Open Gaming Licenses: Past, Present, and Future

Warning: This post has a lot of talk about RPGs, business, and licensing and thus may be baffling and/or tedious for some of you. If this type of thing is not of interest, you probably want to just skip it.

These are interesting times for companies that make use of the Open Game License. While many games have now been released under the OGL, the big one has always been Dungeons & Dragons. I had been pretty sure that WotC would just close off 4th edition, but was surprised to hear in August that they intended to release it under the OGL. Their specific plan was murky until last month, when they announced a two-stage rollout. Companies could publish starting in August if they bought a development kit for $5,000. Otherwise, no publishing for 4E by third parties until January of next year. The actual details of the new OGL remained unknown though. Green Ronin and many other companies signed NDAs and waited for WotC to deliver the new license for review.

That wait continues, but an interesting fact came out this week. This new license is not going to be called the Open Game License, but rather the Game System License. From previous discussions with WotC, it had already become clear that the new license would be more restrictive than the old one. This move confirms it. It sounds like the new license will not be the next iteration of the OGL but a completely new license. This makes it clear that WotC had some issues with the previous OGL and is trying to learn from previous experience. So what are those issues?

1. Stand Alone Games Don’t Help WotC
In the early days of the OGL, everyone used the d20 logo and that prevented the creation of stand-alone products. If you wanted to use the d20 logo, you had to point back to the D&D; Player’s Handbook (or later, other WotC core books). At the time publishers thought you had to have the logo to make a successful product. Then variant games like Mutants & Masterminds and True20 Adventure Roleplaying began to appear. These games built off the SRD but became games in their own right. One of the stated goals of the OGL was to help WotC sell core rulebooks. If people are buying stand-alone games, that doesn’t help to sell WotC’s books. We’ve already heard that the new license won’t allow such games any more, though it cannot prevent the continuation of games already on the market. This is an understandable move on their part, though one could argue that some of the most innovative design work of the d20 era happened in those very games and that GSL restrictions may not lead to the same advancement of the state of the art.

2. The License Should Be About D&D; Support
When Ryan Dancey was selling the idea of the OGL at WotC in 1999, one of his points that was third party publishers could provide support for D&D; in areas that WotC itself had difficulty doing so profitably (most notably adventures). There was indeed a wave of adventure products, led by Death in Freeport and Three Days to Kill. Soon third party companies started taking on bigger projects and expanding out into sourcebook territory. Then they ranged farther still, into genres that had little to do with swords and sorcery. Several years later Charles Ryan, then in charge of the D&D; brand, said that WotC was going to start doing more adventures because the third party companies weren’t providing the type of support WotC had originally envisioned. The GSL will thus be more explicitly about supporting D&D.; There may be limits on the types of products allowed, similar to the “no miniatures” provision of the old d20 STL.

3. Strip Mining is Bad for the Environment
With the original OGL WotC put up something called the System Reference Document, which contained most of the rules for D&D.; It could be copied or modified by use of the OGL. People asked if it could be republished as is, and in a FAQ WotC replied that those who thought they could make money doing so were welcome to try. I doubt anyone really thought that people would but naturally this is exactly what happened. There were “pocket” and various PDF versions of D&D; core books published by other companies, and some companies saw their own books re-released by other publishers as well. An ex-Guardians of Order employee recently noted, for example, that “within days of d20 Mecha coming out and being released on SRD, other companies were selling clones of the product, sometimes with better production values…”

Another thing that happened was that some open game content was taken from its original products and given away for free on various websites. This is legal under the original OGL but it was a development that many publishers weren’t so happy about. They were, of course, trying to make money from their work and someone else giving it away for nothing was not considered helpful. One example of this that has cropped up a lot in recent conversation is what happened with GR’s True20 game. The True20 rules originally appeared in the Blue Rose game and we eventually decided to release them on their own as a more generic rule set. Before the True20 core book was even released, we were queried by someone who had taken all the rules out of Blue Rose and wanted to give them away on his website as a True20 SRD. We answered that if we wanted there to be a True20 SRD, we’d do one ourselves. With our core book not even out, we really were not hot on the rules being given out for free. He agreed not to make the site public for a year but since then the rules have indeed been available. We took no hostile action in this case. We were asked a question and we gave our opinion. We did not try to impede the effort, we sent no cease and desist letter, we didn’t pillory the guy on the internet. Nonetheless, other folks have accused of all sorts of things, from working against “the spirit of open gaming” to being big bullies to benefiting from the OGL without giving back. One designer (ironically enough, a WotC employee) even accused us of using “ignorant and deceitful tactics”. This despite the reams of OGC we’ve released, the sharing of content between us and other publishers, and the entire M&M; Superlink program that lets companies publish branded material compatible with our best selling game for nothing.

I don’t think it’s too surprising then to hear that WotC has some different plans this time around. The SRD will more of a reference guide that lets you know what’s open without putting text files of the rules up. They have said that the new license will be designed to encourage creative extensions of D&D; rather than the wholesale reprinting of OGC. I will be curious to see if the GSL also has something to say about the giving away of open content on the internet.

4. Did We Say Perpetuity?
The original OGL is forever. It can be updated but it can’t be revoked. I’m sure this is a big reason why the Game System License will be released as a brand new thing, rather than an update of the existing OGL. What sounds good now maybe doesn’t sound so good 8 years down the line.

The thing I’m really interested to find out is whether the GSL will have a clause that forbids its use with the OGL. I think this is entirely possible. It would the mean that you couldn’t take previously released OGC and use it in a book released under the GSL. A book like the already announced Tome of Horrors 4th edition would not be possible under this restriction. This would make things clean and easy for WotC, but would probably cause a lot of chaos in the world of third party publishing.

Clearly many changes are in the wind. Until we see the Game System License we won’t know all of them for sure. No matter what I’m positive publishing under the original OGL will continue (that’s how we’ll do M&M; and True20, for example). A year from now the publishing landscape will likely be quite different though. I think the big question is whether any of the prominent third party publishers will decide to just skip 4E and the GSL and continue to publish 3.5 material. I think Paizo is best positioned to pull this off but it would be a gamble for sure. As for WotC I guess I continue to be surprised they are making this attempt at all. I seriously wouldn’t blame them for saying, “This is a huge headache with few tangible benefits for us, so 4E will not support 3rd party publishing.”

So far 2008 has been nothing if not interesting in the world of RPG publishing.