Game Spotlights

August 3, 2021

Andrew B.

A Quick History of the D&D Open Gaming License

THE OPEN GAMING LICENSE  (d20 System)


This article is related to a multipart series discussing the different versions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Part 3 is probably the article most related to this one, or you can go to Part 1 or Part 2.

History

The d20 System logo associated with D&D compatible products produced under the OGL

Near the end of the 1990s, after Wizards of the Coast purchased the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, then Vice President of Wizards of the Coast, Ryan Dancey, came up with the Open Gaming License (OGL).  Modeled after similar licenses used in computer software, the OGL allowed third-party creators to freely use some of the rules for D&D in their own projects. More importantly, it allowed them to publish those products for profit. Effectively, this meant that nearly anyone could write adventure modules, rules supplements, and similar products compatible with the D&D game.

The idea behind OGL  was based on the idea that sales of third-party D&D materials would ultimately lead to increased sales of the official books as well. By most measures, the plan worked. The early 2000s saw an absolute deluge of 3E/3.5E – compatible products, identified as the ‘d20 System’. With it, the core D&D game found popularity it had not enjoyed since the 1980s. Additionally, several influential RPG publishers, such as Green Ronin Publishing, Necromancer Games, Goodman Games, and Paizo Publishing, found their initial success selling OGL-based products.

 

Pathfinder

Image of The Pathfinder Core Rulebook by Paizo Publishing
The Pathfinder Core Rulebook by Paizo Publishing

While the OGL allowed a designer to publish supplements for 3E/3.5 D&D, a few companies also used it to produce rulebooks not directly reliant on Dungeons & Dragons. The most notable example is probably Pathfinder by Paizo Publishing. It is largely a revision of D&D 3.5, which became so popular in the early 2010s that it briefly challenged D&D’s dominance of the whole RPG market.

Outside of Paizo, other publishers used the OGL to make rulebooks that emulated older versions of D&D, or made games with only loose connections to the mechanics of 3E. Some of these publishers even made rules innovations that eventually found their way back into later versions of D&D itself.

Even today, the OGL continues to influence the RPG publishing industry and the RPG hobby itself. Paizo released the Second Edition of the Pathfinder game in 2019, and every version of D&D since 3E has included some form of open content license. Notable examples of third-party publishers who produce materials for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons include Kobold Press, Frog God Games, and Monte Cook Games.

 

Lasting impact

Speaking as an RPG fan, perhaps the most significant impact of the OGL is how it changed the relationship between D&D players and D&D designers. At the start of the 1990s, a fan who wanted to distribute original content for Dungeons & Dragons was almost guaranteed a cease & desist letter from the game’s publishers. By the beginning of the next decade, almost anyone could write, publish, and sell their own D&D material. That’s a dramatic shift in a short period of time. And it’s all because of the OGL and its impact on the hobby.

 

More

This is an ongoing series of articles. In Part 3 we examine 3rd Edition and its revised version (3.5). 

More chapters of the D&D Editions Guide are coming soon…