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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Speculating on the D&D 4th Edition Game System License

by Ken Newquist / April 17, 2008

Wizards of the Coast has announced the D&D 4th Edition Game System License. This license replaces the old d20 license, and appears to take a different tact from D&D 3.x's Open Gaming License. Exactly how different is hard to tell from the announcement; if nothing else what used to be separate procedures and policies for d20 licensing vs. OGL licensing seem to have been combined into one set of rules.

Exactly what these new rules will allow you to do isn't spelled out -- the press release says it will let companies create fantasy-based games based on the 4E ruleset, and spell out what rules can be used in their games, but it doesn't say what rules can't be used. Which makes me wonder if we'll see the old d20 hamstringing carried over to the new edition (namely, if you want the d20 logo, then you have to rely on the core rules for leveling up characters, gaining experience, etc., as opposed to using the OGL, which lost you the logo, but let you create a self-contained games).

The d20-licensed products always felt more than a little awkward to me, it was a pain to have to puzzle through the cryptic references to the Players Handbook, and the greatest innovations in this segment of the game industry came from those who decided to go with a full Open Gaming License-based product, divorcing themselves from D&D entirely. While Hasbro's suits may view this lack of direct connections as a bad thing, I think ultimately it achieved exactly what the OGL was supposed to achieve: namely getting everyone to play some derivative of D&D 3.5.

Now yes, the downside was the it gave rise to such loyalty to the older edition that Paizo's Pathfinder RPG was spawned, but it seems to me that's exactly the sort of loyalty you want to inspire amongst your 4E converts.

Having said that, even having a D&D license that requires people to use the Player's Handbook as a core book could be a good thing -- given the amount of people upset by the MMORPG direction that D&D is taking with 4th Edition, I could easily see someone (Necromancer Games perhaps?) releasing supplements aimed to restore the classical fantasy feel to the game.



What I've heard through the rumor mill is that there's no free lunch with 4.0, which means it's going to be closer to the D20 license than the OGL. It won't even be a matter of "PBH required" -- if you want to develop based on the 4e rules, you will pay WotC for a limited-time license. This is why Paizo, Mongoose, Green Ronin, and a number of others are either falling back on OGL-based house rules (Pathfinder, Runequest/Traveller, True20) and not getting into the 4e business.

The other rumor I've heard is that WotC doesn't want to be in the PDF business; if you're not publishing a dead-tree book, they won't grant a license. They may or may not grant licenses to electronic toys like character generators, provided those eletronic aids don't compete with their own electronic tabletop product.

The reason for all of this appears to be that WotC's business model seems to be fashioned heavily around that electronic tabletop and its subscription scheme. They want all official material to be compatible. They seem to fear that if someone spends money on a 3rd-party product that doesn't work with their tabletop, people will blame the tabletop and not the 3rd party product.

Again, however, this is all rumor. We'll see how this plays out in reality.

Hmmm. That doesn't quite jive with this announcement though, at least how I read it.

Wizards of the Coast is pleased to announce that third-party publishers will be allowed to publish products compatible with the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition game system under the new Dungeons & Dragons 4E Game System License (D&D 4E GSL). This royalty-free license will replace the former d20 System Trademark License (STL), and will have a System Reference Document (SRD) available for referencing permissible content.

Could be they're ducking the issue for now, but the royalty-free licensing bit says to me that they're not looking to approve each product or get paid for non-4E logoed product. That said, I can see this next part working as you speculate:

The D&D 4E GSL will allow third-party publishers to create roleplaying game products in fantasy settings with the D&D 4th Edition rules, and publishers who register with WotC will be granted the right to use a version of the D&D logo that denotes the product as compatible with the D&D 4th Edition Roleplaying Game, in accordance with WotC’s terms and conditions.

A lot of the speculation I heard on podcasts and such was that Wizards is wary of another d20-brand implosion. A huge amount of crap was published with the d20 logo, so much that it completely devalued the logo. Instead of a sign of compatibility, it became a scarlet letter.

This time around I'd expect them to put tighter controls on the licensing of that logo - requiring a print copy could easily be one of those restrictions, as could paying a licensing fee to get the logo (I notice nothing in the announcement says that the logo licensing itself is royalty free).

But I guess we'll all know what's happening come June.

The whole thing just seems to be slippery and unsavory all the way around.

Obviously WotC needs to make money. WotC needs people to buy the product. So they can't give it all away for free, or allow other companies to use their logo or intellectual property.

But all of the pre-release press seems very clumsy (ALL of it: sneak peaks, designer blogs, flavor text, etc). If a press release causes as much anger as excitement (or more anger than excitement), your press release didn't work.

There are surely those who are just looking for any opportunity to be negative. And they will read anything negative into any statement, no matter how neutral.

But WotC has justly earned at least some of the simmering negativity. In addition to being incredibly tone-deaf, they've made some pretty bad products in the last 2-3 years. And some of WotC's business seem to be bad for the game (like cancelling Dragon, FRICKIN DRAGON!!!!! and replacing it with gleemax).

So we'll wait and see. For my part, I can't say I'm really concerned that much anymore. I give it even odds that the game will be something I'll ever play (or want to play). If 4e sucks, I won't play. If it's passable and we can adapt it to our 11 year old campaign, I'll get it.