Small Publishers and the OGL

Hello! Today is something a little different: an interview somewhat about a game but also about the RPG community. I’ve asked my brother-in-law Ben, a self-published game author, to guest on here to discuss the OGL furor rocking your social media.

If you follow any RPG blogs (chances are you do if you’re here) then you might have heard about changes to the Open Game License by Wizards of the Coast. Enough has been said about the what and the why but one thing I’ve found to be missing is fans making new games who are watching from the sidelines. Companies like Paizo or Monte Cook Games are setting out on their own but what about authors who are looking at a choice between OGL and packing up shop?

I don’t write a lot about D&D 5e on here because I’m not really interested in playing it. Between the playtests and this OGL business I’m also not planning to invest in OneDnD (whatever that means) so it seems like a new version of the OGL might not be relevant to me. That’s not entirely the case, though, and Ben’s game Dragonslayers shows why.

Mephit James: So, tell everyone about yourself! I already spoiled the beans that we’re related but let’s kRPgs. When did you start with roleplaying and why did you keep it up?

Ben: Hi, I’m Ben! I was introduced to RPGs when my dad got me the black box D&D set “The Goblin’s Lair” in the mid-nineties. My mom disapproved (to my dad’s surprise) and warned me that the game was a gateway to devil-worship. Obviously my fascination only quintupled, and the rest is history.

MJ: You’re on today not as an OGL expert but as a Dragonslayers expert, so let’s make sure to cover that. In your best elevator pitch, what is Dragonslayers and why do you think folks would like it?

Ben: Dragonslayers RPG is a passion project (aren’t they all?) that I made for my friends and I first. Many indie developers out there seem very concerned about doing something new or pushing the limits of what a roleplaying game can look like. My game, by contrast, is more of a distillation or refinement on a familiar formula. If D&D were algebra, Dragonslayers is what you’d get if you solved for “x.” Its defining quality is rigor. I’ve been playtesting this game for 10 years, and it has been put together with obsessive intentionality.

I am confident that Dragonslayers is the leanest, fastest, cleanest, most nail-biting RPG in existence that still gets away with minis and a battlemap. There’s more to it than fast combat, of course, but you can find out for yourself for free.

Image from Dragonslayers 2e

MJ: There’s been a lot of reaction to the OGL, mostly worrying about changes being made that would shut down third party writing using the D&d rules. What’s your current perspective after a week of speculation?

Ben: The OGL has been around for two decades. That whole time it has been under WotC’s ownership and they never dared to alter it. WotC didn’t alter it when another company used the generous terms of the license to copy their rulebook word-for-word and release it as Pathfinder, which (some say) eclipsed D&D in popularity in the early 10’s.

MJ: How do you feel about this stuff as an author? Do you feel differently with your gamer hat on?

Ben: As an author, the OGL serves as a form of insurance: legal precedent from the 1800’s would suggest that the rules of a game aren’t subject to copyright, but I don’t have the resources to debate that point in court. Accepting the OGL is a way of saying “I pretend I need your permission to ensure that you don’t pretend I’m stealing your intellectual property,” and that is a valuable arrangement considering the vast difference in power between me and a publicly-traded corporation.

As a gamer the OGL makes no difference to me. No one can stop my friends from playing Dragonslayers.

MJ: Right, so mostly it’s about sharing with the community. But Dragonslayers is a bit different as it doesn’t even use the DnD system per se. Can you give some examples of how the OGL entered into writing it?

Ben: Dragonslayers RPG is in an odd spot. It is very different from D&D in places and very similar in other places. As a timesaving strategy, I would often copy-paste sections directly from the 5e System Reference Document, and then modify it to work for my purposes. At the time I felt that familiar wording would help D&D players transition. Over the years the original language has become quite obscured, but it would not be inaccurate to say that Jeremy Crawford has authored 25% of my game.

The clearest example is in the rules for movement and position; apart from some small differences, that chapter has been lifted from the SRD almost verbatim. In the ultimate example of this homogeneity, there are many original passages I’ve written in his style, just to match the syntax used in other parts of the book (to spare the reader from jarring changes in authorial voice).

Image from Dragonslayers 2e

MJ: I know you told me that changing to be out of OGL entirely would take more time than you’re planning on. How has all of this affected your long-term future writing plans?

Ben: Ultimately, my trust in the OGL has been shattered. Right now it looks like WotC has walked back some of its ambitions and reaffirmed that content already-published will be unaffected. This is good, because my wife and I are expecting a little one soon and roleplaying games don’t pay my bills.

I don’t know what the legal landscape will look like when I again find time to engage with this hobby. I do know that I won’t be trusting the goodwill of a corporation ever again, and whether I make Dragonslayers RPG 3rd edition or start an entirely new project, it will be stronger for not relying on someone else’s work.

Mephit James: Thanks, Ben. Ultimately, this is why I asked Ben to put his thoughts down. I think that a lot of the discussion around the OGL is either saying “This is the end of DnD” or “This won’t change anything.” But there’s a third path. People have formed friendships and put a lot of emotional energy into their games. DnD is big enough that it touches all those games and it doesn’t have to make people stop playing tabletop RPGs entirely to be emotionally damaging. This whole thing has been a stark reminder that the emotional investment in this community is not something a company (independent of its employees) can return.

I’ll be back next week with a review, but that seemed like something to mention.


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