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Open Source Role Playing

By vaguely_aware in Culture
Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 07:16:56 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

The merits of Open Source software continue to stir debate, and much of the controversy surrounds the GNU Free Software Licenses. The question seems to be whether or not the GPL is something a business should use as a tool to further it's ends, especially if that end is selling something affected by the license. Is it viable for a software company to sell something that can be attained for free or very low cost?

In this case, time will tell. Companies like Red Hat seem to be doing well enough using GPL'd software as the cornerstone of their business, but whether it is a sustainable model remains to be seen. Mostly, they rely on secondary services to supplement the revenue loss they are forced to endure by offering software they give away for free and sell at the same time. Now, a mostly non-software related company has joined the Open Source movement with an interesting twist on the concept.

Wizards of the Coast, a game producer and manufacturer who made a name for themselves with the Magic: The Gathering trading card game and eventually took up carrying the mantle of the role playing granddaddy, Dungeons and Dragons is trying to change the face of the paper role playing community with it's Open Gaming system.

The concept should sound very familiar to those who've heard of Open Source software. The core rules of the game (called the System Reference Document) are covered by a GPL-like Open Gaming License. The concept is so similar that the Open Gaming Foundation (presumably a GNU-like organization) even suggests that the GPL and Free Documentation License can be used to the same effect. These core rules can be freely distributed, modified and changed, provided the same freedoms remain intact for the new drafts and are identified as such.

Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition as well as the Star Wars RPG have both been released under this system. It is obviously presumed that other games will follow suit and join the party, collectively referred to as the d20 System. Wizards of the Coast claims that the reasons for doing this are primarily to breathe some life back into the sagging paper role playing game market. They point to the "proliferation of different, incompatible, core game systems" as reasons for the market dip and hope that by consolidating these into one more closely related system they can strengthen the market and (presumably) allow game designers to focus on the nuances of the game environments and the gamers on actually playing instead of learning how to play.

At first, this seems pretty well thought out. Many young role playing enthusiasts turn their enjoyment of complex, collaboratively built stories into a fascination with complex, collaboratively built software systems so the relationship the two communities have is already established. If one group can embrace a concept, the other is likely to be able to do the same. Also the open nature of the d20 system seems to merely apply what gamers themselves have always done (many role players have a few "house rules" in their games) to other developers as well, freeing them from the burdens of not only creatively offering new concepts and worlds but non-infringing rulesets as well.

Of course, now Wizards of the Coast is in the same boat as Red Hat. If they give away the rules to the game, how can they make money off the product? When TSR ran the show, they sold the basic rule books (The Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide, IIRC) at around $20 each. Aside from dice, which neither TSR nor WotC has a cornered market on, these products were essential to play the game. There were other products available such as miniatures, modules, add-ons, expansion kits, novels, and pre-made adventures, but these weren't essential to play. Assuming that most players would eventually buy at least one of the basic rule books (in-group sharing of books was probably a common phenomenon) they could expect at minimum $20 from each player. If that is taken away, WotC must rely on the nonessential purchases to keep them in business.

To combat this, they seem to have mostly done away with the Dungeon Master's Guide as it has been replaced by the freely available System Reference Document. But they haven't included everything needed for play in this essentially GPLed rule set. There are no explanations for creating a character to fit into the world and no details for how to apply experience gained through gameplay. These non open aspects of the game are proprietary, unchangeable and only available in the new Player's Handbook. This combination of open standards and closed requirements may rub philosophically charged Free Software people the wrong way. It is analogous to offering a free Operating System but requiring the purchase of a proprietary initialization script. The free part does you no good without the non-free part.

And this is where the system would seem to develop ugly cracks. If the SRD and Open Gaming in general were designed to allow for improvement of the game system as a whole (WotC claims that deviations which are superior and more popular to the published version of the SRD used by Star Wars and D&D will become standard by default) and advancement of the gaming community in general, how long would it take before no one bought official Dungeons and Dragon's merchandise at all? All it takes is someone developing character creation and experience allocation rules in a similar manner that game designers have always done (all role playing games pay homage in some way or another to D&D) and releasing them under the OGL before D&D is a waste of money. If everyone can play at no cost, why would anyone play for money?

In this case all the checks Red Hat has built in to its model disappear. No one has trouble installing rules to a game in their mind, so WotC can't sell D&D support packages. It is unlikely that anyone would need mission-critical, professional level features for a Saturday afternoon gaming session. And text files are smallish, so bandwidth won't likely prohibit players from downloading megabytes worth of data; and that data is read just as easily from printer paper as from a glossy book.

Which raises an interesting question about Open Source Software. If Linux were ever made truly user-friendly, secure and stable out of the box and bandwidth were ever a non-issue... would anyone pay for something that was better attained for free?


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Wizards of the Coast:
o Is on to something 23%
o Is going to get burned 2%
o Probably won't make mcuh difference 14%
o Has missed the point of role playing 5%
o Has saved role playing 0%
o Needs to work on d20 a little 14%
o Is irrelevant to me 38%

Votes: 34
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o stir debate
o GNU Free Software Licenses
o Red Hat
o give away for free
o sell
o Wizards of the Coast
o Magic: The Gathering
o Dungeons and Dragons
o System Reference Document
o Open Gaming License
o Open Gaming Foundation
o point
o Also by vaguely_aware

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Open Source Role Playing | 24 comments (23 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Marketing Ploy (3.50 / 4) (#2)
by razzmataz on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 10:22:32 AM EST

This open gaming thing is just a marketing ploy for WoTC. Or, at least I think it is.

Just from my anecdotal experience, most pencil/paper RPG players I know usually start out with DnD as their 'gateway drug' into the RPG world, and then move on to more advanced systems, such as GURPS, that have a little more detail and realism. Perhaps WotC is trying to reverse that trend if it is more common that what I've noticed over the years. It's just a handy thing to wave around especially when linux was getting tons of press a year or two ago. Of course, I never started of playing RPGs with DnD, so I could be wrong...

And please, don't think of this as a slam against DnD - it's just what I have noticed.
-- I love the smell of fdisk in the morning...

Wizards of the Coast (3.50 / 4) (#4)
by Wah on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 10:50:41 AM EST

While I can't speak for their parent Company, WotC has been fairly responsive to user complaints in the past. One positive experience was about their lawsuit and general hassliing of Dragonstar Studios who make the Internet enabled Magic playing software, Apprentice. (No Linux until past v2.0) Anyway, once the legal department realized these guys existed it was only a matter of time until Cease and Desist letters started flowing. The community of Magic players was generally pretty pissed off about these actions and Wizards capitulated quickly (or maybe they bought the company, not really sure about this) under massive player pressure.

I think this d20 thing is a good idea and I can see how WotC has to maintain hold over one critical aspect of it. I think these types of licenses will be more common, ones that allow a great deal of freedom, but do have a single point of failure. I read about this in another column last night (from a PCGamer^H^Hing magazine that I'm waiting for my subscription to run out on), and WotC is also planning on creating a Dungeon Masters software dev kit. Which helps to move the whole system to computers. By maintaining the point of failure, WotC can keep a general sense of continuity over a wide variety of universes. As long as everyone has to follow similar rules to character advancement, the characters can be interchanged in a HUGE variety of universes (both paper and digital) with a minimum of effort and a maximim of convenience.

Yea, it is a marketing ploy, but so is the GPL (from a sufficiently cynical viewpoint ;).
Some things, bandwidth can't buy. For everything else, there's Real Life | SSP
[ Parent ]

There will always be a market (4.20 / 5) (#3)
by natael on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 10:36:19 AM EST

WotC is still providing products which are better than those you can download for free.

Just like with Red Hat, people are still going to want to buy hard copies of some of the manuals, which are quite large. They can also be used to attract new players when placed in book and gaming stores.

I think the concept behind providing the core rules for free is to get more people playing the game. As the author stated, most of their money comes from supplemental sources. These don't sell unless people are playing the game. Now with the basic rules available for free, more people will play using the 3rd edition rules, and I think they believe people will develope their own games using these basic rules. There is a large community of players who in the past have created their own gaming systems.

Now, WotC will be in a position where all their adventures, expansions, etc will be compadible with all d20 games, including 3rd party ones. In the end, they'll make more money this way, and with luck keep role playing alive.

Re: There will always be a market (3.00 / 4) (#6)
by pelli on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 11:08:50 AM EST

WotC is still providing products which are better than those you can download for free.

Well, i don't agree with this vision of the market. Will be as saying that Windows is better than Linux.
The goodness of the WotC products will be seen in the future. I don't agree that only because are "WotC products" they must be better that other products published for free (or at a much lesser price).
For example i'm one of the not so few that think the new D&D edition is something orrible. Many others think it's wonderfull. All depend on what you are looking for.
Many like Debian Linux when other prefer Red Hat. But are Linux the same way. They have the same kernel.

I agree instead with the rest of the post: WotC is trying to build a D20 community that will buy it's supplement. But more, a D20 community that will look for WotC "kernel" rules and their development. Because to hope that people will buy your supplement instead of the one that came from another source is a risky business. Instead you must have the attention toward you because you and only you have the "kernel".
Others can release "applications" but you have the "kernel".


[ Parent ]
Homemade RPG from SRD (2.66 / 3) (#5)
by pelli on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 10:54:03 AM EST

About this i don't see why WotC or any other must fear something.
Looking at Linux and GPL we have many Linux version that doesn't make any special change when the kernel is mostly only one.
So WotC will have the "kernel" with that SRD and let others build the "system". You can build your Linux/D20 version but that doesn't affect the "kernel" release.


A couple of points (4.25 / 4) (#7)
by wiredog on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 12:05:17 PM EST

Steve Jackson Games had the Generic Universal Role Playing System (GURPS) several years ago. It didn't have an open license, but it did allow you to adapt the rules for homebrew games. You just couldn't sell them.

D&D. Wow. I haven't played in over 15 years. TSR kept coming out with new books, all full of rules, which took alot of the fun away. I started when we had the Player Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Masters Guide. As more and more books and rules came out it became less and less fun. In every tournament you'd have some annoying kid saying "but book X says Y". Invariably followed by me, as DM, saying "Roll 1D20. Woops, didn't get 20, you fall into a pit full of flaming oil with frictionless sides and large carnivorous salmanders. 300 hit points damage. Goodbye." That was fun the first few times. But it got old in a hurry.

Another problem is that, when you've got a Magic User/Fighter at 23/23 level, there aren't any serious threats, or challenges, left. Even starting over as a 1st level character you still have a pretty good idea of what's likely to be around the next corner.

If there's a choice between performance and ease of use, Linux will go for performance every time. -- Jerry Pournelle

Wow, a trip down memory lane... (4.00 / 3) (#12)
by ti dave on Sun Jul 29, 2001 at 12:36:11 AM EST

Which I was enjoying until I stepped in this road apple;

"Invariably followed by me, as DM, saying 'Roll 1D20. Woops, didn't get 20, you fall into a pit full of flaming oil with frictionless sides and large carnivorous salmanders. 300 hit points damage. Goodbye."

Then I thought about how much it must suck, as a young and inexperienced, albeit energetic gamer, to encounter a DM who chooses to handle petty rule disputes in such a heavy-handed manner.

I thought about how much it must suck to pay to enter a tournament, to pay for the ride to the tournament, and then have an impatient DM obliterate your alter-ego, to save their own ego.

When I encountered DM's that behaved like you did, I ran like hell to another table.

Moral of the Story:

Play an RPG?
Especially at a tournament?

Observe, before playing, the speak/listen ratio of the DM.


ti dave
"If you dial," Iran said, eyes open and watching, "for greater venom, then I'll dial the same."

[ Parent ]
You paid to enter tournaments? (3.00 / 2) (#15)
by wiredog on Sun Jul 29, 2001 at 04:07:23 PM EST

Geez, we just had them at the local community center. I generally only did my "DM is God" routine if some annoying kid said "the book says this" and then I said "I don't follow that book" followed by kid saying "you can't do that, it's in the book". Then I nuked them. Hell, I allowed halfling warrior mages in my games. Thet really pissed off the "purists" who said that wasn't allowed.

If there's a choice between performance and ease of use, Linux will go for performance every time. -- Jerry Pournelle
[ Parent ]
Yes (3.00 / 2) (#16)
by ti dave on Sun Jul 29, 2001 at 04:37:03 PM EST

and I was referring to tournaments at conventions, not pick-up dungeons/campaigns after school or after-hours at the local comic book shop.

Those, we didn't pay to play.
Temporal reference: 1977-83


ti dave
"If you dial," Iran said, eyes open and watching, "for greater venom, then I'll dial the same."

[ Parent ]
RedHat profitable, since when? (3.40 / 5) (#8)
by Carnage4Life on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 03:32:12 PM EST

According to the Redhat earnings press release they made a pro forma profit(after one time expenses are excluded) of $600,000 but if those charges are included they lost $27 million this quarter.

Pro forma numbers are always shaky because various companies (especially in the tech industry) are notorious for creative accounting practices all geared to make their companies appear profitable. This is why the SEC plans to investigate Pro Forma earnings reports.

Re: RedHat profitable? (3.00 / 2) (#10)
by vaguely_aware on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 03:37:09 PM EST

I didn't say they were profitable, I just said they seemed to be doing well enough. I guess these days I just meant that I hadn't heard of them dropping parts of their business or laying off scores of people. I'm sure they aren't doing as well as they'd have us believe.

"Jefferson says 'rights come from the Creator'. I say they come from 'The Great Wahooni'. You say they come from under your garden gnome. None of that ma
[ Parent ]
Another interesting tidbit (4.00 / 2) (#9)
by vaguely_aware on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 03:32:24 PM EST

Doing a little follow-up I ran into this thread on a mailing list and this reply. The interesting thing to note on the first page is the "PCGen - Java character generator and maintenance program" line. Since PCGen is listed on Sourceforge I'm assuming it's open source, which means it probably wouldn't take a genius to "reverse engineer" the character generation rules.

That's not too surprising in the end, technically anyone who understands those rules could undercut WotC's primary revenue generator by verbally describing the process to someone else.

But the second reply mentions an interactive game clause (which I am currently unable to find) that according to the poster eliminates (among other things) d20 branded, stand alone computer RPGs. I'm guessing this means that I can create a d20 based system for my new Matrix RPG paper game, so long as I whip up my own character generation rules and experience guidelines.

But unless I change the dynamics of the game, I can't convert the game into a Matrix Computer Role Playing Game because I'd be breaking the license. This makes sense to WotC, but is hardly enticing to other publishers. Right now I can't think of any paper RPG games that would ever be targeted as licensed CRPGs except Dungeons and Dragons. So for now its a non issue. But if I were Wizards of the Coast and I wanted to try and convince other game publishers to join the bandwagon, I think I'd make sure there was enough openness to the system to allow others to surpass my own success. This doesn't seem to be the case here.

It's almost like if RMS had built little clauses into the GPL which made it harder for any software besides GNU software to benefit from the open license.

Also, this FAQ seems to tell a different story from what WotC is saying. The last question brings to my mind some sense of wonder as to what the point here really is. They state that they will "probably not" incorporate other people's Open Gaming content into their SRD. Okay, sure, this is a marketing ploy to captialize on the "hot buzzword" (take that with as mainy grains of salt as necessary) of Linux and Open Source, but they could at least pretend to get behind the philosophy. This basically reduces the system to the level of any other role playing system. You can change the rules as you see fit, because who's going to know or care, the only difference is you can publish those changes now. So? What would have stopped me from publishing a list of "house rules" from AD&D second edition anyway?

Unless WotC is interested in using the Open Gaming system to better their product (some antecdotal evidence from various forums I've skimmed seem to suggest the system isn't really all that hot... very glossy and video game-like) they really haven't done anything all that unique at all.

I tried not to include any opinion in the article (partly because I'm not knowlegable enough) but here's what I really think. I think that I used D&D for what many others did (and has already been suggested here): getting into RPGs in general. I quickly tired of the limitations of the system and more importantly, the setting. Sooner or later most gamers will probably move to something a bit more complex or make their own (and they'll likely not base it off of d20). Other game manufacturers are probably used to catering to a small niche market and could care less one way or the other about d20.

The only way d20 could be of any use to anyone is if it were a better system than almost all the others. It is likely never going to be that unless they use the ability they have built in (and then promptly ignored) to improve their system.

"Jefferson says 'rights come from the Creator'. I say they come from 'The Great Wahooni'. You say they come from under your garden gnome. None of that ma
Free Software RPG: NetHack! (4.00 / 3) (#11)
by ToastyKen on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 04:25:23 PM EST

On the topic of open source RPGs, I feel obliged to point out what is perhaps the greatest game of all time, the GPL'd, very multi-platform, and constantly improving NetHack. I would venture so far as to say that NetHack is one of the great successes of free software.

For those who don't know, NetHack is a single-player dungeon exploring RPG. What's unique about it is its absurdly huge number of creatures and items. This, combined with its randomly generated (but with a pattern and goal) levels, give it one of the highest replay values I've ever seen in a single-player game. The sheer size of this game probably could not have been created and sustained without its free software model.

Best Computer game ever (none / 0) (#24)
by Mitheral on Tue Jul 31, 2001 at 07:50:12 PM EST

With out a doubt Nethack is the best ever computer game; however, there's not much ROLE playing involved.

[ Parent ]
This isn't anything new (4.50 / 2) (#13)
by cpt kangarooski on Sun Jul 29, 2001 at 01:30:31 AM EST

Game rules cannot be copyrighted. There's a USCO circular here.

Specific implementations of the rules can be, but not the rules themselves. This means that anyone who wants to create compatable modules with any game is perfectly able to do so.

The caveats are that of course, they have to tread lightly around trademarks, they have to be careful with their writing, and they ought to know that they may be sued. (probably unsuccessfully)

This is what you get with the d20 license. But people have been making unauthorized modules and such for years. But I don't think that many people are all that worried about some of the other things you mention. When you're writing a new setting, it (unfortunately) has be an all-new setting, or at least one that is not somehow protected.

All my posts including this one are in the public domain. I am a lawyer. I am not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

Just a flashback, but... (5.00 / 2) (#14)
by TaoJones on Sun Jul 29, 2001 at 02:00:40 AM EST

I spent a lot of time back in the days playing AD&D (with the original Dieties and Demigods, before they took the copyright infringing material out of it). While it was nowhere near "open source", once you bought the books the only limits you had were your own imagination. Yes, there were hardcore rule sticklers, but the games we played at the time were based on creativity (and again, imagination).

One of my fondest memories of RPGs came a few years later, playing White Wolf's Vampire, when the Storyteller (the games equivalent of the AD&D DM) had spent literally months crafting an incredibly rich, detailed scenario. Now the only problem was we pretty much figured out what he was trying to prompt us into doing, so whenever the "clues" told us to go east, well hell - we went west. Rather than forcing us to do what he wanted with the rules, he improvised. It turned into one of the most fun RPG gaming sessions I've ever been in.

What we boiled the whole experience down into was "role playing" versus "rule playing". The story we created as a group completely overshadowed the limitations of the rules of the game.

Hehe - and the look on his face when he realized "Damn, I've got a group of intoxicated undead in New York with a suitcase Tac Nuke"... well that was priceless ;)

White Wolf games are very unpredictable... (none / 0) (#23)
by Pliny on Tue Jul 31, 2001 at 09:24:10 AM EST

Back in my Whit Wolf days, we had a very dedicated storyteller who spent days weaving intricate scenarios only to throw them out once we started getting paranoid. Once we started predicting OOC heinous plot twists that were actually more devious than what he had planned, he threw his script out the window and really started playing with our heads.

Some people get their fix of random violence and mindless posturing by watching the WWF. Me? I read a.r.s.

[ Parent ]
While looking at the Open Games Foundation... (3.00 / 2) (#17)
by ti dave on Sun Jul 29, 2001 at 04:44:32 PM EST

I saw this site.

Anyone here played with the Dominion Rules?


ti dave

"If you dial," Iran said, eyes open and watching, "for greater venom, then I'll dial the same."

ARIA. The OPEN game system (3.50 / 2) (#18)
by satch on Sun Jul 29, 2001 at 06:36:48 PM EST

ARIA game system was so open that the rules about it where to big books of about 500 pages. They described about everything needed to make the players get involved into age development more or less like somekind of age of empires with the players taking part as heros or as pivotal caracters for the development of its culture. Well, an incredible game, but not a profitable one. So, well developed, maybe taken to an extreme

Silhouette (4.00 / 3) (#19)
by Matrix on Sun Jul 29, 2001 at 08:38:25 PM EST

The Silhouette system used by Dream Pod 9 for all of their roleplaying games also works well as a generic system. Its not burdened down with stats and complex rules like the GURPS or D&D systems, although gamemasters are probably going to have to write rules for any situations not covered by the books published so far. Since those range from various kinds of futuristic mecha and space combat (Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles) to fantasy (Tribe 8) to World War II-era sci-fi (Gear Kreig), there's not going to be much that's not covered somewhere.

Its real advantages are its simplicity and its speed. Combat, the game mechanic that bogs down most other gaming systems, is blazingly fast and lethal.

Its a shame that these games have such a small fanbase. In addition to an excellent system, they've got some incredible background material.

"...Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It's the only way to make progress."
- Lord Vetinari, pg 312 of the Truth, a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

Not what it seems (5.00 / 1) (#20)
by Ken Arromdee on Mon Jul 30, 2001 at 11:15:14 AM EST

I keep bringing this up every time this license is referred to. (D20 articles seem to show up like clockwork.)

Game rules aren't copyrightable, and making and distributing a product that is compatible with D&D is legal. However, TSR has more expensive lawyers than you do, and has made bizarre claims about copyright and the definition of "derivative work" which say that not only is it "illegal" to use their game rules or make compatible products, but that if you do so anyway, TSR owns the resulting work. Go to rec.games.frp.dnd and look up some articles by vice president Ryan Dancey (or check here, paying particular attention to items 5 and 6. (Looking for articles with an author of Dancey that contain the word "derivative", in rec.games.frp.dnd, should be enough. Read the threads.)

The GPL says "If you submit to our conditions, you can do something that you otherwise would not have the right to do." The OGL says "If you submit to our conditions, you can do something which is legal anyway, but which we'll otherwise sue you into bankruptcy for".

I am so excited. (4.00 / 1) (#21)
by yooden on Mon Jul 30, 2001 at 02:15:51 PM EST

D&D is probable the best known RPG around, but has been severly flawed from the start and ignored progress in the RPG market for 20 years. This is as if Microsoft decided to open-source QDOS "to breathe some life back into the sagging [operating system] market."

Meanwhile, D&D has been obsoleted three times: First by systems like Palladium, which follow quite similar principles but expand them way beyond D&D. Second by GURPS and similar encyclopedic systems, third by neat and lean systems like Silhouette or BESM.

If there's anything to be looking forward to these days, it's Exalted.

The Fudge license (4.00 / 1) (#22)
by Irrumator on Mon Jul 30, 2001 at 04:09:13 PM EST

For a very flexible, rules-light RPG with a less restrictive (but not quite up to FSF standards) license, gamers might be interested in Fudge and Grey Ghost Games. You can look at the Fudge license and see a comparison of the licenses in this review under the section "Selling a Game Using FUDGE".

Open Source Role Playing | 24 comments (23 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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