My thoughts on OGL, GSL and beyond

d20 OGL LogoWhen Wizards of the Coast decided to release the 3.0 (and the following 3.5) Edition of their popular roleplaying game D&D we saw a lot of 3rd party supplements and OGL games. Of course not every book released was of the same quality. And it was appearent that Wizards’ control over what their competitors released using the OGL or the d20 System License was limited at best. So they decided to discontinue the d20 System License with the release of the 4th edition.

The new GSL (Game System License) prohibits anyone from using the OGL at the same time, so if you want to release a book for 3.5 D&D, you can’t release anything for 4th Edition as well. There are of course a few loopholes. You can of course found a new company that handles the 4th Edition stuff while your original company sticks to 3.5 Edition or vice versa. But only a few publishers jumped onto the 4th Edition bandwagon. Paizo Publishing also decided to release an updated version of the 3.5 edition under the name “Pathfinder Roleplaying Game” that should be almost 100% compatible to every other OGL material.

One thing is clear: the OGL has brought us a lot of great games and supplements (and quite a few very bad ones), it’s much easier now for us fans (and bloggers) to write up some new class, race, rule etc. without being in a legal grey area all the time. But the 4th Edition changed all that. When a blogger now posts his homebrew 4E campaign, some rules he came up with etc., he or she is in a legal grey area all the time. Wizards has promised us a fan site policy but it hasn’t been released yet.

In my opinion the OGL was a step in the right direction, but it has not gone far enough. What the community needs is a popular game backed by a large company (or several smaller ones) that is released under Creative Commons preferably of the Attribution-Share Alike (see license here) variety. We all have witnessed how Open Source Software has enriched our daily internet lives. If you need a good browser software, office package, blogging software, etc. you can get it on the net for free and if you are technically-adapt you can even give something back by contributing to the code. 

I am sure something like this could work in the RPG business too. And I am sure it would help to bring more people to the hobby than ever before. When D&D 3.0 was still young I noticed that a lot of people started to use it just to be able to play in all that cool and new settings released by 3rd party publishers. Or they used the SRD to play it totally for free using their homebrew settings. OGL is there too stay but having a set of rules with a less limiting license would benefit us all.

Some companies have made steps in the right direction, FUDGE and FATE used the OGL, Savage Worlds has a pretty nice Fan Works Policy and in the last years a few people have decided to release their games under the CC. But those are mostly games written by fans and they are not as popular as D&D, Savage Worlds and some others. And in my opinion having a almost totally free system for all of us to play with would be a great boon. I am still hoping for an Open D6 System (the one WEG hinted at) released under CC…

What are your thoughts on the subject? Would you be interested in a truely free game system? Or are you happy with the several OGL games and fan site policies?

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

13 thoughts on “My thoughts on OGL, GSL and beyond”

  1. As far as I'm concerned, the OGL is not so bad. One of the big benefits is that it is compatible with all the other OGL material out there. The only problem with the OGL is that it affords listing lots of Product Identity, and many publishers have done that. Assume for a moment that all the third party publishers had used the OGL without any Product Identity at all! Why, that would be awesome!

    For some controversy around that (and a resolution in the case of Paizo), check out this thread:

    <abbr><abbr>Alex Schröders last blog post..Comments on GM System vs. Player System</abbr></abbr>

  2. I agree that the OGL is not so bad. But licenses like the CC are much better in my opinion. When you check out the license I linked in the post (or the one I use for my blog) you'll notice that it's much, much easier to understand than the usual legalese.

    And although all OGL games should be more or less compatible to each other and D&D 3.5 you never were allowed to print onto the book that it's compatible to the Dungeon and Dragons rules. These are limitations a Creative Commons License usually doesn't have.

    And I am not proposing Wizards should release the D&D rules under the CC (which I doubt they would ever

    do) but I think the time is right for a ruleset available for free (under a CC license for example) that the community can really make their own without having to think about the legal side all the time.

    By the way, for more information on Creative Commons, check out the official site.

  3. I've struggled on my own contemplating what would be the best route. Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter:

    1. OGL was great. It allowed game designers to freely use the most popular roleplaying rules on the planet: D&D. It's main benefit was the fact that it gave permission to use these rules without fear of legal issues. It does have the clause about not being able to explicitly state "Hey, I work with D&D!" but for those that wanted that extra mile, WotC had the official D&D and d20 licenses. I think the OGL is about as perfect a license as you can get for a product of this caliber.

    2. Game companies probably won't ever go as far as giving all their stuff (anything worth having, anyways) away under the more "copyleft" versions of the Creative Common license. They are around to make money. You're taking a big chance not making anything off your hard work in the roleplaying game industry if you give your intellectual properties away.

    3. You mention Open Source software in your post, but there is a big difference. The people who make the big Open Source stuff actually still make big money off it through techical support contracts. I don't see anything that is comparable in the RPG industry. Settings and setting specific stuff are the closest, but not close enough in my opinion.

    4. If it is just about the rules, then copyright law already allows anyone to use them, at least within the United States. The United State Copyright Office Flyer 108 states: "The idea for a game is not protected by copyright. The same is true of the name or title given to the game and of the method or methods for playing it."

    The main problem with this a big company like Hasbro (owners of WotC and therefore D&D) has the financial power to drag your ass through court, which hopefully incurs so many fees and costs that you'll want to settle out of court with them.

    I've thought at length about this issue because I am currently developing a point-buy system based on d20. Should I use the OGL to protect (but also limit) myself? Should I cry "Freedom!" and just claim fair use? Will I license it under some copyleft license? I think I might just go the fair use way.

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  4. "I am sure something like this could work in the RPG business too."

    …I'm not so sure. Specifically, I don't think it could work in the *business*. If a business is giving away its product for free, that means it must be making money from some other source, like advertising or the marketing of associated products that do cost money. Are there sufficient other sources to support a company in the RPG field doing so? I wonder. That's a pretty narrow field.

  5. Well, if you want a free CC game, you need some talented people that are willing to do the work for free. Someone needs to just do it, don't hold your breadth waiting for a big company to step in. Whats their intensive?

    It's different with software; they can make it open source and benefit from community input, then charge customers for support.

  6. Great comments everyone. I have to agree that I am perhaps a bit too idealistic when it comes to such things and a big company like Wizards (or all the others out there) will probably never release something under a more "copyleft" license.

    The OGL is pretty nice and several other games use it as well, so it's probably the best we can hope for when commercial projects are concerned.

    But Tom actually had the right idea: perhaps a free game system created by people from the community could be an interesting project although I doubt that a lot people would use it. Alas there are lots of people who would rather download a pirated copy of their favourite D&D rules instead of giving a free game a chance.

  7. If I remember correctly, the reasoning behind the OGL (that was pretty radical at it's time and quite a departure from the "we sue our fans"-policy of TSR) was that if the gaming industry prosper, the largest company in the industry will prosper the most. Basically it was a business decision based on the assumption that the whole industry was basically in the same boat.

    OGL worked out pretty well and d20 license probably even more so, but I guess they wanted to refine it. Given the amount of free power cards and such that has been made for 4E, it's obvious that it is still working in some form for the fans. I'm not sure about the publishers however, but I guess we have to wait somewhat longer for final evaluation, we're just barely a year into the 4E publishing cycle.

    What I miss is an official SRD with more than just the headlines in the current one (if I'm missing something, please point me in the right direction). I guess however that with the DDI, wizards feel that they can't let "free" compete with their paid-for alternative.

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    1. Thanks for the link! The d6 System is one of my favorite (I loved the old WEG Star Wars) systems and an Open D6 will be great.

      And to clarify a few things: I am not against the OGL. It's probably the best thing we will get in a long time and I am happy every time someone releases his stuff under the OGL. But I believe that a CC license would be better (mainly becauseyou can get a "human readable" version of the license) and since it's non-exclusive the copyright holder can still sell his stuff or release it under another non-exclusive license too.

      And one thing about "Fair Use": there may be something like "Fair Use" in US copyright but that's not the case world wide. And since there are no clear rules when something is considered fair use it can happen that you are sued by some big company and lose because the judge decides that it wasn't fair use but a breach of copyright laws.

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