TTRPG Roll 23-7: WotC gets Creative but will Mongoose follow? Traveller RPG & Cepheus Engine in the balance

The big news yesterday is that Wizards of the Coast through D&D Beyond announced a new “draft” Open Game license (OGL) v1.2. I strongly encourage all to follow the link to the draft document and look at it for yourself. While many people may see this as a win, I remain pessimistic for the future of open content Traveller roleplaying games and especially the Cepheus Engine System.

Why am I pessimistic? I am pessimistic because OGL 1.2 still “deauthorizes” OGL 1.0a which means a new Open Game License is necessary. It also more clearly defines a very narrow definition of Open Content. I am not convinced OGL 1.2 is the right new license.

OGL 1.2

Reading the WotC announcement, they are trying to frame OGL 1.2 as a win for gamers and content creators:

“So, we’re doing two things:

  1. We’re giving the core D&D mechanics to the community through a Creative Commons license, which means that they are fully in your hands.
  2. If you want to use quintessentially D&D content from the SRD such as owlbears and magic missile, OGL 1.2 will provide you a perpetual, irrevocable license to do so.”

Core Mechanics

“The core D&D mechanics, which are located at pages 56-104, 254-260, and 358-359 of this System Reference Document 5.1 (but not the examples used on those pages), are licensed to you under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). This means that Wizards is not placing any limitations at all on how you use that content.”

While this sounds like a major victory, what WotC has really done is taken Section 1.(d) of OGL 1.0a and moved that part—and only that part—to a Creative Commons license. For reference:

“OGL 1.0a, 1.(d) “Open Game Content” means the game mechanic and includes the methods, procedures, processes and routines to the extent such content does not embody the Product Identity and is an enhancement over the prior art and any additional content clearly identified as Open Game Content by the Contributor, and means any work covered by this License, including translations and derivative works under copyright law, but specifically excludes Product Identity.” 

As Kit Walsh over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out in the article “Beware the Gifts of Dragons: How D&D’s Open Gaming License May Have Become a Trap for Creators,” the game mechanics may actually not be copyrightable:

“Copyright grants an author a limited monopoly over their creative expression. It doesn’t cover bare facts, mere ideas, systems, or methods. But it does cover the creative way that a person expresses facts, ideas, and so forth, provided that the expression has sufficient creativity. A roleplaying game book often includes both a description of a mechanical system and creative, fictional elements.

When describing a noncopyrightable game mechanic, I might do it in a dry, noncopyrightable way, or I might do it in a creative, copyrightable way.”

In many cases, a system reference document (SRD) is a “dry” presentation of game mechanics; is it even copyrightable? WotC pushing for an “open game” license is in many ways an effort to discourage you from finding that answer!

Another major part of the Preamble is the deauthorization of OGL 1.0a:

NOTICE OF DEAUTHORIZATION OF OGL 1.0a. The Open Game License 1.0a is no longer an authorized license. This means that you may not use that version of the OGL, or any prior version, to publish SRD content after (effective date). It does not mean that any content previously published under that version needs to update to this license. Any previously published content remains licensed under whichever version of the OGL was in effect when you published that content.

In OGL 1.2, WotC has backed off on forcing all content created with OGL 1.0a to convert to OGL 1.2. That’s good…but OGL 1.2 still ends further “development” of any OGL 1.0a-based content. WotC is very specific in saying, “you may not use that version of the OGL, or any prior version, to publish SRD content after (effective date).” OGL 1.0a is dead and any product created using OGL1.0a is effectively “frozen.”

What WotC has done is more clearly define that game mechanisms—and only game mechanisms—are sharable under a Creative Commons license. Going ahead, other new creative content will need to be created using OGL 1.2 or declared what was previously called “No Open Content.” Many RPG publishers, especially those who are licensed to use IP, do this anyway (see Free League Publishing’s Blade Runner Roleplaying Game or Green Ronin’s The Expanse Roleplaying Game amongst many). Other creators might use a Community Content Program like the Travellers’ Aid Society (TAS) run by Mongoose…but there are major strings attached like surrender of IP and royalties.

Content

1. LICENSED CONTENT

(a) Content Covered

  1. (i)  Our Licensed Content. This license covers any content in the SRD 5.1 (or any subsequent version of the SRD we release under this license) that is not licensed to you under Creative Commons. You may use that content in your own works on the terms of this license.
  2. (ii)  Our Unlicensed Content. Only Our Licensed Content is licensed under this license. Any other content we release or have released is not licensed to you under this license.
  3. (iii)  Your Content. This is your creative contributions to your works that are not Our Licensed Content or Our Unlicensed Content. This license permits you to combine Your Content with Our Licensed Content and distribute the resulting works as authorized by this license.

WotC introduces a new term here, “Our Licensed Content.” The definition makes it clear that “Our Licensed Content” covers all the parts of the SRD that are NOT released under the Creative Commons License, i.e. the parts of the SRD that are not “the core D&D mechanics.” It is difficult to be sure what this means because the page numbers referenced do not line up with the 5.1 SRD that is currently online. What I suspect is that the sections covering “Using Ability Scores” and “The Order of Combat” will be released under the Creative Commons license…but not much else. The present SRD is over 400 pages and WotC states only about 60 pages of the new document (no less than 359 pages long) will be licensed under Creative Commons.

The phrase “Our Licensed Content” goes hand-in-hand with “Our Unlicensed Content” which appears to cover copyrightable and trademarked items previously found in OGL 1.0a 1.(e) and (f):

“(e) “Product Identity” means product and product line names, logos and identifying marks including trade dress; artifacts; creatures characters; stories, storylines, plots, thematic elements, dialogue, incidents, language, artwork, symbols, designs, depictions, likenesses, formats, poses, concepts, themes and graphic, photographic and other visual or audio representations; names and descriptions of characters, spells, enchantments, personalities, teams, personas, likenesses and special abilities; places, locations, environments, creatures, equipment, magical or supernatural abilities or effects, logos, symbols, or graphic designs; and any other trademark or registered trademark clearly identified as Product identity by the owner of the Product Identity, and which specifically excludes the Open Game Content;”

“(f) “Trademark” means the logos, names, mark, sign, motto, designs that are used by a Contributor to identify itself or its products or the associated products contributed to the Open Game License by the Contributor.”

The meaning of “Our Unlicensed Content” becomes more clear if you look at the questions in the Virtual Tabletop (VTT) Policy in the WotC draft documents. For example:

May I make my VTT Owlbear token look like the one from the Monster Manual?

No. We’ve never licensed visual depictions of our content under the OGL, just the text of the SRD. That hasn’t changed. You can create a creature called an Owlbear with the stat block from the SRD. You cannot copy any of our Owlbear depictions. But if you’ve drawn your own unique Owlbear, or someone else did, you can use it.”

I have issues with other parts of OGL 1.2, like the “perpetual, irrevocable” part. In section 9.(d) WotC gives themselves an out that was not in OGL 1.0a:

“(d)  Severability. If any part of this license is held to be unenforceable or invalid for any reason, Wizards may declare the entire license void, either as between it and the party that obtained the ruling or in its entirety. Unless Wizards elects to do so, the balance of this license will be enforced as if that part which is unenforceable or invalid did not exist.”

While I totally agree that hateful and harmful content does not belong in our hobby, I am also very hesitant to agree to WotC defining hateful content or conduct without any legal recourse to dispute their independent accusations:

“6.(f) No Hateful Content or Conduct. You will not include content in Your Licensed Works that is harmful, discriminatory, illegal, obscene, or harassing, or engage in conduct that is harmful, discriminatory, illegal, obscene, or harassing. We have the sole right to decide what conduct or content is hateful, and you covenant that you will not contest any such determination via any suit or other legal action.”

Cepheus Engine on OGL 1.2?

How could the draft OGL 1.2 map to Cepheus Engine? I’m looking at Cepheus Deluxe Enhanced Edition released by Stellagama Publishing in December 2022. The only portions of CEDE declared “Product Identity” are the Introduction text, Appendix B, and the text of the Open Game License. If I had to make a call, I would say the chapters on Basic Rules, Personal and Vehicle Combat, and Space Combat are “core mechanics” and could be licensed using Creative Commons if the OGL 1.2 approach is used. The balance of CEDE (excepting Product Identity) would be “Our Licensed Content” per OGL 1.2.

Mongoose Traveller Open Content Program

On Wednesday, January 18, Mongoose Matt of Mongoose Publishing announced a new Traveller Open Content program.

As I noted in TTRPG Roll 23-6, my concern here is that “new SRD based upon the Traveller Core Rulebook Update 2022.” In 2016 Mongoose published Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition (MgT2e) which essentially “forked” the Traveller RPG community into two SRD’s; the older MgT1e (spiritual successor to Classic Traveller that evolved into Cepheus Engine) available under OGL 1.0a and a new MgT2e SRD that was declared No Open Content.

Frankly, I am skeptical of Mongoose Publishing’s motives in this situation. With the deauthorization of OGL 1.0a, any new products created cannot use the Cepheus Engine SRD. Mongoose, on offer, seems willing to release a new SRD as long as it is based on their (now) closed MgT2e SRD. If gamers and creators accept this offer all older OGL1.0a material is frozen and new content is limited to using the a “new” Traveller Open Content SRD. The MgT1e/Cepheus Engine fork is buried and only the MgT2e fork is carried forward.

Mongoose also dangled the incentive of placing the SRD under Piazo’s Open RPG Creative (ORC) to encourage accepting this new program. From what I read between the lines across the interwebs is that ORC is more a repository for game mechanics than a replacement for OGL 1.0a. Indeed, I would venture to say WotC could put their game mechanics into ORC and it would not change the legal restrictions of their OGL.


Interlude – What is ORC?

Jim Butler, President of Piazo, described ORC in a recent interview:

Jim Butler: It is a license framework that will allow creators and publishers to deposit their own game mechanics into it for use by other creatives in the hobby, and allow creativity to be unlocked across multiple genres, expressions, and media. It is a safe harbor where those with new ideas can access engines with installed player bases for mutual benefit.

It’s important not to confuse the license framework (which both the OGL and ORC are) and the game mechanics within the System Reference Documents (SRDs) contributed to it. The ORC will tell publishers all of the legal steps they have to follow (like the OGL does now). The SRDs will provide the open game mechanics that can be used by anyone participating in the Open RPG Creative (ORC) license.


The only way that I see Cepheus Engine surviving is for a replacement of the Traveller/Cepheus Engine OGL 1.0a SRD to be released in total under a Creative Commons license much like Evil Hat Productions does for FATE. This, of course, requires the copyright holders, Mongoose Publishing and Mark Miller at Far Future Enterprises, to agree. Mongoose seems to be showing that they are not open to this approach as they are only willing to offer up a “new” SRD based on their forked version.

Unless Mongoose changes their position, gamers and creators using Cepheus Engine will either have to adopt the MgT2e 2022 Updated Core Rulebook—under terms dictated by Mongoose—or die. I look forward to seeing how this develops…but I ain’t holding my breath either.

***UPDATE***

It just came to my attention that Piazo announced that Mongoose Publishing has officially joined the ORC Alliance. In fact, Piazo claims the ORC Alliance is over 1,500 strong. What I don’t see are more details as to what the ORC is; the above interview remains my best insight (as poor as it is).

Finally, this Toot(?) from Mastodon pretty much sums up how I see the whole “core mechanics” Creative Commons copyright license:



Feature image courtesy RMN

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

2 thoughts on “TTRPG Roll 23-7: WotC gets Creative but will Mongoose follow? Traveller RPG & Cepheus Engine in the balance

  1. WotC is still not offering anything. Only negotiating how much they are taking from the RPG community. Spokesman Brink is – to borrow a quote from my DM – “a dude from predatory online games, like Candy Crush if you look at his work history. No history in TT RPGs”

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