On January 4th, 2022, a document leaked from the Wizards of the Coast offices. It revealed details of a new draft of the Open Gaming License and introduce some major modifications. To say these changes did not go over well would be a gross understatement. The community of third-party content creators picked up their pitchforks and keyboards and rallied, but what’s the big deal?
I recently discovered a respectable portion of the D&D community didn’t entirely understand what was going on. Not all DMs try to sell their homebrew adventures, and most players just show up for weekly games. They have no idea what an OGL or SRD is. Many had never even heard of the DMs Guild, so I want to fix that.
In this article, I’ll be going over the history of the OGL up to this point. It will summarize why it was created as well as its impact on the community. I hope to provide a wide perspective on why the Open Gaming License is so important to so many people.
This will be the first in a series of articles discussing the current controversy. The next article in the series dives into the specific events leading up to the document leaked on Jan. 4, 23. Before you completely understand why changing the Open Gaming License is so controversial, you need to understand what the OGL is.
Where did the OGL come from?
OGL stands for Open Gaming license. This document gives third-party content creators legal access to use and sell some official D&D content. WotC (Wizards of the Coast) published the OGL in 2000 to outsource the production of Dungeons and Dragons adventure modules. They understood that D&D needed to be more than the core rule books. DMs needed settings, quests, NPCs, and storylines. Unfortunately, those books aren’t cheap or easy to make.
It takes time and money to produce quality adventures. Furthermore, these smaller books generally do not generate substantial income. Between paying writers, artists, printers, and distributors profit margins were narrow. Which makes the production a risky proposition. If these adventure books and supplements didn’t sell well, the chances they could cover the cost of production were low. Wizards of the Coast could easily lose their investment.
Eventually, WotC found a way to offset that risk, the fans. At the time, the people in charge understood their core audience. They understood that Dungeon Masters loved crafting their adventures. DMs also wrote new rules and mechanics for their unique settings and stories. Why not let them publish their work?
The OGL allowed homebrewers to write and sell the types of books WotC found risky. It was a fair deal. It isn’t nearly as risky for an individual person to try to sell a Zine at local game stores. At that time, most homebrewers weren’t trying to produce and ship in bulk. The internet was still young, so distribution happened locally or through catalogs. Wizards of the Coast, on the other hand, would need to print bulk orders for mass distribution. The core rule books were the company’s bread and butter, so allowing third-party content creators to handle the less profitable books allowed WotC to focus on the principal product.
What is an SRD?
Just as important as the OGL, is the Service Reference Document, SRD. The OGL allows third-party homebrewers to sell some of the original D&D content, but not everything. The SRD is a list of rules, names, and mechanics. The OGL points to the SRD and says, “this is the stuff you can use”. Rolling for initiative, spells, classes, and character creation populate the SRD.
On the other hand, brand-specific things were excluded from the Service Reference Document. For instance, artwork, official D&D logos, and some iconic monsters critical to the brand and marketing remain off-limits. That’s why the Beholder will not be found in the SRD or any third-party content. That creature is just too “D&D” to let anyone else use, or misuse it.
Another notable exclusion, material coming out of official supplements. NPC or official settings also remain strictly under the control of Wizards of the Coast. This part of the IP may only be published in official books or through special and individual contracts (i.e. movie or merchandising rights). Wizards of the Coast wants to retain control over that content, and rightly so. They made it, they should be able to sell it.
The SRD deals primarily with game mechanics. It gives third-parties access to the core rules so they can craft and sell their monsters, locations, and adventures.
And the community got to crafting!
Was it successful?
With the explosion of content on the market, popularity grew. Keep in mind, the OGL draft came out in 2000 and for 3rd Edition. Nerdy stuff was still a bit of a taboo back then. The satanic panic may have run its course, but it wasn’t forgotten. My dad still didn’t want me playing that evil game filled with demons and spells.
(Dad came from a rural community in Mexico and was very catholic. I still played my TTRPGs, but I told him it was Risk. A board game about invading countries with conquering armies. I don’t know if he bought it, or if he turned a blind eye because his nerdy kid at least has some friends. Either way, the dice kept rolling!)
The 2000s didn’t see the same D&D explosion it would one day experience in 5e, but it definitely flourished under the OGL. WotC unloaded the production of risky books to a huge community of content creators. Indie game developers dispersed the financial risk associated with adventure modules through their massive numbers. These adventures still required the official D&D core rule books, so Wizards of the Coast profits grew as the indie books expanded the brand. The rule books, even supplemental books, earn a better return on investment. With the expanding audience generated by third-party content, they sold well.
The 4th Edition, and why no one talks about it.
Third-party content sold well, very well. Eventually, Wizards of the Coast saw the money being generated by the community and decided they wanted to have a bigger piece of that pie. They released 4th edition. At that time the current OGL and the SRD only covered the rules from 3rd edition, so instead of updating the document to include the new rules, they tried their hand at something different, the Game Service License, GSL.
This new (and very different) license was designed to give WotC more control over the content but received heavy criticism from indie creators. They felt the GSL was too limiting, too hard to use, and too restrictive. In short, they didn’t want to make content for D&D 4e because they lacked incentive. They couldn’t make quality content with the GSL. They wouldn’t be able to effectively sell their modules because of the new restrictions, so why bother?
Instead, the community continued working on 3e content. Which turned into a death sentence for 4e. If anyone ever questioned whether or not the OGL helped build D&D’s popularity, the destruction of 4e settled the matter. WotC shifted its attention to new products and stopped producing new content for its earlier editions, but the community didn’t. They kept making and playing 3e content. The new edition’s most serious competitor was its predecessor.
Many hobby enthusiasts criticize 4e mechanics and play style. Plenty of people played it and found it wanting, but plenty of people enjoyed it as well. I won’t try to settle whether 4th Edition was a good product. It doesn’t matter. In the end, the majority of the fans stayed with 3e. Without WotC producing content for its earlier editions, third-party content became the only way to find new material.
The Rise of Paizo, The Rise of Pathfinder
Without any competition in the 3e market, a small publishing company saw a big opportunity. Paizo started off publishing a magazine offering DMs useful content under the OGL in 2002. When 4e and its GSL hit the scene, they built Pathfinder. They used the OGL and the D&D 3.5e rules as a base for their own rule book.
Paizo provided the community with what they wanted, a fun game with plenty of homebrew content. WotC deciding to halt the use of the OGL in new content was like giving Paizo a sword to kill 4e. All they had to do was write quality games and let third-party content creators write Pathfinder adventures. WotC turned away from that strategy despite its success and paid the price.
5e, The OGL Strikes Back!
In 2014, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition drops, and it brings back the OGL. The powerful marketing tool used to leverage thousands of DM’s love for the game gets updated to include 5e content. A new generation of homebrewers begins churning out adventure modules, supplementary rule books, and magical items. The popularity of D&D explodes!
When the Open Gaming License first launched, I still used America Online to access the internet, but when 5e debuts, Facebook, Reddit, and downloadable PDFs changed the way we consumed the written word. One Bookshelf provided a platform for indie tabletop game publishers and industrious Dungeon Masters to sell their work. The internet had matured and expanded the reach of these indie game developers, and the hobby transformed.
There are a lot of other factors that helped popularize Dungeons and Dragons. The game design was solid, and the marketing team handled the IP well, but there is no doubt that the plethora of options provided by community made content elevated the adventuring experience. Would Critical Roll have developed into the powerhouse it is today if they couldn’t sell their settings and campaigns? It at the very least helped.
Present Day, DnD apocalypse
Now we see Wizards of the Coast making the same mistakes they did with 4e, but somehow they found a way to compound their blunder. My next article will dive into these mistakes. I will attempt to summarize what we know led to specific decisions and who the key players are. The OGL is at the center of the outcry, but it may not be the heart of the problem.
Until then, keep hope alive and keep rolling those nat20s. We’ll get through this one way or another.
Wizard Respite Regulars
Zachariah Van Sluyters from Old Man Gaming and Ash Alder from the Wizard’s Respite live-streamed a playthrough of the The Last Tea Shop.