The Seven-Sided Die

Dresden Files RPG and the OGL

Posted Saturday February 11, 2012 at 11:27 PM

After an exchange on Twitter with Fred Hicks of Evil Hat, the publishers of the Dresden Files RPG, about my misgivings about DFRPG's OGL notice, I'm somewhat reassured and have a clearer idea of what the future might look like for the Dungeoneer's Handbook as a product.

As I understand it now, the intent of the "everything new in DFRPG is Product Identity" is filtered through the OGL's definition of Product Identity (PI). For the simple reason that the Dresden Files universe is a property that doesn't belong to Evil Hat, they are making sure that the RPG translation of the novels don't "leak" any of Jim Butcher's copyrighted work into the world for others to use. The language used is unfortunately ambiguous, but the whole point of the Open Game License is to eliminate doubt about the intent of a publisher using the OGL so I'm happy enough with that clarification of Evil Hat's intentions.

What this means for the Dungeoneer's Handbook

This means two interlinked things for the Dungeoneer's Handbook. Wait, three. [1] Three things for the future of the DHB.

First, it means that it's going to be way simpler for me if I just make this a personal project never intended for release. (Turns out that there's another reason this would be the simplest route for me, but that's nothing to do with DFRPG—see below.) However, pretending that I'm eventually going to show this to people who don't have me there as the DM to explain away the rough spots means I'm taking a more rigorous approach to the writing and design. So, in practice, regardless of whether I eventually aim for a public release, this first point doesn't change that pretending that I will in my own head improves the project.

Second, and this is interlinked with the third point, it means that I can't refer to Stunts and Powers that appear in DFRPG. This is mostly not a problem, since I don't need most of them to make a derivative work in a completely different setting. I can't use a Power like "Knight of the Cross", but I don't want to anyway. Dresdenverse bits like "Knight of the Cross" are exactly the sort of "special ability" that Product Identity was designed to protect, and the sort of thing that Evil Hat doesn't want to accidentally just hand away on Jim Butcher's behalf. Since I'm not using the Dresdenverse at all, this sort of thing doesn't pose a problem.

While I don't want to Dresdenverse concepts embodied by stunts and powers, there are generic stunts and powers that aren't unique to the Dresdenverse that I'd like to use. Things like Toughness, the supernatural ability for a creature to ignore a certain amount of stress unless you find its weakness, is a concept that predates DFRPG and appears in most fantasy RPGs. Werewolves who can't be hurt except by overwhelming damage (say, being hit by a truck), but are deathly susceptible to injuries dealt by silver, is exactly the sort of thing that Toughness and its higher-powered variants are perfect for representing. These are the sorts of things that I look at as useful Fate innovations that would be great to re-use.

Though they'd be great to re-use, the PI declaration in DFRPG does capture the names and descriptions of "special abilities" since those do fall under the definition of Product Identity in the OGL. So, I can't use the name of Toughness in a derivative like the DHB. I can't even refer to it in my own writeup for werewolves in the DHB, saying "look it up in your copy of DFRPG:YS," because the name itself is claimed as PI. This sort of thing is probably not what Evil Hat intended to cover with the blanket PI claim in DFRPG's OGL, but it would have been prohibitive to separate out such things as Open Game Content without getting into grey territory regarding Dresdenverse copyright. A blanket PI claim is the safe, responsible way to handle this kind of thing, even if it's inconvenient for me. In order to model werewolves and the like in the DHB, then, I have to write my own version of Toughness with a different name, or some other stunt/power that fills the same generic narrative concept of "unnaturally hard to hurt except with weakness X." This brings me to the related impact on the DHB:

Third, I have to make the Dungeoneer's Handbook a stand-alone product (should I hypothetically publish it). It would have been far easier for me to just say, "The DHB requires the use of The Dresden Files: Your Story from Evil Hat LLC" and not bother writing up my own special abilities that are already adequately provided by DFRPG. This would have been nice for me as it would save work, and actually I would have felt a bit happier saying "go buy DFRPG! You can't use this without it!" On the other hand, I realise that would have been more annoying for the hypothetical players who would end up flipping back and forth between the DHB and DFRPG books in order to make their character creation choices.

In some ways this is a blessing in disguise, though. It means that the (hypothetical) release edition of the Dungeoneer's Handbook will be a complete game unto itself, with no dependencies on third-party "core" books, and that's a better experience for the end reader and user. (I'm still going to say "Go buy DFRPG!" in a hypothetical DHB release though, because really yes yes read DFRPG.)

Skills: the silver lining

Fortunately, one thing the definition of Product Identity in the OGL doesn't cover is skills, so I should be able to use DFRPG's skill list as my base, including the existing skill trappings. I wasn't looking forward to abandoning/rewriting all that, since they're even more integral to the mechanics than even the "generic" non-Dresdenverse Stunts and Powers are.

Of course that's not all

As I implied above, there's more in the way of such a hypothetical release. As it turns out, the DFRPG OGL isn't the stickiest bit of copyright that I'm running into as I write. If you recall, I'm aiming to use this as a handbook for a home Forgotten Realms campaign. As I write, I find that I'm embedding a lot of setting concepts from the Realms that there's no way could ever see the light of day without being infringing. I'm putting them in anyway because I want this stuff available for my players, but if I eventually turn the handbook into a releasable form it will mean a lot of text will have to be rewritten or outright stripped out.

For example, I have a template called Touched by Mystra. Right there in the name, I can't put that out in a product. However, something like that is necessary to reflect character options related to the way magic has changed in my Realms after the Avatar Crisis, and since it's directly tied to Mystra (and fiction matters in Fate) it's necessary to have that baked right into the template. For a home game that'll be fine, and in the meantime I'm just not worrying about it. It does mean that I'll be looking in two directions should I endeavour to sanitise the manuscript for publication: toward DFRPG to identify and remove/rewrite any Product Identity that we relied on for our home campaign, and toward the Forgotten Realms to remove (utterly) any references to Wizards' copyrighted game setting. [2]

[1]Nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!
[2]This is one of those ironic bits about living in a digital age. If I'm just blogging about it, I can publish bits and pieces of my home game's rules that refer to Forgotten Realms copyrighted stuff, because most game companies (Wizards included) consider that to be OK online fan behaviour. However, if I do the very same thing in a PDF for download, it suddenly becomes "publishing" in a sense that the same companies see as a problem. There's a difference of apparent intent, certainly—publishing a comprehensive PDF carries with it an implication of profiting from Realms details, even if the PDF is free, in a way that publishing piecemeal on a blog doesn't. As "digital" becomes the norm, though, these sorts of distinctions are going to get even fuzzier. …Huh. That implies that there may be a future clash between hobbyists and game publishers coming, which is kind of unnerving. We've been there before, and it was ugly. It could be uglier yet when the difference between hobby publishing and pro publishing collapses.

Comments (1)


Wednesday February 15, 2012 at 07:28 PM

You deal with the copyright stuff -- it makes my head spin. In a few years when you decide to sanitize and publish, I'll make sure the accompanying art doesn't suck. ;)