OGL, Leaks, and Levels of Exhaustion
I didn’t actually want to talk about this topic, because I was really waiting for something solid and definitive to talk about. Unfortunately, there has been so much chatter and enough circumstantial evidence that it’s really hard for me to get my gaming head on straight without actually sorting through my thoughts and feelings, and since I have a blog, if you’re here, that makes it your problem too. Sorry, that’s just how this works.
In the Land of Twitter, Where the Shadows Grow
If you haven’t been following this drama, for the last few months, there have been evolving rumors about WotC’s plans regarding the OGL, the document that allows third party publishers to put out D&D 5e compatible material within certain parameters, originally based on the OGL that allowed for D&D 3e edition compatible material.
The initial rumors were that WotC wasn’t going to issue an OGL at all for the updated rules being released in 2024. These then shifted to WotC was going to release a version of the OGL that would require you to opt in if you wanted to use the terms of the new OGL and get access to the 2024 rules. WotC then issued an actual statement of intent about the OGL, which did talk about tightening up some of the “loopholes” of what could be published, as well as requiring the reporting of revenue and collecting royalties from people using the OGL if they made an amount over a particular threshold.
A Jared State of Mind
None of this concerned me too much, because my understanding of the OGL meant that if the terms of the OGL granting access to the 2024 rules were too onerous, the original OGL still allowed the publication of the material. If the rules being tested in One D&D were as backward compatible as originally framed, it wouldn’t be too hard to make compatible material like monsters, adventures, etc. without referencing any of the new elements introduced in 2024.
The first event that made me start to be a little more concerned was the second playtest packet for One D&D, which indicated that there were some fairly substantial changes being made to the game that weren’t as limited in scope as originally intimated. Monsters and adventures looked like they would probably still work, but player options like classes, subclasses, and feat were probably not going to align as well, provided the rules looked similar to the playtest rules being floated.
I’ve been hesitant to give any rumors much credence. It’s less that I thought they were absolutely unlikely, so much as I’ve spent the last several years watching people latch on to internet rumors and persuasive YouTube videos as the “alternate truth” of the world, that I want to be skeptical for as long as possible. So if anyone reading this wants to excoriate me for saying that people should be patient and wait for substantial information, go ahead. In this modern adventure we call life, apparently there are no right answers, just a panoply of fans that we can stick our faces into.
There was a wave of people posting videos talking about a new leak, where some people had been anonymously sent a draft copy of the 1.1 OGL. Then the Gizmodo article dropped. I was still skeptical. But by the time we started getting statements from a Kickstarter employee about the contents of the leak, and we started to get information from companies like MCDM about looking into legal advice for current projects, well, it’s hard to not start to force yourself to deal with a very solid “what if.”
There is Too Much, Let Me Sum Up
There are a lot of elements that concern me as this information begins to look more and more credible. I know other people will have different concerns, but here are a few of my big-ticket items:
- WotC/Hasbro’s stance that they can revoke a previous OGL, despite previous statements to the contrary by WotC itself
- The idea that not only is WotC not happy with using the OGL for non-tabletop gaming purposes, but literally only books, PDFs, or ePubs are allowed
- The idea that WotC can determine not only that someone give them a cut of their crowdfunding, but that they can determine a preferred crowdfunding site for projects
I’m going to tackle the last two first, because that first one is a big one.
OGL Proscribed Formats
In RPG circles, you may have heard the story that Star Wars RPGs have notoriously not been available in PDF format, because of the way Lucas Licensing framed their agreements, PDFs count as “electronic games,” and as such require a separate video game license from Lucasfilm. Why is this relevant? It shows an extremely narrow-minded scope in how the material is delivered, and tries to restrict presentations based on legalese instead of end-user functionality.
That’s the same problem this has. When Paizo originally launched Pathfinder, and the discussion turned towards novels and video games, Paizo’s original stance was that the OGL was about supporting a tabletop game, so even names they were allowed to use via the OGL wouldn’t be used in novels. For example, instead of calling a Nalfeshnee demon a Nalfeshnee, it might be referred to as a “pincher demon.” They even used this approach for their miniatures line.
Paizo’s first attempt at a video game, their MMO, wasn’t using the d20 system as its baseline. But over time, as the memory of that MMO faded, Paizo got into the video game business, adapting the Kingmaker and Wrath of the Righteous tabletop adventures into “Infinity Engine” style video games.
Tactical Adventures created a video game, Solasta: Crown of the Magister, based on the 5e SRD. It has a lot of custom subclasses and subraces, due to how few official options exist in the SRD, but it is very clearly a video game that is utilizing the 5th edition rules, in fact, maybe a little more diligently than official D&D offerings.
Virtual Table Tops weren’t a thing when the 3e SRD and the OGL first came out. Websites like the Demiplane Nexus site, which presents the hyperlinked text of games in a web-based format, didn’t exist at the time.
It may be understandable to be upset that people may utilize the OGL to make video games. You can argue that those definitely aren’t tabletop games. You can see why allowing people to use certain monsters or setting distinctive elements in movies or novels might rankle WotC and their parent company Hasbro. I wouldn’t even be surprised, or that upset really, to see them take those implementations to court based on the current, original OGL.
On the other hand, trying to restrict VTTs and web-based presentations of rules is pretty ridiculous. It’s the same kind of narrow-minded, progress-denying approach that people ridiculed Lucasfilm for when it comes to their Star Wars RPGs. It either shows that the people trying to argue that the OGL was never meant for these kinds of applications are either extremely limited in imagination, or are using that argument in bad faith to gain control over a wider portion of the RPG market.
I also feel it may be worth bringing up that WotC themselves are trying to integrate their own VTT into the 2024 rules, meaning they definitely do understand that VTTs are just a natural extension of tabletop gaming, and that web-based rules hosting isn’t something WotC-managed to create on their own, but was brought to them by a developer that made it work in an agreeable manner.
But if WotC clearly owns their official products, why even worry about all of this talk about VTTs not being covered by the OGL? Because it means that any third-party development of VTT resources can no longer be done unless approved by WotC. It’s effectively saying that if you are a third-party developer under the OGL, you can’t have someone convert your material to be used for a VTT, meaning that a major modern tool for playing games has been taken out from under you.
When WotC made its statement about the level of income from which they expected to draw revenue, many people said that this new OGL didn’t look like it was going to affect smaller publishers much at all. Except now that we know there will be a cut of all crowdfunding going directly to WotC, and that that cut will be much higher if you don’t use Kickstarter, that’s hitting a lot of smaller publishers where it hurts.
The entire purpose of crowdfunding is to allow smaller publishers to be able to create projects. Anything that makes that more complicated is going to hurt them. A bigger publisher that is using Kickstarter as a preorder can build in the royalties into their plan, and it may not be great, but they can probably still take something to market without crowdfunding. They just won’t be able to gauge expected sales and allocate funds as well on the front end.
It’s also fascinating to me that WotC even wants to get into the business of having a preferred crowdfunding site. In recent years, a lot of publishers have been looking at different options, outside of Kickstarter. WotC getting involved in the process and making Kickstarter more attractive only because they will pull fewer royalties is even more bizarre than WotC pulling in more funds, because it’s a control measure that isn’t so much about making money, as it is controlling exactly how third party publishers conduct their business.
I Will Make it Legal
The biggest thing that concerns me about this entire situation is that it undermines something that has been a trusted cornerstone of game publishing for over 20 years. The stated purpose of the OGL was to be a permanent agreement with the public to allow the use of the rules associated with it in perpetuity. The people that wrote it said this when it was issued. WotC issued a statement years later reiterating this. WotC didn’t challenge this assertion when D&D 4e was released, even though the time to challenge this would have been when Paizo made a new version of D&D 3e using the OGL.
WotC didn’t even challenge even wider interpretations of the OGL, which were used to create “retroclones” of previous editions of the game. The game that was being shared was clearly D&D 3e, but the game being created by some people under the OGL resembled OD&D, AD&D 1e, AD&D 2e, or BECMI. And WotC didn’t challenge people who did this.
I think we all reasonably understand that there are different people in charge of WotC now than were in charge of it in 2000. I think we can all reasonably understand that there are different people in charge of WotC now than were in charge in 2007. However, WotC, as an entity, set the standard for what they expected the OGL to be used for, and what it would challenge.
I would argue that the production of video games has been a more recent development, and as I said above, I wouldn’t have been shocked if the reaction to them had been to challenge that particular use of the OGL in court. But the response from WotC hasn’t been to challenge people using the OGL to make video games, but to assert that it has the ability to revoke the OGL and replace it with another license, which is referred to as Open, but isn’t actually.
The OGL was always about trust. “You may be able to do some of what you are going to do and do it legally, but instead of testing it, if you follow these guidelines, we’re going to promise not to challenge your right to do it in court.” There have been several level-based games that you could probably have made completely legally distinct from WotC, and had a solid legal leg to stand on, but out of good faith, the games were released under the OGL. Because WotC clearly stated that it was never going to revoke it, and further stated, it was written in a manner so that it literally couldn’t be revoked.
For every game released under the OGL that probably could have stood the legal challenge of being distinct from the OGL, this is a major betrayal, because if the OGL can be revoked, then you got those publishers to admit that they fall under your authority, and you can use your authority over them. This isn’t just about people making D&D 5e content now. This is about WotC saying that it literally doesn’t want to be held to any accountability within the RPG community, because they are “above” it.
When I say WotC, I don’t mean the designers. I don’t even mean the marketing people working literally on the game as a property. I mean Hasbro, and the people making the big decision for WotC that have been put in place by Hasbro. It feels very clear that they feel that WotC, early on, was part of a community, but now Hasbro has no responsibility to that community. Which is a very corporate way to look at things.
I’d also argue part of what bothers me about this situation is that while corporations have never been good, this very much feels like the modern trend of, “we don’t really care about legal precedence, we’re just going to state a fact loudly and definitively, and expect people to bow to our authority.” I feel like modern legal departments for corporations don’t talk about previous case law, but rather, what courts they can fight their battles in, to find the most capitalist-friendly judges that will rule in favor of the rights of a corporation to make lots of cash for the sake of “the economy.”
Have The Skies Turned Red?
I could be overreacting. I tried not to react for a lot longer than many of the people I follow on the internet. But it becomes increasingly difficult not to react because this is my hobby, and also my second job. I review games. But I can’t think about people using games for enjoyment when I look at games produced under the OGL at the moment, because I’m thinking about how much longer products like the ones I am reading will be produced.
This sits squarely at the corner of my happy place and my anxiety. The uncertainty and unchecked authoritarianism and destructive capitalism on display bring in my anxieties about life in general, and it makes me think about them in a place where I want to think about playing a game that helps to stoke creativity and empathy.
Maybe this is a massive hoax that somehow managed to get people at affected industries to comment. Maybe we’re all reacting to a rough draft that one person thought was a good idea, that got shouted down almost immediately, and a much better document is coming down the pike. Maybe this is as bad as it looks, but it will be easily overturned with legal action.
But I know that I can’t think straight about games, in general, until I get some of these thoughts out of my head and onto the blog.
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