A Modest Proposal

The OGL was an experiment with the best intentions. Was it without a modicum of self-interest? No, of course not. Even listening to Ryan Dancey explain the origins of the OGL, it was created to get a diversity of gamers on board with one system to rule them all. The revised first system. The beloved cultural icon that is Dungeons & Dragons. But it was also there to share that system because, at heart, it is a game about shared creativity. A game where we all win.

Yes, it has rules, methods, procedures, and processes. It also has story, characters, and setting. Often it has a synthesis of both within the same passage. It all swirls together, in some way, shape or form, with individuals and groups sharing in a rigid but creative illusion of worlds beyond our keen.  

Around 50 years ago, it was novel. While it was influenced by many wargames, from Kriegsspiel to Braunstein, that strange little game published by Tactical Studies Rules, a small and amateurish basement operation in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, absolutely changed the way the entire world thought about games. It broke ground, shattered barriers, and singlehandedly influenced almost every game we play today, be it on your phone, console, or computer. We live in the wake of that strange wood-grained boxed set dropped into the world.

Today, it’s endemic.

It was nearly that way in 2001 when the OGL was released. It was also a novel idea with past influences. The company that had recently bought D&D realized that the various parts of D&D were ruled by the three pillars of intellectual property: copyright, patent, and trademark. But there were no patents, only copyrights and trademarks. Instead of engaging in fights most certainly could not be won, they created a license, allowing others to use the parts that—though never fought over in a court of law—likely could not be defended.

And for over 20 years, it was a truce that stood. That until the current Wizards of the Coast, likely motivated by that other strange, all-American game called Wall Street, decided to alter the deal and try to gobble up with bullying tactics to grasp at what they could not claim.

There was a gnashing of teeth. Fists raised. Videos Youtubed. Tweets twatted. Calls are rising for a new license. A better license. An eternal license.

But I’m not sure.

But, to paraphrase Fight Club, we are a generation of game designers raised by licenses. I’m wondering if another license is the answer we need.

Don’t get me wrong, the folks at Paizo and Kobold Press have their hearts in the right place, and I’m sure their license will be infinitely more attractive than anything Wizards of the Coast is going to acquiesce to eventually. And I support anyone looking at and finally using that license when it is released.

But I’m beginning to think we don’t need it. And it might be better not to have it.

So, one of the things that every single TTRPG game designer must do when using the current OGL is to designate open content vs. product identity. It’s often done vaguely with some statements at the start of the work and more concretely (to some degree) by a font change designation. This is especially true with what is often referred to as a statblock or a block of rules text. Let’s look at an example from Pathfinder 2nd Edition.

This practice, especially with monsters, has become so underlying that most people do it and don’t even realize why. Or consider it a point of aesthetics. But it is also a great way of carving out and highlighting the content you designate as open.

But here is the rub. Instead of designating it as open, those sections are dedicated to the public domain.

I know more than a few of you are probably thinking: “What the fuck, Stephen? Have you lost your fucking mind?”

Hear me out.

This strange open agreement called public domain is fundamental to our intellectual property laws. Some things enter it automatically. They enter it when copyrights and patents expire. But the idea behind it is that novelty and innovation only last so long, and then it is untethered for the common good. After that, everyone can share and benefit from it. They become the basis of free innovation and creation. It enriches us all. The ultimate open license needs few—if any—lawyers, no rules, no companies, foundations, or authority. No black-robed gods, no corporate masters.

All you must do is dedicate it, assuming, of course, it is your creation. It’s a simple statement, a sublime gift to friends and future generations.

Meditate on it.

Oh, and I would be remiss to mention the works and thoughts of Robert Bodine and David Graeber have been a massive influence on this modest proposal. You can read Rob’s initial thoughts on this subject here. And while the connection between this and Graeber’s works is not as straightforward, I recommend reading any of his books, likely available through a bookseller near you.

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