If the mainstream media keeps picking this up with similiar opinions, WOTC is screwed.
The D&D Open Game License controversy, explained
The tabletop gaming industry has fallen into crisis. As is often the case in fantasy stories, that crisis involves a king and a magic artifact. The king is Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro-owned, billion-dollar publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, the nearly 50-year-old game that has become synonymous with pen-and-paper role-playing. The magic artifact is the company’s Open Game License, or OGL, written long, long ago (in 2000), which permits players to craft and monetize their own tabletop experiences using D&D rules and mechanics, as long as they avoid reproducing official characters, settings, stories and art.
Many tabletop designers portray the OGL as a kind of book of creation — the basis for a vast and noisy empire of artworks and experiences, from full-blown tabletop competitors with their own fantasy settings to what’s known as “actual play” projects like Critical Role, in which professional voice actors broadcast their D&D campaigns. This single document from Wizards of the Coast, often shortened to WotC or simply Wizards, helped transform D&D into a “cottage industry,” said Matt Jarvis, editor in chief of tabletop news outlet Dicebreaker.
But the once-benevolent king appeared to have succumbed to avarice and begun meddling with the book of creation. In a leaked draft of “OGL 1.1” dated mid-December and obtained by the pop culture news outlet i09, WotC proposed some drastic changes: a 25 percent royalty on revenue from any OGL creator earning above $750,000 per year in sales; the right for WotC to use any content created under the license for any purpose; an apparent ban on the virtual tabletop simulators that helped kindle a tabletop gaming boom during pandemic lockdowns; and the de-authorization of anything made according to the previous OGL.
Now, two weeks after that initial leak, WotC have executed a dramatic pivot: “We’re giving the core D&D mechanics to the community through a Creative Commons license, which means that they are fully in your hands,” reads a Thursday update from D&D Executive Producer Kyle Brink.
Since 2000, a number of D&D-based projects have turned into highly profitable enterprises. A 2021 leak of data from the live-streaming site Twitch listed Critical Role as the single highest-paid channel on the platform, earning more than $9.6 million since 2019. Publishers like Kobold Press and DriveThruRPG have built huge followings around their third-party D&D campaigns and other tabletop materials.
Since the leaked draft of the updated OGL was published in early January, WotC’s devoted subjects have rebelled. Over 60,000 creators and publishers have signed an open letter under the name #OpenDnD demanding the retraction of OGL 1.1. Online campaigns encouraging players to cancel their D&D Beyond subscriptions — WotC’s official digital D&D toolset — went viral. Rival game publishers like Pathfinder creator Paizo have announced plans for new “irrevocable” open tabletop systems and licenses, seeking to fill the breach.
The original OGL was “a masterstroke of community support,” Jarvis said. “It allowed Wizards to thrive, because people were making stuff for D&D, and it allowed creators to thrive, because they were able to say ‘this is compatible with D&D.’”
The leaked changes to the OGL, Jarvis and other critics argue, seem designed simply to monetize and extend control over the sprawling network of creators the OGL once empowered — part of a consolidation of the D&D brand under the One D&D label, a project WotC is calling “the future of D&D” that includes an updated ruleset, the D&D Beyond subscription service and a forthcoming official virtual tabletop app.
The OGL’s magic wasn’t just about money. According to designer, writer and disability consultant Sara Thompson, it made space for dialogue between WotC and the community, allowing designers to essentially offer playable critiques of problems such as D&D’s heritage of racial stereotypes, using D&D’s own mechanics. Take Thompson’s own Combat Wheelchair add-on, a set of rules for using wheelchairs as adventuring equipment that “allows disabled people to be empowered and see themselves as a hero in the story, because D&D didn’t allow for that.”
Faced with such comprehensive blowback, WotC eventually gave way. On Jan. 13, the company announced plans to discard the royalty scheme and promised that creators will retain exclusive ownership of their own work, while also defending the OGL 1.1 as a means of shutting down “hateful and discriminatory products” and quashing third-party NFTs. The post, which was not attributed to any specific individual at WotC, ended by hailing the situation as a victory for both sides, insisting that the company had always intended to solicit the community’s input: “You’re going to hear people say that they won, and we lost because making your voices heard forced us to change our plans. Those people will only be half right. They won — and so did we.”
Pushback from fans, who criticized WotC’s response as far from an apology and a dismissal of their legitimate concerns, led WotC to backpedal further. A second bulletin Wednesday included more details about the path forward, along with a mea culpa from Brink, the executive producer, on behalf of his team.
“We are sorry. We got it wrong,” Brink said. “Our language and requirements in the draft OGL were disruptive to creators and not in support of our core goals of protecting and cultivating an inclusive play environment and limiting the OGL to TTRPGs. Then we compounded things by being silent for too long. We hurt fans and creators, when more frequent and clear communications could have prevented so much of this.”
A new draft of the OGL was shared Thursday for players to review, along with a survey to provide feedback, which will remain available for two weeks.
“The Creative Commons license we picked lets us give everyone those core mechanics. Forever. Because we don’t control the license, releasing the D&D core rules under the Creative Commons will be a decision we can never change,” Brink wrote in the Thursday update.
But some say the damage is already done.
“They’ve lost quite a lot of faith that people had in them, and I don’t see how they can rebuild that trust anytime soon,” said Thompson, who was recently slated to work on an official D&D product. She ended up pulling out in protest.
The community’s mistrust of WotC has been simmering for a while, said Mike Holik, editor in chief of Mage Hand Press, a third-party D&D campaign publisher, who also organized the #OpenDnD letter. He points to the fourth edition of D&D, which shipped in 2008 with its own similarly controversial game license; WotC reverted to the previous OGL for the current fifth edition of the game, which debuted in 2014.
“Once they get big enough, they try to get greedy and capitalize on it,” Holik said, suggesting that WotC may be happy for some creators to walk away, “as long as they can monetize the remaining people more.”
D&D’s ubiquity makes it a safe source of revenue for third-party designers. The possibility of market fragmentation, Holik said, was cause for alarm, as waning support for D&D might impact more outlandish, niche games that rely on the title as an onboarding mechanism.
But disaster may bring opportunity. Austin Walker, IP director of game studio Possibility Space and Friends at the Table game master, described the reveal of OGL 1.1 as a potential “moment of rupture.” He noted that much innovation in the tabletop gaming space is already an attempt to break away from D&D, which promises imaginative scenarios but often boils down to “kicking down a door and fighting stuff.”
All of which speaks to the twist in this fairy story: The original OGL isn’t quite the magical enabler of indie creativity it’s cracked up to be. According to Thompson, a lot of what it covers isn’t strictly subject to copyright, and was never WotC’s to “give away.” Take the spell Aganazzar’s Scorcher. “That’s in official D&D, so if I put that in my own random game, yes, they could sue me,” Thompson said. “But if I made a spell with a similar fire effect but named it something else entirely, that’s not D&D anymore.”
Walker agreed, describing the original OGL as “an enclosure of the commons,” obfuscating the reality that creators are already free to adopt rules and mechanics from D&D under regular fair use doctrine. Skill checks, whereby players roll dice to determine an action’s success, are one example of a mechanic that is “too generic” to copyright, Walker said.
“You can trademark your logo, important characters, art and design aspects that indicate to consumers that they’re looking at an official product, but you can’t protect ‘roll 20 and add your attribute and skill modifier.’”
The only thing the OGL really offers, Walker said, is “the sense of safety that you will not be sued for something that you shouldn’t be able to be sued for to begin with.” Thanks to this purely “rhetorical” gambit, he said, WotC was able to “capture a lot of the creative energy” in the tabletop scene during the early 2000s, transforming up-and-coming designers into D&D satellite creators. Walker attributes this partly to creators being unversed in the legalities back in 2000 — and in particular, the option of publishing under then-emerging Creative Commons licenses — but it’s also a matter of money. Few publishers can afford a copyright battle with a company the size of WotC, even if they’re confident of victory.
Whether you view the original OGL as a mystic talisman or smoke-and-mirrors, WotC appears to have committed an irreversible act of self-sabotage in trying to replace it — squandering the prestige accumulated over 20 years in a matter of weeks.
“A king shouldn’t be grasping at all of your coins — that’s what a dragon does, right?” Walker joked. And as any group of D&D adventurers might tell you, in stories like this, the point of a dragon atop a treasure trove is for it to be slain.
If the mainstream media keeps picking this up with similiar opinions, WOTC is screwed.