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Building Series and the Black Box Movement

In many ways, the Building Series was the proving ground for the Black Box Manifesto. Yes, I was releasing titles before Daniel M. Perez codified what I was trying to do. He provided me with more clarity, though. Something were sort of happening accidentally, or out of necessity. When he wrote the manifesto, it gave me intention. The Building Series and the Black Box Movement are the same thing in my mind.

To whit: the claim that books do not sell without art is debunked by the fact that the first edition of Setting Design is a Platinum Best Seller. Not only does it have no art, it’s got a plain black cover. It’s got a 4.3/5 star rating, which means people think it’s pretty good. Lest you say that’s a fluke, take note that its companion volumes Building Characters and Story Structure are Gold Best Sellers. If you want to dismiss that as a small sample size, and claim that 3 titles doesn’t prove anything, realize that over the past 4+ years I have released over 150 bestselling titles and none of them have interior art.

Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are. Never let anyone tell you how to create, what to create, or why to create. Challenge conventional wisdom. Join the Movement.

About the Building Series

Characters! Worldbuilding! Adventures! The Building Series is a line of bestselling creative aids for tabletop roleplayers. Each volume focuses on one aspect of roleplaying, like character development, worldbuilding, or adventure design. The books are system-agnostic, meaning they were not written for one specific set of mechanics, genre, or setting. The examples provided are high-level and generic, allowing you to adapt and apply them to the roleplaying system of your choice. 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 System and the 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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DoubleZero System and the Black Box Movement

What’s the intersection of the DoubleZero System and the Black Box Movement? Obviously there is the minimalist presentation. The book has no art, so that everything could fit into a tight, 96-page digest format package. That’s why we can sell the PDF of a Core Book for $4.99 and, eventually, a softcover print edition with a prospective price of $9.99. One of the aims of Black Box is, after all, to reduce the barriers to entry into the hobby.

There’s also the aesthetic of remix culture. Use what already exists to create something new. The original idea for DoubleZero, which I first had well over a decade ago, was to create an OGL adaptation of Victory Games’ James Bond 007 roleplaying game. That’s already been done, and done well, a couple of times. I was more interested in capturing the feel not of the original game, but that way me groups have played it. I used it as the default system for anything that didn’t involve magic or superpowers. A generic “realistic” system.

Black Box Theater

When you look at it that way, the system is black box theater. Stripped of sets and costuming, all that’s left are characters. Personalities, problems to be overcome, and goals to be achieved. You can look at cars, guns, and gadgets as “flash”, but not every setting or campaign has to focus on those. It’s not about all of the fancy bells and whistles that other systems offer.

One of the reasons I was drawn to using Basic Roleplaying as a foundation was its association with “character normalcy”. Few characters in Call of Cthulhu have powers.  I played a lot of Runequest for a few years, and those characters were far more grounded in low fantasy than what other systems were doing. What I didn’t like were the terms of BRP’s open game license. It goes astray from the baseline OGL, and has some language that could be troublesome. That’s why I went with GORE, a previously established third-party BRP emulation.

Remix and Homage

Again, though, I didn’t want to recreated BRP any more than I wanted to clone JB007. Those were just parts laying around that I could use, rather than building everything from scratch. The core mechanic isn’t from either of those systems. Yet there is a familiarity in DoubleZero that pays homage to both, and creates a resonance and familiarity for the players. The recognizable bits are another attempt to overcome barriers to entry.

Beyond the production aesthetics, that to me is another important part of the Black Box Movement. Innovation is great. I love innovation. Comfort and playability is better. The problem I was solving for was a utilitarian, nuts-and-bolts system that could be used for a wide variety of things. One of the reasons the first few supplements have been settings has been to show that utility. We have cults and conspiracies, retro-future science fiction, and lighthearted mysteries. None of which are James Bond, Cthulhu, or anything their donor systems are known for.

DoubleZero System and the Black Box Movement

Ultimately, I think that the DoubleZero System is a solid representation of what the Black Box Movement is about. It isn’t about standing still, nor is it about ignoring the history of the hobby. I made exactly the thing that I wanted to make, in a way that was possible with the resources I had available. The finished product is affordable and accessible, and so far has been a hit with players. All of which was accomplished without bowing it conventional wisdom.

About the DoubleZero System

DoubleZero is a percentile based, skill-driven tabletop roleplaying system. It is designed to emulate the action thriller genre, things like the Die Hard movies, Jack Ryan books and films, and the grittier entries in the James Bond franchise. It can be used for any sort of “realistic” modern setting that doesn’t lean into magic, the supernatural, or superpowers.

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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The Future of the Black Box Movement

black box movement

Today I was looking back over #RPGaDay2020 and what I got out of it. Even though it didn’t drive a lot of additional traffic to the site, I got to express some opinions on tabletop roleplaying. That alone made the challenge worth it. The posts allowed me to clarify some things in my head. I’m a lot clearer about my own philosophy of game design, and of doing business as a small press publisher. I reflected on the types of things that I write, and what I want to say with them. All of this tied together with the future of the Black Box Movement, or at least my interpretation of it.

A lot of what I have planned for this space going forward can be summarized as better communication. I want to let you know where I am in process on various projects, and set realistic expectations. Rather than springing things on you out of the blue, I want to build some anticipation for new releases. I also want to talk more about the design choices I made, and why I made them. Which, again, circles back around to the Black Box Movement, remix culture, and the concept of lo-fi publishing.

The Future of the Black Box Movement

When I’m not posting about specific products under development, I’m going to be talking about the Black Box Movement. I’ve begun outlining a book. The essays will be published here as individual posts, and eventually be collected. Along with the DoubleZero System and the Hippogryph System, writing about my  philosophy of tabletop is going to effectively become the third product line heading into 2021. In fact, expect posts about how those connect with my Black Box ideas in the coming week.

How I create is, to me, as important as what I create.

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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An Essential Element of Art is Risk

black box movement

“An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?”

Francis Ford Coppola, interview in 99u

Allow me to begin by saying this update is going to be a little bit all over the place. The number of ideas in my head right now outstrip the time available to write them all down. I suspect that some of these things will be spun off and expanded into separate essays later on.

Let me continue by saying, as means of illustrating the point, that is piece in and of itself is a risk. I know that these sorts of thinky, philosophical posts are largely ignored by my audience. This time could be better spend on something more popular or profitable. There’s also the risk of backlash, that someone will read it and decide they disagree so strongly that it becomes the hill they’re willing to die on. There was a bit of that when Daniel first announced the Black Box Movement, after all. Sometimes we write things not because we expect them to be read, but because we feel they need to be said.

An Essential Element of Art is Risk

The majority of people in this cottage industry are set in their ways. They have determined that there is only one right and proper way to do things, and that’s the way it must be done. To some degree that does mitigate risk, yes. Francis Ford Coppola, quoted above, was not a formulaic director but he did develop a formulaic means of making films. He mitigated financial risk by having processes and procedures. I can’t help but think that he learned those values from his mentor, Roger Corman, who is also the my personal Patron Saint. In mitigating one area of risk, Coppola was able to take more risks in the art he was creating.

What infuriates me is that these same people tend to complain about the growth of the hobby. It’s lopsided, in favor of D&D. But only in those decades when it isn’t stagnant, or in decline. These are people who admittedly take great financial risks to launch a big, bold book following the formula of traditional publishing, then cry when they lose their metaphorical shirts. They are the writers and artists and designers that follow the well-trod “path to success”, then throw a fit when they find it’s next to impossible to earn a living that way. Pitch them on a different way of doing things, and they’ll tell you you’re crazy. You’re doing it wrong. It involves too much risk.

All Things Happen By Experimentation

This idea of taking a risk applies to both the creator and those experiencing the creation. We need to take risks and discover new things. Trying a new restaurant means not getting the thing we already know we like. Watching a new show means not binge-rewatching the show you love so much you have entire episodes memorized. There is risk involved in buying a new game, when you could have spent your money on yet another D&D supplement or more dice, and whiled away your time playing that comfortably familiar system.

This is the opposite of consumerism. We are trained to be loyal to brands. Stability and reliability are traded for the mediocrity of the comfortable and familiar. In that sense, unpopularly, all acts of creativity are political. Even the worst fantasy heartbreaker took the risk of criticizing the Ur-RPG by changing pieces of it. Small risks sometime, disproportionately large one depending on what was changed and how people reacted to it. Adapting older works to newer cultural contexts gets tagged as political. So does updating an old classic for a modern audience.

Yet we need those risks. Without them, everything stagnates. There is no new art that feels relevant to our own lived experiences.