The tabletop role playing game hobby draws fans from across fantasy, science fiction, pulp adventure, horror, and other types of speculative fiction. In these games, one player takes the role of a “game master” (alternately called a “dungeon master” or “referee” in some games) to adjucate rules, create a setting and narrate the world in which player-characters (the fictinal characters created by the individual players around the table) interact. From the early 1970’s, when Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created Dungeons and Dragons, to recent recent times with products like Monte Cook Games’ Numenera, the main hand in creating content rested with the fan base. By its nature, RPG’s seem to attract people interested in creating. Players create characters, Game Masters create adventures, and the two groups interact to create a complete experience, a story cooperatively built by all the parties.

In answering the question if running a role-playing game is art, TSR Games and Rules Editor Mike Carr said in 1979, in an introduction to the Dungeon Masters Guide:

“If you consider the pure creative aspect of starting from scratch, the “personal touch” of individual flair that goes into preparing and running a unique campaign, or the particular style of moderating a game adventure, then Dungeon Mastering may indeed be thought of as an art.”

The DMG

A great deal of the hobby involves creation. And there is a point of pride about sharing one’s unique work to the gaming community. Some players and GM’s create and update blogs about their game experience. Obsidian Portal gives tools for game-masters to post campaing notes, create wikis full of game world information, post maps, and even allow players to communicate with each other. Digital distribution makes it easy to share what’s happening in your game, and comparing it with players across the world. It makes it easy to publish your own unique creatures, or maps, or variant rules for games.

Sharing is an important part of tabletop gaming culture. In the 60’s and 70’s, tabletop wargames fans would distribute new scenarios and variant rules for their games via wargaming magazines like Strategy and Tactics. Gamers can’t help but take what’s there and add their own spin to it, personalize it, make it just right for their home group. A fantastic story about how a game company deals with fan creativity is Monte Cook Games, producer of the highly-successful game Numenera.

Fans pledged over $500,000 collectively to see Numenera put into print. It was well-reviewed after its release. Some fans started produceing material for it almost immediately, wanting to share their own visions of Numenera’s unique setting, “The Ninth World” (an Earth billions of years in the future, inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”).

Numenera book cover

Monte Cook, the author of the new role-playing game Numenera, answered the call from gamers interested in creating their own material for the game. Recently, Monte Cook Games published a “fan use policy” to clarify what fans can and cannot distribute for free. Fan sights such as The Signal and The Ninth World have the opportunity to create content for Numenera players and, as a side effect, create more interest and excitement for the game. Monte Cook Games also released a Limited License for those who would like to make commercial products. Under the Limited License, creators can create a product (for a fifty dollar fee) and have the option to sell it (as long as the creator receives less than $2000 in total revenue).

One can say that a company’s need to publish a policy for licensing and copyright is an impediment to creativity. Or worse, some people have been made angry by the company even requiring a license to produce Numenera material. Shanna Germain, one of the developers for Numenera, gives her opinion on her blog :

…if someone comes out on the Internet and says that the Numenera limited license is the worst thing they’ve ever read and that they will never work with us because we’re awful, horrible, money-grubbing jerks who make shitty games, well, they’re right in at least one aspect: They will never work with us. Because why would we want to work with someone like that, ever? And more importantly: Why would we want to subject our fans to that kind of mentality? Our fans deserve a supportive, positive fan culture.

She goes on to describe the company’s four mottos:”Make amazing games that bring good things to people’s lives…Only work with people who give a damn…Create a supportive, positive work and fan culture…Give fans only our very best.”

This is the ultimate intent of any quality control. Make a good product, that inspires more people to contribute.

Rob Donoghue (game designer and writer) put the intent behind the limited license into perspective this way:

When you craft the license for using your games, you are ultimately trying to do several things:
*How do I let people make stuff For my game (Without needing to worry that someone is going to do a Race War RPG with it)?
*How do I make sure I get my cut if something small takes off?
*How can I spread my game?
*How do I serve my existing community?

Do any of the above concerns sound unreasonable? I imagine, for any small-press company, all of the above are constant concerns, and they’re hoplessly linked. Encouraging the fan base to create content based on your creation spreads the word about your property, but it has to keep its good name. Spreading positive words about your game leads to increased revenue. Increased revenue means you can creaate more product for this property, and gives one the opportunity and the willingness to try things new, to innovate, and give more to share. If its good, if it develops a fan base, then more players will create more fan-contnet, and the cycle continues.

Monte Cook Games views the license and the fan policy as positive steps towards producing quality products, certainly. They’re also encouraging creators in the fan-world to share what they love. It builds the brand, sure. More importantly, gamers get to share what they love. More art gets created. More gamers are inspired. More games get made. When Lawrence Lessig talked about “Laws that choke creativity” for a TED talk in 2007, “Tools of creativity have become tools of speech.” This is perhaps how common sense has “revolted,” as he put it, to copyright law. As opposed to the extremism of cease-and desist letters on one side and criminalization of artists taking to digital media to the other, here Monte Cook Games has created a reasonable compromise. Yes, please create. And here are the tools we’re offering to help you create in our sandbox.

Written with StackEdit.

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Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. Just so I understand, “Fans pledged over $500,000 collectively to see Numenera put into print” and now are being told how they can use the representations of the characters they themselves funded?

    Reply
    • Not quite. There are a few different dimensions involved, when it comes to tabletop RPG’s and what makes them unique to one another.

      Some of the big things that get me to understand how Monte Cook Games intends to say with its fan license seem to be about making sure that fan-made products are never mistaken for their “official” products. Hence, why they request that they not be distributed via retail channels, even if they’re free.

      Under the fan-use policy, player-made characters, original artwork, descriptions of fan-made “magic” items that may be in the game can be made available by fans for free on their websites (or other free distribution method). Some things fans cannot distribute are things specifically related to the rules of the game, the “engine” that makes it unique from other tabletop RPG’s.

      The fans who contributed to making the game happen contributed to the artwork being developed, the rules being developed and tested, printing, etc. The fan-use policy just spells out guidelines for what kind of material can be distributed and reproduced, and what kinds of materials are off-limits. The things that are off-limits are the things that would either potentially confuse the public as to what material is “official” and the specific mechanics of the rules that make the game unique.

      As a layman, this is how I understand it. If any members of Monte Cook Games would like to chime in to clarify, it would certainly be welcome.

      Reply
  2. Valve has made a killing with the level of interaction they allow their users to have on Steam, which is now the largest digital distribution platform for video games in the world. They allow users to create and not just share, but *sell* content they create for games. <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8QEOBgLBQU&quot; Here's a video where CEO Gabe Newell explains why this business model works for Valve . There’s also Steam Greenlight, where developers can pitch a game to the 50 million Steam users and players can vote for which games they want to see made available. It just goes to show that involving fans in the creation of your products can increase your brand awareness.

    Reply
  3. […] and game creator, and Lessig’s talk gave me perspective on copyright and creator ownership. I wrote a blog post about it, and would like to outline how it came […]

    Reply

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About mikewgoodman

I am a renaissance-swordfighting enthusiast and I enjoy historical reenactments (where I focus my attention on Elizabethan culture, historical swordfighting, and the London Masters of Defense). I'm an avid roleplaying gamer, have done some game design, and I write. I share my home with a son who loves games, a wife who loves her garden, and a pack of mercenary cats.

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