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Words from the Wise (Guys)

An Editorial Rant


To the twenty-fourth issue of The Guild Companion

The Future of Rolemaster and Spacemaster

The latest news is that the Bankruptcy Trustee has selected prioritized bidders for the upcoming auction of ICE's intellectual properties. The Rolemaster and Spacemaster lines have been divided into two separate lots. The community consortium of IDTiger led by Karl Foelsche and Stephen Lee has been picked as the primary bidder for the Rolemaster properties. Another bidder has priority over the Spacemaster property. All primary bidders must submit their bids by the second week of February.

We will keep you updated as news reaches us.

D&D 3rd Edition, the d20 System, and Open Gaming

The release of Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons was the biggest event in tabletop role-playing in 2000. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the new core rulebooks have been sold, some of them to erstwhile "lapsed" gamers who had gotten out of the habit of being active purchasers.

The rules core of Third Edition has been extracted to form the d20 System, which Wizards of the Coast has already used as the basis for their new Star Wars role-playing game. Eventually Wizards of the Coast will officially release most of the d20 System as the "System Reference Document" and place that under the Open Gaming License (OGL) as Open Gaming Content.

The Open Gaming License provides a legal "safe harbor" for the use, adaptation, and dissemination of Open Gaming Content, while still protecting copyrights and trademarks. In addition, the related but separate d20 System Trademark License allows creators of Open Gaming Content to use the d20 System trademarks and logos on such material, subject to various stipulations and caveats. Two of those caveats are that third-party material cannot the process for character creation or the process of level advancement. These restrictions are the cause of occasional strange phrasing in d20 System articles and products. Their purpose is to ensure that d20 System products require their users to have access to at least the Players' Handbook, and so encourage its sales.

For fans, the Open Gaming License is all about the right to copy, modify, use, and distribute gaming materials. For the adventure games industry, and Wizards of the Coast in particular, open gaming relies upon the "Theory of Network Externalities". In role-playing terms, the more gamers who have bought into a particular game, the more gamers will be drawn into that game in the future. Rephrasing, Dungeons & Dragons is the most popular game because it is the biggest game. Wherever you go in the world, you can find players and Dungeon Masters for D&D; that is not the case for other games because their gamer networks are too small.

By placing the d20 System under the Open Gaming License, Wizards of the Coast has ensured that most independent creators will use the d20 System as a basis, evolving new improved rules and exciting source material. (Of course under the OGL, Wizards can make use of the new materials as well incorporating it into future releases.) Additionally creators with a new idea for a setting don't have to invent a system of their very own to publish with it. This should reduce the number of D&D clones, which appear every year only to disappear into obscurity, and prevent at least some market fragmentation.

The d20 System Trademark License allows individuals and companies to produce material that is wholly compatible with Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition without having to pay any money to Wizards of the Coast. At first glance, allowing other companies to produce commercial products for one's own system without any obvious financial compensation seems a bad idea. However most of the independent d20 System products to date have been slim adventure modules. These are not (relatively speaking) bestsellers as they are only really desired by some DMs, which means that the huge print runs which are financially sound for Wizards of the Coast are not viable. So they have to use smaller print runs and the profit margins on these low-priced items are tight. It makes sense to let other companies tackle this segment of the market place. Moreover, every product bearing the ubiquitous d20 System logo helps the sales of D&D core rulebooks and slowly assists in establishing d20 System as the standard role-playing rules set.

Why are the other RPG companies getting in on the act? Firstly, small companies are designed around small print runs so the margins are much better. Modules may only appeal to some DMs, but this still comes to a substantial number of potential customers. Selling five to twenty thousand copies of a product in one year would be a disaster for Wizards of the Coast; it's a jackpot for a small company. Secondly, established RPG companies are publishing conversion guides and the like for their settings as a proactive mechanism to acquire D&D gamers for their own systems.

So far, it's been successful (and the d20 System is still not officially under the Open Gaming License) with about 100 third-party d20 System products of varying nature, size and (likely) quality. Perhaps even too successful - that's a lot of potential shelf-space being taken by the d20 System, so some other products are being pushed off the shelves. As the market for d20 System products becomes saturated, it is reasonable to expect that Darwinian selection will come into play weeding out some of the new startup companies. Watch this space.

The Challenge for Rolemaster and Spacemaster

Rolemaster and the d20 System are much closer in terms of concepts and mechanics than ever before. Fortunately some differences still remain - character classes still suffer arbitrary limits on learning skills, the D&D spell system still employs a variation of the "fire-and-forget" mechanism found in Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, criticals are colorless and abstracted, and D&D only has positive Feats. Of course, Rolemaster also has finer resolution (by using d100 rather than d20 for most dice rolls), different professions, spells, skills, and levels up to 50, but these are less important.

The temptation for Rolemaster fans to return to D&D is much greater. Spacemaster gamers may be less tempted because Wizards of the Coast's science-fiction efforts are tied into Star Wars and so the material is less generic. Further, it would not be terribly difficult to eliminate Third Edition's limitations through d20 System extensions. I've already provided a method for removing exclusive skills from the d20 System in last month's issue. So there is limited room and time for maneuvering before the aspects of Rolemaster, which differentiate it from D&D, disappear forever.

The flip side is that there is a window of opportunity to produce supplements which leverage Rolemaster's and Spacemaster's strengths to tap the d20 market. Thus d20 variants of Arms Law, Talent Law, Weapon Law, Blaster Law, perhaps even Spell Law are feasible. Crucially, these variant books should not simply provide a means of improving D&D; they must include an easy route for D&D gamers to enter Rolemaster and Spacemaster.

One of the weaknesses of Rolemaster and Spacemaster has been a paucity of supported setting material in recent years. For settings to be financially viable, they must attract as many gamers as possible. The best way of ensuring that is to make them compatible with the d20 System (in addition to Rolemaster or Spacemaster as appropriate). Obeying the restrictions of the d20 System Trademark License is a worthwhile price to pay to be able to use the d20 System logo.

It will be interesting to see how the new owners intend to make Rolemaster and Spacemaster flourish anew.

Farewell (for now ...)

Our next issue will be released in March 2001. By next month, we will hopefully be able to reveal the identities of the new owners of Rolemaster and Spacemaster. Stay tuned to the Discussion Boards for late-breaking news.

Keep gaming and have fun!
Nicholas HM Caldwell
General Editor for The Guild Companion

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