Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Legal Issues in Gaming: The Open Game License

Since I started writing about legal issues in tabletop gaming, several people have asked me about the Open Game License because some of my other posts seem inconsistent with what everybody knows about the OGL. After giving it some thought, I have decided that I should address it sooner rather than later. As a background, it may be relevant to review my introduction to copyright and gaming.

The Origin of the OGL

The Open Game License was first given life during the creation of the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Built on the idea of the GPL (GNU's General Public License), Wizards of the Coast intended to create a sort of generic version of the new ruleset, dubbed the d20 System, and allow third parties to create content for that system that is compatible with Dungeons & Dragons. Ryan Dancey, one of the (former) WotC employees who motivated the OGL, spoke to the overall intent of the license:
The Trademark.
The net result is that D20 becomes a rosetta stone for making products that will be compatible with Dungeons & Dragons, without requiring us to issue a blanket license for the D&D trademarks. In other words, we want to use the trademarks of D&D to hold the value of the business, rather than the rules themselves.
In this way, Wizards of the Coast would make a remarkable change from previous legal stances regarding Dungeons & Dragons and the law. TSR, Inc. had a reputation for threatening lawsuits against people releasing D&D adventures, modules, or other content without a proper license. The OGL as presented to the public seemed to be a very public way to change the relationship between the owners of D&D and the larger community. Like the GPL, the OGL was intended to make the d20 System the Open Source of the tabletop RPG world.

A Tale of Two Types of Content

Wizards of the Coast provided the Open Game License, version 1.0a, for anybody to utilize in their product. Although it contains a significant amount of legal language, an important part of the license is the first paragraph. The license differentiates between two types of content in role-playing games: Open Game Content and Product Identity content. Generally, the creator of content allows other parties to utilize Open Game Content while Product Identity elements remain protected and controlled. Knowing what falls within each type of content is important to knowing what the OGL does and does not do for content creators.

Product Identity is simple enough of an idea to make it worth discussing first. The OGL uses quite a lot of language to describe PI but it can be more readily summarized as creative expressions, such as characters, stories, and other creative content protected by copyright or trademark. From a legal perspective, Product Identity is not terribly interesting because its essentially just copyrighted content and the OGL does not allow third parties to utilize that content. However, contrast the idea of Product Identity with that of Open Game Content (OGC).
"Open Game Content" means the game mechanic and includes the methods, procedures, processes and routines to the extent such content does not embody the Product Identity and is an enhancement over the prior art and any additional content clearly identified as Open Game Content by the Contributor, and means any work covered by this License, including translations and derivative works under copyright law, but specifically excludes Product Identity.
This important process is what the OGL
is all about sharing, right?
OGL 1.0a, 1(d). Based on this definition, OGC includes a wide variety of content. Most people understand OGC to include all of the game mechanics of a system, from rolling specific dice for specific situations, creating characters in specific ways, and methods for resolving conflicts. When looking at the language of the definition, it is worth contrasting it with the following section of copyright law.
In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.
17 USC §102(b). The definition of OGC also includes some suspicious patent language, such as referencing a specific embodiment or prior art. Perhaps, a better way to describe OGC is to say it includes all of the content that does not fall under copyright or trademark protection, including any patentable content, and anything else specified by the creator.

Given all this, it may be helpful to describe Open Game Content and Product Identity a little bit differently. Product Identity is specifically content protected by copyright and trademark while Open Game Content is specifically content that is legally unprotectable or protectable via a patent.

License to Breathe

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the OGL is the fact that a majority of the content that the license gives permission to use (the Open Game Content) is content that the creator had no legal control over to begin with. As noted podcast Law of the Geek described it, the OGL was a license to breathe. The permissions granted over Open Game Content was no more a grant than had existed without the OGL. If that is the case, what's the point of the OGL?

If somebody were to devise the rules to a role-playing game system and patent it, the OGL would be a way for them to retain their legal protection while allowing third parties to publish content in compliance with the license. Of course, patenting rules to a game has its own share of problems and thats why its rarely ever done. After a brief search through Google Patents, I cannot find anything that could be interpreted as a role-playing game. So, if nobody is patenting the rules to a role-playing game, why the OGL? Simple answer: TSR, Inc.
This is why people *think* we need the OGL.
TSR and the Law: A Brief Historical

TSR, Inc. had a long history of trying trying to protect the D&D line through licensing agreements, trademark disputes, and other legal action. The earliest example comes from a licensing agreement between TSR and a company called Judges Guild. Judges Guild was, for all intents and purposes, the first company to conceive of writing and publishing adventure modules for the D&D game. Founded by a man named Bob Bledsaw in 1976, he specifically went to TSR to seek some sort of agreed license to publish this kind of content. They agreed and the license remained in place until 1982, the point that TSR realized there was money to be made in adventure content and they cancelled the license.

Only a few years after Judges Guild, TSR had a new upstart competitor by the name of Mayfair Games. Founded by an attorney named Darwin Bromley, one of Mayfair's earliest products was a series of AD&D adventures known as Role Aids. Within two years, TSR was already threatening legal action against Mayfair. The result from that dispute was the 1984 trademark agreement, an agreement between Mayfair and TSR that allowed Mayfair to utilize the TSR and D&D trademarks in a limited fashion. The important element in this potential suit and future agreement was that it centered around trademark use and infringement. Nothing here concerned rules, game systems, or the like.

This is what it looks like to publish a product
for AD&D without a license or OGL.
In 1992-93, TSR brought suits against two different companies: Game Designers Workshop, for developing a game by Gary Gygax called Dangerous Dimensions, and Mayfair Games, for allegedly violating the terms of their 1984 trademark agreement. Neither case went to trial but were, instead, settled out of court. Both settlements saw TSR buying out the other parties entire interest in the contested property. From a legal perspective, these cases suggest very little because nothing was ever really decided by a court. But, from the perspective of a fledgling game publisher, these cases tell you that you'd best play ball with TSR or you'll get sued and bought out.

The Concession that is the OGL

When Wizards of the Coast created the OGL in 2000, it did a strange thing. The owner of Dungeons & Dragons was saying to the world, "We will allow you to utilize this game system as long as you abide by this simple, harmless license. We concede." From that concession came the Year of d20. New companies, new imprints, and many new products continued to appear on game store shelves. From what can be seen, the OGL ushered in a new era of Dungeons & Dragons.

Despite this era of good feelings, the reality is that the concession that was the OGL was really no concession at all. The OGL granted no rights or privileges to third party publishers that they did not already have. TSR's history of legal action never focused on the rules of the games or copyright issues but instead on trademark infringement/confusion. WotC did not give up any legitimate legal rights or protections when they allowed the world to publish under the OGL. [Note: They did agree not to bring suit against licensees, but since the suit would be without merit, that is not much of a right to surrender.] The OGL only became the backbone of the modern RPG community because Wizards of the Coast (specifically, Ryan Dancey) convinced the RPG community that it was the best idea.


This brings up the question: what's the point of the OGL? At this point, the OGL is a relevant issue in the modern tabletop RPG community because people think it is necessary. Mutants and Masterminds could have existed without the OGL. Pathfinder could have existed without the OGL. Fate could have existed without the OGL. 13th Age could have existed without the OGL. All the OGL did was let people know that they could do the things they could already do.

Does the tabletop RPG community need the OGL? Probably not. Like several legal minds have said, it's nothing more than a license to breathe. But, for a community that thought it could not breathe without permission, the OGL serves an important purpose. It let's the gaming community feel safe about publishing game content, something that has had a long history of being a quasi-dangerous game.

The statements made in this article are the opinions of the author (and the author alone) and do not constitute legal advice. Comments posted on this article do not create an attorney-client relationship. Much of the historical information in this post come from a series of articles written by Shannon Appelcline. For additional historical information, look for his upcoming four volume work Designers & Dragonscoming in 2013.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Design Thoughts: Returning to Alignment

Like any big-headed Dungeons & Dragons player, I have spent my fair share of time debating with people regarding the merits of an alignment system within the game framework. After the Head Wizard of D&D R&D addressed the issue of alignment in the current iteration of the D&D Next, debating the merits of an alignment system became the topic du jour in the twitter-verse. Everybody had an opinion to argue or defend on the issue. During one of these heated discussions, I ended up tweeting some things from the hip that got me thinking:
My problem with alignment comes when people disagree on what is good, evil, or otherwise. If the game is not morally ambiguous enough to raise the question, then you don't need alignment. If it is morally ambiguous enough, then the alignment system is more burdensome than not.
Of course, this is just my current viewpoint on the issue. As I thought of it, I thought it would be important to explain my stance on this a little bit better.

Alignment through the Ages

There are many different versions of
the alignment chart but I went for this one.
In one context, alignment gives every character a sort of quick summary of a character's moral compass. Does she abide by the law whenever possible, or is she a free spirit? Does she put the needs of others before her own, or is she selfish to the core? For decades, players in AD&D have had the pleasure (or frustration) of pinning their character on the nine-point alignment chart.

Of course, how alignment applies to a character depends a great deal on the ruleset and the players. In the Third Edition, alignment was considered a guideline for how a character views the world. "Alignment is a tool for developing your character’s identity. It is not a straitjacket for restricting your character." Hypertext d20 SRD, Alignment. The rules even go further, stating that two characters of the same alignment can have very different perspectives.

The modern rendition of AD&D (First Edition) captured in the Old School Reference and Index Compilation (OSRIC) has a more firm stance on alignment. "Alignment is more than a philosophy; evil and good are palpably real in the game world." OSRIC, pg 42. It is a bit heavier handed than the presentation given in the Third Edition, but there are generally no particular consequences given for characters that deviate from their chosen alignment. To that end, it's primary purpose is to provide a guideline for character roleplay.

As simply a guideline for roleplaying, alignment does not present any major issues because it is a wide field. "Each alignment represents a broad range of personality types or personal philosophies, so two characters of the same alignment can still be quite different from each other." Hypertext d20 SRD, Alignment. If one person things interprets "Good" to have one meaning while another interprets it to mean another, it does not really matter because at the end of the day alignment has no in-game ramification. Alignment does not create any issues in this context because it does not matter.

Where Alignment Matters: The Paladin's Dilemma

Older editions of Dungeons & Dragons have a few situations where alignment does make a big deal. There are a number of iconic examples, such as spells that detect specific alignments or deal extra damage to specific alignments, but many of the best examples come from a single source: the Paladin. From abilities that specifically target evil to the restriction of not being able to associate with characters of Evil alignment, the Paladin is replete with alignment-heavy concerns.

Who would have guessed such an iconic
class would have so many problems?
The best example is that of the Paladin's alignment restriction. The holy warrior has the restriction that he be of Lawful Good alignment. "A paladin is a paragon of righteousness sworn to be, and always to remain, Lawful Good. If this vow is ever breached, the paladin must atone and perform penance to be decided by a powerful NPC cleric of the same alignment—unless the breach was intentional, in which case the paladin instantly loses his or her enhanced status as a paladin and may never regain it." OSRIC, p34. Suddenly, what constitutes Good or Evil is fundamentally important and not just a matter of roleplaying. Was that act Good enough, or does Sir Paladin suddenly become Sir Fighter?

There are plenty of iconic examples of "Which is the Good choice?" in the Dungeons & Dragons community. Many a message board post has been spent debating the moral value of saving orc children in a nursery or killing people overcome by evil curses. What is a Paladin to do when faced with these difficult moral choices? Which is the Good and which is the Evil? Or, perhaps, are they all different shades of grey?

What is a Paladin to do in this situation?
I have found that a lot of players do not want to have this debate at the game table. It can often be a personal discussion, as most players will base their decision on their own personal views. As a former student of philosophy, I actually appreciate moral dilemmas. I like the idea that a player would be concerned about the ramifications of his character's actions beyond that of "did it get me more XP?"

As both a player and DM, I find it easier to consider the Paladin's Dilemma in the context of the Paladin's vows and the concerns of his god instead of an arbitrary alignment. The choice of a Dwarf Paladin of Moradin regarding orc babies would likely differ greatly than that of a Human Paladin of Ilmater. Despite that both Paladins are Good servants of Good gods, it is likely that they will choose opposed actions. Neither case really focused on the concept of Good as much as it did the views of each respective god.

But Does Alignment Matter?

It is interesting to me to contrast these two different perspectives on alignment in-game. On one hand, alignment does not really matter because its merely a guide to role-playing. Furthermore, there is a great deal of flexibility within each specific alignment, so a player has a lot of latitude in playing to his character's alignment. This is the simple way to address alignment. Each player is simply using the words to his or her best understanding but that those words have no meaning outside of a player's mind. It seems to me that in this context, it would be just as fair to say your alignment is "Awesome Nice" as it would be to say "Neutral Good." If alignment is going to have such expansive definitions and no ramifications, it actually serves no purpose.

On the other hand, where specific game effects are tied to alignment and require explanation, it can become difficult. Did the Paladin maintain his Lawful Good values? Did the Monk maintain a Lawful perspective? Was the Assassin sufficiently Evil? What choices constitute the Good choices? In these kind of situations, such as the question of the orc babies, alignment suddenly feels more burdensome to play than anything. Spending time questioning the moral value of choices within the context of specific alignments can be difficult, frustrating, or even game-breaking. Usually, the best answers involve disregarding the Alignment system and considering a character's faith, belief, or social history. If alignment is going to have such constrained yet nebulous function as to require leaving it behind in favor of alternatives, it actually serves no purpose.

The Ultimate Alignment Chart.
There are other ways to get around the issue that can be satisfying and entertaining. I have heard of at least one group where the Paladin decided how his actions fell on the alignment spectrum, allowing him some measure of control over the narrative. Of course, if that's the solution, it sounds like that group has essentially disregarded the alignment system in favor of an alternative. Some groups have adopted a belief system comparable to the Mouseguard RPG. The Distinction system used in the Cortex Plus ruleset (comparable to the Fate system's Aspects) is another interesting way to promote role-playing.

There are many interesting ways to find motivations for your character and help promote role-playing. Although the classic D&D alignment system is a way to do it, I reiterate my original statement regarding alignment:

My problem with alignment comes when people disagree on what is good, evil, or otherwise. If the game is not morally ambiguous enough to raise the question, then you don't need alignment. If it is morally ambiguous enough, then the alignment system is more burdensome than not.
But now I ask the question: How has alignment served at your game table? Is it something that people disregard or do players strictly adhere to their alignment? Do questions of alignment come up, or are issues of alignment not the kind of thing your group cares about?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On the Horizon: D&D Next Adventure Design

I recently had an opportunity to participate in a playtest of the upcoming iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. It took me this long to get it to it because I had previously participated in a "Friends & Family" playtest back in March that left me very disillusioned with the future of Dungeons & Dragons. I thought I should organize my thoughts and impressions and put them up on the blog. Despite my misgivings about the legitimacy of the playtest Non-Discloure Agreement, I still feel the need to avoid discussing non-public content. Some of this may get slightly vague as I describe my thoughts and impressions of D&D Next.

After writing a great deal about my playtest experience, I realize it would be more useful if I broke it up into different posts. This post focuses on the adventure content included with the playtest. Future posts will address other aspects of my playtest experience.

The Adventure's the Thing

I have come to appreciate that the usefulness of introductory adventures. Oftentimes, the first adventure you play through sets the tone for all future interactions with that game system. When I got my first Dungeons & Dragons Red Box in 1988, the introductory solo adventure was explicitly a room-by-room dungeon crawl. That set the tone for how many people, myself included, interacted with Dungeons & Dragons. In contrast, tthe upcoming RPG 13th Age features an introductory adventure Blood and Lightning that is very loosely organized and emphasizes a lot of the improvisational qualities of the game. Although these introductory adventures are not definitive, as many players will ignore them, they are important as a starting-off point for many players of the game. They are important in shaping how players see the game and, to that extent, how it is played.

One of the things I really came to appreciate in late-era Fourth Edition was that published adventure content provided a variety of interesting characters and scenarios for groups to build adventures around, with focus more on particular events and scenarios than maps of a dungeon are the promise of vast treasures. The Neverwinter Campaign Setting or The Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond were both interesting collections of encounters, characters, plots, and schemes that a party could slowly poke their way around and from it build a unique story. They targeted a very different style of gameplay, one that takes advantage of the fact that Dungeons & Dragon is a creative social game. I find this kind of sandbox content very evocative because it provides a wide array of options in which players and DM alike can develop their own narrative.

Lord Neverember doesn't care about exploring dungeons.
He wants you to rebuild Neverwinter with (or for) him.
Given my fondness for this kind of gaming content, it is no surprise that the adventures currently included with the Dungeons & Dragons public playtest worry me. When they included remakes of classic modules (dungeon crawls) like Caves of Chaos and Isle of Dread, I had assumed they did this for purely nostalgic reasons. As I played through portions of Reclaiming Blingdenstone, however, I really got the sense that this classic style of play was the intended direction of the newest Dungeons & Dragons. A direction that, given my own play style, is a disconcerting sign of the future of the game.

The Unfortunate Adventures in Blingdenstone

This guy lives in Blingdenstone
and he probably wants you to gather
ten Kobold scalps or something.
The playtest group I was with had already been playing for two or three sessions prior to my arrival. They were well into the included module Reclaiming Blingdenstone and, as I understood, were quite satisfied with it. With my trusty character in hand, I joined the table in hopes of finding the joy that my old comrades from long ago had found with this new D&D.

I will quickly say that I found the entire session of Dungeons & Dragons (roughly six hours of play throughout the afternoon/evening) to be surprisingly not fun. A significant part of my experience stemmed from my immense dissatisfaction over the adventure, Reclaiming Blingdenstone. It seemed to be steeped in pointless combat with a lot of mundane "quests" to tie it together. To be blunt, it had the feel of something like Diablo or World of Warcraft. "Warden Cardigan wants you to bring back 10 crystals from the Crystal Cave." When you repeat the activity a sufficient number of times and return them to the quest giver, you get a reward and something changes (potentially unlocking another important quest!).

It can be said that I am generalizing the adventure, but as somebody who has taken his Dungeons & Dragons game and influenced it heavily with story games, indie RPG ideology, and other recent ideas within the tabletop RPG scene, I could not help but feel that the adventure was regressive. It felt like the kind of D&D my friends and I played back in 1992, before we had sophisticated dungeon-crawling computer games. The reason I bring this up is that this heavily colored my playtest experience.

[Note: It is worthy of note that the other adventures provided, The Caves of Chaos and The Isle of Dread, are classic adventures from the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. They are even more historical in focus, emphasizing the "dungeon crawl" aspect of the game. From my perspective, I am lucky not to have played that.]

My one major concern with Blingdenstone was that it had such a strong emphasis on wandering through caverns collecting things and killing monsters for experience points and treasure. I suppose my concern rises out of the fact that Blingdenstone was, from all I can tell, written recently. The only writer credits given were Robert J. Schwalb and James Wyatt, both contemporary D&D writers. Given that, it was disconcerting that the provided module would emphasize a dungeon-crawl monster killing style of play.

More or less how I felt after six hours of Blingdenstone.
I do not mean to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with having a dungeon crawl style play experience. Clearly, there are many people that value that gameplay experience. However, the included playtest adventure says more about the design philosophy of the game than any mechanical considerations. As I see it, this is the style of play that they want at the core of the product. And that's what really got me thinking.

Having played games like Descent: Journeys in The Dark and the D&D Adventure System board games, I can appreciate a tabletop dungeon crawl. Both games (and the many related games out there) do well at capturing the dungeon crawl experience in a concise yet sufficient manner. But, in light of the growth in the tabletop role-playing and story gaming industry of the past ten years (including the Indie RPG scene, D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, story gaming, Fantasy Flight's RPG lines, and even the developments of D&D 4E), it seems strange to me that the new D&D would be actively targeting a style of role-playing game that has become somewhat niche.

What's Old is New Again (Whether You Wanted It Or Not)

The Dungeons & Dragons game has been slowly moving away from its old school origins since its early days. Much credit could be given to the work of Tracy and Laura Hickman for making story and plot central to the adventure, elevating it beyond a mere dungeon crawl. To that end, the game has come a far way from its origins as a medieval battle simulator with heavy doses of cartography.

Who needs a story when I have a gridded map
to sketch based on vague DM description alone!
By the Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the game openly addressed different styles of play and welcomed story and narrative based play in the introductory chapters of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Even more interesting in the progression was the less popular Dungeon Master's Guide 2, co-written by RPG design guru Robin D. Laws. Although a bulk of the book focused on more mechanical considerations, from monster themes to trap designs, it featured several sections providing guidance and suggestions for DMs new and old. Among other things, it discusses the ideas of collaborative campaign design, having encounters matter, cooperative world building, and other interesting ideas that felt more like they came from the indie RPG community than ivory tower of the D&D Old School.

The reason I mention this, in light of Blingdenstone and its potential progeny, is to highlight how big a step away from those ideas this new material seems to be. For example, consider this paragraph on how to use encounters in a D&D game:
A well-crafted encounter is a key scene in the story of your adventure and in the overarching story of the characters in your campaign. If you build your adventure like a structured fantasy story, sharing a similar dramatic structure with novels, movies, and plays, then an encounter equals a scene in that story. The encounter acts as a discrete element in which tension builds in steady increments toward the climax of the adventure.
That is guidance taken from the second page of the DMG2 chapter on building encounters. Now, contrast the with these two excerpts taken from Chapter 6 of Reclaiming Blingdenstone:
The trip [to Mantol-Derith] takes twenty hours of travel. Every eight hours, whether the adventurers are traveling or resting, roll 1d10. On a result of 1 or 2, consult the “Underdark Encounters” table in appendix 1.
The return from Mantol-Derith takes as much time and has the same potential for random encounters as the trek to the trading post. 
Having a collection of random encounters with trolls, orcs, and giant centipedes seemed anything but relevant to the plight of the deep gnomes. As a player, the only relevance the random encounter served was to waste time and resources. I honestly cannot imagine a legitimate reason why running into a grey ooze or a pack of centipedes would be especially important in advancing the situation in Blingdenstone. Granted, a more astute DM could have implemented a more interesting, engaging encounter that somehow tied to the story and purpose of the adventure, but the fact that the adventure as written suggests a flurry of random encounters as bookends to an essential chapter of the adventure says a lot to me about what the new Dungeons & Dragons is going to be about.

The end of my D&D Next playtest experience, as
presented by the Frost Wizards of Irvine.
Adventure Design: Conclusion

Reclaiming Blingdenstone is not necessarily representative of the new direction of Dungeons & Dragons. However, when you consider that all three adventures provided for testers to use follow a similar format, it does suggest that it might very well be the new (old) direction of the game. I can only hope that future iterations of the playtest begin to include adventures more geared towards an engaging and interesting storytelling experience and less on the amount of treasure and experience a player can amass in a four hour period. To that end, only time will tell.

Luckily, as with any tabletop RPG, what you get out of it depends a lot on what you put into it. Designing a game that is focused on trolling through dungeons looking for monsters to slay and treasures to gather will not impact my ability to play the game I want to play. But, as several friends continue to remind me, the new D&D is not being designed for people like me. That only raises the question of what motivation do I have to stick it through to the end?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On the Horizon: D&D Next Character Creation

I recently had an opportunity to participate in a playtest of the upcoming iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. It took me this long to get it to it because I had previously participated in a "Friends & Family" playtest back in March that left me very disillusioned with the future of Dungeons & Dragons. I thought I should organize my thoughts and impressions and put them up on the blog. Despite my misgivings about the legitimacy of the playtest Non-Discloure Agreement, I still feel the need to avoid discussing non-public content. Some of this may get slightly vague as I describe my thoughts and impressions of D&D Next.

After writing a great deal about my playtest experience, I realize it would be more useful if I broke it up into different posts. This post addresses my experience with creating a character. Future posts will address other aspects of my playtest experience.

Ability Scores: Cast the Dice

The first step in creating a character is rolling dice to determine ability scores. The default rule for D&D Next, at least for now, is to roll 4d6 and drop the lowest. The rules provide both a point buy method and a "default array" for those not interested in entrusting a campaign-long decision to a single roll of dice. I find it puzzling that the default would be random rolling (as this is generally prohibited in organized play anyway) but at least they made it clear point buy methods were acceptable.

Go ahead. Trust the rest of the game to the a few
simple dice rolls. What's the worst that could happen?
The biggest surprise for me with determining ability scores was that the point buy method did not allow a 16 or higher in any ability score. Using point buy, you could only get an ability score of 15. This seemed strange. I suppose this was meant to disincentivize the point buy method or the standard array, but I cannot imagine why they would want to do that. It seemed to make no sense. This was the my first sign that there was something amiss in this ruleset. However, I pressed on.

The Section of the Great Race

I do not have a whole lot to say about the race section. Although there are only the "standard" races available at this time, the Wizards of Renton have tried to present options for each race by dividing certain abilities and bonuses across separate "sub-races." Hill dwarves are better at different things than Mountain dwarves but they both share some features as well that Halflings and Elves do not have. It is an interesting way to do it and I wonder if they will continue to do this as more races are added to the collection.

There are a few strange issues that are likely to be fixed after a few iterations. For example, where previous editions gave certain races certain proficiencies to weapons, this current edition only gives a bonus to damage if the character already has proficiency. The net result is that non-Fighters tend to gain no benefit from the racial weapon training while Fighters get a statistical +1 to damage. I suspect that will be changed in future iterations. But the issues present in this version of the playtest seem minor. Unlike my pass with the ability score system, nothing here seemed to irk me.

Choose Your Character!

Choosing a class was a difficult endeavor for me. As of the current playtest document, there are only five classes available. This version of the playtest materials had the "standard" D&D classes of Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard. Although I realize that these are iconic classes in the game, I wonder why they did not focus more on a set of classes with fundamentally different game mechanics. As I see it, There were really only two classes to choose from here: the Maneuver class and the Gygaxian Caster. The biggest difference between the Cleric and Wizard was spell selection and weapon/armor proficiencies, so it does make me wonder why those two classes would not fall under one class, leaving an opening for a class with a fundamentally different mechanic (Sorcerer? Psionic?). But, I digress.

"Choose your Character!" This is roughly how I felt
when I started the Character Creation process.
[Note: I reference Gygaxian magic in lieu of Vancian magic. For those unfamiliar with my view on the classic D&D Magic system and how it relates to the writings of Jack Vance, I recommend reading my earlier examination of Vancian magic as it compares to Dungeons & Dragons. I use the term Gygaxian Caster or Gygaxian magic to represent the kind of magic system prevalent in most every edition of Dungeons & Dragons.]

Monk was my natural guess for
"next class to include" as well. Right?
This version of the playtest also included the Monk. I will admit that I consider the Monk to be a strange choice for fifth class to choose from, but they made it clear on the Dungeons & Dragons website that the Monk was included simply because it seemed to fit well with the Maneuver mechanics. To a certain extent, the Monk felt more like a variant of the Fighter and Rogue to me than it did a different class. Maybe I've gotten too deep into game design myself, but when I looked at the Monk I immediately think, "Having a Ki power must be near mechanically equivalent to a higher damage die, slightly higher armor class, and having an additional maneuver by level 10 that the Fighter gets." At least that's how I see it.

Some of you may look at my previous comment and think I am a bit crazy. "But Monks don't have the weapon and armor proficiencies that a Fighter has!" That's true, but I noticed that at our table the Monk rolled a d6 for damage (instead of d10 or d12) and had an Armor Class that was one lower than the Fighter. As I saw it, the "proficiencies or powers" mattered less than how it played at the table. Fighters had a larger damage die and slightly higher Armor Class. Monks, in exchange, got a quasi-magical power. "Guy who fights with Weapons" did not seem that much different to me than "Guy who fights with fists."

Despite only participating in a "one off" playtest session, I still had the urge to create a character that was more than just a named piece of equipment (like "Jax the Fighter"). Unfortunately, every interesting idea I had did not fit within the classes and races provided by the playtest packet without modification. Sometimes serious modification. My first impression was that this was a game that wanted you to conform to it and not a game that would conform to you. This was not surprising, though. Classically, D&D always starts with a limited set of options and gains more options, allowing more freedom in character creation, as the edition progress. I think my frustration came from the fact that I am used to having a wide pallet to work with (with Fourth Edition), so the restricted selection of choices is frustrating. Either way, I would have to find something to play.

Where Beer and D&D Collide

Frustrated, I started to look through the packet for some feature to inspire me. I decided that as none of the other players had made a Monk, it would be appropriate for me to test out. That being said, I'm not one for the typical Quasi-Asian monk. It usually felt surprisingly out of place in an otherwise very Tolkien setting. I tried to think how I could torque the Monk class to feel more in place in a standard fantasy setting. Somehow, I immediately thought of a Franciscan Monk with a surprisingly violent streak. Between prayer and brewing, this Monk would take time out of his day to smash in the face of villainous monsters. From that idea, Brother Sheltem of the Monastic Order of Helm was born.

The Monastic Order of Helm is best
known for brewing the legendary
beverage known as Helmsbier.
So, yes. For my D&D Next playtest I made the monk from the Franziskaner beer logo. It seemed to go together with little trouble, the Priest Background giving me mechanical description for the thing that I normally would have just made up on my own: he could call on temples and shrines of his faith for aid.  The Priest background with the Monk class that had a very Eastern theme was peculiar at first, but I imagined a half-drunk monk smashing people with his beer stein. It suspect his fighting style has a very sumo look to it. I added the Divine Magic Specialist to give him a bit more of a priestly vibe. In the end, I made a few choices and forced them together in a very peculiar way. In the end I felt good about it.

Alignment: The Point Where the Game Tells Me How to Act

Back when I played Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1990s, I remember getting really wrapped up in the idea of "Alignment." It did not take long for me to start to have issues with the two axis alignment system. Ideologies like "Lawful Evil" or "Neutral Good" began to make less and less sense to me as I got older and tried to decipher what it meant for something to be good or evil. Over time, I would come to disregard it entirely, leaving it out of games as it appeared. The Fourth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons had a relatively light treatment of it so it was not hard for me to not pay attention to it. Since the new D&D Next playtest arrived on the scene, the old alignment system is back!

This bothered me a little bit at first but it did not take much for me to realize I did not care all that much. I would ignore it, just as I had before. What did bother me, though, was the alignment restrictions attached to the new Monk class. It was not a new restriction, being a mirror of previous editions, but it still bothered me. Monks had to be lawful. They could be lawful evil, but chaotic good was off the table. As I thought about it, the whole thing felt like a missed opportunity.

Chaotic "Monk" vs. Lawful "Monk"
Seriously? Nobody thought of this before me?
Alignment and the Monk class could easily fall into a sort of system like the Jedi and the Sith. The lawful Monk is similar to the Jedi, devoted to order and rigid code. The chaotic Monk is like a Sith Lord, gaining his power not from rigid discipline and training but from his own passions and force of will. The Ki power could even be somehow tied to the alignment of the Monk, granting different powers depending on the alignment. With that in mind, seeing the alignment restriction on the Monk class just seemed like a really unfortunate choice.

Skills and Things

Dungeoneering. Covering every skill
adventurers need since 2008.
This was an interesting area for me. I had originally been a big fan of Third Edition skills because that system gave you the freedom to invest skill points where you wanted. Your character would be trained in things that you wanted to the level that you wanted. So, in theory, I should be sort of into what they've done with the new iteration of Dungeons & Dragons because it models the diversity of skills in the same way.

But I don't.

Despite being very much against the "big umbrella" skills of Fourth Edition at first, I've actually grown to like them quite a bit because they allow players to accomplish similar tasks using different skills. Need to climb a cliff? I've had players make arguments for Athletics, Nature, Acrobatics, and Dungeoneering. Need to smooth talk the head of the Wizard's Guild? Try Diplomacy, Bluff, Arcana, or Streetwise. So, when I see a skill like "Rope Use" or "Spot," I feel that although there are a lot more skills to choose from, they are all a lot less useful. That being said, I would have to see how these seven or eight skills worked out in actual play before I made any judgment on their effectiveness.

With 13th Age due to be released in the next few months, I think about how they utilize Backgrounds to fill the space of Skills instead of specific named skills. To a certain extent, they took the generalization of skills seen in 4E and moved it to the realm of character background. This makes a simple skill roll an exercise in role-playing and collaborative storytelling as player's explain why a Centurion of the 501st Legion would have experience crocheting. I have grown to really like that method, so the fact that D&D Next has gone back to extremely specific, discrete skills is disheartening, to say the least. But, as I keep reminding myself, time will tell.

A Fully Loaded Killing Machine

The playtest rules have rules for purchasing equipment. Anybody who has read my stance on tracking things like character equipment will know that I really do not care at all about it. There was a big list of weapons. I cannot imagine why the list needed to be that big. Furthermore, as a Monk, I did not really care about that list of weapons. To that end, I cannot say a whole lot about equipment in D&D Next as it applies to character creation.

Equipment! There's nothing more thrilling in a role-playing game
than worrying about how many feet of rope you remembered to bring.
Looking over the list of weapons, I did find a few things that seemed odd to me. The Spear and Trident appear next to each other on the list. They are mechanically identical except for price and weight. The Trident both costs more and weighs more. It seems a strange thing to pay extra for more weight. The Rapier, Scimitar, and Short Sword are also very similar to one another except that the Scimitar does slashing damage.

I am surprised that they so quickly disregarded the weapons rules from Gamma World, where the player would choose a basic category and create what weapon they had from that category. I thought the guy who chose a heavy, two-handed ranged weapon that was a Microwave that shot radiation at people was pretty great. I suppose that is a style for a different kind of game.

Creating Characters: Conclusion

Right now, character creation in D&D Next feels very limited. Ideally, most of that will change over time. On the good side, character creation was relatively simple and I was able to finish it in less than a half hour. To a great extent, I feel like the quickness had a lot to do with the lack of options and less with any sort of clever design. As more races, classes, backgrounds, and specialities are added, I suspect character creation will begin to slow down a bit.

As I completed my character, I started to feel a little skeptical about the lack of options my character had. It seemed like he had one or two things to do in battle and a strange arrangement of skills. However, that concern mostly came from my perspective as a Fourth Edition player. I would reserve my judgment until I witnessed how it all panned out in play.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Player's Story: Avatar of the Archive

In the midst of a discussion with a friend about character options and how I found certain new role-playing game dissatisfying, I began to realize that my process for creating a character (as a player) was not quite in sync with that of a number of my peers. As I had the possibility of participating in new Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition campaign (likely set in the default setting of the Nentir Vale), I thought I would take some time to demonstrate how I go through the process of creating a player character for myself.
Person made out of Psychic
Crystals. Seriously?

The DM mentioned an interest in a story involving psionics. I wanted to create a character that had a distinctly psionic focus, although I was not sure how I would potentially accomplish that. One distinctly psionic thing in Dungeons & Dragons that I have yet to really work with was the Shardmind, a Player's Handbook 3 race that has never found its way to a table I play at. This seemed like a good place to start. Now, I simply had to decide how I could make a shardmind into an interesting player character and not a ridiculous novelty.

Reading over the shardmind entry in PHB3, I continued to get a sense that an individual shardmind is not a person, per se, but a little different. In a certain sense, the entry gave me the distinct impression that every shardmind was a specific instance of a larger thing.
Shardminds are sentient fragments of the Living Gate, which once stood at the pinnacle of the intricate lattice of the Astral Sea. Beyond that gate lay the alien Far Realm, and the gate’s destruction during the Dawn War resulted in the rise of the mind flayer empire.
Although I was not particularly enthralled with the idea of "sentient fragments of the Living Gate," it did get me thinking about each individual shardmind being a specific instance of a greater intelligence or sentience. To that end, I found myself thinking of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda and, more specifically, Rommie, the Andromeda Ascendant's robotic avatar.

I assume every warship looks like this on the inside.
As I tried to think about how the shardmind would become associated with a ragtag group of adventurers, I realized that this character would need to be tweaked a bit. I had originally looked at this character as a separate avatar of a larger psionic entity. However, after giving it some thought, I thought it would be much more interesting if I made this shardmind more like a specific unit or process of a larger entity now separated from its greater whole. Instead of Rommie without the Andromeda, I thought it more like a Borg Drone without the Borg Collective.

I can only imagine Gene Roddenberry's disgust at my
brutal hacking of his creative universes...
This idea, and the inherent quest for identity, seemed to fit great for what I wanted. The shardmind was a physical instance of an old, psychic archive created by an ancient civilization. With the psychic archive facing destruction (or, even more interestingly, corruption), this shardmind was separated from the whole to save the last fragments of that civilization. As a potential future plot hook, it potentially carried some vital piece of knowledge that others would stop at nothing to acquire, although I know enough not to over-specify a character at creation. Either way, its crystalline structure was more than just a novelty. It was the last vestige of a fallen civilization.

Of course, I'm difficult. This wasn't enough. I did not want to make another robot finding a soul. That has been done plenty of times already. I wanted something more interesting. I wanted my character to have a personality and that personality was a problem. I also wanted to be able to tie my character to another player in an interesting way. For a moment, it seemed like I was asking too much. Nothing would satisfy my character concept. Then I remembered Winifred Burkle. Or, more appropriately, Illyria.

I always assumed Cthulhu looked like this
in human form. Didn't you?
I liked the idea of somebody important being consumed in the creation of this shardmind character. For this to work, I needed a second character. I would begin the campaign as a relatively mundane fighter, wizard, or whatever was needed. We'll call this character Bob (for now, anyway). The important thing about Bob is that Bob is a brother, husband, or lover of another character in the party. I even planned the first adventure (yeah, I'm that kind of player) where the party would discover the psychic archive as it began to finally collapse. Bob would approach the primary control interface only to be annihilated by psychic energy, a rather unfortunate outcome of the archive improperly trying to communicate with the adventurers. From this, the archive would know enough to create its final avatar, the shardmind. The shardmind would guide the adventurers to safety as the archive collapsed, earning a measure of trust.

So what's the point of Bob? Bob is there for dramatic effect. Bob's memories, emotions, and personality were imprinted on the shardmind (albeit accidentally). As with Fred/Illyria, the rest of the party would have to deal with this strange creature (who they realize to be important) but who continues to exhibit signs of the person they lost. Perhaps, over time, the personality of Bob would become more manifest, creating essential character drama in season 3 or 4. Or, perhaps the shardmind would begin to look like Bob. Time would have to tell on that one.
Part Bob. Part Psychic Archive.
Of course, I haven't even gotten to stats or powers. That's usually the smallest part of my character creation process. The power-point psionic classes are interesting as I have never played one as a player and they're sophisticated enough as to not bore me (like the Elementalist did). Of course, since the shardmind is only "stat-synched" with one of the psionic character classes, how I deal with it is a story for another post.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Collaborative Roleplaying: Lords of Waterdeep

I will always admit that I run a very peculiar series of D&D Campaigns. I have taken a lot of cues from other games I have played or read about, implementing different gameplay elements as I feel it necessary. Some of the collaborative story game elements from games like Fiasco have been working their way deeper into my D&D game with a great deal of success. I thought I would highlight a way that I have changed the player's contribution to the game through a somewhat unexpected turn of events.

The Lord of Waterdeep

When developing my Waterdeep-centric campaign, I decided to take my own spin on the Masked Lords of Waterdeep. Inspired by the Brethren Court in the film Pirates of the Caribbean and their magical "Pieces of Eight," I decided that the thing that made a person a Lord of Waterdeep was a powerful artifact, a Lord's signet. Generally, these were transferred in a matter consistent with existing Waterdhavian history, but sometimes the Lord's signet would fall into stranger hands. Lords would know, via the magical signet, when and where meetings would be held. This allowed me to maintain that the Masked Lords often don't know who the other Masked Lords are and, to a certain extent, even how many Masked Lords really exist.

The Lords of Waterdeep are just like these guys. But
with more masks. And less... hair.
Why is this important? After the mad gnome meteorologist Chet Doppler unleashed an elemental storm on Waterdeep, the Head of the Waterdeep Meteorologist's Guild, Sir Winston Cloudstorm, was summoned by the Lords of Waterdeep to address the ongoing elemental threat to the city. The players decided that they needed to be at that meeting since they had actually defeated, captured, and concealed Chet Doppler without informing Meteorologist's Guild. Furthermore, as they suspected potential treachery amongst the Lords of Waterdeep, this would be a good opportunity to start looking for it.

This seemed like a great plan but I quickly realized one problem with all of it: that meeting would require me to enact a politically charged meeting of 9+ Masked Lords of Waterdeep entirely by myself. I had to think fast so I came up with a quick solution: each player would create his own Lord of Waterdeep and play that character during the meeting. If it went well, we may even do it again. People seemed to be into that and we ended the session with each player wondering about what kind of Lord of Waterdeep he may play.

Creating the Lords of Waterdeep

I always imagined the Lords
of Waterdeep as more sinister
looking than this.
Since the idea was that not every Masked Lord would necessarily know who the others were, I decided that each Lord's signet had a history to it, including an iconic name, such as the "Lord of Blades" or the "Lord of Secrets." To give a few examples, I quickly scribbled out some ideas as to what I was intending with all this. The following is one of my example Lords I presented to my players:
Prometheus Godstorm, Lord of Death
When the High Necromancer Szass Tam seized control of Thay, many of the less sinister Red Wizards of Thay were driven out. Many of them, such as Prometheus, moved west, finally settling along the Sword Coast. Originally, Prometheus tried to set himself up as a mild-mannered enchanter in Waterdeep, but quickly found himself involved with a group of questionable wizards within the Wizard's Guild of Waterdeep. Using his arcane knowledge and background to his advantage, he organized a cabal of necromancers and seized control of a significant portion of the Undertaker's Guild within Waterdeep. Now, he provides a relatively stable supply of "working undead" to less reputable agencies within the city and surrounding environment.
It's not clear how Prometheus became a Lord of Waterdeep. Typically, a necromancer who sells corpses (both animated and not) on the black market is not typical Lord material. Yet, despite that uncertainty, it is clear is that he possesses a Lord's Signet, a sign that he is a true Lord of Waterdeep. Legend goes that the Lord of Death's signet was last possessed by Kerrigan the Anarchist, the only Lord known to have betrayed Waterdeep, lost for over two hundred years.
Currently, my players are still throwing around ideas. My intent is to give each of them information that their lord would know about and play up the meeting of the lords as a way to expose some peculiar information. One of my players quickly came up with his lord, the Lord of Spice. The description he provided was part culinary master, part international importer, and part serious drug lord. Strangely appropriate description for the Lord of Spice, I thought.

Of course, I have yet to see how this bit of collaborative gameplay will turn out. Everybody seems relatively excited about it so far, but only time will tell if the meeting of the Lords of Waterdeep turns out to be a positive contribution to my D&D game or not.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dungeon Mastering: What about the Details?

Every role-playing game provides rules for specifying different details. At its most intricate level, there are a vast quantity of role-playing details that could be tracked, from every item a character has in his or her pockets to the precise number of pounds a character can heft. What you track says a lot about what you want your game to focus on. Some people are surprised at what can be abstracted. Some people are amazed when I tell them that as both a player and DM I do not bother tracking treasure. The truth is that there are a lot of details that can be tracked or disregarded and how you address those types of details says a lot about the type of game you want to play.

Distances and Combat

One thing that comes to mind is the idea of distance as it relates to battle. Consider Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, where every distance is given in squares. This is relevant because combat is expected to be conducted on a battle map where each square is 5 feet by 5 feet. How far a creature can move, a weapon can be thrown, or a spell can be cast is extremely important on the tactical combat grid.

Contrast it with games like 13th Age or Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay (3rd Edition). In 13th Age, ranged weapons have very abstract notions of range, such as "Nearby Targets Only." Warhammer FRP takes a similar stance, dividing range into Close, Medium, Long, and Extreme. Neither of these games go to great lengths to specifically declare how far these distances are. As the 13th Age rulebook states, "Usually you move fast enough to get where you want to go in a battle." This is a sharp contrast to Dungeons & Dragons, a game that has always given explicit speeds for creatures and distances for ranged weapons. What games like 13th Age or Warhammer FRP do worry about, though, is whether two creatures are engaged with one another or not.

This is a heated combat in Warhammer FRP. I swear.
The different focus changes the way combat feels. In D&D 4E, combat involves a lot of counting of squares. Distance matters and positioning is important. To a certain extent, D&D 4E combat is like Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions or XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In games like Warhammer or 13th Age, the move to abstract distances changes the focus more on actions and less on how far somebody can move. Where people are in combat matters and has technical effects, but it is nowhere near as important as in a tactical game like 4E. Both systems have their place in the tabletop RPG world. What is important is that the game group decide which approach would be more appealing for them.

Money, Equipment, and Encumbrance

The D&D Equipment List, circa 1993.
(notice the lack of barrels of pickled fish)
As a player and Dungeon Master, I never realized how little I cared about tracking money, equipment, and other personal property until I spent some time running d20 Modern. d20 Modern gave every character a "Wealth bonus" that was a general representation of their overall wealth. Players did not track each individual dollar but instead had a sense that this character was middle-class, poor, or disturbingly wealthy. If a character wanted to buy an item, they made a corresponding wealth check to see if they had the means to purchase it. Purchasing especially expensive items could lower the character's wealth bonus while earning significant amounts of money could raise the wealth bonus.

As a (young) player who had grown up tracking wealth down to the copper piece, the idea that it could be abstracted was fascinating. For some reason, this had never come up before. This idea sat in my thought-space throughout the near-decade that I managed to avoid playing any tabletop RPGs. When I finally came back to D&D, my approach had changed considerably. Seeing the "adventurer's kit" appear in the equipment list seemed enough for me to decide that the odds and ends of equipment, like wealth, were generally not worth the time to track. We just assumed that unless it seemed interesting otherwise, the characters had the typical equipment that they needed. Who cares if your character has five torches or two, thirty arrows or sixty. What matters is whether you run out. From my experience, running out of equipment, be it rations or crossbow bolts, is something better decided by the table (both players and Dungeon Master) when it's interesting in the context of the narrative. I felt the same about encumbrance rules. If I did not intend to bother tracking the details of what players had, why would I care about the details of how much it weighed?

Right. Encumbrance rules are optional.
Of course, that is my perspective on equipment. There are many players for whom equipment and wealth, like any other details, are important elements of the game worth tracking. I have met a number of people that really enjoy that aspect of the game. How much you have, how much you can carry, and how much it matters can be an important (and interesting) element of gameplay that may potentially shape the direction of the campaign. Getting that huge pile of gold out of the dragon's lair is important; knowing how many trips with how many mules is an important part of the game. At least for some players, that is. The important point about equipment, gold, and encumbrance, as with distances in combat, is making sure everybody at the table cares about the same kinds of things.

Other Details

There are a lots of details to focus on in a tabletop role-playing game. Everything from mapping a dungeon to counting experience points is something that a game group may, or may not, consider important. Being able to recognize that different players are interested in different things is important in putting together and maintaining a game group. Hopefully, by realizing that almost every aspect of the game is a potentially unnecessary detail that is up for discussion, groups will more readily come together and stay together.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Legal Issues in Gaming: Patenting your Game

When people look to legal protections for their game designs, copyright and trademark tend to be the most obvious choices. However, as previously discussed, the actual rules of the game do not actually fall under copyright law. Luckily, the United States has established the law of patents to help protect things like the rules of a board game.

Patents: Protecting the Process

As I previously discussed, the Federal Constitution grants Congress the power "[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries[.]" From this, Congress can grant inventors rights over their inventions. This is the area of intellectual property law known as patents.

Title 35 of the United States Code governs patents (in the United States of America). Generally, patents are applicable to scientific inventions, which includes machines, compositions, and even processes. Specifically, patent law protects the following kind of inventions:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.
35 USC §101. Looking at the definition of patentable inventions, it sounds like patent law is meant for things like new kinds of engines, chemical formulae, or other "scientific" inventions. Yet, there is a long history of the "process" of the rules of a game being considered and protected under the patent law or the board game being an "apparatus" protectable under patent. But is it the right thing for your game?

Early Board Game Patents

One of the earliest board game patents is the "Landlord's Game," a board game apparatus invented by Lizzie J. Magie in 1904. Although the patent includes multiple claims, they all center around a "game-board, having corner-spaces, one constituting the starting-point," with "intervening spaces of different denominations" that are "distinguished by coloring or other marking," and a "series of movable pieces having reference to the different divisions upon the board." It also includes a "chance device to control the movement of the pieces" and "ticket representing money, deeds, notes, mortgages, bank mortgages, charters, legacies, and luxuries" for use with the game.
Hey! That sounds familiar!
Interestingly enough, Lizzie Magie (later Lizzie Magie Phillips) filed another patent in 1924 for "The Landlord's Game." This patent was very similar to the original but with a variety of novel additions and features to the original patented claims. So how is this relevant? Well, Charles Darrow, a heater salesman from Germantown, Pennsylvania, would eventually file a patent in 1935 for:
In a board game apparatus a board acting as a playing-field having marked spaces constituting a path or course extending about the board, said path affording a continuous track for the purpose of continuity of play, certain of said spaces being designated as by position or color as to constitute a distinguishable group, there being a plurality of such groups each differing from the others and each having its space adjacent on the same side of the board, the apparatus having indications of the rentals required for the use and occupancy by opponent players, of spaces of one or more such groups, which rentals are subject to increase by the acquisition of an additional space or spaces of the same group by the same individual player, thereby making it possible for the possessor to exact greater payments or penalties from any opponent resting or trespassing thereon.
U.S. Patent No. 2,026,082 (issued Dec 31, 1935). That's just the first claim of nine in his patent. His patent was transferred, along with all other associated IP rights, to a company called Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers began marketing the game, known as Monopoly, and it became the most popular game in the United States. Darrow became the first millionaire game designer in history. Nobody seemed to care that his "invention" was suspiciously similar to two previous patents.

Since the early days of the 20th century, many different people have filed patents for board and card games. Games such as the Lawsuit board game, the What's For Dinner board game, a Gangster board game, and even a "trading card game" by a small Seattle based company. The real question that remains, though, is whether or not it is worth it to patent a board or card game?
It's a Lawsuit!™ (Patent #6,805,351)
Board Game Patents: Nobody Cares

Normally, when you file a patent, the patent examiner who reviews it ensures that your patent is a novel, non-obvious invention that was not in existence previously. Usually, this involves a review of existing patents, published writings, and a host of other information to verify that the patented invention is a legitimate new invention. Yet, in the world of board and card games, the process has a certain peculiarity to it.

Consider the original Monopoly patent. That patent was issued despite Magie's existing patents with similar rulesets. A great deal of research has suggested that other games even more similar to Monopoly than Magie's game had been in existence up to a decade prior to Darrow's patent. Yet, despite this, Darrow's patent was issued. Although one patent attorney told me that the key to Darrow's patent was clever writing to differentiate it from Magie's patent, given the number of patents that have been issued since then that are remarkably similar, it seems that the USPTO just doesn't care about board game patents.

That being said, what does a patent grant the holder? Normally, a patent is a monopoly to create and distribute the protected invention. Somebody who infringes on the protected invention is liable to the holder of the patent. But has this ever happened? Although no expert, I could only find a single reference to a patent infringement suit for a board game (brought by Parker Brothers in 1935) but it was settled out of court. Patent infringement suits tend to be costly and, as it ends up, usually involve a trip to the Eastern District of Texas.
Fear the patent on turning a card 90ยบ (to Tap).
As a more modern example, despite all of the fear associated with Wizards of the Coast's patent on turning a card 90 degrees to indicate exhaustion, there seems to be no indication that an infringement suit has ever been brought along those lines. This could have something to do with the fact that bringing a patent infringement suit always raises the potential for having the patent declared invalid by the court. Or, it could be based more on the fact that a majority of tabletop game developers lack the "deep pockets" that one normally looks for when bringing suit. Either way, a board game patent holder has a lot of reasons to not pursue a patent infringement suit.

Getting a Patent: Costs and Benefits

At the end of the day, is it worthwhile to patent a board or card game? Since even the simplest patent can easily cost over $10,000 to file, your typical tabletop game designer really has to consider whether or not it is worth it. Most of the biggest games in tabletop gaming, including The Settlers of Catan, Dominion, Carcassonne, and Ticket To Ride were published with no patent protection. All of these games were extremely successful and continue to do well. Contrast this with the bulk of board and card games that have patent protection. Most of those games never even got published or, if they did, saw little overall success.

There are other reasons not to pursue patent protection for a board or card game. The gaming community tends to react very negatively to heavy-handed legal action. This could result in a lot more negative publicity than expected. Leaving the game rules open to the public is a way to build a larger community, as was witnessed with Dungeons & Dragons and the Open Game License. A game designer seriously interested in potentially seeking patent protection should consult not only a patent attorney but also a community manager to weigh the costs and benefits associated with such an action, because the last thing you want is to doom your game in an effort to protect it.

The statements made in this article are the opinions of the author (and the author alone) and do not constitute legal advice. Comments posted on this article do not create an attorney-client relationship. Recommended listening: Episode 16 of the Law of the Geek podcast, available at