Once per game on the outskirts of the nerdest of nerds, Dungeons & Dragons has exploded into the mainstream. Much of this success is due to podcasters, Twitch streamers, and writers embracing the fantasy setting to tell collaborative stories as they roll the dice, inspiring a massive revival of interest in the game.
“I think we’re in for a really interesting time in D&D,” Catie Osborn, a Dungeons & Dragons content creator with more than 1.6 million TikTok followers, told TechCrunch. “You have [a new edition of the game] it’s about to come out, and you also have at the same time, all these third-party writers, and people who write modules, and all the different things that they add to the community.
Although Dungeons & Dragons was first released in 1974, a new generation of fans have found an entry point through indie “real game” shows like Dropout’s “Dimension 20” or “The Adventure Zone.” McElroy brothers. In 2021, a leak on Twitch revealed that the platform’s highest paid channel was “Critical Role”, a highly produced stream in which a team of professional voice actors perform live Dungeons & Dragons. The show grossed over $9.6 million that year.
These hugely popular shows are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Dungeons & Dragons fan community. Thanks to the longstanding Open Gaming License (OGL), in effect since 2000, many internet creators make a modest living from gaming, whether they perform on live streams, write original spell books or code online. remote gaming platforms.
Now, the proposed OGL changes threaten an entire cohort of Dungeons & Dragons content creators.
Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), the Hasbro-owned game publisher, plans to update OGL for the first time in over twenty-two years, releasing a new licensing system the company calls OGL 1.1. . Some creators who received copies of OGL 1.1 leaked it to the Internet, causing an outcry of resistance from fans and content creators.
More than 54,000 people signed an open letter against the changes as part of a movement called #OpenDND, organized by Mage Hand Press editor Mike Holik.
“If this new license is widely adopted, the tabletop landscape will fracture and lose its greatest integration mechanisms, shutting down the small businesses that populate your local opponents and bringing their creations to a halt,” the open letter reads. “Innovation in the gaming industry will evaporate; your favorite games will be trapped in the past, instead of being allowed to migrate to your phone, VR and beyond. Diversity in the industry will decrease, as projects from marginalized creators are effectively written for the future.
As a franchise, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t really a canonical story. Each time a new group plays the game, they create their own characters and storylines that guide their improv role-playing experience. Although WoTC publishes its own lore books that players can choose to incorporate, the core of the game is quite malleable and unspecific.
To play the game, players sculpt original fantasy characters from classes such as Wizards, Druids, and Fighters, and Dungeons & Dragons rules provide skills, spells, and ability stats that make up the gameplay system. But as real-life game shows and companion fan-created posts become more popular, Hasbro and WoTC execs have said they want to turn the “under-monetized” Dungeons & Dragons property into a franchise. full media.
“The D&D strategy is a broad four-quadrant strategy, where we have this powerful brand that has similar awareness of, say, ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Harry Potter,'” Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks said during a briefing. a call to investors in December. “And we’re going to infuse it with hit entertainment.” The company is producing a Dungeons & Dragons TV show and movie, slated for release in March.
The problem, however, is that Dungeons & Dragons is just a framework through which people create their own fantasy-inspired stories and games – there are no main characters or a plot that unifies the interest of the whole community. The game’s playbooks feature fan-favorite characters like Drizzt Do’Urden, a drow hero who resists his dark nature, or Count Strahd von Zarovich, an evil vampire villain. But it’s very possible for fans to dive deep into Dungeons & Dragons without ever encountering these characters, as they aren’t essential to the game. It’s impossible to imagine a “Star Wars” fan who has never heard of of Yoda, but you can play Dungeons & Dragons for years and never know Drizzt or Strahd exist.
“There’s no main character in D&D, or I think another way of saying it is, you are the main character of D&D,” said Osborn, known online as Catieosaurus. “I think it might be fun to watch a movie about these adventures or whatever, but the appeal of D&D is that it’s about us – it’s about the stories we tell together at a table .”
Hasbro did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its plans for OGL 1.1. A creator who received a copy of the updated license told TechCrunch that the new terms give WoTC ownership of any fan-created intellectual property. So if a creator writes an adventure that players can incorporate into their own Dungeons & Dragons campaign, WoTC has the right to reprint the creator’s work as their own without payment. It also jeopardizes the existence of virtual tabletop software, which makes remote gaming possible.
Under the new license, as proposed, any creator who earns more than $50,000 will have to report their earnings to WoTC, and those who earn more than $750,000 will have to pay a 25% royalty to the company on every dollar. above this threshold. While these dollar values may seem high, this applies to gross revenue, not profit.
“When you create content, you work on small margins. You hire your own ecosystem of creators, designers, artists, everything,” said Noah Downs, a partner of Premack Rogers and the Dungeons & Dragons live streamer who saw the OGL 1.1 document. “And a 25% royalty, even if it’s over a certain threshold, can absolutely destroy your margin, and in many cases it can make it untenable to continue producing.”
Over at Mage Hand Press, one of Holik’s Kickstarter campaigns for a Dungeons & Dragons expansion brought in $704,467 from 7,710 backers. But he sees the royalty clause as a way for WoTC to make it harder for independent publishers to compete.
“A Kickstarter involves a lot of little products, so your profit margins go down, because in reality, you’re going to be giving people dice, adventures, and a box, and all of those individual things end up cutting into your profit margins quite significantly” said Holik, “Kickstarters don’t walk away with 80% of their money and profits. None of this is legit. I don’t know where they get that 25% figure beyond that…they’re trying to get rid of it.” completely crush the competition.
Not only would OGL 1.1 make it harder for Holik to make a profit, Downs says he would also grant WoTC the ability to publish independent creators’ work as his own.
“If you accept OGL 1.1, you grant Wizards of the Coast a perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free sublicense,” Downs told TechCrunch. “That means they have the eternal right, which you can’t revoke, to use your work without additional royalties… This section of the license is more detrimental to creators than the monetary portion of the license.”
For those who make videos or podcasts, the new OGL has less of a direct effect.
“The OGL affects third-party creators of game material. Podcasters are covered by the Fan Content Policy,” said Eric SilverTTRPG Podcast Game Master »Join the party.” But he’s still concerned about how changes to WoTC might ripple. “The Fan Policy contains a clause that states that Wizards may shut down individual projects or creators they deem harmful to the Wizards brand. This makes me wonder if criticism of the company counts as harmful to them, and if they rely on that fear to stifle policy change, and they have demonstrated that they can and will change policy whenever it serves them with little warning.
Currently, the Fan Content Policy allows creators to use WoTC’s IP as long as it’s free. Creators are allowed to earn revenue through sponsorships, advertising revenue, and donations, but they cannot pay for content.
WoTC has remained eerily quiet in light of the backlash against the OGL 1.1 leak. It’s unclear how, when, or if this change will take effect, but the company said last year that it would make these changes in early 2023.
“OGL literally changed my life,” Osborn said. “That’s why I’m able to do what I do. This is how I earn my income. And so it’s just kind of scary.
Holik says if OGL 1.1 goes into effect, he will have to restructure his entire business.
“I would have to cancel two Kickstarters and withdraw my Patreon overnight,” said Holik. Through Patreon alone, Holik’s company earns close to $2,000 a month.
According to Osborn, the silver lining is that there are more games like Dungeons & Dragons. While arguably the most popular TTRPG, fans have also turned to gaming systems such as Monster of the Week, Fate, Blades in the Dark, and Kids on Bikes. On websites like itch.io, an indie game marketplace, TTRPG players can find anything from a game about cheeky partying goats to a story inspired by “Friday Night Lights” on the high school soccer.
“I don’t want to say it’s a good thing, but I think it put the community in an incredible position. For example, if you look on Twitter, there are so many conversations right now about the other options? What other games can I play? said Osborn. “I think people are going to start seeing the wide variety of amazing games that have been made by small independent creators.”