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Jonathan Tweet: My Life with the Open Gaming License

In 1978 at age 12, I bought my second roleplaying game, Metamorphosis Alpha (MA) by Jim Ward. That’s the day I became a fan of the Open Gaming License and the d20 logo. Or at least I would have been a fan if someone had gone back in time and told me about them.

The rules in MA described a different reality from those of Dungeons & Dragons, and I was disappointed. I already knew how many Hit Dice wolves, humans, and other creatures had; how combat worked; how experience and levels worked; and more. MA ignored all that and presented a different system. If it had been an improved version, I would have been OK with it, but it was just a different way of doing things, and it didn’t even have an experience system. I felt as though TSR had betrayed my trust. Even so, we played a lot of MA, at least until Gamma World released and we bought that game. It came in a box and a had a map of a war-devastated North America, so we were sold.
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In 1979, I switched largely to RuneQuest from Chaosium. It had a single dice-rolling mechanic that it used for everything: magic, skills, and combat. The system was designed from the ground up to be rational. Within a few years, the publisher used variants of the same system for their other roleplaying games, notably Call of Cthulhu. It made sense to me that if a publisher’s RPG rules were good then they’d want to use those rules for all their RPGs.

Meanwhile, GURPS from Steve Jackson Games showed how much mileage a publisher can get out of a single RPG system.

After I started doing professional game designer, Mark Rein•Hagen and I dreamed up simple, universal dice-pool system that we thought could apply to any setting. He ended up developing some of those ideas into the core mechanic for Vampire: The Masquerade, which then served several other RPGs. I derived a different dice-pool system and used mine for Over the Edge (Atlas Games, 1992).

My interest in universal systems rose again in 1997, when Wizards of the Coast purchased Dungeons & Dragons. Along with D&D, Wizards acquired Alternity, the as-yet-unpublished science fiction game that TSR had been working on. As with MA, Alternity was designed with a novel rules system, which made it harder for RPG fans to pick it up and play. Wizards not only released the game but then followed up with a series of settings for the same universal mechanics. The idea of using one rules system for multiple settings makes sense, but in this case it was a rule system that no one knew and that was incompatible with the system everyone did know: D&D. Predictably, Alternity never really got off the ground despite the large number of support products released for it.

I was working at Wizards when they acquired D&D, and my plan was just the opposite. I got approval to do a standalone RPG using D&D-style rules, and it was going to be Gamma World. Finally I was going to do mutants and lasers with D&D-style rules, just like I wanted from MA in 1978. My new take on Gamma World was bound to be a strange product with no logical place in the D&D line, but it was part of the Odyssey series of D&D settings, and those were all strange products with no logical place in the game line.

The plans to do D&D-style Gamma World as an Odyssey product came to an end when Ryan Dancey took over as the brand manager for roleplaying games. His first priority was to unify the AD&D audience, which had been fractured by the release of multiple, incompatible settings. While he was trying to bring AD&D players back to a single line of products, the last thing he wanted was a post-apocalyptic version of AD&D. My dream of lasers and mutants with D&D rules was denied.

Ryan had plans of his own, and they were more ambitious than mine. He released D&D 3rd Ed with an Open Gaming License and the d20 license, which let other publishers publish D&D supplements—provided the serial numbers were filed off. In 2000 when 3rd Ed released, the exhibitor hall at Gen Con was full of publishers trying to lure players away from D&D. A year later, they had gotten on the bandwagon, and publishers all across the exhibit hall were encouraging players to play more D&D and buy their d20/OGL products. The OGL was a tremendous success. Both Wizards and other publishers released new RPGs using D&D rules, just like I had hoped 20 years earlier.

The other half of the Third Edition project was getting the D&D rules in shape. As the lead designer, I took a lot of inspiration from RuneQuest, and we succeeded at developing a game system that was rational to port into other settings, again including Call of Cthulhu.

Some people in the RPG department, however, never liked the OGL, and when 4th Edition rolled around, the license that came with it was unfriendly. Paizo, which have been supporting D&D like mad through the OGL, switched to being a competitor with Pathfinder. Fourth Edition D&D had a lot of issues, and one of them was lack of 3rd-party support.

With 5th Edition D&D, the folks who opposed the OGL are gone. In fact, the fellow who runs D&D design, Mike Mearls, did a big, cool d20 book for Monte Cook, Iron Heroes (2005). Publishers are having a great time supporting the new version of D&D with products labeled “5E”.

A best friend of mine is Rob Heinsoo, the lead designer on 4E. He and I created a d20-style RPG called 13th Age (2013). It has a lot of same rules and elements as D&D, but it’s streamlined to create more dynamic battles and more player-driven story. Our game, in turn, is supported by people who use our open gaming license to publish their own compatible material.

A lesser known game of mine was a d20 version of Gamma World. It was called Omega World, and it released in 2002 as part of Polyhedron Magazine. It features weird mutants, dangerous technology, murderous monsters, and a high body count. My 12-year old self would be happy to hear about it.
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments

JeffB

Adventurer
Big thanks to Ryan- without those licenses, OSR wouldn't likely be a thing- Which I am a huge fan of. But during the D20 Boom. Ick. Way too much garbage and very little gold. From WOTC or 3PP,

And a big thanks to you and Rob for embracing the License and giving us 13th Age and providing a modern fresh take on D&D and not embracing the baggage of prior editions, or later what 5E would*. I have every edition there is. I really didn't want or need another re-hash of the same old deities, cosmology, settings, resource management mechanics, campaign/adventure design principals, etc.,

13Th and DW have become my go-to "D&D" games,, often supplemented with OSR products/ideas. And there are some great GW type OSR games out there too ;)

*which 4E tried to do, but never went far enough where it should have, and went too far when it should not have)
 

LuisCarlos17f

Explorer
I love d20 system, but this isn't ready yet for a modern setting where PCs and enemies are too weak or strong with the right help. I give it the name of the "Cobretti effect" because in the movie "Cobra" Brigitte Nielsen's character couldn't face the night slasher only to hide and run away like in a survival horror, but Marion Cobretti, played by Sylvester Stallone, with enough weapons and ammo could kill all the order of the new dawn like in a shooter arcade. A huge monster in a sword & sorcery world can be a nightmare for PCs but in space opera is a walking target killed with only a shot. A horde of zombies could be K.O. with only driving a heavy truck or an armoured car to run over them. The dire wraiths, archenemies of Rom the spaceknight, would be a nightmare for PCs from Call of Cthulhu, but with the same stat block only cannon fodder for players with the d20 version of G.I.Joe o Transformers.

And we may need an optional module to add abilities scores (for example courage) for a easier adaptation of setting with other rule systems.
 

GreyLord

Adventurer
I always love it when you mention Omega World. Loved the game, still do. It still is in my set of top ten RPGs I love to play (which is remarkable considering that it was released in the magazine as a one shot, and rather short and too the point).
 

Dr. Bull

Explorer
Thank you for the cool article, Maestro!

Thanks also for 13th Age... It's one of my favorite RPGs. I love how the core book included all the character rules, plenty of monsters, loads of treasure, a great campaign world, excellent maps, innovative game mechanics, and an introductory adventure. It raised the bar in terms of art, layout, design, and accessibility. The writing is excellent, and the design notes peppered throughout the text provided some excellent insights (and humorous anecdotes) into how the game was created.

- Dr. Bull
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
And a big thanks to you and Rob for embracing the License and giving us 13th Age and providing a modern fresh take on D&D and not embracing the baggage of prior editions, or later what 5E would*. I have every edition there is. I really didn't want or need another re-hash of the same old deities, cosmology, settings, resource management mechanics, campaign/adventure design principals, etc.,
You're welcome. It was fun to see what Rob and I could do when we were designing to our own specs and not following a corporate agenda.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
I love d20 system, but this isn't ready yet for a modern setting where PCs and enemies are too weak or strong with the right help.
You're right that technology disrupts the D&D play style and the balance for challenges. Many years ago, I played in one session of Peter Adkison's high-level D&D campaign, which included Jedi, psionics, technology, etc. We won the major battle that Peter has prepared after I asked whether we could call in help from allies and get some "big guns". Our party indeed had some pull, and we got help in the form of someone in hi-tech battle armor with a rack of missiles. We won the giant battle without rolling initiative because we could draw on technology.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
I always love it when you mention Omega World. Loved the game, still do. It still is in my set of top ten RPGs I love to play (which is remarkable considering that it was released in the magazine as a one shot, and rather short and too the point).
That game gets a lot of love. It was a small enough project that I could write it in my own personal style. The d20 system carried the weight, and I could just focus on the joy and the deathbots.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
Thanks also for 13th Age... It's one of my favorite RPGs. I love how the core book included all the character rules, plenty of monsters, loads of treasure, a great campaign world, excellent maps, innovative game mechanics, and an introductory adventure. It raised the bar in terms of art, layout, design, and accessibility. The writing is excellent, and the design notes peppered throughout the text provided some excellent insights (and humorous anecdotes) into how the game was created.
You're welcome, and thanks for the kind words. Rob and I loved having the opportunity to do things our way, and we each brought something different to the design. I'm going to pass your comments on to Rob.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I can understand the desire to have a single rules engine for games, but I can really see the value in diversity and specialization as well. And that's what TSR had back in the day. D&D, Gamma World, Boot Hill, Top Secret - different rules supporting different games. But then, TSR wasn't just the D&D publisher (or at least didn't see itself as that). It was a premier publisher of games, period, and not limited to just one rule system or genre.

Maybe in the end the runaway success of D&D for so long ended up ruining TSR. It drove them from being a games publisher into a game publisher while trying to still be a multi-genre games publisher (with all of the settings, etc). They might have had more stability if they had a variety of relatively competitive games in their catalog with no single one dominating in the market.
 

anahata

Villager
Thank you for your work on third edition. It hit upon something truly special, and having it available under the OGL means that we can still build on it today. The foresight in developing the OGL has shown great wisdom in the decades since third edition was published. I was still a teenager at the time it was published, but a teenager just starting to learn about Linux, open source, the GNU GPL, and all the other concepts that the OGL is based on from the software world. Twenty years later, I still benefit from open source in my career as a software developer and the OGL in all of my weekly 3.0/3.5 games.

But during the D20 Boom. Ick. Way too much garbage and very little gold. From WOTC or 3PP,
I'd much rather have the open, democratized world of the OGL (both third edition and now fifth) than the closed, restricted world of 4e. Sure, there's some lower quality stuff that comes through, but once you learn which publishers / authors make good things, you can stick with them.

This also demonstrates the value of critics who can look at content and give some thoughts on whether it's fit for purpose or adheres to whatever criteria they care about. An uncurated market especially depends upon critics to survive.
 

Hussar

Legend
Fascinating read.

I've been a critic of the OGL before, but, I've always thought, at its core, the OGL is such a MASSIVE positive for the hobby. ((My specific criticisms during the 3e days were (1) that so many OGL publishers were either trying to lure folks away from D&D with new d20 games that were just cannibalizing existing gamers without drawing in new players and (2) very few OGL publishers were willing to work together which resulted in a glut of overlapping material, which, again, simply sliced the pie into too many pieces.)) The OGL has drawn in SO many talented people into the hobby and given them a platform to reach the gaming audience.

@Jonathan Tweet - what are your feelings about how the OGL has somewhat morphed into the DM's Guild? While I realize that no one is restricted from using the OGL to reach gamers in other ways, it seems that the DM's Guild is the main portal. What do you think about that?
 

scourger

Explorer
Omega World remains one of my favorite games. I have a subscription print copy, a retail print copy, and the pdf. I would run or play it at the drop of a hat.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
what are your feelings about how the OGL has somewhat morphed into the DM's Guild? While I realize that no one is restricted from using the OGL to reach gamers in other ways, it seems that the DM's Guild is the main portal. What do you think about that?
I get what you mean, but I'd say the DMsG is more analagous to the d20 STL (plus a storefront) than the OGL. Let's just hope it doesn't go the same way as previous licenses!
 

ruemere

Explorer
The fantastic advantage of OGL is that games can live on and evolve further.

3.5E -> Pathfinder -> Pathfinder 2E
13th Age -> 13th Age Glorantha
13th Age -> King of Dungeons

I've had an incredible run of 13th Age over a span of several years, and I will probably run it again (though probably using King of Dungeons).

Thank you.

As for 4E, well, the way it was introduced into the world led to division among people. Honestly, I tried to like the system, but when I learned about its lack of OGL support, I gave up on this.
 

anahata

Villager
As for 4E, well, the way it was introduced into the world led to division among people. Honestly, I tried to like the system, but when I learned about its lack of OGL support, I gave up on this.
I started playing tabletop (as opposed to D&D CRPGs like NWN) at the time when 4th edition was new. When I learned that it didn't support the OGL, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, a fear, a dread, that would later come to be confirmed in ways that I couldn't--wouldn't--even imagine. 4E killed the game I loved in so many ways, and it's not recovered since. 5e's backpedalling just doesn't provide the rules my group needs (it backpedalled to OD&D rather than 3.x), so we'll be sticking with 3.x (and thus the OGL) for the foreseeable future. Long live the OGL!
 

Hussar

Legend
I get what you mean, but I'd say the DMsG is more analagous to the d20 STL (plus a storefront) than the OGL. Let's just hope it doesn't go the same way as previous licenses!
I can totally see that. I have to admit, I kinda brushed past the whole d20 STL thing at the time. Just didn't really register on my personal radar. But, yeah, it does seem that way doesn't it. It almost seems like WotC has figured out how to harness the fanbase to create those niche products that the OGL was kinda presumed to be created at the time.

I remember back then when you had all these companies - Green Ronin, Sword and Sorcery Press, Malhavoc, etc. banging out alternative games, rather than supplements for D&D (which there were a ton of those too) that seemed to be drawing off D&D gamers without bringing in new gamers. At least, that was my perception of it back then. And then you had all these folks banging out OGL supplements that overlapped with each other, leading to a massive glut. I've got about six or seven D&D based OGL naval supplements on my shelf (or hard drive) right now. :wow: There was just no way for the market to support this.

So, yes, I wonder if the centralization of the DM's Guild has led to a bit more awareness of what's out there and less overlap. And, I wonder if we're seeing a lot fewer 5e offshoot games than we did back in, say, 2002, because of the DM's Guild.

Sorry if this is kinda vague. I'm spitballing here.
 

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