"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

A Few Thoughts on Open Game Licenses

IF YOU ARE READING THIS, I assume you know the situation.

In a nutshell: Wizards of the Coast, owner of the Dungeons & Dragons "brand" and subsidiary of toymaker Hasbro, is amending the terms of an agreement made over twenty years ago. Essentially, to sell their new version of D&D, Wizards opened the game system to free third-party use. It succeeded. I might even argue it saved D&D from oblivion.

With D&D back on top, Hasbro would now like to amend the agreement in ways that are--pun intended--draconian. I won't go into all the details. Most of you know them, and that isn't what I want to talk about here.

What is clear to me is that neither Hasbro, nor the people they have put in charge of Wizards of the Coast and D&D (many of whom come from the video game industry), have any concept of what a roleplaying game is or how it actually works.

Here is the way they seem to think it should work: the consumers buy our core product, then they buy additional materials we create in-house. They play the scenarios we write, in the settings we publish, using D&D brand materials licensed by us, preferably on a virtual tabletop we own.

I get it. I mean this works for video games. You buy, say, Dragon Age Inquisition, then additional downloadable content for it. You read licensed novel tie-ins, wear licensed t-shirts, whatever. But the core idea is that YOU (the company) are the creator. YOU create all the content. They (the consumers) PLAY what YOU give them.

That Hasbro thinks they can apply this model to table top RPGs is breathtakingly ignorant.

Since 1974, when the art form first appeared, the RPG has been a tool-kit. It is the frame, not the picture. An RPG is a kit which enables a player to create their own unique character and the GM to create their own unique scenarios, campaigns, and in some cases even their own settings.

In short, the people buying your product are not passive consumers, they are active hobbyists. 

By the very nature of the art form, once a company releases a new game, the people who bought it become the competition. Sure, you can offer scenarios and settings, but if they suck, people will just create their own. You can offer additional rules and clarifications, but if someone has better ideas, they will use their own. So you either up your game and offer the best products you can, or you can go the route Hasbro is going and try to make it impossible to not use your products.

RPG companies that understand the hobby and are confident in their product embrace open game licenses and community content programs. They know that the more people who use their system, the better regarded that system is. They know that RPGers are hobbyists exercising their creative powers, and that inviting them to publish community content only strengthens their brand. It shows they are still confident enough in their own releases that people will buy them in addition to community content.

On the other hand, companies with the track record of releases Wizards has had the last couple of years scramble to monopolize instead. To my mind, the most telling statement to come out of Wizards in all of this is that the old Open Gaming License was never intended to "subsidize major competitors." People move to OSR (Old School Revival or Renaissance) games like Old School Essentials because they don't like the current version of D&D. They play games like 13th Age or Pathfinder for the same reason. Instead of trying to win such players back, it is easier to shut the competition down.

And that is stage one. Stage two is the virtual tabletop, where GMs and players will have to play your scenarios in your settings.

It's the easy way out.

Obviously, I have bias here. I publish through Chaosium's Jonstown Compendium and (full disclosure) have written for both their RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu lines. Naturally I applaud their robust community content programs (the Miskatonic Repository as well) as smart business moves. They get that their community is going to create, why not also give them a chance to share? I honestly do not feel my Six Seasons in Sartar in any way hurt their sales of, say, The Pegasus Plateau. Possibly even the reverse. Likewise I applaud their own BRP Open Game License because I feel the more people using the system, the better. A rising tide raises all ships. And I am VERY pleased to see today they joining forces with other major industry players on a multi-system OGL platform.

OGLs and community content programs demonstrate knowing, and respecting, who your audience is. Most of the industry gets this. I suspect Wizards gets this. Hasbro, clearly, has no idea who their audience is. 

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