[Author’s note: Each time I went to post this, the story and circumstances around the OGL changed (that’s part of why it’s late). I’ve kept the text more or less the way I had it. I’ve included an update section at the very end.]
Well, you’ve had an interesting couple of weeks. Once again, it feels like I’m watching history unfold before my eyes. Not the happy kind. More like the destined-to-be-taught-in-business-college-courses-cautionary-tale kind of history.
Now, before we get too far into this, let me make a distinction here. This letter is to the executive staff of Wizards of the Coast, the decision-makers and gatekeepers, as well as any others from Hasbro that might be involved in what could only charitably be called a fiasco. For all the designers, community managers, middle managers, and developmental staff of D&D, this isn’t aimed at you. I know this has been hard on you, too. Stay strong and know that you are loved. (Also, I’d like to see you do more with the Artificer, but that’s another story.)
So, WotC executives, where to begin? I swear by the great beard of Moradin that I’m not just ragging on you. In fact, believe it or not, I want to help you. Let’s start with a little education. We all know the old axiom that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, right? Unfortunately, for many of us, recent events in the TTRPG space have felt more like those who know history are doomed to watch those who don’t know history repeat it.
Let’s set the wayback machine to 2008. Fourth edition comes along, and it’s excluded from the existing OGL. It takes its cues from the GSL, a much more restrictive set of rules for putting out game content. Paizo says no thanks, and BOOM — we have Pathfinder.
I doubt any of the existing WotC executive team in place now was present back then, but there was a definite cause and effect. Cause: a departure from the OGL that had issued in a golden age for D&D. Effect: massive loss of faith in D&D by the player base, giving rise to the game’s biggest competitor.
At the time, the blunder of Fourth Edition in its attempt to chase the thrill of an MMO (but without all the things that make an MMO memorable and fun), seemed like D&D had finally run its course. Shortly, it would join any number of other legacy systems on the scrap heap. It would be something old players of the game would reminisce about and tell war stories from adventures at the High Clerist’s Tower or in the streets of Waterdeep. Maybe we’d pull it out for a one-shot every now and then.
I stepped away from D&D at that time. Truth be told, I didn’t think I would ever come back, and if I did, I would probably play older editions of the game. I ignored 5e when it came out initially. I thought I was done with D&D.
Then a miracle happened, the thing I’ve always wanted since I’ve been a TTRPG player: D&D broke through into the mainstream, or as close to it as I’ve ever seen. Suddenly there were more active players than there ever had been before. Folks who might never have played RPGs previously found a home with D&D 5e, and I was super onboard for that. D&D came alive again. People were excited to play it. I never thought I would see that again after Fourth Edition.
You see, I firmly believe that playing TTRPGs is a healthy form of self-expression. At once, it combines creativity, tactical and strategic thinking, improvisation, critical analysis, and basic math. There’s also a strong social component to it. For life-long introverts such as myself, D&D was a refuge, a home away from home. I know I’m not alone in this.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the OGL 1.1 (or 1.2, 2.0, or whatever) has made this haven feel pretty inhospitable. I’m one of the lucky ones in that my livelihood is not directly tied to D&D content creation, but there are innumerable talented Youtubers and creators out there that I respect who are put in jeopardy over this.
This will not do.
At the time of this writing, you have released your response to the uproar. Silence was not your friend, let me tell you. The statement itself did little to allay any of my fears. Truly, you may like to label it as “we both won,” but if anything the opposite is true — we all lost.
We lost a home and the promise of what the OGL was meant to stand for. Whether you realize it now or not, you lost, too. Not from the backlash this caused, no, but you’ve lost the trust. Shattered it, more like. Your want to control that part of the gaming space has opened the door for your competitors to offer their own OGLs, ones that we hope live up to the spirit of the original. Once again, cause and effect.
Cause: a departure from the OGL that had issued in a second golden age for D&D. Effect: massive loss of faith in D&D by the player base, giving rise to the game’s biggest competitors. Note the plural there.
It’s exhausting to see the death of D&D — again — play out in real time before my eyes. All empires crumble, however, and perhaps it’s time for D&D to fade into near obscurity. I doubt the game will go away completely, but I’m not putting any odds on One D&D now. I was looking forward to where it would go, but now…not so much. Ditto for the upcoming movie and TV show.
While some small, idiotically optimistic part of me thinks you might change course in light of how unpopular this initiative is, the truth is that you will likely continue with deauthorizing the OGL 1.0a as planned, despite the many, many warnings of what an avoidable, self-inflicted wound that would be.
But okay, if moving units is really what motivates you, if that’s the only language you speak, take heed. By attempting to have more, you will wind up with less. I know that sounds a bit like a fortune cookie. It’s true though. If you move forward with your plans, you will have put the nails in the coffin of D&D’s resurgence. All of them, all at once. Dead and buried.
And I suppose that’s what hurts the most about all of this. You had the top spot, you had achieved something fantastic, something truly wondrous…and then you just threw it all away. Perhaps you view the ecosystem that developed around D&D, and by extension those who could make a living from it, as parasitic. You really should view them as pillars. They prop up your brand and your game on a daily basis. How many other games ever get to that point? You should have done everything you could to further empower and protect them.
Instead, you’ve managed to alienate practically all of them in a comically short amount of time, though there’s nothing funny about any of this. Once again, livelihoods are on the line. How can the community ever trust you again? Your actions demonstrate a staggering lack of understanding of your own product, and a level of disconnect from your playerbase that is almost too much to believe.
In short: You were the chosen one! You were supposed to bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!
Then again, I could be looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps I should be celebrating this in the form of an Irish wake. Maybe there should be no monoliths in the TTRPG space, no not one. Perhaps we’ll be better off without you. Perhaps ironically, and certainly unintentionally, you have made Dungeons & Dragons into a phoenix.
Paizo is already laying the groundwork for the ORC. MCDM is working on their own game system that will be “aggressive” in its own open gaming license. Kobold Press has their “Black Flag” project in the works. Monte Cook, who has designed several of my favorite games, has his Cypher system. I’ve been meaning to check it out, so this seems like the opportune moment to do so.
They are all rising from the ashes before you’ve even finished burning it all down. But make no mistake, your game, your community, the goodwill you’ve built up over the years, and the reputation of Wizards of the Coast, such as it is — yeah, it’s all on fire.
And you are the ones who held the torch.
But in the words of the great Led Zeppelin, whose music is inextricably tied to classic D&D: There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Si vales, valeo.
UPDATE: At this point, the first proposed “playtest” form has gone up for OGL 1.2. I’ll admit that some of the concessions appear to be a step in the right direction, but I would still never dare to produce content under it. Here’s a short list of why:
1. You still want to deauthorize the OGL 1.0a. The reasons you cite are spurious — a dodge at best and an insult at worst. The OGL has stood for more than 20 years. That I’m aware of, there haven’t been any high-profile offensive content released under it by third-party publishers.
2. The morality clause in 6f is untenable. The way this situation was handled shows that WotC is hardly a moral compass to determine what is “harmful” or “obscene.” This point says that you alone determine what is considered hateful, and this cannot be contested in court. Even if the rest of OGL 1.2 were perfect (and spoilers, it isn’t), there’s no way any content creator would, or should, agree to that.
3. You give yourself at least three ways you can change your mind in the future if it suits you, including the Severability clause. “Irrevocable” in this case doesn’t mean what you’re hoping the community thinks it means.
4. I’m not as well versed in the VTT space, but the provisions you put in place are clearly meant to give you an advantage once the One D&D VTT comes out. This doesn’t seem like you’re terribly confident in your product if you feel the need to close off sections of it from other developers.
5. Ultimately, the broken trust means that I cannot expect you to act in good faith with any of this. It’s as simple as that. OGL 1.2 does attempt to give content creators a little more breathing room, but it’s just not enough.
As it stands now, the new OGL is a bad bet, one that most third-party publishers and content creators will be unwilling or unable to make.