Science and Tech


Dungeons & Dragons faces fan revolt over creative control clampdown

The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons is more popular than ever these days, but that popularity is threatened by a consumer revolt.
Posted at 4:03 PM, Mar 29, 2023

Dungeons & Dragonshas become an iconic tabletop role-playing game. Its most recent form, D&D 5th Edition, has inspired hit podcasts, major TV shows, and even a major feature film. 

That popularity has been bolstered by a massive, and massively creative, gaming community

Intellectual property has never been so valuable, and Dungeons & Dragons has thrived for decades because it’s left its world wide open for fans to use however they saw fit. 

But recently, D&D's parent company Wizards of the Coast — which is itself owned by Hasbro — turned many of those same dedicated fans against the company with a business move that threatened to upend the game's popularity. 

Linda Codega is a tabletop game journalist for i09. In late 2022, they started to hear rumblings about changes Wizards of the Coast was making to the licensing of their game, Dungeons & Dragons. 

"There were those rumors, that third party publishers were being called in to, like, have meetings with Wizards of the Coast,” Codega said. “And they were asked to sign NDAs. So around that time, is when I started really watching what was happening." 

Copyright licensing tends to be a fraught process — something that involves lot of time, money and legal teams to work with someone else's intellectual property. 

But in 2000, Wizards established something called the Open Gaming License, which allowed anyone to use certain parts of the game in their own product. Although specific monsters or characters were still protected, the generic rules for how they work in-game were mostly up for grabs. 

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Giving that much creative license over your game to the public was a pretty big deal, especially when most modern entertainment companies — like Disney and Warner Bros. — are protective over their intellectual property.  

The Open Gaming License, or OGL has been a cornerstone of the past two decades of tabletop games — not just Dungeons & Dragons — so rumors that it might be up for revision sparked a lot of concern. 

It wasn't publicly clear how extensive these changes would be until Codega obtained and published a leaked draft of the new license before it could go live. 

"As I was reading that document, my eyes just kind of got bigger and bigger,” Codega said. “I was like, ‘There's no way this is intentional, or like there's no way that this is fully thought out. There's no way that this is really what they want.’" 

According to that draft, Wizards planned to alter future use of the OGL, restricting creators to a more limited license going forward. Among other things, the new license could have let Wizards take ownership of certain content published under the OGL, and demand royalty payments on creator revenue that exceeded $750,000. 

Wizards said the rework of its license would help clamp down on objectionable uses of their content, and prevent their biggest competitors from exploiting D&D's popularity. But the changes might also have boxed out smaller publishers who worked and grew under the assurances of the open license. 

"There's a lot of like, debate about like, why they actually did it. But I think that the easiest answer is just: it's about control,” Codega said. “It's about power. It's about keeping stuff close, close to the chest. It's about controlling their IP." 

Unsurprisingly, the prospective changes sparked a lot of outrage. Even people who've never published anything were up in arms. 

And that’s because this wasn't just a business decision — it was messing with the carefully constructed community around D&D. 

And for D&D specifically, letting the community chip in makes the actual game so much bigger and better. 

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Griffin Macaulay runs the Griffon's Saddlebag, a collection of newly-crafted Dungeons and Dragons magic items. His work supplements the basic items published by Wizards with hundreds of new creations for players to use in their games. 

"We were just like fiddling around, and we started making magic items,” Macaulay said. “And I had these sketches sitting on my desk for months. … I did a few of them and I put them out together on Reddit. And from there I kind of became really fueled by the passion that I felt in the greater community." 

The content of Macaulay’s book is usable in D&D games thanks to the OGL. The items can reference specific rules like Armor Class and Dexterity saves without running afoul of Wizards' copyright. And Macaulay still retains the rights to his own unique creations and trademarks — like the Saddlebag itself.  

This is just one example of a large third-party ecosystem, separate from Wizards, that puts out content for D&D — everything from books to podcasts to accessories. The OGL helps give many of those creators a sense of security about what parts of D&D they're OK to use. 

Wizards itself doesn't see any direct money from these creations, but they do help drive new players to their game and expand D&D’s scope beyond what Wizards can publish alone. Trying to support that ecosystem while making a profit off their game is a difficult balance to strike — and for many creators, the OGL changes crossed the line. 

"I don't think anybody in their right mind is going to fault Wizards for trying to make money. I mean, they've been doing a great job of it,” Macaulay said.  “It's when they change the nature of the deal and it becomes abusive, that's the problem." 

Macaulay was one of many creators sounding the alarm publicly about the changes. By emphasizing how the OGL affects their work, D&D creators of all stripes were able to rally their fans against the changes. 

The backlash ended up severe enough to force Wizards' hand — they promised not to mess with the original OGL, and to move parts of the current game onto a Creative Commons license. Whatever happens with D&D going forward, those parts will still be openly accessible. 

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While announcing those changes, D&D Executive Producer Kyle Brink said; “We wanted to protect the D&D play experience into the future. We still want to do that with your help. We're grateful that this community is passionate and active because we'll need your help protecting the game's inclusive and welcoming nature.” Wizards did not respond to a request for comment on this story 

Wizards' reversal is mending fences with D&D players — but it's also given those players a better understanding of how the community works. 

According to Macaulay, "In almost all cases, people have, you know, players have leapt to the support of creators. I think the players are in general, considerably more aware of, of how the whole system works and has worked and how it has benefited them as players as well as just the health of the game over time." 

So Wizards probably won't be messing with the OGL again any time soon, but the factors that led them to try haven't gone away. 

The tabletop industry has changed a lot in recent years, and Wizards likely feels pressured to keep up with the competition, especially when it comes to the digital side of things. 

Foundry VTT is a tabletop simulator that allows users to run a slew of different games, including Dungeons & Dragons, over the internet.

Foundry creator Andrew Clayton started working on the system as a hobby in 2018. The service was released publicly in May 2020 — right as theCOVID-19pandemic was hitting the world.  

“When you have millions of people who are used to playing their home games, that now have to cancel those plans, and start looking for other alternatives,” Clayton said. “It sucks to talk about it that way. But for the tabletop industry, it was a real thing, especially for people who are doing digital."

Foundry doesn't have a formal agreement with Wizards, but still supports digital D&D games under the auspices of the OGL. The thing about Foundry is it's not just a D&D tool – the company has over 50 partnerships with publishers of different games.  

Several of those games were published in accordance with the OGL.  

Clayton said, "It's something that has just become hugely relied upon, throughout the industry, and in many cases relied upon for use cases that perhaps it wasn't needed for, but was used for out of, you know, either an abundance of caution or a respect for the, you know, the roots of the industry." 

With the OGL under threat, several game publishers have started to forge a separate path, announcing new games with separate licensing systems. Several of those competitors have reported record sales during the controversy. 

As counterintuitive as it seems, Wizards' support for the OGL helps bolster D&D even when boosting the competition. The OGL ensures D&D stays at the center of the tabletop industry — and removing it could ultimately weaken D&D's popularity in the long run. 

Clayton said, “I think accessibility of the game system, and ubiquity of the game system is what is responsible for D&D being in the position that it is today. … And so the danger of having a walled garden where D&D only exists on, you know, the D&D website is such that it might, it might close off the extent to which it is as ubiquitous as it is today.” 

For now, it's pretty clear the effects of the OGL debacle are going to reverberate around the TTRPG community for a while. Wizards is still working on rebuilding their trust with the community, as well as their relationships with fan creators and publishers.  

It's a good example of how community and fan labor can play into major entertainment properties. Because while not all franchises have quite the same relationship with their fans as D&D does, they all do rely on their fanbase to survive.  

D&D's community and culture are a key part of why the game has been so successful. But that kind of support can't be taken lightly — a D&D game’s only as good as its players, after all.