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D&D Fandom Part II: The Silver Age

We explored how fandom influenced the creation of Dungeons & Dragons in the 70s and 80s in an earlier installment; two decades later, fantasy gaming had come into its own. It also had a new factor to contend with that was unique to the era: the Internet, a boon for fans and a sea of uncertainty for publishers. The threat posed by fans creating game content -- in a game that encouraged fans to do precisely that -- was now widespread. The Internet genie was out of its bottle and no lawyer could put it back.

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[h=3]D&D Unleashed[/h]Patton Oswalt, guardian of all things geeky, explains the impact of the Internet on geek culture:

The topsoil has been scraped away, forever, in 2010. In fact, it’s been dug up, thrown into the air, and allowed to rain down and coat everyone in a thin gray-brown mist called the Internet...There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans. And I’m not going to bore you with the step-by-step specifics of how it happened. In the timeline of the upheaval, part of the graph should be interrupted by the words the Internet.

Jennifer Grouling Cover explains how gamers leveraged their newfound communication in The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games:

In terms of communication, Fine (1983) mentions magazines and conventions as two of the main methods open for garners to communicate with one another (pp. 32-33). These are still important aspects of communication between garners, but the Internet has expanded these to include message boards, blogs, and other online forums.

Message boards took the same role as conventions and magazines, accelerating and connecting players around the world. Newsgroups were the forerunners of today's social media. Rec.games.frp.dnd was created in 1992:

This unmoderated discussion newsgroup is for discussion of the official rules and settings of the D&D family of role-playing games, produced by TSR, Inc., including Collector's Edition Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), Basic D&D, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D), and AD&D Second Edition. This proposed newsgroup would include discussion of TSR's rules and products and compatible products, such as: character classes; character races; monsters; magic spells; weapons; Greyhawk; the Forgotten Realms; the Known World; Dark Sun; Spelljammer; RavenLoft; Hollow World; City State of the Invincible Overlord; and so on. Crossposting between this group and other groups in the rec.games.frp hierarchy is discouraged, however issues of general interest that happen to involve a D&D rulebook or setting are more than welcome.

Jim Vassilakos provides an exhaustive overview of the early days of D&D on the Internet in his article "Spinning in Circles: A History & Analysis of TSR's Copyright Policies" in the Guildsman #7:

When I first got online, I was pretty amazed by what I found in the rec.games.frp newsgroup. It seemed to me much like a campfire with a bunch of gamers kicking back telling stories about their campaigns. Some people would share new monsters, spells, etc. Others would write full-scale adventures. I began collecting a number of these posts and, with the permission of the respective authors, put some of the best into The Guildsman, the Internet’s first RPG magazine.

D&D was primed for the Internet. It encourages creative expression and collaboration, two things online communication can do very well. With the new medium there was unprecedented access for fans to share, reuse, rewrite, and repurpose each others' content -- something that was happening at conventions already. The difference was that the company that owned the D&D brand no longer had the upper hand; TSR was at best an equal to its fans on the Internet, fast losing its ability to distinguish "professional" content from fan-generated content.

When TSR's lawyers realized just how widespread D&D fandom was, they weren't happy.
[h=3]Lawyers vs. the Internet[/h]In 1994, TSR sent out Cease and Desist notices to several file transfer protocol (FTP) sites that had D&D-related content,insisting that they could only be hosted at single company-approved site:

You should also be aware that any items created without a specific license are infringements of TSR copyrights. Such items include (but are not limited to) any software, net.books, modules, tables, stories, or rules modifications which contain elements from our copyrighted properties, including characters, settings, realm names, noted magic items, spells, elements of the gaming system, such as ARMOR CLASS, HIT DICE, and so forth. To date, TSR has not licensed any of these net publications...Our intention is to find a way to license these and future creative efforts.

A little over a month later, TSR had its "way to license these and future creative efforts":

TSR is pleased to announce a licensed Internet FTP file server. MPGNet’s site (ftp to http://ftp.mpgn.com) will carry a license that allows your creations to be shared with the world via the Internet. In order to distribute your texts, software and message digests via this server, you must include the following disclaimer: This item incorporates or is based on or derived from copyrighted material of TSR, Inc. and may contain trademarks of TSR. The item is made available by MPGNet under license from TSR, but is not authorized or endorsed by TSR. The item is for personal use only and may not be published or distributed except through MPGNet or TSR.

There were eventually three official places TSR deemed appropriate for fan content:

Sometimes, you just want to get something you've written distributed to everyone else. You can do this by uploading the file to an authorized TSR site. These sites are:

  • MPG-Net (http://mpgn.com): This is the free access that most users on the internet know about.
  • America Online (AOL): TSR's forum on this service draws tens of thousands of gamers every month.
  • GEnie: The TSR Roundtable also draws thousands of users each month.

This was the beginning of monikers like "They Sue Regularly" and "T&R" in which fans no longer felt a shared ownership of the game. It was TSR's way or the highway it seemed.

As we mentioned in the previous installment, Dungeons & Dragons' existence started with fans. TSR's stance on its fans changed as the old business model collided with newly empowered (and much larger) fandom. The Internet laid bare TSR's change in policy towards its fans. Vassilakos pinpoints the change:

In short, it seems that TSR is saying, in effect, that prior to 1994, TSR was condoning the free and unconstrained publishing of (in the words of Mr. Gygax) “adventures, monsters, spells, and magic items for the AD&D game.” Then, in early 1994 or thereabouts, according to Rob’s statement, this policy was reversed due to an “internal management directive.” And this is consistent with TSR’s suit against Mayfair in 1993. They made a conscious decision to re-invent the “standards of doing business” sometime around 1993-94, and as a result, we the fans were under attack.

For some time, fear and loathing ruled, with fans of D&D enraged by TSR's treatment on one side, and TSR's increasingly failing business model pressuring it to defend itself against all comers -- including its own customers. That all changed when Wizards of the Coast showed up.
[h=3]Wizards to the Rescue?[/h]Wizards of the Coast had first-hand experience with lawsuits and the Internet:

Peter wrote Primal Order as a cap-system. That is to say, the idea was that it would be a generic supplement about gods, giving gamemasters a way to handle deities in their games. However, in making it useful to gamemasters, Peter realized that he’d have to include some method for converting his terminology into that of various popular fantasy RPG systems on the market. To that end, he enlisted the aid of a wide assortment of gamers on the Internet to write these conversion notes. When Primal Order finally came out, the appendix in the back looked like a veritable who’s-who of rec.games.frp.misc. There were conversion notes included for all sorts of game systems, and they were written by a multitude of different people.

One of those conversions, of Palladium's Fantasy Role-Playing Game, triggered a lawsuit that was settled out of court. Wizards, and by extension CEO Peter Adkison, was at the nexus of a battle between fandom, RPG companies, and their lawyers, as explained by Shannon Appelcline:

The Palladium lawsuit almost put Wizards of the Coast out of business. Palladium's Kevin Siembieda consistently demanded an "acknowledgement of guilt" which Wizards was unwilling to sign. (If they had, they might have been liable to every other publisher who's game had been featured in The Primal Order.) Fortunately Mike Pondsmith of R. Talsorian, and then GAMA President, was able arbitrate and in March of 1993 an agreement came about.

Adkison didn't forget his lessons when TSR was available for sale. With the Internet, fandom was no longer easier to ignore. When Wizards purchased TSR, things changed quickly, as this FAQ explains:

Almost exactly three years later, in September 1997, TSR radically changed this policy, giving a lot more free reign to the creation and distribution by gamers of AD&D material. Now, as long as you don't make any money off of it, don't use TSR's graphics, don't misuse TSR's trademarks, don't quote a lot from TSR's books, and don't mislead anyone as to the "officialness" of a file or web page, you're basically in the clear.

That was just the beginning of changes that would ultimately affect the entire business model of D&D.
[h=3]Open to All?[/h]As described in my previous article, "Can Wizards Avoid Another OGL Glut?", Ryan Dancey pushed hard for the Open Game License, ensuring that a form of Dungeons & Dragons would exist forever. WOTC might regret that later, but they had to come to grips with the fact that power was once again in fans' hands and there was no going back.

We'll look at how RPG companies leverage their fans to make a profit and the open game license in the next installment, the Golden Age.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
Michael Tresca



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