Numenera Licensing

Monte Cook Games released the not-open license for Numenera as well as fan guidelines for usage. The Fan Guidelines merit a read, but the heart of the license is that you pay $50 per product, you can’t crowdfund, and your total sales must stay under $2000. Over $2k, you must negotiate terms with Monte Cook Games (MCG).

I admit, the terms of all this don’t terribly excite me, but I suspect that they will work very well for Monte Cook.

When you craft the license for using your games, you are ultimately trying to do several things:

  1. How do I let people make stuff For my game (Without needing to worry that someone is going to do a Race War RPG with it)?
  2. How do I make sure I get my cut if something small takes off?
  3. How can I spread my game?
  4. How do I serve my existing community?

Different licenses reflect different emphases on these, and those emphases are not always obvious. As an example, both #2 and #3 are potentially motivated by a desire to maximize the bottom line. A lot of lamer licenses try to do all of these things without really prioritizing or making tradeoffs. Most notably, game studios have a bad habit of zeroing in on #2 rather than thinking about the commercial benefits of other approaches.[1]

Monte Cook is in a unique position. He doesn’t really need to give a crap about #3 – growth will be nice, yes, but he has an established audience already. And since #3 tends to correlate most strongly with openness, he has little real incentive to go for any kind of truly open license.

MC also was a very successful d20 publisher, and almost certainly felt the very worst of the ups and downs of the d20 Bubble and burst. I don’t pretend to be a mind reader, but if I had been through that wringer, I’d probably have some more priorities too, like keeping the market from being glutted by trash. Were I of a game design bent, I might conclude that the problem – especially for PDF products, which I hypothetically know intimately – is a very low barrier of entry, especially for really bad products. I might then want to engineer a license that puts in an artificial floor. Nothing too onerous – less than $100 but more than $20. ENough to make some stop before just turning a word doc with some clip art into a pdf and selling it for 99 cents.

But to hypothesize further, I don’t want to give away the farm. What if, somewhere out there, is the next me? The guy who will write the spinoff that gets huge? What would I have done to me if I was WOTC?

I’d put in a ceiling, and beyond that threshold, you need to negotiate. It’s a high enough celling that most products won’t hit it, but if they do, then I benefit. And, importantly, this also means I don’t need to bother with any discussions of licensing with enthusiastic fans with more ideas than business sense.

That last bit is proper genius, and I tip my hat to it. Monte’s fans are enthusiastic, and putting up an automated filter so the discussion doesn’t begin until you can hit a certain sales threshold is a great way to keep that enthusiasm from creating too much work. And more, it gives a polite way to say no to prospective partners. Rather than risk nerd-drama by saying no to someone’s heartbreaker, they can say “Just use this license, and come back to us if it does well”. [2]

That leads into the fan guidelines. Now, viewed in the abstract, this is kind of messed up. A lot of it is covered (or expanded) by fair use, so why even bother with these guidelines?

Because they’re not guidelines for the game, they’re guidelines for the community. They are the answer to every forum discussion and flamewar that MCG can think of, laid out an explicit set of best practices within that community. If you like Numenera enough to hack it hard but are not part of the MCG community, then I suspect the assumption is that you are an outlier. You can go ahead and do your fair use dance, but it won’t get any traction within the community because they have a very literal chapter and verse to cite regarding how you’re doing it wrong.

And that’s the rub. For all that this flies in the face of open and growth focused license fans, this is all very strongly designed to support the existing fanbase. That is not a common priority because very few games have a preexisting fanbase at the point when they’re developing a license. MCG’s combination of existing fanbase and new IP created an opportunity to change up his approach.

None of which is to say I’m terribly fond of the license. My own taste towards openness is well documented. But I appreciate it. I respect the problems it tries to solve, and I doubly respect that there is a license at all. I very much like being abel to clearly understand a creators intent for the use of their game. Not because I think that creates any obligation in me – If I wanted to make a white label Numenera, nothing would stop me – but because I prefer to respect a creators wishes rather than be forced to guess and then find out I’ve stepped in something. As much as I think openness helps us all, I’ll fully concede that clarity is almost as useful, and this has that in spades.

In the end, I doubt this license is going to set the world on fire, or even do much to grow Numenera, but I think it is going to serve that community well. And that’s a not a bad goal.

  1. This does beg the question (yes, it totally does, nerd) – Why introduce a license at all? Most practical answer is that fans are going to do stuff anyway, so it’s better to lead than follow. However, I also suspect there’s a very human component to it of wanting to support the fans.  ↩
  2. Openness offers this benefit too, but people still love an official seal of approval, which the Numenera license offers.  ↩

13 thoughts on “Numenera Licensing

  1. Hammerhead

    How does this license benefit anyone but Monte? The restriction on KS seems a tad hypocritical to me, given the Numenera project. Like it or not, it seems that every major RPG project gets its start there now.

    And the fifty dollar cost seems prohibitive to guys who wrote a cool Numenera adventure or short supplement and want to try and make a little money.

    It feels like the 4e license was more generous.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Practically, it benefits the user looking to make sales because it leverages the existing audience. It *also* benefits Monte, but it is not entirely draconian.

      There is a very strong case to be made that if $50 is going to be a barrier to you creating a commercial product, then you might want to reconsider your plan. Even for a small adventure you can spend more than that on writing, editing, layout, art or cartography individually (to say nothing of printing, if you go that route). You can do all those things yourself, of course, but at that point there are really two options.

      1) You are not very good at one or more of them, and the product suffers
      2) You really are awesome at all of them, in which case why they hell are you producing licensed stuff rather than conquering the world?

      Not to say you shouldn’t make your thing, but it’s reasonable to pause and ask yourself if it really needs to be a commercial product (rather than a fan one, in this context).

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  3. Jeremy Puckett

    Good points all, Rob. Personally, I think this license will ultimately be detrimental to Numenera. Without growth–which an open license helps with–a product generally has to rely on its existing fanbase for support. Openness and growth help give games thriving communities, as we see with Fate and Savage Worlds. I suppose only time will tell, but I think this is a bad choice for Numenera.

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    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      On the surface, it may appear so, but I actually think it’s smart for a couple of reasons related to the $2000 ceiling. First, a sub-$2000 kickstarter would be a bit of an anomaly itself, and probably not a great idea. Second, and perhaps more importantly, there is no way to predict how a kickstarter will go – if funding goes over $2000, then what? Do you need to cancel the kickstarter? The practical considerations are complicated and the intent of the license is to be simple, so it’s a reasonable clause.

      Now, all this is predicated on the idea that if you want to kickstart, you treat it the same way that you would a product that you think will sell more than $2000 worth of stuff, and you talk to them directly. My *expectation* is that they’re probably quite cool about it, and willing to negotiate very reasonable terms. If it turns out that they’re also saying no in *that* context, then yeah, it’s a bit hypocritical. But it’s their IP, so they’re allowed to be, no matter how little I think of it.

      But that said, I really, really doubt they would have a true “no kickstarter” policy. Rather, I would expect that they’d be very interested in making sure that any Numenera kickstarter is done well. A crappy Numenera kickstarter will splash back on them in lots of ways which I can understand them wanting to avoid, so they are likely to take care.

      1. Shanna Germain

        That is absolutely correct, Rob — we would never have a “No KS” policy.

        In fact, most of our licensing deals so far have been Kickstarted including Torment: Tides of Numenera and Christopher West’s Numenera Maps. We’re huge KS fans (obviously) and are all for it. But you’re right that it requires a full license, not only because there’s a really good chance you’ll go over $2000 if you do it right, but also because it allows us to work closely with companies to ensure that they understand the setting and the creative essence of the game so that fans get the best possible product.

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  8. BeePeeGee

    The limited 50$ licence is a great idea.
    Usually, when I hack a system, I write up a small PDF and publish it via Google Drive and G+.
    The Numenera fan use policy wants to restrict that:
    I find this extremely annoying.
    Shouldn’t this be allowed according to fair use doctrine?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      You can still use Fair use – the fan publishing option is basically an alternative to Fair Use (in my non-lawyerly opinion). You can still use fair use and abide by those rules, or you can abide by their rules and have access to things which fair use wouldn’t allow, but do so under their terms. The rub is you can’t get the benefits of both simultaneously.


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