Pathfinder's answer to the Open Gaming License, dubbed the Open RPG Creative License or ORC License, has been completed and released for public use. Created in direct response to Wizards of the Coast's pretty nefarious attempts to clamp down on the use of its Open Gaming License to its own profit, the ORC license is designed to be "a system-agnostic, perpetual, and irrevocable open gaming license" that allows any game to create a safe environment for collaboration.
The Dungeons & Dragons OGL controversy
- For over 20 years, the Open Gaming License has allowed other companies to make D&D-based products freely.
- In January, Wizards of the Coast tried to introduce a new OGL that gave them royalties and greater control, and revoke the old one.
- The community reaction was so universally negative that WOTC ended up having to completely abandon the idea.
- WOTC ultimately left the original OGL in place and also released the latest version of the D&D 5e rules under a Creative Commons license.
Even though WOTC u-turned on its OGL plans, the damage was already done. Any company existing as part of the wider D&D ecosystem—whether producing its own games using elements of D&D's rules, or D&D-compatible adventures, across any edition of the game past and present—was forced to take stock. Suddenly basing your business' future on trust in WOTC's ongoing intentions seemed foolhardy, and many companies began work to break their links with the OGL completely—for the most part by revising or rewriting their products to no longer be beholden to it.
Into that chaos, Pathfinder publisher Paizo launched development of its high profile ORC License, backed by a huge "alliance" of other tabletop companies who pledged to use it. It's a direct rival to OGL, intended to give the industry a new, safe license to rally around. So now that it's finally here, how does it actually work—and what impact can we expect it to have?
The ORC License explained
Rather than being tied to a specific system, the ORC License is intended to work for any RPG. Once a publisher releases their game under the license, its system and mechanics are then covered, allowing other creators to use those elements in their own work without fear of any legal issues. It also explicitly works in perpetuity—in other words, once something is released under the license, it's covered by it forever. That's a pretty direct rebuttal to WOTC's attempted OGL changes, which were widely criticised for attempting to retroactively alter an agreement that was originally presented as irrevocable.
To cement that further, the license itself is not owned by Paizo—it has been released into the public domain, meaning that any company is free to use it, but no company, present or future, has any direct control over it. Even if Paizo completely changed its intentions overnight, by design the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
It's a remarkable gesture on Paizo's part—given the legal work involved here (performed by Azora Law), a not insignificant amount of time and money will have gone into this document, and the publisher is putting it into the public domain for free. What the ORC License is ultimately intended to do is foster and protect at a new scale the very culture of collaboration that Pathfinder itself grew out of. There's certainly some self-interest to it—Paizo is D&D's most direct rival, and clearly stands to benefit from a world where WOTC's grip is lessened even mildly. But it is also a case of a company very directly putting its money where its mouth is over its principles, hoping to shape the whole industry's future for the better.
How do open licenses for RPGs work?
- An open license makes a game's rules free for others to use in their own commercial work—whether that's an adventure, a supplement, or a new game.
- Typically open licenses only cover rules—they don't give access to a game's setting or characters. For example, you can use D&D's classes and spells, but not Neverwinter or Mindflayers.
- Usually games with open licenses will release an SRD, or System Reference Document—a free release of just the game's rules, as a clear reference for what material is usable.
- It's often argued that a game's rules are not copyrightable anyway. This has some legal basis, but there's enough ambiguity to make it unsafe to rely on. A license provides far greater security—as well as allowing you to reuse the exact wording of the original rules, which is copyrightable.
The possible impact of ORC
So, what are the actual effects of the ORC License likely to be? Well, the concept here isn't entirely new. Publishers have created their own individual open licenses specific to their products over the years, or released their games under a Creative Commons license—and we have seen some of the effects.
Obviously D&D is the main example—during the era of 3rd edition particularly, the OGL allowed a huge ecosystem of third-party publishers to build up around the game. It's a symbiotic relationship—being able to piggyback on D&D's popularity allows publishers to reach a huge audience for their products, and in turn the huge availability of products for the game feeds into that popularity. For better or worse, the OGL is a huge part of the reason why D&D has been able to become so dominant in the industry.
At the other end of the scale, we've seen smaller games able to extend their influence in a similar way. Landmark indie RPG Apocalypse World's equivalent of a license is a fairly vague online policy statement, but it was enough to spawn a huge and still growing range of "Powered by the Apocalypse" games, each of which has pushed the mechanics in new directions and into new genres. PbtA has ended up shaping much of the style and philosophy of modern narrative-driven play, through games such as Monsters of the Week, Dungeon World, and City of Mist. We're now even into a second generation: Blades in the Dark, for example, grew out of PbtA-driven design, and has become so popular in its own right that it has its own popular Forged in the Dark license, which has fueled yet further innovation.
But a lot of this collaboration to date has been based on shaky foundations. Among indie creators, much of it simply works on trust, or existing Creative Commons licenses that don't cover any of the specifics of RPG design; larger publishers have had to create their own specific licenses, each using their own legal frameworks. The potential of the ORC License is in creating a universal default—a freely available license that everyone already understands, based on commonly accepted principles, with a strong enough legal foundation to ensure creators can feel fully secure investing their time and resources into projects using it.
If widely adopted, it could hugely encourage publishers to make their systems open, and creators to work with those systems, allowing many more games to expand beyond their original means. For us as consumers and players, the potential benefits are huge. It means more supplements and adventures for your favourite games; more opportunity for growth and innovation in the hobby as creators build on each others' work; greater freedom for virtual tabletops to integrate different game systems; and more opportunity for smaller publishers to actually begin to compete with D&D and its enormous level of support.
But will it be widely adopted? Well, that's harder to say—but I think the wind is blowing in its favour. Not only is it backed by one of the biggest RPG publishers in the business, Paizo's "alliance" is huge—if those signed up to it stick to their word, you can expect games as diverse as Call of Cthulhu, Fantasy Age (the system behind the Dragon Age RPG), Mutants & Masterminds, and Numenera to start using the ORC License, and that's a pretty promising opening salvo. The roll call also includes most of the major virtual tabletops, such as Roll20 and Foundry VTT, which have only grown in importance as more and more players take their campaigns online—and stand to benefit from being able to freely build more game systems into their platforms.
I don't expect the ORC License to be met with much resistance, either—though it's pushing the concept to a new level, this kind of open licensing is an idea many RPG creators are already comfortable with and supporting. The D&D OGL controversy shone a brighter light on the idea than ever, engaging the community in the discussion and raising questions about what they want to see in open licenses—created in the aftermath of that, and with a lengthy period of community feedback, the ORC License has been able to cater directly to what people have demanded.
And, apart from everything else, it represents a banner for WOTC's competitors, large and small, to rally around. D&D is enjoyed by huge amounts of people all over the world, and that's great—but the dominance of that one game over the hobby has been unhealthy for a long time, stifling creators unable or unwilling to live in its orbit. For Paizo, any stand against D&D is its own reward—but in giving smaller creators a clear gathering point, it could be a step towards a future where they're able to combine their strengths and compete for a fairer industry. The result could be a more diverse and interesting hobby for all of us.