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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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How Remix Culture Balances Comfortable with Cutting Edge

Tabletop roleplaying is, and has always been, a remix culture. I’ve written about that before, so I don’t want to completely rehash it all here. Where it works best is when remix culture balances the familiar and comfortable with new and cutting edge ideas. This is why so much fantasy looks like Dungeons &Dragons, science fiction feels like Star Trek and Star Wars, horror continually references Cthulhu, and superheroes all feel like alternate versions of the DC or Marvel universe.

My major project right now is the Hippogryph Codex. I refer to it as the collision of D20 and Fate. Which, I realize, is a rather violent way of saying “mashup”. It uses the core mechanic from D20 — roll a d20, apply modifiers, beat a target number. Said target number, however, is a variation of Fate’s ladder. It shows you the degree of success or failure. The equivalents of class, race, feats, and spells are all expressed as aspects, which for reasons explained elsewhere are called elements.

The object was to take something familiar — all of the basic tropes from D&D — and make something that feels more modern. Yes, I know that Fate is already over 10 years old, so it’s not that modern. There’s also more to Hippogryph than remixing two systems together. The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, which is — wiat for it — the reason I named it Hippogryph. It isn’t a horse, and it isn’t an eagle. It’s not Fate, and it’s not D20. Yet it still has recognizable bits that pull it back from the edge, and allow players to find it relatable.

How Remix Culture Balances Comfortable with Cutting Edge

RPGaDay is an annual event held each August. It asks tabletop gamers to use provided daily prompts to express something fun, interesting, and positive about the hobby. David F. Chapman (Autocratik), the award-winning game designer, created it.

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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Glossary: Homage and Pastiche

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Two more words I use a lot are homage and pastiche. Most tabletop roleplaying games are engaged in one or the other. They might not acknowledge it. They may not even know it. It’s still a fundamental cultural cornerstone of the hobby.

Homage

An homage is a tribute to something or someone as a show of respect. It comes from the French word hommage, which in Medieval feudalism was the oath of fealty sworn to a lord. In modern usage it’s an allusion to another creator’s word. This can be a dedication to a person whose work inspired you, a sly reference, or the use of specific stylistic references associated with another creative work. It is not, however, trying to directly copy or closely imitate the original work.

Delta Green is an homage. It references and pays tribute to various Cthulhu Mythos authors without trying to imitate their style. Mutants & Masterminds is an homage. The tropes of superhero comics are used on a high level and in a loving fashion, but they’re not trying to directly copy DC or Marvel. Shadowrun is an homage to both the straight-up cyberpunk genre and Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s not trying to be either, but celebrates elements of both.

Pastiche

A pastiche is a deliberate attempt to imitate the tone and style of another work, or even an assortment of works. It’s mean to reflect an appreciation of the earlier work. Another word with French origins, it shares the same root as pâté and essentially means to mix ingredients together. It might be tonque-in-cheek, a winking acknowledgement that the creator is knowingly aping someone else’s style, but it’s always done respectfully.

Call of Cthulhu, at least the original version, is meant to be pastiche. It was a conscious effort, with the sanity system and such, to recreate the mood and outcomes of Lovecraft stories. Traveller is pastiche, because the setting is meant to evoke any number of Golden Age science fiction novels. You can go through an pick out bit of H. Beam Piper, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and others. Early Dungeons & Dragons was pastiche, albeit in distinct chunks. The magic system, commonly referred to as Vancian magic, was a recreation of the way things work in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, and the whole aesthetic of thieves imitates Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar.

Homage and Pastiche

Knowing these terms matters for two reasons. First, we need greater acknowledgement that tabletop roleplaying culture is remix culture. Like a lot of fandom, we are celebrating creative work that we love and keeping it alive. The way we’re doing this is by creating original works of our own.

Second, by being aware that we’re creating an homage or pastiche, we can do it better. We can consciously create tributes that elevate the original works without simply being a copycat. The things that really take off in this hobby are the works that have this level of awareness, and use it effectively. The stuff that feels bland and more-of-same is the stuff that doesn’t seem to know that it’s operating in this creative head space.

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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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.

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The Black Box Movement and Remix Culture

black box movement

Since both philosophies are currently having a strong influence on my approach to game design, I should take a moment to explain how the Black Box Movement and Remix Culture fit together. These are my personal opinions. They aren’t meant to be interpreted as representative of either creative community. I can only speak to my own takeaways, and perspectives that I’m finding to be useful.

On the most basic level, they’re both about clearing away obstacles for creators. Black Box says you don’t have to do things the way other people do them. Remix culture encourages building upon what already exists. Between the two, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done, freeing the creator to spend more time creating.

The Black Box Movement and Remix Culture

I think there’s more to it, though. To explain, I turn to the eponymous manifesto presented in the documentary RiP!: A Remixers Manifesto. There are four basic tenets:

  1. Culture always builds on the past.
  2. The past always tries to control the future.
  3. Our future is becoming less free.
  4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past

Applying this to the Black Box Movement, this is what I see:

Culture always builds on the past.

We like certain games, so we create our own refinements and variations. From fantasy heartbreakers to the Open Game License, we expand upon the work of others. From a Black Box perspective, we look at the way people have done things and follow their examples for everything from layout to marketing. So we advertise in the same spaces, sell through the same venues, and make things that look like like previously successful products.

The past always tries to control the future.

There is an assumption that the way things have been done successfully in the past is the One True Way. Retailers and supply chains are set up to operate in a particular way. Customers have expectations regarding content and format. Therefore, to tap into that you need to do certain things the way they’ve always been done.

Our future is becoming less free.

It is becoming more difficult to create, if you accept certain assumptions. You have to create a big, fat hardcover. A lot of money needs to be spent on original art. There’s no success without a Kickstarter campaign. If you’re not in retail stores or doing a lot of conventions, you’ll languish in obscurity. It’s impossible to make a living in this industry unless you work for one of the few big publishers. The Black Box Movement rejects those assumptions as givens.

To build free societies you must limit the control of the past.

A lot of this comes down to finding new ways of doing things. It’s going to take a while before both people accept that alternatives are viable. They already do. There was a time when you couldn’t download things from DriveThruRPG or order physical books from Amazon. Those are now established institutions. We need to be open to the idea that there are other ways of doing things. Therefore, new definitions of success have to be found.

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.