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Wizards of the Coast, the OGL, and Ashes of Isar

A personal note from Ashes of Isar designer and publisher, Steve Williamson.

There has been a lot going on in the world of table-top role-playing games (ttrpg) lately, especially in the fantasy genre.

To be specific, Wizards of the Coast (owned by Hasbro), publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, shat on the carpet of third-party content developers, stepped in it, tracked it through every room of the house, tried to blame it on the dog, then claimed, “We meant to do that all along.”

This was all over something called the Open Gaming License 1.0a, which was first published by WotC in 2000. They have attempted to retract that license and impose a new version — first called OGL 1.1, and now apparently being referred to as OGL 2.0. It is the OGL 1.0a that third-party publishers have used to release D&D-compatible products and services, both static and digital, with permission.

The 1.0a version of the OGL helped spawn a thriving and vibrant gaming community, and played a huge role (no pun intended) in making D&D an internationally famous game. It didn’t just became famous, though — it arguably already was — but became sexy. Celebrities like Vin Diesel play it, and hit shows like Stranger Things made it cool.

WotC’s attempt to update the OGL has been a disaster from the start.

What does this have to do with Ashes of Isar?

When AoI was released, I wanted to ensure it fostered a community of players and game masters that were free to embrace and extend the game and make derivative works that made it even more fun to play. I also wanted to make sure the integrity and intellectual property of the game remained protected.

Like two sides of a playground teeter-totter, these goals can become somewhat mutually exclusive. The more ‘free’ a game is, the less protected the intellectual property becomes. When you lock down the IP, the vibrancy and reach of the game community becomes restricted.

I looked at WotC’s OGL as an example of a license I could use for Ashes of Isar. In fact, I considered using it directly, but quickly ruled that out when I read its various clauses and restrictions.

I grew up playing 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, created by Gary Gygax, and sold by TSR, Inc. It had been a dream of mine to produce and sell AD&D adventure modules and novels. Back then, TSR was a highly litigious company and they tolerated none of that.

The desire to create a game that everyone wanted to play was still there, however. But I had to make sure I didn’t lose control of the core game itself, because at that point it would no longer be my creation. Would that be such a bad thing? I’m unsure.

I rolled my own license and usage terms and posted it on the site. There are certain rights and protections granted by copyright law that my license clarifies. For example, game mechanics — e.g., how to play poker — cannot be copyrighted. The expression of those rules — the words and graphics you use to convey them — are protected by copyright. Specific names that are not already in common usage are protected. For example, the name Ashes of Isar is mine, I own the copyright, and it is protected by law. But words or phrases like “espionage”, “spy-craft”, and such are open.

The usage license I have created for Ashes of Isar says, in essence, that I own the rights to the expression of the rules and the imagery (logo, etc.) but the mechanics are free for anyone to use as they wish. In fact, I encourage people to take my game and expand on it and make it their own.

The only specific restrictions I place is that when someone expands or modifies my game and then distributes it — for free or for money — they include some text that honors where it came from, and that they don’t modify the license in a way that restricts what my original license grants, nor grants what my license restricts.

I am trying to strike a balance between owning and protecting what is my creation and freeing up and sharing the rest.

Time will tell if that proves to be the case as the game sees greater adoption and as players take stabs at expanding or modifying it in their own way.

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