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Blog posts cannot substitute for legal advice. If the topics discussed in this post are relevant to a real case you have, please consult an attorney.
Two observations about this post. First, it was written shortly after the Open Gaming License 1.1 (“OGL 1.1”) leak, so a lot of this had to be rewritten to make sense. I may have missed a few things, so some of my points may be dated. Second, this could very well be the last post I make about the OGL specifically. I’ve addressed most things at issue, and I have a multitude of posts on this blog and my legal blog that address relevant topics generally. Besides, I know what I wantWizards of the Coast (“WotC”) and other game designers to do, so criticizing anything that doesn’t meet my needs is a meaningless effort. Expect more cat memes, mythology videos, and game design opinions going forward than legal analysis. If that’s not to your liking, that’s fine of course; just keep in mind what I’ve written here so you can reference it in the future.
The Open Gaming License, Version 2.0 (“OGL 2.0”), nee OGL 1.1, but now apparently 1.2, has stirred up quite a lot of controversy. WotC has continuously denied rumors that later turned out to be true, then shifted to declaring it a tie, and now has provided a mea culpa. The fact that they’re having so much trouble doing the right thing indicates that they don’t want to do the right thing. That’s annoying to say the least, but what’s most important is what they’re doing now. So far, what I’ve seen still fails to address my concerns about consideration and acceptance, but things are evolving rapidly, so we have to take things as they come, though I don’t trust them.
Many of you have called for boycotts of all things Hasbro, not just Dungeons and Dragons. Play-Doh is also in your sights, and #BoycottDNDMovie is trending on Twitter. As I’ve stated, I’m not on board with that hysteria here or elsewhere in the commercial world. There are too many good people that will suffer, and too much good material from them that will never see the light of day, if WotC has to lay them off. I feel like you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water, and at the expensive of people you don’t want to hurt. But that’s just me. You do you. I’m here to give you a dose of real hysteria.
I Swear This Section Will Be Quick
In short (like real short, so don’t sweat the missing details), game mechanics are not copyrightable, but your specific way in which you write those rules are. Accordingly, I can rewrite the entire Player’s Handbook in my own words, without any of their artwork, and not run afoul of WotC’s copyright. Would that be a cool thing to do? No, but there may come a time when it is both necessary and fitting.
My Proposed Response
Here’s what I’m going to do if WotC doesn’t fix the problem to my satisfaction: I’m going to rewrite the entire 5th Edition Player’s Handbook in my own words, without any of their artwork, and publish it free on this site. Don’t believe me? I estimate that I’m at least 40% finished, and it’s all public domain material. Here’s an excerpt:
It includes race and class write ups from other sources as well, often pointing out very good reasons why WotC doesn’t own the material. Here’s another excerpt:
Do you think I’m afraid of a lawsuit? Here’s yet another excerpt.
When OneD&D is released, I’ll do the same thing but with its version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which would be a much more serious concern for WotC considering that dungeon masters do the most purchasing. I was reluctant to do this. Not only would a court battle be a hassle, but I also don’t want the industry harmed. However, if WotC continues to push the false narrative of an “open gaming license” and doesn’t instead shift gears and go the route of dedicating to the public domain, then they’re the ones doing the harm. Massive harm. I’m simply publishing public domain material, and if anything appears to be creative, there’s always this. You may still not like this idea, but here’s something else to consider.
A Nefarious Plan
My post had subtext I wouldn’t expect anyone but an attorney well-versed in intellectual property to decipher. If the courts review table-top role-playing games (“TTRPGs”), we’ll learn that, given the nature of copyright law, TTRPGs can’t generate profits big businesses require. That is, while small publishers can expect to continue to make the relatively small amounts that they make on TTRPGs, TTRPGs will no longer be the cash cow that WotC has made of Dungeons & Dragons. WotC probably knows this, as evidenced by this provision of the draft OGL 2.0:
In case this isn’t clear, that draft gave WotC permanent access to your intellectual property, which they can do with as they please and have no obligation to pay you for that privilege. Now I know WotC has backtracked on that particular provision, but only because the feel they have no choice at this point. While I don’t trust them, I don’t care at this point whether they mean it. This was, at one point, their plan. If they think they should steal something you won, then it’s far for me to steal something from them that they do not own. At least I’m not really stealing.
But why would WotC even do something like this knowing that, once implemented, it would start to generate heat that could destroy the brand? Remember when WotC said that OneD&D would be the last version of D&D necessary? I suspect that’s because they see the writing on the wall. WotC sees my posts and others like them that necessarily lead to this legal conclusion and think, “Our well of money is about to dry up, so let’s do a last-minute cash- and intellectual property-grab. When it’s over, we’ll have made a ton of money and have a perpetual, irrevocable license to other people’s intellectual property that we can use to make books and other products that will survive the legal fallout.”
A friend of mine, who knows WotC culture far better than I, doesn’t think this is WotC’s plan, but I’m working with what I have, my own ignorance be damned.
Michael Hammock, an economics professor at Florida State University weighed in. A Facebook connection posted his quote in which he discussed how foolish the leaked OGL 2.0 would be if authentic. Could WotC be that stupid? Sure, but I wouldn’t make that assumption. They’ve been too successful for us to think they have so little business sense. They likely know the consequences and just don’t care. In summary, I suspect they know TTRPGs are no longer going to be profitable enough for them, and they wanted to secure new sources of revenue at your expense before that’s a done deal. So no, I won’t feel the slightest bit guilty of thwarting whatever remains of these plans, as my actions will be 100% legal and not in any way larcenous. You can’t steal what no one owns. Moreover, WotC may not even sue me, not because they realize that the suit would be frivolous, but because it would just make matters worse for them. They also may be facing lawsuits from other parties, and there are only so many fights they can handle at one time. The last one they need is one with a counterclaim for copyright misuse that will have serious consequences.
Copyright law is in desperate need of reform, but it’s great stuff. I fully support the notion of (a reformed) copyright, but even in its current form it has consumer protections, such as copyright misuse, that prevent copyright holders from abusing their copyright. As far as I’m concerned, WotC has misused their copyright, at least with respect to their actions against me, and many creatives are going to be forced out of the market by an OGL anywhere near what we’ve seen so far. This hurts everyone, so I’m glad you’re finally seeing WotC for who they really are.
If you still think I’m the bad guy at this point, it’s because you’re the bad guy.
First, there was the dinosaur cat. Now, you have the cat sith. With an intelligence of 16, wisdom of 17, and spellcasting to boot, this is a much greater threat, and perhaps one that could be quite surprising to the average party. One thing that’s disappointing is that the creator uses the term “sith,” yet there’s nothing Sith-like about its powers. No telekinetics, no mind control, and, of course, no weapon use. That seems odd.
But yes, it’s just as ridiculous as the dinosaur cat.
Sundays now are lazy days for me. I either post something silly or other people’s work. Usually both. Today, it’s (loosely) using science to imagine a D&D creature. I did that with the Ixitxachitl and now do it with the pufferfish. Behold the pufferfish lich!
I don’t care what spells it casts. I’m not afraid.
This is a tough one, and I don’t want to admit the answer, but I will. Like everyone, I want my cake and to eat it too. I want my friends to share my play style, but I have tangible data suggesting that’s never going to happen (at least not long- or even mid-term). So, my answer is this: I’d rather play with strangers that share my play style.
Consider the following: I can’t stand3rd Edition D&D (“3e“). When I returned to the game after 23 years away from it, I was so happy to be back that I ignored how frustrating the system was. Besides, ignorance is bliss, and for all practical purposes I had nothing to which to compare it. I hadn’t played any RPGs for decades. Nevertheless, within the past couple of years, I’ve played a little bit of 3e. I played a few sessions of Greyhawk Reborn, which is the revival of the Living Greyhawk living campaign. Why? Because some of my friends never moved on from it, and that meant I never saw them. It was a chance to reconnect, which is important to me, but it didn’t take long for 3e to drive me away again.
On the other hand, I like 5th Edition D&D, and even more of my friends play it. Nevertheless, differing play styles grated on me. My style appears to be very firmly in the minority, so I find the game more tedious than it should be, but certainly more tedious than anything designed to entertain should be.
While I’m planning to return to D&D after deciding not to play anymore, I’m doing so on my own terms, or at least I’m trying to. I’m going to run some 1st Edition D&D sessions because I suspect that system will nudge players towards the way I want to play. Even if that’s true, it may not be to their liking, so this could be a short-lived experiment. In any event, the only hope for me playing regularly would be if the style shifted to my liking. You can’t force that on people, but if some strangers came along and had a similar approach, I wouldn’t have to.
Of course, if there were personality clashes with the strangers, then I’d leave the game again, but I fear that my best chance for a long-term return to D&D is through strangers, not my existing friends. This isn’t the end of the world. I’m at least in contact with my friends via social media, we’ll probably resume seeing movies and doing trivia night when the pandemic passes, and there’s always Winter Fantasy. Also, there’s no reason to assume there’d be personality clashes with strangers. Meeting strangers should be seen as an opportunity to make even more friends. We should all try that out from time to time anyway. That may be difficult without giving in to the online gaming fad.
So, I’d have to say that I’d rather play the game I want to play with strangers than to play the one I don’t with existing friends, but only because my friends aren’t going away.
I left D&D in 1982 due to the Satanic Panic and didn’t return until 2005, so my recollection of 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) isn’t precise. When I returned during the days of 3rd Edition D&D (“3e”), rolling for wandering monsters wasn’t a common mechanic (though I occasionally saw it in published mods). Without appreciating why it was used in 1e, I simply thought that the use of wandering monsters was stupid. If you have a cool monster on hand, use it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of a perfectly good encounter. On the other hand, if your wandering monster is the same creature that the PCs are facing from time to time in the planned encounters, then they add nothing to the game, so don’t waste time on them. That could make the game tedious. Now that I’ve reacquainted myself with 1e, I realize their point: They’re designed to discourage dawdling.
Searching for secret doors, examining magic items, counting your loot, and sleeping are time-consuming activities. DMs are expected to keep track of time so that, when a given interval of time has passed, they know to roll for wandering monsters. These random encounters often didn’t result in any treasure and drained valuable resources from the party, so they weren’t something that the PCs wanted. However, they didn’t make the game tedious because 1e combats were quick. So, the concern I mentioned above that they may not add anything to the game isn’t a serious one. Their primary effect was to drain resources, which, as I’ll discuss in the next section, serves a couple of connected purposes.
This isn’t something that goes over well with modern gamers. Modern gamers (and legacy gamers that have moved on) tend to explore every single room and grab every single piece of treasure they can. Anything less than complete is seen as a failure. I’ll give you a specific example. When discussing playing experiences with Lost Mines of Phandelver, the adventure from the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set for 5th Edition D&D (“5e”), players that failed to obtain the Staff of Defense would always be frustrated when others discussed it. Several of them that I knew would play the mod again with a character specifically designed to make use of that staff. Players would also take note in that adventure (and others) of forks in the road (so to speak), always promising to double back so that they covered the entire complex. Because of this mentality (I’ve been guilty of it myself), the D&D Adventurers League living campaign changed its rules such that every player could take a magic item found in the game even if there was only one. Everyone wants everything, so that’s what’s given despite how little sense it makes.
But Why Shouldn’t You Dawdle?
If this is what makes you happy, that’s fine, but my problem with this approach to the game is that it discourages immersion in the game world and can’t possibly work unless the risk of character death drops so low as to be negligible. As to the first point (which is a tangent from my main thesis), the logic of the game world becomes inconsistent. I can suspend my disbelief and accept a dragon that breathes a cone of cold, but I can’t accept the notion of a Rod of Cancellation spontaneously generating multiple copies of itself because multiple characters want it. The latter just doesn’t make sense, and no attempt is made to make sense of it. There’s no drain of resources to make it happen. There’s no need to visit the local archmage to make copies of it. It just happens.
As to the second point (now we’re back on track), a game where I know the DM will never kill me bores me. A game where I’ll get killed if I don’t think things through logically is far more fun. Sure enough, I’ve rarely seen character death in 5e. In fact, I saw far more character death in 4th Edition D&D (“4e“), and 1st-level 4e characters are intentionally durable. The more gamers become unwilling to suffer even the smallest of setbacks, the less we see them, which is why I stopped playing. There’s none of that in 1e. Can your characters survive? Sure, especially if you send the henchmen and hirelings in first. As I’ve been told, PCs can survive an entire campaign even despite the save or die mechanic (which I still don’t like). However, if you truly immerse yourself in the game, you’ll see that some actions are downright stupid and should get your characters killed. Game mechanics like wandering monsters discourage such stupidity, and as a consequence reward true immersion in the game world.
Your mission is to save the noble, not to grab an extra 5 copper pieces. Once you’ve got the noble, get the hell out of there. If this were a scenario in the real world, and you went for the coppers, your friends at your funeral would be discussing whether to submit your story to the Darwin Awards committee.
My favorite 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) adventure is C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness. Also up there in the ranks is C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan. I’ve converted both mods** to 4th Edition D&D (“4e”) and 5th Edition D&D (“5e”). I’m always eager to run either one, and because I’ve done so multiple times, I made (and saved) maps for them.
** The last time I used the word, “mod,” for what others call “adventure” or “module,” I received an odd amount of pushback. One person even accused me of lying that it’s what I called them growing up, as if there could possibly be a motivation for something like that. I grew up in Montgomery County, MD, and every single person I gamed with called it mod. Some still do. We also occasionally used the terms adventure and module, but the point is that “mod” was the standard term. Your regional dialect, or even your specific gaming group, may have a different experience. I don’t care. I shouldn’t have had to write this aside, but if I didn’t, I might receive the same pushback over something that shouldn’t matter at all.
Dungeon Tiles were released during the 4e era, and I had tons of them. So much, in fact, that I had enough to spare. So, when I created the Dungeon Delves for synDCon 2011, I decided to take some of those Dungeon Tiles and permanently affix them to foam core. I’ve since used these for 5e as well. In other words, I’ve made good use of them. While unpacking recently, I discovered them. SPOILER ALERT! These cover only the Ghost Tower itself and a few iconic encounters along the four paths that lead you to it. Here are a couple of images of them.
For the other encounters, I can always use these. I bought a set.
With Hidden Shrine, I took a different approach, though not until 5e. I bought the hi-res images of the maps directly from their creator, Mike Schley. (You can see his work at https://mikeschley.com/.) I printed almost every room and hallway in the entire dungeon to cardstock (in color) so that I could use them as Dungeon Tiles. They’re exactly the correct size for minis. I also have several sound files containing phrases in Nahuatl that are either common (e.g., “Hello.”) or specifically used in the mod. They further helped set the mood. Here are some samples.
The problem with both of these mods is that they’re designed for competition. Each is designed for a set number of pre-generated PCs, 3 for C1 and 5 for C2 (though I created a 6th for C2), and the risk of death was unreasonably high — even by 1e standards — so that there would be one clear winner at the end of the convention. With both adventures, you can probably solve the “unreasonably high” problem (if you think that’s a problem) by having a normal party size.
In the foreseeable future, I plan to play only 1e, but I’ll make use of these maps nonetheless. “Theater of the mind” (i.e., gaming without maps) doesn’t bother me — it can be quite convenient at times — but I’m a huge fan of using maps. They help with the immersion that I often discuss, and they correct mistakes I make as DM in describing the surroundings. That doesn’t mean my 1e games won’t otherwise be theater of the mind. To me, that’s an inseparable part of the 1e experience. At least for now. 🙂
Someone on Facebook asked, “As a DM, what rule do you most often forget?” My answer is easy for 5th Edition D&D: I never award inspiration. I’ve done it maybe two or three times, and only then because people asked me to do it. It’s a silly thing. Someone like me should constantly be thinking about rewarding character concept-driven role-play, which I believe is the primary purpose of the mechanic. In 4th Edition D&D, the analog to inspiration was the Action Point (“AP”), and I never forgot to award that because it was rewarded based solely on how many encounters you had. Every other encounter, you received an AP. Most players were on top of that and automatically gave themselves the AP.
In all editions of all games, my forgetfulness manifests itself primarily through running a PC. If my character sheet gets too complicated, I forget to use abilities, feats, spells, etc. My professional life is all about attention to detail. When I’m playing a game (or writing about one), I want to relax, focusing on acting out a distinctive character concept rather than my character’s mechanics. Ergo, I try to keep my character’s mechanics as simple as possible, venturing into complexity only when it serves the character concept.