It’s now been almost two weeks since it leaked that Wizards of the Coast would be attempting to revamp the OGL and force publishers to use their new version — something previously considered impossible because Wizards has spent more than 22 years saying that the OGL was eternal. The new license, called OGL 1.1, was full of non-starters, including a ruinous 25% royalty for all earnings over three-quarters of a million dollars, the ability for Wizards to censor any book and require its destruction, and the ability of Wizards to use any IP published by anyone else under the OGL.
Two weeks later, this has become the worst PR disaster in the entire history of the roleplaying industry. Here’s a rundown of the major movements in the last few weeks. Please see the original article for more extended discussion of these contract points and why the original OGL may (or may) be revocable despite the stated intent of Wizards and many principals from the company at the time.
The leak of the OGL 1.1 on January 4 was fairly quickly verified as true. That verification most notably came from Jon Ritter, Director of Games at Kickstarter, who verified one of the most outlandish details in the license: that OGL 1.1 earnings over three-quarters of a million dollars would only require 20% royalties for Kickstarter earnings. That contract point apparently came courtesy of Ritter himself and came without any other benefit to Kickstarter (other than the fact that they suddenly become the de facto crowdfunding site of choice for any OGL-related product).
Meanwhile, Griffin Macaulay, who is likely to be one of the publishers on the hot seat since his two Kickstarters averaged about a million dollars each, went further, saying that any claim that the 1.1 OGL was a draft would be a lie, because: “That document was sent around with contracts attached.” So, the new “OGL” went out to actual publishers for signature before its leak. (In fact, major publishers were apparently being offered a “sweetheart” deal as far back as December, including dropping the astronomical royalty rate down to 15% or 20%, if they just signed on immediately, before the OGL 1.1 came out. No pressure.)
The entirety of the OGL 1.1 has also now been made available online.
Online, the public sentiment about the OGL 1.1 was quite negative from the start. Many of the numerous news articles that first appeared on geek, gaming, and comic news sites (before spreading to the mainstream) were likely written by D&D fans who were less than pleased. Social networks began to see posts with the #OpenDnD tag, which came courtesy of an open letter protesting the OGL 1.1. It was signed not just by many roleplaying fans, but also an equal number of creators. Ryan Dancey, the originator of the OGL, also got into the act, creating a petition on change.org.
The public was soon given a new way to protest courtesy of a note allegedly from an employee at Wizards working on D&D Beyond. Besides offering the damning claim that Wizards management never referred “to customers in a positive manner” (recalling the days at TSR when Lorraine Williams was in charge), it also stated that Wizards was watching D&D Beyond subscriptions as a metric for any pushback over the OGL 1.1 leak. A new #StoptheSub hashtag appeared, encouraging people to cancel their D&D Beyond subscriptions. The resultant unsubscriptions were so extensive that the D&D Beyond web servers crashed.
The Industry Responses
Wizards’ attack upon the OGL is unfortunately an existential threat to many publishers. Frog God Games may have said it best. After declaiming the OGL 1.1 as “wrong, in bad faith, and likely illegal”, they said that if it went through they would “have to stop production.”, to “lay off staff”, and to “cancel projects”; Wizards’ ability to censor any book and to steal any OGL IP were seen as the major problems.
They weren’t the only ones to say that Wizards’ changes might knock them out of the industry. Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games’ early response was similar, saying that his planned Labyrinth Lord 2e, a project begun in 2022, would be cancelled — though he was plotting out a way forward within the week. Troll God Games didn’t talk about closing down, but they were liquidating all their D&D 5e books because they didn’t want to be “beholden” to Wizards.
Other companies were willing to take a more aggressive tactic. Nord Games said there were willing to see Wizards of the Coast in court, which seems pretty daring given Wizards’ clear ability to make a court case extremely very costly. But, Nord Games said they weren’t the only ones willing to litigate the OGL changes.
Finally, there were some publishers who were largely unaffected, having moved from the OGL to other licenses and/or having focused on systems not ultimately based in D&D’s d20 mechanics. Even many of the surviving d20 supporters from the ’00s had moved on; for example at Green Ronin, Chris Pramas noted “Our house system these days is actually my Adventure Game Engine (AGE), which powers The Expanse, Blue Rose, Modern AGE, Cthulhu Awakens, Fantasy AGE, and The Fifth Season”. In fact, many non-OGL FRPG publishers were trying to capture the D&D discontent by offering deep discounts for their core game rules and starter books, including Chaosium’s Basic RolePlaying (2008), Troll Lord Games’ Castles & Crusades Players Handbook (2004), Kenzer & Company’s HackMaster Basic (2009), Chaosium’s RuneQuest Starter Set (2021), and likely many others.
Goodman Games was one of the few publishers still deeply embroiled with the D&D game itself to offer a neutral response, saying “We have reviewed the possible changes and determined that they will not impact our line of roleplaying games” and “Fans, don’t worry. We think we will all be just fine.” But Goodman Games has personal contracts with Wizards of the Coast for products such as their Original Adventures Reincarnated line, which is likely what exempts them from any upheaval.
The New FRPGs
For some FRPG-focused publishers, the answer was to move away from D&D so that they have no future allegiance to the OGL in whatever form it lands. Two publishers thus far have thought themselves big enough to make this leap. Kobold Press has announced Project Black Flag, a FRPG presumably set in their world of Midgard (their site was largely inaccessible after the announcement, likely due to load, showing the interest this whole saga is creating), while Matt Colville made a softer announcement that work was beginning on a MCDM RPG this week.
The OGL RPGs
Other publishers have FRPGs that are derived from D&D (or else retrocloned from older edition), and these games are likely in a trickier position because they’re ultimately dependent on the OGL through use of some D&D SRD. Labyrinth Lord is one of the already mentioned games in this position, and Proctor’s original position was that he might have to shut down the game.
Basic Fantasy RPG (2006), the B/X retroclone originally authored by Chris Gonnerman, is taking a different route by first expunging any direct SRD text from the game, en route to a fourth edition. This alone would be dangerous as just changing words doesn’t necessarily protect against the copyright of presentation. However, BFRPG is well ahead of the game because many of its tables which couldn’t be created algorithmically (and thus were more likely “presentation”) were long-ago created anew, and this is also just a first stage: Gonnerman and his team are also undergoing deeper work to remove any copyrighted presentation from BFRPG, such as carefully researching the origins of monsters to see which actually originated at TSR and which had older origins.
Meanwhile, other RPGs were using the OGL without dependence on any SRD, among them the d100-based Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game (2018). Arc Dream is simply removing the OGL from their books. Other publishers are likely to follow suit.
The New Open Licenses
Cutting out the OGL means there’s a need for a new open license, for those publishers that still want to share their game mechanics. The creative commons is a popular choice, already used by companies such as Evil Hat and Pelgrane and now being adopted by new projects such as Basic Fantasy.
However, other publishers see the advantage of games-specific licenses that can better adopt to the specifics of our industry. Thus, Solarian Games is one example of a company that has announced work on their own license, in their case for their “Lucky 13” game engine used in Top Secret: New World Order (2017).
The biggest new license is definitely Paizo’s system-neutral Open RPG Creative License (ORC). (Paizo’s site also became unresponsive during the first day after this announcement.) Because Paizo had already “decoupled” Pathfinder from the D&D SRD when they produced Pathfinder 2e (2019), they were no longer technically dependent on the OGL, so that made it easy for them to adopt a new license, just as with Delta Green and other games that had always been SRD-free.
The ORC is being written by Azora Law, who wrote the original OGL (along with all its flaws), it’s being funded by Paizo, and it’s being supported by a number of other publishers, including Kobold Press, Chaosium, Green Ronin, Legendary Games, and Rogue Genius Games. The idea is that any publisher can put their mechanical SRD under the ORC to allow others to access their mechanics. Of course the fact that it doesn’t include a D&D SRD will limit its usefulness for many of the companies already impacted by Wizards of the Coast, though perhaps a project like Black Flag or MCDM will be compatible enough to offset that. Much like Arc Dream, Paizo is already dumping the OGL from its upcoming products; they’ll replace it with ORC when the new license is ready to go live.
The Wizards of the Coast Response
Word was that Wizards was finally going to issue a response on Thursday January 12, but then it was delayed, possibly due to D&D influencers refusing to read the announcement, possibly due to plummeting D&D Beyond subscription numbers.
The response instead appeared on Friday January 13. It was from D&D Beyond, not Wizards proper. Exactly as Griffin Macaulay predicted, Wizards called the OGL 1.1 a draft and claimed they’d still been seeking feedback, though Macauley had already said that was a lie.
Although the response backed off on some of the most horrendous aspects of the OGL 1.1, such as the demand for royalties at a level that would knock publishers into bankruptcy and the ability for Wizards to steal any OGL content, Wizards seemed to double-down on their ahistoric claim that they could deauthorize the original OGL.
Wizards also did its best to look like the good guys by claiming that the OGL changes were all about creating an “inclusive” environment and fighting against evil “NFTs”. (In a short history of the OGL and response, Ryan Dancey noted that the OGL would never have been required to mint NFTs.)
Some fans were won over by Wizards’ marketing-focused response, but for many more, the boycott-Beyond initiative continues. As long as Wizards maintains their claim they can change the OGL on a whim, any other concessions are irrelevant.
The Mainstream Attention
By Friday January 13th, just more than a week past the original leak, the news hit The Guardian, who noted that Wizards was destroying the trust of their customers (over the relatively low revenues of the roleplaying industry) just as they were trying to capture a much larger money-making audience through a newly announced Dungeons & Dragons TV show.
So the whole OGL cataclysm may not just be the worst PR disaster in the history of the industry, but also the dumbest.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #75 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books. This story continues in “Is the OGL Era Over? (Part Three)”.