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I want to develop a character editor for role-playing games. At first just for one game, but I want to expand it later to cover multiple games.

What laws (like copyright and intellectual-property) do I have to consider, and what is allowed in it and what isn't? What are my limits without a contract with the game's publisher? Is there a difference between free, commercial, and open-source character editing software software?

I am aiming at Shadowrun 5 first.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You haven't said what you want to do with the character editor software after you develop it. Is this for personal use? Or did you intend to release, distribute, sell or share it in some way? \$\endgroup\$ – Beanluc Jan 6 '17 at 0:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ The goal is of course to release it some form to the public. If as a free service or if commercial depends also on the answer to this question. \$\endgroup\$ – schlicht Jan 6 '17 at 10:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ "At first just for one game, but I want to expand it later to cover multiple games." Having made a commercial character creator myself, I smile at this because it was my attitude before I realized just how much work handling one system well would be! \$\endgroup\$ – Thunderforge Jan 17 '17 at 8:19
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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:

  1. Get people to play their games.
  2. 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.

Recap

  • 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.
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Unfortunately, this is almost always illegal without a specific license.

Private

For fully-private games like Shadowrun, while game mechanics can't be copyrighted, the specific expression of them can be copyrighted - nontrivial text and especially art/icons/whatnot. (They could be patented, but there are no patents for RPG mechanics as of last report.) So if you find yourself cutting and pasting the full description of skills and abilities into your character generator, you're potentially violating copyright law. If you rewrite all of them yourself, it could be defensible. Most basic terms (e.g. "Power Attack"), while they could theoretically be trademarked, have not been - you can search the US Trademark Database to be sure. So generally you have to either

  1. Rewrite everything, which will run you afoul of a worse threat than real lawyers - rules lawyers! Or,
  2. Don't have any text for any of the abilities or skills or anything, which makes the tool a lot less useful than it could be. I'm not really sure why I'd use a chargen tool that doesn't have that information. Or,
  3. Get permission, which is the route that tools like Hero Lab have used. Hero Lab has, for example, a Shadowrun character generator, implemented under license from Catalyst.

Open Gaming License (OGL)

For OGL games like some versions of D&D, you can make a character generator but you have two legality options you can pursue, both of which have pros and cons.

  1. OGL compliance. You can cut and paste the goodies (skills and feats and whatnot) that are declared as Open Game Content (OGC). For D&D 3.5 that's all the core ones, for D&D 5e it's not, it's a smaller subset. You can't include non-OGC material (aka Product Identity, or PI), and it's not always obvious what that is - some spell names were changed and a couple monsters were deliberately non-OGCed in 3.5e between rulebook and OGC declaration, for example. Also, there are specific restrictions in the OGL about this - like randomized character gen is specifically disallowed for D&D 3.5,and data files have to be "human readable." You'll need to research the OGL and relevant guidance (especially the OGL FAQ and the Software FAQ, determine which content is OGC, to keep on WotC's good side. This is what PCGen does. Other people then make non-OGC content available for download, which isn't legal but usually comes under the level of "someone gives a crap and can effectively do something about it."

  2. Ignore the OGL. Just because something's offered under the OGL doesn't mean you have to use it. That reduces to the fully-private approach above.

Creative Commons

For Creative Commons licensed games like Eclipse Phase - you're in luck, do whatever you want under the terms of whichever CC variant they have applied (which may determine whether you can charge for it, what attribution you must provide, etc.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've spoken with Catalyst and their answer was, in a nutshell, making a character creator is fine so long as you don't copy/paste the text, unless only you and your friends have access. So, you could make a tool, but you can't supply the full text, just the name/calculations. This was for a non-commercial project. \$\endgroup\$ – Codeacula Jan 6 '17 at 21:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that Chummer (github.com/chummer5a/chummer5a), probably the most widely-used Shadowrun 5 character creator, has no text from the abilities or skills or anything. And it's still useful enough that almost every single SR player I know considers it pretty much indispensable. \$\endgroup\$ – a computing pun Jan 18 '17 at 3:49
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Disclaimer/Update: I have learned since writing this answer that SE is not generally in favor of answers to legal questions relying on Fair Use, in large part due to the limitations mentioned at the bottom of this answer:

  • It has limited applicability outside of the US.
  • You might get shut down even if your use is legal, because Fair Use is an affirmative defense, meaning you can only invoke it after you're already in court (with all the costs associated with that).

Take this answer with the amount of salt these concerns merit!


I believe that as long as:

  1. you do not sell the character editor, and...
  2. you make sure it does not contain enough of the game's rules to serve as a replacement for the rulebooks...

...making it is likely legal under the Fair Use doctrine.


Fair Use allows the legal reproduction of portions of copyrighted works under certain circumstances. Among the considerations that determine whether a given reproduction qualifies as Fair Use are:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

If your editor was not sold, and instead used by you and your friends, or distributed for free to other enthusiasts, you would qualify for 1.

If your editor included, say, the names of selectable abilities and restrictions that made it so you could only include them in characters for whom they were valid choices, but not the full text of what those abilities did, you would qualify for 3 and 4 (since without the text of the abilities, your editor would be useless as a replacement for the product being sold, the rulebook).


A great example of a tool like this is Heliomance's HeroForge Anew character builder for D&D 3.5. It's immensely useful for keeping track of character choices (doing things like calculating your BAB, saves, skill points, and HP for you; preventing you from selecting feats on levels where you don't get a feat or meet the prerequisites; generating character sheets and pretty build tables). But:

  • It's available for free.
  • It only has brief excerpts of the rules (e.g., ability names but not their full text).
  • it doesn't include enough of the rules to be useful to anyone who doesn't also have access to the rulebook, so nobody would ever be convinced not to buy the book because HeroForge exists.

Thus, I would say it's a textbook case of Fair Use.


(Note that this answer only applies to the US, although other countries may have similar doctrines.)

(Note also that just because something actually is Fair Use, it doesn't mean that you won't get a Cease & Desist letter about it, and if that happens, it almost certainly won't be worth your time and money to fight it, however right you might be.)

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I see 3 possible scenarios here:

  • If you're looking to make this character editor as something you want to market then you'd most likely need permission from the developers of the game to do so.

  • If you're looking to make it open-source, you still may need permission from the developers of the game but they may not charge you for it so long as you have some disclaimer in the product about not having it being sold, etc.

  • If you're doing it just as a pet project between yourself and your players then it's probably fine to go ahead and create it. Just tell them not to be giving it to others/trying to sell it... although you probably trust them enough not to do that.

I'm by no means a legal expert, so take the above advice with a grain of salt. When in doubt, fire off an email to the creators of the game and ask them about it.

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