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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Of Simulacra, Emulations, and Transmogrifiers (Guest post by Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr)

(This morning we have a guest post by +Richard LeBlanc , he of New Big Dragon Games and the D30 Sandbox Companion fame. I'm honored that Rich decided to post this here at The Tavern. You can read more of Rich's thoughts over at his blog - Save vs. Dragon)

Of Simulacra, Emulations, and Transmogrifiers.

I've long held that Apple products were superior because... well.. they were Apple products. If you've ever read the book "Insanely Great," you know what I'm talking about. Steve Jobs hired graphic designers and typography experts, in addition to others in various and diverse fields, and it was these things that helped make the Macintosh the truly brilliant product it was. (Granted, we really have yet to see if Apple can maintain its true vision with their visionary gone.) So here I sit, 30 years after the first time I touched a Mac*, and though many PCs now offer the same kind of command over type and layout, I am still a Mac person. How is it I do not hold that same place of honor for the intellectual property protected by the OGL? (You know what I'm talking about. The beholder, carrion crawler, displacer beast, umber hulk, rust monster, githyanki, githzerai, slaad, mind flayer, kuo-toa and yuan-ti all hold such non-OGL status.)

If I see a crappy replicant (sic) property like a Transmogrifier on the shelf at the local dollar store, I'm the first to make fun of it for the sad knockoff that it is. So why am I okay with calling my rust monster a "corroder"? Why am I okay with calling my carrion crawler a "carrion creeper"? Or calling a beholder an "eye beast"? If I were an IBM clone person, maybe it would be easier for me to understand why I'm okay with this, as the concept of an alternately named clone is part-and-parcel of the deal. Which obviously brings me to the concept of retro-clones in general. Why don't I look at something like Swords & Wizardry and say to myself, "Hey! That's the Transmogrifiers of old-school RPG gaming?" From my point of view, what it comes down to is intention.

Matt Finch's goal (or so I believe it is safe to assume) was never to make a cheap knock-off of LBB D&D to be sold dirt cheap at the local dollar store in order to take advantage of those kids who just couldn't afford the real thing. Swords & Wizardry is obviously a labor of love (something I assume of retro-clones in general). By comparison, I don't look at a Transmogrifier and think, "Wang Wěi** must have made this product out of his deep love for the concept of the Transformers, and because one just cannot get a Transformer without having to stalk eBay and throw down a few hundred bucks even without an original box to get one, he must have lovingly made this crafted product in an attempt to share his passion with everyone else."

I currently find myself halfway through writing the monster listings for the Basic Psionics Handbook, and this thought has stayed very top-of-mind. It's amazing how many archetypal psionic monsters are not open content. In able for me to port them over to my BX psionics system, I have no choice but to rename them. Otherwise, I will infringe outrightly on the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast as outlined in their Open Gaming License. In essence, what I am doing is creating what amounts to an alternate universe where the names are similar to those known by AD&D players, but may only be familiar to dedicated BX players (as these creatures have never made it into those editions—e.g., what point is a mind flayer in BX that has no psionics?)

In some ways, I see my duty with the Basic Psionics Handbook being two-fold. First, and most obvious, it is to try remedy BX's psionics deficit by attempting to create a psionic system as simple as it should be (be no more) for those players. But second, it is to bring a set of monsters to that edition that, while they hold a dear place in the hearts of many an AD&D player, have never had the chance to grow such roots with BX-exclusive devotees. And here's the rub... I may not use the original names for the following, well-established psionically-endowed creatures: githyanki, githzerai, mind flayer, slaad, ustilagor, and yuan ti. Instead, say, "Hello!" to the astral gish, limbo gish, mind thresher, zlod, intellect seeker, and wan-ti.

I must also state, that while I am trying to capture the spirit of these creatures, I am also trying not to just duplicate their old stats in the new format. I am trying to create (in some ways) my own interpretation of them (usually for the sake of simplification and seamless integration to this new psionic system). My goal is not to knock them off in order to "put one over" on the masses. Rather, it is to translate them into the system I have created, making them available (in most cases, for the first time) to many a BX/BECMI DM. I liken it to the translation of a book from one language to another. For example, a literal translation of something like Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" might prove more than a little clunky. (Just try pasting a few passage into any online translator and I'm sure the results will leave something to be desired.) Instead, those of us who want to read the book but do not speak Chinese (regardless of dialect) rely on folks like Ralph D. Sawyer (whom I chose for little reason other than he translated the paperback copy that I own). He takes that original text and interprets the original author's words and intentions for the audience.

When it comes to this sort of verisimilitude, am I Ralph Sawyer, or am I Wang Wěi? Am I an impassioned advocate, or am I a flagrant, self-serving huckster?

Are these types of workaround names (and the associated content) acceptable because: 1) we have learned to accept them (given the proliferation of retro-clones already bearing such simulacra, 2) we know they are a product of passion in the face of license limitations, or 3) both? Or are they unacceptable because they have more in common with the Transmogrifier—we know they're not the real thing, and will NEVER be the real thing, regardless of how much passion they have going for them?

I wonder if it's more like going to a party and drinking Pepsi, even though you're a Coke person, because the host only bought Pepsi. You'd really prefer the Coke, but you know you can't get one, so Pepsi is "acceptable" under the conditions. But with every sip of that Pepsi, you'll just be reminded that it's just not Coke.

* As a side note, the friend responsible for me having access to that 1st-generation Macintosh in 1984 is the same one that gave me my first d30 in 1981.
** I'm just going with the most common Cantonese given name and surname here.


  1. I was really looking forward to reading this, but you lost me at Mac :-)

  2. I don't see the ustilagor/intellect devourer on the product identity list of verboten, non-OGL monsters.

    1. I knew the intellect devourer wasn't. And for some reason, I thought the ustilagor was (which is why I changed it to "intellect seeker.") But you're correct. The ustilagor isn't on the list.

  3. Very interesting thoughts. There's also another aspect to be taken into account, that the OGL license covers intellectual properties and not material properties. In order to have access to one's preferred soft drink, one requires its material presence. Similarly, if I prefer working in MacOS, but do not have access to a Macintosh, the only solutions I have require physical workarounds: purchase a clone computer, run the OS in an emulator, set up my PC as a 'Hackintosh'. Intellectual properties are not bound to these limitations. If the players of a given retroclone don't know what a 'beholder' is, it doesn't matter to them that the creature in their book is called a 'floating eye'. If, however, they ARE familiar with beholders, and want them in their game, then there's nothing stopping them from simply saying 'beholder' whenever the game says 'floating eye', and nothing is lost.

    Personally, I don't mind the sidestepping in terminology in order to include all of the standard creatures. The creatures and how the players interact with them, after all, are half of the game play, and so are half of the game. Simply not having beholders or whatnot because the term is under copyright would result in a game that is ruled similarly, but plays differently. I've never played a standalone retroclone at the table, having all the originals myself, but I imagine that if were to run one, if it were clear to me that a given term was merely changed to protect the innocent, I would simply substitute the term for the one the author's clearly wished they could have used.

  4. What's in a name? Yeah there's a shakespearean quote in there somewhere... The last line before the footnotes is telling, isn't it? While I maybe looking up the stats for an "Eye Tyrant", my mouth is telling the players it's a Beholder. My players, at the least, aren't forced to drink Pepsi all night at the party.

  5. "Ustilagor" is still copyrightable, though. It's not about what's on the "forbidden" list. That's just a couple of monsters. But if it's copyrighted and not in the SRD, then it's still protected. "Intellect Devourer" might or might not be copyrightable depending on how much creative expression there is in the marriage of two generic words.

    1. Names cannot actually be copyrighted, but they can be trademarked. However, the intellectual property associated with a name can be protected (thus the OGL protection afforded to the names for the mind flayer, ilithid, et al.) The intellect devourer is actually part of the SRD, so it has specifically been noted as open game content. The ustilagor is not part of the SRD under that that name (it is open game content under the name "intellect devourer larva"). This is actually one of the reasons I assumed the name "ustilagor" was protected, or that the use of that name would be verboten (because it's not explicitly stated as being open game content under the name "ustilagor"). Thus, I've chosen to go with "intellect seeker."