Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The OGL Conundrum

Yesterday I was commenting on a blog post about the Open Game Licence (OGL) that many old-school game publishers are using when issuing new products. Unfortunately, after 29 comments there appeared at the bottom of the page a message that "New comments are not allowed."  The conversation between two other people was getting a bit heated, so I don't blame host Roger the GS if that's a conscious decision he made.  However, it may just have been an automatic shutdown of comments after a set period of time. (I think that's an option in Blogger...)

Edit:  See Roger's follow-up post, which also has now had comments shut down.

However, I had started composing another reply, and I'd like to now expand it into a full post. The topic may be a bit "inside baseball" for readers not that into the old-school D.I.Y. role-playing community, but c'est la vie.

Anyway, the issue at hand is what kind of legal copyright/trademark/licencing needs to be done when someone wants to publish a document that contains (1) references to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) by name, or (2) announcements of compatibility with D&D or other related systems, or (3) uses of many of the time-worn terms and tropes from D&D, like armor class, hit dice, and so on. For me, I'm talking mainly about new rule-sets, NOT secondary products that are designed to be used in conjunction with D&D or other "retro-clones."

Many old-school game publishers like to use the Open Game License (OGL) issued by Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), the current copyright holder of D&D. However, several people have raised some skepticism (e.g., here and here) about the need to enter into a contract with WoTC when one isn't publishing anything that is formally connected to a WoTC product.

In yesterday's comment thread, I talked a little about how I've been planning to issue Homebrew '82 without the OGL. I will definitely do more research on this topic, but the one new thing I wanted to do was list a few of the games out there that are also not using OGL. Many of these other games have been talked about quite positively in the OSR blogosphere. Many are similar in spirit to my own project, in that they're at least obliquely inspired by D&D and other 1970s/1980s games, and they use a handful of terms for game mechanics and ability scores from D&D (some of which have definitely filtered into broader usage, too), but they're clearly new and original games. My question to the other commenters would have been something like: "If it's okay for them, then why shouldn't I go that route?"

(I now also want to list these games out of a sense of solidarity... kind of similar to Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song... here's a list of people who avoid the OGL... just like you and meeeee...)   :-)

Small But Vicious Dog

Sword and Board

Stars Without Number

Zeb's Fantasy Roleplaying System (ZeFRS)

Gods and Monsters

Perilous Journeys

Adventure Forge

Barbarians of Lemuria

I apologize if I've erred in listing products that aren't in fact "similar in spirit" to my own ideas for Homebrew '82, but they all seem like relevant comparisons to make.


  1. Thanks for picking up this conversation and doing the leg work. One thing that strikes me is that few of these games if any are straight-up retro-clones. This is important for any potential competition and innovation tests under fair use. Sword & Board, for example, uses a completely different core resolution system. Stars Without Number is a completely different genre. Mine is also not straight-up but it uses enough elements of the original game that I thought it was not only legally prudent but ethically correct to put it under the OGL. After all, I am specifically using the SRD/D&D terminology in order to tap into the benefits of using the most widely recognized system there is, and my game is a direct competitor in the area of fantasy roleplaying.

    Then again, it could also be that some of these authors are taking their chances more so than I am. I'm not exactly heartened by the cavalier assertion on Sword & Board that "All materials published here are considered to be Public Domain or OGL" - the invocation of OGL is nowhere close to the specificity form it requires and so is both meaningless and dangerous. Don't say the demon's name unless you've drawn the magic circle ...

  2. Thanks, Roger. I also consciously left out several products from my list that are a bit more... um... blatant in what they do. (Things that sites like lulu or RPGnow would probably not host!)

    I guess, for each game element, there's a continuum of options, and I'm still curious where the legal line is. For, say, ability scores, here are some mileposts along that continuum:

    (1) Straight-up copying of text from PHB-type books.

    (2) Usage of the standard names for ability scores and standard die-rolling methods, but in original words.

    (3) Usage of standard names for ability scores, but with differences in how they're generated and how they affect play.

    (4) Including some non-standard ability scores, like Luck, but keeping others canonical.

    (5) Everything is all-new.

    Homebrew '82 -- as well as many of the other games in my Hanukkah list -- sits squarely in option (3) above. Many of the other parts of my game are in (4) or (5). None are in (1) or (2). Where that puts the game as a whole, legally, I just don't know! :-)