So! Wizards of the Coast has released Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition under the Open Gaming License. They’ve also created the Dungeon Masters Guild so that creators can use WotC’s non-OGLed intellectual property and sell them through OneBookShelf (the parent company of RPGNow and DriveThruRPG). That’s big news. But what does it mean?
First off, let me state that I am not a lawyer. However, I was once an RPG publisher, and as such I paid a lawyer obscene amounts of money to insure I understood the OGL.
The OGL allows a publisher to take content released as Open Game Content under the OGL and freely use it in their own works. It provides protection for content that a publisher does not want to be OGC, by allowing it to be declared as Product Identity. Usually game rules and mechanics are declared OGC while trade dress and specific terms are declared PI. So, for instance, a publisher might release a work which contains the spell, “Krugerov’s Cannibalistic Mutuation”. The publisher could declare the spell mechanics and rule details as OGC, but declare the name “Krugerov” as PI. Another publisher could freely use the spell, but they could not use “Krugerov”. They’d have to call it “Cannibalistic Mutation” or something else. That said, some publishers have eschewed PI and released their entire work as OGC, which is OK too.
Technically, one does not need a license to publish games or rules that are compatible with D&D of any edition. Game mechanics are not protected under law, and it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “this product is compatible with another product” (could you imagine the third-party cellphone accessory industry if they couldn’t say that their product worked with an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy?) However! The specific textual representation of a game mechanic IS (or, rather, can be) protected. So, for instance, the idea of rolling 1d20, adding a modifier, and trying to roll higher than a target number can not be protected; the literal text “roll 1d20, add your combat, skill, and ability modifier, and check the result; if it is higher than the target number, the roll is a success” can be protected. And in the case of D&D, the game’s literal text is protected under copyright. The OGL allows publishers to use the exact, literal text of anything from D&D that WotC has released as OGC under the OGL.
So, now, with the D&D 5E System Reference Document (that being the source for everything D&D 5E released as OGC under the OGL), publishers can copy/paste huge swaths of text from D&D into their own products and modify as needed. I just spent some time going over the SRD, it looks fairly comprehensive. It reads similarly to the free Basic Rules PDF, in that class options and backgrounds and such are minimal, usually having just one of many options from the PHB to serve as examples (there’s only one Roguish Archetype, for instance), but it’s been expanded to include content released after the Basic Rules PDFs were released (like Dragonborn and Tieflings, for example).
The main downside with the OGL for a publisher is that they specifically do not get access to PI elements. So if a publisher wanted to publish an adventure set in the Forgotten Realms featuring Drizzt do’Urden and Elminster fighting against the cultists of Bane, they could not do that because all of those elements are, undoubtedly, PI. However, that is the purpose of the Dungeon Masters Guild; by publishing a work under that umbrella, the publisher gains access to WotC’s vast library of Forgotten Realms PI. And, evidently, everything else that all the other Dungeon Masters Guild publishers develop. And, in turn, all the other Dungeon Masters Guild publishers get access to what a specific publisher produces.
Under the Dungeon Masters Guild you can give away your work freely, or you can charge for it; take note, however, that access to all the Forgotten Realms IP comes at a cost. Fifty percent, to be exact. So if you publish something under the Dungeon Masters Guild and want to charge $5.00 for it, you’ll get a cool $2.50 from each sale. Take heart, however, as the Dungeon Masters Guild is a partnership with OneBookShelf, so once you submit your work to the Guild OBS handles all the sales and payments and all that, relieving you of that drudgery. My understanding is that if you submit a print-ready PDF, you can even tap into OBS’ print-on-demand service and sell hard-copy versions of your work as well.
There is a separate agreement which you must accept to join the Guild. I have not read it yet, but I have been assured that in no way does WotC or OBS claim ownership of what you submit to the Guild. They only claim their IP and grant you a license to use it and sell it as part of their service.
Is the Dungeon Masters Guild worth it? Maybe. If you want your work firmly ensconced under the “Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms” umbrella, you want to be in the Guild. If you want your work to be compatible with D&D but a step apart from it – like all the generic d20 products of old – then you’re going to be better off using the SRD under the OGL and getting yourself a generic OBS publisher account.
Either way, this is big news. And it’s about time, considering that some sort of an open license was promised as part of the original D&D 5E announcement.