Wizards Releases Revised GSL – Is It Better?

So first, a little history.  The first version of the new Wizards of the Coast license to let other people publish products for the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, the Game System License (GSL), was poorly recieved, especially coming after the open and visionary Open Gaming License.  I covered its flaws from when details started to leak last April, in Wizards Declares War On Open Gaming.  They decided to back off of its most controversial “poison pill clause” a little at the time (Wizards Comes Clean On Open Gaming).    But when the final GSL was released, it still wasn’t all that great (The GSL Is Finally Released).   And it wasn’t just me, most of the major players who put out D&D third edition products under the old OGL walked away (How Bad Is the New Wizards D&D 4e Game System License?).  Even Clark Peterson of Necromancer Games, lawyer and big booster of WotC and their license up to that point, had to walk away (Clark Peterson Is A Flip-Flopper).  Wizards tried to ignore the hullabaloo for a while, but finally in August said they’d be revamping the GSL.  Then… time passed.

The New GSL In Depth

But today, they have released a new version of the GSL!  Let’s go through it and see how it is.

Before we start, if you don’t understand all this business about the OGL and d20 STL and GSL and SRD – read my article “Open Gaming for Dummies” which explains the basis of a lot of this.

OK, the license starts by delineating that it’s for D&D Fourth Edition (4e) and lists a bunch of core rulebooks, updated to include newer ones like the PHB2.  It’s nice that they’ll be allowing access to more than just the “core three,” but are they planning on updating the list every time they publish?  Or will subsequent books not be included?   Hard to say.

Starting and Stopping

First, this isn’t a “no-touch” license like the OGL was; you need to send in a document to WotC that they agree to, so it is a real direct entity-to-entity agreement.  Second, they can change the license any way they want at any time, and don’t have to notify their licensees.  This is still a little sucky – if you publish a book, and then they change the GSL to somehow be a problem (like, say, “give us a meeeeelion dollars,”) you automatically accept the changes if you continue to distribute your book after the date it changes.  A bit of an ambush clause, if you ask me.  But, there is now a part of the termination clause that actually lets the licensee terminate the agreement!  That’s new.  And once you terminate, you can sell your stuff off for six months.  Same six month grace period exists if they decide to cancel the GSL wholesale.  The six month period does NOT apply if Wizards decides to terminate your license.

This is a positive change.  Previously, you were pretty much completely at Wizards’ mercy – if they decided to screw you and tell you to set your warehouse on fire tomorrow, they could.  From a  business viewpoint, no one with self-respect (or decent risk management skills) could agree to it previously because of the update and termination (“ambush”) clauses.  Now…  it’s not exactly friendly, but it might be viable, if your products tend to make most of their sales in the first six months.

They still follow it up with the usual legalese about “you can never challenge this license in court, or Wizards’ right to anything it claims as IP under patent, copyright, trademark, trade dress, trade name, trade secret, or anything else we can think of.”  I assume these are largely unenforceable; I see these a good bit in other legal agreements and somehow people still go to court over them.

What Can You Do?

It’s worth mentioning for the newbies that the GSL is a “free” license like the OGL was before it – there are no royalties or payments involved.

The license covers paper game books and pdfs only, or other stuff not excluded in section 5.5, which we’ll get to.  You basically can use any specific term listed in the 4e SRD.  This SRD is a lot more restricted than the old d20 SRD; essentially you can just use some D&D terms and refer back to the core books.  You have to use some logos and disclaimers. You can’t describe character creation or advancement; it still won’t let you create “D&D variants” like Conan, Mutants & Masterminds, True20, or the many other things that came from the time of the OGL.  You can’t change anything from how it’s defined in the core books – the GSL FAQ says that even saying Eladrin are taller in your game world than what the PHB says is off limits.

There’s what I think is a new clause that lets you make new artwork “based on” the art in the D&D books, which is nice – before there was just a clause saying “don’t refer to the art in any way!” which means that drawing an orc too much like the orcs are depicted in the Monster Manual was bad, which was retarded.  Although they specifically list some critters you still can’t create derivative imagery of:  “Balhannoth, Beholder, Carrion Crawler, Displacer Beast, Gauth, Githyanki, Githzerai, Kuo-Toa, Mind Flayer, Illithid, Slaad, Umber Hulk, and Yuan-Ti.”  Why just those?  (Because they’re not in the SRD, says the FAQ, but that begs the question.)  This is a bit of a WTF? clause.

This leads us to Section 5.5, the licensed products clause.  It still omits Web sites, which is sad.  They say fansite guidelines are coming out soon, but it took seven months for their GSL revamp to appear, so who knows when that’ll happen.  It omits software, which is sad because they’ve always produced shit software and it would be nice to have more people working on that, but eh.  No novels, no miniatures, no t-shirts.  The worst part of this is that you can’t include a licensed product in a magazine that isn’t entirely a licensed product.  This means no magazine can print one 4e article – the whole mag has to be all 4e, all the time.  I’ve worked on RPG zines before, and this is a PITA.  We’ll call this the Magazine Killer clause.  Again, this was in the previous rev too, so if not better at least it’s not worse.

Section 6 is the usual morals clause.  No sex, “excessive” violence, or real-world stuff.  Stupid and moralistic, and somewhat counter-productive…  But again, unchanged.

What’s Missing?

Well, the other big change is that they removed the remaining “poison pill” clause.  This clause basically said that “you can’t publish the same stuff under the OGL and GSL.”  In other words, if you want to create a 4e version of an adventure, campaign setting, etc. that is also available via OGL – you have to give up the OGL.   Of course, this meant that everyone with multiple product lines including OGL stuff – Green Ronin’s Freeport, for example – wouldn’t touch 4e with a ten foot pole.

Now, apparently, you could put out a “4e Guide to Freeport,” adapt existing 3.5e adventures to 4e, etc.  You can’t dual-stat; the FAQ states that, say, using Cleric as defined in the OGL inside a GSL-licensed product violates the “don’t redefine things” clause in the GSL.  That’s a little annoying – I fail to see how they have a vested interest in someone not dual-statting an adventure, for example – but it’s a minor restriction in lieu of the previous huge ass one.


There is no doubt that the two simple changes made in this version – adding a termination clause with *some* protection for the licensee and removing the GSL “poison pill” clause – have hugely improved the license overall.  It has changed from “we hate open gaming and will do everything we can to stomp it out” to “open gaming’s not for us, but no hard feelings.”

It’s still a little wonky (don’t draw a Yuan-Ti!) and has a little of the “You’re all 4e or not” flavor in the no-mixed-magazines and no-dual-statting restrictions.  But whereas the previous GSL was probably rated a 2 out of 10 in terms of desirability for a potential licensee (it really could only have been worse if it incorporated forced sodomy) this version jumps to a 6 out of 10.  It could be more open, but in the end it is a free-use license that lets you publish some things for D&D 4e with only moderate restrictions.  For comparison, the OGL is a 9 out of 10; it could only be improved by making it more future-evil proof, and the old d20 STL is a 7 out of 10, it still had morals clauses and was bossy but at least it didn’t try to tell you what you could do with your other products.

Should I Use It?

If you’re only interested in doing 4e stuff – sure.  You are officially no longer a chump to sign at the dotted line.  Rest easy tonight, for the first night in nine months.

If you do other stuff as well, especially OGL – well, you have to think about a couple things.  One, do you want to fork your R&D to include D&D 4e?  I suspect Paizo, for example, won’t spend much effort publishing 4e adventures because they are now heavily invested in Pathfinder, and as 4e is a very different beast from previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, it would take a lot of work to dual-purpose.  But maybe Green Ronin would want to put out a “4e Guide To Freeport.”  And certainly outfits like Necromancer that just do adventures and aren’t strongly system-devoted could.  Anyway, don’t glut the stores with 4e stuff because you can now and it might make a quick buck; evaluate it according to your business strategy and focus on your core.

Two, you have to decide if the six month termination deal is okay.  On the one hand, it might be unlikely to happen, and some product types generate a lot of their revenue in the first six months.  On the other hand, this process (and the recent experience for the third party companies of burning all their old d20 books according to the terms of the termination of the old d20 STL) has made a lot of people not trust Wizards so much any more.  And if you lose your GSL licensee status (at your discretion), it’s not just your newest product you lose but anything in the pipeline.  And if your products sell well over time, six months may not be all that great.  Plus, you have to remember that if Wizards terminates your license themselves, you’re boned, no six months.  But it does offer you some legitimate business tradeoffs.


Producing third party supplements for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is now viable.  It took a long time to get here, but we have to give props to Scott Rouse, the D&D Brand Manager, for listening to the community’s complaints and making positive changes.


27 responses to “Wizards Releases Revised GSL – Is It Better?

  1. Necromancer Games has already announced it’ll be supporting 4e in addition to Pathfinder now!

  2. Pingback: 4e / GSL Revised GSL TODAY! - Page 4 - EN World D&D / RPG News

  3. About the Beholder and others, from the Wikipedia entry on the Beholder: “The Beholder is among the most classic of all Dungeons & Dragons monsters, appearing in every edition of the game since 1975. They are one of the few classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters that Wizards of the Coast claims as Product Identity.[1]”

    I’m sure the other monsters involved are similar situations.

  4. Excellent, well balanced summary of the new license. Good to see a non-knee jerk response to the update. Thanks for putting the effort into this – it’s appreciated.

  5. Good summary. I was wondering about the changes in laymen’s terms and this helps put things in perspective.

  6. Not a lawyer, but it appears to me that the 6 month grace only applies if you execute a termination with them; if they send you a letter terminating your license, which they can do for any reason or none, you still have to destroy all your inventory immediately. That still spells chump to me.

  7. @Joshua – rereading, I think you’re right. The six month period is only if you terminate, not if they terminate you. Hmmm, that might dock it a point down to 5/10 in my book.

    Also, they are pretty wishy washy on the “what if I publish a barbarian and you publish one later” problem. Technically by the GSL as soon as Wizards publishes you have to stop. The FAQ clarifies that:

    “Wizards of the Coast does not wish to cause undue damage to third party publishers that have accepted the GSL and are supporting the 4th Edition of D&D. The GSL allows and assumes that development of original aspects (Race, Class, Monster, Item, etc) may happen separately, but in parallel, with neither party having knowledge of the other’s actions. In the unlikely event that this situation occurs, a publisher can petition for their original work to be entered into the SRD although WotC reserves the right under the license to incorporate its original aspect into the GSL SRD.”

    But you know they’re not going to greenlight someone else into the SRD… At best this might be considered a “gentleman’s clause” indicating that if you hit first they wouldn’t go after you – unless you’re selling more of yours than they are of theirs, presumably. I like how this is weasel-worded to say “certainly we developed in parallel” even though books like Fang, Fist, and Song were to market a long, long time before Wizards’ efforts. I’m not saying they’d ever ‘stoop’ to ripping off a 3p but it’s just an Orwellian twist of language.

  8. Great breakdown of the GSL. At Dungeon’s Master we publish free 4e modules. I assume I need to follow the GSL for it and certainly do as I don’t feel like being shut down, nor do I want to remove content.

  9. @Wimwick – Well, so that gets into the whole other discussion about what exactly you can do without signing the GSL.

    There’s some question about whether signing the GSL is the right thing to do or not. When TSR quashed Mayfair for their D&D-compatible Role Aids supplements back in the ’80’s, it actually turned out that they probably were in the legal right to do that – BUT they had signed a specific agreement with TSR saying they couldn’t.

    Some folks (Adamant, Goodman) have published “4e” products without using the GSL. This can be done because game rules may not be copyrighted according to the law. Doing this requires a pretty good understanding of all the surrounding issues, however, because trademarks and other legal areas can come into it.

  10. And thanks for the kind words all. I do try to be fair. It’s just bad luck that 4e and the GSL hit so close together and both required that I rip those responsible a new one 🙂 I don’t have anything against Wizards; when they do good I’ll give them props.

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  12. You asked two questions where I believe the answer is more straight-forward than you’re making it out to be:
    Q1) are they planning on updating the list every time they publish?
    A1: Expect them to add “previous generation” stuff, stuff I’d like to call “3E core”. Not stuff new to 4E. If the PHB3 introduces new stuff only, then it won’t be in the SRD.
    Q2) I fail to see how they have a vested interest in someone not dual-statting an adventure, for example
    A2: Easy. 3E/4E dual-statting means 3E doesn’t die off as quickly. Wizards *especially* don’t want to see dual 4E/Pathfinder modules!
    and a third point some people don’t get (but you didn’t bring up):
    Q3: Why can’t I reproduce full stat blocks in my adventures, so I don’t have to reference the MM?
    A3: Because that would mean less incentive for your customers to sign up for DDI, that’s why!

  13. Oh, nice, Roger aka Stirgeblogger has put together a complete side by side compare of the two GSL versions for obsessive completists like me.

  14. Mxyzplk, thank you for the incredibly clear analysis of the new GSL. I tell you what, though. I’ve been all over the blogosphere on this one, and I’m still not seeing where D&D accessories stand on this one; or if they even have anything to worry about. Let’s say I want to produce condition markers specifically for 4E, or somekind of table top template for blasts and bursts…would I be covered by the GSL, or simply out of luck? I understand that software and miniatures and non-roleplaying items like shirts, etc. are out; but to me, the language on other things is vague. Any ideas or thoughts? Thanks again for the analysis.

  15. @Dead Orcs:

    Well, according to the GSL you can make any “accessory products to the foregoing roleplaying games and roleplaying game supplements that are not otherwise listed as excluded in Section 5.5”. In 5.5 it excludes “miniatures” but nothing about other tabletop accessories like battlemats, blast templates, etc.

    Of course, I’m not sure why you’d sign the GSL to make blast templates and stuff; even with the spell/power names on them they’re clearly within the bounds of legality without a license. I guess if you wanted the “D&D” on the package.

  16. In related news, a quote from James Jacobs of Paizo – “while I’m very pleased that the revisions to the GSL are out and seem to be a lot less restrictive—we’re committed to the Pathfinder RPG at Paizo now and have no intention to produce GSL versions of adventure paths or other Pathfinder products. ”

    Probably a good plan. They have a real hot property going now with Pathfinder, and every designer-hour you spend on something GSL is one you don’t spend on developing your own game. Anyone who’s had to hew their own path since the first GSL has been released is probably going to do the same.

    Although some of their products are so rules light, like the Golarion gazetteer… I’d be tempted to toss them for 4e as well for free money. But converting adventure paths is a different story especially with how different 3.5e/Pathfinder and 4e are; you’d have to do a lot of wholesale rewriting.

    Here’s a paizo.com forum thread where they all weigh in. Short form: “no way.”

  17. @ Mxyzplk…thank you for the input. What you said makes a great deal of sense. At least I think I have a better handle on things now.

  18. I tell you what, my short-lived flare of love for the new GSL is fading mostly due to the damn mouth-breathers over on ENWorld. “It’s better, but still has some significant limitations” apparently isn’t black and white enough for the highly polarized crowd. “Nothing short of an open license should exist” (which I somewhat sympathize with, but you have to be realistic) wars with “Wizards is performing an act of charity to release this perfect license, which has no clauses that could ever unreasonably hurt anyone.” F’ing morons.

  19. Glad you found it helpful, mxy.

  20. @mxyzplk: That’s why I like commenting here. We’re polarized, but most people are at least civilized and fairly realistic about it. I like 4E, but I think that WotC is full of morons and people who confuse liking a system with needing to give their full adoration to the company that develops it are nuts.

  21. @rogercarbol – Totally, thanks!

    @Steve – yeah. Liking a company’s products, or even liking a company, shouldn’t make someone immune to real, valid criticisms. I mean, so there’s always one guy willing to defend any company or brand – Nike uses child slave labor to make their shoes and one guy is still like “but it’s their right! It’s legal there! And you should trust them, they’re a company!”

    But Wizards, no doubt due to the love people have for their D&D experiences over time, seems to have more than their share of people willing to say anything they do is the most brilliant thing that could have been done ever.

    In general I find it funny when people don’t learn from experience. Everyone started attacking Paizo from saying “still not interested” with the new GSL. However:

    – James Jacobs says, “Hey man, I got laid off by WotC and then they pulled the Dragon and Dungeon licenses from Paizo and we thought we might go out of business. Maybe I don’t want my future in the hands of The Man anymore.”

    – I was there when Erik Mona’s “River of Blood” adventure ran afoul of the morals clauses in Living Greyhawk. They like exercising those things and for cases a lot less “obscene” than the Book of Erotic Fantasy.

    WotC HAS and WILL exercise those content/morals clauses. They HAVE and WILL make business decisions that will dick with their partners. It’s OK to evaluate that risk, decide it’s acceptable in your case, and sign on. All of business is calculated risk. But the cheerleaders, and frankly I’m surprised that Clark Petersen has come out so strongly on this, instead claim that these things CERTAINLY can’t be a problem for a reasonable person.

    Well guys, wake up and smell fucking history. Nothing is more of a shame, and a comment on human stupidity in general, than when people just refuse to lean from experience. If there’s one thing in the world that will make me call you a fucking moron to your face, that is it.

    OK, rant over, I feel better. 😛

  22. Well… yeah.

  23. Pingback: Chasing the Dragon - Who’s Down With the New GSL? « Geek Related

  24. Pingback: Canon Puncture 61: License to Roll : Canon Puncture

  25. Thanks for writing this post. In so far as Wizards and 4.suck, they made a bad choice by making 4 and the original GSL. They showed their true colors by that lapse in judgement. As a result, both publishers and players were taken aback so adamantly that they’ve stabbed their own heel. Like Achilles, they are now left with a fatal wound, Pathfinder. These changes they’ve made are only an attempt to rewiden their fan base and support network and a poor one at that. Hence, Pathfinder’s exponentally explosive popularity and their tepid one.

  26. I fear I must define my use of tepid. TSR lost a decent following due, in part, to its ‘Cease & Desist’ rantings. Players’ moral opposition helped to cement its manifest collapse in the market. Now, Wizards has removed TSR, becoming the quintessental exemplar itself. For while TSR stagnanted its market, Wizards has driven it away then split it. I myself now refuse to further purchase any Wizards product. And judging by 4’s sales compared to their longterm projected, their future looks again bleak. Inversely, Piazo has gained popularity it wouldn’t’ve otherwise garnered. My prediction: Piazo buys DnD by 2018. But, as they say, “Gossip is best left to wives and old men.” Gladly, I am neither.

  27. Well, thank you for the evaluation, it’s much appreciated.
    I do have to wonder how much of this is brought on by WoTC’s corpoate owner. why were they purchased again? lol.
    Any word on thr d20 gsl? I;m looking for that one 🙂

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