D&D is About SharingOpen 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 GatesDancey'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 BehindThe 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 LicenseWith 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.