Unauthorized And Unlicensed But Sometimes Acceptable RPGs?
  • Unauthorized And Unlicensed But Sometimes Acceptable RPGs?


    One thing that gamers love is having the favorite media properties made into role-playing games. They talk about how well the official games do at adapting the source material. They make lists of the properties that should have their own games. They also do unauthorized, unlicensed adaptations. If you go back to the little black books of Traveller, you can find write-ups for Luke Skywalker, Kimbal Kinnison and other well-known science fiction characters. Arduin had light sabers and knock offs of Jedi Knights. The original Deities & Demigods had Elric and the Cthulhu Mythos in it. Gaming blogs are sources of “converted” material. All of these were unauthorized of course.

    I am a little late with my mid-week column this week, but the holidays are to blame for that. So, I thought that I would make up for that lateness with an extra scoop of controversy.

    One of my “edicts” for these columns is to talk about games that aren’t related to D&D. I think that there are a lot of “non-commercial,” amateur productions that warrant a look at, and from time to time I will talk about them. I don’t think that only the full-color, slickly produced role-playing games are the only ones that we should look at. There is a lot of good stuff that is being done by one or two people who are driven by their passion, use methods like Print On Demand to produce their games, and “market” them using blogs spread around the internet.

    Sometimes, these games will be unauthorized adaptations of other’s materials.

    This past summer there was a controversy over an unlicensed, unauthorized adaptation of the Mass Effect franchise being nominated for major RPG awards. And, it shouldn’t have been nominated either. It used art and materials that the designer didn’t pay for, and that he did not have the rights to use. There’s a “REUP” of the classic D6-powered Star Wars game floating around the internet in print-ready PDF files. It expands upon the original game with material from supplements and from sources that came out after West End Games lost their license to produce Star Wars games. There’s even a smaller game that uses an original system and is for Star Trek gaming.

    I can’t fault the enthusiasm for fans of properties to do these things. Most, if not all, of us have done these things in our own games just like this. In this amazing age of Print On Demand, it is easy enough to make a something that looks pretty at your table, and makes you feel like you’re a professional designer. There are even work arounds to get your games into the hands of others, either through PDFs or “behind the scenes” printings.

    However, no matter how much fun they might be for us, these games do still exist in a murky, grey area legally. It is important to know that just because something is being “published” at no cost to someone, that doesn’t meant that copyrights (or trademarks) aren’t being infringed and it also doesn’t mean that a person can’t be sued for damages. Never, ever take (or give) legal advice over the internet, so I am not going to do that.

    What I am going to do is talk about a couple of unauthorized role-playing games. With the new movie in the theaters, Star Wars is on the lips and minds of everyone right now, however that Star Wars movie also had a trailer for the next Star Trek movie as well.


    Let’s talk about Far Trek by C.R. Brandon first. This actually isn’t a bad game. Based on the Microlite hack Where No Man Has Gone Before, Far Trek is a simple science fiction game that gets a lot right. I think that if Brandon put out a “generic” version of this game that paid homage to his inspirations, but stripped out the Star Trek IP, you would have a really robust science fiction game that is as simple to play as Classic Traveller.

    The game uses a simplified class-based system, and a resolution mechanic of 3d6 versus a target number. The “classes” of Far Trek are based around the “shirts” from The Original Series: gold, blue and red, with each class having skills that only they access and specialized talents. There are four attributes, and combining them with the skills and talents is how you describe your character. There are also “advanced” classes in the appendixes that expand the options available for your characters (you are even presented with the ability to make Klingon and Romulan characters). The options are kept to a minimum, so it shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes to make a character. The “advanced” classes also include merchant/traders and special citizens (scholars and other specialist types).

    It is the extra classes that really open up the game. With the full complement of classes, you could easily run a Traveller-esque sort of game. After our group’s last encounter with Classic Traveller, I seem to spend a lot of time looking for a game that would work better in that milieu for our group. Far Trek might be an option.

    One thing that some might not like about the game is that characters (except for the expendable no-name characters) don’t die. Instead they are knocked out for a period of time. This is a pretty good emulation of the classic Star Trek series, and one of the game’s only unconventional pieces. If this isn’t for you, adding a hit point mechanic shouldn’t be a problem.

    If you’re a fan of Star Trek, you might want to check out Far Trek. The PDF is always available for free at the site that I linked above. Periodically, the author will make an “at cost” (meaning that he makes no money off of the books and the only cost is covering printing) print version available through Lulu.com. If nothing else, it is a really good free game, and I recommend checking it out.


    Now, there is also The Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised, Expanded, and Updated game. Probably because of legal reasons, this isn’t hosted at a central location like Far Trek. Those who want to find it shouldn’t have a problem finding it.

    Most of the things that I don’t like about this game are legal issues. The first issue is the art. There is a lot of art recycled from a number of sources, both gaming related and from other Star Wars sources. The game also recycles a lot of content that is not only not owned by the people who put this game together, but the people who created it didn’t receive any compensation either. Would a new game company, if they legally were licensing and republishing this material, pay people who had previously worked on a game for their work? It would probably depend on the nature of their contract with the actual rights holder, but in the nature of good will they might make some form of payment to the previous creators. This is, of course, more of a moral issue than a legal one, but I think that it is central to whether or not gamers support these unauthorized productions.

    As to the game itself, since it is a reproduction of the Revised Second Edition of the Star Wars RPG produced by West End Games, a lot of anyone’s idea of whether or not this game is good will depend on how much they like the D6 System that West End Games produced. I’m a fan of the D6 System, so that isn’t an issue for me. REUP also incorporates material from some of the supplements to that original game, and has original fan-based material from the prequel Star Wars movies. It is also big. Over 500 pages big.

    Now, for me, it isn’t going to replace my copy of the Revised second edition of the Star Wars RPG, or the Metabarons RPG made during that short period when West End Games was owned by Les Humanoids. I have enough material between those games to keep me in D6 space fantasy gaming for a long, long time.

    For a fan-based job, with appropriated art, the REUP edition doesn’t do a terrible job of presenting the material. Much like with Far Trek above, you have to ask yourself…would this game be better if it was more “generic,” or used an original IP, rather than the unauthorized use of the Star Wars IP? Like my answer with Far Trek, I think that I would have to say that the answer would be yes. I get the idea that this was produced by fans of D6 Star Wars gaming, but that also doesn’t excuse the use of the material. With so much of the D6 System available under the Open Gaming License, and a number of third party publishers making legitimate D6 System material, I’m not sure that there is a need for an unauthorized Star Wars game, and I cannot imagine that the existence of it makes the authorized Star Wars gaming licencors happy on a level.

    Both of these games to varying degrees cause brand confusion. The Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised, Expanded, and Updated version goes to a lot of effort to look official. Yes, it says that it is a fan product trying to “keep the memory alive,” but that isn’t really a legal protection.

    The basic point is that, regardless of how you look at unauthorized adaptations and their legality, they are here to stay in gaming. While I don’t think that making these things is wrong, the line of acceptability gets blurred when it comes to selling these things, or worse, trying to win awards for them. Is selling an unlicensed RPG at cost a bad thing? Legally, yes, but morally that decision is different for each of us and likely is a much a choice based around quality as it is morality. Obviously, I spent a couple of dollars on Far Trek, so I must have felt that was fine morally.

    Regardless of being okay with purchasing it, I still don’t think that an unlicensed game should be given the same considerations as a professionally produced game. The people who make these games may be doing it out of “love,” but they aren’t paying the licensing fees that the professionals are paying, and they often “borrow” art (that they also don’t pay for). Like I said at the beginning, adaptation, authorized and unauthorized, is a cornerstone of tabletop gaming, and sometimes we glance away and pretend that it is okay. Other times we have to say that this isn’t a cool practice. It is complicated, like any legal matter can be.

    I do think that we need a dialog in the hobby of RPGs about where and when it is appropriate to cross these legal lines. With PDF production so easily available these days, we see more and more examples of people trying to produce and sell their ill-gotten gains. Many people think that “big corporations” aren’t hurt by these unauthorized productions, and that it helps out because it demonstrates a demand for gaming material based on their properties. The problem is that it can end up making things more difficult, because companies and creators who have seen their material appropriated for unauthorized works may be less interested in working with people in an industry that doesn’t come down harder on unauthorized games. I think that is why there was such a backlash towards the Mass Effect RPG this past summer, the industry felt that giving an unauthorized game the same treatment as legally licensed role-playing games that paid writers and artists, and paid for access to materials wasn’t the right thing to do.
    Comments 104 Comments
    1. Endur's Avatar
      Endur -
      There are some usages that exist in a gray area, and other usages that are black and white.

      I think the write-ups for light sabers in Arduin, halflings and hobbits in many different campaign systems, Balrogs, etc. are more or less ok. Yes, we all know the inspirations for those particulars, but so long as it is a minimal usage, I think it is ok.

      A more troubling usage is the Far Trek and Star Wars examples above, particularly when they re-use art or photographs.
    1. Sunsword's Avatar
      Sunsword -
      I'm curious, did the "designer" of the Unofficial Mass Effect nominate it for the award or did fans? If its the latter, it was the people behind the award that made the mistake. If it was the former, bad on them.
    1. Sword of Spirit's Avatar
      Sword of Spirit -
      I took a look at the Star Wars one earlier this week. Wow...I was impressed. Then I deleted it. I really hate seeing something that well done out there that is ripping off way too much IP (and as noted, much of it is probably from artists).

      What we need is a better dialogue with those who own IP. I mean when people they aren't paying do something of that level of quality, the exchange needs to be more along these lines:

      "Hey, look what we made. Would you mind paying the artists whose works we nabbed from your previous books, then publishing this thing and selling it to us at a reasonable price?"

      "Sounds good to me."

      But of course, they won't do that, because they feel like they have to make a point, "Stay away from our IP."

      But I think the point that needs to be made is, "We can make stuff as well as you can--let's work together and stop being jerks."

      It's all about power, when it ought to be about the art and the creativity.

      Honestly, I kind of wonder how the world would look if the concept of copyright were entirely revamped (or eliminated) to go back to its roots rather than its current implementation.

      Okay, just felt a need to rant after seeing a wonderful product I don't feel I can ethically have.
    1. turkeygiant's Avatar
      turkeygiant -
      I see a lot of similarities between these unauthorized "fan-made" systems and the "fan-made" superhero movies you see looking for support on Indiegogo all the time. With the movies in particular the creators are always looking for the attention of the right's holders, as if the quality of the content they are misappropriating will somehow convince the owner to give them the real license.

      This is a huge mistake, the way to get the attention of potential investors and partners isn't to show what you can do with something where much of the creative work has already been done for you, you need to show that you can accomplish great things starting from scratch.

      Taking things back to RPGs, I would much rather see these groups be creating their own unique games. Be inspired by Star Trek and Mass Effect sure, but make your system something that stands on its own. Then maybe you will catch the attention of the rights holder, and they will have a better disposition towards partnering with you because you haven't been playing fast and loose with their copyright.
    1. TreChriron's Avatar
      TreChriron -
      Quote Originally Posted by turkeygiant View Post
      ...you need to show that you can accomplish great things starting from scratch.

      Taking things back to RPGs, I would much rather see these groups be creating their own unique games. Be inspired by Star Trek and Mass Effect sure, but make your system something that stands on its own. Then maybe you will catch the attention of the rights holder, and they will have a better disposition towards partnering with you because you haven't been playing fast and loose with their copyright.
      This. Well said.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      I'm not advocating stealing IP, but I think is part of the challenge with SciFi/SciFantasy gaming.

      Beyond D&D, most fantasy gamers seem excited enough to engage in Fantasy tropes. "Yeah, an elf is an an elf. I got it, let's go."

      In comparison, most SciFi/SciFantasy gamers seem to want brands/franchises and much less excited to deal with them as generic tropes. "Yeah, your 'PsiKnight' is a Jedi rip-off. Lame." (And at this point, I'd argue that Traveller has now entered branding territory.)

      And most of the time, this arbitrary division is in the same person. On any given day this dude will play in a generic fantasy world at the drop of a hat, but he can't get worked up to do SF unless it's linked to something bigger.

      And I think quite a few designers/fans recognize this so they're hesitant to make a more generic SF setting, or even to make a SF game at all.
    1. PhelanDarach's Avatar
      PhelanDarach -
      Quote Originally Posted by Von Ether View Post
      I'm not advocating stealing IP, but I think is part of the challenge with SciFi/SciFantasy gaming.

      Beyond D&D, most fantasy gamers seem excited enough to engage in Fantasy tropes. "Yeah, an elf is an an elf. I got it, let's go."

      In comparison, most SciFi/SciFantasy gamers seem to want brands/franchises and much less excited to deal with them as generic tropes. "Yeah, your 'PsiKnight' is a Jedi rip-off. Lame." (And at this point, I'd argue that Traveller has now entered branding territory.)

      And most of the time, this arbitrary division is in the same person. On any given day this dude will play in a generic fantasy world at the drop of a hat, but he can't get worked up to do SF unless it's linked to something bigger.

      And I think quite a few designers/fans recognize this so they're hesitant to make a more generic SF setting, or even to make a SF game at all.
      I think this is because most "pure" fantasy RPGs (and fantasy in general) are more or less based on our planet's real past history, one way or another. Two of the biggest "original" influences on fantasy gaming, Lord of the Rings and Conan, were both explicitly derived from our own real-life history...and there's only one past history. So people copying elves or halflings or what not, I think are seen as just copying from the same wellspring, as it were, and since it's all shared, a vague similarity seems to be OK with people.

      Sci-fi (and even sci-fantasy), OTOH, take place in the "future" or at least a different world, with infinite possibilities, so a little more "uniqueness" is expected, and copying from that uniqueness isn't regarded nearly as favorably. Because it isn't shared, and never actually happened in the first place (sure D&D never "happened" either but it's based on stuff that did happen, or at least was *thought* to happen anyway), it isn't part of a common "wellspring" so people don't think "oh this is just the faerie legend", they are more aware that it's something created more recently and specifically.

      Phelan
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Yeah. I agree. Elves and goblins weren't recently created as IP. Vulcans and Jedi were. That's why they're viewed differently.
    1. Grimjack99's Avatar
      Grimjack99 -
      First and foremost, the use of someone else's IP without permission is basically wrong. Its stealing from someone else's work and livelihood. Fan creations that are posted as an homage, and not for profit should only be allowable within a narrow band of parameters. This is based purely on the concept of freedom of speech. If the indie product is so good to threaten the income potential of the official product, then market business models dictate the license owners should look at the new possibility, or eliminate the new product. Regardless if they do or not, they do have the right to request the removal of the indie product. Yes, this is a thick grey line.

      Should the Mass Effect RPG have garnered a nomination? No, it was an IP used without permission. Was it a good product that did the IP justice and show what its creators could do? No, it was a GREAT product, that was professionally produced and should have been given license by the IP owners. A stunning tour de' force of its creators that's only crime was illegally using an IP and shaming other professionally produced products. And cudo's to its creators for taking it down as soon as issues arose. While I thought it was fine for them to produce this free document, they recognized the seriousness of the situation once complaints were filed. I'm just glad I got one of the final downloads. Ironic that it's still be available if not for that nomination.

      I support fan work. Its one of the hallmarks of our niche. But I also support the rights of IP owners. So to creators: keep pushing the envelope; and to IP owners: pay attention to those fans who do your work proud. Once in while, you can both come together, and make a dollar.
    1. Benji's Avatar
      Benji -
      I think the real problem might be that copywrite has become something that has expanded years beyond it's original intent. The amount of good stuff that's come from expired IPs (Sherlock/League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Graphics/Actung Cthulhu) you wonder that if we gave people 25 years and then people could improve on it or take it in a different direction - what we might have come up with by now? Would some IPs have fared better?
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Benji View Post
      I think the real problem might be that copywrite has become something that has expanded years beyond it's original intent. The amount of good stuff that's come from expired IPs (Sherlock/League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Graphics/Actung Cthulhu) you wonder that if we gave people 25 years and then people could improve on it or take it in a different direction - what we might have come up with by now? Would some IPs have fared better?
      Well, we wouldn't have The Force Awakens.
    1. Sword of Spirit's Avatar
      Sword of Spirit -
      Quote Originally Posted by Benji View Post
      I think the real problem might be that copywrite has become something that has expanded years beyond it's original intent. The amount of good stuff that's come from expired IPs (Sherlock/League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Graphics/Actung Cthulhu) you wonder that if we gave people 25 years and then people could improve on it or take it in a different direction - what we might have come up with by now? Would some IPs have fared better?
      I was thinking something similar. My suggestion is that copyright should last 7 years from the date of publication, period.

      I've thought about this. So let's take Harry Potter. 7 years from the time the first book is published, people can feel free to start using any of the characters or materials in it to write, publish, and sell their own novels, etc. J.K Rowling hasn't finished the series at that point. Oh no, competition! Seriously, does anyone really think that any significant number of people who liked the series are going to not buy the final official books because someone writes a knock-off alternate future (regardless of how good it might end up being)? Plus, the only IP that is out of copyright is from the first book at that point. So they can't just write their own version of the last book, because they don't have access to any of the material since then.

      What it will do is encourage the arts. Which is precisely what copyright was created for. To encourage the arts by making sure the author is entitle to a reasonable remuneration for their works. Otherwise, back in the day, you could write a book and publish a small print run. Someone could buy a copy, then set up a printing press and publish their own print run of your work, and maybe even make more off of it than you. Doesn't really encourage you to share your art does it? Hence the wonderful invention of copyright. But times have changed and current implementations are doing exactly the opposite of the original intent--they are discouraging the creation of art.

      So my suggestion is keep the concept, change the expiration to 7 years, no renewals, no exceptions. It's a better fit for our current technology and economics.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sword of Spirit View Post
      I was thinking something similar. My suggestion is that copyright should last 7 years from the date of publication, period.

      I've thought about this. So let's take Harry Potter. 7 years from the time the first book is published, people can feel free to start using any of the characters or materials in it to write, publish, and sell their own novels, etc. J.K Rowling hasn't finished the series at that point. Oh no, competition! Seriously, does anyone really think that any significant number of people who liked the series are going to not buy the final official books because someone writes a knock-off alternate future (regardless of how good it might end up being)? Plus, the only IP that is out of copyright is from the first book at that point. So they can't just write their own version of the last book, because they don't have access to any of the material since then.

      What it will do is encourage the arts. Which is precisely what copyright was created for. To encourage the arts by making sure the author is entitle to a reasonable remuneration for their works. Otherwise, back in the day, you could write a book and publish a small print run. Someone could buy a copy, then set up a printing press and publish their own print run of your work, and maybe even make more off of it than you. Doesn't really encourage you to share your art does it? Hence the wonderful invention of copyright. But times have changed and current implementations are doing exactly the opposite of the original intent--they are discouraging the creation of art.

      So my suggestion is keep the concept, change the expiration to 7 years, no renewals, no exceptions. It's a better fit for our current technology and economics.
      I'm so glad you don't make the laws!

      For 99.999999999% of artists who aren't JK Rowling, it can take years, sometimes a lifetime to see a profit. 7 years? And then a company can walk in and take it for free and I get nothing? Why does a company publish my manuscript? Why does a studio make a film of it? They just have to wait 7 years and I'm out of the picture.

      That doesn't encourage art. That stamps it out. That's the most crushing plan I ever heard.

      Don't use Rowling as your example. Use all the people who aren't billionaire success stories.

      But even Rowling. Major supernational ultracorps know they just have to wait 7 years then make billions off Harry Potter without paying her a penny. What's her motivation to keep writing? Or to even start writing? You're describing a world where no company pays for anything, because in 7 years they can just take it.

      Writing becomes an awful career choice. It's an awful career choice now, but you just took away that 1-in-a-million chance of making some money from them. The world's writers and artists just became a free labour farm for megacorps.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      Quote Originally Posted by Grimjack99 View Post
      Should the Mass Effect RPG have garnered a nomination? No, it was an IP used without permission. Was it a good product that did the IP justice and show what its creators could do? No, it was a GREAT product, that was professionally produced and should have been given license by the IP owners.
      And, if the developer had presented it to the IP owners directly first, before making it open to the public... who knows what might have happened? Quite possibly nothing, slush piles being what they are, but asking to be taken seriously for cooperation *after* you've violated IP rights doesn't seem like the right approach.
    1. Sword of Spirit's Avatar
      Sword of Spirit -
      Well, one important thing is that plagiarism should not be allowed. You need to put this kind of thing in your work:

      "This is a derivative work using characters, settings,.....derived from ______, ______, and ____, by _____."

      Now it's also advertising.

      But it's possible my numbers are off. Maybe it should be longer than 7 years. But certainly not 70. And when it comes to software, I really think 7 years is a lot closer to where it should be, because of how quickly it becomes obsolete.
    1. Sword of Spirit's Avatar
      Sword of Spirit -
      Quote Originally Posted by Umbran View Post
      And, if the developer had presented it to the IP owners directly first, before making it open to the public... who knows what might have happened? Quite possibly nothing, slush piles being what they are, but asking to be taken seriously for cooperation *after* you've violated IP rights doesn't seem like the right approach.
      The problem we have now is that I have a hard time seeing a publisher ever accepting anything like that whether they are approached before or after it is out there. It's a power and control thing. It's our IP, and it doesn't matter how much better you can do it than we can, we aren't going to give a second nod to anything you've done, neener neener. Maybe I'm wrong. Can anyone provide an example of where that hasn't been true, where in fact people have approached the copyright owner (in this case I'm talking about a corporation, not a smaller private work) with their own fan works and ended up with some kind of arrangement with the corporation, rather than simply being ignored or told to "get off our IP you kids!"?
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sword of Spirit View Post
      The problem we have now is that I have a hard time seeing a publisher ever accepting anything like that whether they are approached before or after it is out there. It's a power and control thing. It's our IP, and it doesn't matter how much better you can do it than we can, we aren't going to give a second nod to anything you've done, neener neener. Maybe I'm wrong. Can anyone provide an example of where that hasn't been true, where in fact people have approached the copyright owner (in this case I'm talking about a corporation, not a smaller private work) with their own fan works and ended up with some kind of arrangement with the corporation, rather than simply being ignored or told to "get off our IP you kids!"?
      Disney has granted something in the region of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of licenses to produce Star Wars related products just this year. For Xmas, I got a book, several toys, and a t-shirt. I know there are mugs and teddy bears and pyjamas and car stickers and masks and costumes and toys and figurines mobile apps and video games and even a licensed RPG. I can't avoid Star Wars, anywhere I go (which is cool; I don't want to). Where did you get the idea that companies don't license their IP?
    1. trancejeremy's Avatar
      trancejeremy -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Well, we wouldn't have The Force Awakens.
      Maybe, maybe not. There would be nothing stopping them from making it, they'd just have to compete with a lot of other Star Wars films and shows.

      Look at Dracula. Despite it being public domain, a lot of good movies have been made along with a lot of bad ones. But people still keep making them.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by trancejeremy View Post
      Maybe, maybe not. There would be nothing stopping them from making it, they'd just have to compete with a lot of other Star Wars films and shows.

      Look at Dracula. Despite it being public domain, a lot of good movies have been made along with a lot of bad ones. But people still keep making them.
      We'd have a million Dracula movies and Shakespeare adaptions. But we wouldn't have a million Star Wars movies because nobody would spend the money to promote the brand. Why would you spend a billion of your hard-won dollars promoting a brand just so somebody else can use it? You'd never have even heard of Star Wars; nobody would have had any motivation to promote it in a way that it would cross your path.
    1. Dahak's Avatar
      Dahak -
      I don't mind these sorts of games at all, and I certainly check them out for ideas, but I prefer things to be written as generically as possible. I'm a generic systems guy anyway. I'm not going to play Far Trek, when I can play the kind of Star Trek game I want with True20, Cypher System, W.O.I.N. or even Fate Core.

      What I do mind is this mentality in geekdom of doing lawyers' work for them. It's not my job, and it's almost certainly not yours to protect anyone's IP but your own.
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