Wake the dragon. The OGL.

D&D has had five fallow years. A new version is upon us. As with a lot of game stuff, I know more than I’m telling, but not as much as I’d like to know. I’m going to spend a few posts taking about some things I think about the state of RPGs and I’ll hazard some guesses about what’s next that, statistically, will be embarrassingly wrong.

First, let’s talk for just one more exhausting minute, about the Open Game License (OGL). I doubt there’s much that remains unsaid about this, but it is an absolute fulcrum that launched us to where we are now in the biz. I won’t summarize it here; if you need to know what it is and why it’s a deal, start with the wikipedia article linked above and click around until you feel like you know enough.

People in-house at WotC have long been divided about whether the thing is good or bad. Turns out, it’s both. Like anything with a pointy end, you need to be sure you’re not on it. In the last 5 years, the OGL’s pointy end has been thoroughly weaponized against Wizards of the Coast, likely giving the in-house haters all the ammo they ever need to make sure that it never happens again.

Here is a story that illuminates what was done to Wizards:

One of the many ideas that Ryan Dancey and co. floated when he ran the D&D business was making creative teams bid for projects.

At the time, once a year, the creative honcho of D&D (whatever title that was) would send an email saying “Next year, we’re doing this and this and one of these and three of these, etc. Tell us what you want to work on.” The outlines and major ideas would already be decided by the creative teams with consideration given to business and economic needs.

You’d send back your first, second, and third choices, and management would go into a room and try to make everyone happy. There was an implicit hierarchy so that better people got better stuff, but the process tried to accommodate even the worst of us, with due consideration given to what team you were on. For instance, I was on the Forgotten Realms team for a while; during that time I got a bunch of FR projects to edit.

That’s a decent system. You usually got some stuff you thought was exciting and some you weren’t that interested in and that was your schedule for the next year.

The proposed bidding system atomized the entire RPG R&D department — no teams, no top-down divvying. Once a year the business team would say “Next year, we need this and this and one of these and three of these, etc.” This time, the products would be mainly determined by business needs tempered by creative process.

Under this model, there would be no set teams. There would just be a pool of talent. Once the project list was released, teams were expected to self-form around some lead. That lead would be responsible not just for creative vision and integrity of the product, but for creating a budget and working within the company to make the thing happen. Like little game studios within WotC. If a hot project was on the table, competing “studios” could try to bid the leanest/best version of the product.

This idea never got much traction. It seriously threatened lots of status quos. All that atomization would have also led rapidly to the disintegration of in-house RPG R&D (which happened anyway, partly due to the OGL, but more due to Hasbro decree). But the funny thing is, this idea won after all.

The bidding system is a small-scale consequence of the OGL. In fact, thanks to the OGL, this quasi-Darwinian bidding system was inevitable. For instance, Monte and Sue Cook at Malhavoc were, functionally, one of these “studios.” They just took the next step and kept all their money for themselves.

Wizards had a big head start with the OGL. But in the long-run, the OGL favors 1) people who read and respond to the market, and 2) people who hustle. Notice what it doesn’t explicitly favor? “Wizards of the Coast.”

1) Wizards gamely tried to read and respond to the market, but failed with 4th edition D&D.  I’ve talked to major players in that version of the game, and I’ve never heard two people tell me the same story about what went wrong. I think the best summary of what and why 4th ed. failed is that the company experienced some critical brain drain and then the remaining people in charge — people who had made perfectly competent decisions in previous years — guessed wrong. That’s not as juicy an answer as I like, but I think it’s the real one.

2) We’re not all hustlers. Some of us are just better at it than others. The economist argument about that is, “Tough shit. Hustlers win.” But you know, that system where creatives made decisions instead of business people and somebody was looking out for even the underperformers… that’s a kinder system. It gives people room to develop while they grow, it allows people to have off-years (due to health issues or life-suck like divorce/death), and it allows noodling with a net. It benefits stars like Monte Cook, and it benefits shmos like I was at the time. A system where Only Hustlers Win is unnecessarily harsh. You might argue, “That’s life, baby.” But that’s not life. We are creatures of agency, and dog-eat-dog is us at our worst, not at our most natural.


After all this, I still think the OGL was and is a good idea. But it would have been nice for RPG R&D to have looked into Dancey’s crystal ball and prepared themselves better.  Yeah, yeah, I know the prescription for hindsight. But this was foreseeable. Ryan pitched this future to us repeatedly, but very few people looked very far into the future. My impression is that Lisa Stevens over at Paizo foresaw it, implicitly at least. And friend, Lisa Stevens is excellent at hustle. I’ve been overrun by Lisa Stevens hustle. It is formidable. Pathfinder’s ascendancy was not guaranteed, but I wouldn’t have bet against her.

But the sad truth remains that the OGL helped kill RPG R&D at Wizards and it grievously wounded the property of D&D. Mearls et al at Wizards learned lessons, which might or might not be the right ones. But some I’ve seen so far seem right-ish.

D&D is about to try again, in a changed landscape. I’ll talk some more about that in the next post.



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3 responses to “Wake the dragon. The OGL.

  1. This is a fantastic article. The phrase, “people who had made perfectly competent decisions in previous years — guessed wrong,” may be the most succinct and honest way of putting it. If anybody adds more, they are either adding their own guesses or biases to it.

    “Hustlers win,” means that they win economic rewards for themselves. It certainly doesn’t mean that the hobby as a whole wins by any other metric, either creators or consumers. The things I’ve heard from folks involved (including from you) about the R&D efforts that never really materialized make it clear there were some really neat ideas that were lost in the hustle. Have you seen any of those ideas materialize in recent years, or do you think the landscape just changed too much for most to be relevant?

  2. jefftyjeffjeff

    The continuing churn of Monte Cook’s thinking materialized in Malhavoc products over the years. JD Wiker put out some really wonderful ideas in several neglected The Game Mechanics products that you can still buy on RPGnow.com. Owen KC Stephens, one of Wizards’ more asshat layoffs, is still churning it out for Rogue Genius and Paizo today. As far as clever business models or disruption… well, Chris Pramas comes to mind, with Green Ronin’s True20, M&M, and the Dragon Age RPG which owes a lot to d20.

    The thing about a lot of creative types is that their skill set is not in making money. It’s in giving form to ideas. So they wind up letting someone else keep most of the money so they can concentrate on the thing they’re good at. It isn’t so much about changed landscape as it is ability to execute and monetize. The people who are any good at that — you know their names already.

  3. Pingback: Additional grist | Dire Curious

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