A friend of mine was trying to figure out options for creating a role playing game related to creative properties and I was wondering what licensing options were available with various systems, GURPS was asked about specifically. Anyone have any information about what you need to do/go through to use a rule system for a game around your own creative property?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Let me clarify that all these answers are oriented around licensing a game system for a RPG supplement - none of those licenses cover other "creative properties" like comics, TV, movies, computer games, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Oct 29 '10 at 12:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ the idea is taking existing creative properties, like a book series in this case and using its world as a setting for a pnp rpg but using an existing ruleset. \$\endgroup\$ – lathomas64 Oct 29 '10 at 13:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I just don't think any of these answer the question. I might recommend a series of more directed questions. \$\endgroup\$ – anon186 Oct 29 '10 at 18:03

It depends on the system, since the creators' attitudes vary so much. Most companies are not eager to give out these licenses as that makes you competition for their products, but there are enough exceptions to make licensing a system a reasonable route to go. As a rule, you will need some kind of written agreement to license a system.

For GURPS specifically, SJ Games does allow third-party products that are "Powered by GURPS". There is little information on that page about what sort of licensing terms SJG will ask for, but they have been and appear to continue to be willing to work out private licensing deals if people are interested. If your friend really wants to consider GURPS, they can certainly contact Steve Jackson Games and find out what licensing the system entails so they can decide whether it would work for them.

Assuming your friend owns the other creative properties, you could also ask Steve Jackson Games if they're interested in creating the game for you. It's not clear how much creative control would be retained in that case, but if your friend is going to be contact SGJ anyway (and is interested in someone else doing the job) it may be worth finding out at the same time if that's a possible route to publication.

Apart from GURPS, the most hassle-free option is using a system that is licensed under the Open Game License (OGL), one of the Creative Commons licenses (CC) compatible with your friend's aims, the Gnu Free Document License (GFDL), or another open license. The advantage of such licenses over a negotiated license is that the license can be used immediately just by following the terms it lays out, without having to negotiate directly with the rights-holder of the system. There is a list of open games at Wikipedia. The most notable of these are:

  • System Reference Document (d20), of which there are hundreds of games and supplements, Dungeons & Dragons foremost among them.

  • FATE, including Spirit of the Century (pulp), Diaspora (sci-fi), Starblazer Adventures (pulp sci-fi), Dresden Files RPG (modern wizardry), and Legends of Anglerre (fantasy). Some of those I know have their own open licenses, so there's the option of extending an existing game as well as building an independent FATE game.

  • Fudge, which is a tool-kit system that is highly hackable, and of which FATE is a descendant.

  • A variety of old-school D&D clones, including Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons, and more. These are notable as examples of how to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate the d20 System Reference Document into a game that only superficially resembles D&D 3rd edition. A gonzo sci-fi example is Mutant Future, which is an adaptation of the Labyrinth Lord system.

Another option is to license one of the systems owned by publishers that advertise very liberal licensing attitudes. Two in particular have stood out to me:

  • Savage Worlds is particularly known for being licensable under an "ask us, and we'll probably say yes" attitude, which is responsible for the ridiculous number of high-quality settings published for Savage Worlds by third parties in the last couple of years.

  • HeroQuest 2nd Edition can be licensed under similar terms and without much effort. Being a genre-agnostic system for simulating plots (rather than world physics), it's no work to port to a setting but its story-logic design isn't to everyone's taste.

There are more options of course, as these are just the ones that stick out for me.

And of course, you could always write a game from scratch! There is a long and honoured tradition of learning from the designs of existing games and incorporating that into a new game, so licensing isn't the only option if your friend has any desire to do system design. The actual writing could be done in a week or two if you put your mind to it. The playtesting would take a while anyway, no matter what game system you chose to adapt.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Word of warning on CC licenses: there are several. Exactly which is an important matter; most I've seen are non-commercial share-alike... that is, you can release the result for free under a CC-NCSA, but can't sell it or permit it to be sold without separate license. So for CC based works, read the details carefully. \$\endgroup\$ – aramis Oct 29 '10 at 9:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aramis I would hope that it goes without saying that anyone entering into a licensing agreement would read the terms of the license they're going to be operating under, but sadly that point probably does bear stressing. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 29 '11 at 15:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another fine OGL system out there is West End Games D6 System- Now called Open D6. wegfansite.com/forum/index.php \$\endgroup\$ – Jeffrywith1e Apr 30 '11 at 1:22

Another game that's wide open on licensing policy is BTRC's EABA game system. It's a generic engine on the order of HERO or GURPS but it is explicitly licensed (under the so-called Open Supplement License) in such a way as to make it very easy for third-party developers to support.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for scooping me. Greg's OSL has already been used by a couple developers producing setting books. It's more restrictive than the OGL, but is in fact a free license (other than the requisite gopies to Greg) \$\endgroup\$ – aramis Oct 29 '10 at 9:27

Mongoose Traveller actually has a pretty rich set of open licensing.

  1. The Mongoose Traveller rules are OGL
  2. You can actually do not-for-profit stuff based off earlier Traveller releases
  3. You can license use of the Traveller license with some restrictions
  4. You can even use a specific Traveller sector, the "Foreven Free Sector." This is one of the few instances of someone freely licensing out even part of their game setting as opposed to the rules.

It's a bit hard to find it all on their site, here's a blog post that helps break it down.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually, it's all in the Traveller developer's kit, on the Traveller product line page. \$\endgroup\$ – aramis Oct 29 '10 at 17:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah yes, a link hidden in a list of 40 links that just goes to a zip file, that should help anyone understand what's up. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Oct 30 '10 at 0:47


A recent court ruling by the Supreme Court, in support of indie publishers and game developers, have stated that Game Mechanics, such as GURPS playing style, can actually be cloned for someone else's game, as long as the lore, universe, characters, lands, names, are not in any way the same as the game that is being created as the clone so to speak. So technically, all the OGL's that are available, are actually based on the idea that you won't use their current systems. However, in a court of law, legally, according to the United States Supreme Court and the US Patent Office, game mechanics cannot be patented, which would mean that companies like FFG, Games Workshop, Wizards of the Coast, GURPS, Evil hat, etc., cannot cite copyright infringement on their product if you were to develop a game using a mechanic that is just like the one from a DND game 5.0 for example.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Your last sentence starts by talking about patents and then switches to copyright, in a way that doesn't make any sense. Is there a sentence missing there? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 11 '16 at 8:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's great to update this question with recent developments. However, there are a lot of nuances among patent, copyright, and trade dress. It's not clear to me that someone reading your answer would grok how they might be impinging on someone's trademark even while not violating copyright, or how using something that's not patented might still violate either of the other two. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jun 11 '16 at 13:38

I came across the publisher of an RPG toolkit called Myriad a while back. Myriad is aimed specifically at gamers and publishers looking for a 'system' to use for their setting and own commercial works.

Throughout it you are actively encouraged to create derivative works. The author uses a creative commons license which permits derivative works & commercial works but are expected to place the Myriad logo on the product, provide credit to the system author. It says you can actually get these conditions waived if you contact the author directly.

While there are things in Myriad I would change, it may be of use as a starting point?

Sane Studio's is the company behind Myriad and you can download it for free from their website - along with full license details.


Using your above example of a book series, the way to obtain a license would be to contact the publisher and/or author of the book series reqarding licensing their content/property. Being an individual or non-business entity, they are most likely to reject you out of hand with a professional, if confusingly worded letter from their lawyers.

If you or your friend were to be a business, then your odds improve a bit at getting them to at least listen to your proposal. If you go in with a professional, well prepared and thought out business proposal for how you would use their property and why their property would sell well as an rpg, then your odds increase further. Remember, it's all about the sales pitch. You have to go in there with a sales pitch on how, working together, you can achieve great things, especially financial rewards.

But as an individual saying "hey, I like your books, can I license them to make an rpg out of?" You don't stand much of a chance. That is based on my own experiences and those I've heard from other people.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As I understand it, the book series is owned by the person who is looking to license an RPG system, so licensing the book series isn't the question. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 6 '10 at 5:24

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