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D&D Fandom Part III: The Golden Age

In the previous installment we talked about the rise of D&D fandom and how it helped shape the game...only for TSR to see fans at best as misguided (Gygax implied they weren't "serious" or "intelligent" if they mixed and matched other fantasy games) and at worst a threat worthy of litigation. As Internet use became widespread among gamers, the company's grip was slipping fast. Wizards of the...

In the previous installment we talked about the rise of D&D fandom and how it helped shape the game...only for TSR to see fans at best as misguided (Gygax implied they weren't "serious" or "intelligent" if they mixed and matched other fantasy games) and at worst a threat worthy of litigation. As Internet use became widespread among gamers, the company's grip was slipping fast. Wizards of the Coast inherited TSR's bumpy legacy of fans thought it had a solution...a solution that would bring a whole new host of challenges.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

A Little Wizardry​

Ryan Dancey's push for the Open Game License (OGL) at Wizards of the Coast is well-documented (see my previous article, "Is the OSR Dead?"), but the widespread use of the Internet by fans was likely influential in its launch. Internet publishing, ranging from full design and layout to simply uploading a file, made it easy for anyone to publish anything -- and fans' love of D&D meant that they were sharing their unlicensed works there too.

Sean Reynolds is quoted by George Vassilakos in "Spinning in Circles: A History & Analysis of TSR’s Copyright Policies" about the rationale behind the OGL:
It was mainly Ryan’s idea. He realized that people are already copying D&D, so we might as well let them do it in such a way that it points back to D&D.
The effort wasn't entirely selfless of course, as Dancey would later explain:
I said that I wanted to drive competitive game systems out of the market, and that I wanted the market to resist the introduction of other game systems; I also said that our intention with 3e and the 3e pricing plan was to make it very, very hard for an undercapitalized, poorly planned company to get a foothold in the mark.
The tension between lawyers and fandom was finally addressed thanks to the OGL, which treated the game like open source software. Now, D&D belonged to all of us, and we could publish whatever we wanted with it. Or could we?

The OGL Hangover​

For a time, the OGL was a huge success. 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.
Then things started to go south. Distributors began to see the license as hindrance and started making the tough choices on shelf space. The other problem was that despite the OGL being relatively open, it did have some boundaries, and someone inevitably tested those boundaries in the form of The Book of Erotic Fantasy. Appelcline explains when the first cracks began to appear in the market:
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.
Future versions of the OGL, in the form of the GSL, restricted access to the game so severely that many publishers gave up on it entirely. The original OGL still existed of course, and the fans kept their support even when WOTC did not, creating an interesting conundrum where an earlier version of D&D (3.5) was a serious competitor to itself (4.0). One positive outcome of this schism was the birth of the Old School Renaissance, which continues to thrive today.

The iterative improvement of D&D didn't happen right away as the market was glutted with content. Eventually, the improvement Dancey envisioned took shape in Pathfinder. Pathfinder's ascent built on the massive fanbase that WOTC helped create with the OGL...and then left behind when they shifted gears. Paizo would not forget this lesson.

Testing the Play​

Ryan Dancey, then D&D Brand Manager at WOTC, sorted through the aftermath of the acquisition of TSR and came to a simple conclusion:
In all my research into TSR's business, across all the ledgers, notebooks, computer files, and other sources of data, there was one thing I never found - one gaping hole in the mass of data we had available. No customer profiling information. No feedback. No surveys. No "voice of the customer". TSR, it seems, knew nothing about the people who kept it alive. The management of the company made decisions based on instinct and gut feelings; not data. They didn't know how to listen - as an institution, listening to customers was considered something that other companies had to do - TSR lead, everyone else followed.
TSR, in other words, expected fans and customers to follow its lead. There's good reason for this: the impetus against TSR's brand of gaming was strong from the wargaming community when D&D first debuted; in the early days its advertising was practically apologetic for introducing fantasy to medieval wargaming. Peterson explains in Playing at the World:
The first advertisements to appear in Panzerfaust focus on the strength of the medieval rules, and then almost audibly trail off as they continue, “Special features include rules for jousting and hand-to-hand combat and a large Fantasy supplement for gaming with Super-heroes, wizards, trolls, hobbits and (why not) dragons, among others.” [PZF:# 48] The parenthetical “why not” constitutes something of a soft sell, if not outright defensiveness.
If TSR had followed the wargaming trends at the time, the game would likely not have existed. Despite Dancey's insight, it wasn't WOTC that truly took the next step in fan collaboration but another company entirely. When Pathfinder was launched, Paizo Publishing took TSR's lessons to heart by incorporating fans into the development process:
In an unprecedented approach to open gaming, Paizo Publishing, LLC conducted a public playtest of their Pathfinder Roleplaying Game from March 2008 to February 2009. This year-long process involved three PDF alpha releases as well as a beta release published both as a PDF and softcover print version. Initial playtesting was conducted in general discussion, but beta testing was done in two-week blocks from September 2008 to late February 2009, each focusing on a different aspect of the game or chapter of the final book. By the playtest's end, over 45,000 people had downloaded the rules and contributed with over 100,000 posts to the discussion threads on Paizo's playtest messageboards.
By all accounts Paizo's playtest was a success. It helped drum up interest in the game, it engaged fans and gave them a voice, and most importantly it gave Paizo data to make the game better. WOTC didn't follow suit until much later with the Fifth Edition of D&D:
On May 24, 2012, WotC launched an open-to-the public playtest of D&D Next, and in the time since, over 120,000 people have registered as official playtesters. (The actual number of players is probably much higher, because one player might share the rules with an entire gaming group, and WotC is also running D&D Next at game stores as part of its Encounters program, where players aren’t required to sign up.)
Playtesting of this nature required loosening the legal reins of the game itself. The caretakers of D&D were finally engaging fans early in the development process to help shape the future of the game. It was the beginning of a new and sometimes contentious relationship between fans and companies.
[h=3]We're All Equal on the Internet[/h]The GSL was eventually replaced by the most recent version of the OGL, which attempts to strike the balance between small press publishers and WOTC's defense of its brand. More important, it explicitly recognizes that Internet publishing was a legitimate channel with the DM's Guild.

The DM's Guild is a compromise of sorts between the OGL and the digital world. It has some restrictions but entices prospective publishers with the opportunity to use officially licensed worlds. It avoids a physical glut by limiting fan works to the Internet. And it shares income from the sale of the products -- although even this is contentious on the Internet, where there are many other ways of funding and publishing (like Patreon and Kickstarter). For more info see my previous article, "Can Wizards Avoid Another OGL Glut?"

The OGL will exist in perpetuity, as the OSR demonstrates. It's a tradition that continues from the early days of TSR, back when publications like Alarums & Excursions provided a fertile ground for discussing and critiquing game innovations. Now the entire Internet is a fan playground with blogs, social media, and sites like ENWorld filling the gap.

The fans are officially the caretakers of D&D. Companies can profit from it, but they no longer completely control it. Recent fan-led efforts to change the course of some franchises has caused some critics to question if fans can be trusted with this stewardship.

A Chamber of Screams?​

Devin Faraci explains how the Internet has changed fandom and not necessarily for the better. Creators worked in a vacuum and now, thanks to the Internet, they have access to more data than they can handle or may even want:
This immediate access to the people who create the stuff we love was supposed to be the greatest thing that ever happened to fandom. If you talk to old TV writers or scifi novelists they'll tell you that they were often creating work in a void, not sure what people thought of what they were doing. It took a lot of effort to send a letter, so the only people who did that were the truly committed, but the general populace was largely silent. You just knew if they were watching or buying.
Jesse Hassenger at A.V. Club explains how fandom and creators engage in a self-perpetuating cycle:
Look, we all feel gratified when a movie, book, or TV show gives us what we want in the deepest recesses of our hearts. As a Girls fan who ships Marnie and Ray, believe me, I understand this. This is why artists, especially genre artists, like to tell fans that they’re the lifeblood of the operation—that they’re the reason these movies get made, that these shows stay on the air, that these books keep getting published. This kind of PR line is its own, almost insultingly direct form of fan service. Moreover, it also provides a kind of false empowerment, which in turn can lead to a very real sense of entitlement.
Dr. Richard Forest explains in the introduction to The Oracle compilation that D&D has always been this way, more so than other forms of fandom in which the end product (television, movies, comics) are less malleable:
The genius of Dungeons & Dragons is that it is a machine that makes more Dungeons & Dragons, and it does this right at your table. D&D is not in the books. It is at the game table. It is in our scribbled notes. It is in our maps, in our jokes, in our daydreams during dull classes or meetings, in our forum posts from work, in our blogs and tweets and zines...The game works because it is ours. From the very beginning, we all knew this. Even the designers knew it at the beginning, though they have sometimes claimed otherwise under the influence of avarice, pride, or market and company pressures. The game itself is built to support its own extension. Ability scores. Races. Character classes. Equipment. Spells. Monsters. Magic items. Random encounters. Dungeons. Categories of things that fit together, loosely. Not too well. Not completely. Not entirely. Open-ended categories that can be filled with new things. Dungeons & Dragons is never finished...Which is the basis of the entire hobby.
The difference is that D&D on the Web has massively expanded this creative process to such an extent that the line between creator of the game and player of the game is blurred. Faraci sees a dark side to it all:
But social media bridged the gap, and creators are no longer working in a void. Instead they're working in some kind of a chamber of screams, where people can and do voice their immediate and often personal displeasure directly and horribly.
Things are different for D&D fans, as Dr. Forest explains:
The best contributions to thinking about D&D are coming from the same places they’ve always come from, if at times in new modes. From the zines, now blogs, now Google+ threads, until Google does away with the service and we move somewhere new. From small press and independent publications emerging from fan communities. And finally, with the 2014 publication of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons itself, even the flagship game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, appears to understand Dungeons & Dragons again. D&D was always ours.
The key, it seems, is to channel that feedback constructively. The difference with D&D fandom is that we can create anything we don't have. We have the tools. We have the platform. We have the players. The question is if we can find enough commonality so we can play together.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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