Dungeons & Dragons & fear & loathing

If FTAV had a quid for every time we’ve written about Wizards of the Coast in the past couple of months, we’d have £2, which isn’t a lot, etc. . . But the seaside sorcerers are once again stirring the cauldron.

In November, we caught up with accusations by Bank of America that the games group was “killing its golden goose”, Magic: The Gathering — now it seems to be leering menacingly at its, uh, silver swan, Dungeons & Dragons.

After testing Magic players’ patience with a “flood the zone” approach to card releases, D&D’s role players are recoiling from reports WotC, a crucial part of board games kingpin Hasbro, is looking at clamping down on the plethora of games that utilize its rules framework.

D&D straddles tabletop gaming and group improvisation, providing a toolkit for gamers to go on imaginative adventures arbitrated by “Dungeon Masters” and a sprawling set of rules. A movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thievesis slated for release in March this year.

Its been on the scene for nearly half a century and is pretty well known, something ex-WotC president, now Hasbro boss Christian Cocks noted in a “Special Call” the company convened last month (during which it pushed back against the BofA claims) . Per Sentieo:

D&D, when I go to cocktail parties and I say and people ask me what do I do? What I used to say is, hey, I was President of Wizards of Coast. And they’d say, what’s that — and I’d say, well, we make MAGIC: THE GATHERING and we make Dungeons & Dragons. I’d have maybe a 3 in 10 hit rate on people understanding what MAGIC was. But if I did, I would have an incredibly deep conversation in the cocktail party, which would effectively be over for all other participants.

Or like for D&D though, it was 10 out of 10. Everyone knows D&D. . . Everyone grew up with it in the 70s and 80s, played the video games in the ’90s [indiscernible] and knows it’s a cultural phenomenon right now. And so like the D&D strategy, if the MAGIC strategy is a deep single quadrant strategy, the D&D strategy is a broad four quadrant strategy where we have this powerful brand that has similar awareness to like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

Part of that success has been down to WotC’s Open Gaming License, which allows independent game makers to take parts of D&D’s basic rules framework and utilize them in their own games via a “perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive license”. This was a bit like releasing a software development kit, and allowed a proliferation of expansions that has allowed role-play fans to Dungeon & Dragon in myriad ways.

For anyone worried about how Magic was being treated, the same call also included something of an early warning alarm on D&D. Here’s Cynthia Williams, WotC president and formerly of Microsoft and Amazon:

D&D [has] never been more popular, and we have really great fans and incredible engagement. But the first thing I saw with it is that the brand is really undermonetized. ..

Really briefly, I’ll say that you’ll see us leaning heavily into the expansion of D&D through D&D Beyond, the acquisition that we did that closed this past May. We have about 13 million customers registered users there that we will continue to serve by giving them more ways to express their fandom. We have about 13 million customers registered users there that we will continue to serve by giving them more ways to express their fandom.

Part of this strategy is by getting fans to subscribe to D&D Beyond, an online rules resource supporting the game’s fifth edition. WotC bought Beyond from Fandom last May for $146.3mn

Cocks added, sphinx-like, that he thought “D&D could be a real new [indiscernible] for our gaming portfolio as a whole and for Wizards specifically”. (We assume whatever “[indiscernible]” is here, it’s probably quite upbeat.)

Fast forward to last week, and Gizmodo’s Linda Codega dropped this bomb:

The new Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License, a document which allows a vast group of independent publishers to use the basic game rules created by D&D owner Wizards of the Coast, significantly restricts the kind of content allowed and requires anyone making money under the license to report their products to Wizards of the Coast directly, according to an analysis of a leaked draft of the document, dated mid-December.

Despite reassurances from Wizards of the Coast last month, the original OGL will become an “unauthorized” agreement, and it appears no new content will be allowed to be created under the original license.

The leaked draft, Codega says, is about ten times the length of the old OGL and clamps down much more tightly on the use of the game’s assets. The headline changes are:

— People who earn revenues in excess of $750,000 in new OGL-based work will have to pay 25 cents on each subsequent dollar earned
— Creators who release things under the newOGL must grant WotC a “nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sub-licensable, royalty-free license to use that content for any purpose”.

Independent developers, as might be expected, are pissed off. Here’s an extract from an open letter by campaign group OpenDnD signed by roughly 54,000 developers and community members:

Nothing about this new license is “open.” It chokes the vibrant community that has flourished under the original license. No matter the creator, it locks everyone into a new contract that restricts their work, makes it mandatory to report their projects and revenues to Wizards of the Coast, and gives WotC the legal right to reproduce and resell creators’ content without permission or compensation. The new license can also be modified with worse terms or terminated at any time without any reward by creators.

The legal points here are. . . tricky, particularly over whether WotC is allowed to revoke the oldOGL.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US non-profit, has run through the key issues, and you can read their helpful summary here. Here’s a couple of extracts:

The OGL does not say that it is irrevocable, unfortunately. It’s possible that Wizards of the Coast made other promises or statements that will let the beneficiaries of the license argue that they can’t revoke it, but on its face it seems that they can. ..

For someone who wants to make a game that is similar mechanically to Dungeons and Dragons, and even announce that the game is compatible with Dungeons and Dragons, it has always been more advantageous as a matter of law to ignore the OGL. Practicality may dictate a different result when up against the legal team of a large corporation, but if the terms of the OGL are revoked and the new OGL proves even more onerous, that might change the calculus for creators going forward.

It adds:

Beware of corporate policies about the acceptable use of their copyrighted materials that wind up being restrictions on your fair use rights rather than the grant of meaningful permission.

The D&D community appears to be very peeved, meanwhile #StopTheSub (NSFW) on Twitter is full of angry nerds and at least one thread of poorly-written erotica. Unsubscribing from D&D Beyond seems to be the go-to way of showing discontent.

Hasbro investors, meanwhile, don’t seem to be particularly fussed, with its shares roughly the highest since before BofA gave Magic a kicking.

Will it matter? We’ll say this: it’s certainly bold of WotC to do battle with both of its key fanbases at the same time. Maybe the dice will be on their side.

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