in most of the examples), but the PCs have a limited number of rounds to pull it off (in the included examples 3-5 rounds). When you design an FS check, you take the preferred number of participants times the number of rounds to determine the Progress Point objective.

Events are the other major thing that make an FS check more interesting. These trigger based on how many Progress Points the PCs have gained, usually around one event per 3 Progress Points (paced so you get one every 1-2 rounds). Events can change what stat you need to make a check with, alter the difficulty you have to beat, or also affect the FC check’s end conditions (giving you more or fewer rounds to complete it say). The book has 5 full writeups of example FC checks, and one of these is for disarming a particularly complex trap. It starts with Trap Removal checks (a special Thief skill, based on Dexterity), then the difficulty drops as you start to understand the trap, then thwarting a mechanism requires Strength checks, and finally at the end you’re left with the choice of the red wire or blue wire, and you need to make a Luck check. If the PCs get enough Progress Points at once to trigger multiple events, you take the most recent check requirements and retain things like modifiers to difficulty numbers from intermediate events.

If the PCs get enough Progress Points in time, they’ll succeed and get an XP reward at the end of the game session. The text also notes that you can have competitive FS checks basically by having two groups doing the same FS check in parallel and competing to be the first to get the required number of Progress Points.

That’s the basics in a nutshell. I find it pretty fascinating both as a game mechanic and for the simple fact that I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of thing from a Japanese TRPG before. I don’t know whether D&D4e played into its design (the Arianrhod 2E Advanced Rulebook did come out in 2011, and 4e is available in Japanese), but conflict resolution mechanics are about as nonexistent as GM-less RPGs there. Needless to say I want to use some ideas from the Focus System in Slime Quest’s Challenge system, though I think my take on it will have some elements of the Mouse Guard RPG as well. There’s a lot of interesting things in Japanese TRPG design, but sometimes there’s a certain rigidity at least in the rules as written, which shows here in how Progress Checks involve predetermined attributes and strategies. I’d much rather just ask the players how they’re tackling the problem and have that then play into the rules. On the other hand it’s substantially more developed than D&D4e’s Skill Challenges, and if I was going to run a 4e game I’d put together a houserule for improved SCs drawing from the FS check rules.


[1]In Arianrhod you make a basic check by rolling 2d6 and adding your attribute’s modifier (which is 1/3 of the base attribute number, and typically in the low single digits to start with). Snake eyes is a Fumble, and box cars is a Critical. The game doesn’t have “skills” in the Western RPG sense, but certain classes can have abilities that let them make special kinds of checks such as trap-finding or alchemy.

D&D Next and Slime Quest

For some reason I started paying attention to D&D Next again, and every time that happens I end up getting inspired to work on Slime Quest, my fantasy heartbreaker project. The big thing is that the status of the warlord class in Next is iffy at best, and I consider the warlord to be easily one of the very best new things in 4e, one of the few new things it added that was missing all along. If I find D&D Next palatable and if it has an open license I might see about making a warlord class (and I doubt I’d be anywhere close to the only one making the attempt), but right now I’m finding Slime Quest much more exciting.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that D&D4e was a good start, but needed some considerable refinement to get where it needed to go. It has a lot of vociferous critics who have an uncanny ability to totally miss its actual flaws, things that never got addressed, or that got addressed in a questionable way (Weapon Expertise feats as a fix to PCs attack values being insufficient for example). A true 4.5 Edition could have refined 4e into the game they’d been groping towards, though I’m not confident that Wizards of the Coast circa 2012 was actually equipped to do so. (I’m still struck by how much better the 13th Age playtest doc was compared to Next’s.) In my current push on Slime Quest I’m trying to pay close attention to those kinds of things and find solutions. I feel like for every good new idea (like advantage and disadvantage) Next has ten things where they’re feeling in terror from the progress that 4e made, all while ignoring its real mistakes. Of course, with Slime Quest I don’t have to worry about keeping D&D fans happy. If anything I need to do something different to differentiate the game from a zillion other fantasy RPGs, even when I’m specifically aiming to do something evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
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Slime Quest: The Big Idea

The other day some of my friends (Suichi and Mike B., with some help from Tim) went crazy brainstorming possible stuff for Slime Quest while I wasn’t around, and then laid out everything for me as best they could. They came up with some really intriguing ideas, though I’m kind of at a loss for what to do with them.

The core Big Idea is to speed up combat by getting rid of attack rolls (and defense rolls). Characters would have attacks and defenses of varying potency, and when an attack comes the onus is on the target to provide a sufficient defense and not take damage. Classes would thus be differentiated by the kinds of attacks and defenses they have, and how often they can use them. A tanking fighter could have defenses that let him defend against several enemies at once, a mage could be adept at making barriers to protect from magic, a leader could give allies boosts to attacks or defenses, a rogue might be able to lower or ignore a target’s defenses, and so on. The actual damage would be random, and more like in a typical RPG, with the difference that higher-level attacks get damage bonuses when they prevail against lower-level defenses. Teamwork also can become very important, since multiple characters working together can jump up in attack ranks to affect enemies that would be basically impossible to harm otherwise.

This cuts out several steps from typical D&D-style combat, but it also means adopting a new brain-bending paradigm of combat, and figuring out how to actually balance it so that characters have the right level of competence and challenge. Balancing resource-based stuff is that much harder, especially when you use the resources for typical RPG things. I like resource-based mechanics in RPGs, but I do feel that when you put them into places where they can determine success or failure they can create perverse incentives that are hard to properly manage.
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Slime Quest Thoughts

Lately I’ve been poking at Slime Quest a bit, and it has me really wanting to get into working on it in earnest. Of course, I have a bunch of stuff I need to get sorted out for Star Line Publishing, the Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter, and Raspberry Heaven. Still, I want to do a blog post to blather a bit about Slime Quest, which will probably include some stuff I’ve posted about before.

Slime Story is an idea I came up with around 2006, a world like ours except with the addition of magical portals spitting out MMO style monsters that people have taken to hunting for fun and profit. In some parts of the world corporations or warlords control the portals for the marvelously useful bits of monsters, but in suburban America monster hunting is mostly something teenagers do for fun. The system, which I think of as the “Slime Engine,”[1] owes a lot to Japanese tabletop RPGs like Arianrhod and Meikyuu Kingdom, plus a bit of Dungeons & Dragons and a drop of Apocalypse World. Making an anime fantasy game with the same rules was a pretty natural thing to do (and if I ever develop both enough you can be that the mystery of the portals in Slime Story will have something to do with the Slime Quest setting), but because it forces me to make the math a bit more rigorous I may end up finishing it first.
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Fifth Edition

I’m really not sure what to think of the announcement of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons being in the pipeline. That’s partly because there’s relatively little information to go on in the first place, so it’s a bit early to do much in the way of prognostication. This blog posts is thus mostly going to be about my reaction and other people’s reactions, and my reactions to other people’s reactions.
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Slime Quest and Essentials and Stuff

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[1], aren’t disposable weaklings, and recovering from getting hurt[2] 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[3], 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.)

[1]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.

[2]Or rather, recovering from losing HP, which can at (vague, undefined) times represent mere fatigue rather than injury.

[3]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.