D&D’s Use of the Creative Commons is Both Good and Bad for the Community

Note: This is a reprint of a post that I published on Medium on February 2, 2023

The new year started with a bombshell for players of the popular tabletop game, Dungeons & Dragons. In December of 2022, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), owner and publisher of D&D, announced a new version of their Open Gaming License (OGL). In January of 2023, someone leaked the draft to Gizmodo, creating quite the fanfare.

Wizards of the Coast sitting on their massive pile of gold. AI image created by Midjourney.

Linda Codega’s bombshell article detailed the license changes and it wasn’t pretty. This new OGL declared a non-exclusive royalty-free license. This means WOTC could use any content created with the OGL without compensation. It also described a twenty-five percent royalty structure over a low-income threshold. Finally, it revoked the previous license, forcing their parties to use the new license. For many small publishers, the new royalty structure was tantamount to bankruptcy.

This new license incensed the tabletop community. In a matter of days, the community responded with a boycott of D&D Beyond along with a savage social media campaign. WOTC lost thousands of D&D Beyond subscriptions and in due time, the media took notice.

After a week of silence, WOTC responded with another version of the OGL. It removed some of the nastier provisions, but it was still poorly received by the community. WOTC released a survey in hopes of community feedback. The feedback was direct and to the point. In less than a week, WOTC reverted their stance. Except, they did something nobody quite expected.

They released the Standard Reference Document under the Creative Commons license.

This single act took the community by surprise and may have changed it for good. The dragon it seemed had just opened its vaults. Yet, as Kit Walsh wrote for the Electric Frontier Foundation, “beware the gift of dragons”. This was true about the OGL and it is most certainly true about Creative Commons.

Or, as another quote states: Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

A Viral License

In 1999, WOTC created the OGL as a ceasefire to the tabletop community. I recently wrote about it in another article. The OGL defined a “safe haven” for third-party publishers without fear of litigation. Back in the 80s and 90s, TSR, the original creator of D&D, sued third-party creators with gumption. TSR was so overprotective of its brand, people joked that the company’s full name was “they sue regularly”.

When WOTC acquired the D&D brand in the 90s, Ryan Dancey was tasked with creating the OGL. Dancey took his inspiration from the open-source/free software movement. At the time, open source was making the news. Linux was both taking over the server as well as the stock market. Both Red Hat and VA Linux achieved massive gains until the dotcom boom of the early 2000s.

For a brief time in the 1990s, Linux companies were the darling of Wall Street.

Linux uses a license called the GNU Public License (GPL). The GPL stipulates that any software created with the license must provide the source code. That way, any person can modify the software, rebuild it, and even re-distribute it.

More importantly, the GPL stipulates that any code that uses GPL code must also be licensed under the GPL. For example, if you make a million-dollar game that uses a small bit of code to show the date, that entire codebase is now GPL licensed.

Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft at the time, famously declared that the GPL was like cancer due to its viral nature.

Maybe so, but the end result was a rich ecosystem of software. When you visit a website — even this website — you are most likely interacting with software licensed by the GPL.

Linux made a huge impact in the world TTRPGs by way of licensing. Photo by Luis Lopes

Ryan Dancey incorporated the “viral” aspects of the GPL into the OGL. This means, if you include OGL work in your project, then your project MUST be licensed under OGL.

Like the GPL, the OGL created a rich ecosystem. Third-party creators now could interact with other third parties in a way that benefited them both. The OGL was so successful other tabletop systems not related to D&D adopted it.

While the SRD provides all the core rules to D&D, it’s essentially a “dry” technical document.

With the creation of the OGL, WOTC also released the Systems Reference Document (SRD). This four-hundred-page document contained a D&D’s rules, spells, monsters, and items. It was free to download. Being released under the OGL, anyone who referenced the SRD opted into the license.

Effectively, third-party publishers could write content for the SRD. This content was guaranteed to work for D&D’s expanded rules detailed in WOTC’s premium books.

By doing this, WOTC ensured a rich third-party market for their game. It also set firm litigation rules that were sorely missing in the 80s and 90s. It was truly a cease-fire agreement so that everybody could profit.

Unfortunately, by trying to retroactively change the OGL, WOTC called off that ceasefire. WOTC feels that OGL limits its control of the market. For instance, their main competitor Paizo is a direct result of the OGL.

It’s clear that the upper management of WOTC has no love for the license. So they caught the community by surprise when they placed the SRD under the Creative Commons.

Some found this step to be humorous since the names of some of their most popular IP was released under this license. Funny yes, but make no mistake. This was a very shrewd and calculated move that signals a course change away from the OGL for good.

The Future of the OGL

The open secret is that the fifth edition is not long for this world. D&D One is currently in playtest. When the play test wraps up, it is fully expected to be rebranded as D&D Sixth Edition. For all intents and purposes, Fifth Edition is over. WOTC has maximized the value proposition of the SRD under the OGL. Putting the existing SRD under Creative Commons will have little impact.

In short, WOTC gets good press. But that’s not the sole reason. Using the Creative Commons Attribution License removes the viral property of the OGL. No longer are third-party creators forced to share their work.

The end result may be almost the same as revoking the OGL. After twenty years of collaboration, third-party publishers can return back to their castles.

Publishers can still opt to use the OGL, but uncertainty has been added to the community. People can no longer assume that content is open. Rich ecosystems like Foundry VTT will suffer for it.

Paizo is trying to address this issue with its own Open RPG Content (ORC) license. It remains to be seen what that license will contain and whether it makes an impact in the tabletop market. During an interview, Eric Mona, the Chief Creative Officer at Paizo mentioned that he’d be happy with just another copy of the OGL. With 1,500 publishers giving feedback though, it’s quite probable the license will be different.

The last twenty years has shown the wonderful impact of open gaming. Let’s hope the next twenty with the ORC will be just as impactful.

By Brian Moakley

Brian Douglas Moakley is a writer and technologist who lives amongst the quiet hills in New England. When not reading tales of high adventure, he is often telling such stories to all who will listen.

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