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Hippogryph System and the Black Box Movement

black box movement

The Black Box Manifesto is about eliminating barriers to entry. It challenges conventional wisdom, the way things supposedly have to be done. Those things often keep potential players from entering the hobby. This is either due to the financial cost of big books, or the complexity of the mechanics. It can be overwhelming for creators for the same reasons. Where the Hippogryph System and the Black Box Movement intersect is at that point of accessibility.

The first iteration of the Hippogryph System was in Issue Zero of Hippogryph magazine. It was intended to be a simple “house system” that could be used as an example in discussions about game design. The mechanics were clearly inspired by Fate, and leaned heavily into familiar Dungeons & Dragons tropes. My goal was to straddle both traditional crunchy fantasy roleplaying and lighter, more freeform story gaming. Two dissimilar things, brought together to create something new. Hence, Hippogryph.

It quickly became clear that people were more interested in the mechanics than in the magazine. Developing it into a complete, fully-featured system began in earnest. Rather than dancing around the system’s roots, I decided to simply name them. Both Fate and the D20 system are available under the Open Game License, so I leveraged that.

Redefining Barriers to Entry

As a creator, it meant not having to reinvent the wheel. I can focus on the things that are unique about the system and take a lot of other things for granted. While it’s not Fate, players of that system will find a lot of Hippogryph to be comfortable and familiar. Even though it’s not Dungeons & Dragons, those who know the basic mechanics and terminology will already understand a lot about this system. The vast amounts of information for those two systems can also serve as support for Hippogryph.

All of which reduces barriers to entry for new players. This goes beyond controlling production costs and setting an affordable price point. It capitalizes on two popular systems and remixes them into something new. It helps me in designing and publishing the system, and it aids players acquiring it, learning it, and enjoying it. The Hippogryph System and the Black Box Movement both want to be accessible to all players by providing an experience that’s easy to get into and simple to work with.

About the Hippogryph System

Hippogryph is a d20-based, story-driven tabletop fantasy roleplaying system. It is the collision of the D20 System and Fate RPG, but like the legendary creature it is more than the sum of its parts. This isn’t off-brand D&D with Fate aspects stapled on, nor is it a collection of feats, spells, and class abilities translated into Fate terms. Hippogryph is a unique system that blends established legacy fundamentals with flexible, DIY story game ideals. Info Page ¦ DriveThruRPG ¦ Our Shop

About the Black Box Movement

The Black Box Movement embraces a minimalist presentation. Books are capped at 96 pages, requiring the writing to be concise. Art is included only when it is the necessary to communicate concepts and ideas, and to make more space for essential text. Production costs are kept low in order to keep the price low, with a current ceiling of $10. We succeed or fail on the strength of our ideas.

About Dancing Lights Press

Dancing Lights Press is a lo-fi publisher of tabletop roleplaying systems and system-agnostic creative aids, including the best selling Building series, the DoubleZero action thriller system, and Hippogryph, a fantasy story game system with traditional  roots. Our products embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation because roleplaying is an activity, not a collection of expensive rulebooks.

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[Hippogryph] Designing Flexible Backgrounds

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One thing that I wanted to address in Hippogryph was the way fantasy races are handled. I don’t want to get into debates over racist coding; whether you call it race, species, heritage, whatever, the notion of reducing a people to a generic and stereotypical set of powers and bonuses is problematic. My goal was to allow characters to celebrate differences, without resorting to “all of THESE people are like THAT”. I think I’ve managed to accommodate flexible backgrounds.

Every character gets the same number of points to spend on their background. Those are straight-across bonuses that follow the Fate RPG ladder progression, i.e. spend 3 points and get the ability at Good (+3). Those are called (wait for it!) bonus-granting elements. A dwarf’s Stability, where they’re not easy to knock down, is a bonus-granting element.

When a feature allows a character to do something that other can’t, it’s called an establishing element. Those cost 1 point. Either it doesn’t need a rating, or the feature extends the utility of some other attribute or skill. An Elf’s Immunity to Sleep is an establishing element.

What this does is allows individual characters to be different. If you want your gnome to lean into the whole Communicate with Animals thing, you can put a lot of points into it. When that doesn’t fit your character concept, you can put in fewer points or none at all. Make the reason why they’re better, worse, or incapable of meeting the stereotype part of their back story.

Create New Things, Break Rigid Norms

This method also means creating new backgrounds a snap. If you want playable bugbears, you can list the background features, suggested feats and skills, and that’s about all there is to it. The whole point is to make customization, but both the guide and the player, a quick, painless, and transparent process.

What I really like is that this takes background beyond race. If you do want to create a seafaring culture, or a horse-centric culture, or a proudly academic culture, you can do the same. Because these people are so dependent on raiding, fishing, and seaport trade, the suggested skills, feats, and features will reflect that. A character that grew up around a nomad culture dependent upon horses will have those sorts of abilities available to them. It’s a way of modeling these things, but still allowing players to make characters that aren’t locked into rigid norms.

Designing Flexible Backgrounds

Dancing Lights Press is a lo-fi publisher of tabletop roleplaying systems and system-agnostic creative aids, including the best selling Building series, the DoubleZero action thriller system, and Hippogryph, a fantasy story game system with traditional  roots. Our products embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation because roleplaying is an activity, not a collection of expensive rulebooks.

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[Hippogryph] Why Not Just Say “Aspect”

hippogryph system

Elements in the Hippogryph System are virtually identical to Fate aspects. I’m not trying to obfuscate anything, or hide the game’s influences. The system is being marketed as “the collision of D20 and Fate” and uses the System Reference Documents for both D20 and Fate Condensed. So why not just say “aspect” instead of using different vocabulary?

There are two reasons, both of which came up in playtesting.

First, while the influence of Fate is there, Hippogryph is not Fate. It doesn’t use Fate dice; it uses the D20 mechanic. While it uses a ladder-like resolution, it’s not the ladder familiar to hardcore Fate fans. I don’t want anyone to feel as if they’ve been mislead. Changing the terms used is meant to signal that things are not the same.

Next, as I alluded above, things don’t work exactly as they do in Fate. In early playtesting there was a player who got mad at me. He would cite how aspects worked in various books he owned. I would point out that we were playing Hippogryph, and show him the rules-as-written. He knew that the system wasn’t Fate, but he assumed the same term meant the same thing.

Oddly, I’ve had less problems the other way around. People have been more accepting of D20 terms working differently. I think this has to do with the ubiquity of alternate d20-based systems. There are dozens of variations on “roll a d20, add modifiers, compare to a target number” other there. I have changed some terms for the same reason as the element/aspect confusion, but I’ll cover those in future updates.

Why Not Just Say “Aspect”?

Dancing Lights Press is a lo-fi publisher of tabletop roleplaying systems and system-agnostic creative aids, including the best selling Building series, the DoubleZero action thriller system, and Hippogryph, a fantasy story game system with traditional  roots. Our products embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation because roleplaying is an activity, not a collection of expensive rulebooks.

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An Introduction to the Hippogryph System

hippogryph system

An Introduction to the Hippogryph System

The Hippogryph Codex is a complete tabletop fantasy roleplaying system. As a player, you take the role of a character in an amazing world of magic and excitement. If you are the guide, you coordinate what’s going on. Everyone collaborates and creates fantastic adventures. This book contains everything that you need to know about how to do all of that.

A hippogryph is a legendary creature, possessing the front half of a giant eagle and the body of a horse. In various cultures it’s come to symbolize different things, but usually represents two contradictory ideas coming together to create something new and surprising. In designing this system I want the familiarity and stability of a system like Dungeons & Dragons (our sturdy and steadfast horse). I also wanted the do-it-yourself, story-driven outlook of a system like Fate (soaring eagle). Players should have many options to choose from when creating their characters, but not be limited to fits within the pages of the book. They should be able to easily create new elements in order to personalize the characters and setting, while still having a solid foundation to build upon.

Thanks to the Open Game License, I was able to create the system that I wanted. Make no mistake, this isn’t simply the D20 system with Fate aspects clumsily bolted on, nor a straight-forward Fate conversion of D20 classes, spells, and so on. The goal has been to create a unique experience that fuses the strengths of each system. In other words, a true hippogryph.

The Hippogryph Codex is currently in production at Dancing Lights Press.

About Dancing Lights Press

Dancing Lights Press publishes creative aids and story games that embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation. The spotlight belongs on the creativity of the players as they converse and collaborate on plot, worldbuilding, and character development. Roleplaying is an activity, not a book. Our titles are merely part of the delivery system.

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Hippogryph Codex Update 15 July 2020

hippogryph system

The madness that is my life has calmed down for a few days, so I’m back to work on the Hippogryph Codex. Barring anything strange and unexpected happening — and what are the odds of that, here in 2020 — there’s a good chance it will be released next week. But we’re way beyond normal, so for all I know I could end up dropping another book that I haven’t spoken of in public yet.

I haven’t forgotten about the Adventure Generator or Building Monsters, either. I know that the three most recent new releases seem to have come out of nowhere. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, I did what I could, where I was, with what I had. Which means, in the midst of chaos, I was able to work on the books that I just released, but not the books I’d previously announced.