Can Cthulhu Be Open?

In the past few weeks there has been some rather interesting discussion over on the Yog-Sothoth forums about the legal status of a set of rules for d100 Lovecraftian horror gaming that some group attempted to circulate under Wizard of the Coast’s Open Gaming License (OGL). While the OGL is a very common part of RPG publishing in other corners of the industry, it has never had much traction in the world of Cthulhu RPGs (with a few exceptions). With the kerfuffle launched by this YSDC thread, it sounds like there are certainly parties who would like things to stay that way.

The YSDC thread in question is linked here, although you will need to be a YSDC member to sign-in and read it.

In this thread Chaosium has made some fairly bold assertions, although those pale into insignificance compared to their recent (doubtless related) posting over on BRP Central. That posting effectively says that, despite the fact that the BRP system was effectively published back in 2006 as Open Game Content (under the OGL), because Mongoose’s license was terminated in 2011 that means the previously published material is now no longer Open Game Content. This is an interesting assertion given the specific language included in the Open Gaming License contract which says “In consideration for agreeing to use this License, the Contributors grant You a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license with the exact terms of this License to Use, the Open Game Content.”

One wonders what that means for the literally hundreds of game books that have used content derived from the 2006 Mongoose SRD, or from a book that sourced content from the Mongoose SRD, or from a book that used a book that used a book … Mongoose SRD. Does Chaosium’s statement mean that all of those hundreds of books can now no longer be sold?

As someone who has several times considered publishing Cthulhu content under the OGL (rather than the Creative Commons License we usually use here on Cthulhu Reborn), this discussion is of particular interest to me.

Is there any OGL expert out there who knows whether it’s even possible for someone to retroactively assert content is no longer open, long after it was published? Inquiring minds want to know! Replies in comments below or send them to me direct at dean <at>

10 responses to “Can Cthulhu Be Open?

  • docfuturity

    This is a losing battle for Chaosium, based on the evidence of what happened with WotC between 3rd through 5th editions. Even WotC can’t stop the 3rd edition OGL from being used by current publishers from making what are effectively 5th edition D&D retroclones. When Mongoose added the MRQ/Legend ruleset to the OGL bag, that was the cat escaping.

  • Shelby

    Hysterical. Why am I not surprised?

  • S.F.

    I think it’s rather poor form from Chaosium in my view. A little competition would hopefully spur some innovation from Chaosium, as in at least my opinion the best CoC (& mythos in general) work has been published by third parties for most of the current edition.
    They know they don’t need to be harsh with Paul of Cthulhu, a fixture of the CoC community for years,  he’s always been dedicated to politeness & rule of law.
    Also, they should have given some sort of example or reason on how Open Cthulhu is violating their copyright, as for now it seems it’s just “Don’t make a D100 cthulhu rpg or we’ll sue you, only we can make those. Source: Dude trust us”, and the ability to retroactively revoke open licences seems quite contradictive to the purpose of an open licence. Chaosium is making themselves look like the bad guys here whether or not they are.

    Sad to see the state on YSDC, angry internet versions of the comic book guy from the Simpsons acting as if they are experts in all while claiming all else are ignorant fools, behaving just as antagonistic as will be tolerated my moderators attempting to keep the polite civil order in place (I remember forum members getting in chastised for saying unkind things about a kickstarter that took a large sum of money & ran, even those without vulgarity. Not a place where open flaming would last long, but it’s easy to see their desire in their prose), just to be “right” on the internet.

    Best of luck to the Open Cthulhu team, I hope to hear this goes well.

    • S.F.

      *by moderators, not “my moderators”
      *getting chastised, not “getting in chastised”
      Etc, etc.
      I hate bizzare autocorrections, should have never attempted to post via my phone.

  • deanadelaide

    I’d have to say I agree with all of this. I respect the rights of Chaosium as a copyright-holder to make allegations of copyright violation … but AFAIK nobody has seen an example of what they believes is in violation.

    Also: YSDC debates rarely reach the “you’re wrong and I’m right!” type of argument. I hope this one doesn’t get derailed by a couple of hot-headed posts. The practical discussion in the thread is IMHO too important to get sidelined.

    I am fascinated to see how this ends.

  • Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel

    Chaosium wants to get bigger and bigger; and, since we live in a capitalistic world, size means money. So, in the end, they want to get richer and richer. I don’t think they shouldn’t ear money and even get rich from their products; but I say when you replace the goal of good games with the goal of big money, then you have a problem. You can still make good games, but then you can start being a dick, or an abuser (these include lying about legal stuff and threaten people, both of which Chaosium has indulged in of late; what’s next? Actively prosecuting people? Using money to shut people?), and, yes, make bad games. WotC is the prime example.

  • Yronimos Whateley

    It’s a wonderful discussion, and I agree: I hope it doesn’t get so heated by a couple enthusiastic exceptions to the generally thoughtful rule that the discussion gets shut down after undue escalation.

    For my part, I have to wonder if yet another Cthulhu rules set is really needed, anyway – after all, I’m hardly a collector, and even I have 5th Ed and 7th Edition BRP Cthulhu, D20 Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Delta Green, and a couple others sitting on my bookshelf, mostly gathering dust. The rules sets are not the problem in CoC – everyone and the little old lady next door has his/her own Cthulhu rules set, usually set in one of the same handful of default settings: the 1920s “classic” era, the modern era, or maybe (if the designer is feeling REALLY adventurous) the Victorian “Gaslight” era.

    When we look at the sorts of things that pulp-era writers like Lovecraft, Klarkashton, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, R.W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany, and others created, we see far more diversity in what counts than anything we get in all the various Cthulhu RPG rules sets combined – consider Lovecraft alone, who wrote in his modern era (the 1920s), as well as the gaslight era, the Colonial era, the Roman Empire, a sort of R.E. Howardesque prehistoric Hyborian Age in stories like “Polaris”, near-future Venus in “In the Walls of Eryx”, Lovecraft’s take on Dunsanian Dreamlands… there’s more imagination in Lovecraft alone than you’re likely to find in a hundred Cthulhu rules sets, if the examples sitting on my bookshelf are anything to go by (and I suspect Open Cthulhu is no exception, considering how hard Chaosium came down on them!)

    For me, there simply isn’t a demand for a more diverse selection of rules sets – we have plenty of those, and most of them are at least adequate, if not excellent! What I’d rather see would be some OGL-style SETTINGS that try something new and unique, and encourage the amateur gaming community to try contributing their own free scenarios and expansions for the setting without fear of stepping on the toes of the (frankly, oversaturated) market for standard-issue “old-school classic” and pulp style Cthulhu in all the usual settings that EVERYONE seems to do.

    I’d rather see some genuinely new trails being blazed by the younger game writers: monsters that have never appeared in print before, locations that no one has visited before, eras that have never been explored before.

    One professional-quality RPG expedition into the Cthulhu Mythos set in an “Old Solar System” alternate history of Martian canals and Venusian jungles… or, a campaign set in diverse locations in a globe-spanning Hollow Earth world of caverns just beneath our feet inhabited by cosmic nightmares beyond comprehension…. or relatively unexplored sci-fi settings like “Cthulhu: Icarus” or “End Times: The Reaping”, or something set in the far future of a burned-out sun where the last struggling survivors of humanity burrow ever deeper into Earth’s horror-filled heart in search of warmth as hinted in “The Shadow Out of Time”… just one! One well-developed fresh setting with quality support for open-ended fan contribution would be worth the weight to me of hundreds of new more-of-the-same Cthulhu Rules sets aping Chaosium’s BRP rules set built around the well-established default 1920s, modern, or gaslight historical settings with all the usual Lovecraft beasties and books obeying all the artificial little rules set for them back at the dawn of RPG history….

    To me, there’s more than a hint of Old School Renaissance to Open Cthulhu, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s just that what the Weird/Cosmic gaming community needs is NOT more of the Old-School same, only more-so…. What it really needs is an injection of the Weird/cosmic surprise, wonder, and imagination that drew so many people to the old pulp stories to begin with! Those things are system-agnostic: a well-constructed Cthulhu scenario doesn’t even NEED game rules and stats to be created, and it doesn’t NEED the characters and other creations owned by Chaosium or anyone else to make it work. The BRP rules are great stuff, and the original monster/character/setting inventions by the guys at Chaosium have their place, but they are not what made Cthulhu gaming great, not really – what made it great was the sheer power of the imaginations of Lovecraft and his circle in creating the genre!

    What we need are more well-constructed, atmospheric, evocative, and imaginative scenarios, campaigns, and settings in THAT spirit that will run just as well in any existing Cthulhu game system, providing the GM just enough support to plug in his/her own stats and game rules where needed. Make a useful chunk of that content free and easy for the public to tinker with and adapt and expand on, and you have what looks to me like a winner!

    At least, that’s the way I see it – admittedly, I don’t see things normally, but I would hope that most other fans of the genre value the original and novel over a slavish imitation of The Same.

    • deanadelaide

      Yronimos, thanks for taking the time to write a well-thought-out and detailed reply.

      For what it’s worth, I agree with your basic premise that the traditional “hunting ground” of Lovecraftian RPGs — 1920s tales featuring the obvious Mythos creations of HPL: Deep Ones, Ghouls, etc — has been heavily mined and somewhat played out.

      A lot of what we’ve tried to publish via Cthulhu Reborn is driven by a desire to create different products that either explore that same setting through different formats, or which look at Lovecraftian themes in unorthodox setting. Dateline: Lovecraft is an example of the former, while our colonial Australian penal setting is the latter.

      Even with out (fairly modest) ambitions for stretching the boundaries, we have run into numerous “limiting factors.”

      1. The most obvious is that commercially-speaking Lovecraftian gamers are very familiar with the traditional, and not so interested in paying $$ for something that’s set somewhere/when else. We believe that we have conquered this hurdle with Convicts & Cthulhu, but that’s been mostly through providing a well-supported product line, lots of free content, etc

      2. I absolutely agree with you that when it comes to Lovecraftian scenarios, game system matters very little if at all. But if you look at what people purchase, things are heavily weighted towards established systems like Call of Cthulhu. I’m not saying it’s because those systems are best — or even that they produce the best content — but the familiarity and marketing machines behind those established games seems to strongly drive purchasing choices. That’s not a big deal if you are happy to make your products on a shoe-string or bear costs that you might never recoop, but if you want to pay authors a fair rate and have quality original art, striking out on your own (or going fully systemless) is a big gamble commercially.

      3. Sticking with the BRP/CoC engine does offer an easy path to getting things published and into the hands of gamers … but it comes with some serious “strings” that make the kinds of innovation you mention much harder. I have posted a bit about this previously, and don’t want to necessarily air dirty laundry in public … While folks assume that having a commercial license with Chaosium allows a level of freedom to make whatever types of CoC-related items one pleases, many might be surprised by how tightly Chaosium controls what can and can’t be attempted.

      Given some of those issues, I can somewhat see the benefit in having an OGL-licensed version of BRP for Lovecraft. This is what I believe the Open Cthulhu guys are trying to offer. Having a game which is similar enough to a familiar system would alleviate problem #2 above, because the barrier to entry that gamers would need to jump to understand the system would be very low. But the biggest benefit would be having a truly open playing field where someone could envisage some of the things you mention, write them, and then publish them as OGL-derivatives without the need for a Chaosium “gatekeeper” deciding whether it’s something they would like to see out in the marketplace.

      This is, of course, just a personal opinion


  • Some F.A.Q’s about the S.R.D. | Cthulhu Reborn

    […] or “open source” game system for Lovecraftian Tabletop Roleplaying. In some of our previous posts we’ve pulled apart some embryonic efforts that have dipped their toes into this realm. […]

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