Heather Reynolds breaks down approximately half of what you need to know to understand this whole OGL business everyone’s on about.
Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), a subsidiary of the gaming company Hasbro, is beginning to become the poster child for widespread fan alienation that, at the end of the day, doesn’t actually seem to lose them any fans. WOTC is the company that brings us Magic: The Gathering, a card game known for its complexity and impact on your wallet, and its more popular sister: Dungeons and Dragons.
There are many reasons for the idea that D&D is more favoured among nerds, gamers, and regular people - D&D has been around for longer, it’s been referenced time and again in popular media, there was a whole campaign to ban it due to devil worship in the 80s back when it was associated with metal music and BDSM. But honestly, the primary reason for D&D’s longevity and rapidly rising popularity seems to lie in one indisputable aspect: it is incredibly accessible at entry level.
Unlike Magic, which is known for how nearly impossible it is to compete in without sinking hundreds of euros into deck building, all you have ever really needed to play D&D is to have one guy who knows how to play. The rules can be tricky, particularly in earlier generations (looking at you THACO), but as its a game that was designed to work with whatever you have on hand, and to be worked out primarily with a refill pad and pencil, the largest impediment to playing used to be finding a d20.
I myself started learning the game about 5 years ago, with a blank character sheet I found on Google images, and a set of tabletop dice I borrowed from an older family member. I’ve been playing with the same table since early 2019, and while a few of us have sunk a fair bit of money into dice and sourcebooks since, we started out with pens, paper, shared dice, and one (more experienced player’s) Players Handbook between seven of us.
That being said, my table started in what is widely becoming known as a golden era for D&D - the games 5th edition (5e) had been released a few years at that stage, and had overhauled a lot of the “crunchier” aspects of the game, aspects that made it trickier to learn and to keep track of abilities, turn order, skills, and spells. This overhaul also coincided with the release of Stranger Things, which reintroduced D&D conceptually to a whole new generation - both through the references to the game made throughout the show, and with the D&D/Stranger Things collaborative adventure modules that were released after the first series.
2019 also marked a boom in the Actual Play scene; Critical Role had just begun their second campaign, CollegeHumor had just launched Dimension 20 on their streaming service, The Adventure Zone were in the middle of Amnesty, having just wrapped their most lauded arc, Balance. Culturally, the nerdier aspects of media were gaining further and further dominance, and with it previously niche media was nearing mainstream, and with it, D&D was the most positively exposed it had ever been, at a time when the rules had never been more accessible, and easier to learn.
I’m hesitant to give a time where this interest and exposure has peaked, because it seems to still be growing. Critical Role was revealed to be one of the top earners on Twitch when the site was hacked in early 2022, sourcebooks for D&D (of which there are many) are in most major bookshops, and Forbes reporting that WOTC accounted for 72% of Hasbro’s earnings in 2021, totalling over a billion dollars in profit.
Of course, with Magic: The Gathering being the known money pit that it is, it likely makes up a sizable amount of that share, but for a game with so much of its content freely available online, and one that, if people are buying a sourcebook, they’re only buying it once, it is truly remarkable how much money D&D is able to bring in.
Which now brings us, 675 words in, to the issue on every TTRPG fan's lips this year: OneD&D.
OneD&D is the upcoming, newest edition of D&D. Playtest content (free to access content that people are encouraged to use and then provide feedback on, prior to official release) has been already released through D&D’s affiliated subscription service, DNDBeyond. The playtest content has been widely responded to with something between indifference, confusion, and derision. A few of the changes proposed, particularly those relating to the mechanics of rolling crits, are widely being questioned on their origins, and they seem to be directly oppositional to how they are popularly used in home games.
To take my own table as a case study, WOTC doubling down on crits only applying in combat, and now adding explicitly to the ruleset that crits don’t apply to DMs, spawned over a day of complaint in our group chat, and still could lead to an 1,000 word opinion piece in this paper.
From the playtest content, and new 5e source content that had to be rolled back towards the end of 2022 (more on that to come), a lot of more engaged TTRPG and D&D fans were already feeling disinclined towards the direction WOTC seemed to be taking.
Then, earlier this month, the new OGL, linked to the launch of OneD&D, was leaked.
OGLs (Open Gaming Licences) are fairly commonplace in TTRPG releases. There’s a full breakdown of what they are and what they do in the glossary, but they essentially just break down where and how the game can be used in other content and media. Game mechanics can’t be trademarked, so it's intended more so as a legal agreement that protects the non-trademarkable, but unique, aspects of the game.
5e had a relatively open OGL - so long as you stayed away from the actively trademarked aspects of the game, you could do virtually whatever with the core content, which is what opened the door for those Actual Plays mentioned earlier. The Adventure Zone, in particular, exists solely due to the leniency of the 5e OGL - their entire first arc, Here There Be Gerblins, is a recorded version of the McElroy family’s playthrough of the D&D adventure module that comes with the Starter Kit, The Lost Mines of Phandelver. They moved to homebrew content after the first arc, but as a group of pure beginners the adventure module was a necessary crutch for DM Griffin McElroy.
The OGL for OneD&D that was leaked, however, takes a distinctly different approach. The new OGL sought to approach derivative and unlicensed use of the work a lot more sternly, and established that they would be seek to shut down any work that was based off of D&D - with no clarity as to whether that would be based on system usage, or on the trademarked material. This would apply to indie TTRPG creators, many of whom get their start writing free or cheap to access D&D adventure modules, Actual Play creators using the system for their games, and potentially any other individual who sought to use anything close to the D&D brand.
The leaked OGL was met with immediate uproar, particularly from those who follow Actual Plays, or who keep up with the indie TTRPG scene. Many online creators who make work about D&D started promoting alternative games, such as Pathfinder, which is free at point of access and close in mechanics to D&D.
The majority of the outrage focused on two key aspects of the OGL; the first, that it would apply retroactively to work created under the previous OGL, leaving those who created work based on 5e open to litigation or cease and desists, and the second being that WOTC would hold the right to publish and profit from, without agreement from the creator, any work created under the new OGL.
Many indie creators get their start in writing D&D modules - it's the best known system out of all the major games, and it’s infinitely adaptable for different settings, themes, and stories. D&D, at this point, has become almost fully synonymous with TTRPG in general - a lot of people filter depositories like DriveThruRPG by that system, or would be googling “D&D game in [setting]”, rather than searching for TTRPGs more generally. The leaked OGL has not only made creators concerned for this entry point going forward, but is making them worry about the potential to be sued for work that has been around for upwards of five years with no issue.
As for the secondary aspect - WOTC claiming ownership of homebrew content - this is an expansion of a practice they’re already employing, just quietly. To revisit WOTC’s D&D subscription service, DNDBeyond briefly: WOTC already has in their terms of service that any homebrew uploaded to the service can be claimed and used for monetizable content. Many indie creators have refused to upload content via the homebrew section of the online toolkit due to this policy, out of fears that it could impede them from releasing it under the OGL via sites like DriveThuRPG or Patreon, or even from working directly with WOTC on producing it as part of a future WOTC licenced setting or ruleset down the line.
DNDBeyond is also, notably, the driving monetary aspect of D&D. As mentioned earlier, a lot of core D&D content is primarily physical content that you buy once and then never again. DNDBeyond is a different model - as an online toolkit, it has a few different aspects that are free, such as character sheet makers that do that maths for you, combat encounter prompts that let you have all your monsters, stats and DCs all in the one place, and the base rule set from the starter kit all available for free, alongside any playtest content - but how many of these you can use at once is capped. For a monthly subscription fee, all that becomes available without restriction, plus additional content unlocks. You can also unlock content from other sourcebooks by paying for the book as a bundle, or unlocking the particular classes, species, or feats you want to use individually. It costs less than buying the physical book, but for a lot of players it does feel like paying for the same content twice.
As such, DNDBeyond, as a monthly subscription service, is actually the driving force behind WOTCs D&D profits. Which is why players beginning to cancel their subscriptions en masse, and citing the OGL as their reason, prompted WOTC to release a statement that they would not be proceeding with the leaked OGL.
As of Thursday, January 19th, a new OGL functioning under a Creative Commons licence, has been available to view and provide feedback via DNDBeyond. It still holds some issues - WOTC is allegedly attempting to claim some folk monsters and characteristics as their own content - but at the very least the core rule set will not be viewed as a reason to claim ownership.
The original OGL, which WOTC are alleging was never intending to be a final product, has still made its mark on their fanbase. Many fans and creators are still continuing transitioning to other systems, as they feel it's only a matter of time before WOTC tries to expand profit margins at the expense of the enjoyment of the game again.
A list of other TTRPGs that could be of interest are attached to this piece.
This piece was originally written and published prior to Wizards of the Coast announcing that the original OGL would be used for OneD&D, and that they would be publishing more under Creative Commons licences.
Pathfinder 2e - Pathfinder 2e is another d20 system, commonly described as D&D with extra crunch. It takes place on a planet far, far away, at about the same time as now, and its entire ruleset, stat blocks, and character information are available for free on their website. Their core ruleset, including two handbooks and a beginners module, is available online for under €40, if you’re a pen and paper player.
Blades in the Dark - This time-bending heist TTRPG is known for its player lead dynamics and potential for both deadliness and hilarity. I’d recommend trying out an Actual Play or two before giving it a shot, but it hasn’t gained its reputation for being your favourite game designer's favourite game for nothing.
Grant Howitt’s One Page RPGS - Howitt is a UK based game designer who releases a new RPG every month, the ruleset of which can fit on a singular A4 page. These games are fun, light, and easy to learn. Some of them can be a little bit repetitive, but gems like Himbo Treasure Hunt and Honey Heist more than make up for it.
Pretentious Games for Villains and Bastards - A collection of games, curated by game designer Jessica Crimes, made by up and coming indie games designers. Includes games like Slasher!, where you play as either a slasher or a potential victim, Eat Trash and Die, where you play as goblins who are attempting to eat the world, and ProtagonISH, the game where everyone plays an overpowered Mary-Sue.
Alice is Missing - An RPG played in the same room in complete silence, where you play a group of friends attempting to solve Alice’s disappearance via a group text thread.