Business of RPGs
Just What Is the Open Gaming License?
By Anthony Valterra
Business Manager, Roleplaying Games
If we lived in the worlds of our characters, the game designing wizards here at Wizards of the Coast would use psionic abilities to know exactly what customers want, employ spellcasting powers to create perfect products overnight, and teleport the games directly to players who want them. But until "game designer" becomes a new prestige class (hey, we're working on it!), the process of planning, developing, marketing, and distributing roleplaying products remains a little more complicated. This monthly feature offers insight into the business side of fun and games.
Let me begin by clearly stating: I am not a lawyer. That seems to be everyone's first question when the subject of the Open Gaming License or the d20 trademark arises. With that out of the way, I'll take a shot at explaining, in layman's terms, what this whole open gaming/d20 thing is and how it impacts the average Dungeons & Dragons player.
In order to understand why Wizards of the Coast would create the Open Gaming License we need to start with primary principles. Marcus Aurelius said, "Of all things ask, what does it intrinsically do?" Dungeons & Dragons is a game, and in order for a game to fulfill its function it must be played. Yet one of the primary reasons people report leaving the hobby is because they can't find anyone to play with. To increase the chance of finding someone to play the game with, you need to increase the network of players. Previous D&D business strategy promoted the use of aggressive legal strategies to keep anyone from publishing work that might be compatible with Dungeons & Dragons. In hindsight, this approach only encouraged players to create new game systems for their genres. As a result, new players brought in through those game systems were playing a game that was incompatible with the D&D system, which fragmented the paper-based roleplaying game genre.
There are those who've interpreted the Open Gaming License as a statement that Wizards wants only one gaming system -- d20 -- but that logic is faulty. In fact, even casual research of Wizard's D&D brand management strategy reveals a consistently stated belief that there will always be room for multiple game systems. But instead of a bunch of game systems that are close to D&D, there would be a few systems that vary widely.
The open gaming license (OGL) says, in a nutshell, that you can create any product you want using the core D&D mechanic (what we call the d20 system). You can change any rule you want, you can add any rule you want, you can cover any subject you want. The only thing that you can't do is keep anyone else from using the D&D rules you used or anything you derived from those rules. In other words, you can play with the blocks but you can't tell someone else that they can't play with the blocks as well. In exchange, you don't owe Wizards any money, and Wizards has no approval over your product
What does Wizards get out of this deal? In addition to expanding the network of D&D players, we also created a little trademarked "bug" (logo you can put on products) called "d20." We own this little logo. We get to say who uses this logo and what they can and can't do if they want to use this logo. What this logo means is, "This product is made with the d20 rules system." Everyone in the gaming community has seen this logo and can now identify it, so it has recognition value.
If you want to put this logo on your product, there are some basic ground rules, a few things you must and must not do. You must point people to the Player's Handbook, you must not present character creation rules, and you must use the basic terms of the d20 rules system unchanged (for example, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma). Now, just to be clear: You don't have to use the d20 logo on your product. You can simply use the Open Gaming License and ignore the whole d20 logo issue. But so far everyone who has produced a game has felt that the d20 logo is valuable enough to adhere to the few d20 rules.
What about original material that someone creates, like characters or even whole worlds? The OGL and the d20 rules provide for this. Simply maintain some sort of separation between the original material you wish to retain control of (not make open content) and the d20 rules. You could put a shaded box around it or use a different font. Then, when you create a muck monster, the name of the monster and the description are owned by you, but how it works using the d20 system is part of the Open Gaming world. You can still write a story about your muck monster (and no one else can), and you can import it to another rule system if you wish. You own the muck monster 100%. The only part that is open for others to use are the rules using the d20 system that determine its abilities (things like it armor class or how many dice of damage it does). This means that someone could create the yucky monster and give it the same d20 rules as your muck monster. However, they can not use any of the descriptions of the monster you created, or its history, place in the ecological chain, etc.
I have been asked a number of times if, in my personal opinion, the "d20 strategy" has been a success. People point to all of the products flooding the market and think that this must mean that Wizards will cancel the license because surely we didn't intend for other companies to embrace the system to this extent. Well the answer is: Yes, I think the d20 strategy is a huge success, and yes, that is exactly what we hoped would happen.
Go to The d20 System home page for more information about the d20 System.
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