Why Are Dungeons & Dragons Fans So Upset?

Why Are Dungeons & Dragons Fans So Upset?

D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast has taken a lot of heat about its new Open Game License. Here's what you need to know about OGL 1.2.

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Image: Wizards of the Coast

Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary that publishes Dungeons & Dragons, has been under fan scrutiny since a draft of its new Open Game License leaked earlier this month, and over the past two weeks all hellfire broke loose in the fandom. The company had to backtrack and apologize and then announce entirely new plans.

A disagreement over the licensing terms to a tabletop roleplaying game might seem like inside baseball or a minor trashcan fire, but the OGL battle says a lot about the power of players to own their games, and how corporate America regards and treats its customers and fans. So what are all these gamers worried about, and why does the OGL matter? Read on.

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What is the OGL?

What is the OGL?

An image from Candlekeep Mysteries, published by Wizards of the Coast
Image: Wizards of the Coast

The Open Gaming License (or OGL) is a default use license established in 2000. It allowed fans to use portions of the Dungeons & Dragons intellectual property in their own work without oversight from Wizards of the Coast (the Hasbro subsidiary that owns D&D).

The basis for the OGL was rooted in software licensing, directly inspired by the GNU/Linux license. Under the OGL—which anyone could use, without any special permissions or contracts needed—fans were allowed to create their own games, adventures, characters, items, and creatures that were explicitly compatible with Dungeons & Dragons, and sell that work for money.

Attached to the OGL was a System Reference Document, which outlined the exact parts of the Dungeons & Dragons IP that people could use, including stats and mechanics for races, classes, spells, creatures, and combat… more or less everything you might need to run a game. The SRD currently attached to the OGL 1.0(a)–the most recent, authorized version of the license–is nearly 400 pages long. Over 23 years, the OGL and the attached SRD led to a huge amount of D&D fans investing their time and money in third party publishing, or 3PP.

Over the past 23 years, multiple publishing companies that specialize in producing D&D-compatible, third-party content were established. Some of these companies include Kobold Press and Green Ronin. Other companies produced independent games that used the OGL as a base, like Paizo’s Pathfinder and Evil Hat’s Fate.

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Perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free

Perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free

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Image: Wizards of the Coast | Svetlin Velinov

The OGL was embraced by fans and creators because it allowed them to benefit from D&D’s intellectual property, and because of the protections the license gave them. The OGL 1.0a grants “perpetual, worldwide, royalty-­free” usage of the SRD, which means that you don’t have to pay WOTC to use the license, and you don’t have to pay Wizards any royalties on revenue brought in on products that use the SRD.

It protected fans from getting sued by the company, but it also allowed the company to enjoy the popularity brought on by thousands of creators using the SRD as a base and writing games specifically for their product. Over the past decade, this network effect helped the fifth edition of the game gain popularity and help Dungeons & Dragons attain unprecedented mass appeal.

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The start of #OpenDnD

The start of #OpenDnD

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Image: Mike Holik

After enjoying a resurgence of the D&D fandom and benefitting financially and culturally from the attention for almost a decade, a few years ago Wizards started working on a new, updated OGL. We now know this as the OGL 1.1. Fans first became aware of the existence of the OGL 1.1 in late 2022, when rumors began circulating about WOTC calling third party publishers into meetings and asking them to sign non-disclosure agreements. While this is standard business practice, many people were under the impression that this was in advance of a large push by Wizards to attempt to revoke the OGL. The #OpenDnD hashtag was used to rally fans to express their interest in keeping the OGL and, by extension, allowing 3PP to continue their work.

This caused Wizards of the Coast to respond publicly. On December 21 the company assured the community that the OGL wasn’t going anywhere, and that updates were needed in order to “allow the D&D community’s independent creators to build and play and grow the game we all love.” Additionally, the company said that “the OGL is not going away.” This fast response to speculation helped assuage some fears within the community, but many fans were still hesitant.

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What happened with the OGL 1.1?

What happened with the OGL 1.1?

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Illustration: Vicky Leta

The OGL 1.1 is the update to 2000's OGL 1.0. It expanded the relatively simple and straightforward document into a massive legal license. The OGL 1.1 was supposed to go live on January 4, but was delayed for undisclosed reasons. The next day, Gizmodo reported that the new OGL 1.1 went back on a lot of the protections, grants, and considerations that were given in the OGL 1.0, and would require revenue reporting, and payment of royalties to WOTC. Fans, content creators, and third party publishers flipped out. This new OGL was not open at all.

The tabletop roleplaying community’s biggest complaints about the OGL 1.1 were that Wizards of the Coast wanted to “deauthorize” the original OGL, the royalty percentage was excessive, there was sub-licensing language that would give Wizards of the Coast nearly complete control of the content produced under the OGL, and the commercial license was restricted to only PDFs and printed materials.

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#DnDBegone

#DnDBegone

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Illustration: Vicky Leta

The backlash was immediate. As the report spread and the full text of the OGL 1.1 leaked, fans, content creators, and third party publishers released statements, rallied communities on social media, and established their own responses to the OGL. Fans began to unsubscribe from WOTC’s digital toolset, D&D Beyond, in order to register their protest, hashtagging the campaign “#DnDBegone.”

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Paizo, Kobold Press, MCDM, and the ORC

Paizo, Kobold Press, MCDM, and the ORC

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Image: Paizo

During a week when Wizards of the Coast kept mostly silent about the situation, multiple third-party publishers announced their plans to step away from the OGL 1.0 and 1.1 entirely. Bastions of third-party content like Kobold Press and MCDM announced that they would be writing their own systems. Paizo announced that it would be financing the establishment of its own default gaming license, called the Open RPG Creative License, or the ORC, which will eventually be stewarded by an independent nonprofit, much like the Linux Foundation. Paizo announced on January 19 that over 1,500 companies now support the ORC.

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Why are D&D fans upset?

Why are D&D fans upset?

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Illustration: Vicky Leta

There are a few reasons that fans of all stripes banded together to protest the new OGL. First, the groundwork for resistance was already built up. The explicitly contentious #OpenDnD movement had been on people’s minds and in the conversation for a month or so. And other corporate missteps like the MTG Anniversary release (where unplayable cards sold for nearly $1,000), offensive racist depictions of the Hadozee, and Hasbro executives publicly calling Dungeons & Dragonsunder-monetized” had all led to increasing resentment and frustration among many players. The OGL 1.1 represented many worst fears confirmed, and the leaked document appeared to be a critical failure to listen to the fandom.

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Promises and restrictions

Promises and restrictions

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Image: Wizards of the Coast | Johannes Voss

After having enjoyed 23 years of open gaming, fans were alarmed about having many of their rights taken away by a new OGL document. If WOTC de-authorized the original OGL, that went back on promises the people who created the OGL made during its creation, and for decades after its release.

More alarmingly, the new OGL’s sub-licensing language and reporting structure could have made it so that Wizards of the Coast would have direct access to all commercialized products that used the OGL, and would have control over the content that was produced under the OGL, regardless of whether or not they owned the content. The idea that Wizards would be able to use content made by third parties without recourse, royalties, or even asking permission angered fans.

The restrictions on commercial content allowed under the OGL 1.1 also left out Virtual Table Tops (VTTs) and digital toolsets—work covered under the OGL 1.0 was limited to “static” media, which could mean that VTT’s couldn’t exploit the license. While the largest VTTs, such as Roll20, have custom agreements with WOTC and would therefore “remain unaffected,” niche services that supported different kinds of gameplay would be left out of the contract.

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A creator-focused culture

A creator-focused culture

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Image: Wizards of the Coast | Mark Rosewater

The OGL 1.1 would have also introduced monetary restrictions on licensed content creators, introducing a 25% royalty fee on all revenues in excess of $750,000. While WOTC said in its December 21 statement, and in the OGL 1.1, that this would affect only “20 or so” creators, many more mid-size companies and large crowdfunding projects were concerned about being forced into the royalty tier.

The new royalties also showed an important misunderstanding of the D&D fanbase. The tabletop roleplaying game space is a creator-focused community, where players create their own stories and rules. Many casual fans dream of sharing or selling their own products and games, or even becoming a full-time designer or write. Any potential restrictions on what kind of content creators might make—or how much money they might make by publishing it—was bound to be incredibly unpopular.

The fact is that many people who write for Dungeons & Dragons got their start in third party publishing, or are freelancers who supplement WOTC contracts with work for third party creators. Many creators and fans see their relationship with D&D as a peer-to-peer relationship, rather than a strict producer-consumer relationship. The new OGL 1.1 disrupted an equitable ecosystem, and creators were were unwilling to lose status.

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You don’t need WOTC to play D&D

You don’t need WOTC to play D&D

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Image: Wizards of the Coast | Sara Winters

But perhaps the biggest cultural component of this backlash is that Dungeons & Dragons is a game that does not need Wizards of the Coast. Players are cooperating to have an adventure and tell a story; sure, they might use rule books sold by WOTC to facilitate that storytelling, but it’s entirely possible —and quite common— to just make up your own rules, or use old rules you bought decades ago.

D&D doesn’t need digital updates, it doesn’t need new installments, it doesn’t need more hardware or accessories. The mass movement to unsubscribe from D&D Beyond showed that it is just a tool, and not in any way essential to the game that people want to play.

To many fans, the OGL 1.1 seemed to represent a bunch of business executives telling them how to play D&D. That was never going to go over well.

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After the backlash

After the backlash

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Image: Wizards of the Coast

The immediate rejection of the OGL 1.1, even before it had even gone live, showed that fans were paying attention, and they intended to hit Wizards where it hurt. Citizen journalists and D&D influencers led the #DnDBegone campaign online, and asked people to unsubscribe from D&D Beyond. And the fan-led campaign sent a message to WOTC and Hasbro higher-ups. The immediate financial consequences forced the company to respond, further delay the rollout of the new OGL, and then adjust the messaging around the rollout occurred because of a “provable impact” on their bottom line. On Friday, January 13, WOTC released a surprise statement backtracking on many of the OGL changes and apologizing to fans—though many critics said it was pandering and avoided really accepting responsibility.

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An apology, and an update

An apology, and an update

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Image: Wizards of the Coast | Wylie Beckert

On January 18, Kyle Brink, the executive producer for D&D at Wizards of the Coast, released a new update on the OGL. The other two updates from December 21 and January 12 were both signed by D&D Beyond Staff—not Dungeons & Dragons staff, much less the team lead.

The new update was a massive turn away from previous statements. According to Brink, the OGL would be offered for public feedback before implementation. It established the baseline protections that the new OGL would offer, including coverage for video content, accessories, non-published works (such as contracted DM services and consulting), VTT content, DMs Guild content, revenue, and ownership.

Brink also apologized and admitted WOTC’s missteps in the entire process. In this update, Brink recognized the issues that the D&D community had with the OGL 1.1, and promised to do better. The new OGL, he promised, would be offered for feedback on or before Friday, January 20.

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Enter Creative Commons

Enter Creative Commons

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Illustration: Wizards of the Coast

In an announcement on Thursday, January 19, Wizards of the Coast released its plan for establishing a new version of the OGL, called the OGL 1.2. It has revealed the current proposed text for the OGL 1.2 and stated that there will be two weeks where it will solicit feedback from the community. While the new OGL 1.2 addresses a lot of concerns the community had when the OGL 1.1 was reported on, there are still a lot of hang-ups for concerned fans. Royalty tiers and reporting have been removed, but the OGL 1.0a will still be de-authorized; a major pressure point for creators and fans.

However, D&D will be putting core rules under the auspices of a CC-BY-4.0 license and putting the contents of various System Reference Documents under the OGL 1.2. While there are still a lot of questions, and people are right to be concerned after being so badly burned by D&D over the past two weeks, this is a massive step forward, and is hugely improved over the draft OGL 1.1.

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Provoking an opportunity attack

Provoking an opportunity attack

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Image: Wizards of the Coast

Wizards of the Coast probably should have predicted that fans would band together and refuse to play by the company’s new rules. There are, after all, certain tenets that are held at most roleplaying game tables: don’t split the party, don’t go alone, and don’t let bullies push you around. WOTC may have “rolled a 1” on its initial rollout of the OGL, but then the wider TTRPG space did its own damage to the company.

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The OGL 1.0a will not be deauthorized.

The OGL 1.0a will not be deauthorized.

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Image: Wizards of the Coast | Ryan Pancoast

In a surprise announcement on January 27, Dungeons & Dragons announced that it would not seek to deauthorize the OGL 1.0a, which it had been attempting to do throughout every iteration of the new OGL. It turns out that the fan response to the feedback survey offered alongside the OGL 1.2 was so overwhelmingly negative that it had no choice but to respond early, rather than wait two weeks to produce another version or respond to feedback.

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The 5.1e SRD is now in the Creative Commons

The 5.1e SRD is now in the Creative Commons

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Image: Wizards of the Coast | Raymond Swanland

The big victory is that instead of a portion of the SRD being put into the Creative Commons, the entire SRD has already been put into the Creative Commons! This is an irrevocable action, and one that not even the lawyers at Wizards of the Coast can attempt to work around. The SRD is a massive 400-page document, and to have all shared in a free-to-use license is genuinely incredible.

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The TTRPG community won

The TTRPG community won

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Image: Wizards of the Coast | Chris Rahn

Ultimately the main reason that D&D retreated is because of the fans. The constant pressure and the swift action against DDBeyond made it so that Wizards of the Coast couldn’t ignore this or assume it would blow over. The shift to both preserve the OGL 1.0a and put a significant portion of its IP into the Creative Commons is not something that can be easily dismissed—by fans, lawyers, or WOTC. It might not be enough to completely bring people back to the game, but it might help ease some people’s concerns, at least until we break down the next door.

io9 will continue to cover the battle and the full campaign, and will update this story when there are new developments.

Update, January 27, 5:30pm ET: This post has been updated with information about the January 27 OGL statement from Wizards of the Coast.


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