What’s the best way to slay a dragon? Apparently, it’s letting the dragon slay itself. That, at least, would seem to be case if the recent controversy surrounding Dungeons & Dragons is any indicator.

After nearly a decade of unparalleled growth and success with its Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) have been gearing up to launch a new version of the beloved role-playing game. Dubbed One D&D, the new game would fully integrate digital tools like D&D Beyond while delivering refined rules that would change and evolve with the years.

Included in the promised updates? A new version of D&D’s famous Open Gaming License. Beloved all over the world, the OGL has allowed creators (great and small!) to produce and sell custom content compatible with the game. In an announcement near the end of December, the new OGL (version 1.1) promised to make minimal changes that fans and creators would barely even notice! The only problem? That turned out to be a lie.

What is the Open Gaming License?

First introduced in the year 2000 for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, the Open Gaming License was a way for independent creators to legally profit off of their work on content aimed at D&D.

Prior to the original OGL, it wasn’t uncommon for independent creators to find themselves on the receiving end of lawsuits when they tried to monetize their creations. D&D’s original owners were, among many things, covetous of their flagship game and didn’t take kindly to outsiders trying to publish unofficial products.

The OGL changed all that. Suddenly, no matter who you were, you could write, publish, and sell your own Dungeons & Dragons content. It was massively popular and helped the community around 3rd Edition flourish. A community that would then shrink and decline when Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition released sans OGL in 2008.

I was still in the games press when 5th Edition was first launching. I was only taking my first baby steps into tabletop role-playing games at the time, but I can still remember how palpable the excitement was when Wizards of the Coast confirmed they would reintroduce the Open Gaming License in 2016.

Creators again latched onto Dungeons & Dragons (I was one of them, to a small degree!). For seven years now, those same creators have helped D&D 5th grow into the go-to hub for fans of TTRPGs. From live play shows like Critical Role to successful publishing houses like Kobold Press - D&D has been a place where you play, create, have fun, and even make a buck or two. Marketplaces like WotC’s official Dungeon Master’s Guild have been profitable for everyone involved.

Why Has the New OGL Been Such a Disaster?

In its initial announcement via D&D Beyond, Wizards of the Coast promised that “If you’re making commercial content, relatively little is going to change.”

This statement initially eased the fears of many independent creators working in the D&D space. Their relief was short-lived, however. The actual contents of the OGL 1.1 were leaked to the press and revealed a new Open Gaming License fraught with devastating rules. I won’t dig into every bit of the long list of things people hated (others have done a great job doing that), but the key points were:

  • Creators would have stricter limits on the sorts of content they could make.
  • Wizards of the Coast would have the right to use any content made with the new OGL as if it were their own.
  • Wizards of the Coast would have the right to terminate OGL access at any time for any reason.
  • Wizards of the Coast would have the right to claim up to 25 percent of ALL money made from OGL content above a certain threshold.

The OGL 1.1 also contained (legally dubious) language suggesting the older, original OGL was retroactively revoked, potentially limiting the ability of creators to continue selling existing products for games like Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

If you’re wondering “why?” The answer seems to boil down to plain and simple greed. The Dungeons & Dragons brand is owned and managed by Wizards of the Coast which, in turn, is owned by Hasbro. Hasbro, in 2022 investor meetings, complained that the role-playing game, despite years of growth and profitability, was “under-monetized.”

A 2022 statement from Wizards of the Coast CEO Cynthia Williams.

Further leaks from inside the company later confirmed that WotC and Hasbro hoped that the OGL 1.1 would help them strong-arm the D&D community into padding their profits.

“I have never once heard management refer to customers in a positive manner,” said an anonymous WotC staffer in an email to the press. “They see customers as obstacles between them and their money.”

The Nine Hells Break Loose

To say the Dungeons & Dragons community was upset would be an understatement. The outcry from the OGL 1.1 leak was immediate and widespread. Dungeon masters, players, and creators of all sorts expressed outrage, with many vowing to abandon the famous role-playing game altogether.

The internet, of course, is rife with people proclaiming they’ll do things without much in the way of follow-through. Something the executives at Wizards of the Coast were counting on. Information from insiders indicate that WotC executives believed the community would eventually forget their anger and move on, allowing the company to push forward with its plans.

Instead, the community took the rare step of actually doing what it said it would. A number of prominent creators and publishers cut ties with Wizards of the Coast, vowing to create their own RPG systems and universal open license. Most importantly, however? The community went for the money.

Recognizing it as a concrete way to express their anger, players began canceling their paid subscriptions to D&D Beyond - an online service that WotC purchased for $146.3 million in April 2022. Hashtags like #OpenDND and #DNDBegone trended for days while social media feeds flooded with screenshots of D&D Beyond’s “your subscription has been canceled” screen.

D&D Beyond's subscription cancellation page.

The mass exodus from D&D Beyond prompted Wizards of the Coast to cancel a scheduled streaming event aimed at addressing the leaked OGL 1.1. Several days later, the company released a new statement claiming that OGL 1.1 was always intended to be a “draft” and that the community’s concerns had been heard. They would be going back to the drawing board to write up a new OGL (version 2.0) that would leave out the provisions that triggered all the outrage in the first place.

“Our plan was always to solicit the input of our community before any update to the OGL,” said the statement. “The drafts you’ve seen were attempting to do just that. We want to always delight fans and create experiences together that everyone loves. We realize we did not do that this time and we are sorry for that. Our goal was to get exactly the type of feedback on which provisions worked and which did not–which we ultimately got from you. Any change this major could only have been done well if we were willing to take that feedback, no matter how it was provided–so we are. Thank you for caring enough to let us know what works and what doesn’t, what you need and what scares you.”

Aftermath of a Critical Failure

D&D 5th Edition propelled the brand and the TTRPG hobby to heights that they’ve never known before. It brought in new players who had never picked up a twenty-sided dice in their lives. D&D clubs are everywhere from YouTube and the family dinner table to libraries and after school clubs. There’s a big budget blockbuster Dungeons & Dragons movie starring Chris Pine hitting theaters in just a few short months.

The point is? Dungeons & Dragons had a lot of goodwill built up before the OGL 1.1. Goodwill that has, by and large, been dissolved by the leak and the lackluster response from Wizards of the Coast.

While some fans have been reassured the company will correct course, many others are still skeptical. “Let’s wait and see what’s actually in OGL 2.0,” is a refrain you’re likely to hear in a lot of tabletop gaming spaces right now. Some, in turn, are so angry that Hasbro and WotC would try this in the first place, they’ve  genuinely sworn off Dungeons & Dragons, opting instead to take up competitor’s like Paizo’s Pathfinder 2nd Edition.

The memes have been many.

Perhaps more perilous for D&D, however, are those who, while not as angry, were nudged by these events to look at other games and titles they hadn’t fully considered before.

That’s the camp I find myself standing in.

While I canceled my D&D Beyond subscription with all the rest, I don’t have the same level of fury toward Dungeons & Dragons that some do right now. I am no stranger to corporate shenanigans and I’m not going to hold the misdeeds of executives against the many talented and enthusiastic minds behind the actual game. (Especially when those same dumb executives have been as thoroughly embarrassed as WotC’s have been these past two weeks.)

The truth, however, is that Dungeons & Dragons has been proving, over the years, to be a poor fit for my personal needs. At the core of Dungeons & Dragons is a combat system that’s designed for longer, more drawn out fights. It’s not uncommon for a single combat encounter to take hours to resolve. A single “good” session of D&D can run anywhere from 4-6 hours.

That doesn't mesh well with someone like me who usually runs games lasting no more than 2-3 hours at a time. Tabletop role-playing games, for me, are about group storytelling. It’s hard to advance the story when it takes three months of get-togethers to beat one monster.

I’m running a Star Wars game right now, but I have been considering what I might want to do for my next fantasy campaign. I had initially just assumed I would run another game of D&D, but the OGL 1.1 incident convinced me to look more closely at other alternatives, of which there are countless excellent ones.

At the end of the day, Dungeons & Dragons, for me, is most valuable as a shorthand for other people to understand what I’m doing. When I prepare a session of Little D&D for my local library, parents can look at the schedule, see “D&D” and think “Oh yeah! That game the kids in Stranger Things play. I bet my kiddo would like that!”

The game itself, for all its genuine strengths, isn’t all that important to me. It’s a cultural touchstone - a familiar gateway to a wider world that includes a lot of different somethings for everyone. Why would I stick with the game itself when something else fits me better? Dungeons & Dragons is more of a symbolic pillar of games than a necessary one.

Mistakes That Didn’t Have to Happen

The ultimate frustration of all this, is that it didn’t have to happen! Dungeons & Dragons is Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro’s most successful and valuable brand. It already had an iron grip on its market and a well-deserved reputation as a great fantasy role-playing game.

But if there’s one thing businesses like Hasbro and WotC thrive at, it’s not learning lessons from the past.

If they had paid attention to their history, they might have remembered just how much D&D shrank in stature during the years of its 4th Edition - a time period during which there was no OGL and TTRPG fans were lukewarm (at best) to the game’s mechanics.

They might have likewise kept in mind just how instrumental community involvement was to 5th Edition’s rise in popularity. Fancy digital tools are nice, but the core of the TTRPG experience is people sitting around a table and telling stories. Many of us have already invested a lot time, effort, and money (D&D books aren’t cheap!) into the game.

The hashtag #DNDBegone has been a rallying cry in TTRPG circles.

Displaying scorn and disdain for your customers, many of whom already have enough materials to last a lifetime, is not a good way to win them over to new products. Thinking that a community of people who routinely read hundreds of pages of rules wouldn’t look at the print? That’s just stupidity.

We’ll see where this all goes. OGL 2.0 won’t be out for some time and it’s completely possible that the suits will learn their lessons and the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons will be a remarkable success. In the meantime, if you’re looking for tips on how to shoot yourself in the foot, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast might have some advice. They’ve certainly done a huge favor to all the other TTRPG publishers who have been looking for a way to claim a bigger piece of the pie.