Bethesda Pulls Promotional Elder Scrolls D&D Module Following Plagiarism Accusations

Bethesda released a free D&D adventure set in Tamriel in order to promote the new expansion to their Elder Scrolls Online MMO. Shortly after posting, multiple similarities were discovered between the "Elsweyr Tabletop Scenario" and DDAL05-02 “The Black Road”, a D&D Adventure League adventure from 2016 by Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler.
The link originally tweeted by the official Elder Scrolls Online Twitter account included six pre-generated characters for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and a 12-page adventure titled "Elsweyr Tabletop Scenario". Not long after posting, many pointed out the similarities between the included adventure and The Black Road. The following comparisons come from the module's preview, available on the DM's Guild, and from the PDF adventure originally posted by Bethesda Netherlands.

The Black Road, Adventure Overview

The adventure has three parts; an introduction, various encounters on the road, and a conclusion. See the DM Appendix: Adventure Flowchart for an overview.

Part 1: Anywhere But Here. The characters are introduced in the small caravan stop of Vuerthyl in the Anauroch desert. They have been brought together by Hsing and Azam to carry a statue to Parnast.

Part 2: Into the Desert. The characters are attacked by goblins, run into other caravans, and are subsumed in a sandstorm from the wake of a cloud giant castle passing by overhead. As they leave the desert, they must choose to either fight hobgoblins that have set up a tollbooth, pay the toll, or to try to find a way around the waystation. Along the way, they may be ambushed by well-informed and well- organized bugbears.

Conclusion: Welcome to Parnast. The caravan travels the last few days through the winding mountain passes to Parnast without incident. When they arrive, if they still have the statue, they are welcomed by the faithful of the Shrine of Axes. The adventure is designed for 2 hours of play. Use the table below to budget your time, adjusting the pace as necessary to keep on schedule. In a large public event, you'll need to keep an eye on the clock.

· Part 1. 15 minutes
· Part 2. 90 – 120 minutes
· Part 3. 5 minutes

Elsweyr Tabletop Scenario, Page 1

This adventure has three parts; an introduction, some fights and puzzles along the way, and a big fight against a dragon.


Part 1: The players meet on the border between the provinces of Cyrodiil and Elsweyr. They are brought together to accompany a caravan. It is their mission to bring a statue of the deity of fertility, Mother Mara, through the wild desert of Elsweyr to the city of Rimmen.

Part 2: The players encounter some possible events. They are attacked by bandits, encounter Skooma dealers and have to survive a sandstorm. As they approach the end of the desert, the last thing that crosses their path is a wild dragon!

Part 3: After a few days of traveling without any problems, the players arrive in Rimmen. And when they have their statue still safe and undamaged, they are welcomed with joy in the temple of Mara.

Timing:
Part 1: 15 minutes
Part 2: 90-120 minutes
Part 3: 5 minutes​

The Black Road, first read-aloud text:

There's nothing like the desert to make people feel small and insignificant. In every direction, huge dunes roll across the landscape, and an even bigger sky looms above. The oasis of Vuerthyl is a motley collection of sun-bleached tents in the vast Anauroch desert.

Through various means, it has been arranged that you would meet Azam the caravaneer in the large, Calimshanstyled tent that passes for a tavern here. A pair of tieflings, who seem to be unaffected by the heat, eye approaching visitors warily. The dim interior of the tent is a relief from the bright light and wind, though it’s as hot here as anywhere else. The gentle sounds of a stringed instrument fill the air, and the people inside are hunched over food, drink, and conversation. A dragonborn with rust-colored scales greets you, and guides you to a private table. There are a few other adventurers here.

Elsqeyr Tabletop Scenario, opening paragraph on Page 2:

“Nothing beats the desert to make people feel small and unimportant. In every direction enormous dunes roll across the landscape, and an even larger empty air skies above it. The oasis on the border between Cyrodiil and Elsweyr is a colorful collection of sun-drenched tents in the vast desert of Elsweyr. In various ways, it is arranged that a group of adventurers would get acquainted with the caravan leader named Kah’reem. His big tent is filled with several Khajiit, which seem unaffected by the heat, they stare at you cautiously. The dim interior of the tent is a relief compared to the bright sunlight from outside, even though it is still as hot inside as out there. The soft sounds of a stringed instrument fill the air, and the people are busy over eating, drinking and conversation. An Argonian servant escorts you to an empty table.”

The Black Road, second read-aloud text:

The dragonborn delivers water as well as dates, olives and bread. Before long, you are joined by a lean, half-elven man with a long, craggy face and the dark skin and hair that shows his Rashemi ancestry. He has an impressive mustache. He’s clad in practical desert gear. His most striking feature is a golden-scaled psuedodragon that lays draped around his shoulders. The pseudodragon stirs, blinking with milky irises, and sniffing the air. It gives the man a nod before shifting its wings and settling back down to snooze. "Hsing, my patron,” the man gestures to the snoozing dragon, as if it was a perfectly normal thing, “is most pleased you have come. We have business to discuss, and hopefully you are ready for a long journey. I am Azam, and we would like you to deliver a statue to Parnast."

Elsweyr Tabletop Scenario, third paragraph on Page 2:

“The argonian servant delivers water, dates, olives and bread. It does not take long for you to be accompanied by a skinng Khajiit with a long straight face and a dark striped coat. He is dressed in mainly practical clothing, made for the desert. In his mouth he has a long pipe that he smokes quietly. His most striking feature is a bright red eagle on his shoulder. The eagle moves, blinking, and looks at you. She gives the Khajiit a not before it collapses and seems to go napping. “Zayla, my business partner.” The Khajiit gestures to the napping eagle as if it were completely normal. “She is very pleased that you have come. We have things to discuss and hopefully you are ready for a long journey. I am Kah’reem and we would appreciate it if you would deliver a statue in Rimmen.”

The Black Road, sidebar “Roleplaying Azam”:

Azam has been travelling the Black Road for decades and knows what makes a good caravan guard. He’s been paid well to work with Hsing (and the dragon’s mistress), but it isn’t enough for him to throw his life away. He’ll seek to question and evaluate Hsing’s choices in companions until he’s satisfied.

Elsweyr Tabletop Scenario, description of Kah’reem, last paragraph of Page 2:

Kah’reem was born in the Elsweyr desert and has lived here all his life. He has seen hundreds of different people and knows exactly what kind of people are standing before him. He is well paid to transport the statue, but it is not enough to risk his life for. Like many Khajiit, he speaks with a heavy accent. If he is faced with a difficult or interesting choice, he always seems to discuss this with his eagle. It often seems as if the eagle, Zayla, is the real leader.

On Pages 6-7 of The Black Road and on Page 3 of Elsweyr Tabletop Scenario, there are bullet points of information provided by the NPCs (Azam in the former and Kah’reem in the latter). This is a comparison of some of those bullet points:

(The Black Road) ”There have been a number of caravans who have not completed the journey, and stories of goblins on the road have spread. I’m hoping that you can serve as insurance against that.”

(Elsweyr) “There have been a lot of rumors of other caravans that have been attacked by bandits lately. I hope you are a good extra insurance during this trip.”

(The Black Road) “My caravan carries a number of goods in addition to the statue that are of value, both to me and to the people of Parnast.”

(Elsweyr) “My caravan has, besides the statue, even more goods of value, both for me and for the people of Rimmen.”

(The Black Road) Hazards on the road may include sinkholes, sand storms, heat waves, nomads, feral creatures, goblins, blue dragons of all sizes, as well as the occasional fire or air elemental. The goblins have been a particular nuisance lately and even the Zhents can’t stamp them all out.

(Elsweyr) “Risks on the roads are mainly sandstorms, heat waves, and other wild creatures. But nothing that you can not handle.”

(The Black Road) The caravan leaves in four hours. Azam is anxious to get on the road soon.

(Elsweyr) “The caravan leaves in four hours, and I’m looking forward to leaving!”

Additional similarities could be found throughout both modules, including slightly altered and word-for-word copying of descriptions, equipment lists, a similar timeline of events, similar encounters, and some NPCs and names copied directly.

The link to the adventure was taken down from Bethesda’s website and now redirects back to their main page, though the Dropbox account where the PDF file was hosted is still up at the time of writing. The official Twitter account for Elder Scrolls Online posted this at 12:29 PM Central time:

We have pulled a previously shared ESO tabletop RPG adventure while we investigate the source. Thank you to those who reached out with concerns.

The original authors of the adventure, Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler, along with D&D Adventure League Content Manager Greg Marks, commented on Twitter about the incident. Leitman stated that the adventure had done “modestly well” on the DM’s Guild and that she would be letting “the Powers That Be handle this.” Heisler said “It’s a surreal day when a top tier gaming company steals your ****, I assure you.” Marks replied to a tweet clarifying that the Open Gaming License allows for use of some rules material and intellectual property, but does not allow “word for word copying. That is plagiarism and I am pretty sure is massively illegal.” All three declined to comment further at this time.

Bethesda has not responded to requests for further comment at the time of posting. This article will be updated if they decide to make a statement.
 
Darryl Mott

Comments

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
My god, what the hell happened to Bethesda? Ever since e3 2018, it’s been one horrible decision after another from them.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
DMs Guild stuff isn’t released under the OGL. I assume DDAL stuff isn’t.
 

Anthraxus

Explorer
Geez, it's like back in high school, barely changing things for a report- just enough changes to make it seem like I wrote it 100%. :D
 

pedr

Explorer
DMs Guild stuff isn’t released under the OGL. I assume DDAL stuff isn’t.
Indeed. It might be lawful (but ridiculously rude) to release that adjustment/adaptation of the adventure on DM’s Guild. Even that might breach DM’s Guild terms relating to attribution of other DM’s Guild sources. But the Elder Scrolls adventure at the very least has elements which are copied parts of the DDAL adventure, or clearly derived from the original, and the OGL wouldn’t cover that even if the Elder Scrolls adventure contained a copy of the licence, with attribution, as the DDAL adventure isn’t Open Game Content.
 

Prakriti

Hi, I'm a Mindflayer, but don't let that worry you
Well that's embarrassing. Reminds me of 12-year-olds who avoid plagiarism in their schoolwork by thesaurus-ing some of the words they're stealing.
 
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cbwjm

I can add a custom title.
It would be easy to do, though whoever wrote the ESO version is likely going to be in trouble, but otherwise, the powers at Bethesda who okayed its release probably had no idea that the Black Road adventure exists and that the ESO adventure was a more or less direct copy.
 

Dausuul

Legend
It would be easy to do, though whoever wrote the ESO version is likely going to be in trouble, but otherwise, the powers at Bethesda who okayed its release probably had no idea that the Black Road adventure exists and that the ESO adventure was a more or less direct copy.
But it was their decision to hire that person in the first place. A writer with some publications under their belt and a reputation to uphold is unlikely to pull a stunt like this (though it isn't entirely unheard-of).
 

Abstruse

Adventurer
Yeah, the OGL is more limited than a lot of people think (especially major companies outside tabletop gaming try it, remember what happened with the Old Spice advertisement?) and, while DM's Guild does give you access to use other DM's Guild stuff, it's also more restrictive than it looks on a base reading and you can only release it on the DM's Guild under those licensing terms.

What's sad is that they're a multibillion dollar company...if they wanted an ESO promo adventure for D&D, they could've got an original one that was compliant with the OGL for dirt cheap. RPG writers do not make a whole lot compared to other industries. Hell, I would've done it for fifty bucks and a key for Wolfenstein Youngbloods.
 

cbwjm

I can add a custom title.
But it was their decision to hire that person in the first place. A writer with some publications under their belt and a reputation to uphold is unlikely to pull a stunt like this (though it isn't entirely unheard-of).
Well yeah, but it's not like they hired them thinking they'd just rip off an adventure. Whoever they hired they would have thought would create an original adventure, not a direct ripoff.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I have to wonder what the person who plagiarized that adventure was thinking. Were they under the impression that the Adventurers League was some minor outfit that nobody really played, and so they'd never be found out? Or did they just think that giving everything a mild rephrasing would somehow make it not be plagiarism?
 

Dausuul

Legend
Well yeah, but it's not like they hired them thinking they'd just rip off an adventure. Whoever they hired they would have thought would create an original adventure, not a direct ripoff.
Obviously they thought that. And, also obviously, they were wrong. The question is, how much blame do they bear for that mistake?

We don't know the answer, since we don't know who they hired. If they made even a token effort at looking for a serious writer, then I'd say they don't bear any. But if some executive's brother who runs a D&D game said "Hey, why don't I write you a module?" and got hired on that basis... that's on them.
 

cbwjm

I can add a custom title.
Obviously they thought that. And, also obviously, they were wrong. The question is, how much blame do they bear for that mistake?

We don't know the answer, since we don't know who they hired. If they made even a token effort at looking for a serious writer, then I'd say they don't bear any. But if some executive's brother who runs a D&D game said "Hey, why don't I write you a module?" and got hired on that basis... that's on them.
I disagree completely, it doesn't matter how they came to hire the writer, it was still the writer that blind-sided them with a plagiarised adventure. Now, had they not pulled the adventure and looked into the situation, then I'd put more blame on Bethesda as I would consider their inaction as bordering on complicity as but as this is not the case, I feel like the blame falls directly on the writer.
 
What likely happened is that some people at Bethesda were playing D&D for fun and ran those adventures, adapting it to their game. They did that back in the Daggerfall days I know (only AD&D 2e back then).

Someone from marketing says "Hey, let's release one of your adventures as a PR gimmick"

Whoever was DMing was probably overwhelmed/caught off guard and couldn't come up with a whole new adventure from scratch, so tried to file off the numbers the best he could.
 

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