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



Complying With the GSL

Since I can't even mention the words Gamma World without having to slice off a pound of flesh and mail it to Wizards of the Coast (darn it! I did it again!!! *STAB!!!*), I've decided to focus on my conventional D&D 4e campaign, The Coming Dark.

In order to do that, I have to go through my existing 150 page campaign with a magnifying glass and ensure that it is GSL compliant, and it's not as easy as it sounds. It's one thing to create a module while being compliant, but it's another thing to take an existing product and retcon most of it.

That compounded with the fact that I am "on notice" - It's on my permanent record now!!! Now I'll never get in to college!!! - means I have to be extra-careful.

Now I know what you're thinking: I agreed to the GSL before I even started writing TCD... Why isn't it compliant since I knew full well what had to be done? Simple: I wrote the module I wanted to write, not the module that the lawyers wanted me to. The contents of The Coming Dark, Chapter One are what I wanted to create, damn the restrictions, and I'm quite happy about that. I compare the situation I'm in to that of a writer writing a book; there comes a time in every writer's career (or so I've heard; don't quote me on this) that their publisher might suggest, hint or even insist that something be changed in order to make the product more marketable. And, for a professional writer that loves their work and loves that which they've created, that's a stab in the heart.

Nonetheless, I decided to begin the exercise of systematically going through my campaign, page by page, and changing what needs to be changed. Just to give you an idea of what this actually involves, here are some examples:

  • I can't refer to classes or races in the Player's Handbook 3 because that's not part of the SRD. In other words, my psion isn't a "psion" but simply a "telepath".
  • Thankfully, my psion didn't have a full stat block, so I don't have to worry about referring to powers like Mind Thrust and Dishearten, but other classes - fighters, mages, rogues, etc... - may be an issue. Originally, some of their powers came from sources not covered in the SRD; my mages may not be able to use Grease or Grasping Shadows, because they are in Arcane Power. So if the power was relevant to the campaign (such as the Grease spell) I reworded it and called it something different, and in the other cases I chose powers that are covered by the SRD and are thematically similar to the power they are replacing. Same goes for rogues that want to use Clever Strike or Handspring Assault, or barbarians that want to use Thunder Hooves Rage, or fighters that want to use Knee Breaker... I have to think of something else that retains the flavor of the original character.
  • The changing of powers above causes several problems when it comes to my BBEG: a warlock. Using only the original Player's Handbook as a reference, my warlock has been nerfed dramatically. In theory, powers like Cursebite (from the Forgotten Realms Player's Guide) are no longer available. The easiest way around this is to make up brand new powers that are nothing like anything published, but I have to ensure that those powers are in tune with the character. I admit I haven't thought much of this one yet because he's at the end of the chapter, but I'll get to him eventually.
  • I cannot include stat blocks copied straight out of Monster Manual or Monster Manual 2. For example, I cannot reproduce Kobold Skirmishers, and can only say something to the effect of "see D&D 4e Monster Manual for stats". The only way I would be able to include them is if I make enough modifications to the creature that makes it unique; for example, I converted the standard Monster Manual Skeleton in to a "Shadowtouched Skeleton" that has an additional power. Thankfully, this only happens in two encounters... but one of them has five different types of kobolds that I now need to think about.
  • According to the GSL, there are certain creatures you cannot include in your campaign... EVER: Balhannoth, Beholder, Carrion Crawler, Displacer Beast, Gauth, Githyanki, Githzerai, Kuo-Toa, Mind Flayer, Illithid, Slaad, Umber-Hulk and Yuan-Ti. These creatures are an integral part of the D&D branding, and as such are not allowed to be used anywhere under any circumstances. They are completely absent from the SRD, and are listed in the GSL's "Imagery" section (section 5.7). Thankfully, this does not affect me right now because I didn't include them, but it does change a few things for the next chapter in the campaign.
  • In the original design of the campaign, I provided specific magic items as treasures because I felt they make sense; as much as I agree that the concept of treasure parcels is for the benefit of the players, I'm against ramming in a specific item in to an area just because a player needs it. Let's face it, a band of lowly kobolds isn't going to be conveniently dragging around a +1 Greatsword that the fighter has been dying to find since the adventure started; that's just unrealistic. But since only the Dungeon Master's Guide and Adventurer's Vault (partially; see below) is covered in the SRD I'm limited as to the items I can give out. For example, I can't have a Tethercord (from the Eberron Player's Guide), or the local inn can't have a Cask of Liquid Gold (from Adventurer's Vault 2). So I have to either change these items to something usable or describe what they do without copying running text word for word and actually referring to the magic item (such as the cask).
  • The Adventurer's Vault is an interesting problem as well: it's partially in the SRD, and there are apparently some items that are not listed in the SRD. For example, the Blinding Bomb and Tanglefoot Bag are in the SRD, but plain old Armor of Resistance is not. At least not explicitly that is... One could argue that the name is in the SRD due to its component parts - "armor" and "resistance" - but do I really want to take that chance? So one of my characters had to switch to a different type of armor that is more acceptable.
  • I am going to have some issues describing the Ethereal Bard because I can't include the running text from the bard powers; in other words, I can't describe the song, or at least not in the same manner that the Player's Handbook 2 does. I'll probably have to leave that to the DM's imagination.
  • I wanted to include the characters in my playtests as pre-generated characters, but since 80% of their make-up is non-SRD material I don't think I can do that. I'll have to think about whether I'll include any and what characters they may be.
  • If I do include pre-generated characters, when I detail their powers I can only state the damage. If they have any secondary effects, I apparently can only refer to that as "special". For example, a rogue's Dazing Strike power causes "1d6 +5 damage + Special (Rogue Attack 1)" on a hit. If the players want to know what "Special" means, they have to look it up themselves.
  • My biggest problem: there are two scenes that includes creatures from a race in the Monster Manual 3, so they may be right out. I need to think about what race to use instead, whether to make them a new race with a different name, or use an existing race from the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual.

All in all, it hasn't been as painful as I would have thought, but then again I've only gone through Act One.

Regarding the issue of treasure I mention above: one thing I've noticed in many modules is that they don't bother to list magic items at all and do things like tell the DM to "generate a treasure", so there's no concern of what they can mention in terms of magic items. I'm kind of indifferent about that, but talking about that is beyond the scope of this post and probably merits another post.

Many have suggested to not use the GSL at all and use the Open License; the problem with this is that, at least in my interpretation of it, I would be allowed to refer to even less of the elements in D&D. In a small campaign that's easy enough, but in a bigger campaign pretending that D&D doesn't exist and making no reference to its content is somewhat difficult to do, at least in my opinion. Maybe I'm interpreting the use of the Open License wrong, but it seems like going that route will create a lot more doubts; the GSL may be more restrictive, but at least the restrictions are well defined.

For someone creating small campaigns of a few encounters, complying with the GSL really isn't that troubling. But when you start dealing with "super-modules" and epic campaigns, it could be potentially frustrating. So I highly recommend you read the GSL top to bottom and keep it open while you're writing, ensuring that you remain compliant as you go. Don't do what I did unless your a masochist. 😉

I will keep making the changes, knowing full well that there will come a point where I will have to make a change and won't want to. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Filed under: 4e, Campaign, DnD, GSL, RPG Comments Off
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  1. The GSL sounds pretty difficult to work with. In my own design work (OGL) I largely limit myself to the _RSRD_ and big chunks of _Unearthed Arcana_… and the huge library of material available from third-party publishers.

    Sadly, I understand 4e doesn’t have nearly the same range of third-party material to work from. :/

  2. After so many years since its release, I was wondering why we don’t have more 3rd party products for 4e. Now I now 🙁 It now makes sense why Pathfinder has so much more support.

  3. Good luck with the editing process. It reminds me of writing a research paper for a specific journal. But that journal rejects the paper and you have to submit to a new journal with different requirments. Going back to retrace your steps and edit is *so frustrating*!

    This may be a dumb question, but if you were writing this module with no intention to profit from it, then could you do whatever you wanted?

    • IP and copyright laws exist and have nothing to do with monetary gain from selling the product. So it’s irrelevant whether I sell it or give it away free. But if I were giving away my Gamma World module for free, I probably would not have been hit with the full force of their legal team.

      And, yes, it’s getting a bit frustrating: no wilden, no warforged, no draegloths… I may be forced to sidestep some rather important plot points. 😛

  4. Hang on, how is you calling someone a Psion using their IP?

    From what I’m aware, the term has been in use since the 40’s, and is also used by Blizzard to describe the powers of the Ghost/Protoss and GW to describe the powers of the Eldar? Even if someone did once have exclusive rights to the term, surely its public domain by now?

    And on a similar note, you mention PHB3 races, which include the Minotaur, something I know they can’t possibly have IP rights to. Surely we’re only talking IP here if you go as far as to detail a specific power they attribute to the race?

    • It’s not just the term. I can’t create an NPC that is called a psion and has traits identical to the existing psion in the PHB3. I cannot create a minotaur and have the same racial traits as the race defined in the PHB3.

      I can create an entirely different type of minotaur if I want, similar to what Neverwinter did with all the types of elves. In the same manner I can create a “telepath” that has new abilities that are very PHB3 psion-like, only different.

      • What many of you seem to be missing (despite my multiple posts explaining this clearly) is that David’s problem has nothing to do with Copyright law. This is a contract issue. A license is a contract, and David signed that contract. Much like the freedom of speech — a fundamental right! — is irrelevant when you sign an NDA, copyright law is irrelevant when you sign onto a license *in which you agree* not to use the word psion. He *chose* this restriction. He can always terminate the agreement, allowing him to use (among other things) “psion,” but then he’s have to modify his existing products and create new ones without the WotC logo (among other things). Notice that David hasn’t chosen to go that route yet. Obviously, he and many others see a value in maintaining the contractual relationship. That should tell you something. Kobold Quarterly, on the other hand, has written 4e products outside the GSL, and there’s no legal problem there. For more information, see my legal series on gaming, Protection from Chaos, at http://www.loremaster.org/content.php/123-protection-from-chaos.

  5. So the infringement only occurs when you starts to attribute game traits to the character AND those traits are identical or nearly identical to the ones details in a non-SRD WotC product?

    And in the case of Minotaurs, these exist in the Monster Manual, which is within the SRD list.

    So if you create a Minotaur character/NPC/Monster…. and post it on, say, Obsidian Portal….

    You can NOT give it 1 additional healing surge, because this is identical to the Vitality power in the PHB3.

    You CAN give it the Ferocity power, as this is included within MM and you would have to because if you do not, you are redefining an existing race. Or would you have to say “Ferocity: *Special* please refer to the Monster Manual?

    You CAN use a Minotaur NPC, without a stat block, for fluff or RP purposes. Or would you have to say a “Bloodrock herd Minotaur” giving yourself an immediate pass on the GSL, since you are expanding on the definition of the term Minotaur, as is explicitly allowed?

  6. It occurs to me now that was pretty badly written, I am sorry about that Nighthawk.

    I’m just a little curious about the GSL, I know you’re an experienced publisher of GSL content and I wanted to confirm my understanding of it. I should have phrased the above more along the lines of:

    “Are the following statements true or false?”

    • No problem. Let me try to address your questions…

      “So the infringement only occurs when you starts to attribute game traits to the character AND those traits are identical or nearly identical to the ones details in a non-SRD WotC product?”

      – It’s a little more complicated than that. In a nutshell, I’ll offer an example: I cannot create a whole new race and call them “elves”, and expect the user to pretend WotC’s definition of an “elf” doesn’t exist. I can call them, for example, “deep elves” which have the characteristics of elves (which I cannot reproduce) plus additional new characteristics.

      “And in the case of Minotaurs, these exist in the Monster Manual, which is within the SRD list.”

      – Minotaurs appear as a MONSTER in the MM1, so I can use them as such. I cannot create PCs that use the definition of a Minotaur as a RACE because that definition is in the PHB3.

      “So if you create a Minotaur character/NPC/Monster…. and post it on, say, Obsidian Portal….”

      “You can NOT give it 1 additional healing surge, because this is identical to the Vitality power in the PHB3.”

      – You can create the PC, but you cannot republish what makes it a minotaur (attribute modifiers, “Goring Charge” encounter power, “Ferocity” and “Vitality” traits, etc…). On Obsidian Portal, you can specify your PC has “Vitality”, but you cannot describe it… You “cannot reproduce running text”, so you would have to say “see PHB3”. By definition, since you’re referring to a book that does not exist as far as the SRD is concerned, you cannot do that. It’s kinda complicated.

      “You CAN give it the Ferocity power, as this is included within MM and you would have to because if you do not, you are redefining an existing race. Or would you have to say “Ferocity: *Special* please refer to the Monster Manual?”

      – Again, you can create a MONSTER with that characteristic, but when it comes to publishing a PC it gets hairy.

      “You CAN use a Minotaur NPC, without a stat block, for fluff or RP purposes. Or would you have to say a “Bloodrock herd Minotaur” giving yourself an immediate pass on the GSL, since you are expanding on the definition of the term Minotaur, as is explicitly allowed?”

      – You can say “this NPC is a minotaur” without problem. When you get in to the mechanics of it – creating a stat block – you begin to cross the line from fluff material to actual game mechanics.

      – Also note that you can say an NPC is a “Minotaur Warrior (see D&D 4e Monster Manual)”, but unless you radically change the creature you cannot reproduce the stat block.

      Hope that helps.

  7. Ok, think I understand.

    I take it this makes it very difficult to create a stat block for a monster if you’re creating a new version of an existing race.

    EG. Goblin Mace Mook
    (stats- which are completely different to any other goblin)
    Goblin Tactics- *reproduces running text, or rewords text to have the same meaning*

    This is not GSL compliant because you’ve explained what goblin tactics does.

    To get round this, could you give them an alternative racial ability? Or would this be a breach of the GSL because you have “Redefined an existing race”.

    To get round this, could you give an alternative power?

    EG. Goblin Stupidity- If this goblin is hit by an attack that targets will, you must reroll the attack. If the attack hits, the goblin takes an additional 5 points of damage as his tiny brain overloads. *Special* This power optionally replaces Goblin Tactics- see the D&D MONSTER MANUAL FOR DETAILS.

    Fluff-Sometimes you just have to explain the joke twice…

    Strange how you’re not allow to redefine monsters, but they then forbid you from creating them in a manner consistent with the original monsters.

    • I’m still not 100% sure how it works as far as monster stat blocks. “Goblin Tactics” is listed in the SRD, but I don’t know to what extent I can reproduce the block for a “new” goblin monster; I’m assuming so.

      But in your above example, the best thing would be to create an entirely new goblin, say a “Goblin Idiot”, that is different enough from all the existing goblins in the books that it qualifies as unique.

      I’m trying to reach out to other people who do GSL publishing and see if they have better guidelines on these sorts of things.

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