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.
 

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Shasarak

Banned
Banned
Prosfilaes, please let me know when your family's ownership of their farm reaches 95 years, because their monopoly of usage will expire, and society tells me they're impinging on my liberties.

Interestingly, if you think that you own your property just try not paying your property taxes.
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Interestingly, if you think that you own your property just try not paying your property taxes.

I don't think that's anything to do with ownership. Yes, if you don't pay your taxes, your property may be seized. But, if you screw up and get sued, your property and assets can also be seized. Almost any time you owe someone enough, your assets may be seized.

"Ownership" does not mean, "there are no circumstances under which you may lose your rights over the thing you own."
 

Zardnaar

Legend
I downloaded the Star Wars PDF. I like it. I already own a large number of D6 books though, all of the d20 SWSE line and I have no intention of buying the new Star Wars RPG so its not a lost sale for me. We still play D6 on occasion.
 

prosfilaes

Adventurer
I don't think that's anything to do with ownership. Yes, if you don't pay your taxes, your property may be seized.

But real estate is the only usual type of property (that comes to mind at least) that is taxed for mere existence. Real estate is not passively yours; it can and will be taken from you unless you actively maintain your hold on it. I think there's an interesting comparison to the copyright issue; even on some types of property, possession is not passively eternal.

A tax model for copyright duration has been batted about in some forums I'm on. It has basically the opposite goals of the stuff we've been arguing about here; Disney gets to keep Winnie the Pooh as long as they can keep paying increasingly usurious taxes on it, but all the little stuff gets put into the public domain.

One of the thoughts that has shaped how I view copyright is my grandfather, who had streaks of a know-it-all pontificator (it must run in the family), wrote the newsletters for his Veterans of Foreign Wars branch for many years. Those works will be in copyright until most of the veterans of current wars are dead. Should his branch want to print a work including older newsletters, or put a sample, some or all online, they would have to hunt down his heirs. Even knowing what I know as part of the family, I'd have to consult an attorney; I'm sure that alone would sink the idea for an organization much richer in manpower then money. So the current copyright law has "protected" my grandfather's works until everyone who cares about them is dead. Same thing for huge numbers of authors; there will never be a point where I can dig out the science fiction magazines I read in my youth and legally post the unanthologized stories without chasing down heirs and making payments far more then they're worth to me. I would have to live to 85 to do so, even if the author got run over the day the story was published. It seems quite possible that there are stories in fairly major magazines that will leave copyright in 2019 that have nobody alive who has read them; sacrificed so that the Mouse and Pooh may walk hand in hand for a few more years.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But real estate is the only usual type of property (that comes to mind at least) that is taxed for mere existence.

Not generally true - many states have taxes on "tangible personal property" - stuff that can be moved, as opposed to land, which is fixed in place. As of a couple of years ago, only seven states had no such taxes. Some levy them only for business.

Real estate is not passively yours; it can and will be taken from you unless you actively maintain your hold on it.

But, that's not really accurate, insofar as:

1) See above - there are other tangible personal property taxes out there.

2) Your real estate is not the only (or even first) asset that can be taken for failing to pay your property taxes. For a great many people, if you ignore your property taxes for any period of time, the only asset you may have sufficient to cover the bill. Depending on jurisdiction, they may seize other assets instead.

3) As I previously noted, if you owe, say, income taxes, or have any other major debt, any of your assets could be seized.

It is less that "if you don't pay your property taxes, you may lose your property" and more "if you don't pay your taxes or otherwise maintain financial health, you may lose any asset". The focus on land, here, is misleading, as is questioning "ownership" of the asset on this basis.
 
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Eirikrautha

First Post
The dirty little secret about all regulations is that they exist to protect established franchises at the expense of future franchises. Why do you think, upon investigation, energy companies both lobby for and donate money to the campaigns of politicians who promote taxes and levies on fossil fuels? It looks counterintuitive until you realize that no start-up company could ever successfully navigate the legal and financial barriers necessary... while Exxon/Mobil can easily shave 10% off the top for compliance and remain highly profitable (with less competition). Why did Philip Morris and RJR willingly accept large fees and taxes on cigarettes, if not for the fact that the deals that they brokered would bankrupt many smaller tobacco companies and cement their stranglehold on the U.S. markets?

The idea behind regulations are usually noble, but once stakeholders get involved, they quickly get used to stifle competition. Modern IP laws are one of the most egregious examples of this. IP exists to prevent someone who has been successful from having to compete with those who wish to enter that space. I have no quarrel with the original intent of copyright and patents, but even the radicals who wrote the first U.S. copyright provisions into the U.S. Contsitution were clear that they saw the monopoly on ideas only useful so long as it was limited in time and scope. Modern IP laws are definitely neither. The idea that men and women working for a corporation who hadn't even been born when Walt Disney first filmed Steamboat Willy deserve more rights to that work (note that I'm not saying Mickey Mouse, as he is a trademark and should last far longer) than you or I is ludicrous. And yet, that is what modern copyright has become...
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
IP exists to prevent someone who has been successful from having to compete with those who wish to enter that space.

When considering copyright (as opposed to patents), "that space" is pretty small, honestly. And, don't we always complain about there being too many remakes, sequels, and re-imaginings? Don't we keep complaining about why people don't come up with something new, instead of rehashing stuff that already exists?

I mean, it is a good movie, but look at the most common (and valid) critique of the newest Star Wars movie - that is it too strong an echo of the original!
 

Eirikrautha

First Post
And yet, creativity more often is stifled by draconian IP protections. Part of the reasons for the remakes comes from the difficulty of establishing a new, "non-infringing" idea. Note that the word "droid" is trademarked (as far as science fiction is concerned). You can't write about Space Marines (even if they have nothing to do with WH40K) without fear that lawsuits will rain from the heavens. Far from spurring creativity, the IP stranglehold makes the safest and easiest route the simple rehashing of the stories you KNOW that you actually own (or can license). Try to license a remake of NOLF (No One Lives Forever) if you doubt this. Nah, it's just easier to make Call of Duty 24.

I would argue that the strictness and longevity of IP laws are the real reason for corporations declining to experiment and risk new ideas. How many people sued J. K. Rowling? How many sued over the Hunger Games? It doesn't matter if the plaintiffs win or lose, because you still have to pay your lawyers and the court costs (in the U.S. at least). Better to go with what we know than risk litigation because someone claims we've copied their idea. The present "cure" is worsening the disease...
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
And yet, creativity more often is stifled by draconian IP protections.

With respect, the phrase "more often" is a comparison between two things. One happens more often than another. But you only mention one thing. It is like saying, "With 20% more cleaning power!" And we ask, more cleaning power than what? Chocolate sauce? A dog? Your highest-rated competetor? The statement is not meaningful unless you give both referents.

I expect you have no data to claim this - no accounting of the attempted creative works that got squashed by IP protections as compared to ones that were not.

And, if the lack of the word "droid" is really going to be an issue... you aren't being terribly creative.
 

Eirikrautha

First Post
L
With respect, the phrase "more often" is a comparison between two things. One happens more often than another. But you only mention one thing. It is like saying, "With 20% more cleaning power!" And we ask, more cleaning power than what? Chocolate sauce? A dog? Your highest-rated competetor? The statement is not meaningful unless you give both referents.

I expect you have no data to claim this - no accounting of the attempted creative works that got squashed by IP protections as compared to ones that were not.

And, if the lack of the word "droid" is really going to be an issue... you aren't being terribly creative.

Eh, I think I have presented as much "data" as you have. It's kind of hard to point to things that didn't happen (i.e., all of the stories that don't get told because of IP laws). Though I think the attempt to license NOLF is an excellent example of something not being made due to IP stupidity.

And if you are going to quibble about semantics, then we don't really have a discussion, anyway. Especially since the "more often" was (I thought rather obviously) creativity stifled due to copying compared to creativity stifled due to IP restrictions.

A good rule of thumb is that those who have already made their money from ideas are more likely to support draconian IP laws. Not always true, but that's the way to bet. And their concern is seldom ever the "public interest" or "creativity," which is the usual rationale for the monopoly granted by IP laws.
 

aramis erak

Legend
There is a huge difference between Disney/LFL and CBS/Viacom...

Disney/LFL has no fan acceptable fair use policy; CBS/Viacom does, at least for Trek.

CBS specifically allows (with proper acknowledgement of TM & © ownerships) fan fiction and fan written games to be shared, provided no profit is made. They even have allowed collecting donations to defray expenses.

Disney has NEVER allowed such. LFL before Disney only allowed fan works to be shared via officially licensed 'zines. (EG: SW adventure Journal).

Far Trek makes clear notice about the copyright and trademark ownership of Star Trek.
 

Nawara

Explorer
Having now actually read the Star Wars REU mentioned in the article, I just want to complain that Stormtroopers* are yet again statistically inferior to all other Imperial and Rebel infantry.

This is unacceptable.

(*Excluding specialty Stormtroopers. The Zero-G Stormtroopers are straight-up EU fan wank, with 14D+2 attributes and *39D* skills compared to a regular Stormtrooper's 13D attributes and 4D skills.)
 

prosfilaes

Adventurer
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.

Geeks complain about DRM and copy protection. They complain when the companies sue the individuals doing the downloading. They complain when The Pirate Bay and MegaUpload are taken down. Some of those complains I agree with, but that's besides the point. Geeks get all annoyed when companies protect their own IP.

A lot of copyright runs on the honor system. The only way it works is that most people don't rip off the copyright holder, because the copyright holder can't afford to chase down every theft. At least, if we don't believe in worrying about other's IP, we either have to accept that the full weight of the law is going to be used, or be honest and say we don't believe in copyright.
 

Dahak

Explorer
Geeks complain about DRM and copy protection. They complain when the companies sue the individuals doing the downloading. They complain when The Pirate Bay and MegaUpload are taken down. Some of those complains I agree with, but that's besides the point. Geeks get all annoyed when companies protect their own IP.

A lot of copyright runs on the honor system. The only way it works is that most people don't rip off the copyright holder, because the copyright holder can't afford to chase down every theft. At least, if we don't believe in worrying about other's IP, we either have to accept that the full weight of the law is going to be used, or be honest and say we don't believe in copyright.

I believe copyright exists, as much as any other imaginary thing exists. I also know it is up to the rights holder to defend their IP. It's not your job, and it damn sure isn't mine. I've never complained when a rights holder took legal action. I didn't even complain when Osama Hussein, ESQ's office sent me a DMCA takedown notice for downloading an episode of Spartacus over bittorrent. It was their job to protect the rights holder. Good on them.

Via an attorney, I've even defended my own IP, as I've seen fit, and I encourage you to do so for your own. But I'm not paid by Disney or Paramount or EA to defend their IP. And I doubt you are either. Sure, I won't buy from Outlaw Press, because of a request from the rights holders, but I'm not going to avoid downloading an unlicensed Star Trek clone just because some geek with no actual connection to the IP thinks it's not okay.

If you're actually just telling me that geeks like to argue about everything, fine. Fair enough. I, however, would rather play a game than waste time arguing about its legality/politically correctness/etc. while never actually playing it; that's the sort of navel gazing crap that turned RPGnet into the butt of a joke that it is now. I was really hoping that ENWorld was still about actual gaming and not click bait political topics, but here we are.
 

prosfilaes

Adventurer
I also know it is up to the rights holder to defend their IP.

What does that mean? The only way I can interpret the sentence "it is up to the rights holder to defend their IP" such that it can be either true or false is by taking it as a legal claim, and then it's false; copyright infringement is a crime, and the prosecutor can file changes in absence of a claim from the victim.

Taking your statement as applying to this discussion, it's false that you "know" any such thing. It's not true or false; it is an assertion about what we should do. Is it up to stores to defend their stock, or should we avoid shoplifting and (at the least) not share in its proceeds?

I, however, would rather play a game than waste time arguing about its legality/politically correctness/etc. while never actually playing it;

You don't have to waste time arguing about gaming, but the mere fact you're here says you'd rather argue about gaming then play a game or that playing a game wasn't really an option. In which case you're saying that you'd rather argue about a game and ignore how it's a piece of greater society and has effects on that greater society. In which case I disagree; I think like everything else, we should consider what we're doing in the light of how it is a part of our lives and part of the civilization we are a part of.
 

Dahak

Explorer
What does that mean? The only way I can interpret the sentence "it is up to the rights holder to defend their IP" such that it can be either true or false is by taking it as a legal claim, and then it's false; copyright infringement is a crime, and the prosecutor can file changes in absence of a claim from the victim.

Taking your statement as applying to this discussion, it's false that you "know" any such thing. It's not true or false; it is an assertion about what we should do. Is it up to stores to defend their stock, or should we avoid shoplifting and (at the least) not share in its proceeds?



You don't have to waste time arguing about gaming, but the mere fact you're here says you'd rather argue about gaming then play a game or that playing a game wasn't really an option. In which case you're saying that you'd rather argue about a game and ignore how it's a piece of greater society and has effects on that greater society. In which case I disagree; I think like everything else, we should consider what we're doing in the light of how it is a part of our lives and part of the civilization we are a part of.

How's the lint in there, fella? I don't trip shoplifters either, do you? Just because it's a crime doesn't make it my responsibility to enforce it. And I don't care if the likes of you think I'm a bad person because I won't.

As for being here, you summoned me by quoting me. If you want to pretend you've won some grand culture war, just reply without quoting me, and I promise I won't see your reply.

You're right that I don't have a game tonight, though, or I wouldn't have seen this tonight. But in case you misunderstand my actual intent, I'd love to hear what gaming techniques you gained from playing or reading Far Trek or the unofficial Mass Effect games, if any. Or even if the games were complete drek. I don't care to read your professional opinions about the games' legal status, especially as you're not likely to be a lawyer representing the allegedly damaged parties.
 

Shasarak

Banned
Banned
I don't think that's anything to do with ownership. Yes, if you don't pay your taxes, your property may be seized. But, if you screw up and get sued, your property and assets can also be seized. Almost any time you owe someone enough, your assets may be seized.

"Ownership" does not mean, "there are no circumstances under which you may lose your rights over the thing you own."

Right, so then is not really "Ownership" perhaps more like long-term "Renting"
 

prosfilaes

Adventurer
Just because it's a crime doesn't make it my responsibility to enforce it.

It is your moral responsibility as the citizen of a state to uphold (nor necessarily enforce) righteous laws. At the very least, you can stop whining when others want to talk about it.

As for being here, you summoned me by quoting me.

Really. I didn't know I could cast magic spells; I assumed you had free will.

If you want to pretend you've won some grand culture war

When you say "What I do mind is this mentality in geekdom of doing lawyers' work for them.", you're arguing about culture.

I don't care to read your professional opinions about the games' legal status

Then don't; I am secretly convinced that you have free will and can choose whether or not to read others discussions.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Right, so then is not really "Ownership" perhaps more like long-term "Renting"

I think that's being a tad hyperbolic.

When you buy a thing, you take on the rights *and responsibilities* associated with that thing. So, when you buy land, you take on the rights of ownership, and the responsibility to pay taxes. Similarly, when you make financial agreements, you take on responsibilities.

The idea that there are repercussions when you fail in your responsibilities does not change ownership or make ownership not exist - it merely notes that ownership is not the only thing in existence - ownership exists in a context where you have many different rights and responsibilities that interact, and are interconnected.
 


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