Thursday 1 August 2019

[BLOG] OSR Module O4: The Sincerest Form of Flattery

A long time ago, when I was a beginning PhD student, I noticed that a professor from a rival faculty had taken my first published journal article, and released it pretty much word by word under his name as course material. Shaken, I sought advice from my department head, a chain-smoking old grump who had been well known for his strictness and foul mouth, and somewhat less so for his golden heart. He listened to my woes, and gave me three pieces of advice:
  1. This is not Western Europe. You can't fight them and win.
  2. You should be proud you have something worth stealing.
  3. Always stay two steps ahead of the fuckers.

He was right, and I have lived by that wisdom ever since. But that doesn’t mean I don’t notice.


The question of imitation can be tricky in something like old-school gaming. The systems and supplements we use are often homages, and ideas get around, as they do in creative communities. It is not surprising to discover a module based on Keep on the Borderlands (although there have been surprisingly few genuinely good ones) or The Tomb of Horrors (although it is a module whose lessons are far less universal than people think). People can also take ideas and build something interesting upon them, or develop the subject of a forum conversation into something more substantial. Or run an adventure and decide they can do it even better. Fine and good – this is how a lot of refinement and incremental innovation happens. But it is only right in this situation to give credit for the original idea, and if possible, notify the idea’s originator. It is not a matter of life and death – but it is a matter of basic courtesy. And the opposite seems to be happening ­ with surprising regularity these days.

I am not talking about the time some psycho from Hungary stole a very early (2003) prototype of The Barbarian King, and published a shoddy 5e conversion on the DM’s Guild under his own name. That guy is just cuckoo insane. Nor am I talking about the people just republishing free material for a few bucks (as I hear, this has happened to Kellri’s netbooks on several occasions), and I am sure as hell not talking about outright dirtbags like James L. Shipman. Those are clear cases of theft. No, I am talking about small things I have been noticing. Thus…


 Exhibit 1: The Great Wheel Gets Even Greater

Make Wheels Great Again
Right: Echoes From Fomalhaut #03, p. 2. (2018)
Left: Winning entry from the 2019 One Page Dungeon Contest (2019)

Well, one wheel is 50' and the other one is 500', so it is clearly different. Moar giant wheels = Moar fun. No harm no foul.

Exhibit 2: Disco Inferno


Left: April's Fool post from Beyond Fomalhaut (2018)
Right: New hotness from J. Halk Games (2019).

Actually, this one doesn't stop here, because it turns out Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor has already been the subject of a heated IP battle, with the module's author trashing a larcenous upstart. No kidding.

You tell 'em, Joe!

Now that he is informed, it is no longer a coincidence. Well, well, WELL! 
The things you learn on the Internet.

There is also this thing:

Language gap aside, you will note that Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor's first convention appearance was 24 November 2018. Except it was a different convention, a different Disco Emperor module (obviously), and a different designer - my good friend Premier, the only one who had, in fact, asked me if he could run with the idea. (Of course he could.) All testers and con players had agreed it was a great adventure. I have even been reminding Mr. Premier that he might want to publish it, and there might even be an interested publisher (presumably not J. Halk Games).

So here our story ends. 

But wait! This just in! Turns out Luke Gygax himself also wants in on the Disco Emperor dollars!


I am honoured to, ah, inspire none else but Melf the Elf. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, is what I call "an OSR Thief class"!


So that's how things work in the murkier corners of our cottage industry. What am I going to do about it? Well... Largely nothing. I will surely be flattered a bit. Inspiring people is reassuring you are doing something right.

But I will also sure as hell try to stay two steps ahead.


  1. Idea thieves have hearts as small as the creative centers of their brains. They must be small because they're crowded out by the desire for any attention they can find by any means possible.

  2. Amazing. What scumbag that Joseph Stash III.

  3. That sucks, and it's happened to me and fellow writers a few times. The only consolation other than calling the thieves out is that if they're still stealing it, you're doing something right. Congratulations on your other successes as well.

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  5. "a professor from a rival faculty"

    And I think we know what your NEXT idea to mysteriously pop up in somebody else's portfolio will be. Watch out for White Wolf's new product line, Professor: the Tenure

    1. And I thought the World of Darkness couldn't get any more ponderous...

  6. ==it is only right in this situation to give credit for the original idea

    Certainly. Better still don't imitate.

    However, isn't Exhibit 1 an idea taken from Glorantha (Runequest)? Yes it is.

    And for Exhibit 2 you contributed a title and nothing more as far as I can see.

    Choose better examples.

  7. What's more, Premier's adventure seems to be inspired by Scream Blacula Scream, the 1973 movie I never heard of but bumped into just weeks before I had the opportunity to play it at our last year's con. Talk about coincidence!

    1. Well, more of a nod to the original movie the year before. And, honestly, more inspired by blaxploitation movies in general. And disco music. And kung-fu flicks.

  8. Skerples has a habit of "borrowing" inspiration and heavy lifting from other sources. His frequent font of ideas is the /osrg/ on 4channel's /tg/ (and he's been trying and failing to get material for his Eberron knock-off from there) but he also took over Arnold's GLOG and Veins of the Earth in the G+ era. Epochrypha was billed as a "crowdsourced project" but he's selling it for $4.99 (don't know how many of his entries weren't his creations).

    I am definitely biased against him but it's all true.

    1. He "took over" the GLOG? He made content for it, but isn't the whole point of this DIY thing making content for games you like?

      Similarly, he made some Veins fan content, but he openly said that was what it was, and gave it away for free.

    2. Epochrypha was only vaguely crowdsourced. Some ideas were brainstormed publically, but turning vague ideas into a book (writing full entries, layout, art, etc.) is a task and a half. Two other authors contributed between 10 and 15 entries each (and were paid and credited). Because their entries were often substantially edited to keep the style consistent, we lumped them all together in one d100 list.
      The book eventually turned a profit, but it's a "take a friend out to dinner" profit.

  9. I mean, someone should at least bring this to the attention of Luke. He seems to be a straight shooter based on what I've seen of him. Credit is the least you deserve.

    1. I hope it is simply a matter of ignorance.

  10. I knew Jim Shipman back around 1990ish. He used come to the weekly meetings of our local game club, driving like 2-3 hours from his hometown in Illinois (likely because no one there would play with him). He always had a large collection of bootleg desktop-published stuff he'd made (DM screens and character sheets and such) that seemed impressive at first until we all realized what a putz he was.

    At the time he was working on a home-brewed rpg system called "MUCS" that was a mixed-genre thing kind of like TORG, with the gimmick that all dice rolls used d12s. It, of course, sucked, and the poor reception it got must have been what convinced him it was better to rip stuff off than to try to be creative.

    He was a player in the WFRP game I ran for the club and was a cheater - changing values on his character sheet, even after I caught him a couple times. Eventually I sidelined him along with a couple of younger players (of the players in that game two-three were about my age (15-16ish), two-three (including Jim) were in their 20s, and there were two kids - around 11 or 12) doing meaningless snipe-hunts while the "real" players focused on the mystery-solving plot stuff. Last time I saw him was about a year later and he was running a game for those same kids, because no one else in the club would have anything to do with him by that point.

    So when his name resurfaced at the center of that hubbub a few years ago it was like bizarre deja-vu - and not at all surprising. It's a weird, small world.

    1. Quite a story! One almost begins to suspect that guy's behaviour is class-based. Should be level 5 or 6 by now?

  11. Hey, I said the idea you claimed was stolen, the giant wheel, you published but it was stolen from Glorantha.

    I know it is embarrassing for you but you should acknowledge it so people don't think you are a hypocrite publishing stolen material.

    1. That's not even a nice try, Kent.

    2. It is the best I can do as a champion of truth.

    3. It is the best I can do as a champion of truth.

  12. Hmm...considering Luke asked us to make this for GC XI in JUNE of 2018, and it was completed before November 2018 in order for proof printings to be made for adjustments before Gary Con XI (as each Gygax was given a copy), and research was done into this before its general release by our legal team (which ACTUALLY HAS A LAWYER), you might as well stop right here.

    There is no theft at all of IP, as the DMCA does not protect memes unless you (GASP!) copyright them...which, at the time, no copyright existed on the name "Velour Palace of the Disco Emperor" (FIRST thing looked into, BTW).

    I strongly suggest, instead of complaining on the dark blog corner of the internet I had to ask for directions to, you kindly stop being a keyboard warrior who wants to complain and actually contact us directly in the future regarding this manner like anyone who seriously wants to break into this business would do.

    Don't get me wrong; I was told great things about you by a few people when I was informed of this tonight. You may want in the business, but it's all in, out in the open, like we are, or just sit back and do blog posts.

    No one STOLE your idea. Hell, the link above isn't even the plot in the adventure published. (yes, I just looked at that for the first time - you can have my computer forensic searched to prove that, same computer I had when I started VPDE)

    Have a wonderful day! If you want to chat sometime, all the contact info is on the Facebook page you screenshot.


    J. Halk Games

    1. Well, thanks for dropping by. I am delighted to know J. Halk Games has a legal team with an ACTUAL LAWYER (and not just some guy who plays one on TV). My sole proprietorship does not have a legal department or a REAL LAWYER (yet!), so you will have to be satisfied with MY response.

      1) This is not a matter of legalities (you will note I did not pursue legal recourse), but of common courtesy.

      2) If you indeed looked into the copyright status of my image, you have undoubtedly found its original source. Basic due diligence. A reverse Google image search (right click + "search Google for image" in most browsers) finds the original source just fine. From then, it would have been simply a matter of "May I?", and my answer would have been a simple "Sure, go ahead."

      3) If you do make a simple mistake, it is just as simple to correct it with as much as "Oh, sorry about that" or "My apologies for an honest mistake". That's all it takes. You don't even have to "strongly suggest" things, disparage my blog, or try to impress me with your no doubt considerable legal might. To tell the truth, it is a small thing.

      4) You are welcome to the title.

      Gabor Lux
      (not a lawyer)

    2. Speaking in very general terms, I've found that someone feeling compelled to publically declare "what I did was legal" is usually an implicit admission of "what I did was morally objectionable".

  13. "Seriously wants to break in the business"

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  15. My god! I didn't put two and two together for The People of the Great Wheel and the Roving Wheel dungeon. I'd read the article, but the idea of a hollow tumbling dungeon has been something I've played with for years. One of my first (unpublished) projects was dungeon ferris wheel.
    Just in case, I'm adding a link to the blogpost.

    1. Figures! Thanks for dropping by and clearing it up. A big wheel is, honestly, not the strangest idea you can come up with (I didn't know Glorantha had one).

    2. No worries!
      One of the original draft ideas called for folding the dungeon into a mobeius strip, so agreed, it could be weirder.
      (Anyone can use that idea... if they can get it the darn thing to work.)