11 January 2023

OGL Apocalypse: WotC goes full Chaotic Evil

By now I assume that most people who visit this blog are aware of the raging storm over the changes that the Wizards of the Coast (part of Hasbro) are seeking to make to the Open Game License (OGL).
The current OGL (v. 1.0a) has been around for over two decades now and has facilitated a number of important developments in the role-playing hobby. In addition to all the material produced for Dungeons & Dragons by third-party publishers (mainly for 3e, 3.5e, and 5e), it enabled the creation of a number of role-playing games that draw upon some of the core mechanics of D&D (e.g., Mutants and Masterminds). The Old School Renaissance (OSR) probably would not have happened (at least not in the way that it did) without the OGL. The original retro-clone, OSRIC, restated the 1e AD&D rules, using the OGL for cover. (It was a brilliant insight on the part of Matt Finch, aka “Mythmere,” that this was possible.) Likewise, the first edition of Pathfinder used the OGL to repackage (with some tweaks) the 3.5 edition D&D rules in order to cater to gamers dissatisfied with 4th edition. No doubt WotC was not happy about that! But ultimately it pressured WotC to rethink 4e D&D (as did, I think, the OSR to some extent) and produce a far superior product, 5e D&D.
Anyhow, it looks like WotC aims to try to revoke OGL 1.0a and replace it with a new one (v. 1.1) with rather draconian conditions. For a helpful (and brief) overview, see this Inverse article, or this Forbes (!) one, or this Ars Technica one.
As a side note, legally speaking (but keep in mind that I am not a lawyer) the OGL was never actually necessary and in fact imposes conditions stricter than those imposed by standard US copyright law (let alone the laws of other countries, which tend to be more generous with “fair use” than the US). The reason for this is that game rules cannot be copyrighted. So a product that dryly restated the rules of AD&D, for instance, would be perfectly legal. However, artistic and literary expression can be copyrighted. Given the literary nature of role-playing games, a lot of the specific descriptions of classes, spells, monsters, settings, and so forth can (arguably) be legitimately copyrighted (but not their underlying mechanics). So one would have to tread carefully in restating a set of rules. And of course, even if one has the legal right to do something (e.g., indicate compatibility with another company’s game), one nonetheless may be subject to legal harassment or bullying by a company with deep pockets. One thing that the OGL did was remove any uncertainty about potential legal harassment or worries about whether some element of the game was copyright-protected or not. (For an excellent overview of this matter, see this Electronic Frontier Foundation article.)
A lot of RPG publishers are now abandoning the OGL. Even if WotC backs down and allows OGL 1.0a to continue (or modifies 1.1 so that it is far less restrictive) many gaming companies are sensibly deciding that they do not want to be vulnerable to future Hasbro corporate whims. (And it very well may be the case that WotC does not back down and pushes on with OGL 1.1.)
As a player, most of my time has been spent using Mythras over the past twelve years, with occasional forays into other systems (e.g., The One Ring, Trail of Cthulhu, Delta Green, etc.), none of which have been dependent on the OGL. Among other things, I’ve been a sorcerer in a Young Kingdoms campaign (which used Mythras’s predecessor, Mongoose’s RuneQuest II), a Roman mystic in a Mythic Britain campaign, an aristocratic messenger in a Mythic Babylon campaign, and a paleontologist in a Return to the Mountains of Madness campaign.
But as a creator and gamemaster, I’ve been heavily involved with Dungeons & Dragons and related systems. Years ago, I got into the OSR in a big way and developed a set of house rules for modifying Swords and Wizardry (the 0e retro-clone) to give it more of a “swords and sorcery” flavour. Many of those rules appeared in articles in Knockspell and Fight On! All of those rules remain available at this blog (and were never offered here under the OGL). Many of those rules were incorporated into D101’s Crypts and Things game (which does use the OGL). (I hope that C&T rides out this storm and continues to be available. It’s a great system!)
Also, despite some problems here and there, overall, I like 5e D&D. It’s not perfect – it still has too many fiddly (“exception-based’) rules for my taste – but it’s the first “official” version of D&D since the TSR era that I’ve been happy to run. (Making feats optional was huge improvement over 3e.) I’ve been using it for my current Greyhawk campaign. And I thought that the 5e-derived Adventures in Middle-earth game was quite good. The Mirkwood campaign that I ran using AiME a few years ago remains one of my all-time favourites.
But this latest action by WotC has left a foul taste in my mouth. I already was put off by the movement toward “D&D One” (or is it “One D&D”?), which struck me as undermining some of the strengths of 5e D&D – among other things, by “hardwiring” certain elements that I prefer to keep optional, e.g., feats and inspiration, into the core game. Changing the OGL and wreaking havoc with 3rd party publishers is just plain malevolent.
So … I’ve had it with WotC. I won’t be buying anything from them for the foreseeable future. (Not that I was buying much anyway – it’s been almost two years since I last purchased a book from WotC. Most of my recent 5e purchases have been from 3rd party publishers like Goodman Games.) 
I’m not going to abandon my current Greyhawk campaign. It’s been too much fun – and the characters just made it to level 4! But I think I’ll be using Into the Unknown as the rules base going forward (supplemented with a few 5e options for the sake of continuity).
Aside from my current Greyhawk campaign, my focus (as a GM) lately has been on the Against the Darkmaster system. I hope to run a sporadic VsD campaign set in Eriador (Middle-earth) over the next few months. Aside from that, I plan to develop my own setting over the coming year. We’ll see how that goes. (Of course, VsD never used the OGL – and has a generous license for other publishers.)
Well that’s all for now. It’ll be interesting to see what happens once OGL 1.1 is unleashed on the world. 



  1. Heh:


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).