Open Gaming for Dummies

If one thing’s clear from the discussion about the new Wizards license for D&D Fourth Edition, it’s that people like to spout off on the subject without knowing what the heck the OGL says, what the difference is between the OGL and d20 STL, and what an “open” license is in the first place.  So here’s a convenient summary if you want to know what all of this means.  Read and understand – personally, I don’t mind differing opinions, but I do mind ignorant opinions.

Open Gaming License (OGL): A license written by Wizards of the Coast to be a generic “open” license suitable for RPGs.  WotC released most of the core 3e and then 3.5e D&D rules under the OGL.  Many other gaming companies have published OGL games – some partly based on D&D OGL content, some completely original and unrelated to the D&D rules.

The official OGL v1.0a:

Open Gaming Content (OGC):  This is content designated as “open” according to the OGL in a given work which has been released under the OGL.  In a given work, you can specify certain parts as OGC and other parts as closed; see Product Identity below.

Product Identity (PI): Parts of a work released under the OGL that are designated as NOT open.  Most commonly, this is applied to art, character names, trade dress, and other such proprietary intellectual property, but it can be applied to bits of rules.  For example, Wizards of the Coast made a SRD (see below) containing most of the rules found in the D&D Player’s Handbook, albeit restated and stripped of trademark/trade dress information, open EXCEPT for ability score generation methods and experience point/level tables. 

Open License: What is an “open” license?  A license anyone can pick up and use?  No.  A royalty-free license?  Only in part.  A license surrounding published content is free if it is royalty free and share alike.  “Share alike” means that openly shared content can be reused and built upon in other works, but you have to distribute the resulting product similarly under an open license.  The OGL is one particular open license and part of the overall historical development of “open gaming“.

d20 System Trademark License (d20 STL): A license from Wizards to control and allow people to publish products that indicate d20 compliance specifically.  It’s more restrictive (decency clauses, revocable at WotC’s discretion) and not open but allows use of the d20 logo on products to indicate D&D compatibility.  Many third party D&D adventures and other products are published under the d20 STL.

The official d20 STL:

System Reference Document (SRD): SRD is not a term contained in the OGL. It’s a term people use to indicate a convenient summary of open content for a game system.  A SRD may be put together by the company whose game it is or by anyone else; as it’s open content there’s no restriction on that.  There’s no guarantee that a SRD, whether game company or fan-compiled, is complete, correct, or updated with new OGC as it becomes available.  The OGC in OGL works themselves are the true “source.”   

The official d20 OGL SRD:

An example of another OGL SRD, Spirit of the Century:

A list of many various extant SRDs:

New for D&D fourth edition, Wizards has announced:

Dungeons & Dragons 4E Game System License (D&D 4E GSL): a new, not yet unveiled license to allow third party (company and individual) support of D&D 4e.  Discussion of this new license on the ENWorld forums by people including WotC’s Licensing Manager and D&D Brand Manager indicates that the D&D 4E GSL likely has a “poison pill” provision that states a person or company who wishes to produce 4e-compatible content under the GSL may not also publish any open gaming content under the OGL.

d20 Game System License (d20 GSL): a new, not yet unveiled license to allow third party creation of RPG products in non-fantasy settings with the 4E rules.


11 responses to “Open Gaming for Dummies

  1. That is not true. The Players Handbook (PHB) did not declare all of its content open content. There are lots of intellectual property in the PHB that has never been opened.

    The SRD is a very very stripped down version of the PHB, going so far as to rename spells to a generic version (Acid Arrow) in the SRD, so that it will does not impede on their copyrighted original name found in the PHB (Melf’s Acid Arrow).

    -The Le (pronounced Tay Lee), publisher of d20 games.

  2. Right… I said “Wizards of the Coast declared all rule content in the Player’s Handbook open EXCEPT for ability score generation methods and experience point/level tables.”

    I said “rule” content to imply that they also PI’ed the usual – characters, places, gods, proper names… You’re right, there’s plenty more in there they didn’t make OGC, but in terms of the rules vs the other fluff the primary omissions were ability gen and XP tables.

  3. Actually, I misspoke.

    WOTC has never been declared any of the PHB to be open content at all. They have never said this, nor is there a disclaimer in the PHB to this effect.

    The SRD is indeed open content, but the PHB is not.


  4. Sigh – now that’s a silly hair to split.
    The SRD contains most rules elements from the PHB, verbatim except for the bowdlerizations you note. The SRD is open content. Therefore, most of the content from the PHB is open content. It’s the same words in the same order from the same company.

  5. It may be a silly hair to split to you, but in reality it is just a flat out wrong, and actually could have bad consequences.

    Early in my company’s existence, I had several freelancer writers who used the PHB as their “open source material”, much to my dismay. They used certain spells, domains, and other non-open-content terminology that could have gotten me sued (that goodness for keen-eyed editors).

    So it’s important to squelch this false “split hair” early on.


  6. Fair enough – I was using the example to make the same point, that you can “hold out” rules and not just trade dress from the open content you declare.

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  10. Me gustaria preguntar lo siguente: ¿Se puede utilizar el nombre de una criatura de D&D, por ejemplo yuan-ti, Kuatoa, Contemplador, con un aspecto similar pero distintas reglas de juego (un juego propio ?. Gracias por contestar.

    • Well, so the answer is “it depends.” If you are using a specific license (OGL, etc.) they will tell you what you can use and what you can’t. D&D specifically has had a list of specific monsters that they have excluded from most of their licenses. In fact, the 5e SRD doesn’t include most of the 5e monsters. Note that the newest OGL Wizards uses ( specifically calls out as Product Identity “beholder, gauth, carrion crawler, tanar’ri, baatezu, displacer beast, githyanki, githzerai, mind flayer, illithid, umber hulk, yuan-ti.” So you can never use those monsters, or the other monsters not in the SRD (like the kuo-toa).

      Outside the scope of you signing on to one of these licenses, the question is, is that monster trademarked or copyrightable? So if you make a D&D compatible book without using the OGL, can you say “mind flayer?” You’d need to do a trademark check (if it’s trademarked it’s a hard no) and then decide if you think they could make a successful “character” copyright claim. Like Harry Potter, child wizard, is distinct enough that someone else using it is in violation. The answer is arguable but likely not – but also perhaps not worth provoking some Hasbro lawyer over.

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