OGL 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

JEB

Legend
Game System License was first announced in April 2008: D&D 4th Edition Game System License

However, there had been plans to announce it earlier, in February 2008: Interview with Scott Rouse, Part 1

Paizo first announced their open playtest for Pathfinder in March 2008: No D&D 4E for Paizo?!?

Doesn't seem like the GSL was specifically designed to thwart a repeat of Pathfinder, based on that timing, but maybe Paizo and/or Wizards had inside info? (The official reason for Paizo in March 2008, per Wired, was that they couldn't afford to wait for a 4E license.)
 

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Staffan

Legend
From what Paizo people themselves have written, their reasons for originally sticking with 3.5e was twofold:
1. They really, really didn't like what they saw of 4e, and had no interest in writing adventures for it.
2. The new license taking too long to be revealed.

The creation of Pathfinder as an RPG was then a consequence of it not being a good plan long-term to write for a "dead" game.
 

Reynard

Legend
From what Paizo people themselves have written, their reasons for originally sticking with 3.5e was twofold:
1. They really, really didn't like what they saw of 4e, and had no interest in writing adventures for it.
2. The new license taking too long to be revealed.

The creation of Pathfinder as an RPG was then a consequence of it not being a good plan long-term to write for a "dead" game.
Do you have a reference for that first point? As I understood it, "dislike of 4E" was not a driving factor. Instead they didn't want their fortunes beholden to WotC forever.
 

The GSL came out later. And wasn’t there another license that was trial ballooned here but was even worse?
No, that was the GSL, but initially WotC charged several thousand dollars to companies to be part of the GSL.

It is right to say that Pathfinder was later, I guess my point is WotC presumably thought it was inevitable someone would make a 3.5E clone (indeed we'd already seen some similar things with d20 at that point), so the GSL was set out in such a fashion as to ensure there could not as easily be a 4E clone.

I don't buy the story that Paizo "didn't like 4E" story (I've never seen anything plausible to that effect, seems like fan-projection), but I certainly think they saw a wide-open opportunity and very smartly took it.
 

I never really kept up with the details. I just remember during the 3/3.5e at the book store having a huge selection of all kinds of additional materials. I pretty much sat out the 3e era (chasing girls/ trying to figure out life etc). I started coming back around right after the 4e launch and the shelves looked a bit different. Thanks to everyone that replied, I genuinely didn't know and was curious.
 

Staffan

Legend
Do you have a reference for that first point? As I understood it, "dislike of 4E" was not a driving factor. Instead they didn't want their fortunes beholden to WotC forever.
It's from this blog post, written by Lisa Stevens around the time of Paizo's 10th anniversary.

"When Jason returned from D&D Experience, he laid out all the information that he had gleaned. From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason's report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn't look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. And we were already WAY behind schedule."
 

Reynard

Legend
It's from this blog post, written by Lisa Stevens around the time of Paizo's 10th anniversary.

"When Jason returned from D&D Experience, he laid out all the information that he had gleaned. From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason's report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn't look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. And we were already WAY behind schedule."
Thank you.
 

Just thinking "what ifs" for a moment. If WotC totally drops the ball, I could see Critical Role being the next Paizo. I could see them making a 5e and running away with it. That would be wild. They already have a big fan base, the conditions would be favorable. That's a big what if though.
 

EpicureanDM

Explorer
It's sufficiently restrictive that there's basically no point. It was intentionally designed to prevent a Pathfinder situation from reoccurring with 4E, and to the extent that it has prevented that, it was successful. It also managed to convince most 3PPs it wasn't worth making material for 4E at all, so that's maybe less helpful but I don't think WotC cared much until they saw Pathfinder peeling away a large chunk of their audience.
I must add that the weird communication about the 4e license started before there was a pathfinder. Maybe that was mostly between companies.
 


darjr

I crit!
I've released several supplements under it, and am still selling them, so I guess technically I'm still using it, though all of them were written and released over a decade (!) ago...
Recent sales? Have you posted about it in the MCDM Reddit or Discourse?
 

It's from this blog post, written by Lisa Stevens around the time of Paizo's 10th anniversary.

"When Jason returned from D&D Experience, he laid out all the information that he had gleaned. From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason's report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn't look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. And we were already WAY behind schedule."
That doesn't add up to what you claimed, which was vast and rather personal-sounding animus.

And it's clear they'd planned Pathfinder before anything about 4E was clear at all, possibly since before it was announced.
Just thinking "what ifs" for a moment. If WotC totally drops the ball, I could see Critical Role being the next Paizo. I could see them making a 5e and running away with it. That would be wild. They already have a big fan base, the conditions would be favorable. That's a big what if though.
I don't think there's any chance of this with 1D&D unless, later in the development, we see some move that is actively conflicting with the kind of play Critical Role relies on. They're not primarily an RPG supplement company, unlike Paizo, who were, so the bar for it to be worth it for them is a lot higher.

I do think in the longer run, if WotC really tries to push 1D&D online as hard as it looks like they may, there might be more conflicts, but we'll see.
 


It's from this blog post, written by Lisa Stevens around the time of Paizo's 10th anniversary.

"When Jason returned from D&D Experience, he laid out all the information that he had gleaned. From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason's report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn't look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. And we were already WAY behind schedule."
this is one of the only things that I respect her for... she didn't like the game and just said it... I have some issues with the paizo staff around that time but overall Lisa stevens was shooting straight about this.
 

Staffan

Legend
That doesn't add up to what you claimed, which was vast and rather personal-sounding animus.
"From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason's report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn't look like the system we wanted to make products for." is how you phrase "Hell no" in a relatively diplomatic fashion.
And it's clear they'd planned Pathfinder before anything about 4E was clear at all, possibly since before it was announced.
If you keep reading the blog post, you'll see that Bulmahn had his own house rules for 3.5e that he was planning on releasing outside of Paizo – I'm guessing on a scale similar to Trailblazer. But Paizo took that idea and ran with it and had him and others develop it into a full-fledged RPG.

But unless you're saying Lisa Stevens is lying in the blog post, Pathfinder RPG was not a foregone conclusion. I think that in the short run at least, she would probably have been happier if 4e were more to the tastes of her and her designers, and had been released under the OGL so they could have focused on the stuff they were good at: adventures.
I don't think there's any chance of this with 1D&D unless, later in the development, we see some move that is actively conflicting with the kind of play Critical Role relies on. They're not primarily an RPG supplement company, unlike Paizo, who were, so the bar for it to be worth it for them is a lot higher.
I would be very surprised if Critical Role did anything of the sort. I think that if anyone's going to release the next D&D Heartbreaker, it will be MCDM. Matt seems to have some very specific ideas on how he wants the game to run, heavily influenced by both old-school D&D and 4e, and once they're done with their monster book I could see them moving into other rules.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
Just thinking "what ifs" for a moment. If WotC totally drops the ball, I could see Critical Role being the next Paizo. I could see them making a 5e and running away with it. That would be wild. They already have a big fan base, the conditions would be favorable. That's a big what if though.
Highly unlikely.

For perspective, Paizo was Dragon Magazine. They created and supported decades worth of material for pretty much all active settings at the time.

CR is a group of creatives that are doing great at their specific setting and playstyle, but haven't really shown the breadth of capacity for making a big tent generic game that D&D pretends to be. Not saying they don't but they haven't shown it and the track record is a lot of what let PF get away with what it did. I don't think anyone has what it takes to pull that off.

CR could make their own game like they make their own setting and probably do well, but they wouldn't be able to just rip off D&D.
 

Waller

Hero
Yea
It's from this blog post, written by Lisa Stevens around the time of Paizo's 10th anniversary.

"When Jason returned from D&D Experience, he laid out all the information that he had gleaned. From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason's report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn't look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 SRD: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. And we were already WAY behind schedule."
That was posted years later and there's some misdirection going on there.

Dragon and Dungeon magazine licenses withdrawn. Star Wars license withdrawn. Possession of a MASSIVE mailing list (Dragon and Dungeon). Literally nobody else could have done this (don't think there will be a 5E/6E equivalent - there won't be). They were able to convert a large percentage of those D&D magazine subscribers to Pathfinder subscribers. Like 100K subscribers. That can never happen again.

Don't imagine it was peoples' dislike of 4E or the general public's opinions on the GSL. It was mailing lists and marketing reach as everything is. It won't happen again.
 

Staffan

Legend
Yea

That was posted years later and there's some misdirection going on there.

Dragon and Dungeon magazine licenses withdrawn. Star Wars license withdrawn. Possession of a MASSIVE mailing list (Dragon and Dungeon). Literally nobody else could have done this (don't think there will be a 5E/6E equivalent - there won't be). They were able to convert a large percentage of those D&D magazine subscribers to Pathfinder subscribers. Like 100K subscribers. That can never happen again.

Don't imagine it was peoples' dislike of 4E or the general public's opinions on the GSL. It was mailing lists and marketing reach as everything is. It won't happen again.
We're talking about different things.

When Paizo lost the magazine licenses, they were able to leverage their mailing lists as well as the money they owed subscribers (in the sense of "We can either send you a refund or sign you up for X number of upcoming adventures") and the reputation they had gotten as adventure makers (particularly via their adventure paths Shackled City, Age of Worms, and Savage Tide) into massive success for the Pathfinder Adventure Paths. That is not in dispute. What I am talking about was the next major decision: switching over to 4e or not. Since Wizards were dragging their feet on saying anything about 3pp support for 4e, and because Paizo staff did not want to make adventures for 4e based on the stuff they were hearing (and on Bulmahn playtesting it at a con), they chose to stick with 3.5e and as a consequence chose to make the Pathfinder RPG (because making adventures for an out-of-print RPG is not a good long-term business plan).
 


R_Chance

Adventurer
Imagine, if you will, a coalition, even a very loose one, of third party companies like MCDM and EN Publishing and Kobold Press and maybe even Paizo, standing together in the shoulders of the OGL?

No idea what that might look like or how it would work.
I doubt it would go well. Not doubting the talent, just designers with different ideas about the direction of the game and wanting to tailor it to their specific needs / goals...
 

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