Once a game on the periphery for the nerdiest of nerds, Dungeons & Dragons has exploded into the mainstream. Much of this success is owed to the podcasters, Twitch streamers and writers who have embraced the fantasy framework to tell collaborative stories at the whims of their dice rolls, inspiring massive renewed interest in the game.
“I think we’re in a really interesting moment in D&D,” Catie Osborn, a Dungeons & Dragons content creator with over 1.6 million TikTok followers, told TechCrunch. “You have [a new edition of the game] that’s about to come out, and you have also at the same time, all of these third party writers, and people writing modules, and all of the different stuff that they’re adding into the community.”
Though Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974, a new generation of fans has found an entry point through independent “actual play” shows like Dropout’s “Dimension 20” or the McElroy brothers’ “The Adventure Zone.” In 2021, a Twitch leak revealed that the platform’s highest paid channel was “Critical Role,” a highly-produced stream in which a crew of professional voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons live. The show made over $9.6 million that year.
These hugely popular shows are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Dungeons & Dragons fan community. Thanks to the longstanding Open Gaming License (OGL), which has been in effect since 2000, a slew of internet creators are making a modest living off of the game, whether they’re performing on livestreams, writing original spell books, or coding online platforms for remote gameplay.
Now, proposed changes to the OGL threaten an entire cohort of Dungeons & Dragons content creators.
Wizards of the Coast (WoTC), the Hasbro-owned publisher of the game, plans to update the OGL for the first time in over twenty-two years, releasing a new licensing system that the company is calling OGL 1.1. Some creators who received copies of OGL 1.1 have leaked it across the internet, sparking an outcry of resistance from fans and content creators alike.
“If this new license gains wide adoption, the tabletop landscape will fracture and lose its biggest onboarding mechanisms, shuttering the small businesses that populate your local cons and putting a stop to their creations,” the open letter says. “Innovation in the gaming industry will evaporate; your favorite games will be trapped in the past, instead of being allowed to migrate to your phone, virtual reality, and beyond. Diversity in the industry will shrink away, as projects from marginalized creators are effectively written out of the future.”
As a franchise, Dungeons & Dragons is not really one canonical story. Each time a new group plays the game, they create their own characters and plot lines that guide their improvisational roleplaying experience. Though WoTC will publish its own books of lore that players can choose to incorporate, the core of the game is pretty malleable and unspecific.
To play the game, players sculpt original fantasy characters from classes like sorcerers, druids and fighters, and the rules of Dungeons & Dragons provide skills, spells and ability stats that make up the game system. But as actual play shows and fan-made companion publications become more popular, Hasbro and WoTC executives have said that they want to turn the “undermonetized” Dungeons & Dragons property into a full-blown media franchise.
“The D&D strategy is a broad four-quadrant strategy, where we have this powerful brand that has similar awareness, say like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Harry Potter,’” said Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks on a December investor call. “And we’re going to imbue it with blockbuster entertainment.” The company is producing a Dungeons & Dragons TV show and movie, which is slated for release in March.
The problem, though, is that Dungeons & Dragons is merely a framework through which people create their own fantasy-inspired stories and games — there are no core characters or plot that unifies the interest of the whole community. The game’s play books feature some fan-favorite characters like Drizzt Do’Urden, a drow hero who resists his dark nature, or Count Strahd von Zarovich, an evil vampire villain. But it’s very possible for fans to dive deep into Dungeons & Dragons without ever even encountering these characters, since they are not essential to the game. It’s impossible to imagine a “Star Wars” fan who has never heard of Yoda, but you can play Dungeons & Dragons for years without ever knowing that Drizzt or Strahd exist.
“There is no main character of D&D, or I think another way of saying it is, you are the main character of D&D,” said Osborn, who is known online as Catieosaurus. “I think it could be fun to watch a movie about these adventures or whatever, but the appeal of D&D is that it’s about us — it’s about the stories that we tell together at a table.”
Hasbro did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its plans for OGL 1.1. A creator who received a copy of the updated license told TechCrunch that the new terms give WoTC ownership of any fanmade IP — so, if a creator writes an adventure for players to incorporate into their own Dungeons & Dragons campaign, WoTC has the right to reprint the creator’s work as their own without payment. It also endangers the existence of virtual tabletop software, which make remote play possible.
Under the new license, as proposed, any creator who makes over $50,000 will have to report their income to WoTC, and those who make over $750,000 will have to pay a 25% royalty to the company on every dollar above that threshold. Though these dollar values may seem high, this applies to gross revenue, not profit.
“When you are creating content, you’re working on small margins. You’re hiring your own ecosystem of creators, designers, artists, everything,” said Noah Downs, a partner at Premack Rogers and Dungeons & Dragons livestreamer who has seen the OGL 1.1 document. “And a 25% royalty, even if it’s above a certain threshold, can absolutely destroy your margin, and in many cases, it can make it untenable to continue to produce.”
At Mage Hand Press, one of Holik’s Kickstarter campaigns for a Dungeons & Dragons expansion earned $704,467 from 7,710 backers. But he sees the royalty clause as a way for WoTC to make it harder for independent publishers to compete.
“A Kickstarter involves many small products, so your profit margins actually go down, because really, you’re going to offer people some dice, and some adventures, and a box set, and all of those individual things end up cutting into your profit margins pretty significantly,” Holik said. “Kickstarters don’t walk away with 80% of their money and profit. None of that is legitimate. I don’t know where they’re getting that 25% number beyond… they’re trying to squish competition completely.”
Not only would OGL 1.1 make it more difficult for Holik to turn a profit, but Downs says it would also grant WoTC the ability to publish independent creators’ work as its own.
“If you accept OGL 1.1, you’re granting Wizards of the Coast a perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free sublicense,” Downs told TechCrunch. “That means they have the forever right, that you cannot revoke, to use your work without additional royalty… That section of the license is more detrimental to creators than the monetary part of the license.”
For those making actual play videos or podcasts, the new OGL has less of a direct effect.
“The OGL affects third-party creators of game materials. Podcasters are covered by the fan content policy,” said Eric Silver, game master of the TTRPG podcast “Join the Party.” But he is still concerned about how changes at WoTC could trickle down. “The fan policy contain a clause that says Wizards can shut down individual projects or creators that they deem harmful to Wizards’ brand. That makes me wonder if criticism of the company counts in their eyes as harmful, and if they’re counting on that fear to stifle pushback to policy changes. And they have demonstrated that they can and will change policies whenever it serves them with little warning.”
Currently, the fan content policy allows creators to use WoTC’s IP so long as it’s free. Creators are allowed to earn income through sponsorships, ad revenue and donations, but they cannot paywall any content.
WoTC has remained eerily silent in light of the backlash against the leak of OGL 1.1. It’s not clear how, when, or if this change will go into effect, but the company said last year that it would make these changes in the beginning of 2023.
“The OGL literally changed my life,” said Osborn. “It’s why I’m able to do what I do. It’s how I make my income. And so it’s just kind of scary.”
Holik says that if OGL 1.1 goes into effect, he will have to restructure his entire business.
“I’d have to cancel two Kickstarters and take my Patreon down overnight,” said Holik. Through Patreon alone, Holik’s company makes almost $2,000 per month.
According to Osborn, the silver lining is that there are more games out there like Dungeons & Dragons. Though it’s inarguably the most popular TTRPG, fans have also gravitated to game systems like Monster of the Week, Fate, Blades in the Dark and Kids on Bikes. On websites like itch.io, an indie games marketplace, TTRPG players can find anything from a game about cheeky, party-crashing goats to a “Friday Night Lights”-inspired story about high school football.
“I don’t want to say it’s a good thing, but I think it has put the community in an incredible position. Like, if you look on Twitter, right now there’s so many conversations starting about what are other options? What are other games I can play?” Osborn said. “I think people are going to start seeing the wide variety of incredible games that have been made by small indie creators.”