It’s been a tough week for Dungeons & Dragons fans.
The reins were pulled in by users who came up with their own storylines and new characters, creating legions of imaginary worlds that spin off of the original fantasy roleplaying game. They have also been able to make and sell products required to play or based on the game under an open game license (OGL) agreement.
But as Gizmodo first reported, a leaked new agreement drafted by Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), the Hasbro subsidiary that owns D&D, threatens to “tighten” the OGL that has been in place since the early 2000s. It would grant WoTC the ability to “make money off of these products without paying the person who made it” and companies that make over $750,000 will have to start paying Hasbro a 25% cut of their earnings.
“I almost cried about it two nights ago,” said Baron de Ropp, who is 36 and lives in Tennessee. He’s been playing D&D since he was nine years old, learning the ins and outs from older relatives who shared plans, called “adventures”, which map out a general storyline for each game. While some adventures are written by D&D itself, many others are written by individual “dungeon masters”. Under the proposed license, these plans could soon be owned by Hasbro.
“It honestly feels like your grandfather paid for your college education, and now that you’re 40 years old and have a stable career, he says you owe him 25% of all the money you’ve been making,” he said.
De Ropp moonlights as a dungeon master – the person responsible for guiding a group of players through an adventure and describing various elements and encounters in that imaginary world – at corporate team-building events and runs a local high school’s club. The one word that sums up his feelings now is “betrayal”.
“Many people are simply leaving the game altogether,” said William Earl, a 28-year-old YouTuber whose videos largely focus on D&D culture. He said he had canceled his subscription to D&D Beyond, Hasbro’s digital game companion, and would never buy another WoTC product.
More than 66,000 fans signed an open letter addressed to Hasbro, D&D Beyond, and WoTC, expressing disgust at the proposed changes. They see the changes as nothing but a money rush and an attempt to squash small-time creators who do not pose a serious threat to Hasbro. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)
Fans say the cottage industry they’ve been able to build is what has allowed D&D to thrive over the years, and thrive it has. There are more than 13 million active players worldwide, and the game’s popularity exploded at the height of the pandemic. Groups got together remotely, taking on identities like elves and witches, to combat lockdown-induced loneliness. Many did so using software that allowed fans to play remotely and was made by creators under the original OGL.
Players can go back through the history of D&D in guidebooks and online forums to find adventures that were written 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Then, they can replicate those events at their own table. “I want games to live forever, so that my grandkids can use these games, too,” De Ropp said. He worries that a centralized ownership of adventures by Hasbro would put a chokehold on the community’s creativity.
Jay Cushing, a dungeon master based in New York who has played D&D for over a decade, believes that D&D’s “community of nerds” will find inventive ways to get past any proposed licensing.
They already have: sites like the now defunct Trove allowed users to download PDFs of old adventures for free, without compensating creators. “We are people who are not always using the correct avenues of content sharing, so nothing is going to stop people from creating their own content,” Cushing said.
While fans were still digesting Hasbro’s content restrictions, they were hit with news that D&D is headed into the mainstream. This week, Paramount+ announced it will adapt D&D into an eight-episode live-action series penned by the Dodgeball film-maker Rawson Marshall Thurber. And a Chris Pine film set in the universe is coming later this year. But with an impending boycott and chaos among creators, will anyone watch?
Earl, the YouTuber, says it’s impossible to capture the spirit of D&D in a major TV series. “D&D is a collaborative, interactive storytelling experience,” he said. “The appeal is that you engage with the narrative and share that experience with others. Pizza, potato chips, Diet Coke, and laughter, that’s as much a part of the D&D experience as dragons, dwarves, and demons.”
Dungeon masters who spoke to the Guardian said they would probably give the adaptations a shot. But in their eyes, even the most realistic CGI or special effects cannot compare to the magic that happens when friends gather around a table and improvise.
“Theater of the mind is really where this game thrives,” Cushing said. “When my players and I reminisce about something that happened in the game, we all see it differently in our minds. That multifaceted nature is really what makes D&D glow. Your wildest imaginations can be turned into media, but you watch it and see that your imagination was better the whole time.”
For De Ropp, D&D media shouldn’t take itself too seriously or follow the tone of a moody Marvel-esque blockbuster. “People want to kick in the door, steal some goblins, steal some treasure,” he said. “Slapstick, campy humor caters to that idea best.”