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Opinions of Designers on Copying Mechanics from other RPGs

Started by Aus_Specs, February 26, 2010, 03:33:24 AM

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I am a law student at the University of Chicago, working on a paper to study Intellectual Property ("IP") norms within the RPG industry. Specifically, I'm curious why there isn't more copying of mechanics from well-known systems amongst game developers.

According to my research thus far, it seems pretty well settled that one cannot copyright the underlying mechanics of a game system - you can copyright a particular expression, of course, but nobody "owns" the mechanic of rolling a d20 vs. a target number to determine success or failure. Additionally, developing a good system on your own is costly (in terms of time, if nothing else) and you still need to teach people your particular system before they can play your game. From a "rational market" perspective, you would expect new developers to adopt someone else's tried-and-true (and well known) mechanics in order to break into the market; yet I (at least) see little to no examples of this behavior.

I'd love to hear the opinions of published game developers on this matter - particularly if you think my assumptions above are incorrect. A discussion on this thread would be great, but if you'd like to send me a Private Message instead, that'd be fine too. In the event that I'd like to quote anyone directly, I will, of course, ask permission first.


I'd be happy to discuss. I'd prefer to answe your questions in chat or on skype.



Excellent! appears I'm not able to send PMs yet. Ah well, I will email you.

If anyone else would like to speak in private, please PM me an email address and we can communicate that way - or set up communications, if you'd like.

Eero Tuovinen

This sort of thing has gone in waves in the roleplaying subculture, so it might be fruitful to look into the whole matter from a historical perspective. Consider that the scene has gone from amateur publishing in the '70s to a sort of professionalism in the late '80s and then back to lowered publication thresholds through this last decade. Then there are various influences of other cultural spheres and their established IP practices, including wargame heritage, the explosively expanded and commercialized video game industry, comics both underground and mainstream and so on, making for a rich tapestry of expectations, contracting models and viewpoints on appropriate and non-appropriate activities. This being a far from homogenous subculture with a low threshold of publishing, spotty history, inherent creative drive and some crucial IP connections in its past to other, much more high-strung industries, it's no wonder that there are a wide variety of attitudes out there on what is proper, what is legal and what an individual might actually decide to do in practice on various IP matters.

In my experience the way you state the basic issue about the legal and practical status of game mechanics is both succint and correct. It is not an universally well-known wisdom among rpg designers, however. Other viewpoints abound exactly due to the heterogenous culture. For example, a typical and wide-spread myth concerning the matter among the habitual hobbyists is that a non-commercial status affords greater legal rights to a publishing project on the Internet. (In point of fact it's of course true that greater moral rights are in fact granted by a community that subscribes to this sort of myth; even if the law does not accept it, the peer group does think that you can do almost whatever you want as long as it's for free.) A complementary idea, then, of course is that a real "professional" would not take any influence from others, and definitely would not consciously use their game mechanics for commercial purposes. Ignorance begets interpretations.

However, I don't think that simple ignorance of the law is a very good explanation for the phenomenon you note, that designers relatively rarely copy game systems from each other. Rather, I would say that a much more believable explanation is that the creative value of a fresh system, perceived value-add for customers and the need to fulfill highly specific design parameters for peak performance override the costs incurred in the creation of new systems. We can note here that system-copying has, in fact, happened widely at different times. The 3rd edition D&D dissemination under the OGL licence was particularly dramatic, as it was highly successful in terms of amount of publication. The OGL phenomenon made full use of the benefits you cite, such as low costs of design and lowered barrier to entry for the audience. However, the drawbacks were also clear, and insofar as D&D-clones did not conquer the entire market, effective: OGL games were perceived as un-innovative and rigid, unsuitable for many specific purposes within the field of roleplaying. One might say that the whole idea of "one system for all purposes", which has been implemented many times in roleplaying, always fails due to the simple fact that each of these efforts has been a myth; OGL was a myth just like GURPS or BRP before it, the myth being that all roleplaying can be enveloped by a D&D-like party-mission-adventure platform. If you do not want a game like that, then OGL cannot help you.

While whole systems are often not very practical to copy from one game to another due to the simple fact that the original system forms much of the value of the typical roleplaying game, I find that individual mechanical ideas and system theory are often and vigorously copied from one designer to another. The Forge is a rather good example of this, actually - many techniques common to recent roleplaying games were developed by individual designers or teams working here around the beginning of the decade, after which the successful and powerful ideas have been quickly taken up in different sorts of games. I'm thinking of individual techniques like explicit conflict resolution, scene framing, advocacy-based social conflict mechanics, explicit currencies, drama arcs, the ridiculously effective Sorcerer dice mechanic, focused game design and so on and so fort. From this viewpoint the claim that rpg designers do not copy from each other is simply false: we definitely do copy any good ideas. We just don't copy whole systems when the majority of the justification for the game's existence lies in the specific performance a custom-tailored system can offer.

To put the issue simply: you can't break into the market with a copied game mechanic when the market is mostly interested in innovative design in the first place, which is the case for a certain subsection of the rpg market. And if your target audience is in fact the part of the scene that doesn't care for tailored game mechanics, then the smart designer definitely does use an existing game system to cut down on the development time, or perhaps doesn't use a system at all. We can see this in many different subcultures of the rpg scene, such as the old school renaissance (uses old versions of D&D), Whitewolf (uses a house system developed in 1992 or so), Luke Crane (uses a house system), Solar System (an explicitly open system similar to OGL), Mongoose (they've published a series of revised editions for games from the '80s), GURPS and probably many others that I don't care to think up right now.

The above list of examples notably includes many cases of designers cutting on design time by using a house system rather than copying a system from somebody else. I don't think that this has anything to do with legal cowardise, but rather the simple fact that I don't really remember the games that use a very unoriginal system without branding it somehow to attach it to the original thing ;) Mostly the tendency for system-copying to act on house systems stems from the fact that a designer is comfortable with a system he designed himself, so why swap with something else?

I can't really think of a game that used a new system for no reason at all, now that I consider it from that angle. Even the worst-designed game usually has a system that differs from D&D or whatever due to clearly felt aesthetic priorities on the part of the designer. For those who truly don't care about the system enough to design one, there are plenty of explicitly open game systems they can use and actually benefit from their brand value, which is sure to cut down on the unattributed copying as well. There are seven brands of D&D, some modern dramatist systems like FATE and Solar System, old staples like Basic Roleplaying and its Mongoose Runequest spin, Mongoose Traveller, Heroquest, all immediately available under minimal licensing terms.

Thus, to wrap it up: between copying individual game mechanics, the need to create high-performance systems for a distinctive market segment, the availability of free and well-regarded open system brands and personal design aesthetics of a game designer, there is no wonder that the situation you postulate is almost non-existent. Even if there is somewhere a designer who feels the need to copy an entire game system under a different name, I'd be surprised if they ended up not doing it due to mistaken notions about IP law.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Ron Edwards


I'm a bit surprised by your starting observation. My view is that the majority - the vast majority - of published role-playing systems are imitative.

Some of the imitation is simple and direct. Some of it is syncretic, and some of it might be understood as "reversed" (basically algebra with rolls, target values, and skill values, for instance). I think the foundational systems for a whole sort-of phylogeny of these effects were initially Champions, AD&D (especially 2nd ed), BRP, and possibly Traveller. I see Shadowrun, for instance, as a design which in biology would be called "horizontal transfer," as elements from all these trends of imitation and influence were recombined with very little change in any of the component parts, and then Shadowrun served as a new launching point for just about everything published from 1990 on.

Anyway, this is all worth a pretty extensive discussion, and I have to apologize in advance for lack of time. I'll try to follow up during the week.

Best, Ron


Quote from: Eero Tuovinen on February 26, 2010, 06:23:58 AM
To put the issue simply: you can't break into the market with a copied game mechanic when the market is mostly interested in innovative design in the first place, which is the case for a certain subsection of the rpg market.

I echo this sentiment. Further, I'll strengthen it by writing that such subsects that Eero mentioned are potential gateways to a broader market. It's not uncommon for a board game (with a new play mechanic) to catch popularity after members of a subsect introduce the "novel game mechanic" in the new game to people outside the subsect. (Look at Settlers of Catan's origins.)
It's like industrial mining. Speaking stereotypically, RPG designers can be gold prospectors -- hunting for their next strike. On my intuition, I'd suggest that those RPG design prospectors who fail at innovative design fall into the vast majority Ron's bringing up. Syncretism isn't a bad way to look at it, particularly since the designers who directly imitate may be doing so out of a sense of owning up to a heritage in order to produce something innovative at a different level (thematically, artistically, etc.)

It's an interesting project you've taken on, sir. I'm eager to see how the discussion develops.
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