Friday, April 18, 2008

GSL Thought

The GSL, so far as I know, hasn't been released even to the people who are on WotC's "short list" of third party publishers. Likewise, even if it had been released, its terms are still covered by NDA, so no one outside of those publishers will know much about its restrictions until its public release on June 6, 2008.

So, I don't have much to offer of substance here beyond the usual wild speculations. Here's another one: the GSL -- or, should I say the Dungeons & Dragons 4E Game System License, as it's now called -- won't be viral, by which I mean that it won't allow third party publishers to use the work of other publishers in their own products. What the GSL will turn out to be is a limited use trademark license. WotC will allow third parties to reference 4e's rules, include 4e-derived stat blocks, and use a version of the 4e logo for a limited range of products (certainly adventures, probably campaign settings, and possibly some sub-set of rules expansions), but there will be no "open content" in the sense that the OGL/D20 STL defined it. What this will mean is that each publisher will exist in his own little world -- tied to the rules and branding of 4e but isolated from the products of other publishers.

We already know WotC is keen to ensure that no one produces another Mutants & Masterminds or Spycraft with 4e. Likewise, they've said that they want to make the OGL and the GSL "mutually exclusive" licenses. By making the GSL non-viral they further ensure that even third party-produced mechanics (assuming such things are even allowed) won't spread beyond their original source, thus reducing the likelihood that someone can make a new RPG based on 4e that isn't, ultimately, just a support product for it rather than something independent.

Again, I may be wrong -- I was wrong that there'd even be a GSL, which, to be fair, there technically still isn't -- so take this all with a grain of salt. Still, if I am right, I'd love to see how anyone can claim that 4e is "open."


  1. I have to wonder if Spycraft or M&M really wouldn't have done nearly as well without the OGL or d20L. I know two types of gamers:

    Group 1. These guys would've known about those games without the d20 logo or the prestige of the 3e mechanics. Heck, most of them would probably started out with a more favorable disposition towards them without those things.

    Group 2. These guys didn't know about these games even though they did have the d20 logo. They'll probably still ask you to explain what you're talking about when you say "d20 system". They'd look at these games & see more of the differences between them & 3e than the similarities.

    OK. Do I exaggerate a bit? Perhaps.

    Don't get me wrong. I think the OGL was a great thing. I think the d20 brand itself could've been good, though I think the d20L was ill-conceived. But it's hard for me to believe that any run-away success a d20 or OGL product had should be attributed more to the license or the brand than to the work itself.

  2. Again, I may be wrong -- I was wrong that there'd even be a GSL, which, to be fair, there technically still isn't -- so take this all with a grain of salt. Still, if I am right, I'd love to see how anyone can claim that 4e is "open."

    I think you are right that the GSL is going to be sufficiently restrictive that it will be difficult to call it "open" - after all, they've taken the word "open" out of it.

    Here's my take on the thing: for the 3.X period, we had the D20 licence and the OGL. The first one was about the trademark, and the second was about the copyright with regards to game rules. At the time, Wizards took the view that the D&D trademark was what was really valuable - D&D has far and away the most name recognition of any tabletop RPG, after all, and arguably only Vampire: the Masquerade has ever come close. The copyright really wasn't that valuable, especially since the rules to a game aren't patentable, and especially since TSR was more than a little lax about protecting the game rules in its early days. (Almost all the games out there in the 1970s had stats broadly analagous to the D&D stats, for example, and many of them had them ranging from 3-18, for example). They assumed that third party companies would see things similarly, with a few small companies and self-publishing fans content to stick with the OGL whilst most companies cleaved to the D20 licence. After all, everyone wants that fun little D20 logo on their books, right?

    And to be fair, things did go that way for the start. Then Wizards screwed the pooch with the whole "3.5" thing. Suddenly, everyone had to tweak their D20 products - which, remember, had to depend on the core rulebooks produced by Wizards - to fit the new rules. And as we all saw, many companies at this point came to the conclusion that they would rather revert to the OGL and be able to a) produce complete rulebooks which didn't require the use of the D&D Player's Handbook or the core D20 Modern rules and b) have the security of knowing that they only have to update their system when they are good and ready, rather than whenever Wizards change the core books. The switch to 3.5 underlined the advantages of a) and b) to many publishers, and made them realise that they valued stability and being in control of the systems they publish more than they valued the little D20 logo.

    So, people switched to the OGL in droves. And they are happy there. I don't think M&M or True20 or Spycraft have suffered from switching to the OGL and losing the little "D20" logo - heck, they seem to be thriving. People have found ways and means to say "This is a D20-based game" without saying "This is a D20-based game", and most gamers recognise such games when they see them. Ultimately, the third party companies were predominantly selling to the set of gamers who frequent game stores or order things online and keep up with gaming products that are coming out, and such people tend to be knowledgeable enough to know that a game is D20-based even if it can't use the trademark; the set of gamers who only really play D&D and don't have much contact with the wider hobby probably weren't buying many third party products either - certainly, I've only ever seen official Wizards D20 products on the stores of mainstream book shops.

    The D&D/D20 trademark is far more valuable to Wizards, and those few companies that depend on writing support material for the current version of D&D, than it is to the bulk of smaller game publishers, who are happy with their own trademarks and never seriously expect their RPGs to compete with D&D.

  3. I always felt that the OGL was the way for the designers to guarantee that they could play with their own toys after they left (or were laid off). (They'd all seen what happened to Gygax.) While the d20L was a scheme to sell it to the suits.

    Otherwise I wouldn't have expected a separate OGL. Just a d20L with stuff to cover content that wasn't nearly as open as the OGL.

  4. Yeah. I get the impression that someone on the design side (I suspect Ryan Dancey) got really, really fired up by the idea of open gaming, and came up with a clever way of convincing the suits to go along with it. Which they did, because they didn't understand what it entailed very well.

  5. It continues to be clear that even people within WotC haven't a clue about what the OGL was, how it worked, or what its wider implications were. It's rather disheartening to see public spokesmen for WotC flub basic details and show they don't know what they're talking about. I take that as pretty solid evidence that the OGL/D20 STL was an aberration within WotC and all the people who really cared about are long gone. No one who's left puts much stock in it and are just going through the motions until they don't feel they have to do so anymore.