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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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An Essential Element of Art is Risk

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“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.

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Art is Not a Thing, It is a Way

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“Art is not a thing, it is a way.”

Elbert Hubbard, Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers

A famous designer who shall remain nameless takes umbrage at the use of the word “product” to describe tabletop roleplaying books. He finds it too clinical, I guess, or perhaps to commercial or consumer-minded. This same person, without irony, also asserts that the only way to make a living in this publishing niche is to produce expensive, fully-illustrated hardcover books. Once again, I am doing it wrong.

Art is Not a Thing, It is a Way

Allow me to continue my assertion that what we are selling is not art. Not the expensive, fully-loaded traditional core books, not the bare-bones zines, not the things that Dancing Lights Press offers. They are beautiful objects. You can consider them art in the context of a book, either based on its aesthetics or the message of its contents. In the context of roleplaying, they remain tool kits.

Brushes and pigments are not art. The libretto of an opera is not, unto itself, art. A laptop is not art. For the purposes of this argument, art is what is created using those things. Yes, you can find the appearance of a thing pleasing and yes, there are people who collect such objects. They remain products. It is what is created using those objects that is art.

Tabletop roleplaying isn’t a book, or dice, or any other accouterments. It is the experience and interaction of the people around that table, engages in roleplaying. That is where the art is. Products facilitate its creation.

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.

About Berin Kinsman

Berin Kinsman is a writer, game designer, and owner/publisher at Dancing Lights Press. An American by accident of birth, he currently lives in Finland with his wife, artist Katie Kinsman.

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Illustrated Manuals and the Truth of Fiction

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“Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him; an aspiration to provide himself with a second handle on existence through his imagination.”

Chinua Achebe, The Truth of Fiction
Convocation Lecture, University of Ife, 1978

The Truth of Fiction

Beyond the assertions of the Black Box Movement, there is another philosophical reason for the lack of illustrations in Dancing Lights Press products. In short, I want you to make it your own. I know that the world has shifted away from reading things to watching them. We seem to be losing the ability to visualize things, because we continually have them shown to us. There is some benefit, in terms of building community, to having a shared frame of reference in the form of a drawing or painting. But it also makes things less personal.

I want people to be able to bring their own perspectives and experiences to the table. The more established canon there is, however, the harder that becomes. Illustrations codify what a monster, magic item, or weapon looks like. That to some degree negates your ability to describe things in your own terms, in the context of how you’re interpreting genre and setting elements. It’s more difficult to overlay your own symbolism, or to make it relevant to the experiences of your players. Illustration creates an expectation for those players.

…such a fiction of the end is like infinity plus one and imaginary numbers in mathematics, something we know does not exist, but which helps us to make sense of and to move in the world.

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction

I know that a percentage of tabletop roleplayers assert that it’s all in fun. “Shut up and kill some orcs already”, they’ll decry, rejecting that there can be more to it than rolling dice and having a few laughs. “It’s just a game,” they’ll say, when decades of lived experiences indicate that it is most certainly more than that. For the hobby to be meaningful, for it to feel worthwhile, I have to reject such reductive assessments. Tabletop roleplaying can be cathartic. To be cathartic, it has to be relatable and that requires it to be personal. This is the truth of fiction, any fiction. There has to be something for use to connect with.

We can create idealized versions of ourselves, or at least people we wished we could be, vicariously live their lives. Together without our friends we can create better worlds, and escape into them for a time. Through adventures we can allegorically or metaphorically tackle the issues we feel powerless against in the real world. It’s a way to not just get away from our troubles, but to take back a little bit of our confidence and self-esteem. When the world we live in doesn’t make sense we can flee to one that’s not supposed to, and still impose some sort of logic upon it.

If tabletop roleplaying is art, then it is the players and the guide who are the artists. Not the designer of the mechanics, nor the author of the setting, nor the illustrator whose work stuff the pages. It’s what is created around the table that matters. My role as a writer and designer is to provide you with the tools to do with, without introducing obstacles. Illustrations, in my assessment, are more often than not obstacles.

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.

About Berin Kinsman

Berin Kinsman is a writer, game designer, and owner/publisher at Dancing Lights Press. An American by accident of birth, he currently lives in Finland with his wife, artist Katie Kinsman.

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Lo-Fi Publishing

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In music the term lo-fi describes production quality where imperfections in the recording or performance can be heard. Sometimes they are organic, giving the piece an authentic, “live” feel. Other times they reflect an aesthetic choice. Lo-fi has been associated with a lot of things, including the DIY ethos of punk, nostalgia for analog recordings, and outsider music.

Daniel “Highmoon” Perez and I have had numerous conversations in the past couple of years over how roleplaying publishers are classified. DriveThruRPG seems to think that any publisher that’s not Wizards of the Coast, Catalyst, Mophideus, or Onyx Path is “small press”. That lumps me, a one-person operation with zero budget, in with Evil Hat, Green Ronin, Pinnacle, and R. Talsorian. No shade to those fine people, I love what they do, but they all have staff and resources that far outstrip mine.

At the same time, “indie” seems to be the realm of the hobbyist. They may or may not have aspirations of doing this full time. Some sell their D&D material through the DM’s Guild, and others distribute through alternative venues like Gumroad or Itch. Because I run Dancing Lights Press as a business, and I’m heading into my 5th year of this being my sole source of income, I don’t necessarily feel kinship with that demographic. Again, fine people doing great things, but not my tribe.

Lo-Fi Publishing

Between Daniel and I we’ve launched the Black Box Movement, talked a lot about remix culture and zines, but we’ve never settled on a name for our niche. I’m proposing lo-fi publishing. What people don’t understand is that I’m not ashamed of having low production value; I’m just happy that I created something. Some folks get bent out of shape over a typo or the lack of art, and I’m celebrating that I’ve found a way to make games and pay the rent.

These are also aesthetic choices, as well as financial ones. In the same way that punk was a reaction to the artifice and over-production of glam-rock, my design choices are a political statement as well. I reject the current assumptions. You don’t need to spend a fortune and follow a formula to create a game. Fun is not defined by the glossiness of the paper stock.

Invariably I get comments along the lines of “I like art” or “but production value is good”, and that’s fine. You do you. No one’s telling you what you can and cannot like. All I’m saying is that’s not the only way. I like old black-and-white movies, self-published novels, and mom-and-pop restaurants. Not having production value doesn’t make them bad. It often makes them special, and gives them a certain charm. They manage to be quite good, in spite of expectations to the contrary.

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.