Casting confusion on the third-party market: The storm around the Dungeons & Dragons OGL
Over the past ten years, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) has grown from a relatively small hobby, whose following has been steady but varied in size, into a massive phenomenon with millions of active players around the world. Much of this success is attributed to that D&D has been featured prominently in the wildly popular TV show Stranger Things, in which even the monsters used the same name as a classic creature in D&D, to the emergence of the fantastically successful streaming show Critical Role.
However, there has been an additional, if more discreet, part of D&D’s increase in fame: a veritable horde of enthusiasts who devote endless time to writing material for the ruleset and sharing this with other members of the community.
Those who sell D&D content this way are commonly known as third-party creators. Their material is sold in a variety of formats, from homemade PDFs that can be purchased directly from a website to thick tomes with professional layout and commissioned artwork that are available in bookshops.
The amount and quality of third-party content have increased as D&D has become more well-known, and it is generally believed that this has contributed to the rise of D&D in the world of roleplaying games. But due to recent developments around the Open Gaming License, also known as the OGL, the situation for third-party publishers looks set to change.
Why is the OGL important
The OGL is what allows third-party creators such as ourselves to sell content that draws closely on the rules of D&D. In short, the OGL is an agreement that was launched by the creators of Dungeons & Dragons over 20 years ago, and it permits people to write and sell new material for D&D. This material includes adventures, lore, modules, rules, monsters, non-player characters, and so on.
Thanks to the OGL, it can be sold in a format and with specific texts that make the material very straightforward for a person who runs a D&D campaign (a Dungeon Master, or DM for short) to use. For example, rules, expressions, and descriptions can be used verbatim, and the layout of tables can be similar.
Normally, doing this would be a clear case copyright infringement, but because of the OGL, and its associated Standard Rules Document, which is packed with information from the official rulebook, creators have a lot of liberty to dream up their own ideas for D&D and sell them to other DMs. Better still, the OGL was written to be permanent, and its wording was shaped with the specific intent to safeguard the licence from future interference. Fast-forward two decades and there are currently thousands of creators who do this, and notably, some of these have set up entire companies with employees.
What has happened
In early January 2023, it was revealed that Wizards of the Coast, the producers of D&D, planned to change the OGL, and the revelation did not happen through an official statement but because of a leaked document. This document contained a thoroughly revised version of the OGL along with comments that explained and exemplified the changes. It is still unknown who leaked the document, but its contents and the imminent changes to the licence were first made known by the website io9, a large outlet of news about fantasy, science fiction, and pop culture.
Given the many instances of causal language used in the text, many initially thought that the leaked document was either fake or, at best, a draft. However, within days, the Head of Gaming at Kickstarter entered the discussion and confirmed that the text was indeed authentic. Some of the changes included the introduction of percentages of revenue that third-party creators needed to pay to Wizards of the Coast, the right of Wizards of the Coast to use the creators’ material in a number of ways without compensation or notification, and a dramatic limitation to what media the creators could use to present their content. The document also stated that the licence was set to change only a few days after the day when the leak was reported.
It was soon rumoured that the document in question had been circulated to a select group of third-party content creators together with a contract that they were encouraged to sign. These contracts allegedly offered the creators in question to sign up for deals that were advantageous compared to staying under the upcoming and changed OGL. Based on this information, many other creators inferred that the changes would have been come into effect with little warning.
The news landed in the D&D community like a fireball in a moon-sized hornets’ nest. This explosion of displeasure was unsurprising, as the changes as presented in the leaked document would have made it complicated to sell third-party material in general, and also put many large creators out of business entirely.
Social media – most prominently Twitter – was ablaze with outrage within hours as DMs and players alike took to their keyboards to vent their anger and disappointment. Several tags associated with the leak climbed onto the “trending” list and parked there for days – and some of them are still there. Online news outlets quickly picked up on the incident and started to report on the situation. At the time of writing this, even large newspapers such as The Guardian have covered the leak – as well as The Motley Fool, an important resource and news source for many investors.
There was a widespread demand for a clarification, but no updates or comments on the alleged leak was head from Wizards of the Cost for many days. This was largely interpreted as further verification that the document was genuine, which only served to ramp up the general ire.
Finally, when a comment on the storm was published by Wizards of the Coast, the storm turned into a full-on hurricane. This was due to several different reasons, including the tone used in the response. For example, the leak was claimed to be a draft, even though it had been confirmed that the document had been sent out together with contracts, and many of the proposed reasons for the changes could be addressed without changing the original licence. Lots of people also found that the response was an example of gaslighting, as it ignored preceding events or existing conditions. A call for people to unsubscribe from D&D Beyond, an online service that can be used for character creation and looking up rules, resulted in tens of thousands of subscription being cancelled.
At present, the OGL has not yet been changed, and no timeline has been announced – but it has been confirmed that the licence will be updated at some point. In a follow-up response published by Wizards of the Coast, it is explained how many of the changes proposed in the leaked document will be rolled back. However, social media is still teeming with mistrust, fuelled by a trickle of rumours about cagy behaviour and other potential negative changes that might be on the horizon. This debacle may not have a great impact on a casual player, but it has united a large part of the D&D community around a campaign to ensure that the original version of the OGL remains intact and will be in effect indefinitely. It has also had huge impact on many third-party creators, some of which have started to explore ways to keep making content for D&D without using the OGL, for example by utilising a brand new licence that builds upon the original one. It is too early to say what the lasting consequences will be, but there’s no doubt that the landscape for third-party creators has changed significantly – and possible for the foreseeable future.