Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Clark Ashton Smith Game

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.

32 comments:

  1. I wish I could FIND Smith's writings...every time I'm in a bookstore (used or not) I look for a compilation or ANYTHING with his name on it and find zilch. What's up with that?!

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  2. Smith's writing are largely unavailable in book form, outside Nightshade Press's complete collection, for reasons I cannot fathom. I own the four volumes of the Nightshade series that currently exist, but they're expensive ($40 a pop) hardcovers that you can't find in stores. So far as I can tell, there hasn't been a mass market paperback version of any of his stories since the 1970s and that's ridiculous.

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  3. Based on your earlier recommendation of CAS, I just ordered a recent (2009) paperback that collects some of his short stories called The Return of the Sorcerer from Amazon for about $10. I hope it includes a good introduction to his works as it claims, but I can not yet attest to that as it has yet to arrive.

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  4. Prime Books released The Return of the Sorcerer in 2009, a trade paperback that collects 18 of CAS' stories in a "best of" format. It retails for around $15.00 US and, while not as complete as Night Shades' collections, it is much less expensive and available through Amazon.

    http://tinyurl.com/28mbkj6

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  5. I hope it includes a good introduction to his works as it claims, but I can not yet attest to that as it has yet to arrive.

    While I found my own introduction to CAS' stories by way of The End of the Story Vol. 1 of Night Shade's five volume series (and which I'm currently rereading), The Return of the Sorcerer does cover some of Smith's better known works, but not some of best-loved.

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  6. Are the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks volumes available in the US? If so, you could look for volume #26, an inexpensive collection of CAS stories titled The Emperor of Dreams : Best Fantasy Tales. I even have a spare copy of it if anyone needs one!

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  7. I'm not sure why you insist on using quotes from Smith's writings.

    You could simply produce the game and say "based on the works of CAS" on the cover. You could describe your love of CAS in the introduction. That way, you could publish your game, and still direct people to Smith's work.

    Moreover, you could credibly publish an homage in much the same way old school games borrowed liberally from other properties (as you noted in Friday's post). Just file the serial numbers off.

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  8. Worlds of Cthulhu Magazine, that I just learned is closing down, has been running a Dark Ages of Cthulhu treatment of Averoigne. One of the editors of the project is Adam Crossingham. You might be able to get in touch with him over on the basicroleplaying.com forums to learn more of what they were up to. His moniker on the board is Gundamentalist. The Averoigne setting was my primary reason for buying the magazine, so now I’m curious as to what they’re going to do with the material.

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  9. Thanks for writing this. Very interesting.

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  10. JB, I am surprised no one's mentioned http://www.eldritchdark.com/ which boasts a huge archive, with many of CAS' best known tales and poems. Granted, it's no substitute to the beautiful, if expensive, Nightshade Press editions, but it's one hell of a start.

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  11. Just one more example of how contemporary copyright law is essentially a form of book-banning.

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  12. The University of Nebraska Press, via an imprint called Bison Books, puts out an absolutely AWESOME series called the "Bison Frontiers of the Imagination" that includes a lot of the best pulp fantasy and sci-fi, in really nice scholarly editions with thoughtful introductions. They offer 2 volumes of Smith's stories - Out of Space and Time and Lost Worlds, both of which are fantastic. Just FYI.

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  13. Very interesting. I had no idea that Arkham House held their "copyright" on Lovecraft through sheer intimidation.

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  14. Very interesting. I had no idea that Arkham House held their "copyright" on Lovecraft through sheer intimidation.

    AH would obviously disagree with this characterization, but, based on the opinions of a lot of people who've studied the matter very closely (including S.T. Joshi, who, while far from being infallible with regards to HPL, is nevertheless, a generally reliable source), the publisher has no legal claim to the copyrights. Many countries, such as Australia, already consider HPL's writings in the public domain and I suspect that in most others AH's legal claims would be met with great doubt, although it might take lawsuits to prove the matter.

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  15. Wow.

    I still consider CAS to be much better than HPL (heresy I know) so I would have LOVED to have had this game.

    An chance at all you might release it?

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  16. Another project derailed by Arkham House, a crap company employing crap people. I can't wait until their bread and butter (Lovecraft and CAS) fall completely into public domain and that crap company can be happily driven out of business. Their reputation in the industry and fandom can accurately be portrayed as "crap" (can you see a theme here?)

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  17. "So far as I can tell, there hasn't been a mass market paperback version of any of his stories since the 1970s and that's ridiculous"

    There was a three volume mass market "Timescape/Pocket Books" series of CAS stories in 1983 that was my introduction to the greatness of CAS.

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  18. So, the only thing stopping you was the resistance by AH to using some of the stories? Why not make the game without them?

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  19. Nerd Oddrum said:
    Worlds of Cthulhu Magazine, that I just learned is closing down, has been running a Dark Ages of Cthulhu treatment of Averoigne.


    I'm sorry to hear that: I've enjoyed WoC quite a bit, although I also still have to buy the most recent two issues or so.

    Allan.

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  20. I don't know about the legalness, but I found a game called Zothique on Scrbd.

    Smith's stories are of course online somewhere too.

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  21. I know Chaosium had plans on doing some sourcebooks based on Hyberborea and Zothique. Maybe there's a way of going through them being that they have published CAS's works in one book or another.

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  22. No criticism intended, but after all that work, I too would've gone ahead without the CAS excerpts in the rpg book.

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  23. If it doesn't attract a dubious legal threat from a fantasy writer's estate, is it a real old-school game?

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  24. Maybe it's because I teach copyright law for a living, but it seems to me that a smart guy like you shouldn't need to hire a lawyer to show that various CAS works are public domain. There are plenty of public sources these days where this kind of info is available. And Arkham House are hardly going to want to risk a decisive judgement against them and bring down their house of cards.

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  25. According to Wikipedia, his stories were published between 1930 and 1941.

    This would mean that they would have been renewed 28 years later, or fallen into the public domain in the USA.

    For those years the Copyright Office published a Catalogue of Copyright Entries.

    So you could look through the relevant catalogues to see if the copyright for a given story was renewed.

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  26. In Wikipedia you can read some Smith's works:

    http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Clark_Ashton_Smith

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  27. The Arkham House thing--evil and I won't buy anything from them.

    Smith books--awesome and the Bison versions are readily available. Try them and yuo will want to buy the expensive hardbacks becuase CAS rcoks so mightily.

    The game--what would you have done that would have made a great game? Other than using his settings, how were you going to tweak things?

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  28. @Jose:

    oops - didn't think of looking up wikisource.

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  29. Hi!

    Just for the record:
    http://catalog.chaosium.com/product_info.php?cPath=66&products_id=1303
    (non-zothiquian CAS stories)

    A free pdf d20 setting for Zothique:
    http://www.eldritchdark.com/articles/criticism/30/zothique-d20-system-game-guide

    I hope to see your Zothique RPG one day, JM. Go ahead!

    ghoul

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  30. James, I would LOVE to see this game with or without CAS quotes. I'd buy it for good maps and a gazetteer alone!

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  31. For the benefit of anyone who may have missed the news (I'm sure most of you know, but just in case), Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea will be published soon!

    http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=hyperborea

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