Dungeons & Dragons' OGL isn't worth fighting for

Dungeons & Dragons art of the dragon god Tiamat.
(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

Despite a damage-controlling apology from Wizards of the Coast in the wake of the disastrous reception to their planned update to the Open Gaming License, the conversation is very much not over. The company hasn't actually backed off from its plans for the OGL, instead moving forwards with a 1.2 version that will be "playtested" with the community, as part of a more transparent process open to feedback.

That's certainly a less objectionable situation than we were previously staring down the barrel of. The original plan seemed to be to simply impose new restrictions and royalties without discussion, and the new draft drops many of the most contentious elements of the leaked OGL 1.1 we saw originally. But, fundamentally, it isn't a return to the original OGL—in fact, it still retroactively deauthorises that license, and it still places increased powers in WOTC's hands. 

The D&D OGL drama in brief

  • The Open Gaming License has allowed other companies to make D&D-based products since 2000, without royalties or oversight.
  • An update to the license—OGL 1.1—was leaked. It revoked the original one—OGL 1.0—and imposed new restrictions as well as potential royalty payments.
  • Universal outrage from the community led WOTC to apologise and announce work on a new version—OGL 1.2.
  • OGL 1.2 removes many but not all of the contentious elements of 1.1, and still revokes OGL 1.0. 
  • WOTC has pledged to release the core D&D rules under a Creative Commons license—it claims that will cover material published before the new OGL.
  • The vast majority of the community still just wants OGL 1.0 to remain in place.   

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

What people fundamentally want is the freedoms they were already enjoying—to create content for D&D without the spectre of corporate overreach. To get something closer to that is going to take a serious fight between the community and Wizards of the Coast. More than likely that fight is simply unwinnable. Increasingly, I don't think it's a fight worth having.

As it stands, Dungeons & Dragons occupies a near monopoly over the tabletop RPG hobby. Wizards of the Coast makes an order of magnitude more money than any other company in the space. Thanks to the OGL 1.0, the game itself is ubiquitous—the majority of those other companies, if they're making any money at all, are making it from D&D-compatible products. In the wider culture, D&D is synonymous with role-playing as a concept—the terms are used interchangeably to the point that you've probably run into friends or family members unaware that TTRPGs other than D&D exist. 

Skyrim is popular, but imagine if almost all PC gaming was just Skyrim or Skyrim mods. Imagine if the majority of people had never played or perhaps even heard of any other PC games, and that the mainstream media saw Skyrim as the entirety of the industry. That's essentially where the TTRPG hobby has been at, on-and-off, since its inception.

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

Lots of great content has come out of the existing D&D ecosystem, and continues to every day, but it's a stifling status quo. Companies and individuals making other games are forced to the fringes, or have to make D&D content on the side to support themselves. Licensed settings such as Dark Souls and Doctor Who are contorted into entirely inappropriate 5e-compatible forms in order to find an audience. An entire hobby is shackled to a game full of rules and assumptions still deeply bound to decisions made 50 years ago—some of them simply clunky, others increasingly problematic.

Is that a situation worth fighting to protect? 

(Image credit: Wizards of the Coast)

What if, instead, we accept that WOTC is determined to alienate huge sections of its audience, and look at that as an opportunity rather than a problem? What if we put our energy towards supporting efforts like Paizo's new rival license, ORC, which now boasts support from over 1,500 companies, including Roll20, Pelgrane Press, and Chaosium? Or work to provide clearer gateways for frustrated D&D players to alternative games they might love?

Plenty of people love D&D, and I'm not here to challenge that. I've played my fair share of campaigns myself. But surely a healthier tabletop hobby, one we should be striving for, is one that allows for more genuine variety and creativity? The less companies are attracted to working alongside WOTC, the more opportunities there are for rivals to flourish. We've seen a glimpse of it before—during the 4e era, when WOTC used the restrictive Game System License instead of the OGL, it created room for Paizo and others to rise to prominence. 

Of course, Paizo itself wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the original OGL—and that's the other part of our equation. If that OGL is revoked, in theory it puts a lot of existing companies and their back catalogues in danger, whatever reassurances WOTC may give. But the question is, is that even a legally enforceable move?

(Image credit: Paizo)

The OGL 1.0 states, in plain language, that it cannot be revoked (a point Paizo has stated it is prepared to go to court over), but even beyond that, the use of D&D rules and concepts is not a clear cut copyright case. There is a credible argument to be made that TTRPG rules are not copyrightable, only the specific expression of them—many games that use the OGL may be doing so essentially as more of a professional courtesy than a legal obligation. And a lot of the game's iconic features aren't copyrighted at all—WOTC don't own the idea of a dragon that breathes fire, or a wizard that casts spells, or even a monster that disguises itself as a treasure chest, only certain specific names, terms, or incarnations of them. WOTC has promised to release its core rules under the highly permissive Creative Commons, but even if that ends up coming with a catch, it may not matter. The genie is, I suspect, already out of the bottle.

One way or another, we are at an inflection point for the hobby. We live in a time when the cultural clout of D&D is so high that we have a credible, big budget movie adaptation on the way, but the game's future feels more in the balance than ever. I don't see the value in uniting as a community behind the idea of making that future the same as now or worse. We can try for something better—something that WOTC can't wrap its grasping fingers around. 

Robin Valentine
Senior Editor

Formerly the editor of PC Gamer magazine (and the dearly departed GamesMaster), Robin combines years of experience in games journalism with a lifelong love of PC gaming. First hypnotised by the light of the monitor as he muddled through Simon the Sorcerer on his uncle’s machine, he’s been a devotee ever since, devouring any RPG or strategy game to stumble into his path. Now he's channelling that devotion into filling this lovely website with features, news, reviews, and all of his hottest takes.