Open Games Now

I cannot play 4e (or now Gamma World) without regretting the lack of openness of the system. I really dig the 4e engine, and I love the sheer breadth of things that one might do with it. When something new, like Essentials comes along, I get excited and think about the things I’d do with that (like make more classes – I would SO much rather make an essentials class than a core one). Then I remember that no, that’s not really an option.

I mean, yes, I can still write about it, and if I have an idea for a hack, I can blog about it, but if I really want to put some serious work into making something solid? I immediately balk.

Now, yes, nominally I have the same problem with any other closed system, but the reality is more messed up. Posting a hack for Leverage or Dragon Age theoretically has the same problems, but I’m much more open to doing so for a couple reasons. Some of them have to do with the respective companies, but that’s actually a very small part of it. The big issue is that 4e is a _little bit_ open, and in many ways, that’s worse than not being open at all.

That may seem paradoxical, but consider this. If I hack Smallville, I feel that so long as I proceed on good faith, I’m fine. I might write up an adventure or some alternate rules, and if by some chance I ever go to far, I can be told to back off, and I will. It’s MWP’s game, and I’m just showing it some love. In contrast, with 4e, there’s no issue of good faith. WOTC has laid out in black and white, via their GSL, where they consider the boundaries to be (and that I need to sign an agreement to go that far). Yes, I could ignore the agreement and treat it like any other game, but that feels like playing with fire. The simple reality is that if I’m going to make a mistake in my enthusiasm, I don’t want to make it with WOTC. Too much likelihood of a response that I won’t like.

This might be ok if the boundaries of the GSL were at least broad enough to play in, but they’re explicitly not. In fact, the scope of the GSL is treated as an afterthought in every way except the things it excludes. Hell, I’d even be leery of writing and adventure for fear of accidentally using a monster that WOTC considers protected content.

Now, maybe I worry to much. I’ll cop to that. But whatever the amount of worrying you consider appropriate, I’d suggest that it’s still more of a headache than dealing with a truly open system. And that’s a big part of why we dig openness in games. We like what people do with Fate, and we’re glad they have the chance to do so.

To my mind, the only downside of open systems is that at the moment there are only so many of them that are reliably open, and that may sometimes result in people choosing to use one that may not be the best match for their project because they can’t find a good alternative. D20 saw a lot of this, and Fate is hardly immune, but I like to look at this as incentive to get more open systems out there.

13 thoughts on “Open Games Now

  1. Rob Donoghue

    That’s absolutely an option, but I’m never quite comfortable with pushing the boundaries of that too hard. Partly because their fuzzy, but much more because if it becomes a point of contention, WOTC is not a company I want to argue with.

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  2. Gareth-Michael Skarka

    Not really worth worrying about. The case law is firmly established, really — and, given the scale of things, even in the extremely unlikely event that Hasbro decided to make a stink, it would be simple to simply say “OK” and cease production.

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  3. Rob Donoghue

    I suppose, but the other rub is less practical, more emotional – I would rather play with someone’s toys if they want me to play with them. If fiddling with 4e was in some way overwhelmingly rewarding (personally or financially) that might offset some of that concern, but when I have the choice, I’m going to go somewhere that I’m wanted.

    I could probably frame that as respecting the creator’s wishes – WOTC has made it clear what they don’t want – but that’s crap. It’s mostly pragmatic and a little bit petulant on my part. 🙂

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  4. Cam_Banks

    I just don’t see the hobby gaming industry as large enough to pretend there’s some faceless corporation behind any game, even D&D. I know designers, I know writers, and I would feel pretty awful going around their preferred OGL/GSL/Creative Commons method of handling this kind of thing just because I could.

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  5. Craig Maloney

    This is part of the reason I find FATE and Eclipse Phase so attractive. Both systems are incredibly open (Eclipse Phase being Creative Commons, which tingles my hacker heart-strings ever so tunefully), and FATE because of the OGL. I also gravitate towards GURPS because they have a written agreement with their fans about how they will play with their fans, and what they expect.

    I think the biggest problem with the GSL is that we lost something between D20 and 4e. With D20/OGL, it was pretty wide open, and folks knew that they could become creative and still make money from it, as long as they abided some relatively simple guidelines. The GSL takes that away, and makes the relationship more “businesslike”. “That’s a mighty fine castle sandbox you have there. Would be a shame if someone were to stomp all over it with lawyers. Sign here, please.” Maybe the GSL is open after all, but quite frankly, having to not bother someone else’s legal department every time I want to do something with their system and make some cash off of it is a “good thing”. It means one less thing that gets in the way of creativity (because there’s certainly enough ways to procrastinate an idea, even before you get to the lawyers dogpiling it).

    Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a rubberband ball that needs some additional strands applied to it.

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  6. flit

    I find the relative closed nature of D&D 4.0 vs. 3.x to be a straight jacket, myself, without even comparing 4.0 to truly open systems. The builder exacerbates it because it can’t be edited to taste (not even in ways that ought to make sense, like adding campaign-specific languages and gods.)

    So while there are a lot of things I completely groove on with 4.x and feel are absolutely an improvement over 3.x, all in all it’s become very much a niche interest for me because I can’t tinker with it.

    Interestingly even though HERO for instance isn’t an open system, it’s such a build-it-yourself system that I have never felt the slightest issues with tinkering with it and even changing base mechanics, because the system itself has an ethos of DIY.

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  7. Rob Donoghue

    @flit I think you put your finger on it. The DIY ethos is a big deal to me, and while it should apply equally to all games, some games certainly welcome it more than others.

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  8. Jonathan

    Although the GSL is a pain the arse – it still allows for plenty of room for creativity – at least; that’s been our (limited) experience with two books for 4E so far. The main issue I have with developing for 4E though is the DDI-addiction factor. There’s no way for a 3PP to plug into DDI the same way that WotC does – thus many of the 4E players out there who want to use your custom content are left “kicking it old school” with pen and paper; or trying to houserule your content within the DDI software (which sucks at best). The former is the better option; but still it leaves 3PP outside the clubhouse.

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  9. Rob Donoghue

    It’s true, in the absence of DDI I would feel the GSL offered more options, but I’m still burned from the work that went into building a class and realizing it was useless. Essentials reminded me of this because Essentials classes look like so much less of a hassle to design (and fun too!).

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  10. Rob Donoghue

    It felt useless because, frankly, it’s so much more convenient to make a character in DDI that if you can’t, then it’s easier to just discard the possibility. This is not just about rules support for a class, but things like automatically tracking all the bonuses form magic items. At level 1 I might make a character form scratch, but by level 7 or so? Too much work.

    Regarding essentials, the classes feel a little bit more focused, and it feels like (though I haven’t concretely confirmed this) that one could write less material in terms of powers in the pursuit of this focus. In this case, I view it as a genuine case of less is more, and I dig it.

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