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Fans said the future of 'Dungeons & Dragons' was at risk. So they went to battle

<em>Dungeons & Dragons </em>fans and creators recently found themselves battling an unlikely foe: the game's publisher, Wizards of the Coast.
Simon Hayter
Toronto Star via Getty Images
Dungeons & Dragons fans and creators recently found themselves battling an unlikely foe: the game's publisher, Wizards of the Coast.

No game of Dungeons & Dragons is exactly alike – the worlds, characters and problems are crafted by players themselves. Depending on your game's Dungeon Master – the person who guides players through the story – you could find yourself teaming up with roguish elves to save their princess or infiltrating a dragon's lair to retrieve a magic sword.

Last month, however, the tabletop roleplaying game itself became the story, when drafts of changes to its copyright license were leaked to the public, one of which would introduce royalty payments from certain creators. Fans felt this would destroy the culture of the game and, outraged, united to protect their beloved hobby against an unlikely foe: the game's own publisher, Wizards of the Coast.

At the heart of the problem: the culture of creation

Griffin Macaulay was one of the creators frustrated about the potential changes coming to D&D.

Macaulay is the creator of "The Griffon's Saddlebag" a collection of custom items – "magical swords and potions that make your hair stand on end and stuff like that," he explained – that players can purchase to use in their own games.

"The Griffon's Saddlebag" contains items like the Frostfell Cloak, which players can use in their own games.
/ Griffin Macaulay/The Griffon's Saddlebag
Griffin Macaulay/The Griffon's Saddlebag
"The Griffon's Saddlebag" contains items like the Frostfell Cloak, which players can use in their own games.

"These are illustrations that are paired with mechanical write ups that use [D&D] official language, which is why [this fight over copyrights] is important to me," Macaulay said.

Since its introduction in 2000, D&D's copyrights license - called the Open Game License (OGL), has allowed people like Macaulay to use some of the game's rules, characters and storylines to create and sell their own work, royalty-free.

"Something you need to understand about D&D is that no one plays by the rules," said Linda Codega, a reporter for Io9 by Gizmodo who was the first to report on the leaks. "Every single person at a table who plays D&D is a creator; is using their imagination to create another kind of story and another way to use D&D."

They added that this culture of creation can help explain why fans were so outraged that the draft introduced changes such as royalty payments of about 20-25% from creators making over $750,000. It also required anybody who published content under the OGL to provide the publisher with a copy of what they were selling, register that content and report all revenue regularly – a process creators found burdensome.

"That royalty system, combined with a license to Wizards of the Coast of the creators' works, effectively cut drastically into the margins of the creators while also giving Wizards of the Coast the ability to republish, reprint and otherwise exploit those creators' works without any additional compensation or attribution," said Noah Downs, an attorney with Premack Rogers, a law firm representing digital creatives.

Downs represented some of the creators who started an online campaign called #OpenDND against the changes. In an open letter, they called for Wizards of the Coast to walk back their proposals and leave the OGL unchanged; it ended up receiving more than 77,000 signatures.

Some fans also threatened to leave D&D altogether and turn to other publishers like Paizo, which owns a similar tabletop roleplaying game called Pathfinder. And many turned to Twitter and Reddit to demand that Wizards revoke all the changes. The hashtag #DNDBeGone spread on Twitter, calling on players to cancel their subscriptions of D&D Beyond, the company's digital toolset for the game.

The twists and turns of the fight

After that initial draft was leaked in early January, more drafts and responses followed as fans of the game protested:

  • Jan 4: Codega reported on the draft OGL 1.1
  • Jan 13: Another draft was leaked, OGL 2.0. It removed the royalties, but creators were still not happy.
  • Jan 13: Wizards broke their silence about the situation with a written apology. They also agreed to open a feedback process with a new draft to be released later on.
  • Jan 18: An official draft was published, named OGL 1.2. This also triggered a feedback process for creators and players to comment and share their opinion.
  • In their apology, Wizards of the Coast said their intention was to protect the game from harmful content and technologies like NFTs.

    "In addition to language allowing us to address discriminatory and hateful conduct and clarifying what types of products the OGL covers, our drafts included royalty language designed to apply to large corporations attempting to use OGL content," the apology read. "It was never our intent to impact the vast majority of the community."

    After OGL 1.2 was released, Dungeons & Dragons Executive Producer Kyle Brink told NPR that it was always D&D's intention to bring its gaming community into the process of updating the copyright license. The leaked drafts, he said, had not been ready for the public eye and thus it was no surprise that they received the pushback they did.

    He also said D&D's days-long silence was due to its team reacting and preparing a response.

    "We think of ourselves as part of the community because we happen to have jobs at Wizards right now, but that doesn't separate us from the life we love and the hobby we love," Brink said. "So when the community comes to us with strong feedback, we take it very, very seriously. These are people talking to us."

    The new draft not only got rid of the royalties and reporting requirements, it also included something many saw as a good thing: the Systems Reference Document (SRD), which outlined the parts of D&D's intellectual property creators could use, would be put into a Creative Commons license. That meant that Wizards would be unable to revoke or modify the SRD in the future.

    "This is much more friendly and much more open and is honestly doing a good job of listening." Macaulay said.

    But he still had his doubts: "The fact remains that they could just change this in two weeks after people say, 'Okay, cool, we're happy with this.'"

    There was also one outstanding demand from creators. They wanted D&D to simply stick to the status quo and abandon any OGL changes – to keep the game's culture as it was. It seemed like a far-fetched request, and some hope had been lost.

    Then, D&D surprised them.

    "Good news across the board"

    Kyle Brink, the executive producer of D&D, told NPR in late January that the feedback survey for OGL 1.2 would be open until Feb. 3. D&D would then share the results around Feb. 17, and this process would be repeated as many times as needed until the fans were satisfied with the changes.

    But on January 27, before the feedback process even closed, therewas another poston D&D: they were backing out of all of the changes and keeping the original OGL alive. They were also leaving the SRD in the Creative Commons.

    Griffin Macaulay of "The Griffon's Saddlebag" said the whole saga had left him with little energy to celebrate this win as much as it deserved, but it felt like a closing chapter.

    "I was like, 'Oh, well, that's incredible. Okay, I guess I guess we're done here,' and it was a very nice, pleasant wave of relief," he said.

    Noah Downs, the lawyer representing some of the creators who signed the #OpenDND letter said he was shocked and skeptical when the news came out.

    "I expected to get to the end of [the post] and figure out 'Okay, well, where's the knife here?" Downs said. "But there wasn't one. It was just good news across the board there."

    The step-back was ultimately a win for the community of players and creators. Still, Macaulay said trust had been broken.

    "People were so hesitant to believe that Wizards would do something this insane for a really long time, until the evidence was just so apparent that you couldn't ignore it," he said. "I think that the only real way for people to feel comfortable is knowing that the people responsible are no longer able to put people in harm's way again."

    So it may take more than a roll or two of the dice for Wizards to regain its players' trust. For now, at least, Dungeons & Dragons remains the same tabletop roleplaying game people have loved for decades.

    Edited by Mallory Yu

    Audio story edited by Patrick Jarenwattananon

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Ivy Winfrey
    Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.