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. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Can Wizards Avoid Another OGL Glut?
      Per Betteridge's law of headlines, "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

      WotC can't avoid another glut, because they simply don't have the control that would be required to do so. Indeed, the DM's Guild is already well on its way. As for an OGL glut, specifically, they might be able to do that - right up to the point someone has a product removed from the DMGuild in a high-profile manner. At which point we'll likely see a repeat of the shift to the OGL that followed BoEF.
    1. Lord Rasputin's Avatar
      Lord Rasputin -
      Any glut is a minor issue for consumers that will work itself out. A glut itself is a byproduct of a good thing: folks playing D&D.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      What about the modules? Maybe some company would like to create a version of d20 for a easier adaptation from their own game system. D&D is the master of dungeon crawler games and it can't be replaced by a newcome. The only rival for pen-and-dices D&D is the action-RPG industry, and the background of most MMO videogames are too poor in relation to oldest pen-and-dice RPGs.

      Today the key in the business isn't the rules and game mechanics, but the IPs, the franchises. Today Word of Warcraft moves more money than Warhammer. WotC doesn't sell the d20 system, but Fogorten Realms, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Dark Sun..
    1. JohnnyZemo's Avatar
      JohnnyZemo -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lord Rasputin View Post
      Any glut is a minor issue for consumers that will work itself out. A glut itself is a byproduct of a good thing: folks playing D&D.
      Did you read "The Wreckage Left Behind" in the article? A glut is not always a minor issue.
    1. Xavian Starsider's Avatar
      Xavian Starsider -
      Quote Originally Posted by delericho View Post
      Per Betteridge's law of headlines, "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."
      Any question can be answered "No." It could also be answered "Cheeseburger" whether it makes sense or not. Betteridge's law doesn't suggest that the question should be answered "no."

      You may be right, however. Obviously when you open the floodgates, you can't stop the flood. But I don't think stopping it is WotC"s intent;.Their intent is to channel it. And that may be possible with the model they've created.

      Also, this article makes it sound like the amount of OGL support for 3e was ultimately it's downfall. I disagree entirely. If nothing else, Pathfinder proves people wanted to keep their 3rd edition and their 3rd party support. The OGL was WotC's own Pandora's Box, but in this version it wasn't opening it that caused problems; it was the hubris of trying to close it.
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      I check the new releases on DMsG every few days for adventures and DM "tools". . It sure is Deja-Vu of 3.0 there, afaic: mostly PC toys/powerups that DMs will cringe at. Its just being delivered in a different way.

      My suspicion is that the OGL 5e materials are where we will see the cream of the crop.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      As noted - if your headline's a question, the answer is likely, "No." However, I think we can call that a qualified no at this point.

      Once the OGL is out, control is out of WotC's hands, by definition. There is nothing more they can do. However, there was a great deal they already did, by waiting. The original glut was, in large part, driven by a mass desire to jump on the bandwagon, and maybe make it big by being the first one out there with the next big thing. By holding off the OGL for so long, and by not announcing and putting a date on it well in advance, they have avoided a crowd of folks chomping at the bit to get product out there. There's not a lot of need to rush, at this point, and the market has had a look at the game to know the sorts of things they actually need more - so products that do come out are likely to be better targeted. At least, IMHO.
    1. Twiggly the Gnome's Avatar
      Twiggly the Gnome -
      I don't think it will be the same type of glut as last time, because I don't foresee very many of these products making their way into brick and mortar game shops as physical products.
    1. Dahak's Avatar
      Dahak -
      I don't think it will be an issue this time because Wizards itself is no longer part of the glut. When they were producing multiple hardcovers per month they made the product line look bloated, and spent fans' gaming budgets before most third party titles were even considered.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      The glut can't be avoided.
      However, this time round, the glut will be primarily digital and not include the same physical trash products we've saw prior.
    1. turkeygiant's Avatar
      turkeygiant -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester Canuck View Post
      The glut can't be avoided.
      However, this time round, the glut will be primarily digital and not include the same physical trash products we've saw prior.
      And I think people are more savvy/decided on where they spend their money today too. I won't even consider buying physical books anymore unless they are top quality productions, and Im applying that rule more and more to PDFs as well.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      I don't think there will be a print book glut. Publishers won't be so eager to jump on the bandwagon this time round, having been through it once before. So I think what we'll get is a smaller number of solid third party publishers.

      For PDFs, yeah. Absolutely. All that stuff that used to be peoples' free house rules and blogs and stuff is making its way to DMsG.
    1. Kite474's Avatar
      Kite474 -
      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.
    1. neobolts's Avatar
      neobolts -
      I always felt like first party oversaturation was the real problem.
    1. DaveMage's Avatar
      DaveMage -
      Regarding print glut, Kickstarter (and sites like it) are a wonderful way to bring 5E print products to life. It gives a publisher a measuring stick of how much demand exists for its 5e products from that publisher's fans. And since money is already in the bank when publishing takes place, it greatly reduces risk.

      Any digital glut is not likely to be a long term problem because the good stuff will be discussed while the bad stuff will be dismissed.
    1. Lord Rasputin's Avatar
      Lord Rasputin -
      Quote Originally Posted by JohnnyZemo View Post
      Did you read "The Wreckage Left Behind" in the article? A glut is not always a minor issue.
      What on Oerth would make you think I hadn't read it? It was a minor issue, pumped up to be major one.
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      In the early days, the "glut" was a good thing, because lots and lots of cool things got released.

      Some companies, like Mongoose or White Wolf, pushed the envelope on quality, some, like Avalanche, really pushed the envelope, and some, like the aforementioned Fast Forward, released a bunch of total crap.

      Of course not even this undermined the OGL. 3.5 did that, and stranded a lot of inventory. 4E, ironically, would be the one thing that really helped revive the OGL.

      I think consumers know now, and if they know, if they really on reviews and only go to certain creators or companies, it should be fine. The stores will also be careful, and if carefully approached, the new OGL can be a real bonanza for them.

      If you look at the companies associated with the new Tabletop Library, like Frog God Games, Kobold Press, Expeditious Retreat Press and Green Ronin, these companies have great track records, and I expect a lot of great things from them.
    1. neuronphaser's Avatar
      neuronphaser -
      So long as people read and write reviews, the largest part of the problem can be avoided by a greater number of people.

      But somebody's gotta buy the products (that aren't PWYW, at any rate) and read them, which is it's own problem (if they suck burn out will come on fast), and then spend the time to review them. If that doesn't happen, or doesn't happen enough, then there's going to be problems.

      The bright side is that these digital products do have a review system in place, so hopefully that'll work out. I know I, for one, plan to write reviews of everything I purchase, and have already avoided a handful of purchases due to existing reviews.
    1. Zardnaar's Avatar
      Zardnaar -
      Most of the crap companies died long ago and the ones that are left are making quality product. Most of the stuff will not see a real printing or only in small numbers. I generally only buy Green Ronin, Kobold Publishing, Frog God/Necromancer Games and Paizo stuff anyway. I might buy something on the DMGuild if its is cheap enough ($1-$2) and my Dragon/Dungeon budget is now with EN5sider.

      $10 is the most I have spent on a 5E 3pp product that is not made by one of the above companies. I printed that product yesterday and will get it bound today. I also think 5E has a way smaller user base than 3.0 had, something like 1/3rd or 40%.
    1. ChrisCarlson's Avatar
      ChrisCarlson -
      Quote Originally Posted by neobolts View Post
      I always felt like first party oversaturation was the real problem.
      Agreed. Third parties are going to throw all kinds of stuff out there. I just don't want WotC to feel like they need to compete with the glut by producing a glut of their own.
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