Buried under the hailstorm of GAMA stuff on GamingReport yesterday (quick recap: WotC may put restrictions on “trade dress” for certain types of D20 products, the new Star Wars CCG has D20s in it, it’ll have basic common cards for the big characters and then rarer cards you stack up on top of it) is something that I think a lot of RPG creators and would-be creators will be affected by. is , devoted to creator-owned RPGs and supplements using the Tri-Stat System.
Some gamers might be unfamiliar with what “creator-owned” really means, and why it’s significant. Those who’ve followed the world of comics for the past ten years might have a better sense. Remember Image Comics, back when they were new? Most people probably remember them for Spawning an enormous collector craze, but the craze started because people thought these comics would be special. Several hot comics artists and writers founded Image, and structured it such that artists kept the rights to their artwork and intellectual property. In theory, an artist who’s invested in what he creates is free to give it his all, whereas an artist who has to sign it all over to the company as work for hire might be well advised not to do anything he’s going to want to keep later. (Apologies for the sexist language there, but we are talking about men in the case of Image Comics and, to bring it back to gaming, of John Wick. Wick is on the record about the work he did on L5R and the 7th Sea RPG while at AEG, and how he lost control of it – its owner, his employer, sold it off to WotC. He started Wicked Press so the same thing wouldn’t happen to Orkworld or any of his subsequent creations.)
It didn’t take long after the Image boom for comics fans to realize that, just because it’s creator-owned, doesn’t mean a book won’t suck. Furthermore, some creators used their new little publishing companies to fulfill visions of being the pimp instead of the ho, finding young artists to exploit in turn. In comics, the situation has more or less stabilized today – all of the major publishers have creator-owned titles and characters as well as company-owned house characters. Some have special imprints to distinguish the creator-owned material and capitalize on its cachet. There isn’t really enough awareness of the issue in gamerdom for that to be the reason for GOO’s move, so what’s the deal? For the answer, we have to revisit the D20 System’s reason for being: the burden of role-playing “support.”
Modules were such a money-loser for TSR that Ryan Dancey and Wizards of the Coast needed a way to let third parties publish D&D support materials, without threatening to genericize WotC’s new intellectual property. (If you let just anyone use your terms and such, courts can take away your copyright – this is why Duncan doesn’t own the term “yo-yo” and Paramount sends nasty letters to Star Trek fan pages.) The trick of “copyleft” – open-source software licenses – was adaptable to the purpose. But in gaming, it’ll only work when you’re offering a big enough opportunity, in terms of potential audience and sales, to make it worth taking the risk of forming a small publishing company. Now, is popular, but it doesn’t have the massive draw of D&D to make publishers line up to support it. With Magnum Opus, Guardians appears to be meeting them halfway – as if they’re saying, you take the risk of up-front investment of time and development energy, and we will license you the system and give you a publishing deal wherein you keep your intellectual property. Now that D20 is out there, this may be the only way to draw lots of third-party support for a role-playing game.
Maybe I’m just belaboring the obvious here, but I think these interactions are pretty interesting. Those who’d like to know more about creator ownership and how it functions in hobby industries should check out the Creator’s Bill of Rights, drawn up by Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud at a comics industry conference in 1988. McCloud also has things to say about web publishing that might become relevant to gaming someday. Hmmm…