Monday, March 15, 2010

Openness and Obstacles

Back in the day, Steffan O'Sullivan demonstrated that he was pretty darn far ahead of the curve by releasing Fudge as an open game system. This was before openness was a thing, so in the absence of guidelines he just set up what seemed like very easy terms - if you want to use the system, send him two copies, and he has the right to veto use if it's really inappropriate.[1] For hobbyists that was fantastic, but it ended up being a bit of a barrier for business. You didn't want to put money on the line when the entire system for a thing was one guy who might change his mind.

This ended up being a big deal for us after the success of Fate when we were thinking about actually putting out products. The business consensus was that sticking to Fudge would be problematic, and there's actually a copy of Fate floating around my hard drive which is a d6 based success counting system that we started drafting up in case we had to separate ourselves form Fudge. Thankfully, this problem was solved when Grey Ghost Games acquired the Fudge license from Steffan and released it under the OGL. While it was far more cumbersome than Steffan's handshake method, it was also much more reassuring to businesses, who at least kind of understood what that meant. [2]

Today a bit of news about the D6 System caught my attention and reminded me of this. See, the D6 system, most famously known for its use in the Star Wars RPG, has been released under OGL, sort of. The rules are open (and can be acquired as MiniSix) but not the D6 name or license, which is still in the hands of an individual. This gave me flashbacks because it feels very similar to Fudge's situation. An open system is great for the hobbyists and fans, but I'd be very leery of tying my financial fortunes to d6 for fear that I might, for example, actually call it d6 sometime, and get in a boatload of trouble.

This is kind of a shame, because I think this is an area that badly needs a strong open contender. Specifically, I mean the category of games that use recognizable dice, stat and skill lists, and have a very modular[3] approach to rules. Examples include d6, Unisystem, Cortex and the Storyteller and Storytelling systems. It's not that I think we need another generic system - I kind of don't - but rather that particular sort of game is incredibly friendly to kit-bashing. My current experience with Cortex is doing an excellent job of illustrating how far you can tweak a system towards a specific end while keeping it recognizable. Yes, the same can be accomplished by building a system from scratch, but using a modular system as a starter kit makes ramp up easier and takes advantage of familiarity.[4]

So, that does lead me to wonder if there's a contender for the throne out there I'm unaware of? Something more contemporary in its design than Fuzion?

1 - He only did this once, and regretted it.
2 - You do not have to argue very hard to convince me that maybe Creative Commons is a better solution, but the gaming market gets OGL and is leery of CC. That may suck, but it's a reality.

3 - That is to say, rules are added as discrete chunks on top of the system, to handle things like magic or barter. Contrast that with 4e, which uses a framework model: there's an existing chassis and new systems need to work within that framework. Or d20, which is a horrible muddle in this regard.
4 - Evidence of this can be found in the numerous ways Savage Worlds keeps seeing use. It's not truly open, but they're very transparent about what's involved in licensing the system, which is nearly as good. They have absolutely reaped the benefits of this approach.


  1. Oh dear. The last thing I heard was that Eric Gibson (aka WEG) was going ahead with Open D6 project. Sad to hear that the project seems to have actually collapsed in the meantime. Then again I do believe he bought the remaining WEG assets (at a discounted value) in the hope of making money from them, but given the loss of it's most profitable licence this was unlikely.

    Does anyone know if he has actually released an open licence for the D6 system. He said he is going to, and that the terms that have been discussed are active, but has he actually produced an actual legal release for the system, and if so, where can I find a copy?

    [I liked the D6 system, mainly because you could readily convert Torg/Masterbook (of which I was one of the comparative few that really liked it) into the lighter game system. Sic transit gloria.]

    And no, I can't think of a modern open system out there, although a lot of companies now seem to have very transparent licences for their "generic" systems (Savage Worlds, [non-Cthulhu] BRP, [non-Gloranthan] Runequest II, and [the non-Traveller bit's of] Mongoose's Traveller). After all, the more product that is available the more interesting their core product will seem to be.

    Although I know a number of game systems I'd like to use as a base for stuff. Ironclaw being a noticable one at the moment.

  2. One of the things about the licensing systems for games that makes me very uncomfortable is that they're giving us the right to do something we already had the right to do: publish using someone else's system as the base and claim compatibility.

    After d20 and the OGL everyone seems to have forgotten that systems were never copyrightable -- you could use someone else's system all you wanted and were legally well-within your rights, and the only thing you couldn't do was claim the trademark.

    The OGL movement set a legal precedent that disturbs me a great deal in terms of how it affects our hobby culture and the amount of control it gave to publishers over something they legally are not supposed to have any control over.

    What seems forgotten is that the whole reason the OGL came about in the first place was because of TSR's abuse of the legal system in the 90s, when they were suing fans for putting fan-created material up on the internet.

    It was a sneaky way to protect fans (and other publishers) from corporate lawyers, not to protect systems from fans, even though the latter is what licensing seems to be turning into.

  3. I don't think there is something that's totally open like that... yet, but there are at least a half dozen bloggers out there who are working on a CC system. The only problem I see is that nearly all of these bloggers live-by, die-by, pledge-eternal allegiance-to, and sacrifice-their-firstborn-on-the-alter-of uber simplicity. Which I get, I really do... 3 stat systems have a place and I seriously believe that marketed in the right way a 3 stat system that could be printed on a single page in the back of a fantasy novel would be brilliant...

    But a system that still works by mostly numbers rather than a more narrative approach such as FATE (I'm coming dangerously close to talking out of my ass here I know, so forgive me, I don't intend to shoehorn any systems, just providing context.) needs (IMHO) a good structure to be truly worthwhile for kitbashing. I just feel like these really rules-lite systems don't hold up under extensive play, and generally anyone who wants to build their own game probably wants to run it through the paces, rather than just throw down for a single session when everyone's bored.

    So maybe there's an opening in the hobby for something still... or maybe I'm totally out to lunch on my perceptions of the market. Either way I've got ideas in the works and hope to release under Creative Commons... maybe it'll be good maybe it won't... though the more I think about it the more I sincerely believe it isn't the best games that sell, but the best marketed ones that ultimately do.

  4. Great post. I never really thought of it as clearly from the potential publisher's perspective and that makes a lot of sense as to why there is so much concern about having a solid license.

    I would love to see our hobby move over to some gaming-based evolution of the CCL and Raven Daegmorgan's concerns over the OGL increase that desire. Very good points, Mr Daegmorgan.

    Finally, comparing the success of the Savage Worlds model, the FATE model and the dismal failure of the current D6 "strategy" demonstrates how important it is to get the product energy out there for a system line before obsessing about marketing and rights and who owns what. Gibson's dog in the manger behaviour (which may sound harsh, but I've been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt for years now and I think at this point this is more than just simple naiveté or inexperience) has effectively reduced the value of the D6 line. Though he pretended he wanted to open the system up, he was never comfortable allowing it to be truly free, trying always to force it through a single gatekeeper (which was of course, Eric Gibson) either through keeping the D6 name or by his OpenD6 project, a now dead-in-the-water website where all D6 projects would have to be posted. Had he just let the beast out in the wild and then built on the energy from all the various projects, he could well be holding command over a small D6 empire at this point. Instead, he put the cart before the horse and now both are in the ditch, broken and wounded.

  5. @helm no, you're absolutely right that FATE si a different category, and witht hat you have inspired tomorrow's post.

  6. @Raven I can't disagree with you at all - it's scuzzy and disconcerting.

    But at the same time, it's been necessary to develop any level of community confidence. WOTC is not the only company to wave around legal threats, and given the shoestring budget most game shops operate on, I can't fault the conservatism that says they're not goign to take a chance unless they really feel their asses are covered.

    It's a choice made out of fear, and flawed as a result, but my hope is that the current period is one of transition. Sure, 4e was a retrograde step, but I think a lot of things are driftign in the right direction.

    That said, yeah, were I to do another system today, I would almost certainly go Creative Commons. The time has come for it.

    -Rob D.

  7. I'm still waiting for you to slap together a good draft of Faith & Credit, man. :) But I'm happy as hell to go CC when a) I want to do an open system, and b) it's not in conflict with a decision to go OGL already. "B" being just as important.

    Though in the interim Colonial Gothic has stolen some -- though not all -- of that concept's thunder.

  8. Someday!

    But, yeah B is a pretty serious consideration


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