My friend Elzie recently posted an interesting thread on Twitter that I wanted to comment on in depth. Sometimes replies and Tweets don’t cover it all.
So, my short answer to all of this is- Absolutely NOT!
My long answer is: there are a LOT of variables here. If you’re trying to publish official content on www.dmsguild.com, then yes, you need to stick to the rules as written for the most part. Otherwise, if it’s your campaign, at home, or published anywhere else under the SRD, then- freakin party on!
Seriously, if you want to re-skin your orcs to look like pink bunny-eared primates, then go for it! No one, and I mean NO ONE should ever tell you what you can and can’t do with your campaign, your world, your ideas, or your content. If it’s your table and your world and they don’t like it, they can go kick rocks. The Tolkien people are not going to sue you for altering orcs and neither is Wizards. Run the game you want to enjoy.
Descriptions go a long way!
I have mostly new players. I’m pretty determined to ban access to the Monster Manual and other such books during play these days. I’m going to describe the creature the party is facing in detail and let the group decide how they want to handle it.
The trees around the road go dead silent. The group’s horses stall and become skittish looking toward the large tree with a long, thick branch over the road ahead. They see a large beast, perched in the tree, with the body of a panther only having leathery, bat-like wings, and a long spiky tail. It stares out through the dusky twilight at them with its red, glowing eyes and long, protruding fangs gleaming in the last little bit of remaining sunlight, watching them approach. Its talons are spread wide and its tail is wrapped around the tree for balance. This predator looks like it means business. What do you do?
That description will probably have the intended effect much better than “You see a Wyvern perched atop the tree over the road ahead. What do you do?” Because if I ran it as an official Wyvern, it’s not going to be nearly as memorable or potentially terrifying. Not to mention it’s a re-skinned Wyvern, with a few added features that aren’t listed with the original.
Now, my wife, who loves all things feline both in character and out, is probably going to try to tame, befriend or otherwise not kill this creature seeing it isn’t overtly evil or aggressive. Which, I’ll possibly allow the attempt because it’s good roleplaying opportunities and more fun than a straight combat encounter.
In the past, I’ve had groups that would have dug into the Monster Manuals trying to find out how much XP the thing would be worth. I mean, it’s literally XP with wings! Heck yeah we go all murder hobo on it.
Then again, as a DM, I get to have fun with a large, winged, apex predator with stealth and a breath weapon in mostly open ground in poor lighting conditions. That’s going to suck for the murder hobos. Especially if it flies off and comes back to torment them in the dark. Gook luck trying to take a long rest with that thing lurking nearby. heh heh heh…
Who’s to say what’s considered “official?”
Even the designers of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons could sit at your gaming table and play a character fully aware that it’s not Rules As Written, and be just fine with it. Are we there to have fun or bicker over official content? Again, if you’re not attempting to publish anything, does it really matter? Personally, I think not.
Now there are a few exceptions and exemptions. Obviously if you’re running a game for Adventurer’s League set in a specific world you probably want to stick to “their” descriptions as written because those players are likely expecting “official” content and will go onto other games in the series. The players could get lost if you change/alter the settings and descriptions too much in an official module. Convention games are also kind of a sticky wicket depending on the expectations of the players.
That having been said, if you tell your players at your table for your home game, “Hey, my world is different than anything in the published settings. Here’s some of what you can expect…” Then, yes. Absolutely homebrew whatever you like. I know I do it all the time.
I regularly adapt all kinds of things I will never attempt to publish.
I watch a lot of anime. I’ve been a huge fan of Rouroni Kenshin, Inu Yasha, Chrome Shelled Regios, and Ninja Scroll for years. I’ve had players come to me and ask for homebrew versions of Sango’s boomerang, the Tetsusaiga, and the giant wolf demon from Inu Yasha and I gladly obliged. I’ve statted the Wing Blade Sword among other things in the past from various samurai anime. I’m absolutely in love with the dite concept in Chrome Shelled Regios and will be resolute when it comes to implementing that style of weapon in the campaign I’m working on.
Heck, I have plenty of ICONS characters that are knockoffs of DC, Marvel, Image, and various anime characters. I’ve translated my own personal DC Heroes (First Ed) character into a half a dozen different systems. His concept was based on Marvel’s Iron Man. Admittedly, I’ve had my own spin on the character for 30 years, and he looks very little like Tony Stark.
I’ve used and borrowed from Avatar: the Last Airbender and Satelizer Bridget in the past, too. Had an absolute blast with it, but could never “officially” publish any of it for fear of getting sued. I’ve even created derivatives from Super Why (Kids TV show,) Teen Titans, Young Justice, and the Outsiders. Nothing is off limits at my table when it comes to creating adventures and settings. However, there are plenty of restrictions when it comes to publishing.
Publishers, designers and media lawyers expect you to respect their copyrights and trademarks. It’s much the same going the other way. Obviously I want my ORIGINAL material to be mine, to my own credit and never stolen. It’s only fair to everyone to do your own thing and get credit for it. But this all applies to published material, not what goes on at your table at home, or even during an actual play podcast.
This is one of my favorite topics, if it’s not obvious. I’m not even a lawyer, but I have found this topic to be fascinating ever since I took Media Law in college. It’s amazing what you can and can’t do.
Again, if you’re working on something for dmsguild.com or planning to publish your material anywhere, you have to be somewhat compliant to the “official rules.” If you publish to the DMsGuild, then yes, you are literally doing R&D for Wizards of the Coast and they can/will take whatever they want, rewrite it, publish it, edit it, whatever and they >might< even give you credit. If you publish elsewhere as a third party publisher under the Open Gaming License, WotC can latch onto your work and/or tell you to cease and desist if you’re violating the OGL and/or going beyond the bounds of the SRD and trying to pass it off as “official.”
Personally, I love the notion of publishing to the DMsGuild because it gives us a chance to show off. You can put work out there in an official way as a portfolio piece. Everyone, WotC included, gets to see what you’re capable of. You might not get hired to be one of the big guns in their office, but wouldn’t it be terrific to be acknowledged and asked to work on more, possibly commissioned projects? There are benefits to proving you can do things in an official capacity.
My personal goals are to get to that Electrum and Mithral rating on both DMsGuild and DriveThruRPG some day. I would love to get an email from any company that effectively says, “Hey. We really like your stuff. Come work with us.” I can do all these things. Name a system. It doesn’t have to even be D&D. We can play within whatever official rules you want to name. I’ll make it work.
Anyway, until next time. Take care.