Hasbro and WoTC’s apparent attempt to rewrite the D&D OGL casts a scorching ray at the world’s best role-playing game.
Greed May Be About to Kill Dungeons and Dragons Forever
You may have seen the trending hashtag #OpenDnD and wondered just what the story is. Well, it's a tale fit for a fantasy novel: good guys gone bad, betrayal, greed corrupting the hearts of men, and the little guys banding together against evil wizards.
In an ongoing drama, an apparent leak of the game's "updated" Open Game License (OGL) has sent the creator community into turmoil and put the very future of the game at risk.
To understand the heart of the problem, you need to understand how the wider world of Dungeons and Dragons operates. Wizards of the Coasts (WoTC) (a company that once-upon-a-time were seen as give-it-a-go heroes) and their parent company Hasbro own and sell the official D&D IP. However, from massive Kickstarter campaigns to groups of friends playing a casual Tuesday campaign -- most players homebrew their own rules, worlds, and adventures.
With only one company producing the official game and the combined minds of a community of 13 million making "third-party content", it's unsurprising that the fan-made content is often superior. Through podcasts, YouTube channels, live-play streams, boardgames, virtual assets, figurines, and other initiatives, thousands have taken their beloved D&D spinoffs and turned them into their livelihoods. And while they sometimes compete against the official IP, they are the community's lifeblood, and the reason D&D thrives.
It is the ability to take the base world and/or rules of the D&D-verse and transform it into new and wonderful worlds that gives the game its magic. It's helped shape an 8-year-long renaissance with Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. It has allowed people to create sci-fi, steampunk, dieselpunk, and cyber noir worlds, educational D&D programs, and afro-futurist indie video games.
It has spawned universes of creativity and endless years of joy. The problem is, the toy-giant Hasbro and once-beloved Wizards of the Coast are now seemingly embarked on a path of total domination, staking a claim of control, and demanding a great share of the spoils.
What is the Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License (OGL)?
The Dungeons and Dragons Open Gaming License was released with D&D 3e (Third Edition) in 2000. With the release of D&D 4e and a couple of years after the release of 5e, it received some minor adjustments. But it has, until now, been a short, liberal document permitting huge swathes of independent publishers of all sizes to use the D&D mechanics, species, classes, gear, spells, and monsters.
The livelihoods and careers of countless creatives are reliant upon it.
What is happening with the Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License?
Since the announcement of OneD&D (the latest revision of D&D's rules) in August 2022, complete with "good guy" PR videos like the one below, the D&D community has been concerned about Wizards of the Coast's and Hasbro's desire to tighten their grip on unofficial D&D content. These concerns gathered momentum after reports of NDAs, executive roundtables where D&D was declared "under-monetised", and less than ideal financials for Hasbro.
On January 5th, a journalist named Linda Codega published a shocking article in Gizmodo, listing apparent details of a new leaked D&D Open Gaming License, now known as OGL 2.0. To say that the new open gaming license went beyond the community's fears would be an understatement. At 9000 words, it is ten times the length of the original document.
Some of the changes are not particularly controversial, such as clamping down on bigotry, crypto, and NFT related ventures that could exploit the fanbase and damage D&D's reputation. The irony being the unprecedented reputational damage that the rest has caused.
With the analysis of a legal team, the document was found to contain far reaching consequences for those who create third-party D&D content. Most shockingly, the more restrictive licensing would retroactively end its previous gaming licenses. This, it can be assumed, would be to stop content creators from avoiding compliance by sticking with 5e rather than switching to OneD&D. As Forbes' Rob Wieland points out, this is to prevent D&D breaking off and becoming its own main competitor again.
A now-removed FAQ from Wizards of the Coast explained how D&D fans were safe to make content with the rationale that fans could do just that -- simply refuse to update to the latest D&D edition and continue making content under the old liberal license.
Yet it seems they believe they have found a loophole for a conundrum they once argued was inescapable.
The ethics and ethos of the new D&D OGL are not the only things being questioned. OG ex-Wizards of the Coast who authored the first OGL have been questioning the legitimacy of the change and a separate class action lawsuit has already been threatened via petition.
What will the apparent new Dungeons & Dragons OGL mean for the D&D community?
According to an analysis of the leaked document, the new OGL "significantly restricts the kind of content allowed and requires anyone making money under the license to report their products to Wizards of the Coast directly".
Creators will have to show badges, report their (new and old) products to Wizards of the Coast, have limitations on their crowdfunded projects, and consent to tiered-royalty systems. According to the leaked document, all commercial projects, whether profitable or not, are covered by the commercial agreement and will have to pay royalties of 20-25% on everything made above $750,000.
While there aren't many projects or individuals earning more than $750,000, this would likely deter the ambitions of crowdfunded projects. Moreover, creators of all sizes now have no confidence that these tiers may be lowered or scrapped, or indeed that their license could be revoked without even receiving a reason - Wizards of the Coast "can modify or terminate this agreement for any reason whatsoever, provided we give thirty (30) days' notice."
And in what could be the final nail in the coffin, Wizards of the Coast would get the right to use any content that licensees create -- be it commercial or non-commercial. The document states that Wizards of the Coast would have a "perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sub-licensable, royalty-free license to use that content for any purpose."
Fear of the above will no doubt lead to a great loss in innovation through the de-incentivisation of asset creation and the impoverishment of the D&D space as creators move to different systems entirely. Some are already on their way. Five days after Linda Codega's article, longstanding third-party producer Kobold Press announced that while they would continue their in-production 5e lines, they would run future projects on their own new RPG engine Project Black Flag. Paixo, the publisher of Starfinder and Pathfinder, announced their own liberal open-gaming license.
What's WoTC's Side of Things?
In December, before the leak, WoTC published an article on D&D Beyond saying that they wanted to "clear the air" for those "concerned by rumours and misunderstandings":
"Will the OGL terms change? Yes. We will release version 1.1 of the OGL in early 2023. The OGL needs an update to ensure that it keeps doing what it was intended to do---allow the D&D community's independent creators to build and play and grow the game we all love---without allowing things like third-parties to mint D&D NFTs and large businesses to exploit our intellectual property."
Still, the article concluded with reassurances:
"Bottom line: The OGL is not going away. You will still be able to create new D&D content, publish it anywhere, and game with your friends and followers in all the ways that make this game and community so great. The thousands of creators publishing across Kickstarter, DMsGuild, and more are a critical part of the D&D experience, and we will continue to support and encourage them to do that through One D&D and beyond."
The community was momentarily reassured, including the journalist Linda Codega. Just weeks before discovering the leaked OGL, she had written an article entitled "The Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License Isn't Going Anywhere". And then there was the leak, and Wizards of the Coast have apparently cast Silence on themselves.
What we may be witnessing unfolding is a shocking act of self-destruction by a once beloved company. It's hard to imagine that the boycotts, petitions, and dreadful publicity are going to be great for the ticket sales of the big-budget Dungeons & Dragons movie nor the just-announced TV series.
The leaked document suggests that WoTC were only going to give licensees 7 days (January 4th to January 13th) to choose whether to comply. At the time of publication, January 13th, the only public comment on the OGL since has been a tweet reading: "We know you have questions about the OGL and we will be sharing more soon. Thank you for your patience."
A WoTC press announcement set for yesterday (12/01) was cancelled. Part of the D&D Beyond website crashed not long beforehand reportedly because so many members had unsubscribed in protest. Waging a war against your own fans is rarely a good idea -- especially fans who regularly roleplay against-the-odds battles of wits against evil wizards.
We can only speculate on what comes next. Wizards of the Coast could stick with their guns and press on. Given the scale of the backlash, common sense dictates that they will at least scale down their changes. Though when it comes to Hasbro's decisions on beloved games, common sense seems very much in the eye of the beholder.
It seems extremely unlikely that the leak was faked. Though it is possible that it was only meant as a first draft of a final document. Even if this were the case, the fact that these lengths were considered is sufficient to tarnish Wizards of the Coast's reputation forever. Much of the damage is already done and irreversible. Without a complete change in management or the original OGL irrevocably enshrined in law, it's hard to see those once give-it-a-go heroes getting a redemption arc.
Linda's article is a great read for anyone looking for deeper insights into the changes. Wizards of the Coast were offered right of reply to Linda's piece but declined to answer specific questions about the leaked OGL document, instead directing her to the December D&D Beyond post we referenced earlier.
Update: A few hours after publication, WoTC published a post claiming that the leaked OGL was never meant to be a final draft. You can find their post here.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the MMOGames brand or team.