What is the Fuss over OGL 1.1?

What is the Fuss over OGL 1.1?

What is the Fuss over OGL 1.1?

Dungeons & Dragons: the World's Greatest Role-Playing Game! Long has this braggadocious subtitle been applied to the well-known TTRPG,  but not without good reason! In the many decades since its inception, Dungeons & Dragons has grown in popularity, weathered many controversies, and has grown to be a household name. Much of its success in recent years has been due to passionate, talented creators making their own content for the game, streaming their D&D sessions, and doing the work of publicizing the game on Wizards of the Coast's behalf while asking nothing in return. Creators like Matthew Mercer of Critical Role, Matt Colville, and the long-running sagas of the Adventure Zone can be directly credited for D&D’s popularity, as well as the game appearing in TV shows like Stranger Things and Community. One could argue that most, if not all, of the major reasons for D&D’s popularity today is because of its loving and hardworking fanbase.

But recent changes to Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License (OGL) have well-known creators nervous. It seems as though Wizards of the Coast (WotC), D&D’s publishing company, is prepared to bite the hand that has been feeding it these past many years. And in the minds of many, there has never been a worse time to be a fan of D&D, much less a creator of supplementary content for the game! In this article, we will explore a few reasons why, but remember as you read that I am not a lawyer, and the presented interpretations of the document are based upon my own readings and research on the subject. The original document can be read HERE (first two pages), as well as the new version that we will primarily be discussing HERE. It may also behoove you to read Wizards’ Fan Content Policy HERE, as it is referenced in these documents and important on its own. Read for yourself, draw your own conclusions, and be sure to let me know if I've missed anything important!

Why Is It Changing?

The current, soon to be previous, version of D&D's Open Gaming License was created 23 years ago. Before 5th Edition hit the shelves, this product had already been in place for more than a decade. The gist of the document encouraged fans of the game to create and share content compatible with and derived from the Dungeons & Dragons intellectual property and framework. Creators who did so were free to commercialize such content as long as it did not infringe on any of Wizards of the Coast’s other copyrights and was presented as fan-made, unofficial content.

As much as some people on the internet don’t want to hear it, that document NEEDED to be updated. The world is a different place now than it was 23 years ago. In the year 2000, Wikipedia hadn’t been launched, YouTube wasn’t a thing, the internet was young, books were the primary way to transmit information about the game, and intellectual property wasn’t nearly so great a concern. As the new OGL correctly states:

A lot has changed since the old OGL was launched, and that means the old license has some unintended applications we need to fix. For example, when we released OGL 1.0a, YouTube, apps, blockchain, crowdfunding, and other now every-day technologies and distribution channels didn’t really exist in the way they do today. OGL wasn’t intended to fund major competitors and it wasn’t intended to allow people to make D&D apps, videos, or anything other than printed (or printable) materials for use while gaming. We are updating the OGL in part to make that very clear. 

The modern world being so vastly different than the world OGL 1.0 was written for is reason enough for an update. And (thanks in no small part to the media created under the provisions set forth by this license) D&D has a much larger audience now! A new D&D movie gracing the silver screen later this month is proof enough of that (see our article about that HERE), and they need to get their ducks in a row in preparation for the launch of One D&D later this decade! WotC needs to define its relationship to its many fans and collaborators around the world! But this isn’t the DTR we were hoping for…

What Is Changing?

The controversy surrounding the release of the new D&D OGL 1.1 document centers around these three points:

  • Voiding the Previous OGL

VIII. TERMINATION. This agreement may be modified or terminated.

Modification: This agreement is, along with the OGL: Commercial, an update to the previously available OGL 1.0(a), which is no longer an authorized license agreement. 

  • Paying Royalties

VII. ROYALTIES. If, and only if, You are generating a significant amount of money (over $750,000 per year across all Licensed Works) from Your Licensed Works, The revenue You make from Your Licensed Works in excess of $750,000 in a single calendar year is considered “Qualifying Revenue” and You are responsible for paying Us 20% or 25% of that Qualifying Revenue as explained in Section IX.B.2.

  • Waiving/Sharing Intellectual Property Rights
X. OTHER PRODUCTS. Sometimes, great minds think alike. We can’t and won’t cancel products out of fear that they’d be seen as “similar to” Licensed Works. Therefore: A. You agree that nothing prohibits Us from developing, distributing, selling, or promoting something that is substantially similar to a Licensed Work. B. You own the new and original content You create. You agree to give Us a nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sub-licensable, royalty-free license to use that content for any purpose.

WotC claims that they’re trying to use more transparent, understandable language in this version of the OGL, and it shows. These paragraphs aren’t veiled behind conventional “legal-ese”, but there’s still a lot to unpack in those few sentences (which are only a portion of the new 15 page document). So let’s break those down!

What Does That Mean?

First, this document hopes to nullify the agreement that preceded it (OGL 1.0). For those who have published any content under the old OGL, this would be VERY bad news. Anyone who has created any content for D&D in the past 23 years would now no longer be protected by the document… or at least, that’s what it appears to be implying.

Fortunately, it sounds as though that is an empty threat. Lawyers far more familiar with IP laws and contracts than I am are assuring a panicked public that while WotC can render the old OGL void going forward, they cannot revoke the rights they extended to creators in the past. Anyone who has written D&D content since 2000 should remain protected.

Secondly, WotC now expects royalties from anyone profiting from the D&D framework. The whole document breaks down tiers of income and the different effects those in each tier can expect, but the bottom line is that Wizards of the Coast will be taking money from anyone creating D&D products aside from themselves. And not a small percentage! A quarter or a fifth (if your project was crowdfunded by Kickstarter) of your profits will now be going in a Hasbro-ward direction if those profits exceed $750k.

Finally, WotC wants full commercial rights to anything created for their game. Whether or not you are a major publisher and whether or not you’re making money from other people's ideas for their game, they appear to be granting themselves permanent access to use it however they see fit, and aren’t promising them a red penny of the profits if they do.

Who is Affected?


… kind of.

Primarily this new agreement will affect companies that have achieved financial success by creating D&D content. This new OGL wants a piece of the pie from essentially anyone turning a tidy profit on their ideas by making supplements for D&D. That content could be characters, classes, subclasses, races, monsters, magic items, locations, worlds, or entire campaign settings! Major publishers of supplementary material like Kobold Press, Paizo, and Green Ronin will struggle to update their business models if they wish to survive the changes, and are likely being directly targeted by this move. There is an entire industry built upon D&D’s back right now, and this move will pull the rug out from under many companies relying on OGL 1.0.If anyone is managing to make a considerable sum of money from such content, WotC will now be taking their pound of flesh.

And, at least conceptually, I’m not prepared to say that is unfair. While the game craves and needs additions and custom material to be interesting, it doesn’t seem unfair for the company that gave us the game to be included in any attempts to monetize that material. Publishers of other, similar roleplaying games like Chaosium have similar arrangements with their fans. See their Fan Material Policy and their requirements to obtain a Commercial License.

But when it has not been asked for before, it rightly feels that something has been taken away… because it has! Whether or not D&D creators should have had any right to freely monetize their ideas in the first place, it was a gift that is now being retracted, and its absence will be felt far more than if it had never been offered at all. Hence the incensed nature of many creators online right now. And the sudden change without any buildup feels as though it was meant to take publishers by surprise and feels like an underhanded play.

Furthermore, even if you aren’t attempting to commercialize your ideas, WotC makes their willingness to share their content with you a two-way street, whether you like it or not. Any content you create for the game will be theirs by right from here on out. They won’t have to ask permission to publish and monetize content created by others for their games. And while they will require a portion of your income if your ideas based on their design become profitable, WotC aims to owe outside creators nothing if they successfully monetize that intellectual property. Imagine if WotC wholesale stole and published Tal’Dorei from under Matt Mercer’s nose and didn’t give him a cent! It might never happen, and it may not be their intent, but this OGL provides that it could.

What These Changes Imply For the Future…

Whether or not the rights provided to WotC as the publisher are ever exercised, they are provided for. And their rapid alteration of the terms of their license implicates a willingness to do so again. After 23 years of consistency, there is no reason to believe that this new OGL will last nearly so long as the one that came before. The script could be flipped yet again, with even stricter terms, at any moment.

Obviously, and rightly, this is concerning for those who have already or hope to build their lives and livelihoods around the game. Founding a business upon the existence of a document that may change at the drop of a hat is unwise to say the least, and few companies are likely to take such a risk in the future. As existing publishers prepare to pivot away from the system, we are not likely to see others rise to take their place. With the market thinning, we’re likely to see all the ground that D&D has gained in recent years on their meteoric rise from obscurity diminish. There may be a day that D&D returns to its roots as a beloved but niche pastime.

By the same token, however, it may spell opportunity for competing publishers of other role-playing games. If Call of Cthulhu, Blades in the Dark, Fate, or Kult were to create open gaming licenses in line with the previous OGL for Dungeons & Dragons, creative minds may flock to them instead of D&D. We could see an insurgence of supplementary material for games such as these, and a Renaissance of role playing games unlike anything to date as many hopefuls vie for the vacant throne that Dungeons & Dragons once occupied.

OR…  and this is my sincere hope…  we may see a rapid amendment to the OGL that allows small creators to retain the rights to their work, encourages collaboration with the D&D parent company, and more clearly communicates care for those that have supported and cherished this game for so long. Time will tell...

What are your thoughts on the OGL? Have you been following the story as it has developed? If you’re looking to learn more, look for the hashtag #opendnd online, or check out Roll for Combat’s Youtube channel. They’ve gone live several times this week breaking down the changes in helpful ways. As always, please hit us up on our socials with your thoughts and opinions! We’d love to hear them! Clicking HERE to find us online!

Rob Franklin (@thedndwannabe) has been a Dungeon Master for many years, and has a deep passion for roleplaying games. He runs the MistyMountainStreaming channel on Twitch, our Misty Mountain Gaming YouTube channel, and is cohost of the Bardic Twinspiration D&D podcast. He also enjoys bourbon, From Software games, and his dog Bigby.