Mike Mearls revealed today that Basic D&D will be a freely downloadable PDF. This is big news. I thought it was genius when during the fourth edition Wizards of the Coast made the Keep on the Shadowfell module alongside the standalone character generator (which allowed you to create characters of levels 1-3 without a D&D Insider subscription) free downloads on their website. It was a great gateway into the new edition for those who wanted to give it a try but weren’t ready to plunk down $35 a piece on the 4e Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual.
Obviously providing Basic D&D as a freely downloadable PDF is an even bigger deal. According to Mearls’ post, “It runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options.” Frankly, this is awesome. It really lowers the barrier to entry for those that are even vaguely curious about the fifth edition. When the price is free, if you are at all curious there is no real reason not to try it out!
So why am I disappointed about this?
Well, while I appreciate “Free as in Beer”, I really appreciate “Free as in Freedom”.
For those who are unfamiliar “Free as in Beer” versus “Free as in Freedom” (see also “libre” versus “gratis”) is used by the open source software community to explain the difference between “free software” which is built on closed source but given away free of charge and “free software” that has a license that allows others to build on what you created.
Since D&D 5e was first announced I wondered if there was going to be a license that would allow others to build upon it. When D&D 3e came out, the most revolutionary thing about it were the Open Gaming License (OGL) and D20 license. I could not believe that Wizards of the Coast had open sourced D&D! With the D20 license, as long as you didn’t violate the terms anyone could create content compatible with D&D. Perhaps more importantly, the OGL allowed an even greater variety games to be created from the same basic set of rules.
True, there was a lot of crap in the initial glut of material that was created after D&D 3e was released. However, amazing games like Mutants and Masterminds and (much later) Pathfinder were a direct result of the freedom the OGL allowed. There were also a variety of software tools, such as PCGen, which took advantage of this license. It is amazing how much this license helped the hobby thrive.
Unfortunately, this may not seem like such a good thing from Wizards of the Coast’s point of view. After all, one of their biggest competitors now is Pathfinder, a game that is really just a refinement of their own D&D 3e rules. It must be hard to explain to the bean counters why another game company is outselling you with your own rule set.
There is really no reason to expect D&D 5e will have a license like the OGL. No such license existed for AD&D 1e or 2e. D&D 4e had a Game System License (GSL), but it was much more restrictive and much less used. I get the feeling that Wizards of the Coast feels they gave away the crown jewels with the OGL and is determined not to make the same mistake again.
I cannot be sure whether or not the OGL was the best move for Wizards of the Coast. However, I do feel it was good for the hobby, providing a robust base that people could build on. As talented as the game designers at Wizards of the Coast are, they can’t fulfill every need. Ultimately, I feel what is good for the hobby is good for D&D. It may be hard to prove, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that D&D was at the top of the heap when the OGL reflected their most recent edition.
Of course, for all I know Wizards of the Coast will announce a liberal gaming license tomorrow and I will look like an idiot. I tend to doubt it though. I think Wizards of the Coast feels giving away D&D 5e Basic for free (as in beer) will be enough to keep their fans happy. It is both a shrewd marketing decision and a genuinely nice move for the fans. I even feel like a bit of a jerk complaining about it, after all who doesn’t like free beer?
I guess I was just hoping for a bit more freedom.