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An illustration shows a tabletop RPG character sorting legal issues in a book Illustration: Lianne Hazendonk for Polygon

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The fork in the road facing third-party tabletop RPGs

Designers say D&D’s walled garden approach to indie creation can’t end well

At the turn of the millennium, premiere tabletop publisher Wizards of the Coast purchased the rights to Dungeons & Dragons from a struggling TSR. Ryan Dancey, one of Wizards’ vice presidents at the time, marked his stewardship of the popular tabletop RPG with the creation of the Open Gaming License. This collection of legal copyright permissions opened the doors to third-party publishers who wanted to create their own books for the new 3rd edition of D&D, or the d20 system more broadly.

D&D’s publisher dropped a surprise announcement of the 3.5 edition three years later, though, efficiently sweeping would-be third-party competition into obsolescence. Disillusioned, designers snatched the OGL’s system reference document (SRD) — a legally irrevocable breakdown of D&D’s rules with all the names and numbers filed off — and ran. This period of experimentation would eventually germinate forum culture in the late aughts, leading to a blooming of indie RPG designers and their now seminal games: D. Vincent and Meguey Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World, John Harper’s Lady Blackbird, Jason Morningstar and Steve Segedy’s Fiasco, and Emily Care Boss’ Romance Trilogy.

Fast forward 16 years and two editions, and Wizards of the Coast complemented the launch of the new D&D 5th edition by introducing a digital marketplace where anyone could create and sell their own games and supplements. Having learned from brand-conscious parent company Hasbro, Wizards positioned the Dungeon Masters Guild agreement not to protect the mechanical identity of the game but that of its IP — Forgotten Realms, Beholders, Drizzt Do’Urden and Planechase could only be used inside this new walled garden.

Skip forward another six years, and tabletop RPGs have enjoyed the largest period of growth and popularity in the relatively young medium’s lifespan, even accounting for COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Other companies have followed in Wizards of the Coast’s wake by building fences around their own gardens, many of which are studded with huge media licenses. Meanwhile, the indie scene instead has moved toward extremely permissible SRDs and the open plains of collaboration. Dancey’s legacy has created two diametrically opposed paths tabletop RPGs might walk, and we are fast approaching the fork in the road.

A spectral image of Vecna, the supreme evil.
Doomed Forgotten Realms: Sword Coast Gazetteer artwork
Image: Raluca Marinescu/Quill and Cauldron

Life inside the garden’s walls

Matthew Whitby has spent nearly all of his career inside the Dungeon Masters Guild, a digital storefront owned by Wizards of the Coast where creators play in the company’s officially sanctioned fantasy sandboxes. The designer behind the popular RPG supplement Doomed Forgotten Realms: Sword Coast Gazetteer speaks fondly of his experiences, but also says he deeply admires independent designers. He wants to create his own RPGs, yet admits the prospect of leaving the Guild is terrifying.

This contrast tears at him throughout his interview for this story. Whitby first claims relinquishing creative freedom isn’t so tough a pill to swallow. He finds the community within the Dungeon Masters Guild kind and supportive of fellow creators, providing helpful tools and information — including pointing out legal pitfalls. He admits the same community conspicuously ignores any RPG material sold beyond the garden walls, but adds that he and many of his peers prefer that to what feels like a mercenary landscape on independent storefront DriveThruRPG.

Creators can keep more of their money if they publish their adventure modules, campaign settings, or collection of random tables on DriveThrueRPG, which carves 30% off exclusive listings and 35% off all others, but the Guild is a known quantity within the massive D&D player base. In the Guild, you don’t have to contend with Mörk Borg supplements, Cyberpunk Red missions, and the content cheekily advertised for “the world’s biggest tabletop game.” Instead, you can sell directly to people for whom “D&D” and “tabletop RPG” are synonymous.

Whitby says he doesn’t think Wizards of the Coast is interested in actively cultivating its garden, though. He mentions the Guild’s sporadic promotion of titles on social media catching creators by surprise, even though the act can turn a middling launch into a breakout success via spotlight alone. The Guild’s license also prohibits creators from using certain properties, forcing them to choose from among an approved list. Popular alternative settings such as Spelljammer and Planescape were not on that list until after Wizards of the Coast announced its own official books.

“A lot of people say, ‘I’m developing this thing. I want it to go on the DMs Guild.’ But if it doesn’t become one of the approved settings, we immediately have to file off the edges or give it a quick paint job for DriveThruRPG instead,” Whitby says. “I imagine the official announcement [of Spelljammer’s return] brought a lot of sighs of relief from project managers.”

Chris Bissette, the designer behind solo journaling game sensation The Wretched, is a rare instance of someone who came from inside the garden of the Guild but left to create their own games. They are sympathetic to Guild creators attempting to foster a community under the legal thumb of a corporation because they say it could all end tomorrow if Wizards of the Coast so chose.

“What happens to the stuff that people have written and published on it? What happens to the people whose careers depend on the DMs Guild?” they ask. “It’s like being a developer whose apps are only available in the Apple store. What happens if tomorrow Apple closes the Apple store? You’re fucked.”

Bissette expects the launch of D&D’s next iteration — codenamed “One D&D” — to sound the death knell for Dungeon Masters Guild as Hasbro consolidates digital toolset D&D Beyond and other assets closer to the corporate chest. They point to the shuttering of first the WotC forums and then the online content subscription service D&D Insider as proof that the company has a history of leaving scorched earth and marooned creators in the wake of D&D’s iterations.

Polygon reached out to Wizards of the Coast multiple times to participate in this story, but the company declined to comment.

Whitby agrees with Bissette’s prediction with an odd bit of optimism in his voice, saying “it was good while it lasted” and that the resulting wave of creative talent will find new homes and fresh success beyond the garden walls, whether that’s on or any of the growing number of crowdfunding platforms. He’s leaving design for now to finish a Ph.D., but Whitby talks excitedly about one day venturing into indie design — a prospect that was once an “overbearing fear.” When peering into the future, Whitby sees an open gate, wide fields stretching beyond.

Soldiers parachute out of a plane in an official illustration
Achtung! Cthulhu artwork
Image: Modiphius Entertainment

Green-thumbed publishers

Chris Birch discusses Modiphius’ future plans with an eager cast to his eyes. Co-founder and chief creative officer of the tabletop publisher responsible for the Fallout, Star Trek, and Conan RPGs, along with the 2d20 system, he is on the cusp of launching the World Builders program in hopes of stewarding fledgling designers towards his company’s license and system.

Much like Fandom and Cortex did earlier in 2020, Modiphius produced a pair of licenses and an SRD for both commercial and community works created using its system and affiliated properties. Anyone interested in writing adventures for Achtung! Cthulhu or any other first-party RPG will be able to list it on Modiphius’ World Builders hub, ostensibly for other fans to enjoy. Those looking to profit from their art can list their creations anywhere but aren’t able to directly reference any of the company’s worlds or settings. Also like Cortex, new systems become part of a shared resource that the rest of the community can use at will.

“The World Builders is the same as the Dungeon Masters Guild,” Birch says before explaining additional plans for those who choose the commercial route. Modiphius will hold seminars aimed at teaching young game designers the skills and acumen they need to succeed in exchange for a 10% royalty on all major sales. The company will also provide rules consultation during development and marketing and promotion support post-launch.

“If you want to stand out and do something a bit different, and you happen to like our system, we’re going to earn our keep in the cut that we take by really helping you become more successful. We hope so, anyway,” Birch says.

The prospect is sure to entice more than a few designers hoping to become the next Free League — the Swedish publisher that recently lifted up Mörk Borg and Death in Space stretched its own wings under Modiphius’ guidance. Birch believes a direct hand in shaping the future class of tabletop creators is the least he can do within his position. He understands that many will be turned off by the system alone due largely to the granularity of its mechanics and strong franchise media ties — “We’re very Marmite: people both love 2d20 and hate it” — but hopes the success builds a thriving community around the company’s redoubled dedication to its own settings and game worlds.

“I would fully expect someone to drop us at some point, once we do too good of a job helping them. But that’s the whole point,” Birch says. “That’s why companies want to build these programs so that they’re the linchpin between that community. They want the community to come to them, not doing it on their own.”

A fenceless future

As anyone familiar with the indie tabletop scene will attest, smaller designers have been actively building communities around systems for years. The Bakers’ Apocalypse World spawned countless Powered by the Apocalypse games, and the pair never once tried to tie their landmark creation to a license. When SRDs do pop up in indie games, they read more as political statements about art and creation under capitalism. For example, Monkey’s Paw Games ends all of its SRDs with “Be cool: I don’t have lawyers,” while many others have adopted a broad “bigots and Nazis can’t use my game” edict.

The developers of Mörk Borg arguably pushed the permissible license into a more public spotlight when they launched the curated fan-creation zine Mörk Borg Cult soon after the game’s 2019 publication. Creators Stockholm Kartell, Ockult Örtmästare Games, and Free League accepted RPG supplements from — and paid a flat rate to — zealous fans who were already creating their own supplemental material. Artist Johan Nohr says their open license led to over 1,000 related titles released in the first year alone.

“The easiest way was to just open it up completely and say, ‘The game is yours. Do whatever you want with it.’ As long as it’s not bigoted bullshit (or NFTs), go for it,” Nohr tells Polygon via email. “It’s almost like we invited people to play the game with us. Co-own it. Making stuff together is like playing [Mörk Borg] together. There is no one controlling what comes out, but it becomes this horrible, beautiful amalgamation that we could never have made ourselves. If two people could make a neat game, imagine what a thousand could do.”

A character stands wearing a gas mask in the Apocalypse World key art
Apocalypse World artwork
Image: The Bakers

The independent designers speaking for this story all say they value this artistic freedom and collaboration over IP protection or legal safeguards. For them, the industry should function like a bunch of atoms bouncing off one another, trading mechanics and ideas like electrons and thus transforming into new compounds. As Mörk Borg and more recently Mothership have shown, this hands-off method of fomenting a community can be as viable as Modiphius and Cortex’s dreams of the next Dungeon Masters Guild.

“If you’re not going to follow in the slipstream of D&D, you need to create your own slipstream,” says Chris McDowall, creator of Into the Odd. He remains cautiously optimistic about the future and hopes the success of the middle-grade indie RPG is reproducible and consistent. The disparity between the two sections of the industry are vast, and their approach to licenses may well be a symptom of that split.

“D&D is almost a lifestyle brand at this point,” Bissette says. “It is a subset of tabletop role-playing, but it’s separate from tabletop role-playing and, by and large, the people who play 5th edition D&D want to play it only.”

Spencer Campbell is a designer who is leading the most recent spate of tabletop design experimentation with his LUMEN system, which draws heavily on looter-shooter video games such as Destiny and Warframe. He calls D&D “orthogonal to the RPG concept” because Wizards of the Coast has corporatized the art of play and collaborative storytelling to the point of prioritizing brand sanctity over anything else.

“I can’t imagine that suddenly we all just decide, Actually, we really need to defend our assets and our games,” Campbell says. He ridicules the idea that people stealing games is enough of a threat — or even a real one — to cut up the creative commons with litigious walls and privacy fences. “The more we pool our knowledge and our resources together, the more likely we are going to succeed.”

Bissette thinks Modiphius and Cortex’s model, inspired so heavily by the Dungeon Masters Guild, misses the point of community building. They can’t see licensed games, which lie at the heart of all of these newer walled gardens, creating the same loyalty and respect as Harper’s Blades in the Dark or Melsonian Arts Council’s Troika!

Independent designers are looking toward a future divested from the weight of D&D. They believe the tabletop RPG, lifestyle brand, and massive culture juggernaut will keep rolling under its own inertia (read: Hasbro shareholder happiness), and the sooner they can stop trying to compare themselves to that continued success or worry about capturing part of that fan base, the easier their jobs will become. SRDs, or whatever their next form might look like, may provide fledgling artists waystones through an open field instead of fence posts around private property.

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