Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Legends of Blood & Iron: A Cautionary Tale

Back in and around late 2002, after I had used my first major homebrew RPG for two short adventure arcs and two full-blown campaigns (one of which, the "Year of the Blood Wolf" Campaign, I consider the best campaign I've ever GMed), I began to work on another gaming system, one that was more rules-light and designed specifically with a certain genre in mind - swords & sorcery fantasy role-playing - rather than my first game's "generic" system design.

At the time I was developing this RPG, I was working with the name "Legends of Steel". If one does a Google search for the "Legends of Steel RPG", one will find a game by that name...but it's not MY game. At the time I was doing the preliminary development for this project, there was no "Legends of Steel" on Google, except for some knife-maker's product line. This is why I went with the name for my RPG - no one else was working with it, and it sounded great.

Time passed, and I puttered away with the rules set. I changed this, changed that, did a little playtesting here and there with my gaming group, but for the most part I kept quiet with it. I had put SCORE out there on the web for people to look at back in the day, and by the time Legends of Steel came along I was a lot more reluctant to advertise what was essentially a work in progress.

And then, about two years ago, disaster struck. While doing a random Google search to see if any of the material I put out there was Google-able (there was a Legends of Steel PDF up for a while on my personal website), I discovered that not only had someone else begun working on a Legends of Steel RPG, it was ALSO a S&S-style RPG.

I was crushed. Three years of quietly plugging away at my project, and now someone else had essentially beaten me to the punch. I was all but ready to just go ahead and delete the whole damn thing and forget about it.

But I had put too much effort into this project, and in the end, I changed the name to Legends of Blood and Iron. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, right? It still sounds cool, but it's not someone else's title, so c'est la vie. But it does bring up one very important point, and the main purpose of this post:

If you have an idea, even if it's only halfways thought out - PUT IT OUT THERE.

I sat on my little project, and as a result, someone else beat me to the punch. I harbor no ill will towards the writer of LoS (heck, I've linked to his blog, he's the writer of the "Lair of the Evil DM") and I don't think he somehow "stole" the idea - after all, if I was able to come up with the title, there's no reason someone else couldn't.

However, aside from some computer files sitting on my hard drive and the word of my fellow gaming group members, I have no proof that I was working on "Legends of Steel" back as early as six years ago, and [Edit: I realized that I made a Yahoogroup for discussing the game back in October 2002, and It's still kicking around, albeit ignored.]

I'm not going to be a dick and go after the other guy screaming about how the idea is "mine". Just like any other written work, if you're going to claim original ownership of a work, you need to take steps to ensure that you have evidence to back your claim.

Once I settled on the Legends of Blood and Iron title for my RPG project, I put a posting of it on my Post-Modern Pulps Review message board, and there's a posting about it on The Forge (hah!). So the dates are floating around out there now in Google-able cyberspace. I learned my lesson, and am (I hope), all the wiser for it.


Darkwing said...

I'm curious--say you had posted some info about your version of the game on the internet on some RPG forum or something, prior to there being any other game out there. Then, sometime later, you stumble upon the other person's material online, under the same circumstances. That is, a S&S game with the same title as yours, but otherwise a completely independent creation.

Would you jump on the author for plagiarizing "your" title since yours was out there first (and you could prove it)? Or would you ignore it, or undergo the same name change that you already did?

Badelaire said...

The first thing I'd probably do is privately contact the author of the other game (if at all possible), lay out the evidence that shows my project predated his, and ask if there's some way we could work out a compromise.

Who knows - maybe the other project has some ideas that I never thought of, and mine has ideas that he never thought of, and the two of us could collaborate on a project together. Or, assuming the other person didn't want to give up the name while I kept it, to cut down on confusion we could both agree to just each name our projects something else, so that the original title isn't in use by either party.

When it comes right down to it, indie RPGs being put out there for free on the web fall into a lovely grey area - you're putting it out online for the world to see, you're not making money off it (and in fact usually sinking money INTO it with no hope of return), and yet it's YOUR project, and if you want to be taken seriously, you need to take it seriously yourself. If this means going after someone who hasn't done the Googling that is necessary these days to see if the title is already taken, then you have to decide if you're willing to take it that far, or just cave and give up.

People might say "big deal, it's just a game, change the title and be done with it", but once you start sinking hundreds of hours into designing and writing that project, you are investing part of your life into it, and that gives it value. Having someone come along and take that away from you is just as painful as if your novel's manuscript had been stolen, or someone had made off with your wallet. It's just a game, but it's also Intellectual Property, and as we see in the news these days, IP disputes are only going to get worse before they get better...

Jeff Rients said...

You should totally post about your project on forums.