Note: this is an attempt to collect my own thoughts on the subject. I’m not an expert in anything, and my opinions are subject to change. This is also a fast moving situation and my opinions change when the facts do.
My personal views should not be inferred to be shared by my employer, and links should not be necessarily inferred to be endorsements.
Anyone even tangentially involved in the roleplaying hobby will no doubt be aware that in the past week or so, things have really kicked off with regard to Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast’s plan to fundamentally change the Open Game License, which for the past 20+ years has allowed other creators to publish D&D compatible material without specific permission or paying Wizards a dime. If you aren’t aware, here are a handful of articles to get you up to speed:
Dungeons & Dragons’ New License Tightens Its Grip on Competition – Gizmodo, 5 January 2023
‘People are leaving the game’: Dungeons & Dragons fans revolt against new restrictions – The Guardian, 13 January 2023
Paizo Announces a New Gaming License Amid Dungeons & Dragons‘ OGL Controversy – Gizmodo, 13 January 2023
Wizards of the Coast Breaks Its Silence on Dungeons and Dragons‘ Open Game License – Gizmodo, 13 January 2023
Cancelled D&D Beyond Subscriptions Forced Hasbro’s Hand – Gizmodo, 14 January 2023
It’s very clear that as far as Wizards are concerned, their announcement yesterday draws the matter to a close – didn’t you hear? Everybody has won! The only problem is, to paraphrase Luke Skywalker, everything they just said was wrong. DnD Shorts over-eggs it a little bit here (my understanding is that the leaked OGL 1.1 document was still a draft, simply very much one that the filename was appended “finalfinalfinalFINAL.pdf”), but more or less accurately sums up the lies, dissembling and humbug:
What is clear from the statement is that the main focus is very much still on developing a Virtual Tabletop (“VTT”), which Wizards will very much have full and total control over, and that the messy, convoluted culture that has grown up around D&D over the past 49 years, from which successful companies and popular creators over which Wizards have no influence over, will at best wither or at worst be destroyed. I feel that will sound like a bold statement as far as some people are concerned, but it isn’t a secret. This video by Flutes Lute sums up the situation quite clearly and provides really valuable background information for why Wizards are doing what they’re doing:
DaveCorp versus Goliath, Inc
When you are being spun a line, and that statement is very much spin, it is important to pay as much attention to what is not being said as what is and how they are saying it. For example, this line should be regarded as a massive red flag:
we wanted to ensure that the OGL is for the content creator, the homebrewer, the aspiring designer, our players, and the community—not major corporations to use for their own commercial and promotional purpose
Who are these “major corporations” making OGL material? Well, Edge Studio, which is part of Asmodee, which in turn is part of the Embracer Group, publish two 5e books at the moment: Adventures in Rokugan and Midnight: Legacy of Darkness. Andrews McMeel publishes Oz and Neverland. As far as I can tell, that’s it. Even Wendy’s stupid promotional RPG Feast of Legends used its own proprietorial system. By all means point any that I’m missing, but this seems like a remarkably minor issue to cause so much fuss about. It is also a surprising statement for a corporation to make which regularly agrees exclusive deals with corporations such as Walmart and Target, and is currently working with Paramount Pictures to produce a motion picture and television series.
But of course, it is who is not mentioned in that sentence we should be more focused on, because in between individual creators and corporations come companies – dozens, perhaps hundreds, of which publish OGL materials for profit. These range from tiny one person operations just starting out to Paizo, a large, successful company whichcoincidentally grew in prominence as a direct result of the last time Wizards of the Coast decided they wanted to shrug off the third-party “detritus” and develop a VTT to hoover up all of the players.
Reading between the lines then, it seems quite plain that Wizards have conceded that it is no longer worth their time forcing self-publishers who find themselves with a successful Kickstarter project on their hands to pay royalties or to sign up to a clause allowing Wizards irrvocable rights to use their IP They are however still gunning for companies. This definitely means that companies won’t be allowed to publish materials based on OneD&D (which was initially trailed as a revision of 5th edition but is increasingly looking like it will be a new 6th edition designed to work optimally in a VTT space), and will prevent anyone from using the existing 1.0a once its replacement has been published. The apocalypse has not been averted; they’ve merely found 144,000 places in OneD&D VTT heaven for the faithful (or at least subscribers) to live in.
It looks as if, as with 4e, companies straight up won’t be able to publish new material compatible with the new edition; that ship has sailed. It remains an open question however whether Wizards of the Coast can “deauthorise”, and thus retroactively ban, any material published under the OGL 1.0a. My understanding, speaking as someone who is not a lawyer, is that on balance they probably can’t. But they certainly can assert that they can, and it will be a potentially very expensive exercise in terms of legal fees to prove they are wrong. This is where the Open RPG Creator’s License and the growing band of publishers lining up behind it come in.
(Sidenote: the fact that Wizards are constantly being compared to The One Ring/Sauron/Saruman in this scenario, and the people opposing them are lining up behind a thing called ORC demonstrates just how tortured metaphors can get and why you shouldn’t rely on them for anything)
A Big Fish in a Shrinking Pond
I’m not sure I have that much to say about this upcoming legal battle other than the stakes are high, and I suspect higher for the publishers uniting behind ORC than it will ultimately prove to be for Wizards. What I’d like to ponder instead is whether Wizard’s own plan will actually work for them.
I coined the term “DnDexit” because I find the parallels between Wizard’s plan and Brexit undeniable. In both cases you have profit-hungry turbo-capitalists pursuing an agenda which involves divorcing themselves from a community which they feel are parasitical and constraining. In both cases we see populist rhetoric othering members of that community who they feel they can persuade the largely uninformed masses to scapegoat. In both case we hear profit-driven people with very little investment in community claiming to stand for the exact opposite.
It is of course important to point out that Brexit has proven to be a terrible costly mistake which has cost the United Kingdom billions of pounds, destroyed successful businesses, removed British citizens’ rights and shot up cost of living beyond the costs created by Covid and the invasion of Ukraine.
Small, closed off networks struggle to grow compared to large, open networks. That’s a tale as old of time. It’s the reason why the arc of history bends towards free trade in spite of a lot of its negative short term effects. It’s the reason the internet has been as successful as it has. But equally there has always been a trend for people to claim ownership over the commons and seek to then profit off of it.
It would appear that Wizards see a handful of people making a lot of money off the OGL and consider that to be money they are entitled to, but that’s simply not true. The game that was originally published in 1974 bears very little resemblance to the one now being published by Wizards. It has continuously evolved over that time thanks to the playtesting of millions of people and often by straight up lifting ideas from other games. On top of that, there is the very simple fact that game mechanics cannot be copyrighted (even if the expression of those mechanics can be – a thorny topic I won’t go into here). Fundamentally, those profitable works are, for the most part, scaffolding their own original ideas on top of D&D foundations, which Wizards of the Coast for the most part don’t own and didn’t develop themselves unassisted.
The orignal Pathfinder, lest we forget, was originally intended merely to be an original setting for D&D – and that idea only emerged because Wizards unilaterally scrapped Paizo‘s license to publish Dragon and Dungeon magazines. It only came into direct conflict with D&D because Wizards insisted that it had to. The current edition of Pathfinder has become its own system built on years of playtesting and development that Wizards had no involvement in. We can muse over how Wizards often short termist approach to licensing and past mistakes lead to it creating a major competitor, but it’s hard to argue that Paizo simply repackaged their own IP as their own.
But it’s also the case that every time someone publishes a 5e compatible book or PDF, they are helping to market D&D. For the most part that’s because those books literally require the D&D rules to play them (you can download the rules from the D&D website, but let’s face it, most people end up buying a physical or digital copy for the sake of convenience, ignorance and because they contain all the options excluded from the free version). Even a game like, say, Hellboy: the Roleplaying Game, which uses its own version of the 5e rules reinforces the idea that D&D is the only system you’ll ever need to know and makes it easier for someone whose first roleplaying game is Hellboy to transition eventually to D&D. Indeed, the success of all roleplaying games ultimately help to draw people to Dungeons & Dragons simply by dint of being the market leader. Wizards understood this at the time when they first released the OGL; they called it “The Skaff Effect“. The intention of the OGL was simply to make that transition from third-party RPG to D&D more efficient – and in that respect it largely succeeded.
There’s a third category of OGL publication that we should probably mention here, which is that a number of companies over the years have opted to publish a D&D-compatible version of their roleplaying game alongside a roleplaying game that uses the same setting but uses their own ruleset. The aforementioned Adventures in Rokugan is one of these, which is the 5e-compatible version of the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. Another example is the upcoming Lord of the Rings RPG by Free League, which is a direct conversion of The One Ring – a game set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
In these cases the intention is generally a) to attract customers who might consider a D&D compatible game but wouldn’t consider one using a different system and b) to make the cost of developing the game line cheaper by spreading most of it across two lines with two audiences. To what extent these publications succeed in drawing punters away from D&D and onto those publisher’s original systems is debatable and in any case of limited benefit to the publisher themselves since they make sales either way. And going to the time and expense of publishing two parallel game lines is once again free marketing and brand reinforcement for Wizards.
In short, D&D enjoys an ecosystem that puts them on top of the food chain, and the OGL makes the distance between people’s money and Wizards’ even shorter. The last time they decided this was a problem for them, Paizo reaped most of the benefits. The legend is that Pathfinder briefly outsold Dungeons & Dragons – quantitively, it emerges that it appears to have outsold D&D in five quarters (spring 2011, fall 2012, spring 2013, fall 2013, and summer 2014) over a 4-year period, which doesn’t seem very much. But when you consider to what extent D&D has historically outsold its nearest competitors, that was quite a scary time for them and one that was only reversed when they backtracked and embraced the OGL once again for 5th edition. It’s even been argued that in many ways Pathfinder saved D&D, or at least hastened its recovery, by providing D&D players with an alternative, thriving version of essentially the same game during a period when so many were being turned off by 4e’s marketing, missteps and poor reputation, instead of forcing them to seek more different alternatives when Wizards just weren’t producing anything that appealed to them.
The period between the so called D20 bust and the launch of 5th edition was a pretty dark period for the roleplaying game industry as a whole (as this article archived by Pelgrane Press from 2006 highlights), reinforced by the fact that the we were experiencing a global recession during much of this time. Wizards of the Coast sneezed and the whole industry caught a cold. Many distributors and games shops shuttered, and many of the ones that survived pivoted away from roleplaying in favour of board games – the repercussions of which you can still see today when you visit most game shops in my experience. At a fundamental level, Dungeons & Dragons and the wider roleplaying culture is interconnected – something which plenty of people not at the top of Wizards resent just as much as they do.
OneD&D VTT to rule them all?
Assuming this OneD&D VTT finally launches and provides players with an online space, with beautifully animated assets moving across a three dimensional virtual dungeon and where all the tricky things like character creation and resolving combat is all automated, I’m confident that its audience will have a great time with it. But it won’t be the game that thousands of people play worldwide at the moment. Baron de Rapp does a good job at explaining this here:
The question is to what extent they will be caught playing the game that the platform they are using wants them to limit them to play due to convenience, and to what degree they will miss the sort of open ended, improvisational theatre-of-the-mind style of play that to a greater or lesser extent most groups end up playing to at least some extent each session. It will be a lesser game: lesser than the tabletop experience that’s driven Dungeon & Dragons for decades, and lesser than a lot of video games that don’t require a Dungeon Master to play.
I can see it being a success for five or ten years, but I can’t see it lasting longer than that. And if it is a huge success, the bad news for Wizards is that plenty of other video game companies will want to get in on the action. I would expect to see, for example, CD PROJEKT RED pumping out their own Witcher and/or Cyberpunk VTT having allowed Wizards to lead the way. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see companies picking up existing RPG settings and providing them with their own bespoke VTT. And if Wizards think they are guaranteed to be the market leader due to getting there first, I fear they are mistaken. They won’t be bullying small companies like Paizo any more; when it comes to the video game industry, they will be the ones playing catchup.
I do and I don’t agree with de Rapp about his prediction that this will damage the roleplaying hobby as a whole. To be clear, I absolutely think it will take a hit if Wizards successfully make this transition and shut down things like DriveThru and Roll20. But at the same time I expect they’ll find themselves in a more open field no longer dominated by D&D, with no-one invested in helping to build up its brand. The industry as a whole will shrink in the short term, but I expect in the long term for it to be a more diverse field – and in many ways, that would be an entirely good thing.
A larger world than D&D
At this point I should probably point out where I’m coming from and highlight my potential biases. I’ve been playing roleplaying games for pretty much 40 years and while I have played D&D off and on throughout that time, it wasn’t my first game (that was RuneQuest) and I’ve never considered myself as much of a fan. I bought the 3e books mainly because I was interested in checking out the D20 versions of Judge Dredd and Slaine, but I never invested in 3.5e or 4e partly because of edition fatigue and partly because the game seemed to be regressing away from the more open gaming culture that attracted me. With 5e and the reversal of that, I’ve played more D&D in the last 5-6 years than during the combined three decades before.
D&D has never massively excited me much, personally. I regard it as a tactical combat system with a roleplaying game attached, which encourages games to merely be a series of combats. Sometimes that appeals to me; most of the time I prefer different systems. Most of the systems I do really enjoy are not OGL. The one exception to that, 13th Age, takes a lot of what I like about modern D&D and cranks it up in quirky, often narrative ways that don’t lend themselves well to VTTs (believe me, I have the scars).
After a career in politics for 15 years, I work in games retail, for Leisure Games, which I believe has the best RPG collection in Europe, and I specialise in the roleplaying side of things. As such I have a vested interest in the roleplaying industry do well. But here’s the thing: D&D and even OGL stuff does okay for us, but aren’t especially a big deal for us. As far as I can tell, most Millennials and Gen Zs buy their physical D&D books from Amazon not us – partly because, as a major corporation, they often aggressively price their stock so we don’t get a look in (so much for Wizards eschewing “major corporations”). Our top selling game over the last 5 years has been Blades in the Dark, and recently Thousand Year Old Vampire has been dominating.
I’m not under any illusions that our sales in any way reflect the games industry out there, but writing as someone who is highly engaged in the roleplaying industry at the coalface, I see a very different picture to the narrative that D&D and the OGL are everything. The non-OGL sector has been steadily growing over the last five years, often taking roleplaying in interesting an unexpected ways.
If Wizards get their way, squeeze everyone other than themselves out of D&D publishing and defeat anyone who stands up to this in court, it will be catastrophic for lots of people making a living creating games in a community that they are passionate about. The larger companies that Wizards are attempting to demonise are at the end of the day, collections of people who are staring at their livelihoods disappearing overnight. They need to be beaten on this for that reason alone.
But if they get their way they will also hurt themselves. They will quickly find, as they found at the end of the noughties, that burning bridges with the wider community they are embedded in will cost them a lot of bad will and lose them an immeasurable amount of free marketing and branding – at least when it comes to physical media. And if this OneD&D VTT is a proven success, they will merely open the door for bigger, better established and more ruthless video game companies to come in and take their market share in a way that the minnows of the tabletop industry never could.
Of course, the executives making these decisions will doubtlessly simply go on to bigger and better things – possibly even allowing themselves to be poached by those same companies setting up their competing products. If I were a shareholder looking to making Hasbro a long term success rather than just something to short a few years down the line (I like to think such people still exist), I would be seriously questioning in whose interests these decisions are being made.