Dungeons & Dragons Has Burned Up All the Goodwill
Image: Wizards of the Coast
As fans of tabletop roleplaying games debate over what to do about Wizards of the Coast’s new draft of the Open Gaming License for Dungeons & Dragons, the lack of goodwill might be thing that drives the most resentment between fans of D&D and the company moving forward.
What happened with Wizards of the Coast?
Wizards of the Coast has had a rough couple of weeks. After io9 reported on a leaked draft of the proposed update to the Open Gaming License (OGL)—the default licensing agreement that governs all third-party publishers who create content for the Fifth Edition—fans immediately took to social media outlets in order to have their opinions heard. The new OGL 1.1 was an incredibly restrictive and predatory license, and nobody was happy with it. It turns out that after giving a huge, creative space nearly unlimited freedom of expression for two decades, any attempt to take that away will be met with hostility. Lawyers, both professional and of the armchair variety, picked apart the leaked OGL 1.1 and the original OGL 1.0a, attempting to suss out just how much of these changes Wizards of the Coast could legally get away with. Interpretations varied.
Then, there was silence. Over the course of eight days, confusion and upset turned to anger and frustration. There is no greater unifying power than a common enemy, and Wizards of the Coast allowed the worst fears of fans and creators to go unanswered by staying quiet. Without reassurances or transparency, the silence became more and more damning as many fans and creators who attempted a “wait and see” approach to the updated OGL became convinced that the lack of communication was as good as being caught red-handed.
When Wizards of the Coast finally did release a statement on January 13, it was too little too late. Then, by the time the next announcement came on January 18—this time directly from Kyle Brink, the executive producer at Dungeons & Dragons—the last of the goodwill Wizards of the Coast might have enjoyed from its fanbase had been entirely burned up.
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The trust is gone
And now, Wizards of the Coast has an even bigger problem. Even though it has clearly gone back to the drawing table multiple times—first with the OGL 1.1, then the scrapped OGL 2.0 FAQ, then the new OGL 1.2 draft (this one open for a feedback cycle known as a playtest) and the following transparent communication—there are almost no fans left who are willing to engage with the company in good faith. Although Brink is more genuine in his statements and has apologized directly for the actions of the company, stating that he hopes to work with the larger TTRPG space, the fact is that very few people are willing to do so.
This is partially because of WotC’s behavior over the past six-to-eight months. From the takeover of DnD Beyond to the inclusion of the Hadozee (and their subsequent retraction), to the cashgrab that was the release of overpriced Magic: The Gathering anniversary packs, WotC has been burning up goodwill like it needed it to keep warm over the winter. Additionally, the fact that the OGL 1.1 existed at all, and that it was even considered, is a testament to the kind of mindset that might still exist at Wizards of the Coast.
What happens to Dungeons & Dragons now?
Even the most benign offerings from Wizards of the Coast are now being treated with suspicion and negativity. Many sections of the TTRPG space, which has seen aggressive and direct tactics work over the past two weeks, are unwilling to admit that Wizards of the Coast has heard them and are attempting to find a middle ground. The “all or nothing” approach that TTRPG discourse is entering is detrimental, not only to Wizards of the Coast, but also to RPG fans in general.
This is, sadly, just the way that things work. Wizards of the Coast has been bullied into a corner and is offering concessions. Wizards has ulterior motives, of course, and its adjustments don’t mean anyone must trust WotC. But there has to be a point where the TTRPG space must agree that this incredibly clumsy backtrack, scramble, and massive capitulation was not the plan. Out of the two scenarios—either a giant corporation miscalculated the reaction to a new legal document, or, as the conspiracy theory angle would have it, Wizards of the Coast wanted all this to happen in order to “slip something past” its fans—the former is much more likely. This is a community that literally invented the term “rules lawyer.” WotC simply didn’t realize how literally that would be taken.
So, what’s happening now is that after the village has come together to defeat the dragon terrorizing their community, the power vacuum is splitting into factions. There are some folks who are willing to admit that the newest OGL 1.2 and the agreement to designate a portion of the rules for free use under the Creative Commons license is a good start to what could be a good faith conversation with a giant corporation. There are some folks who think that any attempt to de-authorize the OGL 1.0a means that Wizards isn’t actually interested in change. There are many who think that people are getting conned because this newest OGL 1.2 only seems better, but is still, in fact, just as bad as the OGL 1.1 or even worse.
The answer to who’s right about what essentially amounts to legal speculation. Wizards will say whatever it wants. It’s up to fans to decide what they will fight for. Besides, “which one of these groups of fans is right” is not the question that the TTRPG space needs to be asking itself. The question that any TTRPG fan needs to ask is: how much are you—as a player, a creative, a company—willing to play by someone else’s rules? And what are you willing to give up in order to play alongside Wizards of the Coast?
Dungeons & Dragons is not the only game out there—and never has been
The fact is that Wizards of the Coast is going to attempt to de-authorize the OGL 1.0a. It has made that explicitly, incredibly clear, and it’s my opinion no amount of backlash or feedback or threat of legal action is going to dissuade it from doing that. That’s not to say people shouldn’t tell the company not to do it. Every fan and creator needs to look at the OGL 1.2 and try to figure out just how much they’re willing to put up with and what they’re willing to fight for. If the answer is “none of this,” then you need to find a way out of the garden, and fast. The walls are coming up. While D&D is a massive part of the TTRPG industry, it is far from the only sandbox that fans and creators have to play in.
Divesting from Wizards of the Coast is extreme and frustrating, especially as this is a property that people have visceral emotional attachments too, but I would hope people could redirect the love that comes from the games to the gameplay itself, and not the product. Additionally, for third party creators, WotC says it will be keeping its claws out of products produced under 1.0 (on the first page of the new OGL 1.2, in the paragraph directly under the creator badges) but… who believes it?
There are dozens of companies out there attempting to lead the way to a full party break-up with Wizards. The new ORC License, the system announcements from third-party creators, even the dozens—if not hundreds—of indie systems that are shared on Creative Commons licenses, all of these are tools that will allow any RPG fan or creator to remove themselves from supporting Wizards of the Coast if they find the final edition of the OGL 1.2 truly objectionable. You can still play the Fifth Edition without ever supporting Wizards of the Coast again. Nobody will try to stop you.
I sincerely hope that the space can come together to continue to fight for the good of those who will rely on the inevitable OGL 1.2, while still maintaining space for the many, many, people who don’t want to risk getting in bed with Wizards of the Coast again. In the coming weeks and months, I believe that the biggest divisions within the TTRPG ecosystem will not come from how much power the space will wrest from Wizards of the Coast, but will instead lie in how the space work will work to diversify the scene and divest individual identities from a single corporate product—and whether or not this wildfire of righteous anger will allow for a more expansive, multi-system TTRPG environment to grow out of the ashes of Wizards of the Coast’s scorched earth.
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