Although work had already begun on the design, public talk of a new D&D edition from Wizards of the Coast began around 2007. The expectation was that WotC would support 4th edition the same way it had before with a new license and system reference document. It seemed unlikely that the OGL would survive the new edition unscathed, but fans and publishers had no reason to suspect just how thoroughly Wizards would abandon it.
"Like any aggressive proposal, the OGL never had universal support within Wizards of the Coast. Lots of folks questioned the wisdom of simply giving away the rights to the core system of the game that paid our salaries."
"[WotC] made all sorts of assurances to the community of third-party developers about how open the new game would be, how they planned to share the rules early with key publishers, and how we could all get on board with supporting the new edition," Mona said. "But something happened behind the scenes over there at about that time, and a licensing agreement that had been touted as a 'more open than ever' failed to materialize."
Not everyone at WotC believed that the OGL was a good thing for D&D. "Like any aggressive proposal, the OGL never had universal support within Wizards of the Coast. Lots of folks - myself included, at the time - questioned the wisdom of simply giving away the rights to the core system of the game that paid our salaries," said Collins recently.
"There were a lot of folks who thought [the idea of OGL] was a disaster, and that the result would be a failure of 3rd edition, but they kept their opinions to themselves and to the watercooler chat," remembers Ryan Dancey, the VP of RPGs at Wizards until 2001, and the guy who came up with the crazy OGL idea. "When 3rd edition didn't fail, but instead wildly succeeded, most of those folks came around to seeing it at least as a neutral, if not a net positive."
By the time that 4th edition was developed, even the people who begrudgingly accepted the OGL had left their positions at Wizards of the Coast. "Many of the key players were completely different at this point - different brand managers, different legal team, different executive team," said Collins. "And with new people come new opinions ... and this time around, the pro-OGL side was in the minority."
He still believed in the benefits of an open system, but he was fighting a losing battle. "I remember arguing pretty hard to retain something like what Wizards had done for 3rd edition; an open license that included the core rules and a few basic guidelines on how to use it. I argued that without some kind of OGL, Wizards risked leaving behind the body of customers and potential customers who saw the open license as an assumed part of the D&D experience," Collins said.
"In hindsight, I wonder if it might simply have been better to [let the OGL die] rather than guilting the company into crafting a Frankenstein's monster of an open license that ended up pleasing basically nobody," Collins continued. The Game System License [GSL] that WotC released in conjunction with 4th edition took away many of the freedoms that the industry had come to expect with the D&D rules, such as reprinting text for clarity in new products. "At the time, those of us arguing for the continuation of an OGL-like system truly believed that we'd be able to come up with something that protected Wizards and also helped the community," he admitted, but wrangling an agreement that achieved those goals proved a monumental task that took much longer than anyone anticipated.
If the licensing issue was the only black Eye of Vecna on its face, 4th edition might still have been a hit with fans and other publishers alike. In December 2007, WOTC released Wizards Presents: Races and Classes the first of several preview documents that outlined some of the radical changes to the rules, and initial feedback from fans was not encouraging. "All of a sudden our subscribers started begging us not to convert to the new game system," Mona said. "The fact that many members of our editorial staff shared some of these concerns underscored our uneasiness with the dragged out licensing situation. We finally made the decision that if we weren't able to support the game at launch, we might as well not bother supporting it at all. So we decided to stick with [D&D] 3.5."
The designers at Paizo rewrote the 3.5 rules a bit under the old OGL license and added the distinct setting of Golarion into a package called Pathfinder. Even Mona was surprised at how well the beta version of Pathfinder sold, and how it has grown into a multi-million dollar enterprise. "We put together an impressive print run of the Beta Playtest version of the Pathfinder rules, and when that sold out in about a week, we knew we were onto something," he said. "Interest in the system far exceeded our expectations, and continues to do so. We sold more [Pathfinder] Core Rulebooks in 2011 than we did in 2010, and the final hardcover Core Rulebook is now in its fifth printing with no end in sight."
Paizo's success with Pathfinder was possible because the OGL was not abolished; it was still valid for the rules printed under the 3rd edition D&D banner, while the GSL governed everything published under 4th edition. This created a unique situation in the history of role-playing games- for the first time, it was legal for companies to reprint older versions of Dungeons & Dragons after its publisher had let the core rulebooks disappear from shelves.
"That allowed something we have never seen before: a company that emerges as the champion of the previous edition and rallies its fans," said Pramas of his competitor in the third party market. "That is what Paizo was able to do with Pathfinder. Similarly, many companies of the Old School Renaissance used the OGL to recreate older editions of D&D in various permutations. Now, no matter which version of D&D you prefer, there are many publishers supporting it with new material."
The Old School Renaissance is the name given to what can only be called a movement among gamers to return to an older style of play. "I think Gary Gygax's death [in 2008] had a profound impact on a lot of the old schoolers. Many of them were grudgingly going along with modern game design conventions simply because they had no other choice," said Erik Mona.
Games like Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess use the OGL to recreate the feel and simplicity of older editions while making tweaks to the presentation and playability. (Full disclosure: I'm publishing a game called the Adventurer Conqueror King System which similarly represents older rules with significant modifications.) Members of the Old School Renaissance play these so-called retro-clones, or keep on rolling dice with old copies of TSR's own editions and then dissect the experience online at websites like The Mule Abides and Grognardia .