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Glossary: Homage and Pastiche

Dancing Lights Press

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

Dancing Lights Press

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.

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Black Box Movement: Everything is a Remix

black box movement

RPG culture is remix culture. Everything is a remix. That’s it. That’s the blog post.

Well, almost.

I think it’s important for people to understand what remix culture is. People need to see how it applies to tabletop roleplaying games. You’re already engaged in it, whether you realize it or not.  When you’re able to do it consciously, it can be another tool for you to leverage in your own creative endeavors.

Everything is a Remix

Gary Gygax took miniatures wargaming, mixed it with ideas from his favorite pulp fantasy novels, and created Dungeons & Dragons. Most of us bring our favorite books, TV shows, movies, and even other games with us to the table. We throw Middle Earth, Hyperborea, Melnibone, Westeros, Medieval Europe, the unnamed world of The Witcher, and more into a blender, pick out the bits we don’t like, and call it our own. The things that work for us have the serial numbers filed off and get renamed. Things we sort of like that don’t quite click get reinterpreted and “fixed” to suit us. We deconstruct, mash up, and recycle all sorts of things to create our campaign worlds, our adventures, and our characters.

The Black Box Movement started with my friend and colleague Daniel M. Perez ruminating on the Dogme 95 film movement, wondering how something like that could be applied to tabletop roleplaying. I added the philosophy of black box theater to the mix, and Daniel used that for the title. It’s not only a remix of other peoples’ ideas, it’s a combination of a few of my ideas with his.

Someone once criticized one of my creative aid books by saying it looked like I read a bunch of books on writing, synthesized a range of ideas I found, and applied them to roleplaying. I have thus far resisted the urge to scream, “Well, DUH!” at the top of my lungs. Everything you read is a remix of ideas and experiences the writer has been exposed to, processed, and interprets.

RPG Culture is Remix Culture

That DoubleZero is a remix of ideas from the Victory Games James Bond 007 RPG and Basic Roleplaying (by way of GORE™, itself a remix of BRP) isn’t a secret. The Hippogryph Codex is an obvious remix of Fate and the d20 System, which will be even more obvious when the Codex is released. This remixing is not only permissible, but encouraged. Wizards of the Coast acknowledged that RPG culture is remix culture when they created the Open Game License. The OGL allows people to modify, copy, and redistribute some of the content designed for their games.

What matters in the end isn’t that we do it, but how we do it. When credit needs to be given, give it. If you’re able to pay it forward by sharing, share it. Support not just the RPG community, but remix culture. In the end, it’s beneficial to us all.

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Do What You Can

black box movement

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Theodore Roosevelt

This cannot be overstated: there is no right or wrong way to create. That’s what the Black Box Movement is about. No one can tell you that you need to make a thing a certain way. Your game doesn’t have to be a full-color hardcover packed with original art. There’s no need to run a Kickstarter with a dozen tiers and a ton of premium rewards. It’s not a law that you have to have a YouTube channel or stream on Twitch. You can if you want to, of course. But that’s a creative choice, and maybe a business decision, not the One True Way.

Do What You Can

What I love about tabletop roleplaying is the DIY nature of it. We all get to make up our own stuff, whether it’s characters, worlds, or stories. Draw maps on graph paper if that’s what you’ve got. Fill notebooks and Google docs with ideas. I think that when we get swept up in the latest fads and trends and new technologies, we forget that.

Honestly, that’s why so many Dancing Lights Press titles are creative aids. My job isn’t just to make things, it’s to help you make things. Everyone should be out there making something, even if it’s just for the people in their game group, or for themselves. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.