Game Publishing: Licenses

As the title says, for this article we’re going to start talking about the big one, the amazing one, the dangerous thing called… publishing. Most people I follow and a number of TTRPG gamers talk about being a publisher. Having their name as a headliner on a book that they wrote, or in some cases co-wrote. This article will mostly be talking about one of the things Josh and I have discovered on our publishing journey with the Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit and the things we have learned from others on their own journey. We may publish other advice columns in the future dealing with other aspects of what we discovered and had to learn, but I figured we’d start with this one.

Let’s talk about licensing for whatever you’re publishing. There are several different types of creative licenses out there to describe how content can be used if it’s not original or how you want your original content to be used. The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit was published under the Cypher System Creator Program through DriveThruRPG. The rules for this can be found here. Cypher Creator is a very useful tool if you have a setting or a design you want to publish for the Cypher System. However it’s also limited in what you can include in the text body of your work. You have to make sure that whatever you publish refers to the Cypher Rulebook. Basically you can’t regurgitate the information from the rulebook in your book.

The Open Game License (OGL) is a public copyright license by Wizards of the Coast that may be used by tabletop role-playing game developers to grant permission to modify, copy, and redistribute some of the content designed for their games, notably game mechanics. However, they must share-alike copies and derivative works. Which means, while you can use their mechanics under the OGL anything you release also has to be OGL and someone else can use your modifications to create their own modifications (with proper attribution, of course). While this is not a bad thing, it is something to be aware of. For a better discussion on specifically how to do this, here has been the clearest explanation I have found. Otherwise simply googling ‘OGL and how to use it’ will give you a large number of other links.

An excellent example of this is found in Low Fantasy Gaming. On pages 183 and 184 of that document you will find the OGL document. At the end of this document on page 184 you find that this game uses content from the System Reference Document (or SRD) of Dungeons and Dragons, the Swords and Wizardry Core Rules, and 13th Age. All of those documents are released under OGL as well, allowing derivative works to be created from them.

There are other licensing avenues out there, but I’m not going to go into detail on them. Mostly because there is more information than even I know and I don’t want to steer you in the wrong direction. For Creative Commons Licenses I would visit here or again, use Google to find more information. Most popular of Creative Commons is the CC-BY license, which means you can share and adapt what you’ve found to create something new as long as you give proper attribution. Blades in the Dark has a CC-BY and they’re considered Forged in the Dark. Scum and Villainy is an example of these games. FATE Core is another example of a game with a CC-BY license.

None of this discussion covers copyrighted or trademarked material which are licenses filed with a governmental body. Those come with separate permissions that would be given or sold by the original publisher. You’d need to research those and contact the people that hold that license.

So, which one should you use? Well, that’s going to depend on your desires. First off, what ruleset do you want to base your system or adventure off of or are you creating your own? If you are basing it off of something, typically, you need to use the license that the original system has on your work as well. If you are creating something whole-cloth, you get to decide how you want your product to be used. Second, when you sell something on OneBookShelf (the owners of DriveThruRPG) Monte Cook Games or Wizards of the Coast will get a percentage of the sale for using their license. It’s usually half of your sale price right off the top for both OneBookShelf and the publisher to split, the other half is yours to use as you wish (or split if you have other creators that you promised royalty to). If you create your own system, however, the split is different and the percentage OneBookShelf gets is less because they don’t have to share with another company.

However, I’ll repeat this article doesn’t cover everything and research is required. We used the Cypher System Creator Program because I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that Josh and I are big Cypher System Fans. We do have plans to release Hope’s Horizon under OGL or a CC-BY (probably CC-BY) as well, though, so, anything and everything will be yours to use. Just make sure you do lots of research to keep up with the license agreements. I hope this article helps you understand a bit more about licensing as it applies to publishing and perhaps helps you realize that the hurdle of getting your work published is not as difficult as you may have previously thought. Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

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