What’s Up With Wizards and the OGL?
Wizards made a big announcement. They’re moving the entire 5.1 SRD to CC-BY 4.0 International, and the OGL 1.0a is being left as is. They say they listened. They say they heard the fandom. They say they heard the creatives. People are now celebrating this as a definitive victory. Public and vocal support for things like the in-house system by Kobold Press or the ORC licence being spearheaded by Paizo is waning where it isn’t being drowned out by celebratory noise. But if there’s one thing the army has taught me is invaluable after a serious event, it’s an After Action Review. So let’s dive into what happened, what the fallout is, and how things are developing.
NOTE: Posts from Wizards on D&D Beyond are linked using the current links. They may have been edited since their initial releases. Where mentioned, I am referring to the initial release content and not the “oops, we should change the wording and tone” updates.
In the latter months of 2022, there was unease in the 5e community as rumours swirled around changes to the OGL after a Kotaku article dropped where Hasbro and Wizards executives described D&D as “undermonetized” on 12 December 2022 during an investor call. They were specifically talking about looking for the kind of recurrent spending (micro-transactions, DLC etc…) found in videogames for D&D. Alarm bells went off immediately and people began speculating what this might mean in light of earlier One D&D information around a Wizards native VTT and single access portal.
Shortly after, confirmation that big name creators had been brought in on some ONE D&D related planning and had to sign NDA documents. To help calm the waters, and in keeping with the centralization of D&D Beyond as the main access portal to D&D news and information, Wizards released a statement on 21 December 2022. Summarized, it was a whole lot of “Don’t worry, it’s all good, any changes will be carefully thought out and information will be pushed to creatives.” And for the most part, this worked. The only people still ringing the alarm bell in a serious way were known anti-5e/anti-D&D voices, some critics, and known 5e malcontents.
Metal met the meat on 5 January 2023, in an exclusive exposé by Gizmodo journalist Linda Codega. They had gained access to copy of OGL 1.1 and information from inside sources at Wizards, and it was all bad. Under this new OGL, purported by Wizards to be an “early draft”, creatives were slammed with loss of ownership of their content, revenue dependent reporting and royalty systems, and the revocation of OGL 1.0a among other things. Shockwaves slammed through the 5e D&D creative ecosystem and the greater tabletop RPG community as people immediately scrambled to figure out how this would affect them. In the meantime, Wizard went into radio silence.
Between January 5th and 13th, the situation spun out of control for Wizards as their official forums and Discord locked down all conversation on the topic and refused to make any official statements. Unofficially, the OGL 1.1 as leaked was labelled as an “early draft” by Wizards and their diehard supporters. On the record, multiple companies and individual creators came forwards to state that the OGL 1.1 as leaked was what they had been presented with. Kickstarter added weight to the authenticity of it by stating that they had negotiated based on it for lower royalties to be sent back to Wizards from future OGL D&D projects.
During this period, active opposition coalesced and became a multidirectional attack on Wizards’ previously unquestioned dominance in the tabletop RPG sphere. Kobold Press, the largest third party content creation company in 5e, and MCDM announced that they’d be creating their own respective in-house and open systems. Paizo spearheaded the creation of a coalition of creatives and companies to develop and release ORC, an irrevocable OGL template for anyone to use. Monte Cook Games announced they would be expanding their already beefy SRD with more fantasy content and drew attention to their own Cypher System creative options. But most impactful was the direct attack on Wizards’ bottom line. In the space of about a week, an estimated 40000 or more subscriptions to D&D Beyond were cancelled, equalling the loss of approximately $160000/month or around $1.92 million for the year.
On 13 January 2023, Wizards broke their silence and released a statement, a statement they edited live several times owing to the tone of it. It was folksy and “we’re just like you, fans of the game” heavy, and cited NFTs, videogames, and preventing offensive content as the reasons behind the draconian stipulations of OGL 1.1, it also doubled down on the narrative that the leaked copy was an early draft and totally not something they were planning on using. Few people believed them, but at this point the campaign split. Part wanted the restoration of the OGL 1.0a status quo, while another wanted D&D to move towards more open content.
At this point, Kyle Brink became the face of Wizards for communication. Kyle’s background is in digital content and specifically videogames, having worked for EA, Sega, and ArenaNet/NCSoft among others prior to joining Wizards in 2021 as Director of Studio Operations. In July 2022 he was promoted to Executive Producer of Dungeons & Dragons. His 18 January 2023 statement in D&D Beyond offered the first movement of Wizards on what had become a disastrous public relations event. It laid the foundation for OGL 1.2, and was, like the previous statement, roundly panned by fans and critics alike as a half measure effort in damage control. This was followed on 19 January 2023 by a tentative release of what Wizards thought OGL 1.2 might look like, including using Creative Commons and a feedback system to develop the new OGL in a way similar to One D&D. This was covered by Gizmodo the same day.
As the survey was live, Gizmodo released a salient article on 26 Jan 2023, outlining the reality of the situation Wizards had created for itself. At this point Wizards was looking at a statistically significant revenue drop, and the success of the new Dungeons & Dragons movie was coming into question as the revolting fandom openly discussed boycotting the film. Then, on 27 Jan 2023, in a surprise move, Kyle Brink announced via D&D Beyond that the survey was being concluded, and the 5.1 SRD was being moved into CC-BY 4.0 International, and that OGL 1.0a would remain in place. Many in the fandom immediately went into celebration mode.
This process dredged up some revelations about both Wizards and the OGL plan that many work hard to ignore, and that Wizards is depending on the notoriously short memory of its fanbase to rebury. These include:
- The original OGL 1.0 and its descendent, OGL 1.0a were not created to open D&D to the masses. They were developed to exploit an economic theory called Network Externalities (where the value of a product is not in its quality but rather derived from the network of users). The OGL was designed to push other systems out of competition by having non-Wizards products point back at D&D, effectively creating an artificial tide that lifts D&D and adjacent boats but drowns others.
- Wizards has not let go of its long-term goals that were established in 4e D&D and its GSL. The aim is to move D&D from tabletop to virtual spaces by preferentially treating and developing the digital toolsets and multimedia aspects of online play, culminating in a micro-transaction and subscription service model of service provision.
- The creative community is an exploitable resource to Wizards that they do not feel has true rights to their content.
- Wizards wants an environment where digital wares are the norm because it means guaranteed income as the content is only licenced for access, and not owned by the user.
In short, between 2014 and the end of 2022, Wizards believed it had sufficiently conditioned its user and creative base to accept OGL 1.1 as an acceptable norm.
Wizards’ decision to move the 5.1 SRD to CC-BY 4.0 International and retain OGL 1.0a (but not make it irrevocable) screams “nuclear option” to calm the waters. Things had spun too far out of control and besides their immediate losses in subscription cancellations, there was real movement back to their old enemy, Pathfinder. I do not think that it is at all what they wanted to do, but with One D&D developing and the end of 5e looming, I think it was a calculated manoeuvre to defuse a growing catastrophe.
As of 28 January 2023, Paizo is pushing forward with their ORC licence concept where they have been joined by the likes of Green Ronin, Kobold Press, and others. Kobold Press is still moving with their own system, and has announced Black Flag Fridays, where they will update followers on the progress of their system. PBTA, Cypher System, Savage Worlds, and others have all had boosts over the last few weeks as well. All of this is culminating in a mini-renaissance in the hobby as the 5e D&D starts trying other games. While other companies have gained some brand recognition and short-term sales boosts, Wizards is facing an uphill battle to regain its lost cover as a friendly, quirky, attentive company that cares about its users.
What Is Wizards Doing?
Wizards, in my opinion, rolled too fast. Yes, I understand the economic hits. Yes, I understand the pressure from higher up in Hasbro and from their stock holders. Yes, I respect the effort people went to communicating their anger to Wizards. But this was too fast, and I have a theory as to why. They’re divesting themselves of 5e.
5e D&D is extremely successful, but not because of its quality. Without the impact of social media, the rise of actual plays and live plays, and the effects of their Network Externalities driven OGL plan, 5e likely would have kept the lights on and the IP owned by Wizards, but not much else. It was D&D made by committee and feels like it. And moving forward to One D&D and the new digital delivery and subscription model means that it’s done as an edition. 2023 is its last year. It doesn’t matter anymore. So Wizards are fine giving it away.
Which segues to where Wizards has been silent. Everything to date that they’ve released is 5e centric. And I think that’s a deliberate move. 5e D&D is what the fandom and most creatives are focused on. It’s what’s selling now and the ecosystem that people will work in for the next year at least. But there’s been nothing about One D&D. No promises I could find that indicate that Wizards will make an SRD for or use OGL 1.0a for One D&D. And I think that’s intentional as well.
Wizards has been talking about AI Dungeon Masters and more in their plans for digital content. This isn’t broadly compatible with rough and tumble of the OGL 1.0a or CC-BY 4.0 International world. They need to own it all. They want to maximize their income and don’t care about the larger creative community that’s not under their control (DM Guild, D&D Beyond, contractually obligated parties). So I expect that when One D&D drops, it’s going to come with a more restrictive licence system specific to it. Want to make stuff outside it? Use the (for now) still compatible 5.1 SRD and hope a DM manually uploads it (if that’s even an option). Otherwise, fall in line and enjoy what limited revenue Wizards cuts you.
An Influence Operation
The people at Wizards are not unintelligent. They’re slow to act and react, but they’re smart. They know that they have several factors on their side right now to help fix all of this. And they are absolutely depending on the D&D fanbase and the influencers in it to make it happen.
- Human Face: they canned the “D&D Beyond Staff” as the front for dealing with the public announcements, and brought in Kyle Brink. Kyle is a useful scapegoat if everything goes sideways, and his personable “human” touch in the process goes a long way to shift the perception of Wizards being a faceless multimillion dollar company back to being a “small shop run by gamers, like you!” And its working. People like a face. They like a human touch.
- Immediate Distraction: They opted to release the 5.1 SRD under CC-BY 4.0 International and to keep OGL 1.0a unchanged. The celebrations on social media have been non-stop since yesterday, with only a few people still calling out that this isn’t what it seems. Creative Commons has its own pitfalls, and the OGL still isn’t irrevocable. Wizards is looking for the bulk of spooked creatives to calm down with this and come back to start earning them money in the DM Guild and via D&D Beyond through subscriptions again.
- Short Memory: The D&D fanbase is notorious for its short memory and ability to tolerate things like sexism, ableism, and racism without batting an eye. Wizards knows, based on their prior experiences in 5e, that there’s about 60 days or so of declining anger they’ll have to deal with. By then, the news cycle has moved on, the new shiny book is on the way to the printer, and the bulk of the social media active fanbase will act as if nothing happened. Wizards knows they can wait this out and that with the movie coming and two guaranteed winners lined up (Phandelver and Planescape) this year, they just have to calm everything down enough to watch all this wash away.
- Influencer Power: One of the biggest disappointments of this has been the relative silence from many of D&D’s biggest influencers. Non-disparagement clauses aside for those directly in contracts with Wizards, the mild non-statements so many have issued (if they issued anything at all) did a lot to keep the fanbase on side. Now that Wizards is “the good guy” again, they’re slipping right back into their hustles, creating a continuity of activity that will help people forget anything was wrong at all.
- Fan Deflection: People have deep connections to lifestyle brands, and Wizards has become something of a lifestyle brand over the last nine years. So instead of blaming Wizards for their hand in all this, which it was, they’re passing the blame onto their owner, Hasbro. And Wizards wants it this way. Hasbro undoubtedly had influence in this, but the OGL 1.1 lined up fine with Wizards’ goals and dreams from the GSL days.
Why is Wizards doing what it’s doing and hoping its ducks are in a row for the places outside their direct control? Simple. First, they want their easy, passive revenue generation back. Then they want to kill the momentum of Paizo’s ORC licence coalition and of the nascent TTRPG Creator’s Association. Because, at the endo f the day, Wizards does not care about the community or the hobby. They care, exclusively, about their bottom line.
Battles Aren’t Wars
Taking a victory lap after seemingly winning a battle is okay, but that’s assuming that the battle is over and that this was the final battle that needs to be fought to win the war. Wizards, since 2001, has tried to destroy the larger hobby twice. First was with OGL 1.0 and the d20 Bubble followed by the 4e GSL. The devastation that left in the hobby was severe. Dozens of companies shutdown, creatives were left out in the cold, and retailers at all levels became gun-shy about selling any product that wasn’t D&D or a major, instantly recognizable IP like Star Wars. This is the second time they’ve tried to harm the hobby while enriching themselves. The OGL revocation had immense and far-reaching potential to harm companies and individual creators, even if the revocation was later reversed in court. What was “won” in this battle was temporary respite. OGL 1.0a is not irrevocable. There’s no info on the future edition of D&D. CC-BY 4.0 has its own challenges to work in and around.
The waning public and vocal support for things like Paizo’s ORC licence or the TTRPG Creator’s Association are setting us all up to experience this again at D&D’s discretion. Too many people are looking for the easy, quick relief of accepting that Wizards is a good actor and that the community achieved a victory of a powerful corporation by grassroots movement. Even talk about trying new systems is being drowned out by the celebratory noise. Except Wizards is not a good actor.
Wizards has spent its entire 5e tenure staggering from scandal to scandal. It proved resistant to changes that became normalized in the indie sphere, like using sensitivity readers. Racism in books and mistreatment of employees and contractors passed with no substantive internal changes. And through it all, they’ve relied on the phrase “We’ve heard you, and we will do better…” to calm the situation and make it seem like they’re the reasonable ones. Nine years they’ve done this, only changing anything, in the most minor of ways, when the heat got too hot and the bottom line might be affected. Wizards has a well-established pattern of behaviour at this point with no reason to believe that they’ve changed significantly.
The last few weeks has been a rollercoaster for the whole community, and it’s important to make a record of things and impressions when things are still fresh. This situation was, and still is, huge. It’s also not over, no matter how much people want it to be. Our defence in all this, as I said before, is to make having a plurality of systems the norm again. To not let Wizards have what it wants, which is system dominance. So, please, find some other systems. Create in them. Broadcast them. Engage in counter-Network Externalities to keep the hobby ecosystem a healthy and diverse one. Because as someone from a place where logging is a major industry, I can tell you from personal experience that monoculture forests can only ever look healthy and are weaker when subjected to stress than a diverse forest.