The Summary (Of Events)
In late December, the news outlet Gizmodo reported on a leaked document that would soon provoke massive outrage and give the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) community – and the whole Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TTRPG) community at large – its greatest shake up in a long while. The leaks indicated that Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) and Hasbro, the owners and producers of D&D, were attempting to, in Gizmodo’s words, “curtail competitors and tighten control on players of all sizes,” by creating a new version of the Open Game License (OGL) and deauthorizing the original OGL 1.0a.
The Open Game Licence is a public copyright license that was published by Wizards of the Coast in 2000. It opened up much of the game’s 3rd edition rules to third party use and guaranteed freedom for indie publishers and competitors. For over 20 years, thousands of creators have relied on the OGL to protect their livelihoods and creative freedom. The OGL is also thought to have greatly benefited WOTC: in 2014, the Academics Benoît Demil and Xavier Lecocq, in the economic journal Revue d’économie industrielle, determined that the OGL “was considered by WOTC’s managers as a huge success due to the large movement of adoption it created among publishers.”
With that context, it’s likely clear that WOTC’s attempt to change the contract was quite a big deal for the community, especially as full versions of the new “OGL 1.1” found their way into the public eye. A look through the full OGL 1.1 document quickly reveals that, where the original OGL 1.0a was extremely broad and free of restriction, OGL 1.1 aimed to remove key freedoms and transfer power to WOTC. Under OGL 1.1, publishers would pay up to 25% in royalties to WOTC, waive their right to class action waivers and jury trial, and give WOTC ownership over all copyright, trademark, patent rights, and any rights not explicitly noted within the contract. OGL 1.1 also gave WOTC the ability to modify the terms of the contract at any time and, “for any reason whatsoever,” as well the freedom to use publishers’ content, “for any purpose.” So under OGL 1.1, creators would essentially be giving WOTC full control over their content, in pretty much every way but name — and WOTC could change the terms of the agreement at any time.
In the wake of these leaks came a massive wave of outrage from thousands of creators and community members, culminating in many community members canceling their paid subscriptions to WOTC’s online resource, D&D Beyond. While it’s unclear just how many subscriptions WOTC lost in the early days of January, it was at least enough to warrant a public response from the company. On January 13th, the D&D Beyond Team issued a statement titled, “An Update on the Open Game License (OGL).” This statement was notably not an apology, and more notably was quite clearly corporate drivel. The statement opens by claiming that the purpose of the OGL 1.1 was to “ prevent the use of D&D content from being included in hateful and discriminatory products,” and prevent the use of “blockchain games, and NFT’s.” That’s all well and good, but the extremely restrictive and power hungry terms of OGL 1.1 make this seem like an excuse rather than a clarification. WOTC’s response continues, stating that the OGL 1.1 was “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.” I think the irony inherent in this statement is clear?
After continued outrage from the community, this statement was followed by two more public messages from WOTC. They apologized to the community, and officially released an OGL 1.2 for public review by survey. The OGL 1.2 was slightly more tolerable: it contained no royalties, and restricted WOTC’s ability to modify the contract and use creators’ content. However, it still required creators to agree to waive their right to file class action waivers and to a trial by jury. The numbers on the OGL 1.2 survey demonstrated the TTRPG community’s feelings toward it: 88% of the more than 15,000 people who filled out the survey did not want to publish content under OGL 1.2, and 89% of them disliked the idea of WOTC changing the original OGL 1.0a at all. And, in a surprising turn, WOTC actually listened to the survey results. On January 27th, WOTC confirmed that they would leave the OGL 1.0a “in place, as is. Untouched.”
Cool. That’s great. But to be clear, this is not something that Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro should be praised for — it is really not that hard to not attempt to monopolize a market and threaten the livelihoods of thousands of indie creators. Trust me. I do it every day! Ultimately the only thing WOTC did is solve a problem that they themselves created, and (allegedly) be sorry about it.
But wait. Sorry? No, I don’t think anyone at WOTC is sorry. WOTC is not a person, it’s a network of employees tied to executives tied to other corporations tied to a board of trustees. It’s a system that lets people say, “I’m just doing my job,” a system that shifts blame into oblivion. Excuse me if I’m being overly cynical, but it seems to me that every move WOTC has made throughout this whole chain of events was made with the express goal of making the funny number go up – and nothing else. They stuck with the OGL 1.1 plan all the way up until it was clearly unprofitable, and now they’re pursuing some other angle.
What that angle is, I don’t know. But this whole debacle should serve as a warning: the TTRPG community is not safe from corporate profiteering. Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro are not to be trusted. Continued reliance on an Open Game License owned by a predatory corporate power is simply untenable. This has happened before — it’s what led to the collapse of TSR (the original owners of D&D), and to the failure of D&D 4th edition. And, despite these repeated failures, there is no indication that something like this will not happen again. What the TTRPG community needs is a system agnostic open license that is not owned by a major company with stakes in the industry.
Oh wait, that’s already soon to be a thing! Paizo, the producers of D&D’s biggest competitor, Pathfinder, have, in response to the OGL controversy, begun the creation of the Open RPG Creative License (ORC). This license will be outside of Paizos jurisdiction, and will specifically be irrevocable, unlike the OGL. I’m usually not one to trust or praise corporations, but the ORC license seems to be a mostly altruistic move from Paizo, and I hope that it represents a way forward for the TTRPG community. A way forward without the ever-looming shadow of WOTC & Hasbro’s corporate greed.
(It also has a really cool name. Like ORC? What? Props to whoever thought of that.)
By Kaz Posley