Game rules aren’t protected by law

Jeff Dee, RPG author and awesome gaming artist (T Bone makes Will roll, squelches further fan gushing), is also a host of The Non Prophets podcast (together with none other than fellow gaming art god Denis Loubet!) and a past semi-regular host of The Atheist Experience broadcast and podcast. Episode #616 of the latter (embedded below), titled nothing less than “The Argument from Game Design”, let Jeff put his game-design cred to work in discussing certain arcane religious arguments that compare existence to “a game”. Straying a bit from that purely religious discussion, he also made some comments of broader relevance to gaming itself, including thoughts on what makes for a good game. The following bit caused me to raise an eyebrow:

… As a self-published role-playing game designer, one of my biggest pet peeves is that game rules are not protected by law… There are two mechanisms in place that you can turn to [in the US] for legal protection if you’re a game designer. One is copyright. The actual text of your rules, you can have a copyright on that… The other thing you can turn to is patent. If you have pieces you move around, you can patent what those pieces are and the way you use them. You can do those two things. Buy you can, in fact, legally take, say, Dungeons and Dragons – and people have done this – and completely reword it…

Jeff goes on to mention how people have done this with older editions of D&D, offering them with no consent by the games’ rights holders, simply by rewording the books’ text. (He also mentions that newer editions have more cleverly built in some degree of legal protection against this, though unfortunately he leaves out detail.) But for the rules themselves – sorry, in general there are no copyrights or patents available. 

I guess that should all be of little surprise; after all, who’s heard of patented dice mechanics, or legal cases involving RPG rules copying? Still, the legal rights of game rule creators is something all of us home-brew designers (or would-be designers) should have a passing familiarity with.

No copyright on game rules? That means, first of all, that we can nab any rules from any game we want! Just grab ’em and plug ’em into our own works! Woo-hoo! Except: That’s so distasteful, or should be to the designer with at least Quirk-level Code of Honor. Yet… How can you not steal other games’ rules? Checks made using dice plus mods… Character attributes like Strength and Dexterity… Experience points… Levels… Point-build systems… We’re all taking core ideas from our progenitors, whether from D&D or other early games that borrowed from it. There’s no way to avoid that, and where such basics are concerned, it’s hard to even fault such borrowing.

And it works both ways. You or I could come up with the spiffiest way of simulating fluid combat pacing or of wringing all sorts of flavorful results from a single dice throw, and the next designer to come along, whether armchair amateur or big-name pro, could snatch up that idea with nary even a muttered “thanks” in Klingon. 

There are probably volumes written by industry pros on the rights of game designers with respect to their rules work. I’m new to the topic and have nothing smart to say, so will say little. All that comes to mind so far is the following couple of prescriptions for the dilettante designer, which, of course, you should treat as utterly uninformed opinion of zero legal value:

One, we probably shouldn’t obsess over forging utterly unique game mechanics simply out of fear that we’ll copy somebody. There’s something to the idea that the good, basic things you’d want in a game have already been mostly invented. With hundreds of commercial and free RPG systems out there, even any “brand-new” rules you dream up will likely bear a mighty close resemblance to rules in some game you (and maybe nearly everyone) have never heard of. I for one would certainly want to avoid wholesale copying of signature rules that distinguish unique game designs, but being wholly original with respect to rules is neither legally necessary nor likely possible. Perhaps the best we can do is try to innovate where innovation is possible, adapt instead of copy existing rules where innovation is not possible, and always credit and respect the sources and inspirations for our rules.

Two, we should get used to the idea that our own rules innovations gain no special legal protection! This may be hard advice for the dilettante designer, but if you’re hunched protectively over some rules design out of fear of its being nabbed… well, once you do release your long-fermented RPG masterpiece, those tricks are up for grabs anyway. Better to just not worry about it, and distinguish your creation not by crunchy bits that no one else has, but by an integration of innovative and tested rules, along with great text and cool design and all that stuff, mixed into a whole that stands out. 

Just waxing thoughtful here. (Rare, that.) Well, let me leave a different thought for those armchair designers who do get beyond the long-lingering project stage and onto a finished product. Via Slashdot, I spotted this series (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4) on “GenCon For The Aspiring Professional”. Taking a project to the biggest game convention out there, in search of a professional launch? Now there’s something for the home-brew builder to aspire to!

Watch Jeff Dee discuss game design, the universe, and more here (starting at about 7.00):


  • Robert Conley

    Ideas can’t be granted protection. An expression of an idea can be copyrighted, a machine, or process based on an idea may be patented, a brand developed around the products developed from an idea may be protected by trademark.

    But the idea itself is free for anybody else to use. The only option is trade secret which the law protects if you make a deliberate effort to keep the idea a secret. This is self-defeating for a games however.

    The reason for this is that the founding fathers realized that while efforts of inventors and authors need to be protected that continued progress for the collective good requires the free exchange of ideas. Understand that copyright was created by the crown heads of Europe as means of CENSORSHIP and control.

    Too strong copyrights, patents, and trademarks only benefit entrenched interests. Too weak has the same effect. Between the two extremes is the middle ground where the little guy gains some measure of protection as well as the big guy.

    As for the retro-clones, you have to understand that Wizards FREELY gave use of the terms and concepts need to recreate the older editions of D&D. As long as you abide by the terms of the Open Game License.

    This is because D&D 3.0 can be transformed to D&D 1.0 by limiting the choices a 3.0 character has. Want to play the 1974 rules then you can only pick a Figher, Cleric, or Magic-User. You can only pick a Human, Elf, Dwarf, or Hobbit err Halfling. You get no feats, and less spells.

    If you look at the retro-clones you will find that they are incomplete. That because only 90% of what was done in the past can be used through the OGL. This missing bits are mostly found in the monster and treasure sections.

    • tbone

      Thanks for the added thoughts. FWIW, given my shallow knowledge of the subject, the basics seem fair to me: People can’t lift text wholesale from others’ games, for which I’m glad, but they can use rules ideas, which as you note, can’t be granted protection. Legal protection for game ideas seems impractical anyway. No complaints here so far.

      Re D&D: The rights granted by Wizards’ OGL are interesting stuff. Though what I gather from my weak understanding, and from Jeff Dee’s comment, is that with or without that OGL, one could “clone” much of D&D simply by being careful to avoid copying specific text or other tangible expressions of its ideas. It would seem I could easily create a game in which “Warriors”, “Magic Wielders”, “Priests”, and “Burglars” gain “ranks” as they delve “catacombs”, picking up magic armor to boost “Protection Class”… Actually, that seems far more cautious than necessary, based on what I see in countless existing pro and amateur creations.

      Anyway, I approach this post simply from a “huh, never thought about this much” perspective. There’s a world of info out there I need to skim to gain basic competence on the topic.

      Unrelated tangent: I had recent cause to drop by your site, though I forget what exactly brought me there. I quite like the How to make a Fantasy Sandbox post. Great stuff for any GM, new or old.

  • Robert Conley

    Thanks for the compliment on my Sandbox post. I would like to do something like Points of Light for SJ Games and GURPS but all my proposals go down a black hole 🙁

    As for D&D Clone, yes people can make D&D compatible products (without saying so) by changing the terms. But the issue with that (as we found in the early 80s) is that it enough of a pain to use to inhibit sales. In contrast with the OGL you don’t have to do that. The result the products produced via the OGL are preceived as directly compatible with the games.

    There are still issues in coming out with an actual clone rulebook particularly in tables. OSRIC had a bunch of IP Lawyers advising the authors and the process was rather nit-picking. The other clones like Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry opted for an approach where it plays the same but uses a different procedure or table.

    For example in Swords & Wizardry instead of having the five catagories of saving throws you have one saving throw and modifiers to get the values you would use for the other catagories.

    Many authors involved in the retro-clone stuff, like myself, have moved beyond rules books now that all the early editions are covered. Instead the focus is on settings, adventures, and supplements.

  • MorituriMax

    I’ve been wanting to take a bunch of my starship sketches, flesh them out with game stats and put them up for sale in a PDF with numerous versions for different game systems, but can’t quite pin down whether putting “Compatible with GURPS” or “Compatible with FATE Space” etc above each section is crossing a legal line. If yes, IS there a way to do it legally that doesn’t involve bringing in the lawyers from every system?


    • tbone

      Can you publish supplements that name and draw on other games’ products? That’s definitely a case where you’ll need to check the policies of each company involved. Best to also consult with a legal professional to stay on the safe side.

      Taking GURPS as an example, Steve Jackson Games has had to field this question enough times to address it in an FAQ. The GURPS FAQ and general SJG FAQ only address it where computer games are concerned (short version: “No. Talk to us first.”). The company’s online policy goes broader:

      [So, does that mean that I can . . .] Write my own adventure or scenario using your rules or background?

      Maybe. It has to do with whether or not the material is an extension to the game line (OK), or a restatement of the copyrighted rules (not OK). Character stats, and original background and scenario material using our rules terminology, are a permitted use, as long as you’re not selling it in any way. Again, follow all the guidelines in this policy.

      Those words don’t specify non-adventure, non-scenario supplements, but I’m sure the answer would be the same. The policy gives certain permissions for free works, but not paid ones, so that’d likely put the kibosh on your idea of a paid supplement that name-checks GURPS.

      I, too, would like to have the freedom to create and directly sell adventures, backgrounds, etc. designed for general GURPS play, or for one of its published backgrounds, under some sort of “Rules for the Creation and Sale of ‘Compatible with GURPS’ Products”. But I can’t see SJG going that route, and I don’t blame them at all.

      Sure, fan-made products would expand the world of GURPS offerings, and create new visibility and energy within the line. But SJG’s not a company with the WoTC/TSR/Hasbro-level resources needed to create and administer such a program. They’d have to divert staff and money to give products a stamp of approval under the program, or at very least, to monitor all products for blatant violations of copyright, decency, etc. And as long they’d have to engage in that level of involvement, they might as well just stick to the existing policy: the “Write for Us” policy of working directly with writers on official SJG products.

      That’s all non-professional, outsider speculation on my part. There are probably great SJG forum discussions on the topic somewhere, with much better insights. And if the FAQ leaves questions unanswered, your must-contact resource is of course SJG itself. Approaches change over the years; no harm in asking them whether they’ve got any new thoughts on turning an idea like yours into reality!

      • RyanW

        Once you start putting “Compatible with Game X” and similar things that tend to tie your product to another by name or appearance, you are no longer dealing merely with mechanics. You’re soundly in trademark territory, which does have significant legal protections. Basically, if a reader could read your work and come to the conclusion that is it created or endorsed by the owners of the trademarks you used, you are potentially in dangerous waters.

        • tbone

          Yep. I’m no legal expert, but that rings true to me.

          Something we should all be aware of: Game company people typically aren’t jerks who selfishly guard their trademarks & ideas because they don’t want anyone else to benefit from them. It’s easy for us to think “But if I advertise my product as ‘compatible with Game X’, that’ll only help their visibility and sales. How could they object to that?” In fact, though, trademark holders have to deal with real-life misuse of their trademarks – whether sporadically here and there, or whether a constant barrage – by people who don’t mean well. Leniently allowing use of trademarks, even to “good guys” – as in, “Aw, these are our best customers and forum buddies; what harm can it do?” – can set precedence that allows non-buddies to get away with unwelcome stuff. In worst cases, it can lead to loss of trademark.

          Friendly game-makers want to share their name with fans in ways that are fun for all, but the smart ones know that they can’t do so freely and loosely. Systems for sharing use of trademarks, with proper controls and monitoring, can of coure be designed, and are. A small company may not have the resources to do this, though, or may be able to do so in only a limited fashion (such as SJG’s policy on limited, non-commercial usage of trademarks on fan blogs).

          No matter how much some companies would like to relax and have fun with stuff like the use of trademarks by fans, given the existence of the few bad apples who will take advantage of whatever they can, the companies know they have to be really cautious. Just another small case of “why we can’t have nice things”. : (

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