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The D&D licensing fight that split the party

Dungeons & Dragons

A look at the Open Gaming License dispute dividing RPG creators and Dungeons & Dragons fans

Over the last month or so, Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast has really stirred up a hornets’ nest after it was revealed to be working on a new, restrictive version of its Open Gaming License that would appear to invalidate the existing OGL. This meant that many creators, big and small, who were building upon the D&D system — some for decades — would be severely disadvantaged and possibly have to start reporting their financials, and in some cases pay royalties, to the Hasbro subsidiary. There was also the specter of Wizards claiming to own community creations under the new license.

These poisoned pills for community creators and many outraged fans were particularly hard to swallow at a time when the D&D brand was already facing increased skepticism and scrutiny over executives’ stated desire to monetize the tabletop game more, and on the cusp of a year of new gaming supplement releases leading up to the game’s 50th anniversary year in 2024 when a refreshed version of the roleplaying game, now in development and public playtesting, will be released. (Not to mention a major motion picture coming to movie theaters this spring, which is already facing calls for fan boycotts along with the game products themselves.)

Wizards of the Coast came under increasing fire as the D&D brand’s social media channels and spokespeople stayed silent about the raging controversy. When it finally responded to community creator and fan concerns, few were satisfied — the company did, however, removed reporting and royalty requirements from what it said was a new OGL draft not meant for release (few believe this, though) and said creators would still own their work.

WotC claimed the new license was necessary to protect the D&D brand from harmful and discriminatory content and secure its rights in a marketplace of growing new technologies such as NFTs, and by implication the de-authorizing of the old license was necessary to do all this. The company also made the placating move of stating its intention to place the core rules of the D&D game under an irrevocable Creative Commons license going forward — but some see that as an empty gesture considering there are arguments that such things as game rules can’t be strictly copyrighted anyway.

Still, the revocation or de-authorization of the original OGL has emerged as an apparent red line in the sand for both sides of the ongoing argument, even as the “playtest” phase of the new OGL proceeds — a process WotC started to appease the community and one the company says will continue as long as is needed, in the same vein as the public playtests used for D&D game rules content.

The damage may already have been done. Third-party D&D creators and other companies that depended on the old OGL started circling the wagons during WotC’s stark silence, and many signed on to a new “system neutral open RPG license” called the ORC, spurred on by Paizo, a former WotC contractor that successfully used the original OGL (then widely believed to be irrevocable) to spin off their own version of D&D’s popular 3rd Edition when WotC’s 4th Edition turned off many gamers and creators.

Where do things stand now? Marketing for the movie Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves continues as the March 31 theatrical release approaches, but that’s in the hands of the Paramount Pictures juggernaut. The gaming giant, however, has been conspicuously silent about known upcoming D&D game product releases such as the Keys From the Golden Vault adventure anthology in February.

With D&D Beyond digital tool subscribers reportedly canceling their memberships by the thousands, the new book may be another test of greater fan loyalty as the D&D Open Gaming License dispute continues.

Cover photo by Wizards of the Coast

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