[Update 3:52 pm Eastern: While the original Facebook post linking to the “Elsweyr” adventure has been taken down, the files in question are still accessible via Bethesda’s Dropbox.]
A promotional Elder Scrolls-themed tabletop RPG adventure released by Bethesda Tuesday contained widespread instances of apparent plagiarism from a Dungeons & Dragons adventure published by Wizards of the Coast in 2016. That adventure was pulled down from the Internet Wednesday afternoon, and Bethesda now says it is “investigat[ing] the source.”
Bethesda’s pen-and-paper Elder Scrolls “Elsweyr” adventure (archived here for reference) contains text that in total seems only slightly reworded from the D&D adventure “The Black Road,” written by Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler as part of Wizards of the Coast’s Organized Play program. The adventures are largely identical throughout their texts, aside from sometimes sloppy replacements of certain words and phrases with synonyms and the changing of certain items and locations to fit in the Elder Scrolls setting.
The introduction to “The Black Road” reads, in part:
There’s nothing like the desert to make people feel small and insignificant. In every direction, huge dunes roll across the landscape, and an even bigger sky looms above. The oasis of Vuerthyl is a motley collection of sun-bleached tents in the vast Anauroch desert.
Through various means, it has been arranged that you would meet Azam the caravaneer in the large, Calimshan-styled tent that passes for a tavern here. A pair of tieflings, who seem to be unaffected by the heat, eye approaching visitors warily. The dim interior of the tent is a relief from the bright light and wind, though it’s as hot here as anywhere else. The gentle sounds of a stringed instrument fill the air, and the people inside are hunched over food, drink, and conversation. A dragonborn with rust-colored scales greets you, and guides you to a private table. There are a few other adventurers here.
“Elsweyr’s” introduction reads as follows:
Nothing beats the desert to make people feel small and unimportant. In every direction enormous dunes roll across the landscape, and an even larger empty air skies above it [sic]. The oasis on the border between Cyrodiil and Elsweyr is a colorful collection of sun-drenched tents in the vast desert of Elsweyr.
In various ways it is arranged that a group of adventurers would get acquainted with the caravan leader named Kar’reem. His big tent is filled with several Khajiit, which seem unaffected by the heat, they stare at you cautiously. The dim interior of the tent is a relief compared to the bright sunlight from outside, even though it is still as hot inside as out there. The soft sounds of stringed instrument [sic] fill the air, and the people are busy over eating, drinking, and conversation [sic]. An Argonian servant escorts you to an empty table.
The similarities often extend to gameplay and scenario details as well. Here’s a description of a caravan players can encounter in “The Black Road”:
- Four wagons, each pulled by two foul-tempered camels
- One wagon carries the caravan’s food
- One wagon carries the caravan’s water and a shipment of medicinal herbs
- One wagon carries a shipment of weapons
- One wagon carries the statue of Angharradh
- The caravan travels and sleeps in two shifts every day. Travel from predawn until noon, sleep from noon until late afternoon in the shade, travel from late afternoon until after dinnertime. Sleep from after dinnertime until predawn.
And here’s a description of a caravan in “Elsweyr” that appears the same point in the adventure:
- Four carts, each pulled by two horses
- One cart carries all food
- One cart carries all water and medicines
- One cart carries a large load of weapons
- One cart carries the statue
- The caravan travels in two shifts every day. From early in the morning to the afternoon, then rest and sleep until late in the afternoon. And from late in the afternoon to sunset.
These are just a few examples of the significant similarities between the two adventures. A Bethesda spokesperson told Ars, “We’re digging in deeper to figure out what happened, but in the meantime, we’ve pulled the adventure based on what has been brought to light.” Representatives for Wizards of the Coast have yet to respond to a request for comment from Ars.
Bethesda’s Facebook post announcing the “Elsweyr” adventure (link since removed), which says it comes from “our friends over at Bethesda Netherlands,” contains many comments from D&D players complaining about what they see as a rip-off. That includes Paige Leitman, listed as a designer and author on the D&D adventure. She posted a lengthy Facebook thread titled “How They Plagiarized Our Adventure, An Annotated Powerpoint Presentation,” highlighting many examples of overwhelmingly similar text in the two works.
“Hey, The Elder Scrolls Online, would you please let your legal team know?” Leitman writes. “This is REALLY not cool.”
In response to a request for comment from Ars, Leitman said she had “no comment until both authors have a chance to fully discuss it and understand the ramifications.”
In the video game realm, it can be hard to prove copyright infringement absent direct copying of “expressive elements” like artwork, music, and sound effects. Even games that copy mechanics and general game flow wholesale may not meet a legally actionable standard for infringement.
In the case of a written, pen-and-paper game like this, though, the direct and overwhelming similarities in the stories and their wording could amount to a clearer case of copyright infringement. As IP lawyer David Lizerbram wrote in 2017 regarding D&D copyrights, “You’re free to describe, discuss, or criticize any published content in any format that you like… However, you should avoid copying chunks of text or reproducing images.” And Bethesda’s changing of a few words and settings here and there likely wouldn’t protect it against a substantial similarity argument in court.
The video game version of Elder Scrolls Online‘s Elsweyr expansion will be available via PC early access May 20, with Xbox One and PS4 versions hitting on June 4.
Listing image by Bethesda