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D&D Now Stands for ‘Debacles & Disasters’

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/05/23 at 05:15 PM CT

Wizards of the Coast had a very busy January, as the Hasbro subsidiary and owner of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG since 1997 set about the process of… burning itself to the ground.

It all started with Wizards’ new President, Cynthia Williams – a typical ‘Professional Executive’ who came to the tabletop games company from Microsoft’s Xbox Division – taking the lead in setting up heavy monetization for the next generation of Dungeons & Dragons: An Internet-powered, subscription-based thing known as ‘OneD&D.’ As part of the effort to ensure than any-and-everything about OneD&D was primed and ready to be transformed into a revenue-generating microtransaction, Wizards’ leadership took the bold step of updating and revising the Open Game License – known colloquially as the OGL. However, the revision was leaked to the public before Wizards was officially ready to reveal it.

The OGL was originally created simultaneously with D&D 3rd Edition in the Year 2000, and was – no joke – the most revolutionary and beneficial thing about 3E. The OGL 1.0a was, as the name implies, incredibly open, allowing anyone to publish compatible third-party D&D content without having to pay any licensing or royalties to Wizards of the Coast themselves. Simply printing a copypasta of the 900-word OGL 1.0a declaration somewhere in a product was all that was legally required to make use of it. It was thanks to the OGL that Paizo Publishing was able to keep the fires of 3E alive during the dark days of Wizards of the Coast’s experimental D&D 4th Edition, while simultaneously creating an entire cottage industry of third-party adventures, options, bestiaries, and settings, allowing tabletop gamers to benefit from the endless creativity of small-time Fantasy writers and game designers, while freeing Wizards of the Coast from the burden of officially supporting an enormous number of campaign settings – a misstep which ultimately lead to TSR’s downfall and purchase by Wizards in the first place.

The leaked draft of the revised OGL 1.1 that came to light in early January 2022, however, took great pains to undo everything that was great about the original OGL. Instead of a royalty-free system wherein any individual writers and designers could use the D20 framework to create and sell their own products at will, the OGL 1.1 issued a new, totalitarian presence by Wizards of the Coast, granting them the right to pick and choose who is allowed to publish third-party content, and allowing them to claim and reuse any third-party content at will, with no obligation to give the third-party who made it any compensation. Even worse, for successful third-party publishers – such as Paizo Publishing and Kobold Press – Wizards had an even nastier surprise in store: A provision stating that Wizards would take a 25% cut of revenue (not profit – revenue!) earned above a certain margin – specifically $750,000. While no individual toiling away in their free time on a homebrew campaign setting in their basement would ever have to worry about hitting the profit threshold that would wake the covetous Wyrm of the Coast and get its attention, this change would have created a tabletop gaming monopoly, allowing Wizards of the Coast to destroy third-party publishing houses that have been simultaneously their greatest asset and their fiercest competition.

But that’s not all! The OGL 1.1 was also designed to fully rescind and replace the OGL 1.0a, due to an inconvenient oversight, by which the original authors of the OGL 1.0a forgot to include the word ‘irrevocable.’ This would, effectively, kill any and all legacy D&D products, transforming them into, as D&D Youtuber and lawyer, Roll of Law, described it, “Bootleg D&D.”

The backlash to the leaked OGL 1.1 was swift and fierce, with numerous D&D Youtubers, fan communities, and players banishing D&D from their lives with the magic words, “D&D Begone” while cancelling their D&D Beyond subscriptions en masse in protest, while also circulating petitions begging Wizards of the Coast to go back to the drawing board, and encouraging the boycott of the upcoming D&D movie, “Honor Among Thieves.” The fulmination of the fandom seemed to have shocked the out-of-touch executives at the head of Wizards of the Coast and parent-company Hasbro, as they tried to defend the leaked draft for a couple of days before capitulating and agreeing to give the OGL revision some more time in the workshop.

Roughly a week later, Wizards of the Coast officially revealed a new draft of the OGL 1.2. While much of the heavy-handed monetization was removed, the obsession with control was still heavily present. Only now it was very obvious why Wizards of the Coast wanted to gatekeep who could produce third-party content for their game. The OGL 1.2 included a “Morals Clause,” revealing that, in addition to the typical corporate greed one would expect from putting a former Xbox Executive at the head of a tabletop game company, Wizards was and is still very worried about being appropriately Woke. True to their miserable Diversity Statement from back in 2020, Wizards of the Coast’s primary reason (outside of monetization) for clamping down on third-party content is their abject terror that some third-party might make content, or even behave in their personal lives in a ‘problematic’ way that offends the snowflakes.

Shockingly, the backlash continued, as both the D&D community and Wizards of the Coast’s competitors continued to revolt against totalitarian control. Paizo Publishing announced its own open license for tabletop games, dubbed the ORC (Open RPG Creative) License, while Kobold Press announced a brand-new ORC Licensed set of core rulebooks under the codename Project Black Flag, which they claim will remain compatible with existing D&D 5th Edition content, but without any ability for Wizards of the Coast to pillage or censor anything.

Thus we come to the present, and Wizards of the Coast has been forced to raise the white flag of surrender after the most tumultuous month in tabletop gaming history. Not only has the D&D publisher agreed to keep the original OGL 1.0a in place, but they have taken the further step of releasing the System Resource Document (SRD) for D&D 5th Edition into the Creative Commons – an irreversible step toward freedom and openness for the game. However, it feels like the damage has already been done. Wizards of the Coast lost a lot of players when they released D&D 4th Edition and applied the closed Game System License (GSL) to it. The community largely recovered with the release of the excellent 5th Edition SRD and the return to the OGL 1.0a, but thanks to the presence of the OGL, Wizards no longer has a captive audience – which was one of the primary goals of these OGL revisions.

Personally, I’m disgusted and offended by both the greed and moral panic exhibited by Wizards of the Coast. Far from the types of behavior I associate with Liberalism and Progressivism, the desire to build monopolies, extort profit wherever possible, and unilaterally declare what is or isn’t a ‘sin’ is the type of nonsense I’ve always associated with Far-Right policies. This is still a developing story, however, and we have yet to see just how contrite Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro actually are. For my part, I’ll be waiting with great interest for Kobold Press’ Project Black Flag to come to fruition. It might just become the third-party system that saves D&D 5th Edition from Wizards’ stupidity the same way Pathfinder 1st Edition saved D&D 3.5.

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