How an Open License Closed Dungeons & Dragons

An AI generated piece of artwork that shows a glow heart surrounded by chains.

Note: This is a reprint of a post that I published on Medium on January 20, 2023

Night of the Living Dead was an impressive testament to independent filmmaking. Made on a shoestring budget in 1968 using non-actors, the film’s rough edges and guerilla filmmaking contributed to the feeling that the audience was watching a zombie outbreak on the local news.

That film would end up making millions of dollars but due to an error from the distributor, the filmmakers wouldn’t see a dime. Evidently, when the distributor changed the name of the film from “Night of the Flesh Eaters” to “Night of the Living Dead”, they forgot to add a copyright statement. The lack of such a statement meant the film was classified as public domain. Thus the film was distributed without royalties. It would go on to make millions of dollars.

A picture of a bunch of zombies from the movie Night of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead not only defined a genre, but it was also a searing indictment of race relations of the time period.

It wasn’t the first time that a creative was screwed over due to licensing issues and with the start of 2023, Wizards of the Coast has shown it certainly won’t be the last.

“They Sue Regularly”

Dungeons and Dragons was released in 1973 when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published the very first edition from their new company, Tactical Studies Rules or TSR.

The company logo of TRS, The Game Wizards

Dungeons and Dragon proved to be a massive hit which resulted in scores of imitators. TSR was quick to sue anybody and everybody. People joked that TSR meant “they sue regularly”.

TSR would later be purchased by Wizards of the Coast (WOTC). With the release of D&D’s third edition, WOTC called for a legal “ceasefire” by publishing the Open Gaming License. The license was modeled after the open-source GNU Public License (GPL) that was used by projects like Linux. The OGL defined what could be used and more importantly, what WOTC considered legally safe.

A picture of the Systems Reference Document that details a Barbarian class.
The SRD (Systems Reference Document) provides a limited snapshot of the D&D rules that third parties may reference in their products.

With the OGL in place, WOTC then released a core set of the D&D rules under the OGL. This was known as the Systems Reference Document (SRD). The SRD meant any writer or publisher could reference those core rules in their own content so long as their content was also published under the OGL. This resulted in a rich ecosystem that allowed the game to thrive.

When D&D switched licenses for their fourth edition, the community continued to use the OGL. This resulted in the game system called Pathfinder which was considered a better version of D&D.

A picture of the cover of first edition Pathfinder Core Rules book. It shows a party of adventurers fighting a red dragon.
First edition Pathfinder was a direct by-product of the OGL and SRD.

With the fifth edition, D&D returned back to the OGL. 5e was an excellent system that gained widespread applause. It favored simplicity over “crunchy” stat-heavy mechanics. Shows like Critical Role showcased the game to a new generation of fans, exploding the game’s popularity.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

Paradigm Shift

At the end of 2022, WOTC released a simple blog post titled, “OGLs, SRDs, & One D&D”. It described some upcoming changes to the OGL. The post mentioned that the once simple OGL would now contain language about royalties, virtual tabletops (VTT), and platforms.

A picture of the blog post on D&D Beyond that announces a change in the OGL.
The blog post that launched a thousand replies and burnt the topless towers of tabletop fans.

At the start of 2023, Gizmodo published the article “Dungeons & Dragons’ New License Tightens Its Grip on Competition” which reviewed a leaked version of the upcoming license. In summation, the twenty-year cease-fire was over.

One of the biggest changes was the license aimed to “de-authorize” the previous version. That is, no new content would be allowed to be published using the OGL version 1.0a. It also defined an aggressive royalty structure as well as attempted to avoid the situation where companies like Paizo (the creator of Pathfinder) could use the OGL to create a competing product to D&D.

A poster of the 1990s edition of Night of the Living dead that show a column of zombies marching up a hill towards a lone house.
The creators of Night of the Living Dead rebooted the movie in 1990 in hopes of actually receiving royalties.

Like the creators of Night of the Living Dead, third-party publishers now faced losing all their hard work because of a slight change of language.

WOTC did walk back some of their language such as the royalty structure, but in doing so, they made clear their ultimate intentions. They no longer want to abide by the original OGL.

VTT creators have it worse when it comes to playing D&D online. With the new OGL, WOTC released a VTT policy that prevents a VTT from doing anything that can’t be accomplished at a real table. Things such as animation and line-of-sight calculations are now prohibited from using D&D content. Of course, if you require such features, you’ll need to use D&D’s official VTT which aims to be released in 2024.

On top of all this, websites, apps, or anything digital can only print static OGL content. Anything considered dynamic — such as searching and filtering — is prohibited. Six months ago, I could create a simple app to record my character progression. Now, I can’t.

The days of an open D&D are over.

A New Hope

The future isn’t so bleak. Paizo, in response to WOTC, indicated they would create their own license called the Open RPG Creative license or the ORC license. The ORC is meant to replace the OGL as well as be a perpetual and irrevocable license.

A picture of a Champion holding a sword out as if to attack. The logo reads, "Open RPG".
The ORC license aims to provide an open license that isn’t constrained by the financial needs of a lone company.

Paizo aims to fund the development of the license. This is an open development process with full buy-in from the community. Once it has been approved, Paizo intends to release it to a foundation so that no single company can control it. No one wants to repeat the OGL fiasco.

As a long-time D&D player, I can only say that the future of D&D is dim, but I don’t play D&D for the brand. I play it to tell collaborative stories with my friends and I can do that with any tabletop system. A lot of other players feel the same resulting in a huge influx of new Pathfinder players and other tabletop games.

So yes, the future of D&D may be waning, but the future tabletop gaming as a whole is shining brighter than it ever has been as former D&D players find new worlds to explore.

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