Thoughts on the missing Open Gaming License

One of the stranger things missing so far from the D&D 5E releases from Wizards of the Coast is an “Open Gaming” License directly applicable to D&D 5E. There have been hints of it going back before the release of the game, but – as of this writing – no license has materialised. (I just want to make clear that it’s not really the lack of an “Open Gaming” license that is the issue – it’s any sort of license at all. Wizards have good reason to be wary of a free-for-all license, but even a more limited license has not been forthcoming).

Now, you might think this is just par for the course with Wizards’ strategy. And, under most circumstances, I’d agree with you. However, without a license to produce 5E products, the entire strategy of how Wizards approaches D&D is missing something vital.

The current method Wizards are using to produce products is to partner with another game company and get that company to design the product (in close collaboration with Wizards).

Thus, Wizards got Kobold Press to do the first AP, Tyranny of Dragons. I love Tyranny, but it’s a little rough around the edges ruleswise, as can be expected for a product that was designed while the rules were still in playtest. Sasquatch Games designed Princes of the Apocalypse… but the projected rules supplement that was to accompany it never saw the light of day, with only a few bits and pieces making their way into the free Player’s Companion. Finally, we have Green Ronin’s Out of the Abyss, with its accompanying book – the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide – released a couple of months after the release of the adventure and, from all reports, being relatively light on new rules material.

Now, all of these companies are made of seasoned professionals, many who have worked at Wizards before (in some cases, have done a LOT of work at Wizards). But what you hope with the designers is that they know the new edition of D&D inside and out. You want them to be playing it, and to be constantly designing stuff for it.

I know that many of them want to be doing so. And quite a number of them are doing so – but they’re doing so by leveraging the power of the 3E OGL and SRD, and their references to 5E terminology are somewhat circumspect. Witness the use of “tactical advantage”, which Necromancer Games used and has been taken up by other companies. But the entire 3rd-party publisher business is hamstrung by the fact that there isn’t a license to design 5E products. So, each 5E-compatible product is a risky business for the publisher.

And here’s the thing: I’m sure that Mike Mearls and the other folk in the D&D team want people to be designing for 5E. They want people familiar with the system. It’s the entire point of their collaborative “studio” system for adventure design. They might not want releases in the same flood as the early days of 3E, when there were a lot of poorly thought out products, but they still need people using the system so that when they need a team to write an adventure, that team is already familiar with the system.

So, Mike, Jeremy and the others would like a 5E OGL & SRD – or licenses to that effect. But we don’t have them yet.

All of this speaks of uncertainty behind the doors of Wizards about the fate of D&D. There’s have been decisions within Wizards that have slimmed down the release schedule (which I’m actually not opposed to). But it’s also affecting other releases they’ve planned. We’ve had no Basic Rules Supplement for Out of the Abyss. The promised conversion guide has only just been released – and in a very incomplete form. And the license for other publishers to produce D&D 5E material is missing in action.

Yes, some of this may be have been delayed due to the mysterious “Jury Duty” that knocked out one of the key D&D staff for months, but it’s also possible that there’s a struggle within the walls of Wizards for the future direction of D&D.

Wizards haven’t been unreasonable with how they’ve dealt with those 3PP that have released 5E-compatible product. They’ve protected their trademarks, but they’ve also offered advice on a number of offending products on how to change them to be legal. Yes, there are products you can’t do (electronic character builders, etc.), but those are areas that aren’t really covered by the open licenses. (Note there are no character generation rules in the 3E SRD). But we’d all be a lot happier with an official 5E license.

That said, Wolfgang Baur of Kobold Press is now pressing ahead with the Tome of Beasts kickstarter, something that he was talking about doing at GenCon, but was very wary about actually doing it due to the risk of Wizards shutting it down. (A monster book includes a lot of financial risk due to the art order). Now he seems happy that it won’t be shut down. Is this the sign of an impending license? Let’s hope so! (Mike and Jeremy have repeatedly been optimistic about the license, in that “we can’t actually say anything” manner…)

So, that’s a few thoughts on the missing 5E license. Let’s hope it isn’t missing for too much longer.

(And if you have a chance, drop over to the Borderland Provinces kickstarter and give it a look. There are some nice adventures and campaign materials in this product!)


  1. Dan Coleman

    Great read Merric! From my understanding, most of the guys at Wizards are flattered and intrigued by what the community has done for 5e, whether publishing 3rd party adventures or supplements or what have you.

    You touched on it a bit in your article, but from personal experience I can tell you it’s a safe bet Wizards has their eye on 3rd party products. When I launched my first Kickstarter for adventures, Wizards legal team contacted me simply asking me to remove their trademarks and to add an annotation stating their ownership. Beyond that, they wished me good luck. I guess so long as you’re not egregious, they’re thankful to have a multitude of independent publishers out there, but their very existence means there’s an impetus for people to purchase 5e products, and moreover that the game is doing well.

    Of course, that’s not to say we wouldn’t want a license. There’s been murmurs for a while now about something coming down the line, which would be awesome!


  2. Callan

    To me it makes me wonder if they think D&D is ‘back on its feet’ now, as a brand – and having used crowd publishing to achieve that…they don’t want to share anymore? Makes sense as a tactic to me (just in terms of raw tactics, I hasten to add)


  3. Gaëtan Voyer-Perrault

    +1 for really wanting this license to be present and explicit. The rate of 3PP has clearly increased over the last 6 months (just look at DriveThruRPG) and a cleaner license will result in cleaner products for everyone.


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