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I've written three games that are all pretty much finished, and I want to move forward with them. The next logical step is publication, but where do I go to find out about publishing a board/table-based RPG?

Who should I talk to about copyright, firstly to make sure I'm not infringing any, and secondly to enforce my rights as author?

What's the best format to put my documents in prior to submitting them to whomever I need to submit them to?

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Do you have an elevator pitch? –  Sardathrion Aug 28 '12 at 14:50
    
This resource might be helpful: magpiegames.com/the-igdn –  Daenyth Aug 28 '12 at 15:57
    
If you're interested in alternative publishing methods, there have been some pretty successful kickstarter.com campaigns for indie rpgs. –  RSid Aug 28 '12 at 16:47
    
Just to be clear - you're publishing a game system (and maybe some associated materials), and not any materials designed to be used with another's system, correct? –  dlras2 Aug 28 '12 at 21:01
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These are three different questions that would probably get better and more comprehensive answers if posted that way. –  mxyzplk Aug 29 '12 at 2:40
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4 Answers

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Legal issues

First, I'm not a lawyer. I've spent the past 15 years paying attention to the shifting landscape of copyright and trademark and other IP law, so I can point you toward a few ideas that might help, but I'm still not a lawyer and can't give you legal advice that's worth a damn when you actually start publishing.

Infringing others' IP rights

There are a lot of myths about copyright floating around, and it has the predictable effect of freaking out new creators (ironically so, considering it's supposed to create certainty and calm). The important thing to know is that copyright can't be infringed unless you've copied (hence the name) from someone else. It's also important to know that in the United States and some other places, being innocent is no protection from being sued into oblivion by anyone who decides to, and frivolous lawsuits can be used by those with lots of money as weapons against those who can't afford to be sued: even if they would eventually be proven innocent, usually they're bankrupted long before the trial is over.

As a result, the person to talk to about copyright (and trademarks) is a lawyer, not us. Note that in the US, game mechanics can't be patented, so there's at least one bit of law that you don't need to worry about. Aside, you're unlikely to fall afoul of trademark law either, unless your games' titles or major technical terms closely resemble (or resemble when taken in aggregate) an existing game's title or terms.

All that aside, there are thousands upon thousands of roleplaying games published, and hundreds upon hundreds more every year, and very few of those creators have bothered to retain a lawyer. The roleplaying games industry is actually pretty tiny as publishing industries go, and small players simply don't get into legal trouble by publishing a new game. The only people who generally have to worry about legalities are the people producing material designed to work with (or even clone) existing games, and it sounds like that's not your situation.

So really, read around a while about copyright and trademark, get that bit of education that's possible by reading up on Wikipedia and other relatively-reliable sources, and have a good think about whether what you're looking to publish is going to make any existing publisher unhappy. Likely the answer will be no, but by then you'll have a more confident grasp of the legalities and you'll be able to decide better when you need lawyer-shaped legal advice.

Protecting your own work

As for enforcing your own copyright, you're automatically protected if you're in the US, Canada, or the UK. (Possibly elsewhere too, but I'm not as familiar with copyright elsewhere.) Copyrights don't need to be registered anymore in order to be protected. If you do find that others are distributing or copying your work without license on a bothersome scale, that's the time to hire a lawyer to:

  1. determine who is legally responsible for the distribution (which is not always obvious), and
  2. send a legal letter asking them to cease and desist

It's worth noting that some money-making RPG publishers have stopped worrying about "piracy" of their work, as there is a growing body of evidence that its net effect on sales is negligible.

Publishing

As for publishing, the games industry is moving away from up-front print runs and big publishing houses, and moving toward boutique publishing houses (usually at most one or two people), self-publishing, and electronic distribution or print-on-demand (POD) services like Lulu and RPGNow. Even White Wolf, one of the once-great publishers, is now only a few people.

The advantage of print-on-demand is that your up-front financial risk is minimal (and sometimes $0) and you don't have to ship and store a crate of books in your garage; the disadvantage is that the per-unit profit is less due to the larger cut that goes to the printer-publisher (30–40%). Offsetting that per-unit cut, you're usually selling direct to customers so your own percentage is undiminished by wholesale pricing. Print quality used to be a disadvantage too, but for the standard formats the quality of POD books is now very good. And unlike with a novel (and even there not as much as it used to), self-publishing an RPG has no stigma attached to it: the RPG industry has a long history of DIY games being just as good as the "pro" games.

It's also worth knowing that there is no money in RPGs. Unless you become a superstar game designer (there are only two I can think of, and even they have to do non-game work on the side), your games will never be more than a source of pocket change and may in fact be something you pay to keep alive. Wizards of the Coast, the biggest player in the market, barely makes enough money on Dungeons & Dragons to avoid having Hasbro mothball them. Luke Crane, who's one of the few who has achieve publishing stardom independently, is a professional editor and layout designer and has to supplement his earnings from the Burning Wheel with that work.

Keep your day job, do it for love, and ask yourself how much you're willing to lose up-front (scroll down to "Publishing" on that link) before you settle on a publishing route. Some publishing methods are very expensive up-front to the author, and that money isn't guaranteed to be recouped. If your desire is just to have the games published at all and hold the book in your hands, there are many ways to do that now, and some of the cheaper ones may be just as satisfying for you as the more expensive and more traditional 6,000-book print run.

Format

If in doubt, set up your document creation process so that it can generate PDFs if you need it to. There are other formats that traditional publishers accept, but nearly every single one accepts one of the PDF format versions. Besides, if you can generate a PDF of your work, you almost certainly can generate one of the other format they'll accept, whether that's Word, InDesign, or Quark files.

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+1 for It's also worth knowing that there is no money in RPGs alone. I wish I'd remembered to say that. The rest of the answer is very good indeed. –  Sardathrion Aug 29 '12 at 6:27
    
the Berne Convention gives automatic copyright in (currently) 165 countries (convention takes where the work is created, not what nationality the creator is) –  Sean Cheshire Aug 29 '12 at 16:28
    
@SeanCheshire Yeah, but the Convention doesn't have force of law locally unless local laws are made to implement it. Without being sure about local laws, I avoid making assumptions about whether nations have implemented their international agreements (many don't, or wait a long time). –  SevenSidedDie Aug 29 '12 at 16:36
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Who should I talk to about copyright

A lawyer in your country that knows the relevant local, domestic and international laws.

What's the best format to put my documents in prior to submitting them

I imagine "the best format" will depend per company. Asking the game companies that you are submitting to (which can be found by going to your local game store and looking at who is publishing the games) and find out who, at those companies is responsible for submissions/new game development.

I'd imagine that they'd be helpful, as it's in their business interest to have good new games, and they will know what they want and how you should ideally provide it.

EDIT: Game publishing companies may have a legal department, employed lawyer or preferred lawyer that will know the relevant legal areas. It may be worth discussing this when you contact the company.

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One other thing - most companies will throw those documents out if they just arrive without warning. Most publishers require you to pitch the idea first, then if they like the idea and want that game written they'll let you know, and supply any guidelines such as style and format at that time. Typically, someone asking what format to put their documents in is a good early warning that they're jumping the gun and not sending in the required pitch first. –  Matt Thomason Mar 27 at 8:18
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Creative Commons is a nice license to use. For example, Eclipse Phase is using it and has sold a lot of physical copies -- there was a note on their web site but I cannot find it now. This allows you to distribute your book(s) for free with a tip jar. This is an easy way to get noticed but not all publication houses will agree to print the book under that license.

If you are looking at publishing remember the golden rule: Money flows towards the author.

You must to talk to a lawyers about copyright, trademarks, and how to protect yourself form being sued into oblivion. I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV hence none of what I think I know about the law is relevant here.

Publication houses will have some rules about how to submit your work. You must contact them first and ask what those are. Read the fine print before signing and sending them anything.

While this is all sounding paranoid, better be safe than sorry.

Best of luck!

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I've seen a number of kickstarter campaigns for both new RPGs and RPG supplements -- you might want to try a kickstarter campaign for the initial funds, if you don't have enough out of pocket.

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