Honestly, I want to stop reading about this already. I like D&D, thus I don’t enjoy watching the makers of it repeatedly choose mistakes over anything else.
Regardless, I have some thoughts. And I’d rather focus on those instead of my fears or my (depressingly small) hopes.
To summarize, the OGL is the open license under which much of D&D’s mechanics and other aspects can be freely used by others. It’s why we have 3rd-party supplements and adventures, and it also lies at the heart of some major TTRPG competitors, such as Pathfinder (though I’ve heard Pathfinder 2e has moved away from this).
Wizards of the Coast wants to change the OGL. Currently, to them it represents a massive loss in potential profit as it allows 3rd parties, including direct competitors, to make money off of their work. Whether WotC wants to completely remove these other products or merely get their hands in the money pot is uncertain.
I’d like to start by saying that this is a terrible idea and more likely to lower profits than raise them. It’s also not a great time for them to be doing this, since public opinion of WotC seems to be stuck between “uninterested disdain” and “outright hatred.” There are less popular companies out there, but that doesn’t really help their position.
But there are a few caveats too.
For one, whether the online D&D community represents the actual D&D community is not guaranteed. Wherever you have a number of loud and dedicated speakers, you have the possibility of a much larger number of quiet supporters.
There’s also the question of whether or not a majority of D&D players actually know where their content comes from. Given a good portion of it is through online platforms at least partially dominated by WotC, I could easily see many players thinking that everything basically comes back to them.
To put it simply: the online community is outraged. What matters is whether anyone else outside of that community actually cares.
Another caveat is the fact that an update to the OGL probably is necessary. As far as I’m aware, it hasn’t been changed since the advent of large-scale online platforms for 3rd party content. I don’t know what loopholes or issues might exist in the current OGL, but it’s just old. An update of some kind isn’t ridiculous.
I don’t actually know what the current status of copyrighting game mechanics is. As I remember, there’s a lot of doubt over whether or not something as simple as “how to roll dice” can be copyrighted at all. Despite my meager efforts in undergrad, I am not a copyright lawyer (and never will be, hooray pre-law!).
Finally, there’s the issue of internet verification. The latest leaked OGL does seem to have quite a bit backing it up. And WotC’s “oh crap, what do we say?” non-response to the situation also seems to imply that there is reason to be upset.
However, I did notice that the outrage over this started well before the leak was even remotely verifiable or trustworthy. As the Internet is wont to do, everyone latched onto the leak and started getting worked up over it without bothering to check whether the thing was a real leak or a blatant fake made in Photoshop. It could still be that this leak is fake or otherwise untrustworthy, and WotC is just following their venerable tradition of terrible PR decisions by not commenting otherwise sooner.
Also I said I wouldn’t talk about my fears, but here we go anyway.
My biggest concern is that WotC has drastically mis-judged the nature of their consumer base. Namely that they think people who play Pathfinder or any other D&D-related system are actual potential customers of WotC.
Because they aren’t. Even in systems based on 5e, the players of those systems are unlikely to switch back to WotC’s D&D if their current preferred system disappears. Add this to the fact that, obviously, competitor systems will move on and adapt to a world without 5e as a base. So even if WotC could completely obliterate Pathfinder 2e, for instance, all that would do is force the creation of Pathfinder 3e, with the exact same player base as 2e.
Another misunderstanding I think WotC has is that they’re capable of handling the D&D world on their own. Here’s a hint – they aren’t. If you take every WotC product released in the last 3 years, it would likely still be enough to support a community of this size for even one year, much less three.
There’s also the matter of quality. This is another case where my place in the online D&D community can skew my opinion, but even still… to me, it just seems like many WotC products are not preferred over products from 3rd parties. Many WotC adventures are solidly mediocre. Some are good, but these generally tend to be the collections of previously-released modules.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh remains, to this day, a campaign series I desperately want to do. Rime of the Frostmaiden is a book I bought, started reading, and then just never really did anything with. But I don’t know, maybe Radiant Citadel is better – I got it recently but haven’t started it yet.
I hear it has a grumpy, old gate-keeping clown named Thaco, which would be the funniest thing I’ve seen in years if it weren’t for all the enraged forum posts about the character that one of my group posts to our chat regularly. Let me put it like this – the sole downfall of Thaco the Clown is that he cannot ever be the funniest clown in the universe because his very existence brings out dozens of even funnier clowns with zero self-awareness.
Let me put this another way. If you feel personally attacked by the portrayal of a fictional clown, then I suggest you pause for a moment and find the nearest non-funhouse mirror you can and take a good long look at yourself.
Okay, back to the topic at hand.
Right now, WotC is facing a very delicate situation. The Old Guard are leaving for a number of reasons and have been for a long time now. The Old Clown Guards have been offended by an objectively hilarious little joke. And the New Blood are wary of D&D due to the various bits of racism and sexism left over from the game’s origins in the last millennium.
Paizo has really stepped up to the ring with Pathfinder 2e, a revolutionary take on their classic game system which makes it vaguely playable without having to dump seven hundred dollars into it and take a three-month onboarding process. The eternal pandemic has made playing in-person as unfamiliar to current players as a rotary phone. And all of the best online play environments are owned and operated by groups and individuals unaffiliated with WotC (while their own system remains, as far as I’m aware, primarily confined to boardroom PowerPoints).
Is now really the time to start pissing people off?
Anyway, hopefully updates should be more consistent starting soon. I’ll still be talking about D&D regardless of what mistake WotC decides to make next, but whether or not I’ll make anything new for it is up in the air. To me, “D&D” isn’t a trademark because I just can’t see it that way.
Oh, and as always… let me know what you think!
But please don’t send me more links to articles on this story because it’s depressing and, frankly, I really want to stop reading about it.