For over 20 years, the Open Gaming License has made it possible for tabletop role-playing game companies to create products based on Dungeon & Dragons' rules without having to pay royalties to its owner Wizards of the Coast, or risk a lawsuit. The OGL was broad enough that some tabletop RPG designers adapted it to let others publish work with their own rulesets, which were unrelated to D&D. The threat of that status quo potentially changing has unleashed chaos in the D&D community.
As reported by Gizmodo, and corroborated by several publishers of OGL works, Wizards of the Coast drafted an "OGL 1.1" license that imposed far tighter restrictions on D&D-based content. It asked companies making over $750,000 on OGL products—or companies raising the same amount or more via crowdfunding—to pay royalties to WotC. It also asked creators to log their use of the license with WotC, and grant the company more rights and control over those third-party works, including the power to revoke the license entirely. The previous OGL would have been declared no longer valid by this new document, despite an old FAQ once claiming, "even if Wizards made a change you disagreed with, you could continue to use an earlier, acceptable version at your option. In other words, there's no reason for Wizards to ever make a change that the community of people using the Open Gaming License would object to, because the community would just ignore the change anyway."
The OGL 1.1 draft states, "The Open Game License was always intended to allow the community to help grow D&D and expand it creatively. It wasn't intended to subsidize major competitors." The intent is clear—to give the company far greater control over who can profit from D&D and how.
First released in the era of 3rd edition, the original OGL played a huge role in expanding D&D's reach and popularity. By allowing independent publishers to easily create content for D&D, WotC brought into the fold competitors who previously designed their own rules or published unofficial supplements that tiptoed around trademarks, while fostering an enormous ecosystem that filled gaps and niches that WotC couldn't do profitably. Competitors were incentivised to support WotC's product by gaining access to its established fanbase, and in return helped sell copies of the core rulebooks and supplements.
When D&D 4e was released, it did so with a new license—the Game System License—which, like the proposed update to the OGL, was more restrictive and incompatible with the original OGL. Combined with the relative lack of success of 4th edition, it led to vastly less third-party content for that iteration of the game, and a widespread continuation of support for the previous incarnation, 3.5. This ultimately led to the creation of Pathfinder by a company called Paizo, a preservation and update of 3.5 so successful that for a time it became a serious rival to D&D itself, and these days continues expanding into videogames, board games, and more.
Following the poor performance of 4e and the Game System License, D&D 5e rejuvenated the brand and launched D&D into a new era of popularity. It reverted back to many elements of 3.5's design and strategy, and that included a return to the original OGL, leading to a fresh explosion of third-party content. In this era we've seen the rise of enormously popular actual play streams and podcasts, publishers launching huge Kickstarter campaigns for third-party material, and unprecedented mainstream success for the game.
Now, WotC is working on a new incarnation of D&D, throwing aside the convention of edition numbers. "One D&D" aims to be a step forward that remains backwards-compatible with existing content—aping in some ways the updates of live-service videogames. But with that new development came the first rumblings of an updated OGL, and questions about WotC's intentions for D&D's future.
The leaked draft of OGL 1.1 threw the community into turmoil, seeming to threaten an enormous ecosystem of D&D-related products, potentially going back decades. The new license also specifically stated it applies only to written work, not "videos, virtual tabletops or VTT campaigns, computer games, novels, apps, graphics novels, music, songs, dances, and pantomimes", which was seen as calling into question the status of actual play channels and videogames such as Solasta: Crown of the Magister.
Reaction from both fans and publishers was overwhelmingly negative, with many RPG companies moving to divest themselves from the OGL entirely. Confusion over the possible implications of OGL 1.1 led to panic across social media, with many players swearing off D&D and looking for alternative RPGs.
Paizo in particular was bullish in its response. Pathfinder is its own thing at this point, in its 2nd edition, but still draws heavily on the rules of D&D 3.5. In a fierce statement, Paizo challenged the idea that the original OGL can be revoked at all in a legal sense, announcing that it is "prepared to argue that point in a court of law if need be". It's a bold line in the sand—as tabletop RPG companies go, Paizo is successful, but its legal resources must surely be dwarfed by those of WotC and its parent company Hasbro, even if wording in the original OGL does give them a strong argument.
Further cementing its stance, Paizo announced its own "Open RPG Creative License", a new legal document that will allow publishers to share use of their own game systems in a similar manner to the original OGL. With publishers Kobold Press, Chaosium, and Legendary already on board, it could represent a new path forward for the hobby—though without the strength of a hugely popular rules system behind it, it's hard to say what its overall impact will be.
Many other publishers made their own statements, condemning the leaked changes and in some cases moving to divest themselves of D&D entirely in favor of creating their own systems. The vast majority of publishers in the TTRPG industry are small, enthusiast companies, not powerhouses like Hasbro, and there's a shared fear among many of simply being crushed by this kind of corporate action. As it stands, D&D already has a near-monopoly—if third parties capitulate to a stricter OGL, the concern is that that grip could tighten further to the point of strangling entire companies and groups out of the hobby.
WotC finally responded with an update on the Open Game License on January 14, which began by emphasizing that the leaked draft was only a draft, written with three goals. "First, we wanted the ability to prevent the use of D&D content from being included in hateful and discriminatory products. Second, we wanted to address those attempting to use D&D in web3, blockchain games, and NFTs by making clear that OGL content is limited to tabletop roleplaying content like campaigns, modules, and supplements. And third, we wanted to ensure that the OGL is for the content creator, the homebrewer, the aspiring designer, our players, and the community—not major corporations to use for their own commercial and promotional purpose."
The mention of "hateful and discriminatory products" may be part of an attempt to head off further products from TSR Games, a company that claimed to own the rights to the name and logo of D&D's original publisher, TSR, and has been accused of working with an author who has "Nazi sympathies", as documented in exhaustive detail by There's No Place for Hate in Gaming.
Meanwhile, the part about "web3, blockchain games, and NFTs" seems to be referencing The Glimmering and potential projects like it. The Glimmering was an RPG based on D&D 5e with optional NFT Heroes that could be used as player-characters who would "become more rare and valuable through gameplay" as they leveled-up and earned treasure, saying that "All NFT Heroes are meant for play within the Open Gaming License". It was a controversial idea, with Gizmodo declaring "NFTs are here to ruin D&D", and wasn't great press in its own way.
Finally, the "major corporations" suggested to be using D&D "for their own commercial and promotional purpose" are presumably not OGL publishers like Paizo, who are small fry compared to WotC and its owner Hasbro. The Embracer Group conglomerate does own tabletop publisher Asmodee, and through them a couple of 5e RPG lines, but otherwise the majority of TTRPGs are the work of tiny companies who barely break even.
As D&D has become a recognizable cultural touchstone, however, it's become part of the language of marketing. In 2019, fast-food chain Wendy's released its own D&D 5e knock-off called Feast of Legends as a free promotion. No, really: Wendy's made an RPG in which heroes protected Beef's Keep from the Ice Jester. As D&D becomes ever more mainstream, with a movie and a TV show in the works, Hasbro would probably like to keep a tight leash on promotions it could be profiting from, rather than having a public document out there suggesting anyone can use D&D if they feel like.
WotC's response goes on to note, "That was why our early drafts of the new OGL included the provisions they did. That draft language was provided to content creators and publishers so their feedback could be considered before anything was finalized. In addition to language allowing us to address discriminatory and hateful conduct and clarifying what types of products the OGL covers, our drafts included royalty language designed to apply to large corporations attempting to use OGL content. It was never our intent to impact the vast majority of the community. However, it's clear from the reaction that we rolled a 1."
While it doesn't say when a revised OGL will come out, WotC's statement does say that when it arrives, it will only cover "content for TTRPGs" and not "other expressions, such as educational and charitable campaigns, livestreams, cosplay, VTT-uses, etc." It will also not affect anything released under the previous version of the OGL, and nor will it contain a royalty structure or a way to "license back" products released under the revised OGL, which it says was only included, "to protect us and our partners from creators who incorrectly allege that we steal their work simply because of coincidental similarities. As we continue to invest in the game that we love and move forward with partnerships in film, television, and digital games, that risk is simply too great to ignore."
It concludes by addressing the community's response, and how the statement itself will be seen, saying, "you're going to hear people say that they won, and we lost because making your voices heard forced us to change our plans. Those people will only be half right. They won—and so did we.
"Our plan was always to solicit the input of our community before any update to the OGL; the drafts you’ve seen were attempting to do just that. We want to always delight fans and create experiences together that everyone loves. We realize we did not do that this time and we are sorry for that. Our goal was to get exactly the type of feedback on which provisions worked and which did not–which we ultimately got from you. Any change this major could only have been done well if we were willing to take that feedback, no matter how it was provided–so we are."
For many, no matter what WotC says at this point, the damage has been done. What trust was there has been destroyed, and some of those who felt forced to find a new way of doing things outside of WotC's possible control are likely never to return. One leaked document has left the hobby feeling irrevocably changed, and countless creators and players now wait to discover what happens next.