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Some Musings on Kobold Press/Open Design, posted by CJ Ovalle

The Midgard Campaign Setting has been released. It’s brilliant. It’s amazing. It’s everything I hoped it would be. I’m proud to have been a part of it, and I have to thank Wolfgang Baur for letting us play with his home campaign setting. I have the PDF, and I’m waiting for the delivery of the hardbacks. I’ll put up a review after they arrive.

Way back in 2010, I mentioned I attended an event at a local gaming store (Dragon’s Lair). I woke up far too early on a Saturday morning so that I could attend the Monte Cook signing. I hadn’t realized it prior to arriving, but after the signing he was also going participate on a panel about game design. I left and got breakfast, fully intending to head home. But then I decided that the panel sounded too interesting to pass up, so returned to the store. Besides Monte Cook, I’d heard of Chris Pramas (founder of Green Ronin), but I wasn’t too familiar with the other folks. The people who had published the Shard RPG were there, as was the lead designer for the steampunk RPG, Tephra. There were also a couple of freelancers writing for Open Design and Paizo– Adam Daigle and Brandon Hodge.

I’ve always found the word “open” interesting. I’ve been a proponent of Open Source and Open Access for some time, and have followed the various open movements colloquially and in my professional and academic work. I found the Open Game License fascinating for a number of reasons I’ve discussed before. So what was Open Design? It seemed to be a way to do collaborative game creation. There was some payment required to get involved, but you received a product at the end, like a preorder, and you gained access to some normally behind-the-scenes aspects of game design. And you could potentially write and get credit for your contributions depending on how the community responded. So I signed up for a project that was using the Pathfinder system, to see what was going on. Although I had been an ardent 3E player, I hadn’t made the leap (well, hop) to Pathfinder.

That project… well, I can’t say that it’s been a big success, since two years out it’s still not released. (For a variety of reasons… Christina Stiles has rescued the project, though, and it’s moving forward again.) All I really contributed to that project was commentary and playtesting. But even then… it was interesting. The process was fascinating. The discussions on the forum were engaging. That style of collaborative game design is incredibly compelling, and shares a lot of the strengths and weakness of open source design. Many eyes, many designs, many conversations. And like open source design, when done well… it works incredibly well.

I’ve now been a patron on all but one of the subsequent projects (that one was a Kickstarter that just slipped by me while I was writing my qualifying work). For good or ill, I own many, many more RPG books than I did going in. I helped in the creation of the Midgard Bestiary for Pathfinder. And I contributed to this book, the Midgard Campaign Setting. Some deities, spells, NPCs… it’s just great to see out now.

I study copyright and things surrounding copyright. My publications and workshops and presentations and posters tend to involve copyright or open access in some manner. Copyright has its purpose and place, but copyright trends have really made it turn into a barrier for some really important activities, including the creation of new works and the preservation of older works. And by the strictest copyright standards, Open Design shouldn’t work. Some of it would horrify the copyright attorneys I’ve been on panels with. ^_^ Copyright isn’t transferred in writing (the only way it can be). Creation of expression is collaborative, which US law has never handled particularly elegantly. The OGL has some problems, and people use it incorrectly all over the place, including how they designate Open Content and Product Identity. People often have a sense of ownership about what they’ve written.

But it works beautifully.

Copyright, as a subject, doesn’t really come up. People share their ideas, their expression, and comment on them, and let other people use them for their own creations. It’s creative collaboration at its best. And the community is both engaged and reflexive. Does this idea work here, and if not, why not? Can we change it to work better? If we can’t use it here, can we use it elsewhere? Do we pitch anonymously, so that it’s really the writing that we vote on instead of the person? Do “bigger” names have a better chance of having a pitch accepted then newcomers? Should they? Different projects are made up of different patrons, and they may come to different conclusions. But so far, it’s worked out in every situation I’ve seen.

I’m not saying it’s easy. There are sometimes arguments. Sometimes discussions get heated. People are passionate about different subjects. But we get through. Sometimes your work isn’t accepted- I’ve had plenty of things rejected. But it’s been a great learning experience. Open Design has led to some terrific works. Kobold Press has put out some terrific books. I highly recommend checking them out. Check out the Midgard Campaign Setting. Check out Courts of the Shadow Fey, my favorite 4th edition adventure of all time (and/or it’s forthcoming Pathfinder version). Check out the best RPG gaming magazine around, Kobold Quarterly. Check out the Kobold Guide to Game Design. I could go on, but you probably get my point. If you’re interested in any of this, become a patron. It’s a great ride.

I haven’t had a lot of time to participate in recent months, since I was working on getting through the qualification process to get to my dissertation. But classes and quals are over, and it’s just (?) the dissertation to go… and I really want to make more time for it. So I hope to see some of you there. ^_^

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