The OGL is not Open

The Open Gaming Licence (OGL) does not in fact produce terribly open games, so I wish people would stop referring to such RPGs as 'open source'.

No Real Books

The OGL specifically excludes Product Identity.

"Product Identity" means product and product line names, logos and identifying marks including trade dress; artifacts; creatures characters; stories, storylines, plots, thematic elements, dialogue, incidents, language, artwork, symbols, designs, depictions, likenesses, formats, poses, concepts, themes and graphic, photographic and other visual or audio representations; names and descriptions of characters, spells, enchantments, personalities, teams, personas, likenesses and special abilities; places, locations, environments, creatures, equipment, magical or supernatural abilities or effects, logos, symbols, or graphic designs; and any other trademark or registered trademark clearly identified as Product identity by the owner of the Product Identity, and which specifically excludes the Open Game Content;

The open gaming licence cannot cover a real RPG book. In fact, the licence specifically prohibits licensing a complete work, as it cannot cover "stories", "characters", "art", and all the other things which make up real RPG books.

While someone could theoretically lay down a book of bare rules on a table and start gaming, I have never seen it done. People want real RPG books, with art, examples, flavour-text, and example characters.

Publishing companies use the OGL to allow others to create splat-books, adventure modules and such, which popularize their own games. This really has no relation to the actual open source projects, which give out source files in order to let people modify the work.


The OGL's various stipulations about what it covers, what it does not, and how to express appropriate copyright claims in one's books cause persistent confusion whenever someone brings it up in an RPG chatroom. If people cannot clearly understand the document, then they shouldn't use it.

The complexity cannot stop here, because everything not covered by the OGL must have some other licence. This means that anyone who wants to make a truly open book, starting with the OGL as a base work, would have to ensure their work somehow stipulated that a paragraph covering the fighter class was licensed under the OGL, that the next paragraph (with an example story) was licensed under CC-4, and so on.

The OGL demands that RPG books use patchwork licences.

Within the UK, game mechanics don't get much copyright coverage. Every bit of US legislation I read suggests they cover even less. So if the law offers little to no protection for game mechanics, and the OGL only covers game mechanics, I don't see what use it serves.

Despite the limited laws Wizards of the Coast have attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue Frylock for printing basic stat-blocks of monsters. They did not make their overall argument clear when sending their initial threatening letter. The community only knows that using some stat-blocks wrong might land them in legal hot water.

Further, the list of excluded items under "Product Identity" isn't remotely clear. What does it mean cover a "pose"? Does an orc with its neck craned quizzically to the left amount to "product identity"? Or an elf with one hand on her hips?

A vague definition means that someone cannot use "poses", "themes", or any of the other items on the throat-gouging list above, for fear of treading on someone's "product identity".

No Documents

Despite the idea that people could copy the basic D&D System Reference Document for use under the OGL, Wizards of the Coast provided a pdf, rather than a plain-text document, which people could actually draw upon. Of course, they never intended people to change the document. They called is a "system reference document", not a 'forkable document'.

Anyone wanting to actually use the document would have to wrestle it into a useable format on their own.

The Alternative

For BIND, I went with the GPL licence.

  • It covers the source documents, rather than the output pdf (or printed work).
  • The healthy legal history shows little danger from different interpretations.
  • It covers art, the stories, everything except trademarks.
Permission Granted OGL GPL
Receive source files No Yes
Permission to modify those rules No Yes
Use art No Yes
Use "stories", "storylines", or "plots" No Yes
Use "characters" No Yes
Use "themes" No Yes
Use "language" No Yes
Use "poses" No Yes
Keep game open (so clones must remain open) No Yes
Easy to read No Yes