Why ruining the relationship WotC created via the OGL is a good thing

If you play tabletop role-playing games, you’ve probably heard by now that the there may be some changes coming to the hobby. Wizards of the Coast (WotC), and by extension Hasbro, are terminating re-creating the Open Game License (OGL) that was introduced with the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. There has been a recent “leak” that has created a bit of a scandal in the ttrpg community. After debating this with people on various forums, I’ve come to the conclusion that what’s happening now is a positive thing.

If you want more information, you can look at the article i09 put out, as well as the story that followed. Once those articles came were published, the internet was all in a tizzy, and for good reason. The decision to fundamentally alter the OGL would be a massive change for an industry that has been reliant on it for over two decades. In fact, D&D’s biggest rival, Pathfinder, was born from the OGL. Let’s be fair, Pathfinder was created in response to WotC’s handling of D&D during the transition from 3.5 to the 4th edition of the game. Back then, WotC/Hasbro had tried to create a whole new license, the Game System License (GSL) to compliment the new edition. It wasn’t a success. I still see people trying to unload 4e books at conventions. To date (10 January 2023), there has been almost no comment whatsoever from WotC/Hasbro, other than a tweet, as reported by CBR. Change is definitely coming, although no one knows what it’s going to look like.

All of this ambiguity hasn’t stopped the chatter around this issue, and I’m just lending my voice to the crowd. The number of opinions is, to be perfectly blunt, staggering. There’s even a letter boasting some 40,000+ signatures petitioning Hasbro to stand down and behave a bit more reasonably. I’m skeptical this will work, but if the company takes on enough bad PR then they may reassess their course of action.

An annoying side-effect of all this talk is that everyone who has heard of this problem has become a lawyer by the time they finish familiarizing themselves with the issue. It’s kind of funny, in a way. (If you’re not familiar with what the OGL is, you find more out here.) Reddit is a goldmine for unsolicited opinions right now. There are mercifully, other more balanced opinions as well from bloggers like Jared Rascher, a Gnome Stew contributor. Poke around a bit, and readers will find no shortage of content right diving into WotC/Hasbro’s decision to overhaul the OGL. Any community that steeps itself in RPGs is talking about the this particular subject.

Unfortunately, it’s also kind of sad to wade through these discussions. The OGL in it’s current, yet-to-be-replaced form is a beloved thing. When it was launched, the hobby embraced it in a beautiful way and all kinds of wonderful products have been developed through it. To be fair, there’s a lot of crap as well, but the gems that made it through to the surface shine brightly. A few in particular that have stood up well are Pathfinder, 13th Age, and Old School Essentials. To have to see these fantastic games ruined by WotC/Hasbro changing the OGL would be a real shame.

All of this is (possibly) on the brink of ruin. WotC’s (read, Hasbro) alterions of the OGL contain news terms that are, shall we say, terrible based on the leaked draft of the forthcoming document. I’m not a lawyer so I won’t comment on the impending changes. Other people more knowledgeable than myself have already weighed in on the issue, regarding it’s legality and the complex problems raised by WotC/Hasbro’s alleged changes.

As a gamer, my conclusion is that this is a good thing for the hobby. Not the destruction of the OGL, but the fact that WotC is driving people away from D&D. That might sound like an absurd thing to be cheering on, but hear me out.

I firmly believe at this point that D&D no longer needs to be a significant part of the hobby in order for TTRPGs, as a hobby and an industry, to thrive. In the past, it was the gateway for many people. It will probably continue on like that, but I have a hard time thinking about my own sessions and feeling anything other than indifferent. I’ve barely bought any D&D products over the last five years, although I have bought a few OGL products, such as a reprint of Old School Essentials. Yet, when I look at the games I’m most excited to play, with one exception (13th Age) they aren’t tied to the OGL at all.

Stopping to reflect further, there are lots and lots of great games available for anyone that wants to sit down and play one. I can’t think of a moment over this hobby’s 40+ year history where there have been more options for gamers. Just to name a few along with the names of the publishers,

  • Ars Magica – Atlas
  • Savage Worlds – Pinnacle Entertainment Group
  • Chronicles of Darkness – White Wolf / Onyx Path
  • Shadowrun – Catalyst
  • Call of Cthulhu – Chaosium
  • Warhammer – Games Workshop
  • Dungeon World – Sandy Pug
  • Apocalypse World – Lumpley Games
  • Achtung! Cthulhu – Modiphius
  • Rifts – Palladium

And just to be clear, this is just a brief list of games that came to me while I was writing this article. There are many more. Feel free to peruse the shelves of your friendly local game store if you don’t believe me. If you want digital options then consider DriveThruRPG, itch.io, Bundle of Holding, and Humble Bundle . Our hobby is going to shed this controversey without missing a beat. It’s a wonderful thing.

This may all put smaller creators out of business, and that’s a problem. I’ll deal with this side of the OGL disaster in a different post. Right now, the focus is purely on the fact that the hobby is ready to move on from D&D. It’s like a breakup that was inevitable but only happened after a stupid fight. Everyone knew it was time to put D&D in the past, it just took a spat over a publishing agreement to truly ram home the need to separate the gamers from the 500-pound dice-wielding gorilla in the room. We all knew this moment was bound to happen, but we hadn’t realized the extent of the need to end the relationship. Maybe we all thought that if D&D wasn’t in our lives we couldn’t feel complete. Maybe something like that. Regardless, it isn’t true, and all of what is happening now is overdue. Our hobby’s ties to D&D may have become a bit toxic, and I’m going to fully embrace the transition away from the “world’s greatest role-playing game”.

In the short term, WotC probably won’t feel much of an impact from blowing up the OGL, if that actually does happen. The long-term damage is much more significant. That letter boasting 40,000+ signatures is nothing to D&D’s 10’s of millions of players. People will still buy the products and enjoy them. This is inevitable. Where things become interesting is the impact of all of the 3rd party publishers that will abandon D&D for other games.

All of the support that WotC/Hasbro enjoyed just for having an incredibly popular game is now gone, or at least significantly diminished. Even if the OGL stays in place and WotC/Hasbro decides to back down, the damage is done. Small publishers that were able to scrape out a living will look elsewhere to ply their trade. It’ll be tough for them in the next few years, but as these other games, whatever they might be, grow their fan bases, then revenue streams should increase as well. This will be part of the fallout from overhauling the OGL. Maybe this will bring in more money for WotC, which will ultimately make Hasbro’s shareholders happy, but it won’t be good for the long-term vitality of D&D.

There is, in a way, a debt owed to D&D. Without it, and visionaries like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, the hobby simply wouldn’t be what it is. Period. However, everything has moved on from what they created. New ways of playing games have been developed, and D&D is slowly turning itself into something that people have wanted to drift away from. Years ago, I had someone in my gaming group say that 5e was reducing D&D to a “legacy brand” that was entirely couched in it’s past, rather than trying to innovate. Looking at it’s releases, which are largely a collection of older content re-adapted for 5e, he has a strong point. Having a a sort of open source publishing agreement freed WotC from having to take creative risks because smaller publishers could do that for them. This sort of symbiotic relationship is probably over. We’ll have to see what happens next, for D&D, as well as the rest of the hobby. By deliberately removing a publishing agreement that has been a pillar of the hobby for over 20 years, that split can now be formalized. I’m looking forward to it.


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