Dungeons & Dragons

Hits, Crits, and Fails: The Open Gaming License

So does anyone remember that internet story where Disney tried to trademark the word “princess?” I’ll bet the remaining members of royalty in Europe had some interesting things to say on that notion, and I’d give actual money to hear what those things were.

But this is just an example of how sometimes it’s not enough for a company to own something, they have to own it so thoroughly that no one else can even pretend to own it, or appear to own it, or reference it, or be in the vicinity of it without paying a tithe. It’s all about dominance of the brand, to the point of fanaticism. In the case above, the trademarks, it seems, were placed specifically on the Disney interpretations, not the concept of a princess in general, but it sure does seem like the kind of hegemonic power-grab a corporation like Disney, still swollen from absorbing Marvel and Star Wars, would do.

I really wish this were a story where we didn’t look at Wizard’s of the Coast with the same disappointment we once had for Disney… I really wish that. But, oh my sweet summer children, we must discuss the critical failure that was the Open Gaming License 1.1.

Now to be fair, I don’t necessarily place the blame on Wizards, themselves. It’s clear from the insider leaks, and what’s been reported by other members of the D&D community, that this was a move from much higher up, the great and terrible Oz himself, the parent company Hasbro.

I also want to make it clear I’m not going to dump on Hasbro too much, because I think ultimately this was a case of a company not really understanding its own product. This doesn’t excuse what they tried to do, but maybe puts it in a certain context that makes it easier to understand the sequence of events. The move was still stupid and greed-motivated, but it’s not the machinations of some singular mustache-twirling villain. It’s actually much dumber than that.

So what is the Open Gaming License? Essentially, the rules of Dungeons & Dragons are available, to a certain extent, for free under this license. It means that others can use the basic D&D system to generate content and sell it commercially. This has been a huge boon to the D&D community in making basic info available online for players who can’t afford to buy all the books, and give rise to independent publishers releasing their own books with new settings, characters, lore, and other content to expand upon the game. If that’s not enough, it’s also allowed for YouTube live-play shows like Critical Role, who have adapted their in-game adventures into a successful animated series on top of publishing their own books and game lore set in the world created by Matthew Mercer, Critical Role’s game-master extraordinaire. The OGL has launched a plethora of startup companies motivated by a love of the game and created a massive market of fan-produced content that creates limitless options for character building, setting, and driving your GM bonkers with non-core content.

This was the intent of the original Open Gaming License, and at the time that license was said to be permanent and irrevocable. It created a beautiful garden of content, and helped bring D&D from the realms of “basement-dwelling nerds” to full mainstream popularity with the accessibility of these rules and availability of resources, to say nothing of being able to reference it and make viral videos about it.

But remember, Hasbro is a massive corporation driven by profit, and will behave as such. I imagine that one day, a meeting of higher-ups got together and saw the Dungeons & Dragons brand wasn’t making as much money as it could. And they probably hired a consultant, as most companies full of bloated management do, to figure out why. They would have discovered the explosive success of all that fan content, and insert the Kanye meme here.

So a new OGL was drafted, intended to replace the original. You may recall I said the original OGL was irrevocable. Funny thing… the new OGL would apply to all content moving forward, but other stuff already published would be grandfathered in… theoretically. There were nitpicky restrictions I do not have time to go into. But hang on, it gets worse!

This new OGL was sent to a number of publishers with a legally binding contract to sign. It basically asked for a piece of their profits, limited what they could do with it, gave Wizards and by extension Hasbro the ability to axe anything they didn’t like with no appeal process, and gave them a generous five days to respond. This shook the entire D&D community to its core. Once united by love for D&D, the fans were suddenly united by rage against Wizards and Hasbro.

Hasbro seemed confused, as they didn’t even attempt any damage control for about a week, and I like to think it’s because they didn’t, and still don’t, understand their own product and didn’t realize they’d even done anything wrong.

When Hasbro finally did initiate some damage control it was… not well received.

They claimed they had accidentally released a draft of the OGL and contract. A draft.

Now imagine this, you’re a lawyer for one of the biggest companies in the world, and you are in charge of packaging a very important legal document and ensuring it’s properly reviewed before release. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, you’re competent enough at your job to be working for flipping Hasbro in the first place. Are you letting an unfinished legal draft complete with a contract anywhere near the office printer without approval from your supervisor, their supervisor, and probably at least one minor deity? To say nothing of sending it to specific individuals who are legally using your product’s content with your legal consent and telling them you have altered the deal, pray we do not alter it further?

If you did, wouldn’t you be fired so fast that security would escort you to the nearest window and teach you what defenestration means?

Other backpedaling claims were made, and each one was a critical fail on top of a critical fail. They claimed it was to clamp down on hate speech. They claimed it wouldn’t affect the larger D&D community and only competitors making above a certain amount (which is a half-truth). They even had certain members of Wizards upper management go on with D&D YouTubers like DnDShorts and GinnyDi to be interviewed for a little damage control. But by that point fans were canceling their D&D Beyond subscriptions, which hit Wizards in the wallet very hard and very fast.

Rulebooks only bring in so much revenue, and their best method of monetizing D&D games was suddenly losing money.

Ultimately, Hasbro was backed into a corner. They could never slip something like the OGL revision through now. And in hindsight, it’s not very smart to try something like this with a community that has an entire subgroup known as “rules lawyers.” So Wizards/Hasbro had to relent.

In the best, and pretty much only move, they released the OGL for fifth edition under the Creative Commons license. This means they can no longer try to claim ownership or copyright on that basic content. More advanced content, they still own, along with much of the lore, proper names and places within the mythos, but the actual ruleset itself is literally free with no restrictions on the OGL content. They threw in the towel, much to the surprise of everyone in the community. Usually these stories end with Goliath stepping on Samson and then building a parking lot on his grave.

This was a win for the community, but the rift may never be mended. Wizards and Hasbro lost a lot of trust with that move, and it won’t be easy, cheap, or quick to earn that trust back, to say nothing of the lost revenue.

So I’d actually like to finish out by addressing Hasbro and Wizard’s directly.

Mostly Hasbro, because I think they fundamentally need to understand what D&D actually is.

It’s not a board game, a video game, a service, or a toy. It’s not Coca-Cola or a Disney princess. It’s bigger than any of that.

D&D is a platform for storytelling, a medium for imagination, a great big open world full of fun and danger that you can explore with friends. It’s an imaginary landscape. In nerd lingo, it’s the holodeck. You can be or do anything you want. You can create whatever story you want to create, and build an experience with your friends.

You want to monetize that? You absolutely can! But not by shaking down the community for every nickel. Not when there are already competitors poised to absorb the D&D refugees. You need to, quite literally, learn to share your toys.

Now if you can’t figure out how to still make money doing that, allow me to help.

First, let go. Just let go of the concept of D&D as exclusively yours. You have to be open to the idea that you’ll be sharing this with the community, and allowing others to generate a profit that you can’t touch. Make peace with that idea. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back.

Second, the reason these third party books are so popular is because they are extremely creative and full of interesting new ideas and twists. That’s what you have to compete with. And you can’t crush them out of existence, so it’s time to invest in your own brand. The core D&D content needs to be just as live, agile, and creative as the competition. This means you’re going to have to expand funding for the brand, and hire creative people to write content. New adventures, expansive lore, digital tool sets, cheap and/or free supplements, promotional tie-in events, and a mindset of building onto the brand, instead of just repackaging a concept over and over again. No offense, but this isn’t Transformers. You can’t just repaint a figure and expect the money to roll in. Actual creative work needs to go into the content. Exciting, different, and interesting ideas need to be explored and released into a market hungry for new things.

Third, and final, is to re-evaluate how the game is going to be marketed. A blockbuster movie and some fan service isn’t going to be enough at this point. You need to understand that D&D is about the experience at the table, not the glossy books or the subscriptions. Building onto the existing culture and delivering the tools to make that gaming experience more fun is how you compete in the market as it exists. Yes, it will cost money. But let’s be real here… How much did that OGL power-grab cost? And what was the realistic expectation of revenue on the OGL 1.1? How much was already lost by barreling down the heartless corporation road? Counting the amount you need to spend on PR, the legal fees, and the re-engineering of your Virtual Tabletop to run on just the One D&D rules which you intend to trademark? (Just a guess on my end, but an educated one.)

If you want to make the brand profitable for you, and win back the trust and love of the fans, you have to completely change how you’re currently doing things. Bulldog tactics aren’t going to work here. Unless you’re intending to ruin the brand entirely and then sell it off to Matt Mercer for pennies on the dollar in a few years time, it might pay to invest in the actual experience of the game. That’s what people are paying money for. That’s what they care about.

Some of you might be miffed at me for throwing Hasbro a lifeline here, but don’t mistake my motives. I care about the game. I would actually be happier if they sold it off to Matt Mercer for pennies on the dollar, but the core message of this entire piece is that you have to work with what you have, and that’s my message to Hasbro. Take it or leave it, but at least try to understand it first. And don’t go punishing the community for outpacing you, raise your own game. Get on their level, and give Wizards the resources it needs to succeed. This isn’t a game you win at, it’s a game you play with others. So pick up those dice. Give it one more roll.