Joint Ventures, Licencing, and Pit Traps

In my last play report on +Jeromy French ‘s Pathfinder campaign, I made a drive-by reference to the effect that it would be pretty cool to see support for Golarion with Dungeon Fantasy. I noted that it was unlikely for “what are presumably a whole host of reasons.”

I was surprised to see someone bring this up on the SJG Forums. Mostly because I’m still intensely gratified people actually read this blog.

Still, as I said on the forums, I’m only going to deal with this in a general way.


Here was the advice I got in my McKinsey min-MBA training way back when when it came to Joint Ventures: “Don’t.”

It’s the business equivalent of a spiked pit trap.

They tend not to work, by and large. And for every one that does, there a many, many more that fail. Some utterly, some just don’t meet the needs of one or more partners.

Let’s say I were to start publishing Doug’s Improvisational Simulationist System (“DISS”) as a new, awesome, groundbreaking attempt at a roleplaying experience. Now, I’ve got a good rule set, a niche I’m trying to fill. But I also have my way of doing things, not just because my name is on the cover, but the feel of a system, the way it’s written and presented, from style to trade dress, is key to my success and ability to eat, live, and continue to publish more cool stuff.

Let’s say I want to contact Pizza, the 800-lb gorilla of the game industry, because I think DISS and their immensely popular gameworld might go well together. Gotta be win-win, right? I bring them money for their world (call it Gorilla), and people who like Gorilla can play with DISS!


Well, first, how do I approach this? I could try and hook up with someone creative over at Pizza, and we could try and set up some sort of true joint venture, where we combine resources to make a new sub-company (Pizza-Hampton Publishing?) that would write, publish, and distribute this new product. Gorilla with the DISS rules! Their (um) Trailblazer system isn’t required!

OK. We have an upstart (me), working with an established brand (them). I have Very Definite Ideas on how things should be done. It’s my DISS system! Yeah, but it’s their property, and they be bigger than me. So any issues in how things are to be approached – what are probably referred to in Hollywood press released explaining why some ex-Director is in surgery for a broken nose after being escorted off the set of a theoretical-Blockbuster movie as ‘creative differences’ – will need to be resolved. Unless I’m particularly ego-less, this won’t go well for me. Even if I am a leaf on the wind, it may still end the same way. [If you haven’t seen Serenity but might one day, do not click this link. I mean it. By the power of Captain Tightpants, I command you to Stop.]

OK, so a “true” joint venture might not be ideal. So perhaps I like the world so much I want to try and licence it. Hrm. Why would they do that? Well, to make money, of course. For every player that does DISS but not Trailblazer, or DISS and Trailblazer, they might get a bit more cash.

Great. But how do they get that cash? Money up front? DISS is good, but not huge. It’s not their system or anything like it. So I might not have enough money for any up-front payment they might like to receive. Sure, they might take a chunk of my profit every time I sell a Gorilla-based DISS product, but would it be worth the administrative hassle for what might be like nine sales?

Also, what happens if I take Gorilla in a direction Pizza doesn’t like? Is it worth risking the damage to the brand?

Why would they take valuable resources and siphon them off to anther company or project that will probably make them less money if they do something with those resources that directly supports their own game?

Finally, how viable is the partnership/licence anyway? Will they really add to their business, and me to the DISS base, by this? Or will it really be that the number of DISS players will be constant, and only a small fraction will also play in Gorilla? Are there really enough additional potential sales of Gorilla-based stuff that it will be interesting to Pizza? Will they want to review whatever publications I make? Will they ever recoup the opportunity cost of the editing/review resources?

So, for a bunch of reasons, this is going to be a tough sell, even neglecting more proprietary possibilities like “if you’re going to play Gorilla, play it with Trailblazer.”

The opposite can also be true! If DISS is based in a default world of Hamptonia . . . then I might not want to drive to a Gorilla-based campaign, since it will consume sales from my own world.

Anyway, that’s the kind of thing that I think of when I think of this sort of venture. Any of these might make one of the two parties nervous about even starting up a conversation.

After all, the first rule of Joint Ventures is still “Don’t.”


Final note: David Pulver (thanks for reading!) points out in this post that SJG does, in fact, have a long history of trying out licences. So it’s not unheard of or impossible.

+Jeromy French reminded me, however, of this.  So perhaps it’s not quite as unlikely as all that after all. hrm…

6 thoughts on “Joint Ventures, Licencing, and Pit Traps

  1. "Joint ventures" in RPGs CAN work, as long as both parties are of similar size, and both parties. It often works better when the company providing the setting can simply already use the system because of how the system is licensed (so the system is available for anyone to use, vis something like the OGL), is not married to any system (so it created the setting as a 3rd party addition for other systems) and is the one writing the actual book. Take a look at Freeport* or The Day After Ragnarok**.

    It is also true that joint ventures can end up blowing spectacularly. Look no further than SJG's joint venture with White Wolf.

    *Freeport is available as a systemless product, the Pirate's Guide to Freeport, and a bunch of XX system companion, each providing the translation for the setting to different systems. Amoung them, you have: True20, d20, Savage Worlds, Castles and Crusades, and Pathfinder. It will also have a Fate companion, as that was one of the stretch goals. Source:

    ** Day After Ragnarok is available at least for Savage Worlds, Hero System, and soon Fate.

    1. Damn, that will tech me to write posts just after lunch, and when waiting for players to get here for our weekly game. First sentence should read

      ""Joint ventures" in RPGs CAN work, as long as both parties are of similar size, and both parties agree to leave egos behind"

    2. The first rule of Joint Ventures is the same as the first rule of starting a new business: "Don't"

      Does that mean that no one does either one? Of course not! To quote from A League of Their Own: "the HARD is what makes it great."

      Still, that doesn't change the (allegorical) stats that of every 1,000 companies that are started, 950 of them fail to prosper, and of the 50 that prosper, only one takes off as a massive hit.

      That was from the venture capital perspective, so take it with a grain of salt: very few of these collaborations bring such returns as would turn an investor's head.

      THAT makes them primarily about ego, rather than business. This can also be a good thing, if both parties respect each other and what they bring to the table, and have similar outlook for what they're looking for.

    3. As I said in the edit post, IMHO the thing with these collaboration is to leave egos behind. When both companies are content to get decent (not head turning) results, and don't worry about their property being "their precious" then a collaboration can, again IMHO, result in solid products that serve to diversify their customer base.

      From what I've heard, few (if any) licenses are worth it from an economical perspective, but well done licenses can build goodwill that may not result in an immediate boost to the baseline, but will instead help you sell future products.

  2. I like GURPS does White Wolf books! Though my initial experiences with WW taught me to RTFM

    I get invited to play a WW VtM game, now, confident in my knowledge from watching Hellsing and Underworld and knowing nothing about WW whatsoever I want to play a dual pistol wielder . . . . turns out theres no real benefit to dual wielding, and pistols are awful for hurting vampires

    I then get invited to play in a GURPS VtM game . . . awesome, I can hammer out a GURPS character in my sleep says I, I get the GURPS VtM book, give it a cursory glance, and whip up a katana wielding weapon master (hey, this is 3e, katanas rock!)

    I then promptly proceed to discover (along with another player who had been recruited for his extensive VtM background) that actually, no, GURPS VtM Vampires are NOT nearly bulletproof, unlike WW VtM ones

    And thus Kal learned its good to actually try to read up on and understand the setting and its mechanics, instead of making goofy assumptions based on movies, anime, and other game systems

    And then 4e gives Vampires IT Unliving, so all is well in the universe

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