OGL, Licenses, Oh My

Well, what a furore. Who had on their bingo card for 2023 an uproar over an RPG license which is over twenty years old? Not me for sure.

There are many people who are better versed in the law, or who have much more experience in these matters than me, and I’ll provide links to great resources throughout.

But I have published one game under the OGL 1.0a and when creating the Retrospective SRD (System Reference Document) just before this kicked off I was weighing up whether to use the well known OGL or the CC-BY license as used by Fate and Forged in the Dark, both by Evil Hat. I chose CC-BY and I’m very glad I did so.

What is the OGL?

It stands for Open Gaming License, and as I understand it was created with the idea that it would prevent D&D from disappearing if everything went pear shaped with WotC.

In 1997 TSR was in dire straights as documented in 2000 by Ryan Dancy here: https://www.enworld.org/threads/ryan-dancey-acquiring-tsr.661632/

Third edition D&D was a huge success, but that wasn’t guaranteed. What if a company bought the rights and buried it? Could anyone then publish anything around or for it? TSR had been notoriously litigious in its day if I recall correctly.

The OGL was inspired by and based on existing open source licenses to make the mechanics freely available while keeping some elements private to WotC. It would enable WotC to take great new ideas from other people and incorporate them, while everyone can build on the great ideas of everyone else.

I know that people look at it now and characterise it as an “evil license designed to lock people into the D&D ecosystem” but honestly at the time it was a breath of fresh air, and it kickstarted a number of companies which have since grown to become successful in their own right. I’m a tiny publisher, but it made me think that I could legitimately base a game on the elements of an existing property which I liked.

What’s the problem?

Intended to be a perpetual license, it turned out that they didn’t use the term ‘irrevocable’ and now Wizards/Hasbro lawyers have said that because it doesn’t use that word they are in their rights to revoke it so it doesn’t exist any more. (Open source licensing have included this term for many years but it wasn’t in play back when the OGL was drawn up).

In addition, the new ‘OGL’ license they were working on was leaked to Linda Codega who wrote about it in Gizmodo on 5th January, breaking the news about ruinous royalty payments for very successful games (25% on revenue not profits over 750k), assuming ownership of all IP and revoking the well known OGL 1.0 to stop people using it. https://gizmodo.com/dnd-wizards-of-the-coast-ogl-1-1-open-gaming-license-1849950634

Can they do this? Lawyers have differing opinions, and it probably would need to go to court to find out for sure. Cory Doctorow has written an interesting assessment of the whole matter on Medium here: https://doctorow.medium.com/good-riddance-to-the-open-gaming-license-8902f4aa69d2

Of course, the TTRPG world has not been silent about this. There has been an uproar, and one that has cost the Hasbro bottom line too as people started cancelling their “D&D Beyond” subscriptions.

Wizards remained suspiciously silent for a long time, and then rowed back on some of their plans - but it doesn’t seem like all of them.

What comes next?

One way or another, it seems that they have demolished 22 years of goodwill, and a number of companies that used to use the OGL are now setting out to form their own equivalent Open RPG License led by Paizo https://paizo.com/community/blog/v5748dyo6si7v?Paizo-Announces-SystemNeutral-Open-RPG-License

Many companies like Evil Hat seem to have settled on one of the Creative Commons licenses: https://www.faterpg.com/licensing/licensing-fate-cc-by/

In particular they are using the CC-BY license. As the Creative Commons says “This license lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.” You can read more about the licenses here: https://creativecommons.org/about/cclicenses/

Personally I like this as a license, and CC-BY is what I’m using for my Retrospective SRD and all future work. I’ll also see how I can retrofit it to Starguild.

Whatever else happens, it is interesting times for the TTRPG community, and a worrying one for those who have been producing a lot of D&D supporting material. My very best wishes go out to those folks, and I hope they can ride out the storm.

Cover photo from Pexels