The Black Box Manifesto

by Daniel M. Perez

Roleplaying games were originally introduced over forty years ago with simple rules that bridged tabletop miniature gaming with a kind of improvisational theater. They were produced as black-and-white paper pamphlets containing a few pieces of line art and sold for a fairly affordable price. Over time they have evolved into intricate and extensive rules-sets contained in full-sized, full-color, artwork-heavy books with glossy pages and lavish production values. They are sold for high prices to offset the expense of the design work poured into them. There are exceptions, of course, but this does describe the majority of the tabletop roleplaying game market.

That model has created issues that affect my enjoyment of roleplaying games. As a hobbyist, books with page counts in the hundreds virtually guarantee that I won’t have time to read and process them. As a consumer, I often struggle to justify the expense. As a creator, the model places unfair expectations on the form and content of a game’s design, as well as on the resources needed to deliver a finished product.

I propose a new paradigm.

The Dogme95 film movement, the black box theatre movement, and the Art Brut movement all demanded a renewed focus on creative work itself, rather than the technical elements of their respective mediums. Inspired by those creators and their ideals, I propose a similar set of rules for the creation, development, and sale of roleplaying games. These rules are meant to hearken back to the origin of the hobby, a theater of the mind style of play, and the simplicity and utility of boxed sets. This is the Black Box Manifesto.

These rules were created for my own use, to provide myself creative and practical boundaries. The intention is force myself not to rely on what is considered the norm, but to create a new set of expectations as to how roleplaying games are designed, produced, and presented.

In the spirit of community, the Black Box Manifesto is being released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License so that other creators can explore its possibilities. There will be no centralized gatekeeping, no checking whether a work meets all the rules, and no declarations as to whether a work meets the criteria, instead relying on each creator’s honesty and interpration of the spirit of the rules. It is my hope that this new paradigm inspires a surge in creativity in roleplaying games.

My heartfelt gratitude to Berin Kinsman for his help in reading, refining, and inspiring this work. He is as much the creator as I am.

The Rules

  • The work must be a self-contained whole, able to provide a complete entertainment experience by itself. If using an open licensed system, the work must contain all material necessary to be of use, referencing other works only as the open license requires.

  • No interior artwork. The use of fonts and layout to distinguish parts of the work is allowed. Maps and diagrams may be used if they are absolutely necessary and must be printed on the inside covers. The front cover may feature full artwork.

  • The work must make use of a unified task/conflict resolution system. Only one subsystem branching off the unified resolution system is allowed.

  • Setting material included in the work must be restricted to the most immediate area relevant to the work.

  • The work must be pamphlet-sized, either half-fold (8.5 x 5.5) or 6 x 9, with no more than 96 pages front and back, not including the cover. All pages must include content essential to the work, although a couple blank pages are acceptable if needed for printing layout purposes. No Ads.

  • Price for an electronic version of the work may not exceed $10 USD (or equivalent). Price for a print version of the work may not exceed the cost of the electronic version plus base print cost.

  • The focus of the work must be on the elements that promote human interaction in the shared creation of a story, not extravagant production values, winning awards, or gaining status.

The Black Box Manifesto by Daniel M. Perez and Berin Kinsman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.