I am the developer of Wild Card Creator, a commercial character creator for the Savage Worlds RPG. While I don’t have direct experience working with Catalyst Game Labs or Shadowrun, I think that my experience is pretty typical of building an RPG character creator for most systems.
I’m going to approach this question a bit differently. Rather than asking “What laws do I have to consider, and what is allowed in it and what isn't?”, I think the better question is “How can I make a character creator that the company will be happy to let me continue making?”. Whether something you create is technically legal or not, it's better to have a product that the company really likes and wants to see more of, rather than one that they want you to stop making.
(I'm going to assume that you want to make a character creator for a proprietary rules system. If the system has an OGL or similar, or it's under something like the Creative Commons license, the company has already created clear guidelines for what content you can and can't use).
Before you release it to the public, ask permission first
First off, I strongly recommend that you ask for the company’s permission to create a character creator for their system. Most will be happy to work with you to create something that works well for both of you. Even if you are making a free product, I still recommend you get their permission.
If you make a character creator without their permission, they will eventually find out about it somehow (probably the same way any of your users would). Best case they don’t mind and like your product. Worst case they are upset with how you are doing things and may even resort to legal means to get you to stop.
But sending them an e-mail just saying "I want to create a character creator for your system, can I do it?" is really vague because it's not clear what your character creator is going to look like. Are you planning on doing bare bones math? Or are you planning on making the whole content available? Give them a clear idea of what your creator will look like. A prototype or demo is even better.
In the case of Wild Card Creator, I created a prototype of the basic functionality and uploaded a video of me using it (along with me explaining some things) as an unlisted YouTube video. I included a link to it in my e-mail to the company where I gave plenty of details about what my character creator would be like. In particular, I indicated that Wild Card Creator would be a paid product and that I'd like to include the full text of their rules in it (more on that later). I concluded by asking if they were okay with me making this and how we could make it work out between us.
This made it very easy for Pinnacle Entertainment Group to decide if they'd be okay with me making Wild Card Creator. They knew exactly the scope and, once we hashed out some details, they gave me the all clear to go ahead. Because of this, we've never had any issues with this app.
Make sure the game company can still be compensated for their hard work
Every roleplaying game company has two goals:
- Get people to play their games.
- Make enough money so that it is worthwhile to continue to support their games, and be able to create more.
Third party character creators are great help for the first goal, but companies are often concerned about how they work towards the second goal (and rightfully so). Obviously, a character creator that gives all the contents of a $30 rulebook for free is a big issue; it may get people to play their game, but it really hurts their ability to make money and continue making great games.
Given this, there are two main types of character creators that are useful enough to be used, yet still give companies their fair compensation:
Calculations-only character creators
Savage Worlds Toolset is a character creator that is this type. It does a very good job of doing the math for some of the more complex systems (and it actually does some things my own product doesn’t do). But there are no game descriptions aside from basic stats. For instance, say that you are building a robot from the Science Fiction Companion. You can give it the “Sensor Suite” modification, but unless you have bought the rulebook, you won’t know what it does or how to use it.
These types of character creators are usually free. The RPG company still earns money because users are buying their product in print or PDF form; the character creator just helps them use it.
If your character creator goes this route, it’s still a good idea to ask for the company’s permission so that they are okay with how much information you are giving for free.
Full-content character creators
Wild Card Creator (my character creator) is this type, and so is the multi-system Hero Lab. If you are building a Savage Worlds character and are looking through the list of Edges, you can see the full text of everything without having to crack open the rule book. This can be very helpful as you have everything you need in one place.
Of course, you definitely need to ask for permission to create a character like this, since there are likely to be some users who will buy your product, but not the original rulebook. The RPG company will almost always ask for royalties in exchange for you using their content, which means that these character creators are usually paid.
In my case, I charge for Wild Card Creator and I pay Pinnacle Entertainment Group a percentage of each sale as royalties. It’s a fair deal; my character creator is better because every copy of the game comes with the full rules text of the core Savage Worlds rules, and the company gets some well-deserved compensation for me using their rules to help drive sales.
Wild Card Creator dabbles with the other category as well. While the core Savage Worlds rules are in the character creator, you can import PDFs that you have purchased in order to load character data from other settings. So if you have purchased a PDF for the Deadlands Reloaded setting and import it, you can load the full character content of the setting into the app. A number of companies have liked this situation as it encourages people to buy PDFs of their products and rewards those who do by giving them the ability to easily create characters in those settings.
Make it your goal to have both you and your company happy with the final product
Ultimately, you want this to be a character creator that the company is going to be happy with. In my case, Pinnacle Entertainment Group has been very happy with how things have worked out between us; they have promoted Wild Card Creator on several occasions, and I have heard that some Pinnacle staff members have used it for their own games. They've also promoted and supported other tools, including some that are calculations-only. This is ideally the situation you want to go for when you create a character creator.
- Ask for permission first, with a demo or prototype if possible. It will save a lot of trouble in the long run.
- Make sure the company is okay with the amount of game content you want to include, and that they will still be compensated.
- Less content will generally let you keep it free.
- More content will generally require you paying them royalties (which probably means you will need to have a paid product).
- Remember that companies want to see more people playing their game. Work with them as you create your character creator so that you both benefit.