RPG Horizon

Announcing Horizon. Horizon is dead.

It had been my intention, this week, to announce RPG Horizon. A new piece of software which I hoped could change the way Old-School Essentials, and other OSR tabletop roleplaying games, were played online.

The projects intention was to bring five things to OSE.

  1. A digital character sheet for players.
  2. A searchable rules reference (similar to the SRD).
  3. Online campaign management tools for referees.
  4. Live session play tools for procedure automation.
  5. A content store for paid expanded content.

The plan was to launch in Q3 of this year, with all of the content available purely on the OGL through the OSE SRD hosted and ready to go. In short, one would be able to play a full game of Basic D&D, as was done in the 80s, with fully automated character sheets, campaign information, and automated tools to help the referee stay organised as they follow the procedures for wilderness adventuring, waterborne adventuring, dungeon adventuring, encounters, and combat.

Then, after that release, I would reach out to Necrotic Gnome and third party content authors, hoping to bring the paid content they have created into the Horizon Ecosystem, adding classes and systems from various third party products to the system such that buying them would give you automated character sheets for any classes, integrated systems for any new procedures, and would add any new rules to your own personal SRD library.

What Changed

To explain what changed, I'm going to need to give a quick history lesson.

Before the year 2000, Dungeons & Dragons was owned by a company called TSR. While this company did create my favourite version of the game (The 1981 Basic Set), it was also extremely litigious. It would send threatening legal notices to anyone who it peceived was infringing on it's IP, even though in many of these cases the usage in question was fully within fair use, or was not something that TSR could make a reasonable claim to.

In the year 2000, after Dungeons & Dragons was purchased by Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), they laid down a peace offering to the community. The OGL 1.0 was released, an open gaming license that enabled anyone to make third party content for D&D, and removed the threat of litigation that loomed over the community under TSR.

The creation of the license was spearheaded by Ryan Dancey, who at the time was Vice President of WOTC. In an interview he stated the following:

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. [...] 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.

The move was successful, and the third party publishing industry flourished.

In 2006, Stuart Marshall would attempt to push the boundaries of the OGL. They released OSRIC. The Old School Reference and Index Compilation. This was a game that attempted to use the framework of the open gaming license to reconstruct 1st Edition D&D. The IP for this edition was owned by WOTC, and the creation of OSRIC tested if they would consider this infringement and outside the terms set out by the OGL. Fortunately, WOTC did not take action against Stuart Marshall, and the Old-School Scene D&D scene blossomed into the state it is in today. All built in the safe harbour of the OGL.

It has been raised by many, that the OGL is not strictly needed for much of what the OSR movement does. You cannot copyright game mechanics, and most OGL games do not use any of the text which is expressly present within the Open Game Content released by wizards of the coast. This does not prevent a full picture however, as most creating under the OGL did not do so because they were required to, but instead did so to take advantage of the safe harbour it provided. A clear precedent had been established by WOTC: create under the OGL, and we wont sue you.

People felt safe and secure under this license, because of two clauses present within the license, and an FAQ statement put out by Wizards of the Coast.

4. Grant and Consideration: In consideration for agreeing to use this License, the Contributors grant You a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-­free, non-­exclusive license with the exact terms of this License to Use, the Open Game Content.

9. Updating the License: Wizards or its designated Agents may publish updated versions of this License. You may use any authorized version of this License to copy, modify and distribute any Open Game Content originally distributed under any version of this License.

Q: Can't Wizards of the Coast change the License in a way that I wouldn't like?

A: Yes, it could. However the License already defines what will happen to content that has been previously distributed using an earlier version, in Section 9. As a result, even if Wizards made a change you disagreed with, you could continue to use an earlier, acceptable version as your own option. In other words, there is no reason for Wizards to ever make a change that the community of people using the Open Gaming License would object to, because the community would just ignore the change anyway.

These two clauses provided security. The OGL was here to stay, and was never going to be taken away. Even games that did not rely on any of WOTC's intellectual property began using it, treating it as a well tested open source license for roleplaying games. In addition to this, the license was set up in such a way that even if WOTC did update it, they would be able to continue using the old OGL 1.0. The content published using it was safe, and the businesses built up around creating this content were secure.

The text of the OGL 1.1 has been leaked. Coming over 20 years after the original OGL was released to the public.

It contains the following.

This agreement is, along with the OGL: Commercial, an update to the previously available OGL 1.0(a), which is no longer an authorized license agreement.

This term attempts to strip power away from clause 9, using the fact that the original clause 9 contained the term "any authorized version". It is my belief, that when that clause was written, this was intended to mean any version which had been completed and released (as distinct from drafts), and was a historic status applied to a release of the OGL, and thus not an ongoing status which could be revoked at a later date.

This perspective is backed up by Ryan Dancey who has said the following since the leak.

My public opinion is that Hasbro does not have the power to deauthorize a version of the OGL. If that had been a power that we wanted to reserve for Hasbro, we would have enumerated it in the license. I am on record numerous places in email and blogs and interviews saying that the license could never be revoked.

In addition to this, Monte Cook, who was a Senior Game Designer at WOTC when the OGL was released, has said the following.

I was there was[sic] the original OGL was created. I know first hand how hard those drafting it tried to sincerely make it so that it would last forever and would never screw over anyone that used it.

Thus, it seems to me that the terminology used in the new OGL is overreach, and something that will eventually be torn down by a court. Unfortunately, I do not have the money to fight Hasbro over this. Very few companies do.

This means, for all practical purposes, if the leaked documents are released unchanged, that the OGL 1.0 can no longer be used. This means that Horizon is dead.

I could not accept OGL 1.1, for it is a horrific license with a terrible deal for anyone other than WOTC. In addition, it contains some clauses that may mean one could not use it to reproduce content from editions of D&D released by TSR, and so would not be usable for OSE and OSE based content even if one did accept its other awful terms. It also cannot be used for anything other than PDF and print publications, which RPG Horizon is not.

The Way Forward

If the OGL 1.1 releases as leaked, then I am unable to continue the development of Horizon along its current course. The OSE SRD is no longer a platform I can use, as the OGL 1.0 is no longer usable. There is no timeline on when Necrotic Gnome may release a non OGL version of the OSE SRD, and this would likely be a significant undertaking due to how tightly coupled OSE is with D&Ds intellectual property. There is no other game with a similar market position to OSE, having a wide audience and a large scale of popularity, with consistent third party publication support, which could sustain a project such as Horizon. Neither do I have the inroads or working relationship with any other publisher as I do with necrotic gnome.

In order to replace OSE, a game would need to:

  1. Have a large enough commercial base to support development on a fraction of the games audience. (OSE pulled $700k at last kickstarter.)
  2. Have an open license under which a free tier of service could be developed and made available. (OSE had the OGL).
  3. Have a company willing to sit down and negotiate future content monetization and publication. (I had not yet done this with OSE, but have a good relationship with its Author and no doubt he would be willing.)
  4. Have a thriving third party content community creating constant releases and proving the game as an evergreen one. (OSE had this through the OGL and its specific third party license).

I have been working on Horizon for 2 years. Most of that work has been in infrastructure, architecture, and design. The final three quarters of development this year were going to focus on bringing in the OSE specific content. This is something I can no longer do, and so realistically the three following options are available.

  1. Find a game with a scale similar to OSE that Horizon could build around.
  2. Stall development of Horizon until after the "no longer an authorized agreement" wording is overturned in a court. Which is not guarunteed.
  3. Stall development of Horizon until after OSE releases a non OGL version, which is not guaranteed to happen and would be a significant time investment to complete.

I am presented with three bad options.

If you are the developer of a game that believes it could fill the shoes of OSE, please reach out to me at ogl-update@rpghorizon.com. I was hoping to expand Horizon beyond OSE eventually, to encompass a larger range of TTRPGs building off the technologies and infrastructure I had created for OSE, so this is something I am prepared to do. I had simply hoped that I could launch with a stronger foundation in a game I personally love.

What Can Be Done

I will personally be pledging to support any company which attempts to fight WOTC in court over the wording of the new license in any way I am able.

I would encourage you, the reader, to stop purchasing any property owned by Hasbro. Any funds you give them may directly contribute to destroying the livelihoods of independent creators.

Further to this, if it is possible for your group, convert away from a system that Hasbro controls into an alternative. There are thousands of TTRPGs out there, and word of mouth marketting is the most powerful tool most have for growth.

I would also encourage the signing of open petitions, such as the one organised by Mike Holik of Mage Hand Press at opendnd.games.

I hope the OSE and broader TTRPG scene can weather the storm. If you are a fellow creator, I wish you luck. If you are a consumer, please wish us all luck.

Horizon is more than just a digital toolkit, so is not dead in its entirety. The news, reviews, and discussion components of this project will continue with no disruption for now. It is still my intention to post blog posts discussing TTRPGs, and eventually to launch a youtube channel providing similar content in an audio-visual format. It is simply that the raison d'être of the project can no longer be.

Author: Lucille L. Blumire

Published: Mon, 09 Jan 2023 17:00:00 GMT