It’s been a wild few weeks for tabletop RPGs – if you haven’t caught up, you can read our summary of events herebut in short, Wizards of the Coast have moved to shift the conditions around companies making Dungeons & Dragons compatible products in a less than favorable direction, much to the dismay of almost the entire community.
In the wake of the controversy, several publishers have drawn lines in the sand, either moving away from D&D or contesting the legitimacy of the move. Notably, Pathfinder creator Paizo did both and announced its own version of an open license, recruiting other major players like Chaosium and Kobold Press to join it.
Now that’s starting to look like the start of a trend, as Free League, the hugely successful publisher of games like Mörk Borg, Into the Odd and Mutant: Year Zero, as well as the official Blade Runner, The Walking Dead and Alien RPGs – is announcing itself two new licenses. While work on this started before the latest D&D news about open gaming licenses kicked in, according to Free League, it has “intensified” in response.
The first is an adaptation of the Year Zero Engine OGL, which will grant other publishers and independent designers the irrevocable, royalty-free right to use the rules laid down behind most of the Free League’s biggest games.
The second is an all-new license for Dragonsbane, a recently launched revival of a 40-year-old Scandinavian RPG that closely resembles D&D. This less permissive license only allows the creation of add-ons and third-party materials for the game, rather than releasing the entire ruleset. Both licenses will be available in “the coming weeks”.
It’s an ominous time to make an announcement like this, but it’s important to consider the wider context of these licenses. While they represent a statement of intent from major companies in the space, they are not a new idea. There have long been OGLs and other forms of royalty-free content sharing outside of the D&D sphere, many of which are highly successful in their own right. Games using the very permissive “Powered by the Apocalypse” Policy (opens in new tab)allowing them to copy and adapt the rules of Apocalypse World has been hugely successful and influential, with examples such as Monster of the Week appearing on popular actual podcasts.
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Largely inspired by those games was the smash hit Blades in the Dark, which now has its own family of “Forged in the Dark” games. Many games forego specific licenses or policies altogether, releasing under general Creative Commons licenses, and especially with smaller publishers and indie creators, free and open sharing is the default assumption rather than anything unusual or controversial.
The other important piece of context is the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons itself. While Wizards of the Coast’s hold on the market has certainly been damaged by the chaos of the past two weeks, they still hold a hugely powerful position. Licenses like Free League’s represent a statement of intent and vision for the hobby, but it’s hard to see them becoming a serious competitor to the D&D OGL, whatever form it ultimately takes. Even Paizo, arguably WOTC’s most compelling rival, will have some serious work to do if it hopes to achieve even remotely similar success in attracting third-party publishers to its banner.
If WOTC’s latest moves cause a crack in the foundations of its RPG empire, it’s unlikely we’ll see a new power emerge – more like a few small ecosystems proliferating beyond its shadow. That’s not a bad thing – more variety and sharing can only be good for the hobby – but don’t expect this, or any of the other licensing announcements that will inevitably follow in the coming months, to be a real swing at D&D’s throne so far will represent. It will take a lot of leveling before someone can do that.