i thought i would skip the rest of the introductory bits to go straight to the rules, but i wanted to take a look at some other paragraphs:
> Dice: Dice are clicky-clacky math rocks. They return a randomized number based on the number of faces they have. However, they are not edible. BOLT requires the use of the following dice: [...]
let me offer this question: is this a useful paragraph for anyone who doesn't know what dice are? the first sentence, that they are clicky-clacky math rocks, is basically a silly verbatim stock twitter epithet for dice; if someone really doesn't know what dice are, although "math rocks" i'm sure gets the point across if the reader (ignorant of dice) had some in their hand, is this a useful descriptor?
the second sentence uses the language of mathematics or data science, that a die returns a randomized number. this is true by those fields, but is this intuitive for the reader not familiar with either field? the language makes the dice out to be a device that randomizes and returns a number, not a clicky-clacky math rock that you roll and then read for the number facing up.
the third sentence is just another twitter in-joke which is easily understandable with some additional context (e.g. "however, despite looking delicious, they are not edible"). just an ad sequitur without already having the premise "dice look yummy" in your brain.
lots of first-person text, etc. etc. etc. politics section
> I’m sorry, but we have to talk about this...
> It’s a delicate task to divine the political inclinations of a game system, but once you build a game with a setting, with setting-specific mechanics, you come face-to-face with the political goals (or lack of goals) that an RPG holds.
> Sure, not every game is as nakedly political as #iHunt or Red Markets, but political worldviews are baked into the bones of every role playing game, in how characters progress, fight, grow, and lose. Are characters treated as special people? Are they pushed into specific moral quandaries? Are they killing to take people’s stuff, or for something bigger?
> Even before a writer designs costumes or adds a “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” paragraph (like this one) or decides what skin color the characters on the cover are, the text and structure of the game reveal the politics of the game and writers—in much the same way you can somewhat pick up someone’s politics from hearing what words they use.
> So be mindful of your politics--even if they're not mine--and be honest about them when you write or run games using BOLT.
> For everyone's sake.
i think here, pandey is trying to appeal to some sense of "everything is political whether or not it wants to be," although i think his grasp of this is somewhat jumbled (e.g. "political goals (or lack of goals)"). he seems to focus on the conscious aspect of political ideology, something which can be stated upfront. however, this sentiment is usually reserved for games which disavow having a political dimension, when in reality they are subject to biases which even they themselves might not be aware of.
now, i want to get into the nitty gritty so let's do it!
this is how pandey introduces BOLT qua system:
> At its core, BOLT is a skill-based d10+d4 game with a GM and 2-5 players, with the following cadence:
i've cut off the bulleted list following this sentence, but i think it's fascinating how he introduces the system as first and foremost "a skill-based d10+d4 game". of course, we're in the mechanics of the game now and he previously introduced BOLT in the prologue as "an action-adventure skill-based (!) game", so it's not necessarily fair to say pandey reduces his game to pure dicery.
nevertheless, he brings specific focus to two aspects as the core of BOLT: that it is skill-based, and that in some way yet to be described it uses d10+d4 (putting the cart before the horse). to me, this is indicative of what could be called a postmodern heartbreaker. the FORGE referred to games as heartbreakers when their goal was simply to fix one thing with D&D, and to hyperfocus on it. unlike others, despite the FORGE having some bad analysis i don't find this idea to be reductive or gatekeeping insofar as this is a phenomenon that i see all the time: people trying to make their own version of D&D, their eyes glued to a word processor, obsessively pumping out mechanics and 'lore' and so on.
i think that BOLT represents a post-FORGE heartbreaker: it is not necessarily trying to fix D&D itself (though the birthmarks of 5E are readily apparent), but it is trying to create an uber-fleshed-out game of nothing where the mechanics are king. this obsession over dice rolls in themselves probably comes from the FORGE's declaration that system matters: a truism which inflates the importance of the system in itself and not the actual relations it intends to model. personally, i think there is a difference between "it matters that gold is the primary motivation for adventurers in old-school games" versus "it matters that you roll d20 or d10 and d4".
i will copy the "cadence" or play sequence of BOLT verbatim below:
1. The Game Master sets the scene, providing relevant information and only gatekeeping information based on characters' passive Vigilance attribute.
i understand that "gatekeeping" is an actual word in english, but i can't help but think of the awkward connotation it has in twitter discourse (with which the author was well-involved).
in any case, this is one obvious "birthmark" of D&D 5E: the use of character abilities to limit the player's perspective on the game world. it comes in two variations: "active" perception (roll d20+WIS+proficiency) which introduces chance, or "passive" (10+WIS+proficiency) which is a constant measure not affected by chance. honestly, i think active perception is more fun because 5E is a game where you roll dice all the time and that's where the fun (for me) comes from. it's a stupid game and it should be kept that way.
passive perception was introduced probably because of the inherent stupidity of "active" perception checks: it's necessarily more fair because the dice don't have a say, and so on. pandey seems to subscribe to this opinion given it's how he does it in BOLT. my retort is that without chance, it's impossible for player characters with less WIS to occasionally excel past those with more WIS. with passive perception, you're keeping the "gatekeeping" of perception checks while getting rid of the fun of it.
i've also personally found games much more fun without perception checks to "gatekeep" information from players. as per luke gearing , roleplaying games ought to be treated as thinking adventures, or as games where the players themselves are challenged to think outside of the box to solve problems. limiting information seems not fun in that regard. besides, one question i've always had: what's the point if the players communicate the same information to each other anyway, once they've acquired it?
2. Players suggest actions that their characters can take.
3. The Game Master sets a Difficulty and suggests Skills the player characters should use. That difficulty should rarely be hidden from players.
i think i understand what's being said, it just seems like a lot of words to describe a couple of seconds of dialogue between the players and the game master. also, the word 'suggest' implies that the game master does not interpret the players' actions; instead, the game master sanctions and approves them. just kind of weird, i think.
4. The player rolls Core Dice and an auxiliary d4, adding their character's ranks in the relevant Skill and their character's ranks in the Core Attribute associated with that Skill to the result of the Core Dice.
a) The Core Dice is usually a single d10.
b) The auxiliary d4 is assessed in step 6.
5. If the result of the Core Dice + Core Attribute + Skill is equal to or greater than the value of the Difficulty, the player's character succeeds at their task. Otherwise, their character fails in a narratively interesting way.
a) Ties always go to players.
6. The player then assesses the value of the auxiliary d4.
a) If the auxiliary d4 returns a 4, the player receives a Perk to spend on that roll. If the auxiliary d4 returns a 1, the player receives a Complication to consider on that roll.
b) A 2 or 3 on the auxiliary d4 typically does [sic] nothing. Certain abilities and items may change that, but that will be listed with that ability or item.
i wanted to copy the entirety of this process to show, first of all, how wordy and complicated it is despite representing a pretty simple process. steps are forecast long before they become relevant, certain phrases are bolded after they are already introduced, and certain parts are redundant. i don't mean to do the author a favor, but here is how i would edit this process down.
- When you want to attempt a difficult action, the game master will tell you which Core Attribute and Skill are applicable from your character sheet.
- Roll d10, and add your values from your Core Attribute and Skill to the roll. If the sum is greater than or equal to the game master's difficulty number, which is declared before you roll, you succeed.
- Roll d4, which represents the side effects of your action. If you roll a 4, you get a helpful Perk when you do the action. If you roll a 1, you have to deal with a Complication resulting from the action. Some items or abilities will make Perks or Complications more common.
following this section is an actually useful guideline for handling the role/roll of dice in roleplaying games in general. to summarize, it says not to roll the dice when the outcomes of failure and success are not both understood, or when the action is either routine or can be attempted repeatedly without issue. that is actually something valuable to think about.
the last part i want to cover at length is the recommended difficulty values for dice rolls, which might seem innocuous but has some weird underpinnings. let me copy this paragraph:
> The below is recommended Difficulties for characters with the listed bonus (Core Attribute + Skill ranks) to a Skill. These recommended Difficulties return a 50/50 chance of Success. To represent a comparatively easy task, reduce the difficulty by 2. To represent a comparatively difficult task, increase the difficulty by 2.
i'm sure what this must be saying is "these are difficulty values for what represent a 50/50 chance at any skill level", which might be useful as a point of comparison between skill levels. yet this is just as easily said as "each +1 in a skill represents a +10% chance of success". moreover, i don't think this is pandey's intention since this section is about the selection of difficulty values. my fear is that he is advocating for the game master to give players of different skill levels the same chance of success. why?
what follows are almost 1.5 pages describing how to handle advantage/disadvantage with different dice sizes, almost 1 page describing two different methods of handling contested rolls, and almost two pages of various rules here and there. there is also almost 1 whole page explaining how to port FATE points into BOLT.
the copy i have is certainly an ashcan version of BOLT ("v0.8" that will not reflect (i hope) the done-up version in the kickstarter--hold on a second, i'm getting a call.
so it turns out i've had access to "v0.9", the version which will be going to print (albeit without art and layout) this whole time. it is not really distinguishable from "v0.8", except i think there's a john wick reference that wasn't there before. going to be referring to this version from now on, should i continue to write this critique.