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Wizards, druids and open game licenses: The fight over the unique Dungeons & Dragons economy

Matt Levin Mar 3, 2023
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Fantasy game enthusiast Mark Warren poses next to a life-size replica of a Dungeons & Dragons character. Matt Levin/Marketplace

Wizards, druids and open game licenses: The fight over the unique Dungeons & Dragons economy

Matt Levin Mar 3, 2023
Heard on:
Fantasy game enthusiast Mark Warren poses next to a life-size replica of a Dungeons & Dragons character. Matt Levin/Marketplace
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It’s a Friday afternoon at Great Escape Games, a fantasy geek oasis tucked behind a Ross Dress for Less in a Sacramento strip mall.

Mark Warren works here, but he’s off the clock at the moment. He sits at one of the store’s folding tables, assembling an intricate miniature robot for a role-playing game, or RPG for short.

Warren, 39, has played RPGs with the same high school friends for over 20 years. He used to serve as the group’s Dungeon Master — basically, the chief storyteller and referee — when they would play the granddaddy of RPGs: Dungeons & Dragons.

He said RPGs provide a type of group escapism you can’t get from video games or Monopoly.

“I’m going to go hang with my friends, and we’re going to just get away, we’re going to go to a whole new place,” Warren said. “There’s no spoilers, you know, if I’m making my own adventure, because I made it.”

That make your own adventure part — that’s the magic ingredient for the Dungeons & Dragon economy.

Great Escape Games has a section of official Dungeons & Dragons monster and adventure books, all published by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of the game giant Hasbro. Right next to it is another section of unofficial Dungeons & Dragons books published by completely different companies.

Warren is showing me one: a 392-page book of beautiful illustrations and backstories. And on page 392, in jarringly unillustrated text is something called Open Game License 1.0a. It’s the reason Hasbro won’t see a dime from the $20 retail price.

“This right here, this was the heart of D&D,” Warren said. “This is the reason why this world, this book, all of it could exist.”

The open game license was kind of revolutionary in the tabletop gaming world.

It dates back to the year 2000, shortly after Hasbro acquired Wizards of the Coast and the Dungeons & Dragons property along with it. Brian Lewis was legal counsel for Wizards of the Coast back then and looking for ways to outsource new creative work.

So he thought, ‘Why not turn to fans?’

“The people that play Dungeons & Dragons are inherently authors,” he said. “Each one is creating a movie in their own mind. So because we had that built into the nature of the product, it really let us tap into the open source concept very effectively.”

The license basically allowed third-party companies to build off D&D’s rules and structure to create new storylines, characters and even entirely new role-playing games.

For the past two decades, it bred a mostly symbiotic relationship between third-party companies and D&D. When Wizards of the Coast came out with a product that flopped, other publishers filled the void, keeping fans loyal to the brand.

But with the internet-fueled rise of nerd culture over the past 20 years, some of those third-party companies started making millions in revenue.

Rumors had long simmered that Hasbro wanted a cut. Then in January, word leaked online that Hasbro wanted to change the open game license.

Any third-party company making over $50,000 a year would have to submit reports to Wizards of the Coast. Any company making over $750,000 would have to pay royalties.

“The backlash was mind-boggling,” said Lewis, who now represents many of the third-party companies that operate under the open game license. “I never could have imagined how many people, how many companies. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

An open letter protesting the changes garnered over 70,000 signatures. #OpenD&D went viral on social media.

A rival game called Pathfinder — which uses the open game license — sold eight months of product in two weeks, according to its CEO.

Eventually, Wizards of the Coast had to backtrack. Now, it’s in full damage control mode.

“Obviously it was harmful to the community and so, in that respect, yes, it was a mistake,” said Kyle Brink, executive producer of D&D.

Brink argues the proposed changes to the open game license were more about moderating potentially hateful content third-party publishers could produce, as well as adapting D&D for more digital play. But the company has done a complete 180, placing the basic rulebook for Dungeons & Dragons under a more flexible and irrevocable creative commons license.

Brink said he knows that trust in the brand has been damaged for certain fans. But he thinks they’ll be able to rebuild it.

“I’m sure there are some people who have left D&D,” he said. “That being said, it’s the common language of all role players. D&D is always going to be there.”

Back at Great Escape Games in Sacramento, Dungeons & Dragons players are rolling 20-sided dice in an annex space reserved just for them.

Kelly Samuelson helps organize these games. Even before the open game license debacle, she said there was a feeling among D&D diehards that Hasbro was treating them more like customers to be squeezed than collaborators to be cherished.

“There’s kind of a feeling that we’ve lost a little bit of a community, and there’s a lot more push to monetization,” she said.

Samuelson said she’s unsure whether she’ll buy the new edition of D&D that drops next year. But she will go see the movie scheduled to hit theaters later this month. She just may wait till it comes out on streaming.

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