A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Legal Limbo

I'm in somewhat of an awkward situation.

Last week, while I was out of town on vacation, I was hit with a "cease and desist" order preventing me from distributing the Fire From the Sky Gamma World module to anyone. Note that I say "distributing" and not "selling"... As per the C&D, I'm restricted from giving the module to anyone, even for free. FFTS is now a controlled substance.

NOTE: I have asked for authorization to publish the C&D letter verbatim as I received it, but have not gotten approval to do so. Just to be safe, I will not publish its contents until cleared to do so.

Since then I have attempted to contact the legal entity that sent the C&D for clarification on what the issue is, but there's a problem: the legal firm that sent the C&D is a law firm in New York City - Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP (hereinafter refered to as "PBWT") - and not Wizards of the Coast's legal team in Renton, Washington (who are the people I originally contacted). PBWT apparently cannot speak on behalf of Wizards of the Coast without contacting WotC first (they make no decisions on their own), so if I ask PBWT any question they must send it to WotC Legal in Renton, wait for a response, then respond to me. I'm dealing with a third party, not WotC directly.

I'm at one end of a legal grapevine, having to wait for my message to bounce all the way to Washington and back.

So I made an effort to contact someone in Wizards of the Coast, be they legal or not, in the hopes that someone could talk to me directly. I received the following response from Wizards Customer Support:

Unfortunately, our Legal Department is only available via mail. To contact them, please use the following address:

Wizards of the Coast
Attn: Legal
PO Box 707
Renton, WA 98057-0707

Seriously?!? What century are we in again?

It's been about three days since I sent my first volley of questions, and I have yet to hear anything. At this rate, it may be months before I have any idea what the issue is or what I am allowed to do in future products.

In the meantime, all my other projects...

  • The Fortress of Dr. Neb, Gamma World module. This campaign may be pretty much dead at this point.
  • A planned "GammaCore" module based on the LHC
  • My big campaign, The Coming Dark, which is normal D&D 4e and not Gamma World.

...are on hold. I don't know what to do with them at this point. I'm afraid to work on anything, unsure whether I'll be wasting my time on a project that may never see the light of day.

I'm kind of hoping that there will be some sort of WotC legal representation at GenCon, so maybe I can sort out these issues in person.

In the meantime, I do have some news: a third party has contacted me and expressed interest in converting both Fire From the Sky and The Fortress of Dr. Neb for use in Pathfinder and the upcoming Warlords of the Apocalypse supplement, even though nobody seems to be sure when that supplement will actually be released (it's seem to have had quite a turbulent development history). So stay tuned for that!

On another note, I am seriously considering running Fire From the Sky at GenCon; although I'm restricted from distributing it, I'm not restricted from using it myself. The only problem: I haven't DM-ed an in person game in well over a decade, so I'm not sure if I can handle it. So I'll hang out and watch others DM for the first few days just to make sure I can be on par with everyone else, and if it does happen might be Saturday. Don't bank on it, but we'll see if I can muster the courage before I'm on the flight back.

I might even make a special "THE MODULE THEY DO NOT WANT YOU TO SEE!!!" cover for it.

In the meantime, if you have an "in" with someone at Wizards of the Coast I would appreciate some insight as to the issue with Fire From the Sky. I would be willing to provide you a copy of the module if you work for Wizards of the Coast; I don't think I can legally give you one if you're not.

Until then... I wait patiently, hoping for some clarification...

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  1. Have been following this saga here and on Twitter since it began. Here’s hoping you get swift resolution to all of this, and that’s it the resolution you want.

  2. What do they think you are doing? Infringing on their IP, TM or copyright? That’s asinine – look at ALL the 3rd party D&D products, from Basic on up to 4E/Essentials. Unless you have monster stat blocks from the GW Rulebook, you can claim Fair Use and tell them to suck it, as long as you don’t use their name, logos, etc., without permission.

    I Am Not A Lawyer(TM), so don’t take my advice as sound and legal, but I can’t imagine they legally could stop you from writing and giving away something that requires their own product to use.

  3. ‘Seriously?!? What century are we in again?’ is right! haha

    The legal aspects of the gaming industry drive me a bit mad too, David. Frustrating for sure – I wish you the best in wading through it and coming out on top.

  4. Did some poking around in the D20 license. I’m pretty certain that Fire in the Sky broke a ton of rules.

    1. The license only applies to content from the core D&D rules. They never extended it to cover Gamma World. That means probably no monster names, mutations, references to Alpha Tech or any rules which are specific to Gamma World.

    At a guess, just mentioning Gamma World is out.

    The real problem is that it looks as if the reference doc was last updated in 2009.
    Which, unless they update it, means that Gamma World is dead of utter neglect.

    2. And of course, you have to include the Compatible with D&D 4e label block on the pdf.

  5. If you are attending Gen Con, perhaps someone there could help you in person, or at least, put you in touch with someone by something other than snail mail.

  6. My heart goes out to you man. My spouse is a lawyer, and if I’ve learned anything from listening to her work stories, it’s that there is never a satisfying legal answer or resolution to anything. They don’t have to give you an answer, so they probably won’t (should they – of course they should, but we’re talking about corporate lawyers here not civil human beings).
    I apologize if that sounds harsh, but please don’t let this kick in the teeth keep you down. You created something great – and shared it with the world. Some people got to see it (too bad it wasn’t more). Keep creating, keep sharing, and stay strong.

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