What Do I Know About Timelines? D&D 5e OGL History

YearMonthProductNotesCompanyComparative Library from DriveThroughRPG
2014JulyD&D Basic RulesFreeWOTC4%
2014AugustPlayer’s HandbookWOTC
2014AugustFifth Edition Fantasy #1Produced 3rd edition OGL and 4e D&D game materialGoodman Games
2014AugustThe Murmuring FountainPreviously released Pathfinder game materialLegendary Games
2014SeptemberMonster ManualWOTC
2014OctoberMonster Template: Headless HorsemanHad previously released Pathfinder and 13th Age materialRite Publishing
2014DecemberDungeon Master’s GuideWOTC
2015AprilThe Breaking of Forstor NagarConversion of an adventure previously available for 13th AgeRite Publishing
2015JulyPrimeval Thule 5e KickstarterPreviously developed for 13th Age and PathfinderSasquatch Studios
2015OctoberThe Raven’s CallConvered Pathfinder adventure for 5th editionKobold Press
2015OctoberTome of BeastsKobold press previously published material for 4e D&D, Pathfinder, AGE system, and 13th AgeKobold Press
2015OctoberThe Rising KnightConversion of a Castles and Crusades adventureTroll Lord Games
2015NovemberSword Coast Adventurers GuideWOTC
2016JanuaryScarred Lands 5e KickstarterPreviously 3rd Edition Setting, also developed for PathfinderOnyx Path
2016JanuaryDungeon Masters GuildWOTC
2016January5e Open Game LicenseWOTC
2016AprilBook of the Righteous KickstarterConverted material from 3rd edition D&D OGLGreen Ronin18%
2016JunePrimeval ThuleSasquatch Studios
2016OctoberDemon Cults and Secret Societies KickstarterAlso developed for PathfinderKobold Press
2016NovemberVolo’s Guide to MonstersWOTC
2017JanuaryMidgard Campaign Setting KickstarterAlso developed for PathfinderKobold Press
2017JuneThe Lost Citadel KickstarterAdd ons for other games, primarily developed for 5eGreen Ronin
2017OctoberTal’dorei Campaign SettingGreen Ronin
2017NovemberXanathar’s Guide to EverythingWOTC

For an upcoming article, I wanted to show the timeline of D&D 5e OGL products. Not every product released. That would be a nightmare. However, I did want to summarize how much was published, and what style of publications were coming out.

While D&D 5e was first published in 2014, there wasn’t an actual 5e OGL until January of 2016. What that means is that any product that was attempting to be compatible with Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition didn’t have the blessings of Wizards of the Coast until January 2016. 

Licenses Past

The 3rd edition OGL allowed enough leeway that Paizo created its own alternate version of the 3rd edition rules, Pathfinder, as a separate core rules system. Just prior to the official announcement of Pathfinder, Wizards of the Coast released the 4e Game System License. The GSL was much less open than the OGL, and it effectively gave Wizards of the Coast the ability to shut down compatible products that were complying later, if they decided to change the terms or revoke the GSL.

Because Pathfinder was created under the 3rd edition OGL, there were a lot of 3rd party publishers that created content for Pathfinder. The 4e GSL saw much less use, but companies like Goodman Games and Kobold Press still created significant content at the time.

There were also some test cases for the 3e OGL. Many “retroclone” reverse engineered rules systems that emulated earlier editions of D&D were created using the 3e OGL, without Wizards of the Coast stepping in to claim that using the 3e OGL to create material compatible with older editions violated the terms of the license. Not only were games that emulated older editions created under the 3e OGL, but also games that created significantly different core assumptions were created as well.

Both Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics and Pelgraine Press’ 13th Age were created at this time, as fully complete and separate systems from 3rd edition D&D. In theory, both were different enough that they wouldn’t need to use the OGL, but using it helped to reinforce the argument that they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel when using the name of game terms, classes, and monsters.

The Dawning of the Age of 5e

Dungeons and Dragons 5e was pretty popular right out of the gate. In addition to releasing the game itself, Wizards of the Coast released the D&D Basic Rules, a free supplement that let you play four of the ancestries and classes in the game from level 1 to 20 without the use of the full rulebooks. This let anyone curious about the edition get a good look at the core rules and core assumptions on which the game was built. 

At the time, Wizards of the Coast did not release an OGL or GSL, but it was pretty clear that the GSL’s limited terms weren’t popular. Many publishers wanted to make content for the game, and while the core assumptions of the game may have been different that 3rd edition, 5th edition D&D and 3rd edition D&D shared a lot more common terminology than 3rd edition and 4th edition, for example, at least when it comes to expressing class progression, new spells, and monster stat blocks.

This is when we see the first tentative test cases. If Wizards of the Coast didn’t intervene with retroclones or highly modified level-based fantasy games, would they intervene if products were made under the 3rd edition OGL for the 5th edition of the game?

Early Adopters

I’m not going to claim to have chronicles every single early 3rd party release for D&D 5e. That said, I did look up what was available on Drive Through RPG by date. There are a few muddy entries early on, where products that were originally released in 2012 or earlier come up as 5e OGL compatible. Many of these have notes saying that a revised version of the products were released in the last few years to add 5e compatible material. Many of these were also products that contained very little in the way of game statistics.

Looking at products that were more rules reliant, almost as soon as the Player’s Handbook was available, adventures were being released. Some of the first were Goodman Games, and Legendary Games. Goodman had published material for 3rd, 4th, and their own Dungeon Crawl Classics, and they were releasing new, original adventures for 5e. Legendary Games was primarily a Pathfinder 3rd party publisher. While their initial offerings were new adventures, they would go on to convert supplementary material originally created for Pathfinder, such as monsters and kingdom building rules, for D&D 5e.

After the Dungeon Masters Guide was released, a few more products came out. This era saw conversions of Pathfinder and 13th Age adventures from Kobold Press and Rite Publishing. Rite Publishing would begin creating conversions of their Pathfinder supplementary materials, such as books of spells for the game. At the time, when asked about supporting D&D 5e, Wolfgang Baur, the chief kobold of Kobold Press, mentioned that they wanted to test the waters for D&D 5e interest, and they also didn’t want to put out anything that would be too costly to pull off the market if Wizards of the Coast challenged the use of the 3rd edition OGL for 5th edition products. This meant a few more Pathfinder adventure conversions, for the time being. 

ENWorld also launched the EN5ider, a regular publication of 5th edition material. There are several notable developers of 5th edition material that got their start with this publication, and unlike some of the “test” products made by some companies, this was a regular publication.

In this period, many of the products fell into a handfull of structures. There weren’t large monster books, but there were small, themed products with some monsters in them. There were large books of character options, but there were several page offerings of new ancestries or subclasses. There weren’t large adventure paths, but there were shorter original adventures in addition to converted adventures from other systems. In general, a lot of these releases felt tentative. I think it’s safe to say that no one wanted to overcommit without a proper OGL, but 5e D&D was popular enough that nobody wanted to ignore it wholesale, either.

Growing Ambitions

In addition to the regular content being offered by ENWorld, there were some publishers ready to commit to bigger, more in-depth offerings for 5th edition. In July of 2015, Sasquatch Studios, the Studio that had been subcontracted by Wizards of the Coast to design Princes of the Apocalypse, launched a Kickstarter to create a 5e campaign setting product for Primeval Thule, a setting they had previously converted to 13th Age and Pathfinder. In January of 2016, several days before the announcement of the official 5e OGL, Onyx Path launched a Kickstarter for a new edition of their Scarred Lands campaign setting, with separate versions for 5e and Pathfinder

In October of 2015, Kobold Press had also launched a Kickstarter for the Tome of Beasts, a huge book of monsters, some drawn from previous Pathfinder bestiaries they had created, and some created new for this collection. If Wolfgang Baur was being careful about putting out 5e material, he was certainly pushing forward in a manner that required a bit more commitment than converted Pathfinder adventures. Kobold Press has designed the first two official adventures for Wizards of the Coast, the Tyranny of Dragons series, and Baur even appeared on Dragon Talk, the official D&D podcast, discussing the Tome of Beasts, so by this time, he wasn’t trying to stay under the radar.

Pre-5e OGL Trends

Pre-5e OGL, a lot of publishers were cautious of using terms that didn’t appear in 3rd edition D&D, and while there weren’t a lot of problems that sprang from this, advantage and disadvantage, as a game mechanic, was new to D&D 5e. The terminology that seemed to be adopted most often in these cases was “combat advantage,” or “combat disadvantage,” or other derivations of (adjective) + (advantage/disadvantage). 

Kobold Press, Sasquatch Studios, and Green Ronin all designed adventures for Wizards of the Coast in this period, and in addition to Out of the Abyss, Green Ronin designed the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide as well. While Kobold Press and Sasquatch Studios seemed happy to ply the waters of 5e design, Green Ronin remained outside of the process until after the 5e OGL was released.

A lot of products that came out in this period seemed to take some cues on where D&D 5e may be going from the Unearthed Arcana articles that were released. Sasquatch Studios took a stab at alternate backgrounds that allowed for groups of followers and a simple mass combat system for them, while Onyx Path included prestige classes in their Scarred Lands book, a concept that has, to date, only existed in D&D 5e in the form of an Unearthed Arcana article. 

In this pre-OGL phase of third-party publishing, we also don’t see a lot of genre bending products. For example, in the 3rd edition era, almost every genre was converted to a level and class-based system. While some of this came later for 5e, the closest this era really got to that type of product were rule supplements detailing modern weapons like firearms. 

Up to the release of the D&D 5e OGL, comparative to all 5e OGL compatible material on Drive Through RPG as of this writing, only about 4% came from this time period. 

When I started going down this rabbit hole, I was trying to see how far I wanted to follow these trends. I was going to stop with the release of the OGL for 5e, but there was another point that I felt was relevant to 3rd party publishing. So I kept looking at products up to the release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Why Xanathar’s? Because that was the first major official expansion of game rules released for Dungeons and Dragons 5e. The Sword Coast Adventurers Guide had a few new subclasses and spells, and Volo’s Guide to Monsters had a few new ancestries, but Xanathar’s was a much more wide-open expansion of the rules.

So, what are some of the milestones we see between the official release of the 5e OGL and the release of XGE?

  • April 2016; Book of the Righteous 5e Kickstarter (Green Ronin’s first major 5e foray)
  • January 2017; Midgard Campaign Setting Kickstarter (Kobold Press’ revised campaign setting book for their Midgard property)
  • June 2017; The Lost Citadel Kickstarter (Green Ronin’s second foray into 5e, this time with a multimedia product that would entail novels, TTRPG material, and a soundtrack)
  • October 2017; Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting (Green Ronin’s joint venture with Geek and Sundry and Critical Role)

This is actually a pretty good place to stop and look back on the history of D&D 5e up to this point. The game was already successful, but by the time Critical Role started gaining notoriety, the game had an amazing amount of inertia, including consistently growing sales of the core rulebooks over consecutive years. 

It’s also an interesting point to take stock, because in March of 2018, Paizo announced that they were developing Pathfinder 2nd edition. This meant that a lot of publishers that were trying to produce Pathfinder and D&D 5e material concurrently no longer had the same amount of incentive to produce Pathfinder 1e material, and it would be until next summer before Pathfinder 2e was released. 

By the beginning of 2018, there had been several large products that were successfully produced for D&D 5e, and many of the 3rd party publishers that had worked with the Pathfinder rules now had reason to commit to a new system with a similarly flexible OGL. The landscape for 3rd party material was shifting.

For Contrast, by November of 2017, when Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was released, 18% of all material that is currently available on Drive Through RPG as 5e OGL compatible had been published.

While this means that publication of D&D 5e third party material had picked up, the momentum was only just building, and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, instead of slaking a desire for more game options, seemed to signal that it was time to throw a lot of effort into that material.

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