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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

Wouldn’t a Simple D20 Roll Have Been Easier?

Dungeons & Dragons fans worry over licensing rights to the popular RPG

Did you play Dungeons & Dragons as a kid? If you did, then there’s a decent chance you’ve also played it more recently, perhaps with your own kids or maybe with some of your adult friends willing to admit to having the “geek gene.”

Whether you did or not, you may have seen that there’s been some controversy surrounding the venerable role-playing game and the current owner of the master license especially on social media.

What is Dungeons & Dragons anyway?

Dungeons & Dragons (or more simply “D&D” to fans) is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game (RPG) originally designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and was first published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (If you’ve seen any of the popular sci-fi series Stranger Things then you’ve probably seen the game being played onscreen.) The game derived from miniature wargames and it is widely credited with sparking the beginning of modern role-playing games and the role-playing game industry, as well as deeply influencing video games and the entire role-playing video game genre.

D&D allows each player to create their own character to play and these characters embark upon adventures within a fantasy setting. A Dungeon Master serves as the game's referee and storyteller, while maintaining the setting in which the adventures occur, and playing the role of the inhabitants of the game world. The characters form a party and they interact with the setting's inhabitants and each other all the while solve dilemmas, engage in battles, explore, and gather treasure and knowledge, and earn experience points (XP) to rise in levels, and become increasingly powerful over a series of separate gaming sessions.

Since 1997, the game has been published by Wizards of the Coast (now a subsidiary of Hasbro), it has been split into an original version and a more rule-heavy version known as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and the rules have been revised several times. The third edition of the rules were made available to other publishers under the d20 System which is available under the Open Game License (the “OGL”) for use by other publishers.

For decades, D&D has remained the best-known, and best-selling, role-playing game in the United States, with an estimated 20 million people having played the game and worldwide sales of books and equipment sales exceeding $1 billion annually.

So, what went wrong?

Late last year, there was speculation in the gaming industry that that Wizards of the Coast was planning to discontinue the OGL for D&D in the interest of better controlling the brand and rerouting the resulting revenue streams so that they all flowed back to the license holder.

Initially, Wizards responded to the rumors, which became rampant on social media, by issuing a statement that read, "We will continue to support the thousands of creators making third-party D&D content with the release of One D&D in 2024."

However, when Wizards of the Coast began to release details on the update to the OGL, including the addition of revenue reporting and required royalties, in December 2022 it became clear that version 1.1 of the OGL would include updated contract terms such as no longer authorizing use of the OGL1.0. the result was immediate panic in the industry and frustration in the gaming community.

D&D players had long considered themselves largely immune from infighting over licensing rights (and the untidiness of corporate profits) even while conceding that substantial fortunes were being made by numerous third parties under the guise of promoting the popular brand. Wizards of the Coast’s announcements was a reminder that money did matter and that profits held sway over many IP rights decisions even though D&D was “just a game.”.

A week later, Wizards of the Coast issued a response which walked back several changes to the OGL, but without including the actual updated OGL. The company quickly made apologetic overtures and on January 27 of this year, announced that the System Reference Document 5.1 (SRD 5.1) would be released under an irrevocable creative commons license (CC-BY-4.0) effective immediately. Thus, Wizards of the Coast would not deauthorize the OGL1.0 and force third party publishers to accept the new version or completely retool their gaming systems to avoid infringing D&D intellectual property.

Why It Matters. The new D&D OGL has had the gaming community in an uproar that was blown out of proportion by the ensuing social media flame wars. Even though the underlying issues may have been solved by Wizards of the Coast, the fact that there even was a controversy, and the attendant bad press should serve as a reminder to all brands that even a seemingly innocuous response to a licensing problem can have far-reaching negative consequences.

With some third-party publishers have abandoned Dungeons & Dragons books for good in favor of one of the many alternatives available, there has also been an adverse impact on players as well. Trust in the game and the publisher has been eroded, many devoted players have walked away from the game, alternative gaming systems and rival publishers have benefited financially, and the Dungeons & Dragons brand has a long dungeon crawl ahead of itself to try to win back goodwill and polish it reputation.

[If you've been living under a rock and still have no idea what we're talking about, you can learn more about D&D at the Wizards of the Coast website.]


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