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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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.

Renting also has rights and responsibilities and, when you default on those, the property defaults back to the actual owner which in the case of land is the Government.

Nothing hyperbolic about that.

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aramis erak

That's not how it works; it either goes off the life of the human author, or they get a flat term (95 years in the US).

It's been extended every time Steamboat Willie has been about to exit copyright. Disney will likely lobby for, and obtain, a change in US copyright in 1923 to about 110 years...


One of the reasons licenses are nurtured / owned by companies or 'estates' is to protect the integrity of the story, maintain it in publication for new generations and to ensure bad quality versions are not sold to unknowing customers. A good example is Conan Properties who actually returned Conan to publication (it had been out of print), and ensured publishers used only authentic Robert E Howard material not later pastiche material. By maintaining the copyright and getting fees (from the likes of us making the official RPG) they can afford to keep protecting the IP and making sure you're not buying a badly reproduced copy from a dodgy publisher but an excellently edited and printed version that's good value. They ensure new generations can read Conan as it was meant to be read not what some publisher thinks people should get.

Fan work is good - but as the makers of Star Trek Axanar discovered as soon as they made it look professional and promised it to be as good as anything on TV it started to conflict with professional content. As over a $million dollar was raised for costs to pay actors, SFX, studio space etc this leads us in to another thing which is often over looked by the BUT ITS FREE IM NOT MAKING ANY MONEY argument.

Sure YOU are not making money but when you give away a book for free via LULU - LULU are making money from customers buying the print run, the producers of Axanar weren't making any money on the film, but over a $1 million was being paid for costs like studio space, FX studios etc. So a lot of people were making money from the work taking place on the film. That means SOMEONE is making money from unlicensed content. So you can see why the owners suddenly have an issue with this. It starts to conflict with all the hard work they do to get reputable companies working with them. If everyone was working on the project for free (the usual interpretation of a fan project) then I suspect they wouldn't have had a problem, but then what was the $million needed for?

And finally if you still think copyright should be limited, think about it this way, so if after all my investment in my game idea, all the time, money and effort you can take my story in X years, what if instead I come and move in to the house you've been paying the mortage on for X years - surely it shouldn't be yours after all this time right? Why should you get to live in it on your own? What about when you die can I have your house then because why should your family get to benefit from it? That company you've been working on for your year's, not making a profit, remortaged your house and lost your health over and now it's massive? Well I'm going to set up a copy of it and use your name and do exactly what you do because it's such a cool idea and I don't fancy having to work hard for it, that's okay right?

People invest huge amounts in great IP's - the reason you want to play in that world, or recreate it yourself, is because it's so damned good and that's usually because people have spent years working on it often without much reward and making sure it's the kind of world you want to play in. Sure they could be making tens of thousands of dollars now, billions even? So what they earnt it. EVEN if they bought the brand, they paid for it. They are investing in it so you can keep watching or playing in that world But you're house is worth hundred of thousands of dollars now after buying it from someone else. Should you get to enjoy it? Of course you paid for it.

I love fan material and encourage fans to write stuff for our games, we're even developing a portal for fans to submit content and get rewarded for it. But as soon as someone creates a professional looking product that stops someone buying one of our games we'd either talk to them and say 'hey let's publish this for you' or ask them to take it down. I always think you should work together to avoid issues like this though, we are, after all, doing this for the love of games


One of the reasons licenses are nurtured / owned by companies or 'estates' is to protect the integrity of the story, maintain it in publication for new generations and to ensure bad quality versions are not sold to unknowing customers. A good example is Conan Properties who actually returned Conan to publication (it had been out of print), and ensured publishers used only authentic Robert E Howard material not later pastiche material.

Later pastiche material that the estate had had produced. That alone negates your argument. One might also discuss the use of the Conan name on three movies that look nothing like anything Robert E. Howard wrote.

In the case of movies, there's an argument that copyright helps encourage production of good, authentic copies instead of third-generation copies of 8mm versions with cuts for TV. Warner Brothers DVDs of their old movies tend to be much better than Mill Creek copies, after all. But the existence of Mill Creek hasn't stopped the better works in their collections from getting good editions: e.g. Carnival of Souls and Nosferatu both have expensive high-quality editions. If the consumer wants 50 movies for $20 instead of a single version of The Ape starring Boris Karloff at the same price (better video, same lousy plot and special effects), that's capitalism at work.

In the case of books, I don't believe it at all, especially not in the 21st century. Conan came back into print because fantasy became cool and popular again. Books are cheap to reproduce; if they're in the public domain, Hathitrust and Google Books can show you the exact original publication. A university or Project Gutenberg or Wikisource or some fan unaffiliated with any larger organization can transcribe that or a hardcopy in their possession and put it online trivially. There is no need for copyright to ensure that the original edition is available. There are many books out of copyright that have excellent editions, both electronic and hardcopy.

And again, this is not just about Conan. I'm a big fan of American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, and have put everything I could find in the public domain online. Her poetry has been reprinted; the only plays that have been been reprinted recently have been by reprinters of public domain works. The Murder of Lidice has not been reprinted since 1942; it will be out of print for 95 years, until it enters the public domain and people like me and Google and HathiTrust and those publishers endeavor to bring it back in print.

Lastly, Conan is out of copyright in the US, and has been since the publications weren't renewed in a timely manner 28 years after publication. You can read them at your pleasure at Wikisource. (The Wikimedia Foundation DMCA notice email is easily found, but I'm pretty sure short of a successful court case, they aren't coming down.) REH's works published in his lifetime are out of copyright in most of the world--Canada, China, India, Japan, etc.--and will leave copyright in the EU and Brazil at the end of the year, I believe leaving Mexico, Colombia and Côte d'Ivoire as the only places where they might be still in copyright in a year. Conan Properties has a trademark on Conan, but it's not a copyright issue in the US and most of the world.

By maintaining the copyright and getting fees (from the likes of us making the official RPG) they can afford to keep protecting the IP and making sure you're not buying a badly reproduced copy from a dodgy publisher but an excellently edited and printed version that's good value. They ensure new generations can read Conan as it was meant to be read not what some publisher thinks people should get.

If we don't want some publisher to decided what people should get, if we can't trust private companies to properly handle it, we need to nationalize it, get it into the Government's hands. Only way to keep it safe.

I love "as it was meant to be read" in connection with pulp fiction. You're talking about work quickly written to fill a hole in a magazine that was never meant to be reprinted; it would get one printing and then forever be out of print. I don't think Howard or Lovecraft had any expectation of future anthologization. Their works were not meant to be read from acid-free paper, all in a bunch by the same author; they were meant to be read occasionally mixed among the works of other authors.

(In some cases, it's incredibly clear they were never meant to be anthologized. The Library Fuzz series has been anthologized for Kindle, and it turns out James Holding wrote "The Elusive Mrs. Stout" and published it in Ellery Queen in 1974, and then slightly rewrote it and sold it to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine in 1976. Dame Christie has an anthology that basically uses the same start for two stories in a row.)

I'm entirely happy to see the wide variety of copies of e.g. the Scarlet Pimpernel, and I know where to look for good editions. However, the copy I bought from Wal-Mart for 50 cents turns out to be just fine for most purposes. If I'm worried, I can shell out a few more bucks for Penguin or an Oxford or a Norton Critical Edition. The fact there's graphic novel editions that cut out most of the text doesn't hurt the copies I'm reading, and the people who bought them generally knew what they were buying. Again, capitalism works fine to produce cheap works for those who can best afford those and quality works for those who are willing to shell out the extra money. The public domain works that I've seen with lousy, overpriced editions are the ones where neither the estate nor anyone else feels there's enough demand to put out a better or cheaper edition.

what if instead I come and move in to the house you've been paying the mortage on for X years

This is the exact same argument made above. See above for all the responses.
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I think we can all agree the Copyright laws could use a good revamping.

My personal thoughts on it:
Personally I think it should be creator only(individual non-corporation), and in 25yr licensing chunks.
The creator holds all rights to the work automatically for 25yrs. This can be renewed for a flat fee. Fee is that of whatever year it was created. i.e. If it cost $100 bucks this year every 25yrs you pay $100 bucks to renew your rights to it. Allows for future years to change fees, but locks in for the creator.
The creator can license it out to others (individuals or companies) as they see fit, but they are the ultimate holder/owner of the work.
If the creator dies, whatever the current copyright is goes to the heir for the remainder of the current 25yr period.
After the expiring of a license if it was not renewed by the original creator, it becomes public domain.
Also add in a caveat that a license holder isn't required to defend their property to maintain their ownership, I believe (not sure I'm sure someone can correct me if I'm wrong) that is a requirement of current law.

Now given that, there should be something done for derivative works that aren't for profit/cost. AKA your fan fiction, fan pages, etc. Letting them fall into the 'Fair Use' rules.

Now how would this pertain to the original post about the Star Wars/Star Trek/Mass Effect ones, if they were just posted as publications without $$ being passed I think it would be fine. As soon as they sold something, i.e. the Lulu printing, they would have crossed the threshold line.
But should I as an individual take their work and get it printed for my own use, perfectly legal.

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