Editor’s note: DM’s Workshop is a Canadian publication. In Canadian English, the noun is ‘licence’ (with a C) and the verb is ‘license’ (with an S), as with other words like advice/advise and device/devise. Throughout this article, we refer to licences in general and the named ‘Open Game License’ (OGL) specifically. If the preponderance of C’s bothers you, here are some S’s you can substitute in:
S, s, s, s, s, s, s, s, s.
Wizards of the Coast has finally released a statement about the changes they’re planning for the Open Game License (OGL). While it does concede on many areas of overreach, it’s unacceptably evasive about many pressing concerns and fundamentally misses the point about others. In this article, we’ll delve into four major problems we have with it.
What is the OGL?
If you’ve never heard of the OGL, or if you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, the OGL is the foundation for most of the current tabletop RPG (TTRPG) industry. It was published in 2000 by Wizards of the Coast under the direction of Ryan Dancey, Vice-President of Tabletop Roleplaying Games and the Dungeons & Dragons Brand Manager at Wizards of the Coast, and Brian Lewis, in-house counsel for Wizards of the Coast. (Both have since moved on to other opportunities within the TTRPG scene.)
The OGL grants perpetual, royalty-free usage of ‘open game content’, which today includes the core rules for Dungeons & Dragons’ third, 3.5, and fifth editions, absent certain intellectual property such as mind flayers, beholders, the names of some planes, and so on. It also includes open game content that other parties have published under the OGL, which is a truly staggering volume of work.
The OGL was created for a variety of purposes, including stabilizing the TTRPG industry as dozens of companies (including TSR, the owners of the D&D brand before WotC bought them up) had begun to fail due to dysfunctional operations, growing the TTRPG market by connecting many disparate RPG playerbases into a larger network, and promoting the creation of new content within the TTRPG industry by reducing licensing-related friction. (If you’re interested in more about the history of the OGL, Ryan Dancey provided some additional background and context in this interview with Roll for Combat.)
Over the past 23 years, the OGL has allowed third-party creators and publishers, including Paizo, Kobold Press, MCDM, and Critical Role, to establish their brand and create content that not only allowed them to support themselves professionally but also enriched the franchise, growing the player base and building D&D into “the world’s greatest roleplaying game”.
What’s Going On?
Back in December 2022, troubling rumours began to circulate about WotC’s plans for the future of D&D. Portions of new documents were leaked, which raised alarm among creators who use the OGL and prompted D&D to release a statement on the matter. Then, on January 5th, 2023, Linda Codega, a staff writer for Gizmodo, published an article delving into the details of a leaked copy of the agreement that they received, including (in spite of WotC’s previous assurances) plans to ‘de-authorize’ the current version of the OGL (1.0a) and replace it with a new version (1.1). (The full text of OGL 1.1 was subsequently leaked. You can read it here.)
There are many, many problems with the proposed OGL 1.1. Covering all of them is simply not possible in the scope of this article, but the degree of the new OGL’s problems can be clearly seen from every creator worth the name completely rejecting it, several large publishers announcing that they were abandoning the D&D brand to make systems of their own, and a mass cancellation of D&D Beyond subscriptions so intense that it crashed the website and forced D&D Beyond to temporarily hide the subscription management link. The backlash was so significant that WotC pushed back the announcement date, cancelled a pre-scheduled livestream, and has been in damage control mode for a week.
Finally, today, Wizards of the Coast released their first official statement on the situation. Below are our problems with their claims and stated goals.
Problem 1: It Wasn’t a ‘Draft’
WotC is attempting to gaslight us about the nature of the leaked OGL 1.1. Don’t fall for it.
While the sources of the leaked document remain anonymous for their own protection, there have been multiple independently verified copies of OGL 1.1 have been leaked from third party publishers who received them alongside contracts they were told to sign before January 13th, 2023. If you’re somehow as naïve as WotC thinks their players are, you should know that contracts aren’t sent out with draft material. Wizards of the Coast was willing to be legally bound by this document, so any claim they make that it wasn’t ‘final’ is completely deceptive and, frankly, insulting to our intelligence. WotC wasn’t going to wait for feedback, they were going to release it today and let bridges burn thinking that it would just feed their own bottom line.
While we can only be so shocked that the company that has consistently failed to deliver effective rules for handling social interactions would think that they can follow a failed Deception check with yet another one, it only increases our disappointment with their behaviour, which continues to be in bad faith.
Problem 2: Deflecting Wrongdoing
WotC’s statement attempts to push community outrage onto other, more easily demonized targets: racists and big corpos. In this narrative, poor, poor WotC is just a quaint little gaming company (as opposed to a subsidiary of Hasbro, a multibillion-dollar global conglomerate) whose IP is being hijacked by bad actors. These claims are completely fallacious.
Obviously, nobody wants racism in our community (and DM’s Workshop unequivocally rebukes racism in all forms), but it doesn’t require a change in the licence to protect WotC from this. WotC is already protected from people using their IP in hateful and discriminatory ways by the OGL, which already allows them to revoke the personal licence for specific people. To our knowledge, it’s never actually happened, but if you come up with something egregiously offensive, you can already expect the company to hit you with a DMCA without any change needed to the OGL.
On top of that, the current licence clearly lays out what creators can’t include in their products, including but not limited to: Dungeons & Dragons, D&D, Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master, Monster Manual, d20 System, and Wizards of the Coast; and section 1(e) of the licence protects D&D’s trade dress, meaning you can’t make your products appear so much like the official books that an average consumer would mistake the two. Nobody can make content that reflects poorly (or even well) on Wizards of the Coast without being in violation of either the OGL or basic copyright law.
The irony of this deflection is so heavy you couldn’t push or drag it even with Strength 30.
In 2021, the Orr Group Industry Report estimated that 80% of the TTRPG market was dominated by six companies, and that D&D alone held a 53% market share. Moreover, given recent estimates of D&D’s annual earnings, shaking down third party creators for royalties—even the completely outrageous 25% they tried to claim—would barely budge their revenue line. By pretending that the occasional multimillion-dollar Kickstarter is some existential threat to the brand (which is wrong, because those backers represent customers saved from loss to other systems), WotC is trying to obfuscate the real, very ill-advised purpose of the new OGL: to bully third-party publishers into leaving the brand so that WotC can absorb their business. The same thing happened with the GSL (Game System License) back in 2008, which is another reason why WotC is trying to de-authorize OGL 1.0a; they don’t want another Pathfinder to come about because of this.
Problem 3: Ignoring Serious Concerns
For every legitimate fear that the statement tries to downplay, it completely glosses over two more. Some rather blatant omissions include:
OGL 1.0a Authorization. OGL 1.0a was deliberately created to allow people to use open game content forever, even if a new version was released. WotC’s notion that they can ‘de-authorize’ 1.0a is morally and almost certainly legally indefensible. Failing to commit to abandoning this misguided course and leaving the spectre of frivolous lawsuits over the heads of creators who still have no intention of signing OGL 1.1 is deeply troubling. This was everybody’s primary concern, and WotC didn’t even deign to mention it.
Contract Revision. OGL 1.1 attempted to reserve the right for WotC to make unilateral changes to the licence with only 30 days’ notice. This is completely untenable when larger supplements such as adventures and sourcebooks can take upwards of two years to bring to market from conception. This section of OGL 1.1 represented enormous risk exposure for creators, and yet the statement fails to commit anything to mitigate this.
Content Use Provisions. While the statement did outright state that the license back provision contained in OGL 1.1 was being dropped, it’s troubling that the focus of that commitment was about who owns the content rather than who has the rights to use it. For clarity, we’ll share the problematic section from 1.1 below:
B. You own the new and original content You create. You agree to give Us a nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sub-licensable, royalty-free license to use that content for any purpose.
Re-committing to the first sentence of this subsection doesn’t change anything because that was already fine. Nobody had a problem with that. It’s the second sentence that has creators worried. It’s understandable for WotC to want to protect themselves against lawsuits falsely alleging that official adventures and supplements ‘stole’ content from someone when they in fact came up with on their own, it’s something else entirely for WotC to demand that anyone who writes D&D content permanently surrender rights to use it to WotC.
Maybe the entire concept will be dropped, or maybe it will take on another, more nefarious form, such as a waiver of rights to bring litigation against WotC for infringement of intellectual property. Either way, conceding not to take ownership of content you were never intending to take ownership of isn’t a concession at all; it’s a deflection from the issue.
Signups and Reporting. An open licence isn’t open if people have to sign it, and there’s absolutely no reason why such a document should require reporting, especially if the licence doesn’t include any royalty structure. This is another reason why the revocability of the contract is an enormous concern that should have been at least briefly mentioned in the statement—if creators are still expected to sign the licence, and the licence could be modified in, say, three years (when WotC thinks everyone has forgotten about this) to start demanding royalties again, that’s unacceptable.
Problem 4: Anti-Consumer Mentality
The most jaw-dropping part of the entire statement was undoubtedly the part where WotC let slip their persistent, delusional idea that they’re somehow meant to ‘win’ in a situation where they were at odds with their consumer base.
“you’re going to hear people say that they won, and we lost because making your voices heard forced us to change our plans. Those people will only be half right. They won—and so did we.”
Or, for fans of The Office:
Let’s make something absolutely clear: OGL 1.0a is the only OGL that needs to exist. It allows third-party creators to fix WotC’s broken adventures and release content that keeps people playing the game when official releases are slow and uninteresting. (Seriously, nobody wants another MTG setting!) It also allowed for the success of companies that did what WotC wouldn’t or couldn’t, including companies like D&D Beyond, which WotC used to share this failure of a statement, making them appear tone deaf as well as deceitful.
Wizards of the Coast has already won. They’re the largest TTRPG in the world. Their product’s name is synonymous with the hobby. They got to this point because OGL 1.0a created an environment where everyone’s combined creative outflow raised the tide for all boats, making it the most appealing corner of the TTRPG market—a veritable land of plenty that attracted some of the best talent in the industry.
If WotC was self-conscious at all, they would have shown contrition, not petulance—self-reflection, not arrogance. As the makers of a game where ‘winning’ is when everyone is having a good time together, claiming a victory after pissing off the entire fan base is so entirely off-base that it just goes to show how ill-equipped the company’s current leadership is to properly steward the brand.
The future of the D&D brand is uncertain, and statements like the one Wizards released today only cast it further into doubt. With publishers who could have been partners increasingly committing to become competitors, there is a limited window in which WotC can mitigate the damage their efforts are dealing to the brand. The community needs more than empty platitudes and shameless deflections. Now is the time to make commitments, to show through action that WotC intends to be better stewards of the game.
Drop OGL 1.1. Commit to publishing all future SRDs under 1.0a, a perpetual and irrevocable pillar of the TTRPG industry. Be better.
Feature Image: Olga Drebas/Wizards of the Coast