DND OGL - Is anyone following this? Thoughts?

Everyone refers to the current version of the game as “Fifth Edition”, but it’s not anywhere in the books. My PHB, for instance, says on the cover

Even on the first page, where there’s all the credits and copyright information and so on, it never says anything about an edition number.

As for trademarks, I’m not sure that’s a big deal. Already, most 3rd-party material says something on the cover like “Compatible with the fifth edition of the original fantasy roleplaying game”, or something like that. And then the bookshops shelve them right next to the WotC stuff. Everyone knows what they mean, of course, but they never use any trademark to say it.

Look on the back cover.

Great points and I do think the part I quoted above is what they are trying to do. What I don’t understand is why not create that brand and then do this? Why not earn the trust with their new 1DND platform and ideas, which is supposed to be an all in one place (VTT, character creator, books, apps) by releasing it and showing what they want to do? I guess, to answer my own question, that’s harder with competition. Now it seems they set the bar higher for themselves with this. That’s just my thoughts, though.

I also don’t know how they can make this a brand or a lifestyle with casual players. It will be interesting to follow and see what happens.

Thanks for the reply!

It would be a very bad corporate lawyer who wouldn’t put in some kind of modification or revocation clause in a license.

Seems like higher-ups at WotC and/or Hasbro are out of the “wow, D&D is relevant!” honeymoon phase and are into the “a whole lot of plebs are making money off of our property” phase.

My thought is that I hope the uproar make Wizards think twice about any planned changes detrimental to 3rd party creators, but I also am not going to delve into analyses of leaked drafts of tricky legal documents.

If you were talking about a licensing contract between two parties that would be true. The problem with trying to revoke or modify an “open” license, however, is there is no specific concurrence or consideration between parties; in essence, the party issuing the license is effectively saying, “World, you may use my intellectual property in accordance with the provisions of this license,” and unless there is a specific expiration date (to my knowledge the OGL has none) it cannot be revoked because that would be tantamount to agreeing that other parties may make future plans based upon access to the IP and then arbitrarily removing it.

Now, I’m not a lawyer and while I’ve skimmed through both existing versions of the OGL I’m not an expert on them. I have, however, studied the MIT, BSD, and GNU licenses and much of the caselaw regarding them (‘cause this is what I do in my free time) and it is pretty clear that you can no more revoke or modify existing rights to use a property licensed under an open agreement than you can institute personal bankruptcy by making a public declaration.

Wizards of the Coast can release their “One D&D” products under a new version of OGL that is highly restrictive (although that kind of negates the entire purpose of an open license, i.e. to foster third party content creation and promotion) but their previous editions are under their existing licenses and they can’t do anything to modify that. That also gets into the issue of what is really controlled as intellectual property under the license. Explicit trademarks are obviously controlled, as are specific settings, unique creatures, mechanisms, et cetera, but most of the actual content of Dungeons & Dragons is either generic enough that it is long been out in the public space without challenge or was already ‘borrowed’ from other properties, often with little consideration for permission, e.g. the infamous Lovecraft references in the first edition of Deities & Demigods, the various purloining of race and creature descriptions from Tolkien, et cetera, so how much of the game content can be said to have an original basis is in question.

MBAs are largely people who don’t understand that you can shear a sheep many times but skin it only once, and so they apply their finance toolkit like a war hammer to an orange, trying to smash more juice out of it. The TTRPG industry is tiny in comparison to book publication in general and there are limits to growth, so they’re trying to “remonitize” the same market segment interminably through a subscription model instead of providing actual content. Now, maybe they have some special strategy to provide something that everybody will be happy to pay for endlessly because there are no alternatives but that doesn’t seem likely, and their success is predicated on the idea that people who play D&D will only and always continue to play their game, which is kind of like IBM insisting that everyone would keep using mainframe computers and theirs were the best in town.


I haven’t read the license, so I don’t know. But if you say it’s the case, then someone at corporate is getting es ass reamed for creating such a license. No lawyer should ever allow anything so open-ended.

The purpose of a true “open” license isn’t to directly make money; it is to promote expansion of the base property to foster more accessory business without distributors and developers having to negotiate individual license agreements that would be limiting and prohibitive. As an example, Red Hat, Inc provides their base of Red Hat Enterprise Linux for free with open source code, but then makes their business providing non-free utilities, training and certification, support, et cetera. Maybe they would be a bigger and more profitable company if they built their own proprietary operating system but then they wouldn’t have a bunch of third party support handling all kinds of individual modifications and support for the niche users which all together make up a large part of their base and has fostered the adoption of RHEL as a standard distribution for various utilities, computational tools, and enterprise-wide applications which grew Red Hat from being one of many providers of *nix opeating systems to the dominant player in the enterprise Linux market.

OGL1.0a under which D&D 5E was published does give WotC royalty rights for essentially no work on their part; literally just free money being thrown at them. Now they are going to have to build and maintain the “One D&D” platform on their own, which may be profitable but is going to come at a lot of ongoing support cost, and if it flops, it is all their liability. Open licenses aren’t the right way of licensing everything but if you want to promote and expand adoption of your toolkit or technology base, it makes it easy and low threshold cost to get third parties to provide support at no cost to you.


Except that it was a huge success.

As to how the original worked, there were basically three kinds of content in the 3rd edition rulebooks. A few very specific bits of content (mostly creatures, plus the names of a few important NPCs like Mordenkainen and Tenser) that were first created for D&D specifically were what they call “product identity”. Off the top of my head, these include owlbears, displacer beasts, beholders, mindflayers, and umber hulks. The presence of these specific creatures definitively identify something as being based on D&D, and they’ve often used them as such, right from the start (for instance, the creatures on the cover of my 2nd edition Monster Manual were a beholder, a displacer beast, and an umber hulk, and at least three different 5th edition books have a beholder on the cover). They have a pretty strong trademark claim for these creatures.

Second, there the settings, descriptive text, and so on (other than the Product Identity things). These have a creative artistic element to them, and are pretty clearly copyrightable. If that was all they wanted to protect, ordinary copyright law would have been enough.

But third, there’s the mechanical rules. This is the largest share of what they created, and what they’d really like to protect, except that the courts have already decided that that sort of information isn’t copyrightable. So they needed to come up with some other way of protecting it.

Enter the OGL. Basically, what they did was they claimed copyright for the parts they could copyright, but then published a license to let anyone else who followed certain conditions to use those copyrighted parts (aside from the Brand Identity bits). And the conditions they chose were that it was licensed to anyone who agreed not to publish, share, or copy certain key pieces of the rules. So a person could, for instance, copy and share the XP by level table, if that’s all they do, because they can’t copyright that table… or a person can choose not to copy that one little bit, and in return get the right to copy all of the spells and their descriptions, and so on (except that the ones named after product-identity characters are slightly renamed). The OGL was such an attractive deal that almost everyone agreed to it, even though they had the option not to.

And yes, it did make it possible to make a game that was very, very similar to D&D, just with new tables to replace things like the XP table. Which is what Paizo did with Pathfinder, and so they lost percentage market share. But at the same time, it also made it possible for absolutely anyone to make things like new adventure modules, and even sourcebooks with new character classes and the like, that would be used with the books that WotC (or other gaming companies) sold, and so the hobby got a lot more popular, and WotC’s sales increased significantly even with the new competition from Paizo.

Except that you rarely want to be in a position in which you can’t change your mind and bind without any options future business decisions by the company or the owner of the intellectual property.

And, in fact, Ryan Dancey (the WotC executive in the early 2000s, who was the primary force behind the original OGL for D&D 3E) pointed to the Linux open license as an example of what they were hoping to achieve. D&D was coming out of an era in which TSR, and then WotC, had been very stringent in their approaches to licensing and approving “compatible” products, and as such, Dancey felt that it had been a contributing factor in D&D’s decline in market share.

Well, again, their really isn’t much that is actually intellectual property to Dungeons & Dragons beyond trademarks and a few specific concepts and terms. The idea that they really have some special IP to protect legally is a lot of handwaving to distract from the fact that all they really have is the D&D brand to offer. Now with their “One D&D” effort they are clearly trying to create some kind of new intellectual property (albeit based upon their legacy) and an ongoing revenue stream from subscription services; how successful that is will depend upon how novel and essential it is, but they’re basically cutting out the very people and publishers who have previously promoted the expansion of their brand (and profit both directly in the form or royalties and indirectly in expanding the player base) in favor of generating enthusiasm and devotion through their own efforts to their proprietary system. I’m sure that looks good on some kind of business forecast but I question that it will actually work out the way they expect.

For sure their was a point that D&D seemed to be a dying game which was, if not being eclipsed by other systems and genres, no longer had a cache of being…well, as “cool” as a TTRPG can be. The third party publication and promotion community deserves most of the credit for making 3E and 5E for being as popular as they are, and at virtually no cost to WotC. It is interesting to note that TSR basically never had another success like D&D despite publishing in nearly every genre (science fiction, apocalyptic science fantasy, espionage, horror, et cetera), and WotC has gone in cycles of promoting and then ignoring the RPG side of the business for their more lucrative card business.


Trademarks are often the most valuable property a company holds.

The OGL was rolled out back in 2000, so it’s unlikely that anyone is getting ass reamed over a policy that’s been largely successful for over 20 years. And of course, the people responsible for creating it probably don’t work at WotC anymore.

“No lawyer should allow something so open-ended,” presumes that a corporation always has a choice about the terms of a contract they sign. Marvel would love to claw-back the rights to Spider-Man from Sony, but the contract they signed doesn’t have an expiration, so long as Sony keeps cranking out Spider-Man films. Why would Marvel sign such an open-ended deal? Because when they sold the rights to Sony, Marvel was desperately trying to keep from closing their doors forever, and those were the terms Sony wanted to close the deal.

D&D was in a similar place when the OGL was created. Back in 2000, roleplaying games were a dying hobby. The OGL was intended to reinvigorate the entire industry, by positioning D&D as sort of a “Windows OS” for RPGs, giving a common rule framework that publishers could use to produce their own content for, without needing to invest in building up their own ruleset. (and, not incidentally, saving D&D/WotC from the “setting bloat” that happened with 2nd ed.) WotC could have written the OGL with a “we get to pull the plug on this any time we want,” clause, but the problem with doing that is, nobody would use it. Nobody’s going to base their business on such an uncertain foundation.

I’m not sure what point you are trying to make but an open license for third party publishers to produce works under a licensed trademark, especially if they are paying royalties as they did under OGL 1.0a, does nothing but enhance the core products, while still giving a measure of control to the licensor in how the trademark is used and the content and format of the product.

Dungeons & Dragons as a trademarked brand is valuable only as long as people view it as being some kind of premium product or experience. I would opine that a lot of the current enthusiasm for D&D is largely riding a wave of nostalgia, much of it by people who never played the game in its original incantation, and kind of a ridealong by the general rise of “geek culture” and tabletop gaming as a credible hobby. How sustainable that is without general enthusiast support, and especially with an ongoing cost for subscriptions to some ‘service’ that is of dubious essentialism is questionable at best, and once the cachet of D&D declines, so does any value in the trademark. In other words, in my opinion, WotC would be better off fostering broad enthusiasm to sustain general interest rather than going for the cash grab of trying to bind people into a subscription model for something that any clever person could effectively do for free.


The aforementioned Ryan Dancey (the primary person responsible for the creation/adoption of the original OGL) did, indeed, leave WotC in 2002, in one of the numerous layoffs that WotC has had over the years.

(I have a number of friends who’ve worked as game designers and developers at WotC over the past 20 years; every one of them was laid off from the company at some point.)

My point was only to respond to the assertion that “the only IP they have is their trademarks.” Well, in my view, the only there implied an absence of valuable property to protect. If they are protecting their trademarks, then there’s something important at stake for them.

If there’s nothing important at stake, and nothing that can be leveraged against the users of the license, then I don’t see how this issue deserves so much attention. Either the license is doing something or it isn’t.

And as I described, their most valuable trademarks (the “Product Identity”), are not, in fact, included in the OGL.

Dude, get a hobby. . .maybe Dungeons & Dragons?