Copyright and the Tabletop RPG Industry

Hello TopSecret readers!

When Gary Gygax founded TSR in 1973 he insisted that the company allow its employees, himself especially, to retain all copyrights, trademarks, and royalties for their works rather than assigning them to TSR. This policy was largely maintained until Gygax was effectively removed from the company in 1985. [1]

Lead by TSR, the tabletop RPG industry would take a different approach to handling copyrights: they would belong to the publisher and not to the author of the work.

AD&D Player Handbook

One of Gygax’s more well known productions.

This has become one of the defining distinctions between independently developed games and games produced by the major players of the tabletop RPG industry. If you want to own the copyright to your game, you need to publish it yourself.

Fortunately, with the rise of print on demand services, it has now become easier than ever to publish and distribute your own RPG book.  Unfortunately, this has resulted in a large number of self published books that could have benefited from the services of a large scale publisher: editing, layout, art, and promotion.

At TopSecret we don’t think it has to be this way, we believe that authors can keep the copyright to their work and still utilize the practical benefits of a publisher. To that end, all of our authors are keeping the copyright to their works.

Instead of the traditional business model, our authors keep their copyrights and grant us a license to their work for some years along with a short period of right of first refusal.

As a company, we are not prepared to deprive an author of the creative control over their work. While arranging for a publisher owned copyright would simplify operations from both a business and legal perspective, we don’t feel that it’s necessary  to have a mutually beneficial relationship with our authors.

Our motives aren’t entirely ideological, we believe that this model makes sound business sense. Once our right of first refusal expires, our authors will be free to publish material under the copyright on their own or even with another publisher. This allows our authors to create as much amazing RPG content as they desire at the quality that they desire without being forcefully constrained by our production schedule. This means more content related to the games we sell which means that we can sell more games and reach a wider audience.

Our maintaining a license instead of the copyright results in a book publishing model that appears closer to a profit-sharing model than traditional book publishing, with each author receiving a portion or the overall profit from every book sale. This means that when you buy a TopSecret Tabletop, your money actually goes to the authors that wrote it.

At TopSecret we’ve chosen to take a non-traditional approach to publishing, by maximizing the freedom and creative control of our authors. We feel strongly that this is the right publishing model for us and that Gary Gygax would approve. We don’t expect our model to shake up the industry or become a new standard, but we believe it is a good model and we hope you find it worthy of your support.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for sneak peaks at the upcoming tabletop anthology.

[1]The Ambush at Sheridan Springs
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Updating and Online

It’s been far too long since we last talked like this. That pouty stare, I can see you’re wondering where we’ve been.

I say it doesn’t matter, we’re back now and we’re here to stay.

But you’ve heard it all before from so many others. Time and time again you raised your hopes only to see them abandoned, your expectations crushed. I can see your frustration, your lack of trust pervades your usually coy countenance.  Don’t let me be hurt again.

You start to voice your concern. What if you go away again? When will you leave me next? How can I trust you after all we’ve been through?

Ssssshhhhhh. I whisper, placing a single finger on your pouting lips. Don’t talk now, just enjoy the moment.

Hello again TopSecret readers!
You may have noticed the site looks a little different from how you remember. There’s been a couple of changes to the logo and a sleek new redesign. Check out all its majesty :
TopSecret RuneAlso in ruinic fire flavor:
TopSecret Fiery rune

But that’s not all we’ve been working on. We’re knee deep in editing the first ever tabletop RPG anthology.

Tabletop Anthology Alpha

Nightmares and Daydreams

To our knowledge, this is the first work of its kind with four expertly designed, full featured tabletop RPGs in one book.

Of course we have the winners from the TPT contest, alongside a couple of other strong candidates. The four RPGs are:

  • All Things Truly WIcked
  • Union of Magical Child Care Professionals
  • Police Cops
  • Retro Quest

This is truly a one of a kind undertaking and we’re proud to be leading the development of the first tabletop anthology. We want this undertaking to be the embodiment of everything we believe the tabletop RPG market should be. To that end, each of our authors is keeping the copyrights to their work.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we reveal the details of the four games. We’ll be providing regular updates on our progress and for members of our newsletters, we’ll even be throwing in some design and layout how-to’s based off of designs that will be incorporated into the anthology.

We had a lot of fun with the contest and we hope you’ll join us for the rest of journey. It’s going to be great making history together.

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Bringing Fear to the Table

Hello TopSecret readers!

Today we’re going to cover a very important topic in RPGs: how to cause fear in the players. It’s very easy to invoke most emotions in the players: joy – give a new shiny thing to play with or a couple of awesome scenes; frustration – have a bad guy keep them in the same spot for sessions on end; jealously – have the other players get just slightly more; the list goes on.


But fear holds a special place. Unlike the other emotions, there are very few shortcuts to causing fear. Fear needs build up and lots of it. Things start seeming consistently off and way outside the norm: randomly all the townspeople will stop what they’re doing and stare at the PCs with hallow eyes; lately whenever the wizard casts a spell he sees a gigantic snake-like eye appear above him and voice whispers disconcerting messages quietly into his ear; the animals of the forest are acting strange, when approached by the PCs a harmless squirrel’s eyes glow red and it begins to prophesy the doom of the their loved ones, if they’re paying close attention they may notice that the squirrel is growing steadily larger during its prophesy.

There are many good ideas on build up, but they all share a couple of common themes. Good buildup makes the players feel uneasy, but even more importantly the unease stays with the players: weather it’s through their weapons, their wizard’s spells, the townspeople, the large surrounding forest, the NPC that the party really cares about, etc… making the players face that unease all the time is one of the best ways to build up to the moment of fear.

Awesome reaper image by moni158.

But what is fear and how do I get my players to feel it? It’s not the moment that the big scary monster jumps out to confront the PCs, they’ll actually be relieved that they now have something on which to take out their frustration. This is your chance to latch onto that temporary relief, to invert it and make them realize the monster/bad guy is so much worse than could have ever imagined.

For this step, there is one surefire way to make your players know fear: remove something that they believe to be constant, something that they rely on. When you do this, the monster doesn’t even need to be strong, it only needs to show that is far outside the realm of what the PCs expected. After a long and tiring chase, the fighter strikes the possessed beast of the forest down only to find that there are now two possessed beasts; in their moment of triumph over the BBEG the wizard hears an otherworldly laugh as demon forces its way into the material realm through his magic, drained of resources the party fights the demon, but they slowly realize that it’s beginning to use all of the spells that the wizards had prepared.

If you want to evoke true and immediate fear this can be taken one step father, but you should be careful when doing so, lest you cheese off your players. The last shortcut to fear is to create a monster that changes or alters the rules of the game:using a 2d6 partial success system? The monster appears and now the players can only roll 1d6. Does the party consistently rely on one single strategy? Don’t just disable it, have the monster become empowered by it: absorbing the spells or growing in size with every wound.

Fear is a difficult emotion to invoke in the players. The level of separation between a player and their character requires a consistent build up of unease and terror to overcome, punctuated by a final moment of panic as the bad guy/monster makes itself known. In the end it takes a delicate approach: do too much build up and you risk becoming cliche, bend the rules too much and you risk frustrating the players.

But if you can make your players feel true fear, they will remember it forever.

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The Winners of the First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest

Hello TopSecret Readers!

On May 9th of 2014 , TopSecret Games began accepting entries for the First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest. Over the next month, TopSecret received 90 valid entries with more than 200 pages of tabletops that covered every genre from classic fantasy, to science-fiction, to beer and pretzels vampire killing, and beyond.

The breadth and depth that we saw in these Two Page Tabletops far exceeded our expectations. There were many games that contained rich and unique mechanics and settings which were deep and interesting enough to rival some full length RPGs. Unfortunately, there can only be two winners.

Every entry received a score of 0-100 from each of our three judges, resulting in a maximum possible score of 300 and a minimum of 0. Our lowest ranked entry received a score of 75, while our highest ranked entry received a score of 271. It was a tough competition, and in the end there were about a half dozen entries that were all within a mere 20 points of a winning score.

Contest Winners

Announcing the winners of the First Ever Two Page Tabletop contest: All Things Truly Wicked and Union of Magical Child Care Professionals. Feel free to give their creators a round of congratulations, buy them a pint, or head over to their forum threads and give them a good ole fashioned internet pat on the back.

All Things Truly Wicked

All Things Truly Wicked

Union of Magical Child Care Professionals

Union of Magical Child Care Professionals

To our winners: Congratulations on placing in the top two entries for the First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest. We look forward to working with you and you should expect to see an email from TopSecret in your inbox before tomorrow.

Honorable Mentions

If you don’t see your game in one of the top two spots above, that does not mean it was not a good game. Rather, we had too many good games this competition and only two could be selected.  Please keep working your games, there are many of them that really are quite fantastic and there several that touched our judges in personal way; these are a few of those games.

Jovian Despair

The story of a lone crew’s struggle against the omnipresent dangers of space as society collapses around them. In a beautiful way, this game turned a lot of common tabletop paradigms on their head, resulting in a science-fiction game that makes the player feel like are truly part of the universe. It’s character and setting creation really blew us away, to say nothing of its other well designed mechanics. If you are at all a fan of science fiction, this game is worth a long look.

Jovian Despair

Jovian Despair


Kobold Story

Life isn’t when you’re a Kobold. Especially when your necromancer landlord keeps raising the rent on your tribe. You don’t have much money, but you do pay him back in quests:  “Stop these adventures”, “Dig up this body”, “Retrieve three pounds of beholder eye extract.  Don’t ask why I want it!”. He can be a little weird, but a Kobold’s got to make a living somewhere and where else are you going to find spacious volcanic caverns to house an entire tribe?

Kobold Story

Kobold Story

Police Cops

Have you ever wanted to be a loose cannon cop on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules? To drive your cop over the the ramp of semi and into the wall of building? Do you live off of coffee and donuts? Do you have the mustache of an Italian plumber? If you answered yes to any of these questions, Police Cops may just be the game for you.

Police Cops

Police Cops

That’s it for this year’s competition. Check back Wednesday as we resume our regularly scheduled gaming oriented blog posts. The newsletter will be out this Friday.

Don’t forget to offer a round of congratulations/celebratory alcohol to our winners and a round of thanks to our external judges  James D’Amato of ONE SHOT  and Critical Success and John Arcadian of; you can offer them alcohol as well.

We look forward to seeing you next year.



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Contest Winners Announced Monday the 7th

Hello TopSecret readers!

Before I write anything else, we should all give a round of thanks to our external judges:

James D’Amato of ONE SHOT  and Critical Success and John Arcadian of

The contest far exceeded our expectations with 93 official entries and 3 unscored entries. Resulting in well over two hundreds pages of text. 48% of the contest entries were submitted in the last week of the contest. It looked kind of like this:

Why did I think an umbrella would help?

In the face of a Two Page Tabletop tsunami, our judges went above and beyond the call to ensure that each entry received high quality, useful feedback. Give a round of thanks, they’ve earned it.

Today we finished disseminating feedback to all of the entrants. There were a lot of really good games in this competition, there were ideas, mechanics, and settings that blew away anything we had ever seen before. The amount of talent in the indie developer community is nothing short of amazing.

We are nearly finished tallying the final scores from our judges. On Monday the 9th of July, the winners of the First Ever Two Page Tabletop Contest will be announced to world.

A lot of you are curious about how the entries were judged. As the feedback started to trickle into your mailboxes this week, a careful reader might have found some hints about how the judges score the entries.

Our judges scored the entries across 5 weighted domains. These domains are:

  • Playability: How easy is it to pick up and play?
  • Mechanics: How well do the mechanics facilitate gameplay?
  • Theme: Does it convey a clear genre or purpose and incorporate that into the game?
  • Clarity: How well written is it?
  • Presentation: Overall, how appealing is the submission in terms of writing and visual presentation?

Each of these domains is important for tabletop publishing. In this industry, where the competition is fierce and it’s a perpetual buyer’s market, to make a game that rises above the din and shouts “Here I am, play me!!!” the game needs to be excellent in each of these categories.

That said, not all of these factors are weighted equally. For this competition, Playability is the highest ranked factor for a few simple reasons: when people pick up a short or succinct tabletop RPG, they want something they can get into and start playing without hours of setup; otherwise they wouldn’t be looking at a short tabletop, they’d be playing D&D.

Playability was also ranked the highest because a Two Page Tabletop needs to be easily playable; what is the point of a TPT that is convoluted or difficult to play? That’s not say it can’t offer a variety of deep tactical options, a rich setting, or inventive mechanics; we’ve seen several entries in this contest that offered all of that and more, but when these are present in the TPT they need to be present in such a way that they facilitate play rather than hinder it.

The second highest weighted domains are Theme and Mechanics and they are weighted equally. Ultimately theme and mechanics go hand in hand. The purpose of the theme is to bring  your audience’s expectations in line with the game they are about to play, and the purpose of the mechanics is to allow them to play that game.

If my tabletop is focused around geriatric adventurers struggling against the management of their retired adventurer’s home to get an extra serving of tapioca ooze for lunch, then I should have mechanics that reflect and facilitate playing out that theme.

Awesome art by ursulav on deviantart

“Let grandma tell you a story.”

Good mechanics will help me to be immersed in the theme: there may be rules for using canes, walkers, plastic spoons, faking heart attacks, pretending to be senile, napping, etc.. there may even be rules guidance for how to set up the facility, create the nurses, and finally gain enough leverage to force the nurses to give you that second helping of tapioca ooze because you’re a freaking chaotic good hero and you saved the world from the threat of Tralfar the Terrible while she was still in diapers, damnit!

Bad mechanics would be a d20 system where the heroes take penalties on all their rolls ‘because they’re old’. The theme sets the expectations of the audience and the mechanics need to deliver on that expectation or they risk turning away potential players.

The last and equally least weighted domains are Clarity and Presentation. Oddly enough, these are some of the most important qualities in a full length RPG. If your RPG can’t draw in readers or if it keeps confusing them with ambiguous writing, typos, or contradictions then you aren’t likely to keep anyone reading for long enough to buy your tabletop.  However, when writing a full length RPG you also have the benefit of a copy editor and an artistic director to help you deal with this  (if you’re writing a full length RPG and you don’t have people to fill these roles, then it means you’re filling them).

We also recognize that most of the participants of this competition are at least somewhat experienced at writing RPG material and much less so at doing layout and editing for an RPG. The Clarity and Presentation factors are built into the score to encourage people to consider these factors when they write; they are weighted the least because ultimately if you’re the writer, you typically have proofreaders, editors, and at least someone to help you with layout.

There are a lot of fantastic RPGs in this competition, but in the end there can only be two winners. Join us Monday as we announce the winners and celebrate good RPG design.

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