Thursday, November 18, 2021

Open Licenses: Engine, Content, Content Creation

When talking about resources for developing role playing games, it is important to distinguish between a content creation license and an engine license, and this is a distinction I do not see commonly discussed. When we call a game open, we are often fail to discuss what exactly is open about it. What is being offered to you to make use of makes a big difference when considering whether or not to make use of a game license.

Open Engines

OGL joke hidden in
Goblin Slayer (Manga vers.)
Isdue #26
When the game's engine has been made open, most of the game's mechanics are available. You can build a game that uses the same dice rolls, terminology, and gameplay loops as the original game for which the engine was devised. The game you build might have different setting character type of genre, and it might have particular rule hacks and modifications to make it play more the way you want it to play, but you have effectively used the game itself.

An open game engine may or may not include access to the game's content. By content, I mean things like specific names places, creatures, etc. For example, in Blades in the Dark, you have the city of Doskvol with its Leviathan blood trade creating electroplasm make lamps for light and heat; you have enchanted crows, and a masked corpse taker cult, and the death bells to destroy the dead before they rise; and there well as the specific neighborhoods with strange trades. None of these are in actual the engine of the game. They are not its engine but rather its content. If one were to license Blades in the Dark as an intellectual property for adoption into novels or television programs, it is that content, not the engine that would be of primary interest.

Content Usage License

Very few games hand out their content openly. The major exception I can think of is Dungeons & Dragons. The Open Game License grants access to a lot of signature Dungeons & Dragons characters, spells, and monsters. The owlbear, for example, was unique to Dungeons & Dragons until Wizards of the Coast gave tacit permission to anyone who cared to use it by way of the OGL. But, in the case of D&D  they keep an odd mix of open and closed content. While I might be able to make use of a Norker or Half-Orc, Mind Flayers and Beholders are strictly protected. As is Greyhawk and its various Deities, or any of the other setting worlds.

With the DM's Guild license, it is possible even to make use of material for some of the established settings and the monsters that are otherwise designated product identity. The downside of which is that you have very limited ownership over your own creation.

Content Creation License

Generally speaking you will not see licenses to make use of a game's content (or "product identity" as it is designated in the Open Game License.) That said, are plenty of games that are perfectly happy to enable you to create new content for them to long as you do so to their standards and on their terms.

I would designate these "content creation licenses" rather than open "game" licenses, on the basis that you are not giving permission to reproduce the rules in whole or in part, instead you are given the right to create settings, characters, monsters, spells, Starships, or adventures for the game without producing anything that expresses the mechanics are engine of the game in a meaningful fashion.

An adventure module is a perfect example of this sort of third-party content. At no time does the average adventure module share rules that exist in the core manuals. Instead, it gives you things like abbreviated monsters and treasure that can only be used with and often references, a compatible ruleset. I do not need to explain armor class in my module in order to use it. However, with this arrangement, the person using my module will need to check the corebook or SRD of a compatible to understand how to use Armor Class, accordingly. 

Selecting a License 

When you are designing content for a TTRPG you have to make a call as to whether you are going to create content licensed to another system, content that has no system specific notation at all, or whether you're going to build your own system in order to share the content. These will create very different demands on your design, and have very different results as to your style and the time required to develop a product. 

An open game engine helps cut down the time if you choose the latter option.

When creating content for an established system,, there's nothing saying you have to create it for just one system: adventure modules like the legendary Barrowmaze  are often released for multiple game engines.

After I used the original Into the Demon Idol by Jobe Bittman as a case study in  one-page dungeon design and use, he was kind enough to send me the expanded 'zine version of the module. His design is clever: rules specific to the module are in-line, but monster statistics, etc. are offered on a bookmark with versions for Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, allowing compatibility with multiple games in one book.

The Fine Print

Just as different game engine licenses are less open than others, some content licenses are more limiting than others.

Bully Pulpit games, for example, allows anyone to make "playsets" (random table sets for creating scenarios) for their GMless storygame Fiasco. However,  until this past year, they were under a license required all playsets to be released as a CC-BY-NC-SA license.

With the newer edition, this has been replaced by a Fiasco creator's license that removes this requirement, allowing creators to retain a traditional copyright.  However creators must still make playsets available for free of as a PWYW with $0 minimum. Thus, one cannot create Fiasco playsets for pay, except by voluntary gratuity.

One Final Note... 

The biggest upside to content creation licenses is that you have a ready market. As a big fan of  Low Fantasy Gaming, for example, I keep an eye out for cool content for it, but it comes at the cost of accepting the terms of a given license

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