WotC What's All This About The OGL Going Away?

This last week I've seen videos, tweets, and articles all repeating an unsourced rumour that the OGL (Open Gaming License) will be going away with the advent of OneD&D, and that third party publishers would have no way of legally creating compatible material. I wanted to write an article clarifying some of these terms.

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I've seen articles claiming (and I quote) that "players would be unable to legally publish homebrew content" and that WotC may be "outlawing third-party homebrew content". These claims need clarification.

What's the Open Gaming License? It was created by WotC about 20 years ago; it's analagous to various 'open source' licenses. There isn't a '5E OGL' or a '3E OGL' and there won't be a 'OneD&D OGL' -- there's just the OGL (technically there are two versions, but that's by-the-by). The OGL is non-rescindable -- it can't be cancelled or revoked. Any content released as Open Gaming Content (OGC) under that license -- which includes the D&D 3E SRD, the 5E SRD, Pathfinder's SRD, Level Up's SRD, and thousands and thousands of third party books -- remains OGC forever, available for use under the license. Genie, bottle, and all that.

So, the OGL can't 'go away'. It's been here for 20 years and it's here to stay. This was WotC's (and OGL architect Ryan Dancey's) intention when they created it 20 years ago, to ensure that D&D would forever be available no matter what happened to its parent company.


What's an SRD? A System Reference Document (SRD) contains Open Gaming Content (OGC). Anything in the 3E SRD, the 3.5 SRD, or the 5E SRD, etc., is designated forever as OGC (Open Gaming Content). Each of those SRDs contains large quantities of material, including the core rules of the respective games, and encompasses all the core terminology of the ruleset(s).

When people say 'the OGL is going away' what they probably mean to say is that there won't be a new OneD&D System Reference Document.


Does That Matter? OneD&D will be -- allegedly -- fully compatible with 5E. That means it uses all the same terminology. Armor Class, Hit Points, Warlock, Pit Fiend, and so on. All this terminology has been OGC for 20 years, and anybody can use it under the terms of the OGL. The only way it could be difficult for third parties to make compatible material for OneD&D is if OneD&D substantially changed the core terminology of the game, but at that point OneD&D would no longer be compatible with 5E (or, arguably, would even be recognizable as D&D). So the ability to create compatible third party material won't be going away.

However! There is one exception -- if your use of OneD&D material needs you to replicate OneD&D content, as opposed to simply be compatible with it (say you're making an app which has all the spell descriptions in it) and if there is no new SRD, then you won't be able to do that. You can make compatible stuff ("The evil necromancer can cast magic missile" -- the term magic missile has been OGL for two decades) but you wouldn't be able to replicate the full descriptive text of the OneD&D version of the spell. That's a big if -- if there's no new SRD.

So you'd still be able to make compatible adventures and settings and new spells and new monsters and new magic items and new feats and new rules and stuff. All the stuff 3PPs commonly do. You just wouldn't be able to reproduce the core rules content itself. However, I've been publishing material for 3E, 3.5, 4E, 5E, and Pathfinder 1E for 20 years, and the need to reproduce core rules content hasn't often come up for us -- we produce new compatible content. But if you're making an app, or spell cards, or something which needs to reproduce content from the rulebooks, you'd need an SRD to do that.

So yep. If no SRD, compatible = yes, directly reproduce = no (of course, you can indirectly reproduce stuff by rewriting it in your own words).

Branding! Using the OGL you can't use the term "Dungeons & Dragons" (you never could). Most third parties say something like "compatible with the world's most popular roleplaying game" and have some sort of '5E' logo of their own making on the cover. Something similar will no doubt happen with OneD&D -- the third party market will create terminology to indicate compatibility. (Back in the 3E days, WotC provided a logo for this use called the 'd20 System Trademark Logo' but they don't do that any more).

What if WotC didn't 'support' third party material? As discussed, nobody can take the OGL or any existing OGC away. However, WotC does have control over DMs Guild and integration with D&D Beyond or the virtual tabletop app they're making. So while they can't stop folks from making and publishing compatible stuff, they could make it harder to distribute simply by not allowing it on those three platforms. If OneD&D becomes heavily reliant on a specific platform we might find ourselves in the same situation we had in 4E, where it was harder to sell player options simply because they weren't on the official character builder app. It's not that you couldn't publish 4E player options, it's just that many players weren't interested in them if they couldn't use them in the app.

But copyright! Yes, yes, you can't copyright rules, you can't do this, you can't do that. The OGL is not relevant to copyright law -- it is a license, an agreement, a contract. By using it you agree to its terms. Sure WotC might not be able to copyright X, but you can certainly contractually agree not to use X (which is a selection of material designated as 'Product Identity') by using the license. There are arguments on the validity of this from actual real lawyers which I won't get into, but I just wanted to note that this is about a license, not copyright law.

If you don't use the Open Gaming License, of course, it doesn't apply to you. You are only bound by a license you use. So then, sure, knock yourself out with copyright law!

So, bullet point summary:
  • The OGL can't go away, and any existing OGC can't go away
  • If (that's an if) there is no new SRD, you will be able to still make compatible material but not reproduce the OneD&D content
  • Most of the D&D terminology (save a few terms like 'beholder' etc.) has been OGC for 20 years and is freely available for use
  • To render that existing OGC unusable for OneD&D the basic terminology of the entire game would have to be changed, at which point it would no longer be compatible with 5E.
 
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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

Dreamscape

Crafter of fine role-playing games
A timely summary. Every time the OGL comes up, there is a lot of confusion with SRDs - and also logo licenses, which are another thing you need to indicate compatibility with something. I believe WotC had one in the early days (was it the d20 license?), Mongoose had them for their first versions of RuneQuest and Traveller, various retroclones (like mine) have them.

But all three things are separate though interdependent, i.e. both SRDs and logo licenses use the OGL. The OGL can be used on its own, but there is literally no reason to do so unless you also draw on an SRD - if all your material is original, using the OGL is just restricting you in many ways.

I believe the reason D&D clones are the most popular by far (other than the greater popularity of D&D itself) is that other SRDs simply don't have enough unique terminology to make them worth using except to avoid some typing. The D&D SRDs have names of monsters, spells, and magic items which would have to be tweaked otherwise - e.g. see the many not-beholders and not-displacer beasts out there.

The SRD for Mongoose Traveller 1E, for example, contains almost nothing unique to the 3rd Imperium, so it's useless to 3PPs who want to create adventures or supplements for that setting. All the things in the SRD - jump drives, combat armour, gauss rifles, etc. - are generic SF terms and could be used in a unique new product without infringing on FFE's trademarks or having to use the OGL. I understand Cepheus Engine came about basically because it was much easier to create a non-3rd Imperium Traveller clone by editing the SRD than writing one from scratch, but it could have been done.
 



seebs

Adventurer
I feel I should point out also: There are many things you can do which refer to or describe game rules which do not require a license in the first place, because the actual rules of a game (as opposed to one specific set of words describing those rules) have been declared uncopyrightable by US courts. No one knows exactly how far this does or doesn't go, and I personally wouldn't want to be on either side of a court case about it. But that said, there is at least some chance that the entire OGL is a trick -- it's trying to get you to agree to restrictions in exchange for permission to do a thing you never needed permission to do in the first place.
 

Dreamscape

Crafter of fine role-playing games
But that said, there is at least some chance that the entire OGL is a trick - it's trying to get you to agree to restrictions in exchange for permission to do a thing you never needed permission to do in the first place.
I don't know whether it was intentional or not (I suspect not), but there have certainly been many, many 3PP products using no SRD text at all, meaning they didn't need to use the OGL. If they had not they may even have been able to legally claim compatibility with D&D (though in case of dispute the only thing that matters is the size of your legal budget).
 

dave2008

Legend
I don't know whether it was intentional or not (I suspect not), but there have certainly been many, many 3PP products using no SRD text at all, meaning they didn't need to use the OGL. If they had not they may even have been able to legally claim compatibility with D&D (though in case of dispute the only thing that matters is the size of your legal budget).
Any examples? It seems to me it would be hard to do a product of any significance and not use some of the SRD. The SRD does cover quite a lot.
 

I don't know whether it was intentional or not (I suspect not), but there have certainly been many, many 3PP products using no SRD text at all, meaning they didn't need to use the OGL. If they had not they may even have been able to legally claim compatibility with D&D (though in case of dispute the only thing that matters is the size of your legal budget).
How would a D&D adjacent game have zero SRD content?

there's no Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric?

The OGL is pages 1 and 2

The SRD is the rest of this link

 





Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
there is at least some chance that the entire OGL is a trick -- it's trying to get you to agree to restrictions in exchange for permission to do a thing you never needed permission to do in the first place.
There is no chance that the OGL is just a trick. It might not be a deal you might find compelling for whatever reasons, but having interviewed and spoken to the architects of the license many times over the decades, I can assure you that their motives were sincere. Nobody was trying to “trick” anybody.
 


see

Pedantic Grognard
How would a D&D adjacent game have zero SRD content?
Well, it would depend on exactly what you were doing.

At the absolutely safest, one could write an adventure in accordance with these suggestions made (by TSR) back in 1994:
HOW TO CREATE GENERIC MATERIAL P SOME TIPS:
Don't specifically use AD&D statistics. Be creative. If you want a PC to encounter a stupid but strong NPC, let the GM determine the NPC's actual stats for the game system used by that GM. If the party encounters a hydra, let the GM look up the stats for the hydra in the game system he is using.

Don't set the adventures in a TSR world. Create your own or use one from history or legend. For example, you could set your adventure in Atlantis, but not in the FORGOTTEN REALMS Adventure World.

Don't use monsters, spells, etc. that were created by TSR. Create and name your own. Draw on history, legend or reality P even spell their actual names backward for uniqueness.

Or, if a monster or spell is used in several different game systems, this is a good indication that it is not owned by TSR. For example, Drow were created by TSR, but a hydra is a known legendary monster and is public domain.

You really can get going creatively when you invent your own, unique, game mechanics . . . worlds, monsters, etc. And you are free to publish anywhere when you specifically do not rely on AD&D game mechanics or other material from TSR.

Beyond that, there's a whole range of opinions about how much more compatible you can get without slipping into the infringing realm of "derivative work". The biggest trouble with these opinions is there's not much case law involving a pure copyright claim involving tabletop roleplaying games (TSR v. Mayfair involved contracts and trademark claims in addition to copyright), so even if you directly consult with top copyright lawyers, you'll get a best guess informed by analogy from creative works with distinctively different characteristics.

Further, of course, copyright law is different in different countries, and what counts as "fair use" in the US is not the same thing as "fair dealing" in Canada, and who knows what happens if you have to deal with a civil law system where "moral rights of the author" are taken seriously (like France). In the Internet Age, that's a potential vulnerability.

So, the OGL gives 3PPs a fairly well-defined set of rights with explicitly worldwide scope, which is valuable not so much for exactly what rights it grants, but for the certainty it gives.
 

Von Ether

Legend
How would a D&D adjacent game have zero SRD content?

there's no Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric?

The OGL is pages 1 and 2

The SRD is the rest of this link

I don't know about zero content, but Mutants and Mastermind has just a skeleton of d20 rules and then offers no classes and turns levels from advancement into levels of power (and it's a character point build system.) It probably has even less d20 content because I think they got rid of feats in one edition. It also has no hit points because it invented a "Damage Save" that produces new conditions. Geez, how old is M&M now?
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
there's just the OGL (technically there are two versions, but that's by-the-by).
Just out of curiosity, what are the differences between the OGL v1.0 and the OGL v1.0a (the latter being the one most often used)? I've looked at the text of both, and while I'm sure I must have missed something, they seem identical.
 

Reynard

Legend
Thank you @Morrus this is sure to be helpful to lots of folks. I am currently doing some freelance design and editing for an outfit that had a successful 5E compatible Kickstarter but whose main writer apparently does not understand what is and isn't Open Content at all. It has been (and is) quite a process making sure non-OGC references are rewritten enough to not be questionable, or replaced with wholly original content.
 



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