Slaying the Gold-Hungry Dragon

D&D players won an epic victory against corporate power. Here’s how they did it.

Rohan Montgomery

Digital painting of a glowing red dragon eye. Illustration by Refluo via Shutterstock

Renato Da Conceicao started playing the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in 1983, when he was 13. Forty years in, he’s still playing. I’ve introduced the game to so many people over the years, I’ve lost track,” Da Conceicao says. Steve Miller, another longtime player, first tried D&D in the mid-1980s and says the game now helps him connect with his young daughter. 

In the decades since its creation in 1974 and its acquisition by the American publisher Wizards of the Coast (WotC) in 1997, D&D has grown into a cultural phenomenon enjoyed by millions. As a game that is very easy to play virtually, D&D became especially popular during the pandemic, according to Griffin Macaulay, creator and owner of third-party D&D content publisher The Griffon’s Saddlebag.

But as the game’s popularity grew, so did the ambitions of its corporate owners. In December 2022, WotC — which had itself been acquired by gaming behemoth Hasbro just two years after it bought D&D — told investors that the game was undermonetized.” Most WotC products are currently marketed towards the relatively small population of Dungeon Masters (those who run D&D games), but the company wanted to create a recurrent spending environment” where more fans spend more money more regularly. 

The company’s subsequent effort to monetize D&D, and the gaming community’s struggle against it, became an epic battle straight out of the pages of a D&D adventure.

***

The brilliance of D&D, and a big reason for its immense popularity, is its openness to being shaped by players. A set of sourcebooks provide basic D&D rules, but anyone can use those rules to create their own adventure, or even create new sourcebooks with modified rules. D&D has always been about your imagination,” says Miller, calling the game an open community of people who collaborate to make things.” 

As D&D grew into a cultural phenomenon, so did the ambitions of its corporate owners.

D&D’s openness is reflected in the innovative licensing system enshrined in 2000, which allowed anyone to use the core game rules in their own projects, even for profit. While you couldn’t swipe certain content, including specific places or storylines, the Open Game License (OGL) essentially let the community share a common gaming language and use it to create an endless variety of games. The OGL made it possible for players to begin making and marketing their own D&D content, ranging from ideas for simple new items like a catnip amulet’ or dragon tamer’s lance’ that could be used in a D&D campaign to entire games complete with their own sets of rules, stories and characters. For instance, Miller says he’s recently purchased independently developed supplements for the WotC-published adventures he’s playing — materials that add content, like creatures and encounters, to parts of the map that WotC never fleshed out.” 

In addition to ensuring that there was always new D&D content to keep players engaged, over time the OGL enabled WotC to profit from a uniquely lean business model by turning third-party creators into an army of pseudo-contractors,” explains Noah Downs, a gaming intellectual property lawyer who works with independent D&D creators. Instead of hiring more staff and producing more content to satisfy the increasingly voracious” gaming community, Downs says WotC effectively outsourced content creation to community members; new content in turn generated interest in the core [D&D] materials, leading to sales for WotC.” 

But in light of its concerns about D&D’s undermonetization, Downs says, WotC saw an opportunity to squeeze even more blood from that orange” by simply changing the terms of the OGL so many third-party creators suddenly owed WotC money for selling their own D&D content. (Hasbro’s PR team did not respond to an email request for comment.) 

On January 4th, a developer leaked the full text of a new OGL to Linda Codega of io9. The update eliminated what journalist Matt Ford refers to as the game’s user-friendly, power-to-the-players open license,” replacing it with what Macaulay describes as a far more medieval” licensing system requiring third-party creators to tediously register every new piece of D&D content with WotC. WotC also wanted reports on all third-party creators’ earnings, and a 25% cut of all revenue over $750,000 (20% if funds were raised on Kickstarter), meaning that even creators whose expenses exceeded their earnings could owe WotC tens of thousands of dollars. Macaulay, for example, estimates that under the new royalty requirements alone, before even considering the additional costs of registration and citation practices, he would be left just about breaking even.

“[The D&D community] fight a lot amongst ourselves ... But the moment that someone tries to shit on us? Forget it.” 

Even if they didn’t earn enough to pay WotC a cut, third-party creators’ content would still be at the mercy of WotC. Where the OGL gave perpetual, worldwide rights to creators, Macaulay explained that under the new license WotC would claim rights to everything that you made, forever.” As Codega reported, the new license meant that many third-party publishers would have to overhaul their old content to comply with the onerous new requirements. (WotC originally planned on giving creators seven business days to comply.) 

The new license flew in the face of what we’d been told for 20 years — the collective agreement and the community that we’d built out of it,” Macaulay explains. It was a real betrayal.” You relied on these people to help popularize the game, make it more enjoyable” Miller says, and now you’re taking it all away.” 

All of this would’ve been a great way to make money, Downs says, if you take the human element out of it.”

***

Unfortunately for WotC, the human element is D&D. Players quite literally make the game what it is, and many of them were extremely upset at what they saw as WotC’s plan to shortchange independent creators for profit. In this game, even your average dungeon master or player is a creator in their own right. You create your character, you create encounters,” Miller says. There’s a lot of sympathy for creators.”

Some creators and influencers, including Macaulay, began working together to turn the raw anger into a cohesive movement. “[The D&D community] fight a lot amongst ourselves,” Da Conceicao says. Stuff like, The second edition is better than the third edition.’ But the moment that someone tries to shit on us? Forget it.” 

The company was probably expecting some kind of backlash, but not one with such speed, ferocity, and unity.

For a community as diverse and digitally dispersed as D&D, the process of organizing was remarkably quick. Creators used their existing followings — some of them hundreds of thousands strong — to disseminate information about the new OGL and what it would mean for everyone even as more WotC insiders risked their jobs to come forward with details about the new business plan. Downs and other lawyers helped creators refine the language they used in public comments and in their demands, the most prominent of which was the cancellation of the new OGL. 

Over the next fortnight, tens of thousands of people signed an open letter calling for this cancellation. Tens of thousands more used hashtags #OpenDnD and #DnDBegone (a pun on WotC’s recently-acquired site D&D Beyond). Millions watched and shared content criticizing WotC and the new license across the internet; creators funneled fans into Discord servers where they could organize more efficiently; some helped organize a mass boycott, with so many canceling their online D&D subscriptions that the page crashed. At that point,” says Taron Indestructoboy” Pounds, a D&D creator and YouTuber, WotC started shitting their pants.” 

***

WotC were probably expecting some kind of backlash, Downs says, but not one with such speed, ferocity, and unity. He says the organized resistance led to real, tangible financial consequences for WotC” as angry players began turning to non-WotC content. Our immediate reaction,” Da Conceicao says of one of his D&D groups, was screw WotC. Let’s just choose a different game system.’” Competing game publishers soon began posting record profits. For example, Goodman Games, which produces the Dungeon Crawl Classics game, reported their best ever month in January, something they directly attributed to the uproar over the new OGL.

On January 13, WotC walked back some of its more egregious changes, but it was too little, too late. The community of what Pounds affectionately calls chaotic shotgun goblins” continued their tremendously effective rampage. In a January 26 tweet, Alta Fox Capital — one of Hasbro’s largest shareholders,which had previously criticized Hasbro for a total board compensation exceeding that of Apple — publicly lambasted WotC’s decision, calling it leaderless.” Overnight, Hasbro’s stock plummeted by more than 6%.

The adventurers slew the gold-hungry dragon; now they’re organizing to make sure they never find themselves trapped in the dragon’s clutches again.

The next morning, WotC made a bombshell announcement. It was completely canceling the new OGL. The feedback is in such high volume,” WotC admitted in a statement, and its direction is so plain that we’re acting now.” To widespread surprise, the company then dumped the entire roughly 400-page System Reference Document (a D&D encyclopedia) onto a Creative Commons license, something it couldn’t revoke even if it wanted to.

The community had organized and won more than they even set out to ask for. But the victory does not spell an end to the organizing. This is like someone held a gun to our head,” Pounds explains, and pulled the trigger — but it didn’t go off, and now they’re trying to fix it. We can stand here and let them, or do something.”

Helped by Downs, creators are working on creating an organization of third-party creators that hopes to eventually provide benefits beyond a formal organizational structure — a legal fund, insurance, accounting, community partnerships and more. Every single class of workers starts out as a community,” Downs explains. In any industry, before there was a union, there was a community. It’s these galvanizing events that lead to an increase in labor awareness — that potentially lead to more organization and a better understanding of worker’s rights.”

We want to make a United Federation of Planets, but for creators,” elaborates Macaulay, where you say that the Tabletop Content Creator Association stands for this, doesn’t stand for that — believes in a standard freelance wage; being a collective force for good. Under a banner like that, if WotC or some such tries anything funny again, we will have a larger foot in the door.”

The diverse party of adventurers came together and slew the gold-hungry dragon — this time. Now they’re organizing to ensure they never find themselves trapped in the dragon’s clutches again.

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Rohan Montgomery is a former fact-checker and intern at In These Times. He previously worked for The New Republic, and his work has also appeared in the BBC. He tweets @RohanMontroro.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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