Analysis | The D&D Open Game License Controversy Explained (2023)






The tabletop gaming industry is in crisis. As is often the case in fantasy tales, this crisis involves a king and a magical artifact. The king is Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro-owned, billionaire publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, the nearly 50-year-old game that has become synonymous with pen-and-paper RPGs. The magical artifact is the company's Open Game License, or OGL, written way back in 2000, which allows players to create and monetize their own tabletop experiences using D&D rules and mechanics as long as they avoid , to reproduce official characters and settings , stories and art.

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Many tabletop designers portray the OGL as a book of creation of sorts - the basis for a vast and vociferous realm of artwork and experiences, from full-blown tabletop competitors with their own fantasy settings to projects presented as "actual game" known as Critical Role, in which professional voice actors broadcast their D&D campaigns. This single document from Wizards of the Coast, often shortened to WotC or simply Wizards, helped turn D&D into a "cottage industry," said Matt Jarvis, editor-in-chief of the tabletop news outletcube breaker.

But the once benevolent king seemed to have succumbed to stinginess and began meddling in the book of creation. In a leaked draft of "OGL 1.1" from mid-December obtained by the pop culture news outleti09, WotC proposed some drastic changes: a 25 percent royalty on earnings from any OGL creator who makes more than $750,000 a year in sales; the right for WotC to use any Content created under the License for any purpose; an apparent ban on the virtual tabletop simulators that have helped spark a tabletop gaming boom during the pandemic lockdowns; and the deauthorization of anything done under the previous OGL.


Now, two weeks after that first leak, WotC has made a dramatic turning point: "We are giving the core D&D mechanics to the community via a Creative Commons license, which means they are entirely in your hands," it says in aUpdate from Thursdayvon D&D-Executive Producer Kyle Brink.

Since the year 2000, a number of D&D based projects have grown into highly profitable businesses. A 2021Data leak from live streaming site Twitchlisted Critical Role as the highest-paid single channel on the platform, earning more than $9.6 million as of 2019. Publishers like Kobold Press and DriveThruRPG have built huge followings around their third-party D&D campaigns and other tabletop materials.

Ever since the leaked draft of the updated OGL was released in early January, WotC's devoted subjects have rebelled. Over 60,000 creators and publishers have signed oneopen lettercalling for the withdrawal of OGL 1.1 under the name #OpenDnD. Online campaigns encouraging players to cancel their D&D Beyond subscriptions - WotC's official digital D&D toolset -quickly became known. Competing game publishers like Pathfinder creators Paizo haveannounced plansfor new "irrevocable" open tabletop systems and licenses to fill the gap.

The original OGL was "a feat of community support," Jarvis said. "It made Wizards thrive because people were making stuff for D&D, and it allowed developers to thrive because they could say this is D&D compatible."


The leaked changes to OGL, Jarvis and other critics argue, appear designed simply to monetize and expand control over the sprawling network of creators that OGL once empowered — part of a consolidation of the D&D brand under the label One D&D, a project that WotC is calling"The Future of D&D"These include an updated ruleset, the D&D Beyond subscription service, and a forthcoming official virtual tabletop app.

The magic of OGL wasn't just about money. According to designer, writer, and disability consultant Sara Thompson, it created space for dialogue between WotC and the community, and allowed the designers to offer essentially playable critiques of issues like D&D's legacy of racial stereotypes, using D&D's proprietary mechanics. Take Thompson's ownCombat wheelchair add-on, a set of rules for using wheelchairs as adventure gear that "allows disabled people to see themselves as heroes in the story because D&D didn't let them."

In the face of such a widespread setback, WotC finally caved. At13 Januarythe company announced plans to scrap the royalty system, promising that creators will retain exclusive ownership of their own works while defending OGL 1.1 to shut down "hateful and discriminatory products" and suppress third-party NFTs . The contribution, which was not attributed to any specific person at WotC, ended up celebrating the situation as a win for both sides and insisting that the company had always intended to solicit input from the community, "You'll hear people say They won and we lost because it forced us to change our plans, because we made our voices heard. These people will only be half right. They won – and so did we.”


Far from an apology and a dismissal of their legitimate concerns, opposition from fans who criticized WotC's response caused WotC to backtrack further.A second bulletinWednesday included more details on the way forward, along with a mea culpa from Brink, the executive producer, on behalf of his team.

"We're sorry. We got it wrong," Brink said. "Our language and requirements in the OGL design were disruptive to developers and did not support our core goals of protecting and cultivating an inclusive gaming environment and confining the OGL to TTRPGs .Then we made things worse by staying silent for too long.We hurt fans and creators when more frequent and clearer communication could have prevented so much of that."

A new draft of the OGL was released for players to review on Thursday, along with a poll to provide feedback that will be available for two weeks.


“The Creative Commons license we chose allows us to make these core mechanisms available to everyone. Forever. Because we don't control the license, releasing the core D&D rules under Creative Commons will be a decision we can never change," Brink wrote in Thursday's update.

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But some say the damage is already done.

"They've lost quite a bit of the trust that people had in them, and I don't see how they're going to rebuild that trust anytime soon," said Thompson, who was recently set to work on an official D&D product. She eventually withdrew in protest.

Community distrust of WotC has been smoldering for some time, says Mike Holik, Editor-in-Chief ofMage Hand Press, a third-party D&D campaign provider who also organized the #OpenDnD letter. He points to the fourth edition of D&D, which shipped with its own in 2008similarly controversial gaming license; WotC reverted to the previous OGL for the current fifth edition of the game, which debuted in 2014.


"Once they're big enough, they try to get greedy and capitalize on that," Holik said, hinting that WotC might be happy to see some developers walk away "as long as they can monetize the remaining folks more."

The ubiquity of D&D makes it a surefire revenue stream for third-party designers. The possibility of market fragmentation, Holik said, was a cause for concern, as declining support for D&D could impact more outlandish niche games that rely on the title as an onboarding mechanism.

But disaster can bring opportunity. Austin Walker, IP director of game studio Possibility Space andfriends at the tableGamemaster, described the reveal of OGL 1.1 as a possible "breaking moment". He noted that many innovations in tabletop gaming are already an attempt to break away from D&D, which promises imaginative scenarios but often boils down to "kicking in a door and fighting stuff."


All of which speaks to the twist in this fairy tale: the original OGL isn't quite the magical enabler of indie creativity it claims to be. According to Thompson, much of what it covers is not strictly copyrighted and was never WotCs to "give away". Take the Aganazzar's Scorcher spell. "This is officially D&D, so if I put this in my own random game, yes, they could sue me," Thompson said. "But if I've made a spell with a similar fire effect but named it completely differently, that's no longer D&D."

Walker agreed, describing the original OGL as "enclosing the commons," obscuring the reality that creators are already free to adopt rules and mechanics from D&D within the regular fair use doctrine. Skill checks, where players roll dice to determine the success of an action, is an example of a mechanic that's "too general" to copyright, Walker said.

"You can trademark your logo, key characters, art and design aspects that indicate to consumers that they are looking at an official product, but you cannot trademark," roll 20 and add your attribute and ability modifier added."


The only thing OGL really offers, Walker said, is "a sense of security that you're not being sued for something you shouldn't have been sued for in the first place." Thanks to that purely "rhetorical" move, he said, WotC was able to "capture much of the creative energy" in the tabletop scene in the early 2000s, turning aspiring designers into D&D satellite creators. Walker attributes this in part to creators' unfamiliarity with the laws in 2000 -- and particularly the ability to publish under the then-nascent Creative Commons licenses -- but it's also a question of money. Few publishers can afford a copyright battle with a company the size of WotC, even if they are confident of victory.

Regardless of whether you view the original OGL as a mystical talisman or fog and fog, WotC seems to have committed an irrevocable act of self-sabotage in trying to replace it - and squandered the prestige accumulated over 20 years in a matter of weeks.

"A king shouldn't be reaching for all your coins - a dragon does, right?" Walker joked. And as any group of D&D adventurers could tell you, the point of a dragon on a treasure chest in stories like this is to slay it.

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell is a London-based writer and critic who also publishes in Edge, Eurogamer and The Guardian.

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