Tag Archives: Sandy Petersen

Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

Much of a dungeon master’s skill amounts to choosing the technique that suits a moment in the game. I have two examples:

Use the right tool for the job.

For years, because I used the wrong tool, a type of roleplaying scene sometimes left my players confused. Adopting a better technique would have forced me to accept a limitation that just about every DM shares. Few of us can stage a good one-performer show. Lucky for my players, a giant of roleplaying game design set me straight.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the DM plays every non-player character. Speaking in character makes these NPCs more vivid, makes scenes feel more immediate, and encourages roleplaying. (See Most Advice for Encouraging Roleplaying Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.)

As a DM, when I portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. I figured if I performed better, then the confusion would lessen. So I worked on character voices and doing a better job attributing each speaker. Sometimes I even held up a picture of the current speaker. Despite any improvement, players still often became confused. Perhaps worse, players sat idle. Roleplaying games should encourage interaction and my one-man show discouraged it.

Permission to change my approach came from Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu—probably the most critically acclaimed roleplaying game ever. In a convention presentation, he says, “Never let two NPCs have a discussion, because then it’s just the gamemaster talking to himself.” Thank you, Sandy.

Instead of acting two parts in character, just tell the players what the two characters say. “The elders disagree about the best way to stop the raids. Some want to strike back the chief. Others suspect the attacks seek a stolen totem held by cultists in the village.”

Such a narrative approach falls short of ideal, but it works better than talking to yourself.

Still, the best roleplaying scenes feature a small number of players speaking to one NPC at a time.

In your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones.

Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need two characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view. Now you can act as each NPC in character without fostering confusion.

But suppose you have the acting chops to fill a crowd scene with distinctive voices chatting among themselves. Awesome! Can I play at your table? Still, avoid putting more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

Dungeon masters should work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. Splitting the party makes everyone contribute. Less-vocal party members gain time in the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them on their separate ways. (See Never Split the Party—Except When it Adds Fun.)

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

Just a couple of years after its release, the original Deities & Demigods from 1980 became legend. The first copies included sections featuring the Melnibonéan mythos from the Elric stories by Michael Moorcock and the Cthulhu mythos from the tales of H.P. Lovecraft. Every Dungeons & Dragons fan knew the legend: TSR printed the sections without permission, got sued, and now the book was censored. The tale boasted a delicious mix of scandal, arrogance, and justice, and for those of us who owned one of those banned copies, a priceless collectable certain to fund our retirements. Too bad none of the legend was true.

Today, the book’s co-author, James M. Ward still works to spread the facts. “I absolutely hate it when ignorant people say TSR and I acted in copyright infringement.”

But how did the the Elric and Cthulhu content reach the book, and why did it disappear?

Deities & Demigods describes gods, mostly drawn from cultures around the world.

When James Ward started the book, he proposed a list of the pantheons he wanted to include. In addition to drawing from folklore, the list included gods created in fiction by three authors: Lovecraft, Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. Each deeply influenced D&D co-creator Gary Gygax and the game. But to use the authors’ work, TSR needed permission.

Leiber had created the Nehwon mythos for his tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. After Leiber attended Gen Con X in 1977 as guest of honor, he had stayed a Gary’s house for a week. Gary called the author a friend. Surely, gaining Leiber’s authorization proved easy.

The chance of gaining authorization to use the work of Lovecraft and Moorcock seemed smaller.

Lovecraft’s key work suffers from a muddled copyright status. Up until 2019, any stories he published before 1923 qualified as public domain, but his most important stories, including “Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness” reached print later. After the author’s death, two of Lovecraft’s protégés founded Arkham House Publishers to print collections of his work. Today, Arkham House claims Lovecraft’s copyrights. But did Lovecraft’s heirs ever actually transfer the rights to the publisher? Also, prior to 1978, copyright holders needed to renew copyrights to maintain ownership. Failure to renew landed the movie It’s a Wonderful Life in the public domain. Did a once, nearly-forgotten writer of pulp fiction get more mindful handling? Did anyone with legal standing ever file renewals? Decades have buried the answers. This year, Lovecraft’s remaining copyrights begin to expire, year by year, until the last expire in 2032. Until then, his tales may or may not be in public domain.

Nonetheless, Jim Ward wrote Arkham House asking to include Lovecraft’s material. He received a letter back granting permission. At about the same time, the game company Chaosium struck a similar deal. In design notes in Different Worlds magazine, editor Lynn Willis wrote, “I negotiated rights for the Cthulhu mythos from Arkham House.” Call of Cthulhu would not reach print until the summer of 1981, but work on the game started much earlier. “After many months delay, the manuscript of the game was unsatisfactory, and had to be turned down. It was originally was to be a 1980 release; now we were hoping for 1981.” In 1980, Sandy Petersen took over the project and delivered a classic role-playing game.

More than likely, someone at Arkham failed to realize how granting a permission to describe Lovecraft’s mythos in a game-related reference book conflicted with a license to publish a game. How could a game be a book? Granting permission to TSR probably just seemed like a good way to introduce Lovecraft to a wider audience.

In the popular conception of the time, games sold from toy stores for children. Gaming remained a tiny hobby that few even knew existed. No one outside the hobby considered existential horror tales from the 1920s a suitable topic for a game. Requests to use Cthulhu for a game of all things probably puzzled the administrative staff at Arkham. As this story keeps showing, few outside of gaming saw game rights to fiction as anything of value.

Jim Ward wrote Michael Moorcock requesting authorization to describe the mythos from the Elric stories. The author granted permission. In a 2009 interview, he explains his thinking. “It was in the spirit of the 60s/70s when it seemed to many of us that we were sharing in a common culture and the products of that culture.”

But Moorcock proved overly generous. Years earlier, Chaosium had bought the board-game rights to the Elric books. That license led to the Elric game in 1977. After the success of RuneQuest, Chaosium decided to adapt their roleplaying game rules to Moorcock’s fiction, so they returned to Moorcock’s agent and gained an RPG license.

Chaosium insider and RuneQuest designer Steve Perrin explains the source of the trouble. “Chaosium arranged for the Elric license through Moorcock’s agent. Jim went directly to Moorcock, who did not consult with his agent. He just sent back a note saying ‘Go for it.’ So the only person Chaosium could sue would be Moorcock, which is not a good practice between a licensor and licensee.”

Arioch from the 1st printing of Deities & Demigods

Moorcock never expected his tales of a doomed sorcerer and a soul-stealing sword to become valuable for gaming. “I hadn’t anticipated that some people would start turning all this stuff into commercial businesses and so it was a bit of a surprise when D&D and Chaosium, for instance, started fighting over who ‘owned’ the rights to the Elric ‘cosmology.’”

In 1980, Deities & Demigods reached gamers, complete with sections describing the Melnibonéan mythos and the Cthulhu mythos. Meanwhile, Chaosium prepared to publish their Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu role-playing games in 1981. They sent cease-and-desist letters to TSR. “I don’t blame them a bit,” Ward writes. However, Chaosium knew nothing about the two letters authorizing TSR to use the content.

The legal demand put TSR in a bind. Armed with their letters of permission, TSR could have fought. “The company wasn’t rich at that point,” Ward explains. Brian Blume, TSR’s head of operations, “didn’t want to go to California, get a California lawyer, and spend time and money winning the case.” TSR could have stopped selling Deities & Demigods, but it sold great. Pulling the book meant pulping copies on hand, reprinting, and paying new costs. Reprinting the book with fewer pages would take time. During the lapse, some customers would lose interest and TSR would lose sales.

So TSR sought an accommodation with Chaosium. Fortunately, both companies had something to give.

In addition to the licensed role-playing games Chaosium scheduled for 1981, the company planned Thieves’ World, a roleplaying supplement based on Robert Asprin’s shared-world series of books. In order to give the supplement maximum appeal, it would include game stats for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Adventures in Fantasy, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, The Fantasy Trip, RuneQuest, Tunnels & Trolls, and even Traveller. But TSR zealously defended the trademarks to AD&D and D&D. If the supplement touted compatibility and named the games on the cover, Chaosium needed permission. In Designers & Dragons, game historian Shannon Appelcline writes, “Chaosium got the rights to use the TSR trademarks in Thieves’ World and in exchange TSR was allowed to continue using the [Melnibonéan and Cthulhu mythos in Deities & Demigods].” As part of the deal, TSR added a notice into the book’s second printing. “Special Thanks are also given to Chaosium, Inc. for permission to use the material found in the Cthulhu Mythos and the Melnibonéan Mythos.”

If TSR had kept the notice and the original content, the story would have ended quietly, with no bogus legends of plagiarism and banning. But for 1980’s third printing, TSR had time to drop the Lovecraft and Moorcock sections and reconfigure the book with fewer pages.

Why did Brian Blume choose to withdraw the content despite trading for permission to keep it? Appelcline cites a desire to soothe the same fears of Satanism that would lead TSR to retitle the book Legends & Lore in 1985. Presumably, existential horror and evil gods might worry parents, and that worried TSR. Other sources say Blume didn’t want a TSR book to fuel interest in Elric or Cthulhu because that would drive players to a competitor’s games.

As for a copy of Deities & Demigods funding a retirement, more copies of the first two printings exist than the legend suggests. According to the D&D collector’s site The Acaeum as many as 15,000 copies reached buyers. In auction, the book fetches more than other D&D hardcovers, but prices have fallen.

In an odd postscript, Fritz Leiber, the third author featured in Deities & Demigods, would land TSR and Chaosium in a second dispute over conflicting licenses. In 1983, Chaosium planned a follow up to Thieves’ World featuring Leiber’s city of Lankhmar. They already had a license agreement when TSR announced that they had a license from Leiber too. “It turned out that Leiber had indeed licensed both companies,” Appelcline writes. “Chaosium pointed out that their license was earlier, but TSR replied that if that was the case, they would sue Leiber.” Gary Gygax may have counted the author as a friend, but Brian Blume ran TSR. To protect Leiber from a suit, Chaosium dropped their claim. In an email, Chaosium founder Greg Stafford explained the decision. “Fritz was one of my literary heroes in those days, and also a terminal alcoholic, and I just imagined the havoc that would ensue for him, so I just dropped it.” In 1985, TSR published Lankhmar: City of Adventure.