By Christopher Helton
Today, one of the few awards in tabletop roleplaying games announced its 2015 award nominees. There are some really good games that are in the running for ENnies awards, but as I went over the list a different story emerged. The judges at the ENnies awards managed to not once, not twice but three times nominate Mass Effect: The Fate RPG. It is up for Best Electronic Book, Best Free Product and Product of The Year.
This PDF game had previously appeared at the DriveThruRPG site, where it was taken down for copyright and trademark infringement. The creator then hosted it up on his own site instead.
The ENnies are an award where the publishers have to submit their products, so this is not a case where the judges pulled this particular game out and ran with it. When this game is side by side with officially licensed games based on the Firefly and Doctor Who television shows, it seems to send a strange message to both fan and commercial tabletop RPG publishers. Why bother going through the legal process and paying fees to those who own a property when you can just make it anyway and still get a nomination for Product of the Year besides some of the best games produced over the course of the last year?
Tabletop roleplaying is run more on enthusiasm than business sense more often than it should be, but does that excuse naming an illegally produced product as one of the top products of the year for tabletop RPGs? What does that say to those people who produce things according to the rules, and the laws? What would BioWare and EA Games would think of all of this?
The ENnies removed the game's nominations and will be listing new nominees for the categories in which the unauthorized Mass Effect RPG was nominated:
For future years, starting in 2016, we will be adding a new eligibility requirement for the ENnies. This will simply ask a publisher or creator to affirm that all contents of a product are their own property, public domain, or used under license or with permission, and will mean that any product not within the boundaries of IP law are subject to disqualification at any time. This rule will not apply to blogs, podcasts, or other specifically fan-creation award categories. We will provide more information about this eligibility requirement later, once the exact details have been hammered out and the potential pitfalls covered.
For this year, we have decided to disqualify the fan-created Mass Effect RPG on the basis of IP violations. The creator of the product, after discussion with him, has already been notified. Don Mappin, the creator of the product, has additionally told us that "Based on this outcome I will be removing the work and its associated files." We appreciate Don's understanding, and his willingness to work with us and provide us with information when asked.
The creator of the fan-based game had this to say:
With the influx of self-publishing and rich media the lines as to what constitute a publisher are blurred more than ever before. This becomes trickier when you look at some of the other categories, such as Blog and Podcasting. Where is that line? I don't envy the ENnies personnel for having to codify it and it was not my intent to cause discord.
However, in light of the forthcoming announcement of disqualification, I will also be removing the files of my own accord. My thanks to the personnel of ENWorld and the ENnies for their assistance.
In this day and age of cheap and affordable desktop publishing tools, and ubiquitous print on demand publishing technology, the line between professionally- and fan-produced are easily blurred. However there also comes a time when the so-called "fan producer" needs to understand that there are hurdles that need to be overcome when producing a licensed product. Companies like BioWare put hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work and millions of dollars into developing these worlds, and these products. Being a fan of them does not entitle people to come in and do their own derivatives of these things, or be considered as equals to those publishers who pay the licensing fees and pay for art (instead of just downloading it from the internet).
That is where the line is, and it isn't up to the awards necessarily to figure out where that line should be. That is not to say that the ENnies have no culpability in this either. It came to light that this game was submitted to two other tabletop gaming awards and at least one of them, the Origins Awards, disqualified the game before it reached the nominations stage of things.
It is important to mention that this isn't a punishment for being a fan, or doing fan-based materials. A quick search of gaming-related blogs will find that fan adaptations are commonplace, and a longstanding tradition. The problem comes when these materials are treated as if they are official, or have some level of approval behind them. There is nothing wrong with making fan-based content for games, or other media, the problem comes up when the creator thinks that what they've done deserves the same attention as those who followed the rules and the laws.
Will more come of this? It is hard to say. The ENnies did reach out to BioWare on this, as have individuals within tabletop gaming, so there could be further actions taken. The creator of the game has taken down the files for the game.
Christopher Helton is a blogger, podcaster and tabletop RPG publisher who talks about games and other forms of geekery at the long-running Dorkland! blog. He is also the co-publisher at the ENnie Award winning Battlefield Press, Inc. You can find him on Twitter at @dorkland and on G+ at https://plus.google.com/+ChristopherHelton/ where he will talk your ear off about gaming and comics. He also has a crowdfunding page to help offset costs of this summer's Gen Con coverage.