On the heels of an unprecedented leak, Wizards of the Coast has backpedaled on its extremely unpopular plan to revise the Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License (OGL). Now, the world’s most popular and influential tabletop game finds itself thrust into the Wild West of the Creative Commons, meaning anybody can freely use the entire basic D&D ruleset.
Many D&D fans are celebrating the demise of the OGL 1.1 (and 1.2), and with good reason. But this policy reversal has some pretty considerable drawbacks, too. Let’s break it down.
What Happened — D&D Executive Producer Kyle Brink announced on January 27 in a blog post that all potential OGL updates have been abandoned in favor of preserving the existing OGL. And, to sweeten the pot, Wizards put virtually all of the game’s base rules and resources in the Creative Commons. That means the core D&D ruleset is now available totally free for anyone to use in any capacity.
Wizards of the Coast’s vision did not align with the community’s, and Brink says in his blog post that this puts more onus on the players to “define the future of play.”
Wizards’ initial apology on January 13 for the leaked OGL draft spells out the company’s goals more plainly.
“First, we wanted the ability to prevent the use of D&D content from being included in hateful and discriminatory products. Second, we wanted to address those attempting to use D&D in web3, blockchain games, and NFTs by making clear that OGL content is limited to tabletop roleplaying content like campaigns, modules, and supplements.”
“Hateful and discriminatory products” — The controversy about the OGL has largely overshadowed these concerns, but they are still highly relevant to the future of D&D. An ongoing court case between Wizards of the Coast and Justin LaNasa aims to prevent the publication of "despicable content" deemed "blatantly racist and transphobic" by Wizards’ attorneys in the injunction.
The case centers around the TTRPG Star Frontiers: New Genesis, a spinoff game inspired by the work of D&D creator Gary Gygax and spearheaded by his son, Ernie Gygax. In recent years, Ernie and LaNasa created this new iteration of Star Frontiers as a sci-fi alt-right TTRPG that seems to celebrate neo-nazis in space. New Genesis is loaded with hateful language, from harsh annotations about “social justice warriors” to mechanics that cap the intelligence of all dark-skinned humans. It also outright says that “some races are superior to others.”
The OGL 1.0 doesn’t grant Wizards any clear legal standing to combat hateful content. With 1.1 and 1.2 shelved, that means it’s up to the wider TTRPG community to curb it. In the months since Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, hate speech has roughly tripled thanks to his self-described approach as a “free speech absolutist.” Practically speaking, it’s likely those seeking out or creating hateful content within a D&D framework will encounter little difficulty in doing so.
The Blockchain — NFT scams were the second problem Wizards had hoped to address with updates to the OGL. (Take one look at reviews of Dungeon Swap on IsThisCoinAScam.com, and it becomes clear that despite one promise that it’s “Def legit,” this D&D-themed NFT game is indeed a scam.) Modifications to the OGL might have helped Wizards prevent would-be scammers from using the D&D IP to give their projects a veneer of credibility.
With the core D&D rules in the Creative Commons, the door remains open for scams — along with more legit attempts at D&D NFT games.
The Web3 company Gripnr is on the cusp of releasing The Glimmering, an on-chain TTRPG adventure built with the D&D 5th edition framework. Essentially, your D&D character becomes an NFT that lives on the blockchain, and you level them up by playing sessions run by official Gripnr Dungeon Masters. Get to Level 20, and maybe you can sell that character for a bunch of bitcoin — or something.
“This is really just art Legos,” The Glimmering’s Lead Designer Stephen Radney-Macfarland tells Inverse. “You come up with a bunch of heads, bodies, weapons, and everything else.”
Gripnr has already minted a legion of unique, modular characters. And when The Glimmering begins official play in the coming months, all progress is saved to the blockchain.
Radney-Macfarland tells Inverse that he was skeptical of NFTs at first and remains “sympathetic” to people who associate them with scams. But he comes off as an earnest and talented game designer that truly believes in the project — or at least the creative ideas and the money behind it.
“You can find me at a gaming convention and slap me upside the head if anything ever goes wrong with this,” he says.
While The Glimmering does appear “legit,” an April 2022 iO9 exposé takes a critical look at the “play to earn” nature of the experience. It incentivizes playing as a means to increase the NFTs value rather than playing for the sake of itself. Because the value of an NFT hero is determined entirely by how much time the player spends exploring dungeons and slaying dragons within the world of The Glimmering.
Long before the OGL controversy exploded, Gripnr said it could build The Glimmering under the license, and a Wizards of the Coast spokesperson told iO9, “We do not allow third parties to misappropriate our valuable intellectual property and take appropriate steps when necessary.” It’s clear that Wizards never wanted any NFT games based on D&D, scam or otherwise. But at this point, the company isn’t in a position to stop any of them.
Radney-Macfarland says he’d already planned on making a number of logistical improvements to the 5th edition D&D experience for The Glimmering, but the OGL controversy convinced him to spend “a lot of sleepless nights” making changes to render it totally separate from the OGL. For a niche audience, The Glimmering could be a lot of legitimate fun. But it's not impossible to imagine other, more unscrupulous Web3 speculators waiting in the wings.
The Inverse Analysis — Like Kleenex and Band-Aid before it, Dungeons & Dragons has become indistinguishable from the product it represents. It’s not just a brand; It’s a culture. The backlash to the OGL controversy has proved it’s too big for any singular entity to control. For Wizards of the Coast to put D&D in the hands of the people looks and feels like good democracy in action. But now that we’ve lost the game’s stewards, there’s nobody out there who can swiftly step in to stop the space nazis from taking over.