TTRPG Roll 23-4: D&D is the OGL, yes?


In the past few days we have seen the kerfuffle over the Open Game License (OGL) from Wizards of the Coast reach a milestone with WotC backing down—for the moment—on release of OGL 1.1. I say “for the moment” because it is clear to me that WotC intends to proceed with release of what is now being called OGL 2.0 despite heated opposition as symbolized by cancellation of D&D Beyond online subscriptions.

While I strongly support the RPG community in their oppostion to WotC, there is one aspect of the protests surrounding OGL that bothers me; many people seem to define roleplaying games (RPG) as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) to the exclusion of all other games. Sure, other games and companies are mentioned in reporting, but the underlying assumption clearly is that these companies are making their own D&D products or fantasy RPG “spin-offs.” It is as though D&D is the only RPG ever created. Not only do we (and them?) know that to be false, it also matters. I worry that the “identity” of RPGs is being defined by WoTC in a direct threat to the inclusivity of the entire community.

While OGL 1.1 would have severely hampered creation of new D&D products, it also hands control of so many of those products to WotC. Those provisions might be harmful to D&D, but they are a death knell for non-D&D creators who use the OGL for other game systems and settings. Why does WotC need a listing of all products made using OGL 1.1 for any company making more than $50K per year? Further, WotC in OGL 1.1 demonstrated an air of superiority when they directed royalties to be paid by ANY RPG publisher/creator using OGL 1.1 that makes over $750K per year—regardless of the product being D&D-related or not!

Baited Dragon’s Breathe

WotC obviously sees the entire OGL RPG community as peons beholden to them and only them and RPGs as D&D and nothing else. The corporate hubris on display is astounding. Then again, although it may have not been to original intention of the OGL, other views of OGL v1.0a reveal how it apparently can be used to constrain creative freedom. That was the subject of the article, “Beware the Gifts of Dragons: How D&D’s Open Gaming License May Have Become a Trap for Creators” from EFF – The Electronic Frontier Foundation on Jan 10. This passage in particular about the acceptance of OGL v1.0a stands out to me:

For most users, accepting this license almost certainly means you have fewer rights to use elements of Dungeons and Dragons than you would otherwise. For example, absent this agreement, you have a legal right to create a work using noncopyrightable elements of D&D or making fair use of copyrightable elements and to say that that work is compatible with Dungeons and Dragons. In many contexts you also have the right to use the logo to name the game (something called “nominative fair use” in trademark law). You can certainly use some of the language, concepts, themes, descriptions, and so forth. Accepting this license almost certainly means signing away rights to use these elements. Like Sauron’s rings of power, the gift of the OGL came with strings attached.

“Beware the Gift of Dragons,” EFF, Jan 10, 2023

In TTRPG Roll 23-2 I looked at the more recently published RPGs I own and realized only a few actually use OGL 1.0a. Though few, two OGL v1.0a users are of concern to me; the Cepheus Engine community and Free League Publishing’s system reference document (SRD) released under OGL 1.0a.

Alegis Downport described some of the Cepheus Engine issues of concern in their post, “The Looming Crisis – OGL 1.1” posted on Jan 09. What I had not heard then—or since—is what the future of the Traveller SRD (versions here and here) may be. I have not heard about alternate licensing arrangements, like maybe making the Traveller SRD releasable under a Creative Commons license like Evil Hat does for FATE. I note also that the Community Content Program at DriveThruRPG for Traveller, The Travellers’ Aid Society (TAS), is a non-starter as it is controlled by Mongoose Publishing who is actually several years ahead of WotC on restricting creator content. The fact TAS can only use “current edition Traveller books published by Mongoose Publishing” is one of the driving reasons behind the creation of Cepheus Engine.

While I don’t have any direct insight into what Cepheus Engine publishers like Independence Games are doing, Alegis Downport has this tidbit:

**Update** 10th January – Independence Games are also offering a 30% discount via their webstore: on all their Clement Sector, Earth Sector and Rider products until the 17th of January. Just enter the code ‘FWOTC’ at the checkout. I have no idea what that stands for… 

Not-so Free League

The other OGL v1.0a SRD of concern for me is the Year Zero Engine SRD from Free League Publishing. The Year Zero Engine powers several RPGs of high interest to me including Twilight: 2000 4th Edition, ALIEN Roleplaying Game, and Blade Runner Roleplaying Game. (Interestingly, only T2K allows community content under OGL v1.0a). I have taken such a liking to the Year Zero Engine that I am seriously considering using it to develop my own RPG game for my U.F.0./Space: 1999 mash-up. Free League has actually taken the OGL v1.0a version of the SRD down, though I can still find a copy of it here.

In the “Beware the Gift of Dragons” article, this thought-provoking line also stands out; “Even more interesting, would revoking the OGL actually give some third parties more freedom to operate, given that the OGL forced them to promise not to do some things that copyright and trademark law otherwise permit?”

Maybe that is the path forward; total rejection of any OGL and a return to copyright and trademark law. It’s the way the boardgame and wargame industry works. Maybe it’s about time the “legal excursion” of the OGL ends.

Feature image courtesy RMN © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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