Updated on March 9, 2000

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Interview with Ryan Dancey: D20 System and Open Gaming Movement

A New Way to License Games?

Are big changes in store related to the way RPG companies will protect and develop their intellectual properties? Consider the following ...
  • Way back at the end of January, Role-Play News reported that Wizards of the Coast's Ryan Dancey had dropped some hints about an "open source license" that would make it possible for individuals and companies to produce gaming materials that would be compatible with D&D 3rd Edition.
  • Then, a mysterious new URL started appearing in Ryan's e-mail signature: http://www.opengamingfoundation.org/. On this site are drafts of documents with intriguing names like "Open Gaming License" and "D20 Trademark License."
  • Last week, when WotC announced the end of the Alternity game line, it was revealed that D&D 3rd Edition is based on a set of rules called the D20 System, a core rules system that could be used for any genre of role-playing game.

What does all of this mean? WotC's Ryan Dancey addresses this new movement in an exclusive interview:

Can you briefly summarize what the Open Gaming Movement is about? Where did it come from, and what does it mean to the average gamer?

Sure. Prepare yourself for a big gulp of business theory.

In about twenty years ago, a guy named Richard Stallman was a grad student at MIT. During his time there, he participated in a community of software developers who shared code between themselves and were at the cutting edge of computer programming. When those people started to leave the university and go into private enterprise, they stopped being willing to share their code, because the standard corporate philosophy is to keep secrets rather than share them.

Stallman thought that was a mistake. He feels that the best way to get good software is to let everyone see the source code, and be able to make changes to that code if they think the changes necessary. Stallman in fact considers this a "natural right", up there with the right to free speech, the right to assemble and the right to practice a religion. He's a little on the extreme side, but his overall idea has been proven (at least partially) to be very compelling..

Stallman left MIT and started an organization called GNU. Old-school programmers are a funny bunch, and one thing they like are nonsense acronyms that are self-referencing. "GNU" means "GNU's Not Unix". Trust me, if you don't get the joke, you're not missing anything. The GNU project was designed to create a completely "Free" version of Unix, and all the tools and utilities that a person would need to use a computer without having to use any "closed" or proprietary software. To facilitate that effort, Stallman authored a document called the GNU General Public License (known as the GPL).

The GPL is the first use of a novel legal concept which has come to be known as the "copyleft". A "copyright" is a way of restricting the rights of others to use a given work. A "copyleft" is a way of forcing everyone to allow anyone to use a given work pretty much any way they want to, and not be able to restrict those rights.

The GPL is the foundation of our ongoing attempt to create a similar license for gaming, currently known as the Open Gaming License.

Fast forward a decade to an undergraduate Finnish computer programmer named Linus Torvalds. Torvalds creates a small computer operating system called "Linux" and releases it to the public via the GPL. Using his original code as a base, thousands of programmers all over the world begin to extend and develop the system, and in a few short years, it becomes as capable, robust, stable and usable as the best Unix versions. In fact, Linux takes a larger share of the worldwide server marketshare than Windows NT, despite everything Microsoft does to combat it.

Surrounding the creation and development of Linux itself, a whole community of programs thrives under the loose umbrella of "Open Source". Linux drew that community the attention of a lot of really bright people who have delved into the phenomenon and come up on the other side shouting "Eureka!" It turns out, that for many types of problems, "Open Source" development tends, on the whole, to be a better process than traditional, closed source development.

The curious should look at
www.gnu.org, www.opensource.org, and should seek out Eric Raymond's essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar".

There is now a new, viable model for creating complex systems, using standardized protocols and interfaces, that are shared by many people, with many independent sub-components that have to work together.

Like role playing games.

That brings us to Open Gaming, and why we're pursuing this initiative inside Wizards and outside to the larger community of game publishers.

Here's the logic in a nutshell. We've got a theory that says that D&D is the most popular role playing game because it is the game more people know how to play than any other game. (For those of you interested researching the theory, this concept is called "The Theory of Network Externalities").

Note: This is a very painful concept for a lot of people to embrace, including a lot of our own staff, and including myself for many years. The idea that D&D is somehow "better" than the competition is a powerful and entrenched concept. The idea that D&D can be "beaten" by a game that is "better" than D&D is at the heart of every business plan from every company that goes into marketplace battle with the D&D game. If you accept the Theory of Network Externalities, you have to admit that the battle is lost before it begins, because the value doesn't reside in the game itself, but in the network of people who know how to play it.

If you accept (as I have finally come to do) that the theory is valid, then the logical conclusion is that the larger the number of people who play D&D, the harder it is for competitive games to succeed, and the longer people will stay active gamers, and the more value the network of D&D players will have to Wizards of the Coast.

In fact, we believe that there may be a secondary market force we jokingly call "The Skaff Effect", after our own Skaff Elias. Skaff is one of the smartest guys in the company, and after looking at lots of trends and thinking about our business over a long period of time, he enunciated his theory thusly:

"All marketing and sales activity in a hobby gaming genre eventually contributes to the overall success of the market share leader in that genre."

In other words, the more money other companies spend on their games, the more D&D sales are eventually made. Now, there are clearly issues of efficiency - not every dollar input to the market results in a dollar output in D&D sales; and there is a substantial time lag between input and output; and a certain amount of people are diverted from D&D to other games never to return. However, we believe very strongly that the net effect of the competition in the RPG genre is positive for D&D.

The downside here is that I believe that one of the reasons that the RPG as a category has declined so much from the early 90's relates to the proliferation of systems. Every one of those different game systems creates a "bubble" of market inefficiency; the cumulative effect of all those bubbles has proven to be a massive downsizing of the marketplace. I have to note, highlight, and reiterate: The problem is not competitive
product, the problem is competitive systems. I am very much for competition and for a lot of interesting and cool products.

So much for the dry theory and background. Here's the logical conclusions we've drawn:

We make more revenue and more profit from our core rulebooks than any other part of our product lines. In a sense, every other RPG product we sell other than the core rulebooks is a giant, self-financing marketing program to drive sales of those core books. At an extreme view, you could say that the core
book of D&D -- the PHB -- is the focus of all this activity, and in fact, the PHB is the #1 best selling, and most profitable RPG product Wizards of the Coast makes year in and year out.

The logical conclusion says that reducing the "cost" to other people to publishing and supporting the core D&D game to zero should eventually 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 the result of all that "support" redirected to the D&D game will be to steadily increase the number of people who play D&D, thus driving sales of the core books. This is a feedback cycle -- the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is.

The other great effect of Open Gaming should be a rapid, constant improvement in the quality of the rules. With lots of people able to work on them in public, problems with math, with ease of use, of variance from standard forms, etc. should all be improved over time. The great thing about Open Gaming is that it is interactive -- someone figures out a way to make something work better, and everyone who uses that part of the rules is free to incorporate it into their products. Including us. So D&D as a game should benefit from the shared development of all the people who work on the Open Gaming derivative of D&D.

After reviewing all the factors, I think there's a very, very strong business case that can be made for the idea of embracing the ideas at the heart of the Open Source movement and finding a place for them in gaming.

Who are the main folks involved with this movement? Is it strictly WotC folk, or is this a cross-company move?

The idea has some grass-roots support inside the company. I'm the most visible executive pushing the idea at the moment, and I am certainly the current motivating force within Wizards.

There is a small community of people who are starting to gather from across the industry to at least keep an eye on events as they unfold. At this time, no company has announced formal plans to use the Open Gaming License and actually produce an Open Gaming product. Everything is still very speculative. There are at least three companies that I know of who have privately committed to supporting the Open Gaming License if and when Wizards takes the step of proceeding with our own proposal. That group is forming around the Open Gaming Foundation web site and mailing list, which can be found at

Interestingly, there is one organization, Dominion Games, which has created a pseudo-Open Gaming product line and is moving forward with a more Open license as this is written. Due to the slow process of building internal consensus at Wizards, the good folks at Dominion will probably have the distinction of being the first truly "Open Gaming" product. You can find their material at

There are some other projects with a similar potential. The Fuzion system created jointly by Hero Games and R. Talsorian Games has some elements of Open Gaming, as does Stephen O'Sullivan's FUDGE rules. However, neither has a license with strong protections and freedoms like the Open Gaming License, and neither product would be considered "open" in the sense that term is used by the Open Source community. But either group could easily move to an Open Gaming position with very slight modifications to their existing license terms, or by just embracing the Open Gaming License outright.

You talk about the "D20 System" on the Open Gaming Foundation web site. Is this the same "system" that D&D 3rd Edition will be using?

Yes. The idea is to abstract the "game" inside Dungeons & Dragons and reduce it to a genre-neutral set of concepts and rules. Then, we'll layer on a thick helping of D&D-type fantasy elements, like the standard D&D classes, races, spells & monsters. In the future, we might layer on a science fiction layer, or a horror layer, or any other genre we think would be interesting. In fact, Jonathan Tweet feels that a very strong "rules light" version of D&D could easily be constructed from the existing manuscript; being completely compatible with but just smaller in scope and application than the full blown 3rd Edition D&D rules. There is a clear path, in fact, to a way to make D&D completely diceless! We may experiment with some of those options (or other people may choose to invest the time and energy to do so) via the D20 rules and the Open Gaming movement. Only time will tell.

The net result is that D20 becomes a rosetta stone for making products that will be compatible with Dungeons & Dragons, without requiring us to issue a blanket license for the D&D trademarks. In other words, we want to use the trademarks of D&D to hold the value of the business, rather than the rules themselves.

We're going to establish "D20" as a recognizable mark, like "VHS" or "DVD". It will appear on all D&D products.

[I'm purposefully ducking the issue of Star Wars. We'll have Star Wars announcements closer to GAMA GTS in mid-March.]

Assuming this movement is approved, will there be a "generic D20 system" rulebook published?

While we might, at some point, make a "D20" book, we have no current plans to do so. Instead, we hope to drive sales to the D&D PHB.

The "D20 System Trademark License" on the web site seems pretty open. In essence, it seems to be granting anyone royalty-free rights to produce/publish and even sell gaming products derived from the d20 System, as long as they follow some basic rules. Is this a fair summary? Could you summarize what one can and can't do under this license?

The idea is to release a D20 System reference document under the Open Gaming License; essentially exposing the standard D&D mechanics, classes, races, spells & monsters to the Open Gaming community. Anyone could use that material to develop a product using that information essentially without restrictions, including the lack of a royalty or a fee paid to Wizards of the Coast.

However, the
trademarks of the D20 System are licensed by a separate document, the D20 System Trademark License. The terms of that License are substantially more restrictive. In other words, in order to use the trademarks that would let people know that you've made something compatible with the D20 System (and thus, by logical extension, with D&D) you need to follow the D20 System Trademark License as well as the Open Gaming License.

The License still won't let you indicate that your product will work with Dungeons & Dragons, nor will it let you use the "Dungeons & Dragons" trademarks (the actual title, the logo, the words Dungeon Master, etc.) To get the rights to do those things, you'll need to enter in to a separate, expensive, and very restrictive license with Wizards of the Coast. I don't anticipate participating in many such licenses - we want tight control over the revenue stream derived from the D&D trademarks.

D20 System Trademark License restricts you from creating a work that explains how to create characters, and how to apply the effects of experience to those characters. To be blunt, it means you can't take the D20 stuff and publish a complete role playing game to compete with the D&D Player's Handbook.

At some time in the future, after we've gauged the effects of this activity, we may loosen those restrictions. At this point, it is too early to tell if we will. (In fact, it's too early to tell if we'll release the D20 materials under the Open Gaming License at all - that's the point of the internal debate...)

Let's talk specific examples: Under this license, assuming I followed the stipulations about what can't be included (character generation and level advancement), use of the logo, etc., could I do any or all of the following things:

...publish and sell an adventure using the d20 System.

Absolutely. In fact, this is the primary application I expect to see for Open Gaming in general!

...write and post to the web a complete campaign setting using the d20 System game.

Yup. Still no problems. You could even include descriptions of new classes and races.

...create a genre-specific game (say, a Wild West or Gothic Horror game) that was based on the d20 System game.

Yes, but you'd have to deal with the fact that people will have to buy a fantasy-themed D&D Player's Handbook in order to get all the character creation and development material. This may or may not prove to be a problem. I'm hoping that it is not. I'd love to see you sell my PHBs to your Wild West customers! :)

...create and sell a book of creatures that could be used in a d20 System game.

Yup, no problem.

...create and sell a book of spells or magic items compatible with the d20 System game.

Again, no problem.

To some, this proposal might seem like you're giving away the farm, so to speak. How does the Open Gaming philosophy help the company that creates the d20 system? Who makes money off this arrangement if the creators of d20 don't earn royalties from these "derived works?"

Take a look at Palladium's Fantasy Role Playing Game. Or Warhammer Fantasy. Or even Rolemaster. Or Diablo or Everquest. Not so different from D&D.

Patents are great. They can lock a game mechanic away behind a legal wall very effectively. Trademarks are great. They can stop a lot of commercial products dead by refusing to allow those terms to be used. Copyrights - eh; not so good. Copyrights cannot protect an idea - just a particular expression of an idea.

One of my fundamental arguments is that by pursuing the Open Gaming concept, Wizards can establish a clear policy on what it will, and will not allow people to do with its copyrighted materials. Just that alone should spur a huge surge in independent content creation that will feed into the D&D network.

This initiative doesn't appear to be in its final form yet, or necessarily approved at the top levels. When can we expect to hear more official information?

I hope to have a License approved by our internal legal team, and a "go!" decision from the internal stakeholders by the time we get to the GAMA Trade Show in mid-March. It will be a while longer before we release the D20 System reference document, because we don't want to give away too many 3rd Edition secrets. We'll probably show it to people who sign an NDA and who commit to trying to have something ready for GenCon, but that will all be on a case by case basis.

Thanks to Ryan Dancey for a very informative look at the potential future of D&D and Open Gaming.

Update: On the 3E Message Board, Ryan answered further questions generated by this interview:

Since a product that bears the D20 System logo is restricted from explaining "how to create characters, and how to apply the effects of experience to those characters," can a D20-licensed product introduce new character classes and class abilities that rise with level?
  • Ryan: Yes. ...The rule for advancing a character in a class is "when the character's XP exceeds threshold value X, increment the character level by 1, either by incrementing an existing class by 1 level, or by adding a new class at level 1." You can't put that rule in a product coverd by the D20 System Trademark License. The way D20 is structured, you don't need an XP chart; all classes share one chart.

What are the "character creation" rules that couldn't be changed or revealed in a d20-licensed product?

  • Ryan: The rule for character creation is "pick a race and a class"; you can't put that rule in a product covered by the D20STL. ...I'm working on a revision to the D20 System Trademark License that would restrict you from adding or deleting ability scores (on some level, those abilities are the keystone of the whole D20 system...) Again, if you wanted to just use the Open Gaming License [and thus derive a new product or game but not claim that it is D20-compatible or use the D20 logo], you could [add new ability scores], even with that as-yet unadded restriction; the only time you'd have to abide by the restriction is if you wanted to use the D20 System Trademarks too.

Is the restriction against revealing character creation and level advancement rules absolute?

  • Ryan: ONLY if you want to use the D20 Trademarks; there are no trademarks in the game system. You could use the D20 mechanics in a complete game, you just can't call that game a "D20 System" game and put the D20 System logo on the product.

Can WotC in turn revise/modify a work I derived from the D20 System and publish it?

  • Yes. We have the same freedom to use your work as you have to use ours. If we use your work, however, we cannot make it 'closed'; our version of your work must be covered by the OGL as well; therefore you in turn could use whatever we added to your original work without our permission in turn. And so forth.

Dungeons & Dragons, D&D 3E and AD&D are all property of Wizards of the Coast.