Long time readers of the Cthulhu Reborn blog will probably be aware that one of the things we’ve written about occasionally is the notion of a “free” 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. We’ve also tried to work through some of the practical IP limitations that complicate the free release of a game whose source material is a mix of public domain and copyrighted stories.
Ruminations on the concept of a TTRPG rules engine as a kind of “operating system” for games (and the question of “what would an open source one look like?”) were foremost in our minds when we released the entire rules text for APOCTHULHU as an OGL System Reference Document (or SRD).
In the 12 months since we made that release, our SRD has been downloaded an enormous number of times. There have also been a steady trickle of questions and inquiries about just what someone can and cannot do with our text. I thought I’d take this opportunity, at the closing of a dismal year, to summarize some of the most commonly answered questions about the APOCTHULHU SRD … and make a first announcement about something cool we are ourselves planning to do with the ruleset (for the latter, scroll to the end of this post).
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1: Can I do “X” using the rules you’ve released as open content in the APOCTHULHU SRD?
Regardless of what “X” is, the answer is pretty much the same. You can do anything you like with our material, with ONE proviso. Anything that you release, publish, or even distribute needs to be released under the same version of the (WotC) Open Gaming License that we have used in our SRD. What does that mean in practice? Well, it means that you need to attach the same OGL contract/license page somewhere in your new creation (“X”) … and you need to modify the list of copyrighted works (part of the contract) to show the “ancestors” of your work. Thus you’d take the list of works we have cited in our OGL contract as ancestors to the APOCTHULHU SRD and then add your own copyright below that. This basically keeps the lineage of your work (and, indeed, our work) explicitly part of the OGL text. But, that is ALL you need to do.
Q2: So … does that just mean I can do free supplements, or can I make commercial products too?
You can do either free or commercial releases — in fact the OGL pretty much empowers you to do any kind of release you want using whatever mechanism you’d prefer. Want to run a Kickstarter for a game fueled by our rules? … Go right ahead! Want to use these rules to make a best-selling Lovecraftian RPG campaign? … More power to you (although we might come and ask if you’ll hang with us after you’re mega famous, so we can bask in your glory 🙂 )
Q3: When you say people can “use the SRD material” do you mean they can be inspired by the rules … or can I just lift whole sections verbatim and dump them into my game?
Again, the OGL covers both of these scenarios (and many others). If you want to copy/paste our rules for Sanity or Resource Scarcity to be part of your manuscript, go right ahead. As long as you adhere to the OGL’s rules for attaching a contract and keeping the lineage of your work accurate, you should feel free to take literal text, be inspired, or publish material that leverages our rules to fuel your own scenario by implication.
Q4: You’ve already said some of the Cthulhu Mythos IP isn’t in the Public Domain. How can your game be free and open? And the new IP (critters, frex) found in scenarios in your rulebooks, they must be under a copyright, right?
Well, if you take a close look at the APOCTHULHU rulebook, you’ll notice that we were very careful to separate the rules engine parts from the bits that talk about specific Lovecraftian names, places, tomes, etc. The SRD is made up of the first of those — and none of the Mythos stuff (or sections of our published scenarios) are considered part of the Open Content covered by the SRD’s license. That was a conscious decision by us to avoid the horrible (partially manufactured) complexities that have grown up in recent years around using Mythos names in games.
It has been generally established, though, that sum total of creations that are purely the invention of Lovecraft are now in the Public Domain and thus available for your original creations if you so desire. If you want to see an exhaustively-researched list of things that are definitely safe, we re-published some of the work that the German Lovecraft Society undertook for their awesome German-Language RPG FHTAGN. You can read the full version of their work, in German, on their website.
Q5: Are you guys crazy? Why would you give away the rules engine for your game to anyone who wanted it … and ask for nothing in return?
Well, we have blown a few SAN checks in our many decades of playing Lovecraftian TTRPGs, but our decision to release our rules as free and open content is quite a rational one. We know that many other publishers jealously guard their core rulebook’s contents, since it’s by selling those titles that they make most of their profits. We think that’s a fine business model, and would never criticize any publisher for operating in this tried-and-true way. However, having rulesets locked away as proprietary items of IP can (in many cases) stifle community and independent creators who want to do their own experimental thing. Given that Lovecraft himself spent virtually his entire writing career trying to encourage new writers by supporting them finding their own creative voice, we strongly believe there is a place for a game system that supports community/independent creation of game content inspired by his works. If we can be a small pillar that supports that kind of community effort, we will have achieved what we set out to do.
Q6: So … can I call my published work “compatible with APOCTHULHU” or “fuelled by” or something? Can I use the APOCTHULHU logo?
Technically our logo is trademarked by us … but we are not against it being used or referred to in other people’s work, as long as they aren’t inherently offensive or illegal in some way. If you’re interested in doing something like that, I’d suggest getting in touch with us (use the contact form at the bottom of this post) and we can work something out.
Q7: I have this idea for a game … but it has nothing to do with Post-Apocalyptic modes of play. It seems like it might be hard to use your rules for something like that … is there something you have that would help me?
Hmm … well that sounds like a (not-at-all contrived) cue for me to make a small announcement. Here we go.
A Small Teaser/Announcement
Since January this year, we have been playing with the core mechanics that drive APOCTHULHU, trying to tease apart the pieces that are “Post-Apocalypse-y” and the parts that could equally well apply to a Lovecraftian game set in pretty much any historical or future era.
We released some initial ideas describing briefly how our mechanics might work for a (non-Apocalypse) game of Victorian Mythos horrors.
But while those brief notes demonstrate the basic feasibility of making more traditional games/settings, they still required a lot of work from someone to breathe them into life as a fully-playable game. We realized (over a good part of 2021) that to support a diverse range of different game settings, it would be far more helpful to have a family of different SRDs — each catering to a specific era or style of setting. These would each be their own “pick-up-and-play” set of rules, tailored to the types of gameplay that would befit a Lovecraft-inspired game in that era/setting. To manage the sheer complexity of having a whole family of different rulesets we envisaged the idea of having each era-specific game be a “localization” of an abstract set of rules — replacing and tailoring the parts which differ between settings, but leaving the rules that transcend settings identical across versions.
We call this family of SRDs “Cthulhu Eternal” … and it is our hope to unleash the first batch (perhaps 3 or 4 eras) in January or February. Like the APOCTHULHU SRD, they will be absolutely free and fully open — ready for someone to pick up and use as the backbone for a terrifying and original beast of a game.
If you are a game creator who believes they have a potential use for something like this — or who might like to collaborate on something using our rules engine, we would like to hear from you. Maybe you have some amazing creation out there already written for a different system but looking to translate it? Fill out the form below and we will keep you in the loop as we finalize the first era localisations of Cthulhu Eternal.