Monday, July 11, 2011

D&D Archaeology

Something I realized about what Frog God Games is doing at the moment. It's something I should have realized earlier, but it's one of those things where I knew what, but didn't quite twig to how interesting it is until a couple of days ago.

As we all know, back in the day, TSR was a highly litigious company that worked very hard to quash any third-party products that were for D&D, either on a trademark basis or on a copyright basis. There were several small companies that folded as a result, including companies that were definitely violating the IP laws. The result of this is a hidden and largely lost body of work from the old days, some of which probably sucks, but some of which is probably really great stuff.

The Black Monastery module that we're working on right now is one of these products. The module itself wasn't the object of litigation, it was a product that was essentially finished at the time the original game company folded in response to TSR activity. Bill got the license to publish it.

How is it possible to do this? The answer is that the legal IP landscape has changed radically since those days with the advent of the open game license. PROVIDED that there wasn't a legal settlement that would quash a specific module (and this is a very important proviso!), in some cases the modules produced at that time can now be published for an open content game: not just retro-clones, but for things like Pathfinder or 3e as well. In other words, an archaeological dig has been opened up.

This is what's happening with The Black Monastery. I don't know if Bill Webb has found others or not (and I don't think so), because there's a fairly specific set of parameters that must be met -- you need a license from the original company, it can't be subject to a legal settlement that specifically prevents republication, etc. Nevertheless, the project to look around for quashed modules that are really from the old days is a fascinating approach. As a legal matter it's quite different from the retro-clone approach, but it's another neat tool that rises from the implications of the open game license.

Note: I am NOT talking about reproducing modules without the permission of the original IP holder; that is NOT legal. It's just that if you HAVE that license, and there's not a pre-existing legal settlement that would get in the way, the changed IP landscape has eliminated some of the grounds that originally blocked those publications. Legally, they are no different than a module written yesterday.

That's an interesting project. I hope that more of these can be found.


  1. The Black Monastery doesn't ring any bells, but if it was squashed by TSR early on, that's not a big surprise. When was is originally published/going to be published, Matt, and by who (author and publisher)?


  2. Originally, if I recall, it was from a company called Balboa Games (or Balboa Publishing? Not sure of the name except the Balboa part). I don't know the date, but it was on deck at the time when Balboa folded or whatever happened with TSR, so it wasn't specifically covered by a legal settlement. That's all I really know; until a couple of days ago I didn't really understand how interesting this whole situation is. But apparently Bill knows the guys who were running Balboa.

  3. Balboa? As in the guys who pubished the OD&D variant, Warlock.

    Now that would be an interesting place to do some republishing.

  4. ckutalik, that definitely sounds like what Bill described to me, but I don't know for sure.

  5. It's clearly not a precise reproduction of the original -- I'm working from the Pathfinder adaptation and there are several monsters that are definitely from the Fiend Folio. So, it has been fleshed out from whatever its original form was.

  6. This is a fantastic development. There are a lot of small time players on the RPG scene who never got their products out there, sometimes because of Big Brother (TSR) and sometimes simply because they were lost in a sea of similar products. The internet drastically changes the landscape and the ability of publishers to reach a much larger audience. Add in the OGL and opportunity abounds. Between Dan Proctor bringing old games into print and now FGG with The Black Monastery, I hope we see more of this kind of thing happening.