There are dozens of companies providing 5E compatible products now. From larger outfits like Necromancer Games, Goodman Games, and Kobold Press, to a myriad of smaller PDF publishers, products are coming out of the woodwork. MerricB lists well over 200 adventures since mid-2014 (at the time of my writing this article) from over 40 publishers. These are not the official contracted books from WotC (Tyranny of Dragons, Rage of Demons, etc.), these are independent third party products.
It's not just adventures, of course. Also available are things like:
- EN5ider - if you miss the days of monthly magazines full of articles for your favourite game, you don't want to not be an EN5ider subscriber. Magazine-style articles and adventures every week for as little as $1 per month.
- Kobold Press' Midgard Heroes and Southlands Heroes, or their current Tome of Beasts Kickstarter. Also interesting is that Fantasy Grounds, the officially licensed D&D 5E virtual tabletop software, supports this last product.
- Frog God Games/Necromancer Games' Book of Lost Spells, Fifth Edition Foes, Quests of Doom, and Quests of Doom 2.
- Goodman Games' series of 5th Edition Fantasy softcover adventures.
- The Primeval Thule campaign setting from Sasquatch Games.
And there's more! This isn't an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea. Companies big and small are doing this, and have been for ages now.
So, you ask, how are they doing this? Do they have a special license? Nope. Well, yes. An existing license, but not a special one. Nobody really needs a special license (although they could maybe use one to allow them to use the D&D logo itself).
This is not legal advice and I am not your lawyerWhat follows is a very simplistic introduction to the subject designed to just give an overview of the concepts being used. The devil is, of course, in the details, which you won't find here - there are certainly nuances to this subject, but the goal is not to provide publishing advice but to simply answer the "How are they able to do this?" question on a basic level. In other words, what's below is not sufficient information to take away and start publishing with; it's only a cursory conversational overview.
What's happening is that they are using an old license - the Open Gaming License. Back when D&D 3rd Edition (3E) launched, it was accompanied by a license which opened up the system for third parties. And third parties flocked to it and released thousands of 3E compatible products.
The thing with 5E is that most of the terms it uses existed in 3E (that's why Pathfinder exists). So you can use the existing license to access those terms, even if they work a bit differently in 5E. More explanation would require a course in IP law, but the short version is that if you know what you're doing, you can produce a book compatible with D&D by simply using existing licenses. As long as you follow the license, you'll be OK (but you should consult an IP lawyer before risking any funds).
For example - the terms "armor class" and "hit points" and such have long been made explicitly available. You can use them as much as you like, as long as you do what the OGL says (and that's a really simple license, deliberately so - it's written to be easy to use and understand).
There are terms you can't use. If you don't know what you can definitely use, it's easy to find out. There's a thing called the System Reference Document (SRD). It contains all the stuff you can safely use without challenge (that doesn't mean there isn't other stuff you can use, but that stuff is very safe to use). The answer to "Can I use X?" is simply "Is it in the SRD?" That bit you can do yourself, because it just involves looking at a thing. You can't copy trade dress (appearance, design, layout) either, which is why you see variant stat block layouts. And if you're using the OGL, you agree not to reference trademarks (including the name of the game or its books) without separate permission from the owner, which is why you see products for "Fifth Edition" or "5E".
(Technically, you can use many other game terms and words not in the SRD as long as they haven't been declared to be something called "product identity", but that's a level of detail I don't want to get into here. There is a ton of other stuff you can use not in the SRD, which has been created by third party publishers over the last 16 years, including Pathfinder material, and even material from games like Fate or WOIN. But I'm keeping this simple.)
Why? WotC's Ryan Dancey was a supporter of a theory called "network externalities". Basically he - and WotC - held the opinion that a well supported game was a successful game, and that third parties could support it and drive sales of the core product. There was a secondary motivating factor - preserving the game. D&D (even if not under that brand name) would continue to exist forever, even in the face of what Dancey at the time referred to as "capricious actions" by the IP owner, whoever that may one day be. From that perspective, they were successful - the Pathfinder RPG is evidence of that.D&D - or some form of it - is here to stay.
So why isn't WotC shutting these down? I keep hearing you cry. I do. I keep hearing you cry that! Because WotC's IP rights are not being infringed upon; companies are doing what WotC has given them permission - in the form of the OGL - to do. All that is being used is material that the public has deliberately been given permission to use. The OGL is irrevocable. As long as people follow the rules and just use the IP that WotC has clearly outlined as permanently available, there's nothing to shut down. This, of course, does not include the brand name or any logos (i.e. the valuable stuff which makes the big monies), or art assets, or any text not in the SRD, but it does include every word in the SRD. And the content of the SRD easily contains all the terms, phrases, and words you'd need to make 5E-compatible products, as long as you're careful.
Do I need the OGL? Of course, there's another approach. You don't need the OGL to make a compatible product, but it makes things easier. Hundreds of third-party iPhone cases do that - you can claim compatibility with a brand, but make sure you get good legal advice before you do so. The OGL makes it super-easy, super-simple, and super-clear (which is why its called a "safe harbor"); outside the OGL, you're relying on regular IP law. So you can do it without the OGL, but the OGL makes it much easier.
Hasn't WotC shut a bunch of stuff down in the last year? Yup. They've shut down online character generators, mobile apps, 3D printing templates, and websites. Many of them came back, though, once they had a dialog with WotC. Generally speaking, if you're copying and pasting the D&D 5E rules, you're committing an IP violation. There is a difference between creating compatible content, and redistributing someone else's content yourself. Even if those rules are free to obtain, they're not free to distribute and there have been spell cards and character generators shut down for those reasons. WotC has allowed some creators to copy their text - usually the free Basic Rules or some portion of them - under certain conditions; but it should be clear that this is permission, not something everyone has the right to do.
I can copy and paste the free stuff. Unfortunately, that's not how it works. The Basic Rules are "free" as in "you have our permission play this game for free", not "you can take this game and freely distribute it yourself". The price of something - whether it's $0, $10, $1,000,000 - has nothing to do with it, and neither does the price you distribute it for, whether that is $0 or $1,000.
So is a license coming?At this point, I don't know. In November 2014, WotC's Chris Perkins said "It is our intention to bring back the OGL. We just don't know when we are going to do it yet." In October 2015, WotC's Mike Mearls said "Still no news now, but there will be news."
If a license does come, there's no way to know what form it will take, but it might make a few more verbiage assets available, or provide access to a logo or trademark. It might resemble the OGL, or it might be something completely different.
So, next time someone asks about this, simply link to this page. It'll save some repetition and allow conversations to avoid derailment!
[Edit: clarified the sentence on allowable terms].