Notes on Open Gaming

         This is a set of notes on the concept of "open" works of role-playing and board games. This concept has been highlighted recently by the Open Gaming Foundation being run by former Wizards of the Coast Vice-President Ryan Dancy (currently CEO of Organized Play Corporation).

  1. Basic Principles
  2. Examples of Open Games
  3. The Open Gaming Foundation Discussion
  4. Open Gaming Links

Basic Principles

         Software has seen the rise of "Open Source" as a concept, but role-playing and boardgames are very different than software games. In a sense, all RPGs and boardgames are "open source" in that anyone can see exactly how they work and use those ideas in other games. Since you can see the source, it is easy to take usable ideas from an RPG or make material compatible with it (cf. my notes on game supplements).

         So since game supplements are legal even for closed-copyright games, what are the potential effects of making a game "open" in practical terms?


Examples of Open Games

         There are several complete game systems that have been released under licenses with varying degrees of openness. Below I describe the games in terms of the "open" license which it is released under.

Action! System
This is a universal system which was released using the Wizards of the Coast OGL in May 2003.
This fantasy role-playing game has been released under the GNU Free Documentation License. This makes it freely copyable and modifyable with no restrictions except that notice must be made of changes.
D20 System
A popular system released using an "Open Gaming License" written by Wizards of the Coast (WotC OGL). The basic WotC OGL does make rules open, but only if those rules do not indicate compatibility with any trademarked system or mention any trademarked terms. Thus, while you can use the rules from the D20 System, you cannot mention them as being compatible with "D&D" or "D20" unless you use the WotC trademark licence. See my OGF notes below for more information.
Dominion Rules
This is a company which has a currently freeware set of rules which it has supposedly release under an open license, the "Dominion Rules License". This has no significant restrictions, but it is not clear what material has been released under the license -- and the license is not included in their own PDF releases.
Four Colors al Fresco
A game of pulp-style adventure, set in an alternate Renaissance where superheroes fight evil. It is released using the October Open Gaming License, which was drafted in October 2000 for "open-source" games to use, and also under the WotC OGL.
FUDGE by Steffan O'Sullivan
A popular "free" universal role-playing game that has worked like open source in generating adaptations and new FUDGE-based games. The original license allows the core rules to be freely copied and modified so long as the result is distributed free of charge, or in a magazine. The core rules have also been released under the WotC OGL, as of January 2005.
Gods & Monsters by Jerry Straton
A free RPG system designed to be mostly compatible with the 1st and 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons system. It is released under the GNU Free Documentation License.
JAGS-2 by Marco Chacon
A free universal RPG system released under the GNU Free Documentation License.
This is another fantasy RPG that has been released under an Open Content License. This makes it freely copyable and modifyable with no restrictions except that notice must be made of changes.
The Shadow of Yesterday
A fantasy game with it's own world -- using a system similar to Fudge with narrative options. It is licensed under the Creative Commons license, specifically the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.
Wushu Open
A martial arts genre game, released under the Creative Commons license -- called the Wushu Open License, based on Creative Commons License, Attribution 2.0.


The Open Gaming Foundation

         Wizards of the Coast (WotC) are the current publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons game. In September 2000 they released documents for an "open gaming license" and a "D20 trademark license". These have been released on the website of the "Open Gaming Foundation". The OGF claims to be an independent private organization. The membership of this foundation is not listed, but its hosted documents are copyrighted by WotC and its lists are moderated by former WotC Vice President Ryan Dancy.

         The two WotC licenses cover very different topics. The WotC OGL (version 1.0a from September 2000) is in practical terms less open than most of the other open licenses mentioned above. The D20 trademark license is similar to trademark use in other open projects such as Fuzion. However, it is at least a much more open approach to licensing supplements than most RPGs, so credit should be due.

         Essentially, the D20 trademark license allows anyone to legally create and market a supplement for D&D. This is a complete turnaround from the earlier policies of TSR. As discussed in the section on game supplements, unapproved supplements are technically possible but risk litigation over exactly how the trademark is used. The D20 license allows these as long as they don't include character creation rules or rules for how to apply experience (i.e. are supplements for D&D rather than games in their own right). The supplements must use the Open Gaming License (see below), but only 5% of the text needs to be open.

         On the other hand, the WotC written and approved "Open Gaming License" essentially allows copying and modification of game mechanics, but on the condition of not using any "Product Identity": which may include any artwork and creative ideas. Additionally, you may not indicate compatibility with any trademarked game. Thus, it is legal for a third party to use the D20 SRD rules in another open game -- but only if that open game never mentions "D20", "D&D", or other trademarked games. A separate trademark license with additional restrictions allows use of the Wizards of the Coast "D20" trademark.

         In practical terms, the WotC "open gaming license" makes games less open in many ways than working under normal copyright and trademark restrictions. For example, I can in theory make a game which is similar in mechanics to a "closed" game and even claim to be compatible with its supplements, as long as I am careful in use of trademarks. Trademark law allows non-deceptive use such as "compatible with Wizards of the Coast's D&D". This is impossible for an OGL project. Similarly, copyright law allows "fair use" of small subsets of copyrighted works, but the OGL demands that absolutely no non-open content be used.

         That said, there is plenty of sharing of ideas which is possible under the WotC OGL, especially if publishers avoid using Product Identity. For example, numerous examples of this can be found at Community3E, a fan site for D&D third edition. However, one should not mistake the OGL for something which it is not. Primarily it is part of WotC's policy of encouraging third-party supplements to 3rd edition D&D. This is to be commended, but it is not the same thing as open development.


Update: As of May 2004, there are several publishers who have created variant systems of D&D3 under the OGL, including: the EverQuest RPG (White Wolf), Mutants & Masterminds (Green Ronin Enterprises), and the Conan RPG (Mongoose Publishing). These are all variants of the D&D system. There is also one publisher who has released an unrelated system under the WotC OGL: the Action! System (Gold Rush Games). I continue to feel that the WotC OGL is not particularly conducive to true open development, but it is good to see that it has some use.


Open Gaming Links


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John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Tue Oct 10 15:31:34 2006