Open RPG Creative license

A fresh start

gaming tools meta gm rpg dnd

At the time of this writing, Wizards of the Coast is continuing their attempt to revoke the Open Gaming License. It doesn't much matter, at this point, whether they succeed. They've made their intent clear. They've made it impossible to trust them as caretakers of the legacy of the world's first roleplaying game.

Worst still, by demonstrating what they want to do, they've demonstrated that there's no stability within their organization. Even once Wizards changes its policy, as they did after 4th Edition, it takes as little as executive re-organization to set things back again. With a new president comes new policies, and there's no protection against a policy that threatens the community.

Of course, by now we know that solutions are being developed by Paizo, Kobold Press, and others. The question is, how did we get to this point? ...again? And what can Wizards of the Coast do to regain the community's trust? ...again?

A brief history of fumbles

I have to admit, the monumental mistake that was 4th Edition didn't really affect me. I knew little of licensing back then. I was familiar with the concept through open source software, so I knew enough to recognise that 4th Edition's license was anti-consumer. I played the 4th Edition board games, and enjoyed them (and I still do). But for the roleplaying game, switching to Pathfinder was easy. Like many D&D players, I'd spent the last several years reading Paizo's excellent content in Dungeon, Dragon, and Polyhedron magazines. Honestly, I'm not even sure I fully realised that Pathfinder existed because of 4th Edition. Pathfinder was just sort of Paizo's setting for D&D. I knew 4th Edition existed, and I knew that Pathfinder was a fork, but it never felt like I was "abandoning" D&D. I was just changing venue.

In other words, I had a notion that there was "D Stylized-Ampersand D" and "D and D". Today, I like that the Internet's lack of unicode support has encouraged people to use "dnd" as the name of their favourite roleplaying game. It's like the D&D, except without the corporate trademarked Stylized-Ampersand.

When 5th Edition came out, I was genuinely excited because it had returned to an open license. As with many players, I felt like I'd followed the careers of Mike Mearls and Chris Perkins and James Wyatt and many other content creators for years, both in the Paizo magazines and in books by other publishers like AEG. I was glad to have a reason to delve back into their content. The playtests and newfound transparency of "D&D Next" (5th Edition) was refreshing, and I truly thought that Wizards had learnt its lesson. I played (as I do today) many different game systems, and so I added official D&D back into the mix.

A lot of publishers built up their businesses on 5th Edition. A lot of players came to the hobby because of 5th Edition. During that time, Wizards of the Coast produced (mostly) quality products. But what was Wizards doing to protect itself and its growing community from...itself?

Wizards of the Coast, having recovered from a disastrous lapse of community engagement, had ample opportunity during the 5e golden years to put protections for its community and the D&D game into place. It might seem strange to think that a company should consider protecting its customers from itself. But that's what a community-focused organization does. Important resources are put into foundations and trusts for that very reason. That's what foundations exist. It's done with art, history, software, and more. It needed to happen for D&D during the height of 5th Edition's popularity, and Wizards of the Coast failed.

It's obvious that what happened during 4th Edition was entirely possible again. Everyone knew it, inside and outside of Wizards. Every time a 6th Edition was mentioned during the height of 5e's popularity, the followup question was always whether it would continue to use the Open Gaming License. Fans had learned from 4th Edition, and were keenly aware that Wizards could migrate away from the license again.

And Paizo knew it, too. Pathfinder 2 wasn't a new edition of D&D 3.5, it was a new roleplaying game with no direct connection to the d20 system. They didn't need the Open Gaming License 1.0a to release their game, and only used it as a way to enable publishers to continue Pathfinder 2 development.

We are the owners of our culture

Nobody expected the drastic swindle Wizards of the Coast ultimately attempted, of course. The community is being asked to pay the price for Wizard's inability to foster, cultivate, and protect DnD culture. Luckily, much of the community has banded together to offload that price back onto Wizards of the Coast itself.

Culture is an organic thing that happens when people share experiences. It's the way a society develops. Culture is the interactions and the ideas that people share. It's always been that way, and for most of human history there was no concept of "owning" culture to the extent of taking legal action against one another. It's a unique and sad modern development that culture is not free for everyone to share because, after all, we're all responsible for generating it. Culture is what we live, together.

With Paizo's announcement of an irrevocable open license, committed to a community trust, the gaming community will have a license custom-made for the relationship between a game system and third-party content. In addition to other open licenses like Creative Commons and GNU Free Documentation, the spirit and culture, if not the brand, of DnD is being preserved. Of course, DnD doesn't really need corporate sponsorship to be preserved, but sadly in the society we've built, it does need protection. There's nothing built in to our society to prevent a corporation from claiming ownership of culture, and then, with the full support of the legal system, to prevent people from contributing to it. That's the state of culture. It needs protection to remain free.

Future sight

Especially because the new C-suite of Wizards of the Coast comes from Microsoft, I think they expect the controversy over their monopolization of DnD culture to fade away. They think the community will "get over it" and forget, dutifully signing up to pay to play OneD&D™. The scary thing is that they still could be right.

Think of all the uproar over the release of Windows 8, or Windows 11, or Office 365. Or the outrage that Adobe's customers expressed when all of its software became subscription-only. Or the industry-shaking effect that Final Cut Pro X had on independent filmmakers and small studios. That's my industry (broadly speaking). I was there. People online swore blood oaths that they would forsake Microsoft, abandon Adobe, bury Apple. They were all walking away, and "voting with their dollar."

Well, today Microsoft is as powerful a force as ever. Adobe is still seen as an essential component of any design firm. And Apple is still the default platform for many independent filmmakers and studios. People's outrage often only lasts until there's inconvenience.

Wizards of the Coast expects this to go the same way. People complain, vow to boycott, and then login and pay for OneD&D anyway.

It's up to us, the DnD community, to ensure that this doesn't happen. Cancel your account, and leave Wizards of the Coast's version of your favourite roleplaying game for something truly open. And in a month, or two years, or five or ten or even twenty years in the future when a new reformed Wizards of the Coast swears they've learned their lesson without surrendering ownership of their rules system, their trademarks, and even their lore to the community that has made it successful, don't believe them.

Previous Post Next Post