There’s an anime releasing called BOFURI. It’s an Isekai of sorts, set inside a full dive VR video game, but people are just playing, nothing at stake. I just watched episode 8 and I figured out what was rubbing me wrong about the show. (I do recommend the first few episodes. After that, it’s on you if you continue.)
Minor unimportant spoilers for some of the wide descriptions show, definitely spoilers for Episode 8. Enter at your own risk.
The World of BOFURI.
I think their game has an acronym like NOW or NWO or something like that (I didn’t sleep last night and this is only the first of my cerebral activities that make up my Saturday. Research is for lucidity.) This game looks like a bog standard fantasy world, humans only, array of weapons, apparently some magic but we haven’t seen much of that. Sorta.
This is the first video game for our main character, so she does something interesting: She assigns all of her stat points into the defense stat.
Quick aside, a lot of the assumptions in this first part of the article might treat the game as if it’s a real game, instead of what it actually is: A literary construct used to tell us a story as opposed to actually conveying a world/game system that is playable. The game inside of BOFURI is not a playable game. I wish it was. Out of every single anime I’ve seen that has a game inside of it, BOFURI is the one that I feel would make the most amazing game. I’m unsure if this is what the writers actually intended the universe of BOFURI , but AFAICT, the game seems to reinforce your natural play style. If you are a power gamer and you like to quickly run up and kill things the game reinforces that. If you don’t like getting hurt, the game reinforces that style. If you enjoy solving puzzles, if you enjoy delving dungeons, whatever you enjoy inside of this video game, however you choose to play this game, the game reinforces that style of game play.
It does this through the creation of Feats and skills characters get as they play through the game. There is no mention at all of how the game knows when to give people one of these skills or feats or whatever. There are a couple of things that appear to be. When a solo player beats a dungeon Boss for the first time on the first attempt, that impossible amount of success deserves a unique reward. But, because the reward was so unique, the powers it provides may be more power then first thought and may need a specific patch so the game’s balance is restored. (That part the universe feels realistic.)
The idea of a game reinforcing your natural game-play makes me quiver in anticipation and terror. I think could be done. Maybe. It’s not a soon thing. There are a couple of big problems you would want to fix before trying to accomplish that idea. Well, not problems, really, but Design Concepts that you have to have figured out before you start and if you don’t have those figured out everything’s just going to go bananas.
But, that’s not what I really want to talk about, but it is still a thing I am thinking about .
No, the thing I want to talk about is the plot of BOFURI, which is where it’s going to get a bit spoilery. Everything so far has been fairly safe but if you’re concerned , you know, consider this your last warning sign. I might talk about Digimon first. it’s coming although we won’t mention exact specifics and on an anime like this I don’t know if you can really call it a spoiler .
title something something Maple pun next line
While BOFURI looks like it’s a cute friendly anime, which it is, it’s also time a power fantasy anime. It’s not as bad as some power fantasy animes like the insanity that was “Trapped in a Magic World with my cellphone” or whatever the title was but it is a power fantasy. A character is obtaining power and doing it in an improbable way but it’s okay that it feels like they’re cheating because they are nice person is how I basically define them.
There’s probably more precise definitions of power fantasy anime, but that works well enough for me. The problem is that Maple doesn’t lose. I know, it’s a common thing in power fantasy anime, but this time, it feels different. Every time Maple wins, she seems to acquire a new power. The interesting question behind a power fantasy tends to be along the lines of “what will winning cost me?” That’s not a question in BOFURI. Maple wins fights in ways that feel like she will never sacrifice anything. She is constantly moving upward and setting a new bar for what overpowered means- without having to sacrifice anything or even feel like she has to sacrifice anything.
One of the amazing things about Dungeons & Dragons, and video games as well, is that it is a safe space to fail. This is not a thing that shows up in Isekai anime very often. In SAO, failure meant death. In Log Horizon, failure had an unknown cost , because they had vague memories of their afterlife but no idea what it meant (And I think some people were going crazy from dying too much? (That’s an odd sentence…)) Also, even if the death itself didn’t cost, dying might mean a week-long journey to return to the fight. It meant something direct to your allies.
The only Isekai is that has done the failure cycle correctly (in my limited anime viewing opinion) is Digimon. (Well, some seasons of Digimon. Ignore season 4) In Digimon, the main characters or “digi-destined” would:
- Encounter a foe
- Lose in a fight
- Fall back and regroup for a few episodes
- Fight that foe again and defeat them
- Continue with their story and find a bigger foe
- The cycle repeats.
That is how a Failure Cycle works. Nobody in Real Life goes from victory to victory. Not real people anyway, and if there are people like that reading my blog, I will be surprised, as not many people read these things.
We do not know what dying means in BOFURI. Not only has Maple not died, there is not a SINGLE named character who has died on camera (or off-camera) as far as I know. I’ve only seen through episode 8. The closest thing we have to characters dying is when characters get dizzy from Maple’s travel poison bubble shield thing. Even with the low level of the twins, they still didn’t die.
So, we don’t see that cycle of finding a challenge that is too tough, failing, and then becoming better. All that we see is the character becoming better. Now there could be explanations for this. It could be that the early episodes, or at least the part that I’m in right now, are designed to power the character up between story arcs in so it’s not meant to be actual in-story leveling but instead a transition put in to explain where these powers came from. It could also be that this is months of Dragon Ball Z power leveling up side stories that have been condensed to a few episodes. As I didn’t write it, it’s hard for me to judge.
The lack of the failure cycle was made VERY clear to me in episode 8.
!!!Final spoiler warning for this episode!!!
In this episode, the Guild participates in an Event, Maple fights a Boss by herself, Maple gains the ability to become that boss, Maple fights a SECOND boss by herself (okay, Syrup the Turtle helps), The Guild gets to Level 3, Maple fights her THIRD boss of the episode and gains a new form that is her basically becoming that boss.
The preceding paragraph would make a great synopsis for Season 2 of an anime. As a episode summary, there is TOO MUCH crammed into a 30-minute episode. I’m not watching this anime for the one Mary Sue character to gain all of the powers and ascend to godhood. (I could name a really good anime that does that so well, but I can’t find a context where naming it in this context won’t be a spoiler that’s more important than any BOFURI spoilers)
What I want to see out of BOFURI is a character, a player, playing a game for the first time and experiencing that wonder.
We did this a little bit and that’s is what makes me want it so much. The concept behind full dive VR is still science fiction, but it would be amazing and the stories we get from full dive VR anime don’t show off the really amazing parts of it. One of my favorite episodes of the first season of SAO, Kirito isn’t fighting a monster, he takes a nap, because the day is perfect. That’s a thing that can happen in full dive VR. You can have perfect days. You can see amazing sites, like that sunrise in Log Horizon.
These days, video games have a lot of paths that are well tread. Seeing something amazing, the world without the game, is rare. There’s something wondrous about being able to see something that nobody else has see, about being able to do something that nobody else has done, to have YOUR story be unique among all of the stories out there which, incidentally, is a major part but I think the role of the dungeon master is.
Final aside, I think that the last two episodes or whatever of BOFURI are going to be Maple in a duel with Payne and Payne will cut down each of her forms and abilities and she will progress through all of them until she gets to one version that he can’t cut down and that’s how the anime ends.
What can we learn about Dungeons & Dragons from this anime ?
First, pacing is important. It sucks to play in a game where the leveling is slow and you can’t feel the progress. I haven’t felt it personally, but, I imagine leveling too fast also doesn’t feel great either. That’s what’s basically happening in BOFURI. This can be a hard balance to strike, although the middle ground is probably fairly wide. Some of that balance can be handled outside of levels of experience. A Dungeon Master controls the distribution of gold, magic items, and more. This is one of the controls that we have to balance the party, to allude to progress without just dumping XP on the party. XP feels great the first few levels, but at later levels it feels paltry unless the numbers are comparable
I don’t know if this was a design decision in 5e, or if it was, who decided it. Experience has been in the game a long time and it’s probably a vestigial mechanic, but it’s hard to tell.
Magic items and other gifts can also feel paltry if they feel unearned or oversaturating. Which makes me feel bad about the J-Team unlocking Durgeddin’s Armory. But that’s okay, I hate Forge of Fury and I will just tie my guilt into that hate. Sorted.
Money can also feel paltry. As much as I understand why copper and silver exist in D&D, I never use them. When I roll up treasure, I convert those numbers into gold because it’s less of a headache for everybody. (If you are playing a headache-based game style like a serious Dungeon Crawl or hexcrawl, then the fact that the 3,000 gold you found is actually 300,000 copper pieces and you have to carry all of that back then it might matter)
So, the pacing of any character advancement should be at least thought of before providing it to the party. This is a thing I am bad at. Burning Sands, Chaotica, Curse of Strahd, all of these campaigns I have run have shared accelerated character advancement as at least a partial cause of why the campaign wasn’t working for me.
These are important thoughts to have thought, by the way, before I dump a lot of thought into Advancement-less D&D, which is on my to-do list .
The second thing we can learn is that D&D should have a failure state. It doesn’t part of that is it’s historical roots in wargaming, and later in brutal megadungeons. Often, perhaps too often, failure means death in D&D. I don’t know how to fix this in D&D. Soft deaths are probably the way, but those are hard to implement without removing party agency.
I don’t have a solution here. But it’s something we should be thinking about in D&D
I’ll finish watching BOFURI. The parts that I like are really good, but the pacing is really screwed up. It’s the type of problem that only getting into fanfiction can solve, but I don’t have time for that.
What I do have time for is a plug for my patreon. It is with their support that I try for two articles a week. Even though this one was late, it did go to their email which saves everybody a step.
I think it is also worth mentioning that I did this essay slightly falling asleep while speaking into dictation software which I haven’t done before. Even though I work with such software, my feelings on the results are mixed. There’s probably a lot of typos my editing pass didn’t catch. Sorry.