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Carnival Row and the Changing Face of Licensing

With so many amazing ‘geek friendly’ shows on television at the moment, it’s not rare that I start watching another and think ‘this would make an amazing RPG’. This was doubly the case for me with ‘Carnival Row’ (now showing on Amazon) since I used to work on Victoriana for Cubicle 7. So I was pleased, but also surprised, to see the sudden appearance of ‘The Carnival Row RPG’ as a free PDF...

With so many amazing ‘geek friendly’ shows on television at the moment, it’s not rare that I start watching another and think ‘this would make an amazing RPG’. This was doubly the case for me with ‘Carnival Row’ (now showing on Amazon) since I used to work on Victoriana for Cubicle 7. So I was pleased, but also surprised, to see the sudden appearance of ‘The Carnival Row RPG’ as a free PDF from Nerdist Industries under license from Monte Cook Games. You can download it here.


Most of the time we have to wait ages to see a licensed game. First an RPG company has to see the show and decide to make a pitch. This is often after the first season or two to see if it’s popular enough to warrant risking a new game line on. Even then, some properties won’t even allow an RPG license until a season or two have been shown. Then come the negotiations, which take time before the company can start working on a system and get writing a corebook. Even if they use a proven system the source material takes time to write and approve. By then the series might even have been cancelled! If not, the RPG has the two-edged sword of working on a current show (and getting better sales) and facing the problem that the next episode might invalidate large sections of the background. In some cases you are lucky and the show producers might offer some insider information, but that is very rare. It is important to note that having a licensed game does not mean you are having dinner with the show runner or chatting to the actors. Game licenses are usually dealt with by the production company’s marketing department and are in the same ballpark as mugs, pencils and calendars.

What makes the Carnival Row RPG special is that it has come about in an entirely different way. I had the opportunity to talk to Charles Ryan, Chief Operating Officer for Monte Cook Games to find out a little more. As Amazon had been advertising Carnival Row for quite some time, I wondered if MCG had approached them before the release. However, it was actually the other way around, with the Carnival Row people (Nerdist Industries and Legendary) being the ones to approach MCG about licensing the Cypher system. It turns out that they had been considering creating a game, and were already fans of the Cypher system. Given that MCG already has several setting books for Cypher, it was a natural fit.

This is what makes the whole process interesting. It seems that many video games and television show producers are noticing a good proportion of their audiences are often RPG players. We already saw a PDF detailing the setting of the Magic: The Gathering card game, but as Magic is made by the same people that make D&D it was a surprise it took that long.

More interestingly, earlier this year we saw Bethesda release an adventure in the Elder Scrolls setting using 5th Edition D&D. It caused a lot of excitement as many fans of Elder Scrolls relished the chance to actually role-play in the world of Skyrim, Tamriel and Elswyr. However, the plan horrifically backfired when it was discovered that the adventure was actually plagiarized from a popular DM’s Guild community content submission. It is unclear whether this was done knowingly or was simply an unfortunate accident, but Bethesda pulled the adventure almost immediately.

Very recently we’ve seen Wendy’s release a full fantasy RPG in PDF, with one outlet in New York giving away not only hard copies of the game but special Wendy’s dice as well. It has caused a stir in the gaming community but also anger from some quarters as it fails to credit the writers and most of the artists. It is difficult to know why this is. While a corporation like Wendy’s may have decided not to share the credit, marketing copywriters and artists are rarely credited, and they may have wanted to remain anonymous. Hopefully they were at least paid, as the game has been extremely popular and is actually very well constructed, if somewhat tongue in cheek. It would be nice to see it inspire a few more people to get involved in the hobby.

While its primary purpose may be to advertise a TV show, Carnival Row is designed to be a more serious ‘proper’ adaptation of a property into an RPG. The Carnival Row producers also went about things the right way, approaching an established games company and working with them to create their product. Clearly this was not some sort of last minute idea on the part of the Carnival Row team. MCG was approached some time before any trailers even appeared, and had to be kept in the dark about many details of the project for some time. This suggests the plan to create an RPG setting was far from an afterthought, and was even one of the main marketing strategies for the series. In fact, given that Nerdist Industries is owned by the same company as Geek and Sundry (Legendary) it was a natural progression. There is even a livestream game of Carnival Row, proving they understand the potential reach such actual play shows can achieve.

While this might be a sign of things to come, it is important to remember that license deals can be very changeable. The James Bond RPG (Victory Games) wasn’t allowed to use SPECTRE and so had to create a new villainous organization called TAROT. They also couldn’t use either Sean Connery of Roger Moore’s images and so had an artist create their version of Bond. For quite some time Firefly (TV) and Serenity (Film) were both separate licenses (as they were owned by different companies) despite being set in the same world with the same characters, making the RPGs a minefield.

There has also been quite a change in how games companies present licensed RPGs. Where a license was a TV or film property, the games used to use lots of stills from the source material. This made them instantly recognizable and often very plush. It also saved the RPG company a lot of art costs, balancing the license costs a little. However, the photographic RPG has quietly disappeared. In many cases this is because the RPG company has got the license for the book and not the film. While many adaptations are popular, they can often upset the purists or not catch the interest of the general public. Several recent RPGs have gone back to the (cheaper) book license rather than the TV or film one, such as One Ring (Cubicle 7), Dresden Files (Evil Hat), A Song of Fire and Ice and The Expanse (Green Ronin).

We have even seen a move from games companies to use art rather than photographs for a property that is only available as a TV or Film license. Star Trek (Modiphius), Star Wars (Fantasy Flight) and the forthcoming Alien (Free League) RPGs all use art instead of photographs and look amazing. Where once a game with photographs was the prestige form of the game, now a series of original artwork is very much in vogue, despite the additional costs. This may be due to the amazing talent illustrating many of today’s modern RPGs. But we have also seen more artists being granted greater recognition for their work (such as Simon Stålenhag's work in Tales from the Loop, and Jakub Rozalski's work in Scythe).

In many ways we should not be surprised by the appearance of the Carnival Row RPG. With the rise of more celebrities who game and writers who learned the art of storytelling from RPGs, more people making these shows are already gamers. So maybe this is a sign of things to come. An RPG is actually a very cheap option for a marketing campaign and it is an advert that will spread as gamers introduce their friends to your setting. The Carnival Row RPG had nearly 5,000 downloads in its first 24 hours.

If we are to see more production companies coming to RPG companies we have to ask what that means for gaming. For an RPG company it may simply create another minefield. While the costs are lower, nobody is making money on a free PDF, and the TV people will want to keep it free so it will spread. Remember, this is a marketing tool albeit a really cool and playable one. It also begs the question of what might happen with supplements and adventures. Will a TV company want to keep supporting their RPG once it has done the job they made it for? Interestingly while there are no current plans for Carnival Row supplements, the license apparently does not rule them out.

It is hard to know if we will see more products like Carnival Row. But with so many TV shows trying to get noticed in a growing fantasy and sci-fi market, I suspect we will. Perhaps we may see TV shows bidding against each other for an RPG company's time (I doubt that but it's a nice thought). However, I think we will see more RPGs in the mold of Carnival Row in times to come. How they affect the industry as a whole remains to be seen. But more games can’t be a bad thing.

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


Mod Squad
Staff member
The world of RPG as advertising.

That comes across to me as a cynical, and not entirely accurate, assessment.

D&D arose with explicit influences of Tolkien and Lieber and others. We, as gamers, have been looking to emulate our favorite fantasy worlds since the very beginning of RPGs! And a great many genre worlds have had games of various sorts made for them, some quite successful and popular works in their own right - like, say, the Knights of the Old Republic video game.

So, no, if they are trying to give us a product we might actually want to engage with, it isn't just, "...as advertising". Sure, when releasing such products, the overall marketing impact is considered - they'd be dumb to not take that into account in their release strategy.


Heretic of The Seventh Circle

I mean, sure. sometimes you see some branded entertainment -

And you're like OH YEAAAAAH!

But other times, you're all like, he's the one, who like all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun ... but he don't know what it means.

So .... what does it all mean?

I mean, a lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything.

Here's an example; show you what I mean- suppose you're thinking about Orlando Bloom. Suddenly someone will say, like, Disney World is in Orlando, or the flowers are in Bloom, or Orlando Bloom out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness that leads to a Carnival Row RPG.
Everyone is always thinking of Orlando Bloom. It’s just background noise.

The licensings have got other challenge. The wikis. If I want fluff/background/lore about a franchise I don't need to pay because I can go to the wiki of the videogame/movies/teleserie/comic/novel. Some players only want to buy "crunch" (magic item, spells...).

* What is the next, a Weird Western?


Mod Squad
Staff member
They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything.

There is lettuce on top of the Wendy's burger, I'll grant. I don't recall lettuce (or spinach, or kale, or any leafy green, really) on Orlando Bloom as being a thing.

Thus, if Orlando Bloom comes up... it is not coincidental. It means something.


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
That comes across to me as a cynical, and not entirely accurate, assessment.

It's not wrong, though. The end goal is to get more people loyally watching the TV show. It's not an ad, per se. But it is another means of catching the eye of a target audience. The fact that it's on offer for free means it can't really be seen as the end product - it's not the one that's going to generate the revenue that will keep the lights on and food on the table for the writers, actors, and producers. That's the series. I'm sure they hope the RPG will help keep people engaged until the next installment hits Amazon to see what happens to the characters (and how the world will continue to develop so they role play more in it as well).

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