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Worlds of Design: How Original Is Your Homebrew?

As GM do you need to worry about originality in your adventures?

As GM do you need to worry about originality in your adventures?


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.” -Voltaire
I previously discussed Innovation in game design in 2017. This time I’m talking about making up adventures, “homebrew” as it’s called, to be used with your campaign but unlikely to be published.

How Original is Your Homebrew?​

There are two aspects to originality in homebrew to consider:
  • Will your players have a problem with how original it is?
  • Will lawyers have a problem with how original it is?
Of course, if you value originality greatly, like Herman Melville (Moby Dick)—“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation”—then nothing’s going to stop you from “going for it.”

People like fantasy because of the standards as much as for any originality. That is, much of the “originality” comes from the tropes of the fantasy genre itself, not from individual authors. E.g. much of the recent movie Rebel Moon: A Child of Fire (technically science fiction but owing much to fantasy) is a journey to gather together a group of “heroes” to fight evil. It’s common in fantasy, and people generally like that plot device, though it went down poorly here because the movie was heavily cut for length, and the rest of the full movie (part 2) was 4+ months away.

At TV Tropes you can read a large number of such tropes with lots of details and subtropes, a gold mine for ideas.

50 years ago in Duke University library I found Stith-Thompson’s Motif Index of Folk Literature, a multi-volume attempt to list ALL folk motifs such as “princess must be rescued,” tracing the origins of the motif and where it had been used. It is now available (revised and enlarged!) online.

Can You Overdo It?​

Yes, in fantasy fiction you can overuse certain tropes that are just TOO familiar. Like “rescuing the princess in distress.” Then again, we saw it be wildly successful in the original Star Wars movie, though with a few twists. While fiction is published for all to see, your RPG adventures will be seen only by your players, so use whatever you like. It's really hard to devise something that doesn’t amount to these tropes/motifs. But yours can be a little different, with a twist or two, just like Star Wars.

Some players have become jaded (“tired, bored, or lacking enthusiasm, typically after having had too much of something”). They’ve seen the “same things” (from their point of view) over and over, and thirst for something new. If you are dealing with this kind of player, then you may be moving from one set of game rules to another with some frequency in order to provide some originality (or at least, variety). It’s certainly tougher on the GM to have jaded players.

Originality is sometimes discussed in board game design, but is very rarely seen. With tens of thousands of boardgames published over a century, how likely is any one to be really original? Yet people find different ways to present the same topic. Most players don’t care whether a game is original or innovative, even if they’re aware of the precedents. A barroom brawl is old hat to experienced RPG players. But to someone who has never played, participation in a barroom brawl can be exciting. Familiarity is the difference.

Legal Concerns​

What about the second part, what are the legalities of copyrights and trademarks? I am not a lawyer, and nothing I share below should be considered legal advice.

Fortunately, if you’re not publishing your work, you should generally be in the clear, thanks to a concept known as “fair use”:
Fair use is a doctrine in United States law that permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder.
Quoting someone briefly is not a problem even in published works, though if it’s a long quote, caution requires getting permission from the originator before publication.

Whether or not a few seconds of a copyrighted song in a user-generated video constitutes fair use is something for a court to decide. But take note that if you release your work to the world, e.g. George Harrison’s 1970 song My Sweet Lord, a court can decide (and did) that you used an unusual musical flourish from another song (1963’s He’s so Fine sung by the Chifons) that otherwise sounds nothing like Harrison’s, and take all your profits from your song. What “Fair Use” is not, is posting an entire musical work as a YouTube video and claiming it’s Fair Use, or editing many minutes from someone else’s video and presenting it separately.

The same rules apply to other material, though I must note that game ideas generally cannot be copyrighted. Games can be trademarked or patented for a limited period of time. (Cooking recipes also cannot be copyrighted—recipes are “merely” sets of instructions.) Game patents are rare (like betting methods for Blackjack.) It’s trademarks of titles, names of characters, and the like that cause the most angst among creators. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book Princess of Mars (1912) is long out of copyright, but Burroughs Inc. keeps trademarks active on “Barsoom” and the like, so Disney had to deal with this when making the movie John Carter.

That said, if you’re not publishing your work (which includes giving it away for free – whether you make money does not matter) this likely isn’t as much of a concern.

What Constitutes Publishing?​

In this electronic age, mass distribution of any kind is probably going to count as "publishing." Undoubtedly, it is something courts are working out. That is, whether running a game on Twitch counts as publishing, or playing a game at a convention, count as publishing, I don’t know. Certainly, posting something that you “borrowed” on a website may get you in trouble.

So if you devise an adventure in what is clearly Tolkien’s “The Lonely Mountain” with a party entirely of dwarves looking for a fabulous gem (an actual convention adventure example), you’re unlikely to suffer legally from a lack of originality—unless (perhaps) you publish it.

Of course, a strong legal case isn’t necessary to invite legal trouble. Always keep in mind, if someone with lots of money decides to go after you in court, they don’t need a good argument initially, they just need to spend money.

Your Turn: Do you worry about originality in the adventures you run, whether published or homebrew?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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Follower of the Way
C.S. Lewis has said all that need be said about this topic.

"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."

My homebrew is original. It takes ideas from many sources. These two statements are not contradictory.

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