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Open Source D&D

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This is another one of those big crazy ideas that I throw out their based on the best data I can have and some speculation. I don’t think I’m the first person to come up with this idea, and therefor the fact that it hasn’t been done probably means there are factors that smarter people have identified that I haven’t. I’m throwing it out here because I like at least considering the big crazy risks that don’t scare me because it’s not my money, but which the actual people who could do this would be gambling their livelihoods with. Here’s the big idea: open source D&D.

The obvious response is “they already did that and look how it turned out.” But what I’m getting at goes a little deeper. Let’s talk open source.

Open source software “promotes free redistribution and access to an end product’s design and implementation details.” [Wikipedia] d20 technically meets this, though it is interesting to consider what the “design and implementation” details are of a tabletop game. Really, the d20 SRD is the end product, not the design and implementation details. That may be beside the point though, as it’s the lowest-level description of the game, and trying to map software to tabletop is at best an interesting thought experiment.

Open source software is “typically created as a collaborative effort in which programmers improve upon the code and share the changes within the community.” [Wikipedia] This is the point where d20 diverges from typical open source software. Any successful open source project has multiple collaborators behind them, the largest have entire non-profit organizations dedicated to the further development of the software. It’s not uncommon for software giants like Google to take a stewardship role of an open source project, like Chromium.

d20, for all the flood of projects around it, had very little reintegration. While technically the OGL is “sticky” (content based on OGL’ed content is automatically OGL’ed) I can find no concrete record of Wizards of the Coast ever using OGL content created by another party in their books. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen—I feel like I’ve heard stories or at least one such integration—just that it didn’t happen much.

This is all just to set the foundation: D&D 3E was technically open, but didn’t leverage the community or use a collaborative public effort. So what if D&D was open like open source software?

Concretely, the idea I’m considering is: what if Wizards of the Coast took the current text of D&D Next and set up a non-profit organization to steward the text?

There are of course some challenges. What would it be called? How would text be developed in a way similar to software? How would changes be decided?

The first thing that comes to mind if the chaos of hundreds of fans all suggesting their own conflicting changes. While this seems intractable, it’s nothing the open source community hasn’t had to deal with before. The first solution is distributed version control. Without getting too technical, the idea is to make the source (in this case, the text of D&D Next) available in such a way that everyone can make their own versioned copy. Instead of everyone everywhere all trying to change the same copy of the text, everyone has their own copy. The copy controlled by the non-profit would be considered the canonical version, and would take selected changes from other people. Wizards could them publish the canonical version, at some determined time, as D&D.

How do you select what changes to take? Through the mess of open source design and democracy. Along with the non-profit Wizards could set up a board of directors. These folks (hopefully luminaries in D&D) would have the final call on what makes it into the canonical version, and would have permission to delegate that decision. With that power allocated, it would be up to the community how it wants to decide what changes to make to the canonical version. I’d expect the process to end up looking a little like python’s PEPs: documents about what should be done created and discussed by the community that eventually become plans of action for what changes are to be made. The changes can then be made by whomever.

Developing text like software would be trickier, but even open source projects maintain documentation. The process could, in theory, be a lot like wikipedia. Text could be marked as needing specific kinds of attention and updates that fix issues would be accepted like anything else. The text would probably be stored in some kind of markup or markdown to make it easy to edit, track, and display.

That’s the process, but what would it be called? That’s a tough decision. It could be anything from “D&D” to a specific flavor of D&D (“D&D Community Edition” or something) to a new term like “d20” was when 3E launched. All of those have varying returns for Wizards of the Coast.

Which brings us around to why. As a fan of open source and free culture of course I like this, but why would a huge company like it?

Because it plays to their strengths. Wizards of the Coast is a strong company in many ways, but right now they’re not playing to their strengths. The best way for a company to compete is by doing things that they’re better suited for than anyone else. Wizards is, within the gaming field, uniquely positioned in three areas: production quality, community, and name recognition. Basically, they’ve got a bigger budget and stronger art team than just about anyone else, and they own the biggest name in roleplaying games, which comes with a connection to the most fans. That isn’t to say that Wizards of the Coast isn’t good at design—look at Ravenloft or Lords of Waterdeep. They are, however, putting most of their awesome design skills towards chasing whatever the community wants. They’re spending hundreds (thousands?) of hours of design time in an effort to give the community exactly what they want. Why not instead let the community hash out the design work

Moving the core rules to the community would put Wizards of the Coast in a very strong position. They would have a core rule system designed by the exact community they want which they could then publish and support better than anyone else. Instead of spending their resources trying to find out what the D&D crowd at large wants, they’d let the crowd design the game they want supported, and then pour their resources into supporting it. This is part of where what they call it matters: even if the text is completely open and community driven, Wizards could reserve the name, so that only their version is called Dungeons and Dragons (this is, after all, one of their biggest resources: the brand).

Even if they did soften their grip on the name, no other company has the reach and production quality Wizards has. Only Paizo can really challenge them in that arena, but they’ll be hemmed in by their own hardcore fans. Wizards could then focus on producing the best material for the game the community wants, instead of focusing on divining what the community wants. Their version of the core rules would be better presented than any other. Their supplements could be sold in more places, with higher quality and lower cost, than any other publisher.

It would also free up Wizards’ R&D department to expand their line. Options like maintaining multiple editions become possible. They’d still be designing stuff for the open source system (and, through having members in the non-profit, steering the design), but they’d be leveraging the fans—one of their greatest resources—to make the core game.

The really interesting point comes with distributed version control. Wizards of the Coast would publish the nice physical books with layout and art of the core rules developed by the community, using their scale and design power to make theirs the de facto standard. With distributed version control, Wizards could also make money off everyone else’s versions of D&D. If Wizards teamed up with Lulu to provide specialized print-on-demand for D&D rulesets they could provide a boutique product to people who modify the D&D rules (i.e. most everyone who plays D&D). Any DM with the time and interest could, with their local versioned copy of the rules, tweak things to their liking. Wizards would then offer a service where any properly formatted text based on the canonical version could be printed, on demand, with Wizards’ art, in a number of formats.

This idea was originally floated by John Stavropoulos a while ago, but the implications are huge. Every homebrewing DM would benefit as they could order up a custom rulebook of just their rules, with their picks of art from the Wizards art collection, for their home game. Playing Ebberon but with reduced HP and no clerics? Make a few changes to the source and pay a few bucks to get your own custom D&D books. With the Wizards’ budget behind it they could even make it easier, so not everyone who wants to make their own custom version has to learn git (or any other distributed version control). There are already online print-on-demand photo books that offer drag-and-drop design—make the same thing for D&D. To not undermine the official rules they could force specialized branding on the front, where you have to name your version of D&D. Add terms of service that prohibit reselling too, if they’re really concerned.

By acting as a boutique homebrew print-on-demand publisher Wizards would be leveraging what they can do that no one else can: use the D&D branding and community, plus partner on a corporate scale.

In a way, Wizards would be playing Apple to a D&D Unix. Just like Mac OS is based on (BSD) Unix but adds value with visual polish and ease of access, Wizards’ D&D would be a polished clean version of something powerful and community-based.

It wouldn’t be easy to pull off. Open source development is, at times, chaotic and messy and rough. The bargain for Wizards would be in allocating their resources to what they’re good at, instead of pouring resources into design where the guiding principle appears to be “do what the community wants.” There would be, most likely, at least one fork1 that went contrary to the image Wizards wants to portray. The development would likely scare off at least one vocal group of fans.

Are those risks worth it? I’m not in a position to decide, but I could make a case for it. D&D is currently eating up years of time and resources to discern the desires of a community that would (and has) designed the games they want. The D&D design team seem like smart folks, and their talents are currently being squandered on chasing the whims of a community that thinks they can do better. An open source D&D would let Wizards do what they do best.

  1. A fork is an offshoot from an open source project. It amounts to one or more people saying they want to take this free and open thing in a different direction than the official maintainers want. The Book of Erotic Fantasy is the kind of thing I’m thinking of. 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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