Open gaming

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Open gaming is the movement within the tabletop role-playing game (RPG) industry with similarities to the open source movement.[1] The key aspect is that copyright holders license their works under public copyright licenses that permit others to make copies or create derivative works of the game.

A number of role-playing game publishers have joined the open gaming movement, largely as a result of the release of the System Reference Document by Wizards of the Coast, which consisted of the core rules of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Open gaming has also been popular among small press role-playing game and supplement authors.


"Open gaming" refers to the practice of publishing content (rules, sourcebooks, etc.) under a free content or open content license, which grants permission to modify, copy, and redistribute some or all of the content.

Ryan Dancey, the man who coined the term open gaming, used the term ‘open’ strictly and with reference to the open source movement.[1] He described the Dominion RPG’s original licence as ‘pseudo-open’ and said games like Fuzion and FUDGE that (at the time) did not allow commercial reuse could come under the open gaming mantle if they adopted liberal terms like the Open Game License.[1]

The Open Gaming Foundation, which Ryan Dancey founded, maintained a definition of an ‘Open Game license’ while it was active, with two criteria:

“1. The license must allow game rules and materials that use game rules to be freely copied, modified and distributed. “2. The license must ensure that material distributed using the license cannot have those permissions restricted in the future.”[2]

The Foundation explicitly stated that the first condition excludes licences that ban commercial use. The second requirement is intended to ensure that the rights granted by the licence are inalienable.[2]


The use of the term open gaming began with the publication of the System Reference Document and the simultaneous release of the Open Game License. However, role-playing games had been licensed under open and free content licenses before this.[1]

The Fudge Legal Notice[edit]

The Fudge role-playing game system was created in 1992 by Steffan O'Sullivan with extensive help from the community. The name stood for "Freeform Universal Donated Game Engine" until Steffan O'Sullivan changed 'donated' to 'DIY' in 1995.

One reason why Fudge succeeded is that the author released it under the FUDGE Legal Notice, a license that removed most restrictions on non-commercial use. This predates the publication of the System Reference Document under the Open Game License by several years.

However the FUDGE Legal Notice (more commonly known as simply "the Fudge license") was never intended to cover any work other than its eponymous role-playing game.

The 1993 FUDGE Legal Notice allowed reprinting of the Fudge rules, including in otherwise commercial works, as long as certain conditions were met.

The 1995 FUDGE Legal Notice permitted the creation of derivative works for personal use and for publication in periodicals.

Derivative works which were to be distributed for a fee required written permission from Fudge's author, Steffan O'Sullivan. The details of the Fudge Legal Notice were modified and expanded from time to time as O'Sullivan updated his work, but the essential elements of the license remained unchanged.

In March 2004, Grey Ghost Games acquired the copyright of Fudge, and on 6 April 2005, they released a version of Fudge under the Open Game License, making it open for commercial use.

Dominion Rules and Circe[edit]

The phrase "opensource roleplaying" was used as early as 1999 by the Dominion Rules fantasy role-playing system, the license of which permitted supplementary material to be written for its rules (see the Dominion Rules License). Another "open" system was the Circe role-playing system, published by the WorldForge project under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Open Game License[edit]

Despite Fudge and other games, the open gaming movement did not gain widespread recognition within the role-playing game industry until 2000, when Wizards of the Coast (WotC) re-published the 3rd Edition of their popular Dungeons & Dragons role-playing system as the System Reference Document under the Open Game License. This move was driven by Ryan Dancey, then Brand Manager for WotC, who drafted the Open Game License and first coined the term "open gaming" with respect to role-playing games.

Open Gaming Foundation[edit]

The Open Gaming Foundation (OGF) was founded by Ryan Dancey as an independent forum for discussion of open gaming among the members of the fledgling open gaming movement. The OGF consisted of a web site and a series of mailing lists, including the OGF-L list (for general discussion of open gaming licensing issues) and the OGF-d20-L list (for discussion of d20-specific issues).

The most common criticism of the Open Gaming Foundation was that it was primarily a venue for publicizing Wizards of the Coast. Ryan Dancey was an employee of WotC, and discussion on the mailing lists tended to focus on d20 and the OGL (both owned by WotC) rather than on open gaming in general.

Like most efforts to publicize "open gaming", the Open Gaming Foundation did not gain widespread support, and the most recent update to Ryan Dancey's OGF web site (as of January 2012) was on 4 August 2003. The OGF mailing lists continued to be active for some time (particularly the OGF-d20-L list, which was a haven for various d20 publishers), but they were ultimately shut down[when?] and no archives were maintained on the OGF site.

Reaction to the OGL[edit]

The Open Game License gained immediate popularity with commercial role-playing game publishers. However, the OGL was criticized (primarily by independent role-playing game developers) for being insufficiently "open", and for being controlled by the market leader Wizards of the Coast (see d20 System for more information). In response to this, and in an attempt to shift support away from the OGL and toward more open licenses, several alternatives to the OGL were suggested and drafted. Similarly, the popularity of the OGL inspired others to create their own, specific open content licenses. Virtually none of these gained acceptance beyond the works of the licenses' own authors, and many have since been abandoned.

October Open Gaming License[edit]

One of the licenses written in response to the OGL was the October Open Game License, a copyleft license published on 27 December 2000 by RPG Library. The OOGL was designed to present an alternative to perceived problems with the WotC Open Game License. The OOGL was used by two games before the authors of the OOGL ceased using it for their own work in late 2002 (and suggested that others do the same), in favor of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.[3] RPG Library support for the October Open Game License ceased entirely on June 15, 2003.

Present adoption[edit]

The most common open gaming license in use by commercial role-playing game publishers is the OGL, and the most popular noncommercial licenses are the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and the GNU Free Documentation License.[citation needed] There are many publishers currently producing material based on the WotC System Reference Document, and many which make their products available under the OGL but which use game systems not based on the SRD.

Wizards of the Coast used the non-open Game System License for the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons.


Unlike open-source software, the term "open gaming" distinctly predates the establishment of an organization establishing a definition for the term. As such, while there is a definition offered by the Open Gaming Foundation for what is and is not an "open gaming license", the term is used more expansively without notable comment. Generally, any license that permits re-use, modification, and redistribution of content can be considered an open gaming license.

Approved licences[edit]

The Open Gaming Foundation describes these licences as ‘Known Open Gaming Licenses’.[2]

Other potential open gaming licenses[edit]

Open supplement licenses[edit]

An open supplement license is a license where the original rulebooks are covered by normal copyright, but a license permits the publication of supplementary material, such as adventures and new rules. Examples of open supplement licenses are the EABA Open Supplement License [4] and Masterbook™ Open Supplement License (MasterWorld™).[5]

Open games[edit]

The following games are under an Open Gaming Foundation-approved license or a free culture license.

Games with licenses that do not permit commercial re-use[edit]

Retro-clone systems[edit]

A number of fans and publishers have created copies of rules systems which are no longer supported, and released those rules systems under an open license. The term "retro-clone" was coined by Goblinoid Games, the publisher of Labyrinth Lord and GORE.[7]

The best known example of a retro-clone game is OSRIC, which contains the rules for 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Other examples are GORE (the Basic Roleplaying System i.e., the rules used in RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu), Labyrinth Lord (based on Basic Dungeons & Dragons), Swords & Wizardry (based on Dungeons & Dragons c. 1974), and Dark Dungeons (based on Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia[8]).


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