Tuesday, May 27, 2014

D&D Basic is free, so how can I ask for more?

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”.

Nice, but not the best kind of free.

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.


benensky said...

I am very happy with this. he OGL was great and there was much published under the GSL. Just search drive through RPG under 4E.

Doctor Futurity said...

Much as I'd like it, I don't expect them to offer more than a specific license option for 3PP....as you say, the OGL was a monster that they let lose and probably wish they haden't. I personally sometimes think that the OGL was originally designed by a network of designers at that time to basically all plunder and exploit 3E together....and it worked for those people, just not for the company itself for the long haul.

The interesting thing about the OGL is that it is so flexible that one will easily be able to produce compatible content for 5th edition...you just don't brand it specifically as a D&D product. Goodman Games and others (myself included) published 4E content under the OGL, referring such books in a manner that indicated their intended compatibility while still being properly OGL. Will be interesting to see what percolates to the surface over the next few months if WotC doesn't offer a new OGL or a new license agreement of some sort.

greywulf said...

You're disappointed yet they haven't said anything about the license at all. I suspect your disappointment is very premature.

The problem with the OGL is that it was abused by unscrupulous individuals who made a fast buck by bundling the whole (or part) of the contents into pdf format and selling them on RPGNow with little or no original content of their own. That soured it for the rest of us. I hope the new license (when it's announced) will limit such behaviour but not the the crippling extent of the GSL which swung the other way.

My ideal license would be as simple as "anyone can make adventures and new content for D&D. You can use the monster stats found in Basic D&D but they can make up no more than 15% of your total page count". That's all it needs, really.

As for Basic D&D itself - it's fantastic. No complaints at all from me. It's an easy entry into the game and might even be all many groups need to play. Can't fault it.