Why an SRD, Again?


Modified 2020-03-30

In the whole six weeks since I wrote “Why an SRD?", I’ve had some additional thoughts and revelations, and one relevant external event.

A Basic Roleplaying System Reference Document At Last?

In a previous post I wrote:

Older, more established publishers like Chaosium may prefer to zealously guard their “intellectual property” and stick to traditional company-to-company licensing agreements.

Thursday night / Friday morning (March 27, 2020), Chaosium released a Basic Roleplaying System Reference Document, or BRP SRD for short.

Well. That showed me.

It is not, however, under Wizards’ Open Game License, but under a custom license almost like it with a few extra restrictions1:

… game mechanics that are substantially similar to the following unique or characteristic features of other Chaosium games are Prohibited Content:

[S]ubstantially similar is a legal term in copyright law, but as far as I can tell what it means in any specific case is up to the judgement of a civil court.

Chaosium later added this to their FAQ on the linked page:

“Substantially similar” means that if a mechanic in your game looks and functions more or less the same as something on the Prohibited Content list, you can’t publish it under the BRP-OGL. Come up with your own unique mechanics for your games — don’t repackage unique features of other Chaosium games!

More or less the same doesn’t add any more information than substantially similar. Without some detail on what’s unique about those mechanics, or some concrete examples of what would and would not be Prohibited Content, a designer would have to show a manuscript to relevant Chaosium personnel for their (hopefully legally binding) decision. Or just publish something and hope Chaosium doesn’t object.

That isn’t reassuring … not to me, and not apparently to other people in the announcement thread on BRP Central.

So What’s The Problem?

UPDATED 2020-03-30: fixed an orphaned footnote, changed an allusion to CoC's Pushing mechanic for accuracy, added footnotes based on subsequent discussion.

The intent, obviously, is to prevent someone “retrocloning” a current Chaosium product and a few past ones. But Spirit Magic or Battle Magic from RuneQuest is, arguably, substantially similar to any magic system consisting of small utility and tactical battle spells powered by Magic Points. This includes the Call of Cthulhu magic system2, Legend‘s Common Magic, OpenQuest‘s Battle Magic, and the “Sorcery” system from the Basic Roleplaying Big Gold Book3 (derived from Stormbringer‘s). It’s what a lot of BRP players think of when they think of magic in BRP. Yet any attempt to create something like it, even if permissible under copyright, might be substantially similar enough to violate the BRP Open Game License.

Depending on how broadly Chaosium interprets substantially similar, the BRP OGL could also prohibit rerolling a skill check by taking on extra risk4, rules to enhance use of one ability with another, rating strong emotional attachments or loyalties numerically, rating reputation numerically, or using the aforementioned ratings to shape character behavior.

Prohibited Content also includes5

… all works related to the Cthulhu Mythos, including those that are otherwise public domain; and all works related to Le Morte d’Arthur. This list may be updated in future versions of the License.

(emphasis mine)

The legends of King Arthur are part of our cultural heritage, but your BRP product can’t use any part of it in case your game gets too close to King Arthur Pendragon. (And similarly with Lovecraft6 and Call of Cthulhu™.) Licenses trump copyright law.

Note that I’m not arguing that players should be able to clone Chaosium’s games or plagiarize their rules. I’m just saying that the restrictions are overly broad and include things a reasonable author might want to add to an otherwise wholly original game. Singling out specific mechanics makes BRP much less attractive to game designers who want to adapt rules to fit the tropes and themes of their setting. Prohibiting specific public domain works to prevent potential competition – with a warning that Chaosium may revise their deal at any time – virtually guarantees that many designers will avoid BRP completely.

Why am I being so negative? One, have you met me? Two, I have fond memories of playing RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and assorted BRP derivatives. I’d play or run any of these games again if the opportunity arose. So I’d love to see an open version of BRP with which commercial publishers could usher in a “BRP Rebirth” with a veritable cornucopia of BRP-compatible products. With its limitations, though, this BRP SRD isn’t it.

Will Publishers Like It?

UPDATED 2020-03-30: Rewrote the end of the last paragraph to mentions the option of negotiating a license with Chaosium outside the BRP OGL, and for clarity.

Honestly, if I were a commercial role-playing game publisher, and I were looking to spend money making a professional looking product, I’d think twice about using the BRP SRD. What if I spent all this time and money on writing, art, layout, and so on, hoping to make a profit, only to have Chaosium’s lawyers demand I pull it for violating the BRP OGL? Before I commit to art, layout, etc. – well before I contemplate a Kickstarter or gods forbid a print run – I should have someone from Chaosium vet it. But that will take time, and the hassle of following up, and if hypothetically a lot of people think the same thing the Chaosium people might not be so agreeable. It sounds like almost as much hassle as a full commercial license.

But couldn’t a publisher take the small(?) risk of publishing a product without contacting Chaosium first? Isn’t that what an Open Game License is for? Well, Chaosium gives licensees thirty days to address any issues after Chaosium sends notice … which could be after a product hits stores. Or when it starts making money. Or when Chaosium is bought by a copyright troll years from now. How much money would you bet on Chaosium’s continued good will?

Plus there are other options, like OpenQuest. And did I mention the whole BRP SRD, minus cover page and license, is only 20 pages? (Including sample “monster” and character sheet.) Unless a publisher really cared about compatibility with other BRP products7 – which are either out of print or don’t exist yet – they might just write my own percentile-based system similar to but legally distinct from Chaosium’s work, which as I mentioned last time is perfectly legal. (More time consuming and easy to get wrong, but doable.) And they could include whatever rules or cultural references they saw fit.

Now if my hypothetical publisher really did care about BRP, they still wouldn’t rely solely on the BRP SRD. They might publish a product using other (custom?) rules and then produce a cheap standalone conversion to BRP. If that proved impractical, they’d follow the main product with a version that keeps most of the original text (and all the art and layout) but replaces my Brand X rule blocks with BRP equivalents. Or, if they decided that BRP compatibility was really important, they’d pursue a license for that specific product directly from Chaosium. But they wouldn’t stake significant time, money, and effort on a product over which Chaosium could potentially take legal action.8 Anyone with a passing familiarity with law or business knows that, no matter what Chaosium’s senior staff say on Web forums and in personal conversations, they or their successors could always change their minds.

Why This SRD?

Which raises the question, who is this SRD for?

Certainly the BRP SRD lets fans post free settings, adventures, and rules with some reasonable assurance that Chaosium won’t come after them. (Unless they actually do try to replicate specific Chaosium products.) Fans and one-man publishing houses might even offer BRP-based products for sale on DriveThruRPG or Itch and maybe make a few bucks.

But serious publishers trying to turn a profit have other, better options.

On the plus side we probably won’t see a “BRP glut” of crappy products by fly-by-night publishers trying to make a quick buck. (Thankfully. Mid ’00s Mongoose did enough of this already.) On the minus side I doubt we’ll see a BRP Rebirth, either. Unless Chaosium has a bunch of real licensing deals in the works, the BRP SRD is likely the last official support we’ll ever see for Basic Roleplaying.

Chaosium, too, has more profitable options.

Writing RPGs Is Hard, Even With An SRD

As I mentioned elsewhere I tried to hack the Year Zero Engine to create a “Year Zero Engine Light SRD” or a full RPG vaguely similar, mechanically, to Tales from the Loop. TL;DR: it didn’t go well.

At least I ended up with a Mardown/HTML version of the Year Zero Engine SRD. Whatever that’s worth.

Granted, this was bound to be a difficult project:

The ultimate problem, however, is that I didn’t have a clear vision for what I wanted to build. I should have nailed that down first before mucking with rules. If I had at least a rough version of that, I could add only the rules that support the concept. Or I could decide to chuck the Year Zero Engine and write my own rules more suited to that vision. (Blackjack and hookers optional.) Maybe that Third System I keep yammering about.

It’s one thing to house-rule a complete, well-tested RPG. It’s quite another to build one, even borrowing someone else’s text. No SRD – not the Year Zero Engine, not the BRP SRD10, not the Fate Core System, certainly not the d20 SRD – can substitute for a compelling concept and lots of hard work.

Powered By The Apocalypse

The proliferation of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games proves a clever designer can promote his ideas and mechanics without this SRD business.

“An Open Letter re: PbtA” “defines” PbtA thus:

“Powered by the Apocalypse” isn’t the name of a category of games, a set of games’ features, or the thrust of any games’ design. It’s the name of Meg’s and my policy concerning others’ use of our intellectual property and creative work.


Here’s the policy:

If you’ve created a game inspired by Apocalypse World, and would like to publish it, please do. If you’re using our words, you need our permission, per copyright law. If you aren’t using our words, you don’t need our permission, although of course we’d love to hear from you. Instead, we consider it appropriate and sufficient for you to mention Apocalypse World in your thanks, notes, or credits section.

While Meg and Vincent Baker avoid defining what PbtA means, the plethora of PbtA games share some notable mechanisms:

PbtA games tend to be geared toward new players, sometimes cloyingly so. It’s a popular system (format? style?) possibly because its formalisms are easy to emulate and adapt, and because it’s especially suited to low-prep pickup games.11 The “playbook” puts all the rules players need on one sheet of paper, mingling character sheet and rulebook. PbtA is perhaps the purest example of game system descent with modification: only the ideas propagate, expressed differently with each new genre, setting, mood, and theme. A game designer can add or drop anything, and it’s still PbtA. (The downside, naturally, is that the designer has to write most or all the playbooks and other rules entirely from scratch.)

Granted, I’m not that excited by PbtA. For one thing, it has the same problem that, say, Pathfinder does: each new character type requires a whole new class playbook, even if it’s a variation of an existing concept. Also, the writing in some early PbtA games can be grating. Some of them seem to presume the reader has no experience with any kind of game let alone an RPG, and all these choices and rules must be so overwhelming. Others tout Moves and other concepts as absolutely revolutionary, and to really understand them experienced gamers must unlearn everything they think they know about role-playing games. Recent examples seem a little more chill.

At some point, however, I’ll have to try a PbtA game, preferably under an experienced GM, just to see whether there’s fire behind all the smoke.

  1. An earlier draft summarized most of this list. On reflection I decided to quote the whole thing so readers (if any) could judge if I was taking things out of context. ↩︎

  2. After (while?) I wrote this, Jeff Richards of Chaosium said on BRP Central that Cthulhu Magic would not count as sufficiently similar under the BRP SRD. Note he said this on a Web forum, though, not in the license itself. ↩︎

  3. In the same post as the last note Richards also said that Spirit Magic is essentially a spell list, implying that a machic system with similar mechanics with spells that differed in name and narrative or mechanical effects would be OK. Whether that’s Chaosium’s official policy, and will remain so for the life of the BRP SRD, is unclear. ↩︎

  4. A feature of Year Zero Engine and other games. ↩︎

  5. I’m omitting a long list of elements from an even longer list of former and current Chaosium products. Which you’d expect. ↩︎

  6. Not that the Cthulhu Mythos isn’t beaten to death already, or that the copyrights to Lovecraft’s work aren’t a big legal mess. ↩︎

  7. And the elephant in the room is that the BRP brand itself does not sell games. Chaosium cancelled their entire Basic Roleplaying line because wasn’t making money, or at least not Call of Cthulhu™ money. Games tend to sell based not on their rules but on their settings. Like RuneQuest‘s Glorantha, for example. ↩︎

  8. Other role-playing game industry lawsuits I thought of citing here involved parties with no licensing agreement: TSR vs. Mayfair’s Role Aids supplements involved the AD&D trademark, and Palladium’s suit against Wizards of the Coast’s The Primal Order involved unauthorized stat blocks and conversions for Palladium’s Fantasy Role-Playing Game. (And those were off the top of my head.) Now to be clear the BRP OGL is a licensing agreement. But as I’ve argued above the substantially similar language leaves a lot of room for interpretation. ↩︎

  9. The SRD was a stretch goal for a Forbidden Lands-related Kickstarter. ↩︎

  10. Despite my criticisms earlier in this post, the BRP SRD does present the complete if minimalistic kernel of a game. But it’s still only a starting point; a GM still has to provide a setting and add in rules for magic, technology, and other elements as needed. Ideally well before they’re needed. Trust me on this one. ↩︎

  11. Honestly, late-stage capitalism and the occasional plague make time with other people ever more difficult to arrange. Role-playing games have to accomodate people who don’t have the time or inclination to read complicated rulebooks and who can’t commit to multiple sessions, let alone long “campaigns”. Sadly, we’re not all college students any more, and the 40 hour work week, at least in America, is rapidly disappearing. ↩︎