I should have known better.
I wrote previously about my experience getting legal threats from TSR (and wrote more details later on, though DM David has an excellent post from a wider perspective). That experience caused me to abandon D&D and for the next few years my group played FUDGE. I had hoped that many others would follow my lead, but since I am neither articulate nor charismatic, that came to nothing and this was all forgotten.
When I rediscovered D&D 20+ years later, the old TSR (They Sue Regularly) was long gone and it seemed the new stewards of the brand would be better behaved. I had briefly looked at alternative systems like Pathfinder, OSR, or even returning back to FUDGE. But the fact that WotC had put 3rd and 5th editions under the OGL, convinced me to stick with D&D, that I could trust them again. By late 2022, I was on the verge of getting a full D&D Beyond subscription and spending hundreds of dollars on a bundle of books on there and commit fully to using all the “official” tools.
We all know what happened next. They say that history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. This time, rather than threatening a handful of hobbyists running ftp sites in their spare time, they threatened actual companies with nullifying their business model. So unlike last time when the “resistance” consisted of a few guys on a USENET newsgroup complaining, this time it was a large scale revolt, to the point that several companies vowed to cut ties with the OGL by building their own systems and licenses.
But given my experiences, I saw the OGL as a positive thing: a way to draw a clear line between what you could and couldn’t put in your own D&D related work. Even though where they drew that line was very generous to themselves and the whole thing was on very shaky legal ground. But it was still a known line, and as long as you followed their rules you, theoretically, had little to fear. Had the OGL existed in 1994, my ftp site would have continued running relatively unmolested. But I never would have predicted that they would attempt to revoke the OGL, thus turning a tool which enabled a vast expansion in the D&D market into a cudgel with which to threaten the entire community unless we paid their ransom.
I have long said that any organization which exists for long enough will eventually forget their original purpose. The TSR which sent me a threatening email was 20 years removed from the gaming enthusiasts putting together pamphlets in Gary’s basement, and 10 years removed from the founder even being at the company. It was no longer about the game, it was now about protecting potentially profitable turf. Or to put it in more modern terms “the brand is really under monetised. Of course, there was no way for me to know at the time, but this company was now circling the drain towards its demise three years hence; so I now also see those threats as an act of desperation to somehow right a sinking ship. WotC seems to be following that same process, forgetting who they were to pursue greater monetization.
As George W. Bush said “fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me… you can’t get fooled again.”
So, I’m done being fooled… where to from here?
As Mike Shea has pointed out, once we own the books we can play the games forevermore without any interference from WotC. We own the game. This is true, up to a point…
But there is D&D Beyond. It is telling, given events 8 months later, that on the Mastering Dungeons podcast (21-Apr-2022) they expressed relief when Hasbro acquired D&D Beyond. There was a fear, before that, that WotC could pull the license and everything they had done on D&D Beyond would be useless or gone. So, it seemed, in that moment, that the acquisition would guarantee that D&D Beyond would no longer suffer that fate.
At the moment all of my D&D is played online, and the siren song of D&D Beyond is quite powerful. The online character sheets make life a lot easier, and being able to search for rules and spells is a huge time saver. But it is a company town, a walled garden. You can only get WotC products in there and you have to pay a significant amount of money for the illusory ownership of source books. You do not really own anything, it can be changed out from under you at any time. What will happen when 6th edition comes out? How long do you think they will let you continue playing 5th edition? What are the odds that 3rd party content (other than Critical Role) is ever allowed within their walls? Everything there is temporary and trapped within their enclosure. While the platform is not yet enshittified, the lack of interoperability means the only barrier is how much goodwill they are willing to burn for more monetization. The OGL fiasco shows that they are quite willing to burn a lot of goodwill. (For more on this general issue, read Cory Doctorow’s latest book, The Internet Con).
They have shown that they cannot be trusted.
So I want to avoid the siren song of D&D Beyond, and the best way to do that, and at the same time to support independent creators who were most harmed by the OGL fiasco, is to use a different system. But which one? I know there are many systems other that D&D, but I like D&D and I am an old man and have limited bandwidth for learning new systems. Especially to learn it sufficiently well to feel confident running games. So that leaves me with one of the 5e variants which have popped up lately. At the moment, Level Up Advanced 5th Edition seems like the most complete at this point, though I am keeping an eye on Tales of the Valiant. I am going to try out the former in my next campaign, perhaps something else in the next one.
The main puzzle is how to replace D&D Beyond. We are fortunate this happened before they rolled out a virtual tabletop, as I have already committed to Owlbear Rodeo. Having the rules and such available online is already there at https://a5e.tools. But the character sheets are the problem. They need to be online, as I like to review the characters before each session (as per the first of eight steps of lazy rpg prep), it seems the only immediate option is to share form-fillable PDFs. I guess I’ll start there. Stay tuned.