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Using Intellectual Property

There are more pre-created settings in role playing supplements than you can shake a stick at. There are even more settings out there in other creations outside just the role playing industry. These include TV shows, movies, novels, graphic novels, comic books, and video games. Some of these have already been adapted to a role playing system (Dresden Files, Mistborn, Robotech, and many more). What do you do if you want to represent an existing Intellectual Property into a game of your own? There are a few steps to it.

Keep it Private or Get Permission

You are free to adopt anyone’s intellectual property into your private games. There are no restrictions there. So long as you don’t turn it into a “public performance” or make a profit off of your efforts, you’re free to delve into another creator’s world to your heart’s content. Let’s clarify a few things here. A public performance would be something along the lines of an “actual play” podcast, a YouTube channel, or other distribution method. Playing in the backroom of your FLGS around others would be okay. I’m no lawyer, but I don’t feel that playing the game “in public” would constitute a “public performance.” I’m pretty sure “don’t turn a profit” is pretty clear, but this basically means that you’re not allowed to pad your wallet with cash from others while running the game. This includes publishing your material. Another point of clarity: Giving it away for free still constitutes a copyright violation. While the game, NPCs, PCs, specific settings you create, and so on will be yours, it will still be based upon (and most likely make use of) copyrighted items in the existing creation. If you’re going to make your system/setting highly derivative enough that the original work can’t be recognized, then you may as well make your own, unique setting.

 I need to add a caveat here. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on TV. I have done serious research in this area, but I can’t give legal advice. 
If you intend to publish your materials (for free or pay), you must acquire the rights to the world, characters, settings, and other items made by the creator. The creator typically owns the rights to sell or grant them to someone else. This is not always the case. If the creator has passed away, then the estate, literary manager, or other entity (usually a literary agent or law firm) will manage the rights grants and/or purchases on behalf of the creator’s inheritors. Acquiring rights can sometimes be simple, but don’t count on it going quickly or easily. Getting your hands on the rights can also cost you money. Sometimes lots of money. Be prepared for this. The more popular the intellectual property, the higher degree of complexity and increased expenses you’ll encounter. If you really want what you’ve made to be published, then I highly recommend acquiring the rights before you start serious work on it. This will prevent you from spends months or years on something that’s dead out of the gate.

If you’re not sure what route you should go, I would consult a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property rights. I need to add a caveat here. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on TV. I have done serious research in this area, but I can’t give legal advice. The above paragraphs should not be construed as such.

Choosing a System

Unless you’re going to homebrew an entire system of mechanics to handle playing in the world, you’ll probably want to go with a generic system. Some of the top systems currently on the market are Savage Worlds, Fate, GURPS, Hero System, and Cypher. There are, of course, others. If I were to adopt an existing setting into an RPG campaign, I’d go the easy route and try to find an existing RPG system that can handle the nuances of the setting. If the setting just can’t properly fit into a generic system without breaking the setting or the system, then it might be time to create your own RPG to reflect the fiddly bits and details of the setting. I’d be willing to bet that with a little work and expansions on a generic system, you’ll be able to get one to work with whatever setting you choose.

Teaching Others

 You just need to sit down with those that need to learn and watch the movie. 
If you’re adopting someone else’s creation into a game campaign, odds are that you already have a core group of players that know the setting and nuances. You won’t need to teach these folks much at all. It’s the people that haven’t read the book, series of books, graphic novel(s), or seen the movie that you need to teach. Obviously, if the game is based on a TV show or movie, that’s very easy to teach. You just need to sit down with those that need to learn and watch the movie. In the case of a TV show, I don’t recommend binge watching seasons at a time. Hand pick a two or three episodes that will land the feel and flow of the narrative and setting. This will bring the light of knowledge into the darkness of those ignorant of what you want to represent.

If the setting comes from book (and especially if it’s a series of books), then Wikipedia can become your friend. Point the newcomer to the setting to a Wikipedia page or two about the setting. If the property is popular enough, then it may very well have its own instance on one of the free, public wiki sites out there. This is true for Mistborn, Dresden Files, Buffy, and many other properties. Summaries of key characters, important events, and setting details can be found there. This will save you the time of writing up a summary. Someone has already done it for you!

Making It Your Own

The interpretation given to a property by you and your players will make it your own. If the campaign is based on a series of books, it’s trivial to set the campaign before the books begin, between books, or at the end of the series. This will create a tangent from the main storyline that will give you the freedom to do as you please with the PCs at the table. You can also choose locations only mentioned in passing in the novels, or choose something outside the main plotline of the property. To take a page from Dresden Files, most of those novels take place in and around Chicago. If you wanted to play a team of spell-slinging private investigators in Denver, go for it. There’s nothing stopping you. I actually highly encourage picking an obscure setting just for the liberation it gives you to tell your own tales.

 Avoid using the high-powered canon characters in your campaign as NPCs. 
If there is a magical/technical/futuristic/wondrous mechanic in the setting you’re trying to reflect, but you just can’t quite get the generic (or homebrew) rules to mesh with what is represented in the intellectual property, it’s perfectly fine to alter that mechanic to fit the rules of the game. Just be very clear with your players on what you’re changing and let them know why and how it affects the world and their characters. Someone may come to your table with a specific character concept in mind that gets broken or nullified by your alteration.

Avoid using the high-powered canon characters in your campaign as NPCs. These include people like Han Solo, Harry Dresden, Buffy (the Vampire Slayer), Elric, and many others. If the NPC somehow gets drastically changed or killed off, then it can break the suspension of disbelief for your players. They know that these characters “are still alive” in the setting, and the fact that they died can create high levels of cognitive dissonance. They can also become targets for the PCs that desire to change the world, which can distract from the story. Likewise, you may feel inclined to provide some level “plot armor” for these important characters, and that can unnaturally stymie what the PCs want to try to accomplish.

Break Canon

If you need Buffy to be dead (or kidnapped or removed from the direct story) in order for your campaign ideas to work smoothly, then kill her off (no hate mail please, she’s fictional). Yes, this breaks the canon of the setting as presented in the TV show, but that’s fine. This is your story to tell in collaboration with your players. Just make sure you have a good reason and think out the impacts of removing the character.

If you need a certain captain to be in charge of a certain Star Fleet ship in your Star Trek game, then do it. Don’t worry about breaking canon because you didn’t have the time or want to take the time to research things. If a player challenges you on the “mistake,” just point out that this is an “alternate universe” or a “reboot of the series” like what Hollywood is becoming infamous for. Most players will let it go or the change will intrigue them enough to deepen the hook into the unfolding story.

Relax and Have Fun

 If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. 
Don’t worry too much about “getting it right.” If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. It’s that simple. If a certain event happened on a certain date, represent this close enough to get the point across to your players, and they’ll roll with it. If an important person from the intellectual property is in the wrong place, has the wrong equipment, develops a new power, loses an existing power, or is changed in a minor aspect, then roll with it. Once you adapt the setting to your private campaign, you are free to change things as you please. This goes for the players as well. If a particular religious group within a setting aren’t allowed to wear jewelry, but a player wants her character to always wear her dead mother’s ring, then allow it. Just come up with a compelling reason the character gets to be the exception to the rule.

Lean On Your Players

When you’re GMing a game, there’s lots to keep track of. If you’re focused on the flow of the story or a mechanic within the game, a detail about the setting can easily slip your mind. Don’t be afraid to look over the GM screen and ask the players about a small detail involving something from the property. Just be careful not to tip your hand about what might be coming at them from around the corner. If you’re not sure of a detail and don’t want to tip your hand, call for a five minute break in the game to let people refresh their drinks or relax and socialize a bit. This will give you a chance to look up details online using your phone, tablet, or laptop if you have one handy. The wikis mentioned above come in very handy.

In the Dresden Files RPG I’m currently running, I lean heavily on my players. I’ve read the books (fiction and RPG materials) and various short stories, but my memory is almost as bad as Swiss cheese. Both of my players have an uncanny ability to quote dialogue from the books. I don’t get it. However, I like it. This allows me to pick their brains for details before and during the game to make sure I’m close to the target, but they completely understand that I’m able and willing to break canon. However, when I break canon, I make sure to not break the “rules” of the setting as laid out in the core material.

What’s your favorite setting you’d like to turn into an RPG campaign or published material? What settings out there would you like to see adapted to an RPG setting book for a generic system?



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Using Intellectual Property

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