Can Wizards Avoid Another OGL Glut?
  • Can Wizards Avoid Another OGL Glut?


    Wizards of the Coast's famous experiment in open design allowed more game designers to contribute to Dungeons & Dragons than ever before. But the same freedom to publish compatible games resulted in a glut of products that confused consumers and clogged game store shelves, resulting in the D20 "bubble" bursting. With the arrival of a new open game license from Wizards of the Coast, will history repeat itself?


    D&D is About Sharing

    Open gaming has its roots in open source coding, spearheaded by Richard Stallman of MIT. In open source coding, code isn't owned by any one company or person but rather a shared platform everyone benefits from. In return for this openness, coders become familiar enough with the system that they are incentivized to create ancillary products supporting the platform. The GNU General Public License (GPL) was part of how the Linux operating system came about.

    Ryan Dancey, vice president of the D&D brand at the time, modeled the Open Game License on the GPL. Dancey elaborated on Stallman's approach in The Most Dangerous Column in Gaming:

    During his time there, he participated in a community of software developers who shared code between themselves and were at the cutting edge of computer programming. When those people started to leave the university and go into private enterprise, they stopped being willing to share their code, because the standard corporate philosophy is to keep secrets rather than share them. Stallman thought that was a mistake. He feels that the best way to get good software is to let everyone see the source code, and be able to make changes to that code if they think the changes necessary.

    Of course, open gaming was not a new concept for Dungeons & Dragons. It was a key part of the how the game was developed, spearheaded by co-creator Gary Gygax, who knit disparate ideas into a cohesive whole. In the days before the Internet, fanzines served a similar role in testing ideas with a broader gaming populace. A prime example is Alarums & Excursions, which is still in circulation today. Jon Peterson in Playing at the World explains how the exchange of ideas worked:

    Given that TSR simply could not manage the volume of ideas the fan community generated, Alarums served a crucial purpose. The February 1976 Strategic Review says as much, calling Alarums “far and away the best D& D zine,” and giving it the highest rating among the fanzines it reviewed. Aside from merely circulating rules, Alarums analyzed and criticized them, in keeping with the culture of “mail comments” on prior issues that it inherited from the APAs of science-fiction fandom. Nowhere else at that time did proposed emendations to Dungeons & Dragons confront such a responsive and outspoken audience. Lacking the space constraints that winnowed submissions to the Strategic Review down to the Darwinian finest, Alarums gamely printed ideas no matter how thoughtful or unconsidered— only in the next issue, in the mailing comments, did the community’s approval process begin...

    In this manner, Alarums' purpose was similar to the goals of the Open Game License (OGL):

    When he first heard inklings of Alarums, Johnstone expressed his wish that it might serve as a venue for perfecting Dungeons & Dragons; through it, he hoped, “we may be able to arrive at a truly intelligent version” of the game. [APA-L:# 522] This “truly intelligent version” would presumably incorporate the many fixes favored by Los Angeles area fans.

    Thanks to Peterson's scholarship, we now know that Gygax incorporated quite a bit from other contributors:

    Chainmail itself drew on a two-page set of rules developed for a late 1970 game run by the New England Wargamers Association (NEWA), which were designed by one Leonard Patt. Patt’s system shows us the first fantasy game with heroes, dragons, orcs, ents, and wizards who cast fireballs at enemies, though his contribution today goes entirely unacknowledged.

    Dancey was convinced that what made D&D great in its early days could be replicated again. He got his chance at the turn of the century with the OGL.

    Opening the Gates

    Dancey's plan was to strength D&D's dominance in the RPG market by sharing the content with as many publishers as possible:

    The logical conclusion says that reducing the "cost" to other people to publishing and supporting the core D&D game to zero should eventually drive support for all other game systems to the lowest level possible in the market, create customer resistance to the introduction of new systems, and the result of all that "support" redirected to the D&D game will be to steadily increase the number of people who play D&D, thus driving sales of the core books. This is a feedback cycle -- the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.

    From a marketing perspective, it worked. Shannon Appelcline explains in Designers & Dragons - The 90s:

    What was surprising was the huge boom the d20 license caused in the RPG industry — though it wasn’t immediate. There was initially some skepticism about the d20 license, too. Given TSR’s litigious relationship with third-party producers of D&D material, some publishers actually thought that it was a trap (!). However the more courageous (and ultimately successful) publishers proved otherwise by late 2000 and soon everyone was jumping on Wizards of the Coast’s bandwagon to produce their own d20 supplements. There were just three d20 sellers at the 2000 Gen Con Game Fair — Wizards, Green Ronin, and Atlas. Ryan Dancey estimates that number had climbed to 75 by the 2001 Gen Con Game Fair; by 2002’s Gen Con, practically everyone was selling some d20 material.

    Dancey believed that, just like the GPL, the OGL would make the overall system better:

    The other great effect of Open Gaming should be a rapid, constant improvement in the quality of the rules. With lots of people able to work on them in public, problems with math, with ease of use, of variance from standard forms, etc. should all be improved over time. The great thing about Open Gaming is that it is interactive -- someone figures out a way to make something work better, and everyone who uses that part of the rules is free to incorporate it into their products. Including us. So D&D as a game should benefit from the shared development of all the people who work on the Open Gaming derivative of D&D.

    That's not how things turned out. Faustus von Goethe explains in the D20FAQ:

    The OGL is modeled on the GNU Open Software License, but the Open Gaming License has several glaring differences from the GNU's copyleft, most notably that the GNU software foundation distributes all of their Intellectual Property (IP) under their license with the belief that sharing in this fashion promotes a stronger industry, while Hasbro used the OGL to define a very small subset of their IP that could be used as “open”, with market dominance being their stated objective. More importantly, Hasbro inserted clauses into the OGL that made it virtually useless for fostering a GPL-type community.

    Mike Mearls, current D&D brand manager, explains what went wrong:

    We never saw a sustained effort to improve the fundamental rules of D&D, and it's debatable that any such improvement would be embraced as such by enough end users...The crippling problem for open gaming is that no one can agree on what problems need to be fixed, no one can agree how to fix the problems that have been agreed on, and publishers want to profit from offering those changes. In essence, gaming ran counter to three of the biggest benefits offered by using open source.

    Eventually, the iterative improvement did come about thanks to Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder, as described in Designers & Dragons - The 00s:

    Enter Paizo designer Jason Bulmahn, an architect who joined Paizo in 2004. While working for Paizo, he’d also been freelancing books for Wizards, but (unsurprisingly) found that work coming to an end in 2007 after Wizards’ 4E announcement, meaning he had some free time. In October 2007, he decided to use the OGL to create “an easy PDF document with some rules revisions.” He called it his “3.75 Rules Set.”

    Pathfinder's widespread adoption finally fulfilled the promise of an evolved version of the game. But the road to Pathfinder was littered with the corpses of failed companies.

    The Wreckage Left Behind

    The promise of the Open Game License burned bright and fast:

    Ultimately, a glut of products, many of which were knockoffs, re-compilations of previous work, or of very poor quality resulted in the devaluation of the brand. This reached a point of critical mass during the winter of 2005-2006 when the market was so glutted with D20-based products that were not selling that several key distributors went out of business. At this time, gaming stores stopped carrying the vast majority of third-party products (with the exception of a few proven products from a very top tier of publishers). By 2007, in conjunction with the planned D&D 4.0 release, Hasbro marketing representatives went on record as stating that the D20 brand “had become effectively worthless.”

    Appelcline explains when the first cracks began to appear in the market:

    The first event came about due to a single book, the Book of Erotic Fantasy (2003), published by the Valar Project. Just about everyone was still publishing using the d20 mark at the time, as it was considered much more salable than a more nebulous “OGL” brand, and Valar wanted to partake of that perceived cornucopia. However, Wizards of the Coast — perhaps growing more wary due to its corporate overseer — felt like a sexual roleplaying book might damage their own brand. So, before Valar could publish, Wizards quickly changed the d20 license to require that publications meet “community standards of decency.” Valar simply moved their book over to the OGL, and was probably better off for the all of the free publicity that Wizards gave them. The other d20 publishers, however, had to look at the event with much more trepidation, for it became suddenly obvious how much control Wizards had over them.

    WOTC suddenly realized that a model that was supposed to bolster sales of the core D&D brand could also harm it. Wizards also transitioned Dungeons & Dragons from 3.0 to 3.5 with little warning, stranding publishers with product that was suddenly perceived as incompatible with the new system.

    Lots of 3.0 books sat on shelves. Meanwhile, consumers became more careful in making their 3.5 purchases, as they were simultaneously being forced to repurchase many of their core books from Wizards. This caused a cascade effect, and probably contributed to the downfall of consolidation companies like Wizard’s Attic, Fast Forward Entertainment, and Osseum — who in turn took more gaming companies with them when they went down. It also poisoned the d20 trademark: retailers began to see it as a liability, therefore it became a liability for publishers.

    The industry took a dive. It was becoming clear that WOTC had lost interest in sharing the brand with the community. It would be some time before the company would release another open gaming license.

    The Game System License

    With the Fourth Edition of D&D came the Game System License (GSL). It included language to prevent another Book of Erotic Fantasy as Brandes Stoddard explains at Harbinger of Doom:

    WotC announced that 4e, and shortly after announced the GSL. This much-maligned license was, as I've suggested above, much stricter in what third-party publishers could and couldn't use. Initially, it also cost $5,000 to use, sort of like devkits for game consoles. This fee was roundly lambasted, and rightly so; such a fee would be an insurmountable barrier to entry for a great many third-party publishers, who were writing more for the love of doing so than because of the great profit margins. Charging that much money and offering a much more restrictive license than the OGL might have been reasonable from WotC's perspective, somehow, but a lot of big fish in the small third-party-publishing pond balked at this. Their expectations had been set in the era of the free-for-all OGL. The horse, as they say, was out of that stable.

    The license was tweaked after its released, but it wasn't enough. Publisher after publisher gave up on the license, in part because the GSL could prevent publishers from using their original OGL material. Mxyzplk explains on Geek Related:

    They kindly say you can continue to publish under the OGL (duh, that’s anyone’s legal right), but also you can “convert” your material to the GSL after which you can’t publish stuff in the same line (“as reasonably determined by Wizards”) under the OGL. If you’re a licensee you can’t publish anything that features “the same or similar title, product line trademark, or contents” as a licensed product. The contents thing may be the real hook here, so no rebranding of Freeport as something else and reusing material. (Or, by this clause, reusing art across lines, which is a big deal for most third parties; they reuse art liberally in their lines.)

    In short, the GSL went the opposite direction of the OGL, becoming so restrictive that nobody wanted to use it. So they didn't. But that didn't stop them from publishing compatible content under the OGL. Appelcline again:

    If the GSL was intended to get third-party publishers to create adventures and other supplements that wouldn’t have been cost-effective for Wizards, it was indeed a total and unmitigated failure. Worse, Wizards set themselves up for the exact problem that the d20 license had resolved in 2000: third-party publishers releasing D&D products in an uncontrolled way, without the need for a license — as had been done by Mayfair Games and others in the ’70s and ’80s.

    By most measures the GSL was a failure. Ironically, it made the OGL even more of a success, fueling the Old School Renaissance. It wasn't until this past January when Wizards tried again.

    The OGL Returns!

    Wizards released a new System Reference Document along with a new Open Game License, which is similar in format to the original OGL. The new document includes much (but not all) of the Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. What it doesn't allow is publishing in WOTC's established setting. For that, WOTC released something new, the Dungeon Master's (DM) Guild:

    The Dungeon Masters Guild is a new program that allows you to create content (adventures, monsters, backgrounds, etc.) using Wizards of the Coast intellectual property (IP) and to make some money while you’re at it.

    The DMs Guild allows authors to place Dungeons & Dragons-compatible content in the Forgotten Realms and sell it at a 50% royalty via OneBookShelf. What this means is that the DM's Guild channels the creative output that caused the glut the first time, with several important controls:

    • It's electronic, so there's no danger of clogging physical distribution channels, creating too much inventory, or having a back catalog that doesn't sell.
    • It's managed by OneBookShelf, the company who owns DriveThruRPG and also manages D&D Classics. This ensures that there are established content and distribution guidelines -- or to put it another way, the DM's Guild is essentially one giant friendly local game store (FLGS). This includes the ability to be rated by customers.
    • It can be curated by WOTC. The content can be leveraged by WOTC for other products s et in the Forgotten Realms like the Neverwinter MMO and Sword Coast Legends.


    This time around, WOTC is using the carrot over the stick. For those who prefer to simply use the rules without indicating compatibility and using the D&D brand, the OGL is still available. But for authors who are looking to elevate the visibility of their writing and potentially work for WOTC in the future, the DM's Guild seems like a good compromise.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 81 Comments
    1. Nylanfs's Avatar
      Nylanfs -
      Fast Forward Entertainment didn't fold because of the 3e to 35e transition. There were quite a few copyright and OGL violations involved with their books.
    1. txelu's Avatar
      txelu -
      Well...Cubicle7 just announced Middle Earth for D&D 5e...
    1. Xavian Starsider's Avatar
      Xavian Starsider -
      Quote Originally Posted by txelu View Post
      Well...Cubicle7 just announced Middle Earth for D&D 5e... so this OGL is getting something the previous one didn't.
      Seems...redundant. Everything in Tolkien's books is already in D&D.
    1. txelu's Avatar
      txelu -
      C'mon...I think this will be thw 1st time we get an "official" Gandalf PCSheet ;-))
    1. innerdude's Avatar
      innerdude -
      To answer the question in the OP: "No."

      And as an addendum---"Who cares if there's a glut? If people without business sense end up throwing good money after bad projects, it's their problem not mine."
    1. GX.Sigma's Avatar
      GX.Sigma -
      1. In the age of digital distribution, why would a glut be a problem?

      2. Don't we already have a glut? It's not like the 3.x stuff went anywhere.

      3. Why should WotC care about avoiding a glut? They are selling premium products with exclusive IP and expensive art; no one can really compete with that.

      4. Why should we care? Isn't more choice better for the customers? (Assuming we get a platform with good rating and search functionality, of course)
    1. ehren37's Avatar
      ehren37 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Xavian Starsider View Post
      Seems...redundant. Everything in Tolkien's books is already in D&D.
      I'd be curious to see their take on magic, given the archtypal mage, Gandalf, cast like a whopping 4 spells the entire series and seemed more a staff/blade dual wielding fighter. Middle Earth seems an odd fit given the ubiquitous nature of magic in 5E, where everyone and their dog casts spells.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by GX.Sigma View Post
      4. Why should we care? Isn't more choice better for the customers? (Assuming we get a platform with good rating and search functionality, of course)
      Agreed, we have come a long way since Ford gave us a choice of any colour as long as it is black.
    1. Curmudjinn's Avatar
      Curmudjinn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Xavian Starsider View Post
      Seems...redundant. Everything in Tolkien's books is already in D&D.
      It's pretty obvious they are jumping aboard the system itself, as 5e is doing great. It looks like The One Ring 5e.
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      I think Wizards is the wrong target of the question.

      With almost anyone being able to create content, shouldn't the onus be upon "us" the collective content developers, to avoid glut?
    1. Enevhar Aldarion's Avatar
      Enevhar Aldarion -
      Quote Originally Posted by ehren37 View Post
      I'd be curious to see their take on magic, given the archtypal mage, Gandalf, cast like a whopping 4 spells the entire series and seemed more a staff/blade dual wielding fighter. Middle Earth seems an odd fit given the ubiquitous nature of magic in 5E, where everyone and their dog casts spells.
      And yet Saruman threw out powerful weather magic in LotR when the Fellowship was trying to go through the pass.
    1. NotActuallyTim's Avatar
      NotActuallyTim -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      I think Wizards is the wrong target of the question.

      With almost anyone being able to create content, shouldn't the onus be upon "us" the collective content developers, to avoid glut?
      Pfft. If they didn't want glut, they shouldn't have made a glut license for glut makers.

      GLUT FOR THE GLUT GOD!
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Quote Originally Posted by NotActuallyTim View Post
      Pfft. If they didn't want glut, they shouldn't have made a glut license for glut makers.

      GLUT FOR THE GLUT GOD!
      Humor aside, I'm certain some people are thinking just that. If I recall correctly, that was called "4th Edition" and while Wizards produced a good deal of material themselves, there was a lot of disgruntlement over the difficulty or outright inability to produce 3PP material.
    1. ehren37's Avatar
      ehren37 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Enevhar Aldarion View Post
      And yet Saruman threw out powerful weather magic in LotR when the Fellowship was trying to go through the pass.
      Well, guess Gandalf is slacking then heh. The stories presented look nothing like D&D really. Honestly, 4E came the closest as you could make a party of martial badasses (with Gandalf as an NPC powered by handwavium)
    1. barasawa -
      DMsG is not something I like. The idea is fine, but the content is something else entirely. I feel like I'm being nickel & dimed to death, and especially when it's stuff that just last year would be free because nobody in their right (or left) mind would even consider marketable. I'm sure there are real gems in there, but to be honest, most of what I've looked at, and the complete lack of usable previews on so much of it, leaves me feeling as though I'm paying money to stick my hand into a pile of broken glass hoping to find a diamond in the rough. (A preview that is just the cover pages and the license page for instance, is one of those useless types of 'previews'.)
      Sorry, but I have very limited funds, and don't like this kind of blind grab thing. I'd rather wait for someone I have similar tastes to give me a review of an item from there before I consider buying it.
    1. Brodie's Avatar
      Brodie -
      I think WOTC got it right this time around with the OGL with 5E. Back in 2000 when people realized just what they could do with the OGL, things exploded and there certainly was an abundance of d20 stuff out there, ranging from adventures and supplements to the more adventurous reworkings complete with handbooks with character creation rules of their own. I've been gaming since 2000 (I'm a relatively late-comer given that I was 23 then) and d20 - not D&D - is still my favorite system. Mostly. I know how it works, I'm really familiar with it, and I've even used the SRDs for d20 Modern to make two different games (one a western, the other a space game). When I'm in control of a d20 game, I feel like I'm in control and can decide what rules should be in stone and what can be tossed out the window, like rolling for hit points. (When I first ran a d20 game and told my players to max out their hit points when leveling, they got worried that I was going to put them through a wringer.)

      When WOTC turtled with 4E, that and the 4E system itself turned me off of the D&D brand. 5E is magnitudes better than 4E and what should have followed 3E. I definitely like the new rule set but the only way I'm going to be involved with 5E is if I'm a player.

      The 5E OGL and how WOTC is handling it is good for industry and for creative fans that want people to see their stuff. 2016 is far more digital age than 2000 and its promising to see WOTC embrace it the way have in this. Giving creative fans a share of the profits of their stuff as well as giving them good visibility to the target audiences is win-win. For now. I'd be ecstatic if I created content and WOTC decided to incorporate something specific I wrote into their products. But if I wrote, say, an adventure and most or all of it ended up in a WOTC book under someone else's name, I'd be pissed. So, yes; this is good until something blows up in their faces.

      I'm sure none of us wants to see that happen but at the same time I'm sure we're all waiting for it to happen.
    1. Sunsword's Avatar
      Sunsword -
      I think a perspective this article overlooked is that this time, I'd say the vast majority of products released will be on the DMsGuild.Com. Meaning that WotC gets a cut of the "glut". Additionally, those of us publishing on the DMsGuild have no option to print.

      I find it unfortunate that so many people clamored for an OGL and two months in, this article is talking about a glut. Especially since ENWorld was one of those early publishers.

      Seems like an odd article to for this site to run.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kite474 View Post
      I think it will be fine. Everything's digital nowadays and people tend to be smarter with their money.

      Basically ,as much as it frustrates me sometimes, Wizards has made a great strategy of outsourcing niche content. While Wizards themselves haul in cash from much more mass appeal products i.e. Adventures

      I do hope they at least reformat the guild to be a bit more consumer friendly. Really hard to find good material outside of the usual top seller list.
      How the times have changed. Once upon a time, Adventures (or Modules) were seen more or less as a loss leader. One of the big expectations of the 3e OGL is that we'd see modules mostly coming from 3pp because they were considered too small for WotC to bother with.

      Now, in the age of Paizo, adventures are "mass appeal products". Funny how the "conventional" wisdom has shifted.

      What I would truly be curious about though is how much penetration are these DMsGuild products getting? I had a pretty strong suspicion that most of the OGL material in 3e was being seen by a very small, but very vocal, group of gamers with the overwhelming majority of gamers never even hearing about most of it, other than maybe the very top tier books. I have a gut feeling now that things like DMsGuild or Kickstarter just reaches such a tiny section of gamers. Even something like 7th Sea still only gets 10k backers. Again, most never even break a 1000.
    1. Ancalagon's Avatar
      Ancalagon -
      Why does the "Glut" matter in an electronic erra?

      I think it's because it's creating too much noise. Too much chaff, too many duds. It's making it really hard for *good* products to rise to the top.

      Take Yoon-Suin. The author (noisms) has been pretty open about how it worked out for him and he's had about a 1000 sales which is pretty good for a small self-published author (he's not on DMsGuild). But that's a freaking shame for what I think is one of the best D&D product I've ever purchased in 25 years! Why isn't it selling like hot cake? Because most of you have never heard of it! Part of why is well, because of all the other products clamoring for your attention.
    1. Ancalagon's Avatar
      Ancalagon -
      Why does the "Glut" matter in an electronic erra?

      I think it's because it's creating too much noise. Too much chaff, too many duds. It's making it really hard for *good* products to rise to the top.

      Take Yoon-Suin. The author (noisms) has been pretty open about how it worked out for him and he's had about a 1000 sales which is pretty good for a small self-published author (he's not on DMsGuild). But that's a freaking shame for what I think is one of the best D&D product I've ever purchased in 25 years! Why isn't it selling like hot cake? Because most of you have never heard of it! Part of why is well, because of all the other products clamoring for your attention.
    Comments Leave Comment