What a quiet and uneventful year 2023 has been so far in the tabletop gaming space, huh folks?
I’m honestly not sure I’m equipped to even provide background here. Back near the beginning of January, a leaked document from Wizards of the Coast, owners (under Hasbro) of Dungeons & Dragons, revealed draconic (pun intended) planned changes to the Open Gaming License, or OGL, which the company first rolled out back in 2000 when the “world’s most popular roleplaying game” was still only on its 3rd edition.
In a nutshell, the OGL was a license for third-party companies to make and distribute stuff using certain select parts of D&D’s product line. It’s something of a weird area, because game mechanics are already not copyrightable, so the ability (or not) for people to do that even without the license is somewhat nebulous and always has been.
There has already been considerable writing, both before and after the leaked OGL draft, about whether or not the OGL was ever actually good for anything besides helping D&D to achieve and maintain market dominance, and I am neither a lawyer nor an industry insider, so there are certainly better voices than mine that you should be listening to in the midst of all this.
What’s relevant here is that this bombshell leak showed the hand of Wizards of the Coast in a way that seemingly destroyed a decade’s goodwill in one fell swoop. The fallout was immediate and considerable. So many people canceled their D&D Beyond subscriptions that it forced the company to do some damage control by attempting to backpedal the most egregious aspects of the proposed new OGL, which they did in a pair of statements released after a damning week of silence.
The damage had already been done, however. In the time between the initial leak and WotC’s statements, easily half-a-dozen of their largest competitors had already announced plans for OGLs of their own, and seemingly everyone in the tabletop hobby space had drawn battle lines in response to the proposed changes.
Those who have been following along for some time know that I’ve been working on and off in the tabletop field for some years now, primarily for Privateer Press. In that time, I’ve worked on several 5e-adjacent books for the new Iron Kingdoms: Requiem setting and system, all of which have made use of the OGL. In fact, I’m in the midst of a new project in that vein as I write this, which is partly why I’m just now getting to it. As such, it seems that I’m obliged to have at least some opinion on this.
I like 5e. It’s been easy to work with, and while it has its drawbacks, it’s fun to play. And I’m still extremely proud of the work that I and others have done on the three sets (and counting) of books for Iron Kingdoms: Requiem. I hope IK:R keeps going for a long, long time, in whatever ultimate form.
But I also recognize what WotC doesn’t seem to, which is that the OGL was, in actual fact, a boon to them more than anyone. Sure, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons may have achieved a similar market saturation back in the ’80s, without the aid of an OGL. (I’m not sure we’ve quite hit “D&D big wheel” levels in 5e just yet, honestly.) But it’s also true that both 3e and 5e would probably not have enjoyed their respective popularities had it not been for the OGL, and D&D’s current dominance of the field is likely as much a result of that as Hasbro’s considerable marketing budget.
Again, I am not a lawyer nor principally a game designer, but as near as I can tell, the biggest benefit that the OGL brought to the community was community itself – a way for lots of folks operating in disparate circles to speak the same language. It made things welcoming that might have previously been opaque, while also opening up the scene for countless newcomers.
I don’t know what the way forward is, really. The damage that WotC has done to their product and their brand is considerable – and maybe insurmountable. If that’s so, I hope that the folks who next pick up the reins are better stewards. What I will say is this: Over the last few years, I’ve gotten back into tabletop gaming in ways that I haven’t been in close to two decades, and in that time, some of my best experiences have come from games that were built only to do what they do, not to be the sort of one-size-fits-all solution that the OGL has often prompted.
Take, for example, the short campaign I played in the Alien RPG from Free League. Though built on their Year Zero engine, the game incorporated plenty of things that would really only work in a survival horror type setting – but in that setting, they worked like gangbusters.
What I’m saying is, whatever happens with D&D, it’s always been good that it isn’t the only game out there, and hopefully, if nothing else, this will remind us all to look to other pastures now and again.