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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

#dndnext Cautious Optimism: Part 3, the dawn of Open Gaming

I’m well aware that people have been designing games and encouraging others to use their systems for quite some time, but with the advent of 3rd Edition D&D, WIzards of the Coast did something special and spectacular: they created the Open Game License (OGL). Setting aside all other considerations about 3e D&D (OMG IT ALL MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!!!/OMG THE CLASS AND POWER BLOAT!!!), this addition officially made 3e the most important D&D edition in the history of table top Role Playing Games.

The OGL is a legal document that is attached to most D&D 3/3.5 (and to Pathfinder, and to a variety of other games including Spycraft, d20 Modern, Mutants & Masterminds, and the superlative True20) releases that makes it so that anybody can create and distribute games based on the original material. It does this while including a clause that protects individual product identity, allowing you to easily create modified game systems using the rules, but retain control of things that are specific to your particular game setting (for instance, I could create an Essence d20 game that allowed people to use any of the mechanics I created, but stop them from using, say, Silverleaf, the capitol city of the Sherian Republic of Free Clans). It’s a masterfully written document that brought unprecedented freedom to other publishers. when developing compatible or derivative content: they no longer needed to “get permission” because that was included in the OGL.

Thanks to the OGL, we now have (and this is a very abbreviated list):

  • True 20, an elegant and streamlined universal game system published by Green Ronin
  • PCGen, Open Source character generator software that can be adapted to just about any d20 game system
  • Mutants & Masterminds, a in-depth (if a bit mathematically complicated) Super Heroes role playing game also from Green Ronin
  • Spycraft, an espionage role playing game filled with Bond-eque action from Crafty Games (who also make the equally superlative Fantasy Craft game)
  • Literally hundreds of independently published rules supplements to D&D 3/3.5
  • Pathfinder, a fantastic evolution of the 3.5 D&D rules system brought to us by Paizo that apparently outsells 4e D&D by a fair margin
And the list goes on. I’m not even including non-d20 games that have been released under the license (like RuneQuest). I’m sure I’ve left a lot of other things out as well. Space considerations, don’t you know.
In any case, by adding the OGL to the Most Popular Role Playing Game In The World, Wizards opened up gaming in general. The idea that a system could be used, adapted, modified, and republished by anyone was the greatest revolution in gaming history since the creation of the hobby. Pure, unadulterated brilliance is what it was.

I’ve seen it argued that, by creating the OGL, Wizards also laid the groundwork for D&D’s biggest direct competitor (which would be Pathfinder, which some gamers have affectionately – or derisively – called “D&D 3.75”). This claim is horse shit. It isn’t the OGL that caused Pathfinder to overtake D&D, or even to exist in the first place. A variety of business decisions at Wizards did that – but I’m only going o talk about one: the GSL.

When Wizards – with no fan input whatsoever – decided to move on to a fourth edition of their iconic game system, they dropped the OGL in favor of the GSL – the Game System License. Now, if you do a quick Google search, you’ll find more games released under the OGL than you can shake a stick at, many of them dating back to the time of 3e (not 3.5) D&D. Do similar research for the GSL and you’ll find… well, just about nothing. Now, why is this?

The GSL is much more restrictive than the OGL. Where the OGL said “here – take the mechanics of this game and do what you will with them!”, the GSL said “These are our mechanics. You can make stuff directly related to it, but you can’t make derivatives, and God Help You if you try to make computer software related to it”. Wizards then aggressively enforced the GSL.

See, they saw all the money companies like Green Ronin, Crafty Games, and Paizo were making from their derivative stuff (in the case of Paizo, that included two officially licensed D&D magazines), and said “Hey! WE WANT THAT MONEY!“. I’m all for companies – especially creative ones like game publishers – making money from their work, but Wizards failed to take several things into account.

The first thing they missed was that all of this derivative work led back to them. Instead of dancing in the spotlight as the progenitor of a new generation of gaming, all they could see was the money they thought they were missing out on. They saw character generators and thought we could make and sell those, ignoring the fact that most of the chargen software out there were labors of love created by fans with little or no thought of profit.  They saw the derivative systems and thought we can do that, too, never acknowledging that there was no practical way for them to actually do it. Wizards never could have made Mutants & Masterminds when they had to focus their dev team on D&D. This is easily proven when you take into account how completely awesome a 4e based Super Hero game could be. It almost seems like the system was made for it: they call the various special things characters can do Powers, for goodness sake!

The other thing they missed was that they never could have gotten that money anyway. Wizards does RPGs one way – the D&D/d20 Modern way. Crafty Games does things another way.  I know I covered it a bit in the previous paragraph, but the only reason games like Spycraft exist is because folks saw something special in the d20 system and adapted it. They missed out that several of the character generation software projects were free – either Free as in Beer or Free as in Libre. They missed out on the fact that a whole hell of a lot of the stuff people were putting out were things that WIzards has never expressed an ability or desire to put out. And yet all of them – every last one – still led back to D&D and/or d20 Modern. PCGen, Redblade, Spycraft, Mutants & Masterminds, True 20, Conan the Barbarian (from Mongoose Publishing), Pathfinder, the Everquest RPG (White Wolf Studios), Traveller20 (QuickLink Interactive), and even the (frankly amazing) World of Warcraft Role Playing Game are all – intentionally or not – homages to the d20/3e/3.5e Dungeons &  Dragons game. Did Wizards really think they’d be able to make this frakkin’ many adaptations of the 4e system, or that in order to make 4e adaptations, people would submit to the GSL? Not bloody likely.

It wasn’t the release of 4e that created Pathfinder. It was the GSL. Although I find myself preferring the d20 system more and more over 4e,  4e could have been much cooler if only Wizards had loosened its grip.

So. What can D&D Next take from this? Simple: Bring back the OGL. Don’t make a whole new license when you already have a perfectly good one. This is especially true for the modular approach Wizards is taking. Let people make and sell their own modules. Allow them to put some sort of branding on things that are compatible directly with the core rules, and let people who want to make original works derived from (but not compatible with) the new D&D do their thing. Encourage the whole of the gaming community to use your system.

In this way, D&D Next could do a lot more than bring players of multiple editions of D&D to the same table. It could create a single system that many, if not most, in the gaming hobby could stand behind, use, and love regardless of what sort of game they wanted to play. Instead of just bringing D&D players together, it could bring the whole Role Playing Community together.

C’mon guys. You almost did it once. This time, do it, stand behind it, and encourage it to grow. Be even less restrictive.

The whole of the hobby will thank you for it.

TL;DR

Get a frakking attention span. I’m not doing this stupid crap anymore. If you can’t be bothered to read 1,000 words or so about a subject, then you don’t really care about it anyway.

Next:

For my next post, I’ll be talking about 3/3.5e and the d20 Modern system. Probably. Unless I can think of something else I’d rather talk about.

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5 thoughts on “#dndnext Cautious Optimism: Part 3, the dawn of Open Gaming

  1. Very excellent series you’ve got going here. My exposure to Tabletop RPGs has been, how do you say, nil for a good decade at least, so I haven’t had anything to add. But I do look forward to more.

    I also hope you haven’t forgotten about why you didn’t add Final Fantasy 7 to your Best Of List. Kinda interested in that.

  2. I haven’t, but this isn’t supposed to be that kind of gaming blog… I’ll get to it eventually. I still have a few more things to say about D&D Next and my hopes for the future on that topic.

  3. Pingback: #dndnext Cautious Optimism part 4: Edition the Third and the d20 System « student 20 Productions

  4. Pingback: #dndnext Cautious Optimism Part 5 (I think): Incarnum and 4e « student 20 Productions

  5. Pingback: #dndnext Cautious Optimism 6: In Summary « student 20 Productions

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