As promised, here's the tale of my attempt, a few years ago, to create a RPG based on the worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, specifically Hyperborea, Averoigne, and Zothique.
Well before my return to old school gaming, I'd returned to the pulp fantasies I loved as a younger person. I started re-reading authors like Lovecraft, Howard, Leiber, and Smith, among others and began to immerse myself in the new studies of them and their works. It was this process that, ultimately, started me down the path to where I am today, but it would take several more "pushes" from other quarters before I'd make the full leap back to my gaming roots.
Anyway, in the course of my reading, I got the idea to write a RPG -- D20-based, of course, as that was the style at the time -- that could encompass the "big three" literary worlds of Clark Ashton Smith. I'd been in touch with a lot of Smith scholars and fans and had even made the acquaintance of Smith's stepson, William Dorman, who serves as director of CASiana Literary Enterprises. Since CASiana is Smith's literary executor, I wrote up a formal proposal to Dorman, laying out my plans for the game and connecting it to an earlier CASiana-sanctioned RPG project, Castle Amber. I also emphasized that, in a time of rising interest in Smith's works, a game based on his works might be another vehicle for making them more well known.
William Dorman granted me permission to go ahead with the project. I was ecstatic and set to work. I also contacted a well-known and respected D20 publisher, who were similar enthusiastic about the project and even tentatively lined up an editor who was also an avid admirer of CAS. As plans progressed, it looked like we'd be producing a large, hardcover book that included a simplified D20 variant for its core rules, with modifications for each of the three settings to better reflect their unique qualities. Had the game actually come to pass, I think it would have been excellent, in my biased opinion.
So why didn't it happen? Well, looking at least partially to Call of Cthulhu as a model of a well-done RPG based on a pulp fantasist, I figured it'd be nice to include select quotes from Smith stories to frame certain sections of the book, such as, for example, the gazetteers of Averoigne and Zothique. I even considered the inclusion of the full text of a single short story for each section, much in the way CoC includes "The Call of Cthulhu" nowadays. I wrote to Mr Dorman to make certain this was acceptable and received word from him that CASiana has an "understanding" with the publisher Arkham House. This understanding is such that, while CASiana may be Smith's literary executor, it makes no claim to holding the copyright to Smith's actual literary texts. Instead, Arkham House makes that claim and, if I wanted to include any text from Smith's stories, I'd need to contact Arkham House.
Naturally, I did. April Derleth, daughter of the company's founder, directed me to someone else, who acted as Arkham House's "literary agent" or some similar title. I can't recall the man's name, but I did get in touch with him. He and I exchange some letters and emails before eventually coming down to brass tacks about the cost of securing the rights to Smith's texts for an RPG. Needless to say, the cost involved was higher than I could justify given the likely return and so, unhappily, I reported this back to the interested publisher. There was brief talk of negotiating for a better deal, but, in the end, all concerned knew it'd hardly be worth it, as this would be a niche product.
I periodically thought of returning to the project, after I'd looked more into the copyright status of Smith's stories, many of which are likely in the public domain. I even contacted several Smith scholars to ask their advice and they all agreed that Arkham House's claims over Smith's texts, like those over Lovecraft's, are dubious at best and outright chicanery at worst. However, they all cautioned me against acting without permission from Arkham House unless I had the services of a good copyright lawyer, as Arkham has a history of legally bullying people who try to produce "unauthorized" editions of works they claim to own.
I didn't have a lawyer and, even if I had, I wasn't much interested in trying to fend off Arkham House and the project has never gotten anywhere. I doubt I have the permission to produce a CAS-inspired RPG anymore, as it's been years since I was last in touch with Mr Dorman and CASiana. I suppose I could produce a pastiche version of Smith's worlds but, honestly, that's an unsatisfying solution. Part of what motivated me to start this project was a desire to promote Smith's own works, not knock-offs of them. I wanted to get people to read his stories and appreciate his creations. But, alas, it seems as if CASiana, despite being his literary executor, claims no real control over his creations and thus can do little to help me advance that goal.
It's a shame, because the game would have been awesome.