TTRPG Roll 23-10: We won, right? Why Traveller RPG and Cepheus Engine fans need to keep their eyes open

For once the big Friday afternoon news drop was not about classified documents being discovered somewhere they don’t belong, but Wizards of the Coast (WotC) abandoning plans to “deauthorize” the Open Game License 1.0a (OGL 1.0a) . The announcement was met with much cheering and claims of victory across the internet. While I am happy that WotC placed the full Dungeons & Dragons 5.1 System Reference Document (SRD) under a Creative Commons license, as of the time of the drafting of this post I have not seen Mongoose Publishing take the Traveller SRD and do the same. Thus, Traveller and Cepheus Engine players and creators continue to operate using Traveller SRD v1.1 as released under OGL 1.0a.

Beware. While many feel they have won the battle, I fear we have just seen the first skirmish in a much longer conflict.

I worry that, while WotC appears to have “given in” to the masses, the future we face will be one where WotC uses their monetary muscle to zealously guard their legally copyrighted material, especially in Virtual Tabletop (VTT) or other “animated” or moving visual depictions. I fully expect Mongoose to be watching those actions closely and, depending on how successful WotC is in their efforts, we will likely see Mongoose follow suit.

Text, Nothing but the Text

I am convinced the SRD is not the important part of the battle, but WotC’s draft VTT policy and what it means for copyrighted material. While WotC has “folded” on the SRD, I have not seen them change their draft VTT Policy yet.

Look at the WotC VTT Policy draft that was part of the OGL 1.2 “playtest.” Here is how WotC introduces it: “TTRPGs and VTTs. OGL 1.2 will only apply to TTRPG content, whether published as books, as electronic publications, or on virtual tabletops (VTTs). Nobody needs to wonder or worry if it applies to anything else. It doesn’t.”

I love the twisting of words. It applies “only” to TTRPG content. In other words, it applies to EVERYTHING that a player or creator makes.

What is permitted under this policy?

Using VTTs to replicate the experience of sitting around the table playing D&D with your friends.

So displaying static SRD content is just fine because it’s just like looking in a sourcebook. You can put the text of Magic Missile up in your VTT and use it to calculate and apply damage to your target. And automating Magic Missile’s damage to replace manually rolling and calculating is also fine. The VTT can apply Magic Missile’s 1d4+1 damage automatically to your target’s hit points. You do not have to manually calculate and track the damage.

What isn’t permitted are features that don’t replicate your dining room table storytelling. If you replace your imagination with an animation of the Magic Missile streaking across the board to strike your target, or your VTT integrates our content into an NFT, that’s not the tabletop experience. That’s more like a video game.

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.

Draft Wizards of the Coast LLC – Virtual Tabletop Policy Version 1.0

“We’ve never licensed visual depictions of our content under the OGL, just the text of the SRD.” This goes hand in had with the sentences about video games: “If you replace your imagination with an animation of the Magic Missile streaking across the board to strike your target, or your VTT integrates our content into an NFT, that’s not the tabletop experience. That’s more like a video game.”

‘VTT killed the OGL star’

VTT and video representations are the key. That is the hill WotC will die on to protect. The SRD is just text which gives you game mechanisms but nothing visual. Still, given that the text of the SRD is Open Content, Traveller and Cepheus Engine players and creators should be fine, yes? Let’s take a look at the SRD and see what it tells us.

Every product created under OGL 1.0a requires Product Identity—which is NOT open content—to be clearly identified. Some of what constitutes Product Identity (PI) is noted within the text of the OGL 1.0a license itself in section 1(e):

(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; 

Traveller SRD v1.1

OGL 1.0a has always not allowed copying visual depictions. The draft VTT Policy clearly reflects this position.

Even given the legal restrictions of the Traveller SRD v1.1 (along with the High Guard SRD 1.0 and Mercenary SRD v1.2) those documents have served the Cepheus Engine community well. With WotC leaving OGL 1.0a “untouched” as long as Traveller or Cepheus Engine players and creators steer clear of visual depictions all should be fine, right?

Maybe…not? Kit Walsh of the Electronic Frontier Foundation talks of the OGL trap in the article, “Beware the Gift of Dragons”:

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.

The primary benefit is that you know under what terms Wizards of the Coast will choose not to sue you, so you can avoid having to prove your fair use rights or engage in an expensive legal battle over copyrightability in court.

“Beware the Gift of Dragons,” EFF

The fundamental shift we are seeing in the OGL battle is that WotC is moving the goalposts to more aggressively defend their Product Identity copyrighted material. We should expect the same in the Traveller/Cepheus Engine space. I imagine Far Future Enterprises and Mongoose Publishing (holder and authorized user of the Traveller copyright respectively) would answer this question:

May I make my VTT Type-S Scout token look like the one from MgT2e?

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 spaceship called a Type-S Scout with the stat block from the SRD. You cannot copy any of our Type-S depictions. But if you’ve drawn your own unique Type-S, or someone else did, you can use it.

OGL 1.0a provided some assurance as to what WotC would NOT sue you about. However, WotC tried to use the now-dead OGL 1.1 and 1.2 to narrow the defintion of Open Content and more fully protect their Product Identity. The OGL 1.2 plan was to make game mechanisms Open Content…all else would be closed and clearly protected under copyright laws. Even with the full SRD opening under a Creative Commons license, I expect WotC to aggressively defend their copyrighted material. To start with, I fully expect WotC to go after VTT creators that go beyond “static” depictions of material. I also fully expect Mongoose will follow closely.


Feature image courtesy Pexels

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

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