Dungeons & Dragons

Why the Tabletop Role-Playing World Is Furious About Changes to Dungeons & Dragons' Open Game License

For 20 years, D&D has offered third-party publishers an open, royalty-free license to create new works using its game. A leaked revision would end all of that.


Tabletop role-playing games are big business these days, and if you need more proof of that, check out the controversy over the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D).

Wizards of the Coast, publisher of D&D, has been working on the rollout of a new edition of the popular role-playing game. Wizards also announced in December that, along with the new edition, it's updating its Open Game License (OGL), which controls how third-party publishers can use D&D material in their own works.

Last week, Gizmodo obtained a leaked draft of the OGL 1.1, as Wizards of the Coast is styling it, and it shows that the company wants to tighten its control over the lucrative intellectual property. Gizmodo reports that the new license would, among other things, make it mandatory for all publishers, no matter how big or small, to report their projects and revenues to Wizards of the Coast, and give Wizards the legal right to reproduce and resell creators' content. It imposes a 20 percent to 25 percent royalty on gross revenues above $750,000. The new license can also be modified or terminated at any time.

The draft would be a seismic shift in how the world's largest role-playing game handles its copyright. For those who care about intellectual property (I.P.) freedoms, this is a big deal: In some ways, the revised OGL, which would claim to deauthorize the previous royalty-free license, represents a threat to the very idea of open-source, free-to-use I.P. If nothing else, it is likely to undermine what has been a major success story for open-source approaches to I.P. For decades, D&D has been one of the open-source, loose-copyright movement's big victories, and a model for the rest of the tabletop industry. If it goes into effect, the new restricted licensing regime would almost certainly turn it into a huge defeat.

Because of all this, the leak has, to understate it, upset the tabletop role-playing community. An open letter to Wizards of the Coast appeared this week under the rallying cry/hashtag "#OpenDnD." The letter calls the new OGL an "attempt to dismantle the entire RPG [role-playing game] industry."

"WotC has shown that they are the dragon on top of the hoard, willing to burn the thriving village if only to get a few more gold pieces," the letter says. "It's time for us to band together as adventurers to defend our village from the terrible wyrm."

To understand why everyone's madder than a bugbear, you have to understand what the status quo has been, more or less, for the past 20 years. The OGL 1.0 was first introduced in 2000, along with the third edition of D&D. It grants other publishers "perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive license" to use a chunk of the core D&D rules to create new games and material, royalty-free. The OGL wasn't putting this material in the public domain, but rather offering a license agreement so that everyone understood what they could use without risk of getting sued. (The OGL arguably restricts more than it opens; game mechanics and functional descriptions of rules aren't copyrightable, but people greatly preferred not having to argue this point in court with the lawyers at Hasbro, which owns Wizards of the Coast.) The full, messy history of the OGL is detailed in this series of blog posts at The Alexandrian.

It may not sound like the best business strategy to give away the recipe to your secret sauce, but the OGL also allows people to publish all sorts of new material for D&D, which keeps the hobby growing in interesting new directions and bringing in new players.

And the OGL worked. Third-party publishers have created an enormous amount of really cool supplements for Fifth Edition D&D, released in 2014. Head over to MCDM and you can buy Strongholds & Followers, a supplement with rules for building castles and other buildings. MCDM also puts out a regular zine, Arcadia, with gorgeous artwork and original content for D&D games. Kobold Press likewise has published new campaign settings and hundreds of additional spells, magic items, and monsters for the game. If you like your fantasy with a heavy dose of sci-fi, you can drop in cyborg monsters and tech from Monte Cook Games' Arcana of the Ancients.

One of the biggest reasons the leaked draft has both fans and creators up in arms is that the original was supposed to be irrevocable. Remember, "perpetual." No take-backsies. For-ev-er.

"Even if Wizards made a change you disagreed with, you could continue to use an earlier, acceptable version at your option," the company wrote in a 2004 FAQ on the OGL. "In other words, there's no reason for Wizards to ever make a change that the community of people using the Open Gaming License would object to, because the community would just ignore the change anyway."

"Yeah my public opinion is that Hasbro does not have the power to deauthorize a version of the OGL," Ryan Dancey, a former vice president at Wizards of the Coast, told EN World. "If that had been a power that we wanted to reserve for Hasbro, we would have enumerated it in the license. I am on record numerous places in email and blogs and interviews saying that the license could never be revoked."

Yet the OGL 1.1 draft voids the previous version, declaring it "no longer an authorized license agreement." Because of this, detractors argue the so-called OGL 1.1 is neither open nor an update, but a new restricted license altogether.

There's also the question of what happens if the OGL is voided. MCDM, for example, raised more than $2 million in a Kickstarter campaign for a new book of monsters. Under the OGL 1.1, is it going to owe Wizards of the Coast 25 percent of that? What happens to Pathfinder, D&D's biggest competitor, which operates under the OGL?

Kit Walsh, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues in a blog post that while the new OGL may bind future users, Wizards can't just back out of the old one.

"Unlike a bare license without consideration, an offer to contract like this cannot be revoked unilaterally once it has been accepted, under the law of Washington (where they are located) and other states," Walsh writes. "Since the contract is accepted when someone 'uses' the licensed material, then people who relied on the OGL 1.0a have a good argument under contract law that Wizards of the Coast cannot unilaterally withdraw the value that it offered under the contract."

Even if the OGL 1.1 only applies to future products, the deauthorization will have third-party publishers thinking twice about new D&D projects. Why would start an expensive D&D project if Wizards of the Coast could pull the rug out from under you at any time?

From Wizards of the Coast's perspective, it's watching Kickstarter campaigns for products based on its game raise millions of dollars, and it's not getting a cut. According to Gizmodo, the new agreements states that "the Open Game License was always intended to allow the community to help grow D&D and expand it creatively. It wasn't intended to subsidize major competitors, especially now that PDF is by far the most common form of distribution."

The revised OGL would also let Wizards yank license agreements from third parties that publish bigoted material, which is prudent for a large company with very online customers.

It's understandable that Wizards of the Coast wants to control its I.P. and protect its golden goose from competitors, but burning its goodwill among the community of writers, artists, and designers who helped make D&D one of the biggest and most unexpected cultural comeback stories of the last decade may not be the best way to accomplish the latter. While it's true that the vast majority of tabletop gamers are introduced to the hobby through D&D, they have plenty of options if they want to go elsewhere.

And they will soon have more. In the wake of the OGL news, both MCDM and Kobold Press announced they're creating their own RPG systems.