Thinking on the OGL

Just a quick (not-so) little rant about the Open Game Licence, the Game System Licence, and whatever future licence is released by Wizards of the Coast for the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

This conversation keeps coming up. It’s rather interesting, as not every game company has a licence or System Reference Document for fan or 3rd party material. I know Fate has something and I believe 13th Age also has some sort of document. Other big name systems like the AGE, Fantasy Flight Game’s Star Wars, the Dark Heresy/ Rogue Trader/ Deathwatch serirs, and Shadow run do not have an SRD.

The primary reason for a new licence seems to be “because there used to be one.” Well, that and Hasbro/WotC’s propensity to send Cease & Desist letters.

Two Extremes

3rd Edition had the Open Game Licence and 4th Edition had the Game System License.

The former was incredibly open, letting anyone publishing a d20/D&D style game and giving access to many IP monsters with very few restrictions. From a business perspective, the OGL probably went too far, allowing people to print their own core books. This was arguably good from a consumer perspective, as it pushed WotC to really try and make the best version of D&D possible rather than just relying on fans having no choice but to upgrade. The existence of Pathfinder likely helped make 5e better, because the D&D team knew they had competition. But WotC likely doesn’t want to compete with itself again, or risk creating a second Paizo.

In contrast, the GSL was too restrictive. Not being able to reference page numbers or reprint mechanics made 3rd Party products harder to use, and forced creators to make up content when they would have otherwise used existing material. Not being able to reflavour or modify rules, and generally customize the edition was tricky, and made the niche products that 3rd Parties thrive on harder to produce. The format restrictions were also problematic, as it excluded web publishing such as blogs, forums, campaign manager sites, and the like. There were also the worrying provision that WotC could cancel or revise at any time and it was up to the publisher to look for changes, and published content that didn’t fit the revision had to be destroyed. It’s annoying to potentially have to destroy your back catalogue because WotC changed their mind.

I’m personally hoping for a middle ground between the OGL and the GSL. Something that lets publishers use the game, easily produce compatible products, reprint a limited amount of content, and customize the game. But a licence that also prevents them from releasing their own core rulebook, creating a competitive game, and the like.

However, this might still generate competition. Even without releasing an alternate PHB, Green Ronin became a larger RPG publisher. They moved from d20 products, to licensed material (Dragon Age and DC comics), and now have their own system and Intellectual Property. It’s easy for companies to build a reputation as a 3rd Party publisher and move into publishing their own stuff. Well… easier than starting with your own system.


I mention reprinting content above, because that’s super important. Just being able to make new content, namedrop things like the “carrion crawler”, or refer to mechanics like “advantage” are not enough. A licence needs to cover copying content from either the core rulebooks or the Basic PDFs.
Reprinting monsters is the most obvious example: copying a statblock for an adventure is handy. (Although, reference a page number can be just as useful, as you can have the adventure and monster book open at the same time.) Reprinting content really shines in other uses of monsters, such as copying a fighter power when making an NPC, making a variant monster such a nosferatu vampire, or reusing a monster power when creating a new critter with a familiar ability.

As an example, consider creating a monster that swallows its prey whole. This is a nice generic ability that several monsters could have, from a large dragon to a hideous extraplanar mouth. It’d be exceptionally useful to just be able to copy the ability from, say, the purple worm, verbatim, rather than have to write your own description. It’s easier for the DM at the table as the wording is familiar, easier for the designer as they can spend more time on other abilities, and easier on the editor so they do not need to check the power works the same way but is purposely phrased *slightly* differently, explicitly not repeating the published wording. (And its easier for the WotC legal team so they don’t need to check every 3rd Party product to see if they violated copyright but cut-and-pasting a power.)

As a writer, I like being able to reference the formatting of official text for style. Quite often they nail the arrangement of words for clarity and ease of understanding, so varying just makes things harder to read. Editing for clarity is hard enough without having to also revise to ensure you’re not accidentally plagiarizing WotC.

Beneficial Arrangement

There’s still a linger question: why should WotC even bother with a new licence? Other companies don’t bother, even noteworthy games such as Vampire: the Masquerade or Dark Heresy. And as Frog God Games/Necromancer Games has demonstrated, it’s possible for 3rd Parties to release 5e books using the existing OGL.

3rd Party products serve an important role for the game. WotC is a large publisher as far as RPGs are concerned and can only release products that target the largest percentages of their audience. Smaller publishers are able to survive on much smaller profit margins, often publishing as a hobby. 3rd Parties are able to release niche products to subsets of the audience otherwise being unsupported. This brings new people into the game, draws people who would otherwise ignore D&D into the ruleset. This in turn sells more core rulebooks.

It also seems like WotC is wary of bloat this edition, preferring to focus on adventures. 3rd Parties would provide a way for people who want more content to receive it (and thus remain interested in the game) without hurting the longevity of the official game.

WotC also seems to be licencing their adventures to other publishers, first Kobold Press and then Sasquatch Games. While there are probably a few other publishers (many with ex-WotC employees) who can be trusted to release 2nd Party adventures, that’s a very small pool and eventually schedules will come into conflict. Allowing new 3rd Parties to begin publishing increases the talent pool WotC can draw on for material. And rather than relying entirely on established names, a new licence would allow new talent to emerge and the next generation of game designers to establish their reputation while also being familiar with the nuances of 5e (rather than owing their success to another game or company). After all, Jeremy Crawford, Mike Mearls, and Rodney Thompson all either got their start with 3rd Parties or worked for 3rd Party publishers in the past. 3rd Parties become the farm team for WotC.

And a final reason some form of licence is needed by WotC rather than other RPG publishers is because WotC is much, much more litigious and protective of its Intellectual Property. More than other game systems, D&D is generic and encourages customization: creating your own world and story. Most other RPGs have an assumed setting or established lore; you can make your own backstory for Vampire the Masquerade but the game really assumes you’ll use their clans, the conflict between the Sabbat and Camarilla, the lore of Antediluvians and Caine, etc. Because it has the largest audience of any RPG, and because of this customization, there are more people creating and sharing homebrew D&D content. This is kinda sorta illegal, being a violation of both copyrights and trademarks, but is really hard to stop without enraging and alienating the people buying your books. Having an established licence gives WotC something to point their fans towards, and provides limits for fan content. This makes things easier on the legal department, as they don’t need to police everything and can prioritize common infractions. And it makes WotC cracking down on violations of the policy more forgivable and less, well, oppressive, as the rules are apparent and common knowledge.

Two Audiences

Having established that WotC would benefit from some form of licence it becomes apparent there are two different groups being served, and that their needs are very different. So what we really need is two different policies/licences: we need a commercial licence usable by those planning on creating content for sale and profit (by PDF, Kickstarter-ed physical books, or traditional publishing), and we need the non-commercial licence for people producing content for funsies. We need a policy for publishers and we need a policy for fans.

This was one of my larger problems with the GSL: it was this mass of legalese – which is very different from English and doesn’t always mean what you’d assume due to precedent – and didn’t cover people throwing content up on a blog or fan site. Fans wishing to produce content were directed towards the GSL, which really wasn’t designed for them.

We can wait on the 3rd Party licence. It’d be nice to get that sooner rather than later. But it doesn’t affect everyone. We do need a fan policy now, or as soon as possible. Fans need to know – in plain English – where the line for acceptable content ends.

Is posting a new subclass or subrace okay? Is posting details of your home game online? Is posting an adventure? Is reprinting monster stat blocks? Is updating an adventure from an older edition? Is updating races, classes, NPCs, spells, or magic items from an adventure or campaign setting okay? Is using proper names and trademarks of WotC permissible? Is using the trade dress of D&D, such as logos and appearance of monster stat blocks, allowed or discouraged?

ENWorld is operating assuming the adventure conversion licence released during 3.0 is still okay, and trusting WotC is alright with that. There are lots of blogs (mine included) releasing 5e content and hoping WotC doesn’t draw offence. Even stuff like the character generators being C+Ded would help if WotC prioritized a non-commercial policy.

For example, Paizo has two policies. They use the OGL for publishing. And they have a community use policy for their fans ( This policy allows fans to publish content using terms that are defined as “product identity”, including their campaign setting of Golarion, its gods, and the like. You can do some great stuff with the community use policy, but you cannot charge for anything (or, as learned, operate an e-store).
Explicitly being able to use campaign settings terminology would be a relief for the many fan sites for D&D’s assorted worlds.

Delayed Response

I remember when 4e was released I was antsy waiting for the “new OGL” to be released. It took what felt like forever. But, really, it was 7 business days after the books released: June 17th vs June 6th. (The fan site licence did take much, much longer though.) I was unemployed at the time, so I had too much free time to sit and glare at the computer while waiting for the release. It’s funny to think back at the month or so of longing, while it’s been five months since the PHB released and two months since the DMG dropped and still nothing. This was likely because they promised the licence would be released prior to the books and missed that deadline…

I imagine the delay with the GSL and with the current licence is the same: wrangling between Hasbro and WotC’s legal departments. The latter being somewhat removed from the nuances of RPG game publishing and the former likely having no idea at all. WotC is first a foremost a CCG company, and their lawyers are likely much, much more familiar publishing card games, which is very different from D&D. The idea of allowing fan to legally make Magic cards is weird, let alone 3rd Parties release sets.
You likely have the D&D team saying what they want out of the policy and sending that to the WotC lawyers, who then poke away at it when they have free moments between their real job of handling Magic and Duel Masters’ concerns. Then they send it back to the D&D team to approve, who likely make changes and send it back to legal. Once that’s hashed out between the two departments it’s likely sent to the first layer of management who wants to make changes and justify their managerial authority starting the cycle again. When those three are happy it goes to the second layer of management. Repeat. From there things move to the Hasbro legal team, who is even less likely to prioritize the document. They make changes and slowly the document works its way back to the D&D team. That whole cycle likely takes a good month or two. And every time plans for D&D change, those changes have to be incorporated into the licence and things are delayed again.

For example, the D&D team is planning to release the genasi and other Elemental Evil content as a free PDF on its website. Should that be “open” in terms of the licence? Bam! Two month delay while we wait for the revision to be rubber stamped.

Rambling Man

This started as a short forum post and quickly ballooned in size. As someone writing content, both for this blog and for a Ravenloft fan site, I’d really like to know what I can safely do and what will see me hit with a C+D.

And I’m sure I’m not alone.