To OGL or not to OGL, that is the question…

The current discussion regarding Die Cast Games‘ module “Insidious” has got me thinking once more on whether or not I want to use the Open Game Licence for my own upcoming Adventures Dark and Deep™ game. There are pros and cons to doing so; the question is, do the pros outweigh the cons?

As I pointed out in my last post, the use of the OGL to publish a game, even a game based on prior editions of D&D, is not required. Such a game could, like Gods & Monsters, be published on the basis that game rules can’t be copyrighted.

The Pros

Legal cover. It’s a smarmy reason, but I can’t help but feel that publishing under the auspices of the OGL will make WotC more hesitant to take legal action against a company that is publishing material based on their intellectual property. While such a suit might ultimately lose in court, I confess that Hasbro’s pockets are just a teensy bit deeper than my own. While I love how Adventures Dark and Deep™ is shaping up, and I think a lot of other people are going to be pleased with it as well, it’s not worth my house.

Third Party Support. 3rd party publishers are more likely to publish modules, settings, etc. for Adventures Dark and Deep™ if they have that aforementioned legal cover. While this is, at best, a tertiary reason in my own mind, it’s still something to consider.

Ummm… anything I’m forgetting?

The Cons

Identification of compatibility. By using the OGL, I would forever ban myself from being able to say “compatible with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”, and that I think would be a shame, given that Adventures Dark and Deep™ is going to be extremely compatible with AD&D, and I might sell a few more copies if that is made obvious (frankly I would be happy if the only copy I ever sold was to myself, but it’s something I do need to think about). I could, in theory, make such compatibility known in promotional materials, as long as those materials themselves aren’t OGL documents, but I would still prefer to have the statement right on the products themselves, if possible.

Use of forbidden creatures. By publishing under the doctrine of “game rules can’t be copyrighted”, I become free to use creatures such as the mind flayer, carrion crawler, displacer beast, etc. And I like those creatures.

Again… I feel like I’m forgetting something, but I can’t seem to think of what it might be.

UPDATE: I am reminded that OSRIC does indeed use the OGL.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

19 thoughts on “To OGL or not to OGL, that is the question…

  1. Personally, I think for those just writing modules, it really doesn't matter either way, but for those publishing a set of rules, if it's so close to D&D that it's basically D&D, I think the pros of using the OGL far outweigh the cons.

    And as for the cons, while the publisher can't mention compatibility there's nothing to stop every other man and his dog doing so. Besides, many old school OGL products get around it by using such terms as "First Edition", "Advanced" or "Classic" and most folks know exactly what is meant. The forbidden creatures are just several in number and I'd be very surprised if someone, somewhere, hasn't already produced something very similar for each one of them and released them as OGC.

  2. Didn't Mayfair Games prove you don't need an OGL-like shield over thirty years ago?

    Not to mention the fact that D&D clones have always existed; Dragon used to be full of ads for small press games that were D&D with the serial numbers filed off. Why is there a feeling that something like the OGL is needed today?

  3. Ken: Mayfair Games did indeed do so, at least as far as indicating compatibility was concerned. TSR sued them for saying their modules and supplements were suitable for use with Dungeons & Dragons, and lost.

    But Mayfair had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to win that lawsuit. There's the rub.

  4. I deleted a longish response as I thought my other longish response yesterday didn't go through %) and it turns out it did.

    Anyway I concur with David. And in response to Grendelwulf yesterday you DO NOT have to have a dual license be compatible.

    You write this you own the copyright you can license one way under X condition and license another way for Y condition. The typical case is that the software is under the GPL if you want to use it free but you can use it commerically in a closed source application if you pay a license fee.

    For you if you feel strongly about compatibility I suggest your official with a nice layout and art be non-OGL and under a creative commons license if you wan to open it.

    Make a SRD style version sans art and nice layout that is released under the OGL.

    One thing I will add is exactly what do you gain by indicating compatibility? How do you think it will help with existing fans, and how do you think it will help with newer fans. I think that worthy of a post.

  5. Hi, Joseph, understood, but what about the scads of tiny press folksin the '80s who made "generic fantasy" supplements, which was just a winking way of saying "compatible with AD&D?" I'm thinking of Bard Games and the like here in particular.

    (blackbox word is "rolist"…ha!)

  6. I don’t use the OGL for Gods & Monsters; I use the FDL. This solves the issue of people making supplements who want to quote the work, without tying me or them to the fairly heavy restrictions of the OGL.

    But to answer Rob’s question about what you gain by saying that you’re compatible, one thing you gain is the ability to say how compatible. For example, in Gods & Monsters, I’ve made spell levels track character levels. So, I point out that you can still use spells from D&D, but you’ll need to either double D&D’s spell level, or drop one from double D&D’s spell level.

    I’m also making a page on my web site that describes differences in terminology (I tried to make some terminology more descriptive, but reaction rolls, for example, really are saving throws; they just make more sense for our group of players). This will be for people who choose to use Gods & Monsters adventures in any of the new D&D-like games.

    It would be difficult to write about the manner in which a game is compatible without saying that the game is, in fact, compatible.

    On another note, I did some relatively heavy research into games and open source licenses a few years ago.

  7. @Ken:

    I think the OGL could be compared to those 'Prepare Your Own Will Kits'. You don't need one to do it legally, but if you follow the instructions you can be sure that you're covered. Most gamers aren't lawyers, and there's a lot of misinformation out there.

  8. If ever needed more proof that gamers aren't lawyers, look at the Insidious controversy. A thousand different opinions and five hundred examples of dubious legal advice from four hundred guys.

    I say screw the OGL. If you want Beholders or Carrion Crawlers, file off the serial numbers and put 'em in your game.

  9. @anarchist:

    Okay, I guess that analogy makes some sense. Still not convinced it's needed, but that's just me. Like N Wright says, file off the serial numbers and go; there's a long tradition of doing that not just in the RPG hobby, but in the larger gaming hobby as well.

  10. If you feel more comfortable without the OGL, then I would say don't use it. What's the worst case scenario? A C&D letter from WotC?

    I'm not knocking your potential, but I don't think you'll be a big target on their radar. If you were, they'd probably try and hire you first then waste money on court proceedings.

    But, I'm not a practiced representative for legal advice either.

    I would think you'd receive a C&D letter before anything snowballed.

    Then, you could always reformat your work using the OGL later, if necessary.


  11. If you intend to publish – I'd go OGL. Spend some time learning the license. IMO, it restrict very, very little while providing a very large and comfortable legal shield to those of us who are not lawyers.

  12. If you aren’t using any OGC verbatim, then it looks to me like the OGL takes away more than it gives. In any case, I think you need to get an IP lawyer, if you don’t already have one, and put the question to them.

  13. Actually, by choosing not to follow or use the OGL, I believe you still don't have any right to use something like a Mind Flayer or Beholder (name, likenesses, and such) are basically trademarked by Wizards of the Coast.

    You still open yourself to legal action if WOTC becomes aware and decides to do something of it.

    A cease & desist, as already mentioned, may be all they bother with though unless they see it as a threat to their bottom line (or want to make an example of this case for others thinking similar publishing routes).


  14. Didn't Mayfair Games prove you don't need an OGL-like shield over thirty years ago?

    If I remember correctly, Mayfair Games' victory was all about modules, not rule books. I would imagine there'd have been a very different outcome in court had Mayfair Games published a D&D-style rule set – just looked what happened to Gygax and Mythus, which compared to the many D&D-style games that had gone unchallenged before, was nothing like D&D. It's one thing to publish compatible modules and supplements, quite another to reproduce the rules.

    @Jerry – from your description above of your game Gods & Monsters, it sounds like even without the OGL you've had to jump through a lot of hoops to describe compatibility.

    I think the whole compatibility thing is a non-issue. The truth is the online old school market – the people who will be buying/downloading these products – isn't big. And these people already KNOW what is and isn't compatible. They can tell at a glance. For those not familiar with old school games, the fact is they're not going to have the original books anyway and so have no need to worry about compatibility, they'll just play the new game as is without caring one way or the other. It's a non-issue.

  15. David: the only hoops I have to worry about are ones of my own design and choice. I’ve tried to use terminology that’s easier for our group to understand. So for that reason I provide a translation for other groups.

    Compatibility is more than just rulebooks; it is also adventures.

    “Gods & Monsters” is mostly compatible with Wizards of the Coast’s “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” role-playing game, at least their first and second editions. You can use most any first or second edition adventure or game aid with “Gods & Monsters”.

    As far as Dangerous Journeys, the suit was settled by TSR giving GDW lots of money to buy the line. The issue was muddied because, while the game was different, DJ did copy text exactly from the PHB. It was mostly in places (such as equipment lists) where it was likely legal to copy, but it was very strange that they made the copying obvious by not even inserting new items into the lists alphabetically, but rather by starting over after the PHB lists completed.

  16. Re the name Adventures Dark & Deep, which of course can be abbreviated AD&D –

    Is 'AD&D' itself a trademark? And if so, would Wizards take the view that this counts as referring to a trademark, which is forbidden by the OGL?

  17. I'll echo Rob Conley's comment about the Creative Commons license: the Eclipse Phase RPG is published under that license if you want to see how it's set up and managed (model-wise): (I'm sure there are others, but this is the one I've been reading lately, so it's what immediately jumps to mind).


  18. in re: rulebooks, how about the Arcanum, then? Obviously house-ruled D&D, very compatible and very similar.

    A bit less similar, but again obviously grown from our favorite game and very compatible: Palladium.

Comments are closed.