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War Story
by Ron Edwards

This is one of Ron Edwards' experiences with his game, Sorcerer. Back in 1996, I found GAMA on the Internet and contacted them. A nice fellow there gave me the name and number of an "up and coming" company looking for RPGs (they shall remain nameless). I wrote them a letter and received a very enthusiastic reply, with a strong emphasis on author ownership and profit share. Here are some excerpts from their first two letters.

It was good to talk with you about your game. I hope we can work something out concerning it. I am very intrigued by the information you provided and would really like to be involved with this product.
Most importantly for you, you will retain ownership of the game while [name of company] will own the inventory and be responsible for publishing, promoting, and distributing the products. We will work with you to make sure the products are being promoted according to your wishes; you can be as hands-on or hands-off as you like.
My business partner got a chance to read the manuscript and he liked it so we'd like to pursue this further ... we're interested in getting feedback from you right now and we can change what you want regarding the contract - if there's anything. ... As soon as we have everything worked out I'd like to send you some samples of work from some of the artists we work with so you can pick some that you'd like for the game.

They offered me $1000 up front and 9% of the net profits. Sounds great, huh? We also had many pleasant phone conversations, including assurances of things like author ownership, control of content, and so on. Presently the company sent me a copy of a "boilerplate" contract - that is, a non-specific contract intended to be edited into the real one by both parties. Here are some excerpts from that contract.

The Publisher will have the right to make the final decision on the title and jacket or cover art. The publication will be in a format determined by the Publisher acting in its sole discretion. All decisions regarding the retail price and all other matters involving terms of sale, distribution, advertising, and promotion of the Work shall also be within the Publisher's sole discretion.

The Author agrees, at the Publisher's request, to prepare revised editions of any of the Work; but if the Author is unable or refuses to do so or fails for any reason to deliver a manuscript of the revised edition, in form and content acceptable to the Publisher, within a reasonable time, the Publisher may cause the same to be done and in such event the expense thereof shall be borne by the Author.

[regarding legal concerns] The Publisher may terminate this agreement in writing at any time ... the Author shall promptly repay all amounts paid by the Publisher to the Author ...

[paraphrase from serious legalese: the Author can only terminate the agreement IF the Publisher deems the Work unprofitable]

Whoa, there, Tex! Needless to say, I edited this and other parts of the contract extensively before sending it back. We spoke about it on the phone; the person (who is remaining nameless) assured me that such edits were exactly what he expected and intended. He promised the corrected version would be sent back to me straightaway for me to inspect and, with hope, to sign.

I eagerly awaited their edited version of the contract. (I was going to be a published RPG author! Oh boy!) Weeks went by. On the phone, this same nice guy told me repeatedly that he would get right to it. Then he stopped taking my calls. No e-mails were returned. Extreme persistence on my part finally got me on the phone with him, and I was told that Sorcerer was no longer being considered; something else "really big, like AD&D all over again" had come up.

The lesson: Beware of being seduced into a rotten contract. These guys were hoping I would sign the version they sent. I was lucky. My innate wariness prevented me from signing the original contract without considering its details, but my naivete had led me to be hopeful that the assurances and promises I'd initially received were legitimate.

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