The D&D World Is On Fire Right Now, And Wizards Of The Coast Can Only Blame Itself
The world of Dungeons & Dragons is in the middle of a massive sea change thanks to "One D&D," and it all goes back to brand owner Wizards of the Coast.
When it comes to the world of tabletop RPGs, there's Dungeons & Dragons, and then there's everything else. Indeed, Dungeons & Dragons' dominance of the market is so complete that you could argue that most D&D players don't even realize that there is an alternative--similar to Pokemon and its imitators.
However, in recent weeks, D&D brand owner Wizards of the Coast has done nearly all it can to incense and repulse the players and partners that support it--and according to one report, it apparently took a wave of canceled subscriptions to finally convince the company to reverse course. So, what was the source of the conflict, and why were so many loyal D&D fans ready to jump ship to lesser-known competitors like Pathfinder and 13th Age? As usual, it has to do with money and market dynamics, and for a lot of D&D players, it might be a case of too little, too late.
When Dungeons & Dragons was introduced in 1974, it was the world's first commercially available tabletop role-playing game, and it made the most of that head start. While some things have changed over the years, D&D has always enjoyed a massive slice of the market, and its 5th edition (now almost a decade old) has seen the largest boom of popularity in the hobby's venerable history. Late last year, when Wizards of the Coast announced the follow-up to 5e, titled "One D&D," some fans worried that Wizards would take a more proprietary approach to licensing third-party D&D content in order to drive more revenue to parent company Hasbro.
The key agreement that defines the relationship between Wizards of the Coast and third-party content creators is called the Open Game License (OGL), and it's at the center of this controversy. For most of D&D's history, third-party companies have been allowed to create modules, monsters, and other unofficial content for the current D&D ruleset without paying Wizards a licensing fee or any other compensation. However, when outlets like ComicBook reached out to Wizards of the Coast in response to these rumors, Wizards said that the OGL "would continue to evolve" along with One D&D's rules, which only stoked the flames of conflict.
The controversy really kicked off when io9 reported on a leaked draft of a new OGL. Termed "OGL 1.1," the agreement would have "de-authorized" the original OGL, placed many new restrictions on new third-party content, and required companies to pay Wizards of the Coast 25% royalties on all revenue past the $750,000-per-year mark. The draft immediately garnered a universally negative reaction from players and third-party companies, who denounced it as a power grab from the biggest player in the space.
It didn't take long for the tabletop community to respond to Wizards of the Coast's surprising intentions. A faction of third-party publishers put together the #OpenDND campaign, which called Wizard's draft an attempted "dismantling" of the tabletop industry. The open letter described Wizard's behavior as "anti-competitive" and "monopolistic." It also said that the draft OGL was designed to "crush small businesses" that are a fraction of a fraction the size of Wizards of the Coast, which made more than a billion dollars in revenue in 2021.
Though only a few companies make enough off D&D content to qualify for the royalty payments, the proposed OGL introduced many other negative provisions that would turn off even the most humble hobbyist. For one, it included language that would have given Wizards a license to use any third-party D&D content for any purpose without paying the creator. The proposed "de-authorization" of the previous OGL, if enforced, would have put hundreds of old modules and rulesets for sale in legal jeopardy. This would have caused major headaches for companies like Pathfinder publisher Paizo, which would likely have challenged Wizard's attempt at revoking the agreement in court.
Before Wizards could cobble together its own response to this leak, many of the most notable tabletop RPG publishers unveiled sweeping new policies. Kobold Press, one of the most popular third-party producers of 5e modules, announced that it would create its own open and "subscription-free" fantasy ruleset in order to avoid further entanglement with Wizards' unpopular decisions. Notable 5e content creator Matt Colville said that he would make his own system as well. Finally, a number of large RPG companies, led by Paizo, announced the Open RPG Creative License, or ORC, which is intended as a permanent and irrevocable replacement for the old OGL.
The backlash to the backlash
Wizards of the Coast finally responded to the controversy in mid-January. However, while its statement covered all the company's bases, it failed to put out the fire--rather the opposite. In a post on D&D Beyond, Wizards admitted that the draft OGL was indeed legitimate, and that the new draft was motivated by desire to support content creators and designers rather than "major corporations," an apparent reference to Paizo and its ilk.
The statement also pointed to a desire to remove D&D content from "hateful and discriminatory products," as well as shutting down those attempting to make D&D blockchain games and NFTs. While both of these moves are widely supported by the existing tabletop community, they were widely seen as a smokescreen for Wizards' profit-seeking behavior.
Wizards of the Coast went further to say that the new OGL will not contain any of the controversial provisions of the draft, including the royalty structure, the back-license agreement, or the "de-authorization" of previous OGL versions. Though this is good news for the RPG community, Wizards went further to say that it and the community "won" because it always planned to "solicit the input of the community before any update to the OGL." It went further to state that the leaked drafts were an intended part of that review process, a bizarre claim that was roundly mocked as a face-saving measure on the company's part.
[Update: Wizards released an additional statement on January 18, vowing to work with the community on the next steps.]
At this juncture, it's unclear how exactly the tabletop community will respond to this new statement from Wizards, or any other OGL drafts that may emerge in the coming months. Reporting from Gizmodo suggests that a fan campaign to mass-cancel D&D Beyond subscriptions is what ultimately led Wizards of the Coast to abandon its plans, rather than public pressure from content creators or other companies. Regardless of whether Wizards follows through on its promises, you could argue that the damage is already done, considering that key partners like Kobold Press have already abandoned ship.
Make no mistake: Even if this controversy had continued for months, and Wizards of the Coast had kept shedding players, D&D would still have remained the number-one tabletop role-playing game. The company's stranglehold on the industry is such that it can weather even a major blow like this. However, the vision that Wizards has of the future of RPGs, where D&D controls the entire market hand-over-fist forever, does not seem feasible. Instead, the long-term trajectory of the hobby is likely headed towards fragmentation, with more players embracing independent RPGs made by companies even smaller than Paizo.
As a hobby, tabletop games have a relatively low cost of entry--all you need is a handful of dice, a few shared books, and your imagination. In fact, you might say it's one of the hobby's best attributes. Wizards of the Coast seemingly wants to create a future for D&D where you pay expensive subscription fees for resources and services that other games offer for free, from character sheets to its own proprietary virtual tabletop software.
While D&D might always remain the biggest player in the TRPG industry, if Wizards continues in this direction, players are going to eventually figure out that there are better deals elsewhere. Most of the TRPG community seems to agree that that's not a healthy approach for the long-term viability of D&D or TRPGs as a hobby. Unfortunately for D&D players, it seems unlikely that anyone can actually stop it--except for perhaps Wizards of the Coast itself.
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