#OpenDnD and the Extinction of Dungeons & Dragons

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Hi, I’m Lucas. Welcome back to Making a Monster. So for the past two years or so on this show, I’ve been covering the history of extinctions in the modern era. Just a few of the hundreds and hundreds that have happened to since 1500 and almost all of them have a common thread: Over utilization and a complete misunderstanding of the ecosystem by people in power and with the expected release of OGL 1.1, Wizards of the Coast is making the same mistakes that led to the extinction of the dodo, Steller’s rhytina, and the Stephen’s Island wren, with equally catastrophic consequences for the ecosystems they inhabit.

Over the past few weeks, you’ve probably heard a lot of different takes on this news. And I’m sorry to say that a lot of them have probably been fueled by speculation rumormongering and anger or fear or downright hatred. But that’s not what this show is good at. Making a Monster looks at one monster at a time with the person who designed it and we ask how it works and why it works and what it means. And increasingly over the past few years, we’ve been asking, what are the endangered species? What are the threats to them? What are the conservation actions that could have and should have been taken?

It’s no exaggeration to say that D&D is, you know, it is about to go extinct. So in this episode, we’re going to look at D&D in exactly the same way that have been training myself as a science communicator for two years, to look at endangered species.

What is the OGL?

So in order to understand what’s going on, we gotta get a few key terms out of the way. And usually that means a bunch of acronyms. So let me kind of boil down the alphabet soup for you. OGL refers to the Open Game License and the current version of that, OGL 1.0a, was released in January of 2016. Along with that license, we got the [00:02:00] SRD or system reference document, and that is a comprehensive source for everything needed to run the game at its basest, most primal level. It’s the core mechanics of the game, including races, player, classes, monsters, spells, everything you need to understand how does this game function? Oh, and real quick, you should know that Dungeons & Dragons’ Fifth Edition has been out since 2014, which is a lot longer than most editions of the game have run. So we are due for a new edition coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the game. And it is to be called one D&D.

The original OGL unambiguously gives creators the ability to tell compelling stories in any medium. They choose D&D became the Linux of tabletop gaming, the Wikipedia of tabletop gaming.

Who Really Loses under OGL 1.1?

So on the one hand you have the system itself. And on the other hand, you have the D&D community and every community is different. So let me tell you a little bit about this one. This is not just a bunch of internet friends and a discord server. This is not even just a group of people who have the same interests and liked to go to cons together.

This is hundreds of earnest, intelligent artists who are genuinely striving to make this game the best it can be to bring people together who would otherwise never have come together. And most importantly, to say what they mean to say as an artist in a way that other people can understand and use and benefit from in only the way that Dungeons & Dragons can offer. And certainly not just D&D, but we’ll come to that.

You should also understand that the act of creating for this game is almost inextricable from the act of playing it. In the moment to moment decisions that a game master has to make to provide a meaningful gaming experience for their players, they often come up with what we call Homebrew, which is just sort of things that happens to work for them at their table at that time.

You can share homebrew and a lot of different ways. And before long, the community recognized that it has value and that we were willing to give people valuable things for it.

So often people follow the same track that I did when I started as a tabletop grader, they start with their first home [00:04:00] brew. Mine was called the nine foot nail. It was a fighting maneuver involving teleportation that was incredibly risky and a very bad idea. And yes, it became the signature move of my first player character. I, you know what I like to take big swings. I’m sorry.

From there, most of us discovered the DM’s Guild, which is a platform for user-generated third-party content for Dungeons & Dragons. And it doesn’t run on the open game license. If you publish on the DM’s Guild, you are allowed to use everything in Dungeons & Dragons, even the particular identifying marks that Wizards has withheld from the Open Gaming License. Publishing on the DM’s Guild means that you give half of your gross revenue to wizards automatically. And very few people make a living on the DM’s Guild that kind of revenue split almost precludes it. I know most of the DM’s Guild creators, and I don’t know any of them who are full-time DM’s Guild, creators. It always has to have something else in its ecosystem to prop it up.

From there creators often move into other online platforms like DriveThruRPG and itch.io which have less of a revenue split, but the important thing is that you cannot take something from DMS Guild to any of those other platforms, once you’ve published it, there , it is exclusive to the DM scaled platform. Uh, and it has its own terms for how it can be used. Most important of which is that wizards get to use it too.

So at the top tier of creating for tabletop games is, and you won’t be surprised to hear this. Kickstarter. And this is where you have enough momentum to bring something to a crowdfunding campaign, to get enough capital, to print it and get it directly into the hands of consumers who are interested in this thing. And that whole path from your first home broody or first Kickstarter has been financially viable as a career choice in the last seven years. And because of that, what we have is a free market of ideas and a community that is ravenous for innovation in its content. Third-party creators have made things for this game and other games like it that are equal in quality in artistic merit to anything that has come out of Wizards, ever.

Most importantly, that community has been making [00:06:00] thoughtful, important work that represents a diverse array of cultures and voices that wouldn’t otherwise have had an opportunity. We got seen at una a campaign setting based on the Philippines and Filipino culture made by an all Filipino team. We got Cobos, a similar project for south America. And we got Eldridge Foundry who is working very hard to model different player races and genders on unique skeletons rather than a one size fits all animation.

And perhaps most importantly, we got Book of Extinction! (Or I hope we do.) This is a project that lets Dungeons & Dragons meaningfully contribute to what is arguably the biggest problems of our time climate change and the mass extinction crisis that follows.

What these projects have in common is that they’re doing things that Wizards can’t do. You don’t get a nuanced take on the progenitor cattle of Europe and the racist, misogynistic, and frankly, eugenics-focused history that it has as the Nazi super cow, you just get kind of a stereotype deeply embedded in the system.

So that’s what’s at stake here: an open game that unites players and gives them a common language to talk about things that really matter. And that gives people the ability to enter this space and do just that.

Why OGL 1.1 Threatens to Kill D&D

In November, Wizards of the Coast released a statement on D&D Beyond titled “OGLs, SRDs, and OneD&D.” This was meant to reassure a nervous public that, despite the rumors they may have heard, nothing was going to change in the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons and the game’s free and open ecosystem would continue to be such.

There’s just a couple of things in the statement that are worth mentioning before we move on. First of all, it promised that Dungeons & Dragons new edition, OneD&D, would be backwards compatible with Fifth Edition. And the playtest material we’ve received for this new edition since does not bear that out for example. In one of the playtest materials, the levels at which characters get features from their subclass has been changed.

Secondly, this says that the new license will affect fewer than 20 creators worldwide, who [00:08:00] make more than $750,000 in income a year and to those a royalty would be added starting in 2024. And both these numbers are incredibly deceptive, these 20 or so names, the referring to are probably people like Mage Hand Press and Kobold Press and Hit Point Press and Metalweave Games. And yeah, there’s 20 or so names there, but all of those represent an entire industry of freelancers and artists and layout designers and graphic designers and consultants whose industry is getting shot out from underneath them by OGL 1.1. It doesn’t affect fewer than 20 creators. It affects everybody who writes for or even just plays this game.

Thirdly, according to this statement, the new license exists to prevent people from egregious misuse of the D&D property like minting NFTs or creating racist versions of the game, and the racist thing does happen and they did go to court over it. So maybe? This is the line that Polygon took when they covered this story. That, yes, this was a move to protect the game. But it’s a bit like poisoning a river to kill an alligator, isn’t it?

Wizards of the Coast Served Third-party Creators an NDA

So we had already been worried for a while about the future of projects like Book of Extinction and the statement in late November did nothing to assuage our concerns. And then on December 21st wizards of the coast sent out emails, accompanied by nondisclosure agreements, asking to meet with some of the highest grossing creators in this space.

Those meetings were to discuss details of the new license and how to function underneath it. And we were pretty sure it wasn’t going to be great. The timing of these meetings was also really incredible. It came out on December 21st, right before we were all trying to go home for the holidays and spend time with our families.

And it meant that for about two weeks there we were in this situation where the people who knew, couldn’t say, and the people who could say didn’t know, and anybody who is airing concerns about the future of the open gaming license. I struggled under this veneer of incredibility. And we almost lost a lot of people.

The Terms of OGL 1.1

January 5th: Linda Codega, writing for iO9, broke a leaked version of the license and it proved what we had known for a while that this new license threatens [00:10:00] the extinction of D&D.

There’s a pretty great breakdown of what’s in the new licensed by Noah Downs, an actual lawyer, at this link. But again, I want to just run through a couple of the most salient points

First of all, everyone is affected. It’s not just the 20 or so people making more than $750,000. If you like songs about D&D virtual tabletops, that support D&D videos about D&D comics about D&D. None of these are covered in OGL 1.1 and have a very high likelihood of straight up ceasing to exist. If it’s enacted.

Secondly, the license is no longer open. In order to publish under this license, you have to register every product you make using it with wizards of the coast. And you have to report the revenue that you earn under it by the next year.

The revenue reporting is important because it leads us to the third problem here. The royalty percentage.

Now the wording of the license is that if you make less than $750,000 a year on licensed products, then you do not have to pay a royalty.

And that number might sound like a lot. It’s three quarters of a million dollars, but here’s the thing. It’s not cause that’s gross revenue. That’s the total of all money generated by the licensed work over the course of a year. Not per project. And that doesn’t take into account. Any part of that total that has been, or will be used in expenses.

Kickstarter already takes 7% off the top. Patrion takes 8%. Roll 20 takes 20.

If you add another 25% royalty on gross revenue on top of that, you can actually lose money. If you even try to make the works in the first place.

And also that’s $750,000 is the current threshold. That number can go down and Noah Downs thinks it’s likely that it will, which is why they’re requiring revenue reporting. More importantly, Kickstarters don’t have a cap on the revenue that you can earn for a project. There’s no way to say, Hey, stop funding us at $750,000, you might suddenly have a new expense that you didn’t account for in the fulfillment of your [00:12:00] project. So it seems like it only applies to a few people, but it applies to everyone because it’s going to change the math of how this business is done.

Finally, there’s no guarantee of safety. Wizards can terminate or modify this agreement at any time without giving a reason. And if they do give a reason, it can be as simple as that the product harms their reputation. And I can’t imagine they’re going to take too kindly to the reminder that the aurochs in their book is in fact, a Nazi super cow, and maybe they should have been a little more careful with how they talked about it.

So that’s the species, OpenD&D and the people that create for it. And that’s the habitat, this way of doing business that has evolved around it. And that is only barely profitable and can only barely support the people who have the passion and grit to make this game better than it was.

At the moment. OGL 1.0a is still viable. And it will probably be until January 13th.

But we don’t know.

What’s Next for Tabletop Creators

Everyone in the tabletop RPG community has been presented with a choice and probably about eight days to make it.

Here’s the options.

First, accept the license. If you want to keep making things for Dungeons & Dragons, or if you’re like me and the project that you’re making relies on being in and through the language of Dungeons & Dragons and the trappings that it carries, Then you might have to accept the license. You might have to take this very, very bad deal and just hope that it works out for you.

Second, don’t accept the license and risk legal action. And we’re talking about very small companies here or independent contractors. And I don’t know if any of us have the money or the staff to handle that fight.

Thirdly, we could pivot into a different system and a lot of creators are already doing that or preparing to do that. Mörk Börg has an open license. The Cypher System has an open license. But here’s the problem: that further fragments the player base and makes it much harder to get a table together to play anything. This is, I’m told how it was in the latter days of third edition, where you couldn’t walk into a game store and guarantee that you would know anything about any game that was being played in [00:14:00] a table there?

Part of what has made D&D successful is the overwhelming likelihood that someone in this building will be playing fifth edition. And I also know how to play it. So game night is sorted.

Finally, you can wait it out and see if things change. And that might take weeks that might take months. It might take years, and there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be able to earn anything in the meantime.

New Creators and Diverse Voices are Being Frozen Out

There’s a last choice that will be familiar to 80’s science fiction lovers, that the only winning move in this game is not to play. New creators simply aren’t going to enter the space. There’s too much risk and there’s no guarantee of your safety. There’s no guarantee that this will ever be financially viable again.

There’s a concept in conservation and ecology called carrying capacity. And it’s very simply expressed. As the amount of stuff that can sustainably or indefinitely be taken from an ecosystem without the ecosystem collapsing. And regardless of what happens, the carrying capacity of Dungeons & Dragons has just decreased dramatically.

How to Stop OGL 1.1

So I hope what I’ve been able to prove to you is that what is at stake here is nothing less than the heart and soul of the tabletop role playing. Zandra, and I hope that I’ve been able to prove to you if not in this episode, then in the back catalog of Making a Monster and things like it.

That it is worth saving. And the good news is it’s still possible, I think, to save it. This isn’t an extinction story yet. We’re an endangered species, yes, but we’re not endlings.

Until we get an official announcement from Wizards of the Coast, there is still time to protect this game and this community that you love and the even better news is that you can take real end effective action to save it. So here’s what you do.

Talk to Wizards and talk to your creators. First of all, wizards of the coast, the hashtag is #opendnd and we have to make enough noise about it and keep it trending long enough that Wizards of the Coast recognizes OGL 1.1 as the horrendously bad idea [00:16:00] that it is.

You can follow me on Twitter. It’s my job now to keep an eye on all this, I can also recommend Griffon’s Saddlebag. He’s doing some great work keeping up with what’s going on. And every time you see an article about this, like Linda Codega’s article or the most recent Polygon article, retweet that let’s keep that moving so that the conversation doesn’t stall before this realization happens.

Secondly, support the creators you already care about right now, if they’re like me. They’re scared. And they’re hurt. And they’re probably somewhere in the five stages of grief. They were making a plan for how this year was going to go. They may have invested years already into a project that may or may not ever now see the light of day. so if they make something you like, and you’ve been waiting to show that support now is the time before January 13th, subscribed to that Patreon, buy the thing, send it to the friend you’ve been meaning to talk to. Now’s the moment, because they’re going to need it.

So I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s the unsettling of America. And it’s a hard book to read because it is as valuable and prescient now, as it was when it was released in 1977. One of the things that Barry warns against is the terrarium view of nature. The idea that you can own a piece of it and put it on a shelf. And that, that is enough to preserve it.

Certainly some parts of the world need to be wild. And in wildness we understand what the meaning of civilization is, but it’s more important to Barry argues that the land be cared for. And that’s what we’re trying to do with D&D and that’s what we’ve been doing with the OGL 1.0a, is care for Dungeons & Dragons and expand its carrying capacity. And that’s, what’s at stake here.

It’s always been true that the time to protect an endangered species is well, it’s still abundant. Don’t wait. Tell Wizards and tell your creators.

Thanks for listening to Making a Monster. Obviously the future of the show is a little uncertain right now. Hard to tell whether I’ll be able to continue working on the stories that have driven Making a Monster extinction. Or [00:18:00] interviewing the kind of guests that have made the show, what it is over the past two years, but until I hear otherwise, I’m going to move forward as though things are going to be fine. I’m going to try and keep making new episodes. I’m going to try and keep talking to new game designers about what they’re doing and the meaning that it adds to the game and the space. So until the next episode drops, I hope to see you mad and I hope to see you making your voice heard.

Thanks for listening.

Scintilla Studio