When Wizards of the Coast was acquired by toy-maker Hasbro in 1999, there were already plans to create a 3rd edition to unite the various disparate groups of tabletop RPG fans. "You had people playing 1st edition AD&D, 2nd edition AD&D, five or more flavors of Storyteller games, a couple of different games from FASA, GURPSs, Call of Cthulhu, Deadlands, Legend of the Five Rings5R," recounts Ryan Dancey, the VP of Tabletop Games at Wizards of the Coast at the time from 1997 to 2001. "By percentage, it was probably 2nd edition 30 percent, everything else 70 percent.
"When we were working on 3rd edition, it became clear that our biggest competitors were 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, not a third party game system."
"When we were working on 3rd edition, it became clear that our biggest competitors were 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, not a third party game system," Dancey continued. "2nd [edition] had clearly suffered because it had not managed to get enough 1st edition players to switch."
In order to group all of these camps under the same game umbrella, Dancey had a crazy idea that ultimately shaped the current roleplaying marketplace. "I remember Ryan Dancey walking into a meeting where all of RPG R&D was gathered," said Mike Selinker, one of the creative directors of the 3rd edition of D&D. "Ryan and his team came in all sheepish, as if they had something to say that could have gotten them lynched. Ryan starts talking about the open source computer movement and the future of paper-based publishing and so on, and eventually gets to the nugget. 'So,' he says, 'we're thinking about giving the system of D&D away for free. Pretty much anybody can publish anything they want using our game and our text. They can even copy it and print it. Other game publishers can republish their own settings using our rules. What do you guys think?'
"The room was dead silent. Eventually, from the far corner of the room, I said, 'I think that's the most brilliant thing I've ever heard.'" Selinker remembered that there was an intense debate afterwards but eventually everyone "coalesced around this crazy idea." The Open Gaming License [OGL] was born in that room, a legal document with very loose copyright restrictions that allowed basically anyone to produce content using the core D&D mechanics.
"We wanted to ensure [the division of 2nd edition vs. 1st] did not repeat, by trying for an (unobtainable) goal of 100% conversion," said Dancey. "The OGL was a big part of making that possible - because it let hundreds of developers fill in the niches that Wizards didn't have the time or the inclination to do itself, including a lot of content desired by 1st and 2nd edition players."
When it was published in 2000 along with the 3rd edition of the rules, the OGL sparked unprecedented growth in the RPG industry. The OGL made it so easy to use the rules conventions of D&D like hit points, spells and monsters that hundreds of products - the official signifier of D&D-compatible materials created using the OGL - emblazoned on them made their way to game store shelves.
"The core of the D&D property was released through the Open Game License. WotC held back a few monsters like beholders and mind flayers, but for the most part the guts of D&D were made available to everyone for legal re-use," said Chris Pramas, President of Green Ronin Publishing. Companies Green Ronin were able to use the OGL to create entire RPG lines like the superhero game Mutants & Masterminds and make a significant amount of money.
The OGL and the 3rd Edition of D&D were unarguably a success. "[3rd edition] was the most successful RPG published since the early years of 1st edition AD&D," Dancey said. "It outsold the core books of 2nd edition AD&D by a wide margin. I attribute some of that success to the OGL and to the massive amount of player network support the OGL engendered." According to a 2007 issue of Comics & Games Retailer , five out of the top ten bestselling RPGs were either published by Wizards of the Coast or utilized the OGL. More than that, the OGL allowed smaller companies and even individuals with big ideas to bring their products to the market. Because of the OGL, gamers could concentrate on imagining new adventures, dungeons, and characters instead of reinventing the nuts and bolts of the mechanics.