a critical reading of BOLT, part 2

read the first post

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 [citation needed], 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. I have not read this game, but I think it got featured on the one shot podcast network, unless I'm getting mixed up. If I am thinking of the same game, everything you're saying feels pretty spot on with my impression as well. It has that kind of 5e muddledness where it wants to be more of a narrative game, but it's overly obsessed with the mechanics in a way that imo is mutually exclusive with that goal, and is also kind of myopic. Comparing these kinds of games to the classic heartbreakers makes a lot of sense.

    I actually disagree with your Gearing "quote", I think that's a bit presumptuous. I think for some people RPGs are about problem solving and for other people they're not and I think it is worth being more conscious of this. For instance, that's decidedly not what I want out of RPGs actually, or at least not in the typical OSR sense. For me, what I want out of RPGs is more like performance art (https://weirdwonderfulworlds.blogspot.com/2021/03/tabletop-rpgs-as-performance-art.html)

    Even though I kind of think the 5e / BOLT design pattern doesn't even really succeed at what it's nominally trying to do, I'm also willing to acknowledge to some extent that maybe that's just what some people want; they want both the mechanical stuff and the story stuff, and don't necessarily care if the system is not optimized per se. They may have their own implicit version of "rulings over rules" that makes that kind of thing work in a way unstated in the text, in fact I imagine that has to be the case.

    Don't mean to be overly critical of your critique lol. On the basis of how you describe the game and how you critique the text in itself, I mostly agree with you.

  2. hi there! for sure that was me being more prescriptivist based on my own tastes than descriptivist, i didn’t mean to imply that the OSR style is intrinsically better than the performance art style of play. i’m sorry i did!

    but on that note, someone really should try to make a game that suits that playstyle specifically because players deserve that—though i guess FATE and the like already exist, and they sound like they pull it off really well! there’s another game by jacob andrews from the drawfee channel which i’ve played and was wowed by; it’s a loose PBTA game where players make up the skills and rules as they go along, and it worked really well for a silly RP session.

    anyway sorry for the presumption i made there! there’s not one right way to play games, and to imply otherwise just sucks. and thanks for sharing the article, can’t wait to read it!

    1. You're all good! Like I said I didn't mean to come off too critical, maybe saying "presumptuous" was putting it too harshly haha.

      I'm not necessarily a huge fan of the probability distribution of FATE dice, but otherwise I actually think FATE is a kind of underappreciated game, despite how popular it is.

      To some extent maybe it's just pushback from a time when everyone would immediately recommend FATE for everything, but I also think it was to some extent a victim of its own success.

      If you go back and look at FATE core, it's clear that they had intended it to be much more so I'm the DIY vein of things like PbtA or arguably even like OSR, but because FATE core works so well as-is, and possibly some other reasons, it never really took off that way. In fact I think OSR is a better analogy than PbtA despite the latter eating FATE's lunch in this regard, in that whereas PbtA requires basically an entire game hack to do anything and is very non-modular, FATE is significantly more so plug and play like OSR. Literally all you have to do is change the dice and you have a game that is much more so like OSR, while also giving you the ability to lean into the more narrativist type stuff with aspects.

      People sometimes talk about how it's mainly good for pulpy action-adventure type stuff and not as generic as it's sometimes made out to be, but that's only true if you are strictly using FATE core, which many people did because it is so good at doing what it does right out of the gate. But with just a modicum of hacking, it really can do anything. I realize I sound like some hardcore FATE fan and the funny thing is I don't even really play it that often, but I just really respect it and get frustrated how much I feel it's been misunderstood. Cypher as well, but that's a whole other conversation.

      Wrt the idea of "performance art" style play, I'll leave this here ;). It's my game that was successfully funded, is hopefully just a couple months or so away from completion. The system is loosely based on Into the Odd but I've tried to make it my own by injecting these kinds of sensibilities into it.


    2. oh my god yeah, i remember reading about how FATE is meant to be modded and DIY'd (like FUDGE too!) but i've literally never seen that happen in practice. what a shame really! like it would be so fun to mess with, i bet. is cypher the same sort of deal? i hear about it but have no clue what it is lol

      also thanks for sharing your game, i'm going to keep an eye on it! into the odd looks like a great base to work with too

  3. Cypher is not very modular, in that regard it's more like a very stripped down version of D&D3 (or I guess even more like D&D5 but I think Cypher came first), and that's the part I like less about it nowadays.

    However, I think it does some really cool stuff mechanically, but people have very strong opinions about it. I love the way each attribute is it's own HP/MP pool, and the way that players can spend additional points to lower the difficulty of a task. It fundamentally changes the nature of challenges so that you can generally achieve anything if you narratively want to succeed at that thing, but also, because of the "resource management"of your pool points it makes dice rolls and special abilities more tactically interesting in themselves than in most other games.

    Also, I think it's a useful tool as a GM to see exactly how far a player is willing to go to ensure they succeed at a given task, or at what level of uncertainty they are comfortable taking certain kinds of risks or actions. It's just a really useful signal that few if any other games quantify for the GM in such a direct way.


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