Posted on Leave a comment

Tabletop Roleplaying as Creative Outlet

hippogryph system

Tabletop Roleplaying as Creative Outlet

Most dedicated roleplayers create characters and build worlds. Even when we know, with near-absolute certainty, that we’re never going to use them. We do this because it’s fun. It is an act of creative expression on par with constructing Lego sets. Building model kits. Taking crayons to coloring books. It isn’t too far removed from keeping a bullet journal not just to organize information, but for the satisfaction derived from writing things down, crossing things off of lists, and doodling. These activities are relaxing, therapeutic, and the serve no greater purpose than generating the enjoyment derived from doing them.

Dungeons & Dragons

My frustration with Dungeons & Dragons has always been that, aside from characters, the rules for creating many elements are missing, scattered across many books, or difficult to work with. I understand the business model of selling books full of pregenerated monsters, spells, or magic items. Yes, there’s a need for a common baseline because of tournament play. Let’s be serious, though. What percentage of roleplayers do much gaming beyond the home game and maybe an occasional convention? To some degree “making stuff” has gotten a bit easier over the years, but it still feels like they want to obfuscate the process in order to sell me more manuals, guides, and handbooks.

Fate

If you think I’m going to transition immediately into praising Fate, well, you’re only partially right. I love the concept of aspects, and the ability to make up whatever you want from whole cloth. What I don’t like is the near-complete lack of rigor around it. You can pick through various books to find examples. There’s a bottomless supply of advice available on creating good aspects. However, I’ve yet to run any iteration of Fate with a group of casual or new players where someone didn’t ask me for list of abilities they could choose from.

There’s a middle ground in there, between strict pick-lists and wide-open toolkits. Thus, the dichotomy of the Hippogryph, part grounded horse and part soaring eagle, makes itself known once again. The balance between providing ready-made solutions and leaving things open to player creativity was one of the first design goals of the Hippogryph System.

 


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 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.

Posted on 1 Comment

Coming Up Next: The Hippogryph Codex

hippogryph system

Coming Up Next: The Hippogryph Codex

A hippogryph the poster child for two things that, by all logic, should not go together. Yet somehow, they merge into a new entity that not only works, but elevates both components. It’s a strange hybrid creature, combining elements of a giant eagle with a horse. Various cultures over time have used the hippogryph as a symbol for everything from the perplexing nature of religious belief to the immeasurable power of romantic love. For me, it represents how the whole can be more than the mere sum of its parts. It’s lofty yet grounded, poetic yet practical.

I named this project Hippogryph because it’s full of such dichotomies. The hobby at its core is the melding of wargaming and storytelling. My strongest influences are both heavier legacy games like Dungeons & Dragons, and lighter, free-form systems like Fate Accelerated. My goal is to leverage the strengths of each element, use them to compensate for their collective flaws and drawbacks, and create something singular, entertaining, and useful.


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 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.

Posted on 2 Comments

Problems the Hippogryph Codex is Solving For

hippogryph system

Why create a new tabletop roleplaying system when there are so many others already on the market? It’s a good question. I have specific design goals, and reasons for crafting things the way I did. There are a number of problems the Hippogryph Codex is solving for. Today I’d like to share a few of them, to help answer that question of why I bothered.

Comfort and Familiarity

The reason I built the system around the D20 and Fate Open Game Licenses isn’t because this is a quick cut-and-paste job. It isn’t. This isn’t a conversion of one system into the other. It’s not D20 with aspects bolted on, or Fate crammed into a classes-and-levels matrix. I wanted to work with concepts that my target audience would already be familiar with.

Because people are already familiar with the core concepts, I can focus on what’s different. The things that I want to say with the system, that are creatively and philosophically important to me. I don’t have to reinvent the entire wheel to do that. I can use the bits and bobs of other systems, remix them, and build a new thing out of them.

A Creation-Forward Mindset

Half the fun of tabletop roleplaying is making things. Character creation, worldbuilding ,adventure prep, you name it. Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t necessarily make that difficult, but it’s not exactly easy either. I get it. They want to sell you sourcebooks. The information on creating your own classes, feats, spells, magic items, monsters, and so on, is all in there somewhere. I wanted to streamline the process. Instead of infinite lists to things to choose from, the methods for quickly and easily creating your own stuff is up front, out in the open.

The flip side of this is that while Fate makes that part easy, it lacks a certain amount of rigor. When I’ve run Fate-based games the biggest complaint, especially from new players, is the lack of picklists. They want more examples. It’s not that they don’t want to create anything. They just don’t want to have to create everything if they don’t want to. The system is also a bit too freeform for some folks, too.

I needed to balance rigor with flexibility. There had to be consistent blocks to build with, but the freedom to make whatever I wanted out of those blocks. That’s where the melding to the horse and the eagle comes together to form the hippogryph.

Speed of Play

Angels and ministers of grace defend us from combat round that take forever to get through. That extends to any other sort of rule, for any other type of challenge, as well. On the other hand, no, I don’t want things to be entirely freeform and open to interpretation. I wanted more player agency in determining results, but not an extreme that’s vague and confusing. A nice mix of stable, consistent rules and storytelling is what I was after.

When I say speed of play, I don’t just mean combat. I mean being able to spend as much time on any sort or interaction as the players choose. It shouldn’t be a matter of using the rules for crunchy parts, and completely ignoring the rules for roleplaying. The system should always be there in the background, as invisible as possible but ready to be called up and used at any time, for any reason.


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 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.

Posted on Leave a comment

Why I Wrote the Hippogryph Codex

hippogryph system

If you can stretch your imagination back to the Before Times, I’ll tell you about why I wrote the Hippogryph Codex. At the start of 2020, when we had no idea we’d end up like (gestures broadly at the world), I took a shot at doing a zine. The title was Hippogryph, a name chosen for its symbolism. It was going to be a hybrid of many disparate things.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links to DriveThruRPG.

Why I Wrote the Hippogryph Codex

The whole, I hoped, would be greater than the sum of its parts. My goal was to use the zine to discuss various ideas I had about tabletop roleplaying and design. To facilitate this, Issue Zero contained a quick-and-dirty roleplaying system. This was going to be the example I could use in future issue, when discussing various topics.

More people were interested in the system than in my discourse. Other issues sold okay, but the venture didn’t do well enough that I could pay the bill doing in. Then the world began to unravel, and I had to pivot my attention to other things. I scrapped the zine after seven issues, and started work in earnest on an expanded version of the Hippogryph System. It wasn’t just about giving the people what they want. It was about reevaluating my own creative needs, and mapping out the next couple of years’ worth of Dancing Lights Press projects.

I Needed a House System

Let’s be completely honest here. I stopped being a third party publisher because there are limits to what you can do when playing with other peoples’ toys. If you want to know why I don’t just write 5e or Pathfinder or Fate material, that’s why. It’s not even about content restrictions placed by the OGL provider. It’s about the expectations consumers have around OGL content.

I remain firmly committed to the Black Box Movement. Not just as part of my business plan, either. I believe that it is a way forward for many creators and consumers. The problem is that fans of most licensed systems are firmly entrenched in the consumerism paradigm. I.e., they don’t care how good a product is, or how much utility it might have at their table. Their primary concern is with trade dress.

They don’t want Pathfinder products that look like Dancing Lights Press products. They want Pathfinder products that look like Paizo products. I don’t want to make Paizo products. Or Wizards of the Coast products, or Evil Hat products, or any other publishers’ products. I have my own ideas, my own values, and my own voice.

To do the sorts of things I wanted to do, both creatively and philosophically, I needed a house system to work with.

It’s a Worldbuilding Venue

It’s no big secret that what I really want to do is write settings. Moving in 2021, you’ll see a lot of movement in that direction. Having experimented with system-agnostic settings in the past… they don’t sell well. I understand the people want to pick up  book and play, without having to convert material to the system of their choice. It’s one of the reasons so many publishers make multiple iterations of the same setting for different systems and editions.

The things that I want to do fall neatly into two camps. Real-world and low-genre settings will be handled by the DoubleZero line. All of the high-genre material, including fantasy, horror, and sci-fi, will fall under the Hippogryph umbrella. Some of the settings will be small, 32-page affairs. Others will be full 96-page sourcebooks. It all depends on the idea, and how much space it will take to express it properly.

It’s Still a Discussion Point

This is where we come full circle, back to the original intention of the zine. I’m going to continue writing about my philosophy of roleplaying design and small press publishing here on the site. The things that I publish will be an expression of those ideals. In many ways, why I wrote the Hippogryph Codex is the same reason I created the mechanics in Issue Zero of the zine. There are opinions that I want to express, and things that I want to say, that go beyond publishing a book and making a living.

Interestingly, even though the zine got a “meh” reception, people have asked me to write about the process of creating a publishing a tabletop roleplaying book. As I create new material, I’ll continue to share those thoughts here. Like the hippogryph of legend, we once again have the best of both worlds.


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 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.

Posted on Leave a comment

Is the Hippogryph System a Fantasy Heartbreaker?

hippogryph system

A fantasy heartbreaker is a tabletop roleplaying book that did not live up to its potential. The term, as coined by Ron Edwards, is not meant to be derogatory. It’s simply a way of assessing a few common flaws that designers fall prey to. Edwards’ essay was written in 2002, and times have clearly changed. Yet I still see a lot of these same issues popping up. As a matter of creative honesty, I had to ask myself:  is the Hippogryph System a fantasy heartbreaker?

Disclaimer: This post contains DriveThruRPG and Amazon affiliate links.

The Four Elements of a Fantasy Heartbreaker?

In his essay Edwards has four criteria for a fantasy heartbreaker:

  1. critical perspective of the intervening history of game design,
  2. knowledge of actual fantasy instead of gaming-fantasy,
  3. originality of concepts in mechanics, and
  4. business acumen.

You can read his original essay for information on how he devised these criteria, and his rationale behind them. As I go through each point below, I will explain why I find these points to be relevant two decades later. I’ll also provide an explanation of how I’m applying them.

Critical Perspective of the Intervening History of Game Design

Edwards was writing primarily about fantasy games that were one step removed from Dungeons & Dragons. The heartbreakers he cites were largely designed by people who had only played D&D. They were unaware of other systems and innovations. Many of the mechanics they came up with independently mirrored things that already been done, and often done better, in other systems.

The Hippogryph System is inspired by two disparate sets of mechanics: the D20 system and Fate. That alone indicates that yes, I am aware of things other than D&D. I am borrowing many of the tropes of D&D to leverage their familiarity. Fate does a number of things in a way that I like, that fit with my vision. It’s not a simple matter of converting one thing over into the other. I’m building a moderately original system from part cannibalized from other systems.

To do that, I’ve looked at many other systems that have done similar things. Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds and True20, for example. They took the bones of D20 and turned them into unique, distinct systems. I’ve studied other systems that were clearly inspired by bits and pieces of other games. Tabletop roleplaying is remix culture. I think I have the sort of critical perspective Edwards was writing about.

Knowledge of Actual Genre Instead of Gaming-Genre

For Edwards, this meant creating systems and setting inspired by Dungeons & Dragons rather than fantasy fiction. It was obvious, in the examples he cited, that most heartbreakers work the way D&D interprets them to work. There’s very little homage to an specific fantasy novels or series. If there are such nods, they tend to shoehorn the fiction’s ideas into a D&D-style paradigm.

This one is difficult. Hippogryph does have “classes” and spells and such. Again, my target audience is people who are familiar with these tropes. At the same time, the system is far more generic. You can build a character from scratch, in a fashion similar to fate. If you want to play a rogue or a wizard, the templates are there. It’s not so much that I’m bringing a knowledge of actual genre to the design, but creating things in a way they you can interpret whatever elements you’d like to bring to the table.

There’s also the fact that the storytelling elements are a bit more open to interpretation. That also allows you to bring actual genre knowledge to the table. A hit from a sword will do X damage, but there are also narrative complications, as in Fate. How you choose to interpret those should differ from setting to setting. What’s appropriate in a world inspired by LeGuin’s Earthsea won’t work in a campaign based on Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series.

I think this category passes the sniff test.

Originality of Concepts in Mechanics

Edwards was remarking on the straight-across copying of D&D,  with one or two tweaks made. In the Hippogryph System, you roll a d20 and apply modifiers the same way you do in pretty much all editions of D&D. You compare the total to something akin to the Ladder in Fate (which was lifted from Fudge). I’m not making bold claims to originality here.

But that’s not the point of the design. It’s meant to feel comfortable and familiar. The object is to create something fun, yet utilitarian. If you want to play a “traditional” elf ranger a la D&D, but want more of  story game experience, Hippogryph does that. If you want to create a character from scratch without the limitations of classes and picklists of abilities but need a more structured play experience, Hippogryph does that, too. The originality of concept is in the philosophy of the mechanics.

Business Acumen

At the time Edwards wrote this essay, self-publishing was vastly different. RPGNow was only a year or so old, and had no print-on-demand option. DriveThruRPG was still a couple of years off. There was no Kickstarter or Itch. I don’t think Amazon had any sort of print-on-demand function yet, and if they did it wasn’t easy to navigate. You needed to find a printer, finance a full print run, and have a place to store all of the copies. It was an investment. On top of creating a physical product, you needed to somehow market and sell the things.

My bona fides are that I’m currently in my fifth year of doing this full time. This is my day job. At the moment I have over 150 bestsellers on DriveThruRPG and a 4.6 (out of 5) publisher rating. I opted to go back and get a business degree rather than an MFA, and graduated summa cum laude. There are always new things to learn and plenty that I could do better, but on a base level I’m confident that I know what I’m doing.

Is the Hippogryph System a Fantasy Heartbreaker?

Let’s split this one down the middle. I have a critical perspective of design and business acumen. Genre’s not a factor, and while it defaults to familiar D&D tropes you can easily ignore than and create things based on your own genre knowledge and influences. The mechanics aren’t meant to be boldly original, but that’s intentional and not based on a lack of perspective or creativity.

So I’m going to say no. It’s not a fantasy heartbreaker. I know what it is, and it accomplishes what I need it to. I knew the problem I was solving for when I started, and it does exactly that. Even if it might feel like a heartbreaker on the surface, if you go a little bit deeper you will see how this system shines.


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 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.