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D&D maker backs off new licensing rules that led to fan revolt

‘It’s clear from the reaction that we rolled a 1,’ Wizards of the Coast says

A dragon scorches the ground, its rider — lance in hand — bellowing a battle cry. Image: Katerina Ladon/Wizards of the Coast
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

After more than a week of controversy, Dungeons & Dragons maker Wizards of the Coast says it’s backing off plans to alter its Open Gaming License in a way that incensed fans and led to some calling for a boycott.

On Friday, Wizards issued a statement responding to a leaked draft of the Open Gaming License, also known as the OGL. The Hasbro-owned company now says that it will not require creators to pay a royalty, and that content previously created for the 5th edition of the tabletop role-playing game will “remain unaffected.”

Wizards’ statement reads like a full retreat:

When we initially conceived of revising the OGL, it was with three major goals in mind. First, we wanted the ability to prevent the use of D&D content from being included in hateful and discriminatory products. Second, we wanted to address those attempting to use D&D in web3, blockchain games, and NFTs by making clear that OGL content is limited to tabletop roleplaying content like campaigns, modules, and supplements. And third, we wanted to ensure that the OGL is for the content creator, the homebrewer, the aspiring designer, our players, and the community — not major corporations to use for their own commercial and promotional purpose.

Driving these goals were two simple principles: (1) Our job is to be good stewards of the game, and (2) the OGL exists for the benefit of the fans. Nothing about those principles has wavered for a second.

That was why our early drafts of the new OGL included the provisions they did. That draft language was provided to content creators and publishers so their feedback could be considered before anything was finalized. In addition to language allowing us to address discriminatory and hateful conduct and clarifying what types of products the OGL covers, our drafts included royalty language designed to apply to large corporations attempting to use OGL content. It was never our intent to impact the vast majority of the community.

However, it’s clear from the reaction that we rolled a 1. It has become clear that it is no longer possible to fully achieve all three goals while still staying true to our principles.

Wizards says that the new OGL “covers only content for TTRPGs. That means that other expressions, such as educational and charitable campaigns, livestreams, cosplay, [and virtual tabletop platforms] will remain unaffected by any OGL update.” Furthermore, any content already created based on the existing OGL “will also remain unaffected.”

That statement is clearly intended to put at ease the many individual creators who now publish casual actual plays of their groups playing D&D, as well as companies who have invested time and resources into building online tabletop platforms like Roll20 that rose to prominence during the pandemic.

Wizards is also doing away with its proposed royalty structure:

What [the new OGL] will not contain is any royalty structure. It also will not include the license back provision that some people were afraid was a means for us to steal work. That thought never crossed our minds. Under any new OGL, you will own the content you create. We won’t. Any language we put down will be crystal clear and unequivocal on that point. The license back language was intended to protect us and our partners from creators who incorrectly allege that we steal their work simply because of coincidental similarities. As we continue to invest in the game that we love and move forward with partnerships in film, television, and digital games, that risk is simply too great to ignore. The new OGL will contain provisions to address that risk, but we will do it without a license back and without suggesting we have rights to the content you create. Your ideas and imagination are what makes this game special, and that belongs to you.

The tumult kicked off on Dec. 20 when, according to sources verified by Polygon, a new version of the Open Gaming License (OGL) was shared by D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast with some of its close publishing partners. The OGL was developed and refined in the lead up to D&D’s 3rd edition, and has been in place for some 20 years. It is part of the legal framework by which creators have been able to build their own tabletop RPGs alongside Hasbro’s own brand. It has given rise to games like Pathfinder, as well as successful companies Paizo, Kobold Press, and many more.

But according to io9, which reported to have seen this draft in full, the document included multiple trap doors that could have easily ensnared these same companies. Among them was a clause that revoked the existing OGL, thereby pulling the rug out from under dozens of publishers and independent creators. Another clause required OGL-related earnings to be reported directly to Wizards. Finally, for those making more than $750,000 from OGL-related materials, Wizards would demand a 25% royalty payment beginning in 2024.

On Dec. 21, the D&D team published a blog post hoping to tamp down on concerns. In that post, Wizards said its royalty scheme would impact “fewer than 20 creators worldwide.” But following the leak of the draft, fan outrage spiked. Many organized under the #OpenDnD hashtag, while others called for fans to cancel membership in D&D Beyond, the online version of D&D. That effort temporarily overwhelmed portions of the D&D Beyond website. Meanwhile, several online petitions also started gathering signatures — including one from former Wizards vice president and OGL architect Ryan Dancey.

Despite Wizards’ apparent course change, response on Twitter to the publisher’s statement seems just as strongly negative as the blowback to its proposed changes to the OGL.

Many take issue with Wizard’s seemingly petty post-script, which reads as follows:

A couple of last thoughts. First, we won’t be able to release the new OGL today, because we need to make sure we get it right, but it is coming. Second, you’re going to hear people say that they won, and we lost because making your voices heard forced us to change our plans. Those people will only be half right. They won — and so did we.

Our plan was always to solicit the input of our community before any update to the OGL; the drafts you’ve seen were attempting to do just that. We want to always delight fans and create experiences together that everyone loves. We realize we did not do that this time and we are sorry for that. Our goal was to get exactly the type of feedback on which provisions worked and which did not — which we ultimately got from you. Any change this major could only have been done well if we were willing to take that feedback, no matter how it was provided — so we are. Thank you for caring enough to let us know what works and what doesn’t, what you need and what scares you. Without knowing that, we can’t do our part to make the new OGL match our principles. Finally, we’d appreciate the chance to make this right. We love D&D’s devoted players and the creators who take them on so many incredible adventures. We won’t let you down.

Many unanswered questions still remain — chief among them how a near-final draft of the revised OGL got things so very, very wrong. The overall vibe on social media, however, can be summed up by Paizo’s director of marketing, Aaron Shanks: “Hey Siri, what does gaslighting mean?”

Plans to move Pathfinder, as well as other games and game systems, wholly off the OGL and onto a new, independent agreement were announced by Paizo Thursday night.