The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Wizards of the Coast is revising the OGL, and an announcement is impending. Creators, fans, and the loud detractors are spending a lot of time and energy imagining what WotC will do. An even more important question is what we want the OGL to be for One D&D. And what does WotC want? What should it want?
This has been rattling around my head for a few… years? I’m publishing this all at once, across several posts. Read at your leisure!
The OGL was released for 3rd Edition. You can find a very good account of the history here.
A much touted reason for the OGL was that WotC wanted D&D to never die. While there is some truth to it as a reasoning, I think this gets repeated because it sounds so altruistic. I would argue that the secret sauce of a good RPG isn’t the existence of third party products for a prior edition or that someone can create a retroclone. I think the strength of a good RPG rests on the growth of an active community. Excited GMs who are dying to run a session, players who are eager to try out a new character, and fans talking about the latest buzz – that’s the sauce.
And when we think of D&D and the larger hobby, it is the current edition everyone looks to for energy and growth. The biggest crowdfunding comes from 5E, not earlier editions. Most of the biggest RPG companies all have a 5E version of some product. The energy is in the now, and that requires continued success. The game (and the hobby) withers without it.
I would argue that the largest motivation for the OGL came from the key problems TSR had in trying to grow an RPG to rival other companies in the board game and toy space. TSR could not find a way to achieve that growth, and ultimately failed as a company by pursuing that growth. The vision for the OGL was thus one of a tiny RPG department that maintained only the core books and licenses, and the entirety of what we call D&D, from adventures to supplements to everything else… would be created by other companies. And this would bolster core book sales. And that’s all.
WotC ended up not implementing that vision, and I think that’s very fortunate. It was not a good vision. We can look to 5E for proof (though previous editions also work, for both similar and different reasons). 5E core book sales are amazing, but equally fantastic are sales of sourcebooks like Xanathar’s and Tasha’s and adventures like Witchlight. The business concept behind 5E was that of an edition making its money by selling t-shirts and video games. Instead, it saw incredible growth from actual paper books. It of course also sold well digitally and as licensed products. I’m very glad WotC never went with the original OGL plans.
The OGL had other flaws as well. When D&D launched 4E, the OGL enabled the growth of Pathfinder, which nearly outsold 4E. This was not just the fault of the OGL. WotC made a number of bad moves, including using a GSL with very bad license terms for 4E instead of using the OGL. 4E’s growth was hurt by the way their corporate approach and the previous OGL combined to push creators and fans away. (I say this as a huge fan of 4E. I had and have a ton of fun with that edition.)
Another problem with the OGL was that it was, perhaps, a bit too good for creators. Most licenses and most stores take a cut. It’s the price of working with a company, platform, or IP. WotC took no cut and basically just enabled creation. That is both awesome and foolish. The OGL enables companies to create competitive material of almost any nature, at any scale, with no payment back to Wizards.
That may sound fine. In many ways, it is. But it is also generally good for companies to profit from their licenses. There is a sweet spot between the brutal fees some licenses charge and the pay-nothing of the OGL. As a hobby, as customers, we want D&D to be on sound footing. We want it to have some protections and some financial benefits. We want a balance.
There are many reasons why the OGL succeeds. This includes that creators know it can’t go away, and that the terms can’t change. (Hopefully, WotC agrees.) But let’s talk not about the language of the OGL and instead on the good impacts it has.
Some of the benefits are really obvious. We can look across the hobby and see millions of dollars being made across the industry by selling 5E material. We have an incredible number of sales on the DMs Guild, more sales of 5E on DriveThru, Roll20, and many other platforms. We have MCDM and Ghostfire and so many successful Kickstarters raising many tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
The OGL fuels, as it did during 3E, countless creators who first hone their craft by designing something for 5E. This helps the entire hobby grow.
Amongst the many benefits are two that are really important for WotC.
First, the OGL causes people to create 5E, instead of working on another RPG. The disproportionate success of 5E and of the OGL means that the hobby is focused on 5E. When a gamer dreams of creating, this is where they are likely to start. And if they do well enough, they may never look anywhere else.
Second, the OGL allows the creation of products WotC would never make and should not want to make. Think of how many monsters have been created for 5E by third-party companies. If WotC tried to sell all of that material, they would drown the market in monsters and their sales would tank. The edition itself might die, as previous editions have suffered when official books offered too many magic items or feats or monsters. WotC operates at a huge scale, and requires huge sales from each book. Other companies, however, can use the OGL to sell niche products to niche consumers in far smaller quantities. Five thousand copies is a horror for WotC, but a blessing for a small creator. Unofficial material meets niche interest and offers a huge breadth of design, without hurting official sales.
We can see this is true for any number of products. Curse of Strahd sales aren’t hurt by the thousands of horror supplements and adventures available through third parties. If anything, Curse of Strahd is stronger for them.
I would argue that these two reasons are sufficient for WotC to want to keep the OGL alive. But WotC likely wants more. And we may be okay with some of that. In the next parts, let’s look at what we and WotC want.