And That’s the Way the Coast Crumbles…

I adapted this article into a video!

In the wake of the OGL announcement, many folks are flocking behind banners that promise to recreate bad business practices for the sake of strengthening their own brand. The big get bigger on the backs of pseudo-punk ideology, while the small, independent creators are left further and further behind. It’s a wonderful time to be alive, welcome to the show.

Linda Codega, thanks to their sources, broke the story of a changing OGL last week when Wizards of the Coast silently sent “draft” copies to a few folks and even asked some of them to sign it. I’m not here to talk about what the new OGL said or what it would change because a ton of others, including Linda themselves, have already done that. I’m here to talk about what I consider to be more important: the industry and the community.

There’s a rather naive belief that any of these companies (WotC, Paizo, etc.) foster community through their licenses. That these licenses encourage folks to make stuff for the game and that they do it for altruistic purposes. When in reality, the OGL was originally created for company reasons (money). When in reality, all decisions made by a business are done for the “righteous”, capitalistic pursuit of money. 

Ryan Dancey, former collectible card game failure turned Pathfinder Online failure, came up with and pitched the idea of the OGL to Wizards of the Coast in order to “drive support for all other game systems to the lowest level possible in the market, create customer resistance to the introduction of new systems, and steadily increase the number of people who play D&D.” He said that by reducing the “cost” for people to support the game with their own products, more people will be looped into a feedback cycle where they inevitably support D&D as the One True game.

All other reasons given by people online? They don’t come straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s borderline revisionist to say that the OGL was anything but corporate greed. It was not for a perceived community because a company cannot give you a community. Community is created by people. Companies are not people. They are machines created to extract as much money from consumers as possible. I feel like I have to create a powerpoint presentation about this just to get it to stick. Here’s an example:

Over the last decade or so, after the 4e pushback, Wizards of the Coast came to the community to help with its next project, D&D Next. I remember this period of time. They released playtests, asked for feedback, published the feedback, hired unsavory people from the “community,” helped those unsavory people harass other independent creators, they didn’t fire Mike Mearls, and so on. 

All of this to say that they relied on the community to make them popular again and to make D&D Next succeed. They did this through parasocial marketing. They talked to the consumers as if they were friends. They made it seem like everyone was in it together. That the success of the product relied on everyone.

I mention all of this because Wizards built their triumphant return on the back of fostering a community. And people believed it. Wizards’ sold parasociality to folks in droves, creating a toxic fanbases in the process. Despite the countless cries from freelancers and past employees that the company was fundamentally racist, sexist, and generally not good to work for. Despite the first hand accounts of mistreatment. Despite publicly working with an open neo nazi and a serial harasser. Despite showing their whole ass time and time again, people have let them slide on the back of this alleged community that they were fostering.

There are D&D-specific (not TTRPG, but D&D exclusively) influencers who cosplay, make songs, youtube videos, and so much more. There’s an animated series on Amazon Prime based on a D&D campaign (it was actually a Pathfinder campaign at first, but branding amirite?). There’s a D&D movie coming out that stars Chris Pine, and a TV show that was just announced this month. They did this while standing on your shoulders. They did this so they could make money off of you. Everything D&D related that people create is an advertisement for Wizards of the Coast. And they don’t even have to pay folks to do it for them.

Wizards of the Coast is not your friend. You might be friends with an employee. You might make your living off of D&D. But the only reason they encourage this sort of parasocial, influencer-style marketing, is because, despite the money it makes you, it makes them more. The company is not a person. The company is a machine to generate as much money as it can while paying people as little as it can. The “as it can” is the most important part. Because as shown by the massive backlash to the OGL announcement, consumers get to decide what a company can get away with. We draw the line.

It is my personal belief that scrutinizing a company is not only good, but necessary. You do not “gotta hand it to em” when they do the right thing, because that’s what they should be doing from the jump. And because time and time again, they will show their ass (what is a company other than a miserable pile of apologies?). The OGL is just the most recent in a long line of ass showings that Wizards of the Coast has come out of. I think it’s fair of me to be glad that people are canceling D&D Beyond Subscriptions, but also upset that none of their racism or employee mistreatment caused such an uproar. It seems that each time a company like this steps in poo, people have not only already forgotten about the last seven times they stepped in poo, but they still believe that the company can “do better.”

Enter Paizo. They are, first and foremost, a multi-million dollar company that stages itself as the underdog of the industry by comparing themselves to Wizards of the Coast (holders of not only D&D but Magic the Gathering). Paizo has, for a very long time, painted itself as a little, indie company, with over 100 employees, and like I said, multi-million dollar yearly earnings. They are allowed to do this by consumers because of the narrative they created. That is to say, because they market themselves as such. They market themselves as small, just like you, and struggling to get by, just like you, and, again, people buy it. Hook, line, and sinker.

Paizo has come under scrutiny before. Allegations of hostile work environments, racism, and anti-queer upper management. They are also alleged to have some of the worst pay and freelancers rates in the industry, which is something the employees have unionized to try and fix, but which still hasn’t been fixed.

After the OGL announcement went out, Paizo leapt at the marketing opportunity and announced the ORC. And it’s worked wonders. You have consumers and employees already calling it the ORC Horde. You have Paizo running sales for their books. They are capitalizing on this because that’s what a company does and people are not only allowing it without criticism, they are defending it and championing it.

The important thing to ask as a consumer (even if you like Paizo) is why? Why would Paizo want to make their own open gaming license when plenty of other TTRPG companies have opted for the already available and understood Creative Commons (which is an international non-profit). The answer you get from a lot of folks online is that an open gaming license allows and encourages folks to *create*. As talked about earlier, that is fundamentally untrue and a narrative created by Wizards of the Coast in order to sell you more books. In order to put them at the center of the universe.

Cory Doctorow on twitter said some important and pointed things about the idea of the OGL. He said, “The OGL predates the Creative Commons licenses, but it neatly illustrates the problem with letting corporate lawyers – rather than public-interest nonprofits – unleash ‘open’ licenses on an unsuspecting, legally unsophisticated audience.” And what he’s saying is spot on.

It’s my belief that corporations do this on purpose to foster a sense of authority and legitimacy that makes them seem like the final arbiters of creation. And Cory seems to agree, saying “Decades of Copyright Maximalism has convinced millions of people that anything you can imagine is Intellectual Property […] This wholly erroneous view of copyright grooms normies to be suckers for every sharp grifter who comes along promising that everything imaginable is property-in-waiting.” 

Wizards of the Coast created the OGL to give people permission to use things that don’t require permission to use. They can’t copyright the game mechanics that allow for a D20-based game to exist. Nor can they copyright the procedures of such a game. “So the only benefit that OGL offers, legally, is that you can copy verbatim some descriptions of some elements that otherwise might arguably rise to the level of copyrightability,” Kit Walsh says in their recent article, “Beware the Gifts of Dragons.”

Kit goes on to say this, which I think is the crux of the entire situation: “Accepting [the terms of] this license almost certainly means you have fewer rights to use elements of Dungeons and Dragons that you would otherwise. […] Absent this agreement,  you have a legal right to create a work using noncopyrightable [sic] elements of D&D or making fair use of copyrightable elements and to say that that work is compatible with Dungeons and Dragons.” 

Essentially, I believe the OGL is a threat disguised as a promise. It promises, “we will not sue you for these things,” which extends to the threat, “use it or we will sue you.” And if you look online, that is truly the fear most creators have. The fear of being sued, at all, by one of these companies. It’s true that most of us don’t have lawyers, let alone the cash needed to litigate anything with a company that makes millions of dollars. But, and I ask this candidly to lighten the air a bit, isn’t that kind of fucked up?

Why should we, as creators, continue to support any company that essentially threatens us with legal action if we don’t follow their ultimately useless document that doesn’t grant us any permission not already granted to us by law? Why wouldn’t they instead help to educate their consumers and make it clear that legal action is only to be taken against huge corporation and bad actors? I really don’t care what the answer to that question is, because it’s rhetorical. It highlights the phenomenon I’ve seen online where fanbases are made to rely on the companies they support in order to find safety.

I cannot deny the anger that comes to me when big companies do something for the sake of capital that small, independent creators have already been doing for a long time, simply for the sake of their fellow humans. There are thousands of independent creators who have released their work under no licenses or Creative Commons, who are excited for people to create adventures, hacks, and add-ons for their games, who pay people fairly despite living project to project, paycheck to paycheck. Who add clauses to their own games that refuse to accept bad actors, bigots, and fascists. 

It seems to me that these companies have not only made people reliant on them, but made people fear them. To the point that Wizard’s announcement of changing the OGL, a document that doesn’t offer you anything, sent lots of people into a spiral of fear and anxiety over losing their job, losing their source of income. These individuals are afraid of losing what little safety they have because they tied their livelihood to a company that promised them a community and turned to pull the rug out from under them. 

I can’t be mad at those individuals. I think directing any of this ire towards the Individual is missing any sort of point. That kind of behavior is strictly anti-human, unempathetic, and mirrors the same rhetoric and corporate-moves bullshit that companies use and I won’t stand by it.

What I can be mad at is the fervent rush to recreate these same circumstances but under a different banner. What better to showcase the parasocial marketing of Wizards of the Coast than to see their parasocial competition. As I said before, Paizo has staged itself as the underdog despite the storied history of the company. Their ORC announcement is not for the sake of the community. It’s for the sake of marketing. This moment was the obvious time to announce something like this. They followed it up with tweets and sales, all primed to make them seem like a safe haven for people afraid for their futures. They saw a moment to grow their audience and they used the collective fear of an industry to do it.

People are ready to defend them too. Despite what just happened, people are quick to forget history. In the face of other companies opting for Creative Commons, Paizo instead planted a banner and asked people to use their 25% off coupon to join the ORC horde and buy more books. 

There’s talk of what this could do for the community, but no one is stopping to question what it would actually achieve and for who. Paizo has become this beacon for what is essentially a pop-punk form of retaliation against big corporations. Folks who want to be punks, who want to be seen as anti-establishment, are being pulled into Paizo’s marketing against Wizards of the Coast. Even news sites fall into this by lobbing softball questions to Paizo’s President as a form of free marketing for the company that already Has. 

What I fear is happening now is just a further revisioning of history and reality. Paizo is not tiny. They are not independent creators. They are a company with over 100 employees that had to unionize to protect what little they already had, thanks to corporate greed. They are a company that milked its fanbase twice for an MMO that will never be what it was promised. They like to stand below Wizards of the Coast and act like they are different. When in reality, they are still a company, with company goals, and company motivations. Paizo does not have TV shows and Movies, sure, but would they if they could? My guess is yes.

What I’m ultimately trying to say and get across is that the goal of a company making its own license, like it was for the OGL, is authority and legitimacy. Two things that they make us think we need to be given or else we’ll be sued. Which is frankly messed up and not how we need to be operating. Everything Paizo says will be to obfuscate this, because they are a company and marketing is all about narrative. If they can pay their lawyers to write up a new game license, they could also do literally anything else to help the community. There are already licenses owned by non-profits that can do this work. Creative Commons can be put on only certain portions of your text. You can have some be commercial use and some be non-commercial use. You can slap the Olivia Hill Rule at the front of your book if you’re terrified of bad actors taking your book to make propaganda. There are options here already that could use support.

I can’t help but be both angry and hopeful about these sorts of shakeups, because, in the year of our lord, I have seen that independent creators *can* be supported. And that corporations can do the right thing and uplift communities, but that most just don’t want to. There is a whole other discussion to be had about platforms, what they do and who they do it for, but it’s in platforms that I see independent creators grow. That’s where I see the future of tabletop games, not licenses.

Places like itch.io are an actual haven for creators. Because what do creators need to be supported (besides rent money)? Places to put their work where other people can see it (which could maybe make you your rent money). Time and time again this new model for doing things is proven to work: tiktok, youtube, deviantart, patreon, steam. These are platforms that, yes, each have their own controversies, ownership issues, and problems, but they allow creators to be seen and make themselves heard. 

The same skepticism should be taken, of course. You always need to ask who owns the thing and why they own it. But even then, you see the next iteration of what a platform can be being created right now in Nebula. Nebula is the perfect example of what the future can look like for independent creators. Nebula is a creator-owned streaming service held up by some of the biggest names from Youtube. That is the power of real community. Realizing that you can directly support creators and their platforms as opposed to companies like Google who mistreat Youtubers and their unique artforms. 

If everyone can cancel their D&D Beyond subscriptions to try and stick it to Wizards of the Coast, I believe people can see that, to truly stick it to them, we have to move away from them and the old ways of doing things entirely. Instead of flocking to recreate the business practices of old, held up by capitalism and greed, we can move forward into a world where we rely on each other, not a company. Where these big companies need to do more for us to get us to go to them. If an independent creator can pay fair wages, there’s no excuse for a big company. There’s no excuses. We need to demand more. We are worth so much more. It is good and right for communities to be critical of companies and not be eager for them to own our spaces.

Thank you.

Written by John Battle

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