Dungeons and Dragons has been in the news a lot lately. The press loves a hook, and a 40th birthday is enough to generate some good media coverage. Here's a 40th birthday look from CNN. Hasbro has been wise to time its newest version of the game with the anniversary, and people are excited about the art and even the ampersand in the new D&D logo. [Spoiler alert: It's shaped out of a dragon.]
And all that is great, actually! This is positive coverage, happy news, and it can only be good to build awareness that PnP RPGs still exist, that people enjoy them, and that you won't commit suicide or depraved acts or convert to atheism if you like them. In fact, there have been a couple excellent articles recently looking back on the whole Chick Comix / Mazes and Monsters debacle [oh, Tom Hanks, that was your darkest hour!]. Take a read through a few articles on D&D and game panics, from the BBC, Mental Floss, BoingBoing, Stuff You Should Know, and Cracked.
So it is good that D&D is turning 40, good that people are hearing positive things about our hobby, and good that people are laughing at the fearful days of the late 1970s and '80s. But what's really happening with the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons? For a good wrap up of how the new rules are coming together, check out this D&D Next summary from Den of Geek. Just this week, news came out that a basic version of D&D Next will be released as a free download. Great, right?
No. No, it's not.
See, we can already play D&D 3.5 for free (here are the online D&D 3.5 rules) -- and we can play its most popular successor, Pathfinder, for free too (here are the online Pathfinder rules). Putting a "basic" edition of the new game out there (but not the premium options) is a step backward.
You see, back when D&D 3 was released, a visionary at Wizards of the Coast (the company that bought D&D from TSR, before it was itself bought out by Hasbro) convinced the Powers That Be to release the game under an Open Game License, so that anyone could produce D&D content for fun (as hobbyists) or even as third party product, for profit.
It is hard to explain what an incredible thing this was. I remember living through D&D 2 and the beginning of the Internet. If you put up anything online about D&D, you stood the very real risk of getting a takedown notice (and threat of suit) from the legal pit bulls at TSR, then owner of the game. Those unenlightened, bottom-line-oriented corporate types had no idea what the Web was, and they were scared of it, and they actively fought hobbyists and enthusiasts who "threatened their intellectual property." Check out my review of some D&D 2.0 wemic content, published on this site back in those days, and see how fearful I was about stepping on the TSR copyright, and making sure I was only publishing "fair use" material. Scroll to the bottom of the page to see how I tried to cover my butt, back in 1999.
So when that visionary, Ryan Dancey, opened D&D, it was just incredible. No longer were we afraid to talk about D&D online. And it sparked a renaissance, as Dancy himself opined in a Paizo message board post in 2010. People created SO much content for D&D, and the game bloomed. And when Hasbro released D&D4 -- but NOT under an OGL -- it sold more poorly than the Pathfinder game. Here's some more perspective from Dancey at EnWorld.
So what about D&D Next? Will Hasbro learn from history and put out the next version under an OGL? Or will the corporate money-men (who prioritize their own wallets over enriching the hobby) that gave us D&D4 again conspire to keep the game under lock and key, closed to third party developers? Well, there's no definitive answer yet, but as I shake my handy Magic 8 Ball, well, "Outlook not so good." Here's a message board rant on the topic that has some interesting insights.
And just yesterday, May 29, 2014, we got a blog post on the OGL issue from Mike Mearls, lead developer for D&D. Titled "Gazing into the Crystal Ball," Mearls basically says that the issue has not been decided yet, please give him and Hasbro time to get things right, and we'll have an answer next year. But if you read the blog post carefully, there are a number of things that just strike a sour sour note. Read between the lines with me …
First off, the entire thing reads like it went through three layers of lawyers. It's not quite up to NSA levels of obfuscation and misdirection, but the tone is just … off. Discouraging, IMNSHO.
Mearls says, "we want to empower D&D fans to create their own material and make their mark on the many, exciting worlds of D&D." That sounds great, but look at what he does NOT say! He does not say he wants to empower third party companies to produce product materials. It's all about the fans, not about being as open as an actual OGL would be.
Meals continues, "we want to ensure that the quality of anything D&D fans create is as high as possible." What does THAT mean?! How can Hasbro "ensure" that "anything" D&D fans create is high quality? Under D&D3 and the OGL, there was no quality compliance mechanism -- and a lot of crap product was produced! But we were free to make crap. This "ensuring" that "fans" produce high quality material sounds vaguely Orwellian and strikingly NOT OGL compliant!
Here's my personal prediction, more detailed than a Magic 8 Ball. Hasbro will announce a registration or subscription service for D&D "fans" -- and allow widespread "publication" of fan-created works only within that walled garden. No third party products at all. And that's going to be just sad.
To be fair, Mearls is asking for some time, so we'll see. I hope I am wrong.
Update 30 May 14: Check out some interesting discussions of this topic at the Paizo message boards and at the Giant in the Playground message boards.