The Open Source RPG Dream

The cynics say that we keep reinventing the wheel. They say we have too many RPGs, mostly doing the same thing, and why bother to write yet another RPG about elves and magic swords? And they have one thing right - we should stop re-writing RPGs from scratch. Instead, we should change them.

Knave started as a modification of Cairne, as the writer wanted to add a few rules. And then someone copied Knave to create Vaults of Vaarn, and so on. Without the ability to copy these texts, the authors may never have made the books.

 2                     ┌─────────────────┐
 3                     │    Runecairn    │
 4                     └─────────────────┘
 5 6 7 8┌──────────────┐     ┌─────────────────┐     ┌────────┐
 9│ Into the Odd │ ──> │      Cairn      │ ──> │ Meteor │
10└──────────────┘     └─────────────────┘     └────────┘
11121314┌──────────────┐     ┌─────────────────┐
15│    Knave     │ ──> │ Vaults of Vaarn │
16└──────────────┘     └─────────────────┘

The difference between re-writing a book and only doing the typesetting is huge.

Actually, there's a little more than typesetting. These books also needed

  • artwork,
  • playtesting,
  • setting up a publisher,
  • promotion,
  • and plenty of extra writing, so you need editing as well.

Everything one has to do to make a book creates a small barrier to entry - yet another reason someone might drop out. And we hear of so many ideas knocking about! We call them 'house rules', and many (perhaps most) don't make the game any better, because those rules don't have a path to enter the books. But if we - the whole RPG community - could each make one proposal, then every house rule becomes an opportunity to make a better game.

If we could lower the barrier to entry for making or removing a rule, or editing a passage, or adding a piece of art, each book could work with a storm of contributors, altering everything from typos to game-breaking spells.

The Fantasy Heartbreaker: A Different View

The famous term 'fantasy heartbreaker' was coined by Ron Edwards and refers to the massive number of D&D-like RPGs on the market which:

  • People have poured their hearts into
  • Aren't very good
  • Have some great ideas
  • Fail to really get away from D&D

I see the problem, and therefore solution, very differently.

Original Fantasy Heartbreaker Article

Stage 1: The losses you don't see

Someone running an RPG for a long time inevitably has some gripe with the rules. Perhaps it's because White Wolf clearly haven't play tested those high-level abilities they stuck into their game. Perhaps it's just a matter of personal taste.

These GMs then often make 'house rules', then try to remember them, or perhaps stick them on a word document, and (if they're feeling very energetic) perhaps even send them to players.

The story mostly ends here, but some few people have such a lot of house rules, and such a burning desire to get them into a workable, actually usable format, that they'll attempt to rewrite an entire book.

This is the point where we have invisibly lost a lot of great ideas, because writing a book takes more time than most people have, and RPG books may be among the most challenging types of books to produce.

If we imagine that the problem with a fantasy heartbreaker is the author, then we're saying that the solution is for people to change. They must:

  1. Be excellent at typography.
  2. Edit their own work, or have the money to pay editors.
  3. Make quality art for a 100 page book, or have the money for artists.
  4. Write great prose.

Any solution which points to the authors as the problem must imply statements like these, and these are ridiculous statements.

Stage 2: The Finished Product

Once the book is out, the layout is bland, the art is generic, and spelling mistakes assault the reader on every page. But the central idea is there - the combat system, or new classes, or whatever they wanted, is finally on the page, and they have a proper, convenient book to use at their gaming table.

At this point, the result is a success by any reasonable definition. The only 'tragedy' here is that nobody else can pick up these ideas without exactly the same barrier.

The Open Source Workflow

With the problem restated, the solution is simple - make fewer books, and hand out the source files.

People unfamiliar with the open source world often have some trouble really getting the workflow, so I want to tackle some misunderstandings.

If anyone can change the book, won't it end up a total mess?

People can change their own copy, and other people can get those changes.

How does anyone keep track of all those changes?

They use git - a 'version control system'. When you see all the changes mapped out, with everyone's changes going this way and that, into different versions, it looks pretty crazy.

 1┌──────────────────────────┐     ┌─────────────────────────────┐     ┌────────────────────────────────┐     ┌──────────────────────────────┐
 2│ (Bob) Add hunting system │ ──> │                             │ <── │       (Emily) Typo fixes       │ ──> │ (Emily) Remove Vancian magic │
 3└──────────────────────────┘     │                             │     └────────────────────────────────┘     └──────────────────────────────┘
 4                                 │                             │
 5                                 │ (Bob) Replace archery rules │                                                                                   ┌──────────────────────────────────────────────┐
 6                                 │                             │                                                                                   ∨                                              │
 7                                 │                             │     ┌────────────────────────────────┐     ┌──────────────────────────────┐     ┌────────────────────────────────────────┐     ┌─────────────────────────────────────────┐
 8                                 │                             │ <── │ (Drake) Make halflings hobbits │ ──> │     (Alice) Add monsters     │ ──> │ (Alice) Remove all races except humans │  ┌─ │ (Charlie) Fix spelling errors in combat │
 9                                 └─────────────────────────────┘     └────────────────────────────────┘     └──────────────────────────────┘     └────────────────────────────────────────┘  │  └─────────────────────────────────────────┘
10                                   ∧                                                                                                                                                         │
11                                   └─────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────┘

...but once you see the history of a project, it suddenly seems so simple.

  • (Charlie) Fix spelling errors in combat
  • (Bob) Replace archery rules
  • (Drake) Make halflings hobbits
  • (Emily) Typo fixes

Standard Responses

We can already copy the text from books and use SRDs that's all that really matters.

Nobody buys or uses SRDs. They use RPG books, and RPG books have formatting, prose, colour, art, life, pizazz!

Who's going to pay for all this?

A change in perspective will. The project does not exist to make IP-holders rich - the project aims to create a good book. There won't be any need for an HR department, or costly legal agreements.

Contributions and engagement drive the project, not finance.

The cost of art remains, but Indie Go-Go, et c., have show that the community have plenty of funds for artists.

If anyone can sell the book, wouldn't the price hit rock-bottom?

Sometimes, yes. But people still often pay, often for a trademark. If anyone can alter the work, it's hard to know those alterations really improve the book. So trademarks let people trust a particular group, and fund just the group they trust.

Who's going to be in charge of all this?

You are. You can make your own copy, then take or make any changes you want.

In this model, there's no need for a central figurehead to tell people what's good and what's not.

We can't work with 1,000 different versions of an RPG.

We don't need to. Working with git makes it easy to take all changes from someone, but less easy to select certain changes. This small different means that projects almost always meet in the middle.

Normal people can't use git.

Yes, they can. Look through the project's history - everyone there had no idea how git worked before working with BIND. They learned within minutes, and once you take a step back, you can see a very easy and familiar process:

  1. Sign up for Gitlab.
  2. Log into Gitlab.
  3. Click on file.
  4. Click 'edit file'.
  5. Type text.
  6. Commit (instead of 'save') with a summary message.

This works like everything else, with a slightly different save feature. The only people who think that 'normies' can't work git are engineers who have an over-developed sense of their own genius.

Scorched Earth

The OGL never lived up to this promise of teamwork, but a real open source RPG still could. We could have a collection of a few RPGs - perhaps three fantasy, one cyberpunk, and two gothic-horror works - each being worked on by some hundreds of enthusiasts.

Concurrent Workflows

Someone posted their home-brew RPG rules on Reddit, so I proposed the fully open-source route. They

  • I converted their work to markdown,
  • they worked on rules,
  • I fixed a few typos,
  • we discussed presentation,
  • I added a Gitlab build, which would convert the book to:
    • html,
    • epub,
    • and pdf.

The Chronicles log shows the entire thing took a few hours here and there, over the course of a couple of weeks. Of course, fancy typography and images will take longer, but the basic workflow remains the same:

  • Different people can make different changes without waiting for each other.
  • Everyone can make proposals by making a new version, without any limit on number of versions.

Comparison to Non-Git Creators

The proprietary model works quite differently. The 'content creators' write, and then have to stop while editors begin to edit. Typographers begin work, while 'content creators' and editors stop, and then artists fill in the gaps left by typographers.

If you suggest to someone in the RPG industry that each writer and typographer be allowed (and encouraged) to keep as many versions of the project as they like, and have each of them (or a project-leader) pull those changes into the main project once the version seems ready, they will tell you this is a bad idea. And they would be right, when using a proprietary workflow.


We have enough RPG creators out there. And once nobody needs to write an entire book just to add a couple of spells (or fix a spelling mistake), we could have many more. A single work could have a dozen writers, checking each others work, and dozens of editors (they say everyone's a critic, and I say that's a good thing). Instead of indie creators putting up a pittance in savings, we could pool money on art and litter the books with enchantment. Hell, there's someone out there who will happily plan every bit of art in a game, just because they like that game.

We could have hundreds of people working on games, and once we do, the quality cannot help but rise. The community could produce its own high-quality content, without the barriers to entry.

With a little hope, I think we could make some fantastic games.

If you have that hope, get stuck in: