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The Most Dangerous Column in Gaming
Questions You May Have Asked
(and some answers that might surprise you!)
By Ryan S. Dancey

Wizards of the Coast has been gracious enough to give me a few pages of space here on the d20 System website to deal with some issues that have been brewing since the release of the Open Game License and the d20 System Trademark License. Hopefully, you'll find this material as entertaining to read as I found it to write!

Q: Why did you tell people that you wanted d20 to be the only roleplaying game?

A: My first response whenever this question comes up is "quote me." Because I can't be quoted as having said it, despite the "common knowledge" that I did. Bar none, the above is the most common misattribution I have to deal with. If you go back through the thousands of public messages I've written on the topic, you'll never -- not once -- find me advocating the idea that the d20 System should be the only roleplaying game, and/or that the OGL will cause that to happen.

I am on the record, though, as saying that I hope that the idea of Open Gaming reduces the number of game systems to the minimum number the market can support. Some people have chosen to interpret that remark as a code for "one system," but that's something I don't believe and have never said.

Q: Don't you think that diversity is a good thing?

A: I'm a big fan of diversity, when it serves a purpose. There are a number of very healthy reasons to have some diversity in game systems, mostly related to the inability of any one game system to effectively support the diverse number of genres and styles that people seem to want to be able to play.

What I don't believe in is diversity for artificial reasons. And that's what the hobby gaming industry has had to put up with for most of its existence. While you might think game publishers really yearn for the chance to publish their own game system (and admittedly, many do begin with that objective), until the OGL there was no other viable alternative. If all you wanted to do was change the magic system of D&D, you couldn't do that; you had to construct a whole new RPG to feature your new magic system. If you wanted to get rid of classes and levels, you had to write a whole new game from scratch. If you didn't care at all about the RPG itself, and just wanted to publish a sourcebook for your cool world, you had to cook up a game too. That created a whole lot of artificial diversity in game systems. It went on for so long that people began to assume that the diversity was the "right" or "natural" state of things.

The downside to all that diversity is that it reduces the value of every product you buy. Because those rules are not interoperable, you have to pay a "knowledge tax" every time you want to use a product from a different publisher. For some people, the "knowledge tax" is trivial, a mere irritation. For many others though, it’s an insurmountable problem. The real effect of that diversity is to reduce the value of the products you own!

Q: You really blew a gasket after Gen Con last year. What happened?

A: I had a really good time at Gen Con last year. I joked that it was the "d20 Gen Con" -- the year when every other booth had an exciting new Open Gaming product. I took my camera and snapped a lot of pictures to document the event. Nobody really new if the market was going to be large enough to support all those products or if the "d20 Gen Con" would be the last time anyone cared about the trademark.

It became increasingly obvious, though, that a lot of publishers simply didn't care enough about the valuable gift they'd been given in the form of the System Reference Document and the d20 System Trademark. It was very disheartening to see the number of license violations at the show. I don't mean complex esoterica like a problem with the level of derivation in a copyright, but dirt-simple stuff like not even including a copy of the OGL itself with the work!

I wasn't the only one who noticed, either. There are a lot of people at Wizards of the Coast who are already a little leery about this whole "Open Gaming" thing, and those people rightfully raised the roof about the quality of license compliance.

Q: So how many people did Wizards of the Coast sue?

A: That's the really funny part. All we did was draft an open letter, which got pretty wide distribution, and I sent a handful of explicit emails to a handful of publishers pointing out the most egregious mistakes. And that was all we did. Nobody got sued. Nobody had his or her rights terminated per the license. Nobody was asked to destroy products.

Things still aren't great in this department. Publishers are still not paying enough attention to the details of the license, and Wizards is going to have to start taking some steps to get a better level of compliance; but those steps will still be the kind of low-level, mostly behind-the-scenes thing the company has been doing throughout the lifetime of the OGL. When you hear a rumor that Wizards has "screwed" some publisher, you probably want to take that rumor with a grain of salt until you see something official from Wizards on the matter.

Q: Are there any changes coming to the licenses?

A: Yes, there are.

We have finished a revision of the d20 System Trademark License and d20 System Trademark Usage Guide. Most of those changes are things that will help publishers better integrate their products with Wizards' releases, including a system to link to important core books like the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master's Guide. There are some changes that are unilateral advantages for Wizards, though. The biggest of those changes is a prohibition against using the d20 trademark on a miniatures product. Now that Wizards is in the miniatures business via Chainmail, it wants to maintain its exclusive right to link the d20 System to sales of miniature figures.

The other big change is not really so big, although it does have its own set of implications that will keep the rumor mill churning for quite some time.

Originally, publishers were given the option of including a notice saying that the material they were publishing was compatible with D&D. Since most products are, most publishers used that option. However, we're starting to see products come to market that are designed to be used either as stand-alone games, or are not connected with the medieval fantasy genre of D&D at all.

To ensure that those games are still working to feed players into the network of Wizards' d20 offerings, the license has been changed. Now, publishers are required to indicate compatibility, but the list of compatibility options has expanded to accommodate these new kinds of usages.

There are updates I would like to make to the OGL itself, too. The biggest change I'd like to make is to add a section on how to implement the OGL in a software product. Right now, there are so many issues about doing so that my opinion is that, short of a complete open-source release, the OGL cannot be effectively used in software. I'd like to fix that issue once and for all. It's unclear to me when or if that revision will happen, as it’s a pretty low priority for Wizards and it opens up a big can of worms.

Q: What do you think of the recent attempts by third-party publishers to create Open or semi-Open licenses for their RPGs?

A: First, let me go on record saying that more openness is always good. The lower the barrier is to reusing a game system, the more value players get from that system -- and more value is always a good thing.

However, I do think it’s unfortunate that many of these publishers are choosing to use a new license and not use the OGL.

I don't know what it is about the psychology of game publishers, but even when you can convince a group of them that there's a better way to do something, they all seem bound and determined to prove they can do that thing from scratch themselves.

Open Gaming is not a magic bullet. It will not make your game system sell. Open Gaming in and of itself adds little or no value; having an open game license (of any kind) is not going to be the factor that makes your product successful. The value of the Open Game concept is allowing people to retain knowledge about a game system and apply it repeatedly where appropriate. If nobody plays your game system, you can be as open as possible and it won't add any value. If you are bringing a game system to market that is just a clone of a hundred other options already available, it won't matter if your game is open or not -- your game will be successful on the basis of your ability to induce people to play it.

The downside of all these different licensing schemes is that they erect another set of artificial barriers between game systems. If every company has their own license, and if the licenses are not compatible with one another, we'll see a marginal increase in utility but not the kind of massive increase in utility we would see if everyone would publish under one set of unified terms.

I hope that a future step in the open gaming era is for consumers to start demanding that publishers use the OGL and not a "house license." Educated consumers who understand the value proposition of open gaming can do more to induce change in the market than any other force.

That's all the time (and space) I have for now. Keep checking back here regularly, though; we've got a lot of material in the pipeline that will start appearing on these pages, and I'll probably chime in again in the future with some additional thoughts and comments.

As always, if you have any questions about Open Gaming or the d20 System Trademark License, you can reach me at Andrew Smith.

Ryan Dancey, formerly Dungeons & Dragons brand manager, is the founder of the Open Gaming Foundation.


What do you think? Discuss these questions and answers on the d20 message board!

 


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