Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Yet Another OGL 1.1 Post

 I know, everyone's talking about it. so I guess I have to talk about it, too. It's made all the more difficult by the fact that this whole thing has been moving rather quickly, while I do not. Much of this was written before WotC acknowledged and attempted to apologize for the situation, but I think there's still something here, so I'm going to let it ride.

There's a lot of hullabaloo going on about the leaked Open Gaming License 1.1 going on and a lot of it is very Chicken Little (The shy is falling! The sky is falling!)

I'm not that. That's not what I do. I'm more of a cynic. I have been ever since the OGL first began as an attempt by Ryan Dancey to offload the unprofitable bits of the D&D business onto the fan community (In case you doubted how cynical I am.)

In short, the Open Gaming License lets people access and refer to a pool of Open Gaming Content freely in published works. The most prominent piece of Open Gaming Content is called the System Reference Document, which describes the core mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons. As D&D has released multiple editions in this time, there have been multiple SRDs. Other creators can declare their content Open Gaming Content according to the terms of the license, but whether anyone actually does is very hit or miss.

Using the license has been fairly simple. Just include the text of the license in your product, declare what Open Gaming Content you're using and what bits of your original creation you're releasing as Open Gaming Content. No fees, no approvals, no worries. So easy, even your dog can do it (and believe me, especially in the early days, it felt like a lot of them did).

But now there's a (supposed) new game in town. There's a new revision of D&D coming called OneD&D and for the first time in over 2 decades, the OGL is getting revised. To be clear, this has not been officially released and all of this is based on something that is "leaked." However, there have been no denials and a few confirming details.

There are two major issues with the new OGL.

The first is that it's much more restrictive than the original. It's much more work to use, requiring the prospective user to notify WotC what they'll be publishing (at minimum). The more money you make, the more information you're expected to provide until finally, you start owing royalties.

My initial take on the royalties issue was overall meh. It only applies to publishers who make more than $750,000, which is more money than I'll ever see in my lifetime. If you're the Jeff Bezos of the gaming scene, I'm not worried about you.

But it's been pointed out that the royalty rate is designed to be throttling to a business of that size. They might make it as a million-dollar company, but they'll never make it to become a multi-million dollar company. They're trying to prevent another Paizo (more on that later), which on the one hand makes sense, but on the other hand is monopolistic and therefore anti-capitalist and unamerican.

The second issue is that the new OGL specifically revokes and supersedes the old one and there's a lot of panic about exactly what that means.

Specifically, what happens to the 20+ years worth of content that has been released under the original OGL? Does it have to abide by the new restrictions and requirements, or can it continue to exist and be sold as is?

This is my big concern because as time went on, the amount of Open Gaming Content that people could draw upon expanded immensely. While people think of it as a D&D/D20/Wizards of the Coast thing, a lot of publishers released Open Gaming Content. In a lot of cases, this was as simple as publishing a fantasy scenario where the quest objective was some new magic item and in order to get it, you had to defeat some new monster and both the magic item and the monster were declared to be Open Gaming Content. In other cases, entire rulesets were released as Open Gaming Content.

I think the interesting, and possibly revealing question would be: What happens to the D6 System? Originally the ruleset for the formative Star Wars RPG of the 80's and 90's, a new owner tried to make a comeback with the company and the system. When that didn't turn out as well as he needed it to, he released the system into the pool of OGC as a way to render it "abandonware." Should theses (or any) changes go through, would it still be abandonware? Or does it wind up back in the old owner's possession, seemingly like a haunted doll that keeps turning up when you finally think you're rid of it?

While the OGL has technically been in existence consistently since the year 2000, there was a period when it wasn't supported. The OGL was released to accompany the 3rd edition of D&D, but when the time came for 4th edition, they decided not to release the 4e SRD into the pool of Open Gaming Content. The fan backlash was pretty strong and multiple companies tried to create new core products that would be released under the OGL that would let players continue to doing what they were doing.

The victor of this struggle was Paizo with their Pathfinder system derived from the D&D SRDs that WotC had released as OGC. It didn't hurt that they were started as a magazine company, so they were geared to produce regular support products of their own in the form of Adventure Paths.

In the years since Pathfinder was released, it and D&D have been neck in neck for the top 2 RPGs in the industry as a whole. Even after 5th edition and the return to the OGL this has been pretty consistent. Which puts Paizo in the distinct position of being the company most dependent upon the pool of Open Gaming Content.

Another problem with all of the Chicken Littles running around is that a lot of anger and worry creates some misconceptions.

There are a couple of things that are less worrying than some people make it out to be. For example, the OGL 1.1 leak states that it only applies to books, whether print or digital and not other forms of media. This created a number of declarations that WotC was coming for Critical Role, because the new OGL explicitly excluded game streams/webshows (Streams are actually covered under the WotC Fan Content Policy, and Critical Role is probably big enough that they've got WotC on speed dial if they need anything specific). But really, this is just a clarification. A lot of technological development has happened over the last 20 years since OGL 1.0 was released, so it makes sense to mention how the OGL might interact with new technologies. Some people are complaining that this is so WotC can monopolize OGL NFTs, but based on what I know of both, an OGL NFT makes zero sense. If someone can explain that to me, I'm listening.

The "license-back" provision caused a stir, but it has something of a reason to be there. Because this license would be more intrusive, there's a very high likelihood that anything you release under it would be to be seen by WotC design staff. The license-back therefore means that they're not necessarily liable if they wind up being influenced by something that they read. It does have a pretty blatant downside in that it really relies on how hard the WotC design staff is trying not to be influenced by anything that they might be called upon to review. In the hands of an ethically dubious company, this would be a big red flag reading "Plagiarism is okay!"

In the week since I started writing this, a lot has happened. A number of publishers have forsworn publishing anything that supports 5e, with some projects being canceled, others repurposed to other systems, and in some cases, announcements of new systems being designed to support other projects. Paizo has capitalized on WotC's latest misstep by announcing their own Open RPG Creative (ORC) License. All of these announcements are, of course, preliminary and it's hard to say exactly what will come of any of them in the fullness of time, but it will be interesting to see.

The other thing that's happened is that WotC has actually responded. And it's not great. They claim that the leak was only a "draft" that they were considering, even though the dates included in the leaked document were fairly concrete and very close. The day this statement was released was, in fact, the date that this whole thing was supposed to go live, and I don't think that's necessarily a coincidence.

It's not really an apology and comes off very defensive. Some might say that putting it on the D&D Beyond website was an attempt to "hide" it away from the WotC site so they can brush it off. But there's also the fact that one of the big outpouring of fan feelings came in the form of cancelling D&D Beyond subscriptions. So the idea might have been to put it on the front page of everyone who might be thinking about cancelling their subscription.

I have more thoughts, but this has been brewing long enough and will probably be even more out of date by the time anyone actually reads it.

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