Friday 23 December 2022

Legally Odd: OGL Section 9

Recently, Wizards of the Coast announced that they would be releasing version 1.1 of their famous Open Gaming License, the OGL. What does this mean, and how does the deeply weird Section 9 affect their plans?

The OGL is a legal agreement that WOTC developed in 2000 to encourage third parties to develop content for Dungeons & Dragons. When a gaming text includes it, the open gaming content portions of that document can be republished by other parties, open source style.

Now, two decades later, on the threshold of 6th edition ("One D&D"), WOTC has announced it's overhauling the OGL to clarify their intentions.

Section 9

As I hinted, the most fascinating thing about all of this to me is a particular clause lurking in version 1.1A of the OGL, 'section 9'. It reads as follows:

9. Updating the License: Wizards or its designated Agents may publish updated versions of this License. You may use any authorized version of this License to copy, modify and distribute any Open Game Content originally distributed under any version of this License.

To get the obvious out of the way, WOTC doesn't need anyone's permission to create a new, separate license to release new material under. Section 9 is about creating specific avenues to retroactively change the meaning of the OGL. But what?

The Permissive Interpretation

My first, most literal interpretation of Section 9 is that if you're reading a document released under OGL version X, you can reuse the open gaming content in it under any version of the OGL you like.

I call this the permissive interpretation because it gives maximum choice to a downstream republisher. They're free to use the least restrictive version of the OGL, at their discretion.

The strongest evidence I have that this is WOTC's original intention for the OGL is in this gem, courtesy of Margaret (@EtoEWanders on Twitter):

Q: Can't Wizards of the Coast change the License in a way that I wouldn't like?

A: Yes, it could. However, the License already defines what will happen to content that has been previously distributed using an earlier version, in Section 9. As a result, even if Wizards made a change you disagreed with, you could continue to use an earlier, acceptable version at your option. In other words, there's no reason for Wizards to ever make a change that the community of people using the Open Gaming License would object to, because the community would just ignore the change anyway.

This is very much in the spirit of the open source software movement, as it gives WOTC "no take backs." Even so, there's some weird edge cases with it!

Permissive Oddities

This permissive interpretation sounds great when you're thinking of reusing somebody's OGC, but it's pretty lousy at protecting your own. As written, it seems that when WOTC releases a new version of the OGL, suddenly everyone who is considering reusing your open content now has their pick of license versions. This means that WOTC can grant itself or your licensees new rights, just by updating the OGL. Pretty weird!

The situation is especially strange for companies that used the OGL 1.0A to release their own wholly original SRDs. They weren't republishing anything written by WOTC, they just liked the terms of the OGL.. but now WOTC can modify the terms on their behalf!

Free League, for example, released a Year Zero Engine SRD under the OGL 1.0A. Once WOTC releases OGL 1.1, anyone who wants to can suddenly elect to use the YZE SRD under those new terms, terms that Free League has never seen!

What WOTC Thinks

In their Dec 21 blog post, WOTC makes it clear that the whole point of the OGL update is to add new restrictions to the OGL.

The new restrictions:
  • No NFTs
  • OGL only covers print materials and static electronic documents
  • Terms must be explicitly accepted via a web portal
  • OGL products must display a badge
  • Revenue reporting for $50k+ annually
  • Royalties for $750k+ annually
If WOTC believed in the Permissive interpretation, this would all be pointless: in that model, WOTC can't meaningfully add restrictions to the OGL. Anyone who wanted to make NFTs or a video game would simply take WOTC's the new OGL 1.1 content and republish it under the OGL 1.0A, then do whatever they liked.

This makes me think that WOTC has a different, much scarier interpretation of section 9, the Retroactive Interpretation.

The Retroactive Interpretation

There's another way to look at this, which I think would have an even bigger impact. In this view, the OGL is a living document that you agree the WOTC can update from time to time. When they do that, the new terms apply to everyone's use of the OGL, immediately.

In this interpretation, the last half of section 9 simply means that any version of the OGL you copy into your document is an equally valid attestation that you agree to the latest version of the OGL.

Now, the objections to this view are several:

O1: What's the point of a perpetual, royalty free license if they can update it to be a non-perpetual, royalties required license?

Sadly, I think the answer is, "None. OGL 1.0A and Section 9 sucks for publishers that used it."

O2: This is massive overreach!

Yes, probably—but I think it's worth thinking about who WOTC intends to target. They probably aren't hunting for sofa change from copper OBS sellers, they want a cut of the bigger operations.

WOTC will be fine with the small fry having to put up with an ambiguous legal context, if that ambiguity forces the the larger third-party publishers to negotiate with them directly.

Corporations are perfectly happy making everyone sign, "We can take your organs," style agreements that give them all the leverage, while saying, "Oh well, we would never take YOUR organs, we don't mean you!" in blog posts that aren't legally binding.

As an example, just look at the DMs Guild agreement. If you've agreed to that, you've authorized OBS to sign legal contracts on your behalf 'to clarify their rights'. Fun!

O3: That's not what OGL 1.0A | Section 9 says!

I think that may be true.. but perhaps irrelevant. The OGL 1.0A is 22 years old—the people doing OGL 1.1 are completely different, with wholly different goals. The OGL isn't sacred to them, it's a tool, a revenue opportunity.

WOTC will be 100% fine with an ambiguous legal environment as long as they achieve those goals: making the bigger players talk to WOTC to report their income, pay up, and/or negotiate separate agreements. 

Clawing History

The permissive interpretation is weird, but the retroactive interpretation is truly bad news for third parties. It not only means that WOTC starts taking a cut of new products based on One D&D, but that it potentially can claw into the revenues of existing products. If that wasn't what they were thinking, why would they declare 2023 a royalty grace period? If royalties only applied to new, OGL 1.1 products, royalties could apply right away because everyone publishing under it would know the deal during planning time.

Go Carefully

We will see how the chips fall when the OGL 1.1 is released, but I stand by my previous feelings that the OGL should be used extremely carefully, and only when you're actually using the specific rights it grants you.

Saturday 9 July 2022

At the Hour of Death

The lost tomb of Sierk the Carver may have passed from memory, but it's nearer than anyone suspected. But be warned, wizards don't die peacefully. Great danger awaits anyone who arrives at the hour of death.

At the Hour of Death is Trilemma Adventure #55. It's a pocket dungeon that you can locate almost anywhere underground. If an ogre misses a player and bashes a wall, a secret door in a castle hallway, a crumbling brickwork. Anywhere there's enough room for the circular tomb, below.

For ages I've wanted to do something with scheduled patrols, moving guards whose routes and schedule the players could learn and then anticipate. What better way to do this than let the players actually manipulate the schedule?

A few notes:

There's more treasure in this adventure than most of what I do. It's meant to be suitable for classic dungeon crawling: low-level adventurers avoiding threats to get what treasure they can before they run into trouble they can't handle.

The skeletal infantry are meant to be both hostile and very dangerous. They're there as a lethal "minute hand" that sweeps around the perimeter of the tomb. Make this clear with their coordinated movements, the shouting of the lamp-bearers to direct them. For gritty power levels, at least, it should be obvious that to attack them frontally means getting stabbed by a forest of spears.

Other than the skeletons, however, this adventure is meant to work with a reaction table (of the sort you get in early editions of D&D). If you don't have one handy, use this one from ALM:

Roll d6Initial NPC Reaction
Assume the worst: The NPC assumes the party is here for violence or exploitation. If weaker, the NPCs avoid, posture and prepare defenses. If they have the advantage, maybe they think it's best to deal you a blow while they can.
Wary: Set boundaries (socially or physically)
Mistaken Assumption: The group makes a confident, incorrect assumption about the party's purpose or identity. They've heard rumours, and your presence confirms them.
Uninterested: Dour and sullen, self-absorbed, or perhaps more interested in their own problems or private discussions. Either way, they aren't making time for the party.
Curiosity: You're the entertainment. Maybe that's good, maybe that's really bad, depending on their nature.
Common Cause: So glad you turned up, now we can help each other!

Magical Compulsion

This adventure holds the possibility of an NPC gaining a measure of control over a PC. The inhabitants of the dungeon have been compelled to follow the magic of the game board and don't realize their decisions have been influenced. Imposing this same fate on a PC, however, would effectively sideline the player. No fun! There are a few options that you might try:

Wrong Trousers: The player remains in control of their character, but whatever they choose to do, they also walk a half move in the direction the game board pulls them. They can resist and take other actions, but it's like being in a swiftly moving stream. A variant of this is the "drunk walk"; the only effect of the compulsion is that when they try to walk, they just happen to step where the game board wants them to.

Kicking and Screaming: Instead of affecting a PC's will, they're seized by an unseen force that drags them. This will quickly become the focus of play as the party tries to stop a fellow adventurer being dragged away.

Lights on, Lights Off
: The compulsion comes in waves, only taking effect for one minute of every ten. This lowers the stakes of the compulsion. This is a decent option for a single PC party, also.

In on the Joke: Some players might be happy to portray someone under the game board's influence. For this to work, they need to have worked out the effect of the game board, and the specific player needs to be down to portray someone acting against their own interests. They (of course) must also know what the game board is compelling them to do so they can run with it. Here, the fun is their interactions with the rest of the party.

Update: Finding the Panopticon

Brent Ellison asked me to clarify, is there really no stated way for players to figure out the mirrors? That's true! It's not at all guaranteed that a determined party would ever reach the Panopticon, especially since neither Sierk nor the Physician seems likely to tell them. Some ways it might happen:
  1. The party develops a friendly relationship with the Physician (e.g. 'Common Cause' from the table, above) and he simply tells them to help them out of a scrape. This depends on whether you think the Physician knows this will kill Sierk (as that would violate his oath).
  2. The party moves the Beetle piece to the study, and the Physician arrives through the mirror.
  3. The Physician flees combat by taking on mantis form and fleeing through a mirror.

* * *

As always, thanks to my patrons on Patreon who have graciously donated to support this little project!

Monday 4 July 2022

The Athabasca Fold Network

Memorize this, but for god's sake don't act like you know it. Play dumb and ask for directions like everyone else or you'll get flagged and dumped out an airlock.

In the post-planet setting of Coming Apart, the few remaining human communities survive through secrecy. When any nickel-hulled pirate can fold in with a world-ending asteroid, the only defences are to be too small to extort, or to jealously guard your true location.

The Athabasca Fold Network is one one of the largest civilian fold networks, home to three space stations: Serengeti, Pitcairn, and Athabasca itself (a true class V).

Few visitors stay long, as berths on the stations are eye-wateringly expensive, but thousands make the trek every month to buy services from the many skilled specialists in Athabasca and Pitcairn.

The network is rich in primary resources like water, atmo, nickel and fission elements drawn from Bussard, Octavia and Youssef. Pitcairn station is known for its high quality ship modules, and exports them in large quantities. The network is not self sufficient, however, and imports huge quantities of food and biologicals from its trading partners. Relics of planetary life also fetch a premium here, in great demand among the wealthiest tier of network citizens.

Trade occurs through the public interchange, the lowest-security set of fold coordinates in the network. Here, most any ship is free to dock with the hub ships (commonly Wakatobi class), slow-folding trading posts that make a lazy loop through low-security space. Visitors swap news, sex, and services, or book passage deeper into higher-security parts of the network to broker larger trades on the stations.

While the topology of the network is not considered sensitive, the specific locations in space of the clearance fold points are highly classified. While visitors are welcome to travel through the loops between the stations and the public interchange as passengers, the only ships permitted to fold there known and trusted by the network. Gaining enough trust and goodwill to obtain a navigational security clearance can take years, and the number of high-security clearances is strictly limited by the civil administration.

Athabasca authorities waver between welcoming and wary. Trade visitors are essential, but spies or saboteurs are always probing for information or weaknesses. Agents of pirate gangs or rival networks have standing bounties for information that could compromise locations.

Exterior viewports are rare, as taking astronomical measurements that could be used to locate a high security fold is punishable by death. The larger stations are located in inky black, intergalactic space to make triangulation especially difficult. Visitors are carefully searched for instruments of sabotage, and only specifically licensed citizens may carry anything resembling maintenance tools.

Despite the caution, the network is a vibrant and joyful place, home to a great diversity of people.

Sunday 6 February 2022

Saving Throw for Evey Lockhart

Fans of Trilemma Adventures: one of our own needs our help. Evey Lockhart is the writer and designer of weird, sad, queer old-school stuff that you’re probably familiar with. She was celebrated in 2015 as winner of the One Page Dungeon Contest, then took ENnie silver for her contributions to Trilemma Adventures. She’s gone on to make books like Very Pretty Paleozoic Pals and the disturbing “Wet Grandpa” with the Melsonian Arts Council.

You probably don’t know that most of her writing happens on an old laptop in a van: Evey and her family are homeless, and have been for a couple of years.

The pandemic has sucked for everyone, to put it mildly—but being trans, homeless, and disabled in the southern US with all this going on is an unrelenting stress. Evey’s been scraping from day to day this whole time, getting it done for her kids as best she can.

To help out Evey with a donation, please click here:

Nobody deserves to live under this kind of pressure. If, like me, you’ve been sheltered from the worst of the pandemic, you can make a huge difference in her life with a couple of clicks. If you can only spare a few bucks, even that provides immediate relief from stressing where the money for the next meal or place to stay is coming from. If all you can do is help spread the word before the algorithm eats this, that’s awesome too.

To show my gratitude for your help, I’ve been authorized to offer limited time only protection from level drain. Just show the DM your GoFundMe receipt and they’ll know what to do.

Sunday 23 January 2022

Dead Steps

To some, walking is a sacred act. One foot placed in front of the other, a rhythmic homage to the first steps the gods took upon the cooling earth.

Most people just don't think about it that much, but even so: there is an undeniable exchange between land and traveller. A resistance, a partnership. Step upon the soil and it presses back—alive, tangible.

That is, except for a dead step.

* * *

"Why are we stopping?" Aram asked, but his voice trailed off. Before he had even finished the sentence, he felt it. A drop in his stomach, the prickle of anxious sweat.

Behind him, one of the mules groaned as the feeling passed down the line. Someone closer to the front let out a cry.

What's happening? Aram looked up and down the line. The feeling of loss was palpable. Have we forgotten someone? He counted the party.. twelve.. thirteen forms bundled against the blowing snow. The mules. All here. He jostled his canteen. Still full.

He tried to rally himself against the feeling of dread. "All is well, all is well," but no. There, at the front, others had started to back away from Salia.

Aram's eyes darted across their faces. All were staring, mouths in silent motion: dismay, disappointment, disgust. Salia herself was motionless, staring at her right boot.

The last step she had taken had started like any other. But somehow seeing it there, planted on the ground just so, grief filled him.

If it's going to be like this, why did we even come?

* * *

d6The dead step portends..
A ley line eddy. Everywhere the subtle energies flow to and fro, but here they are caught.. not still but oscillating, trapped. Frantic. Cast it from your mind and leave this place! To contemplate the errors of the gods brings only doom.
A border between the Powers. Every place is ruled by something, but here you stand upon a boundary. Anathema, the lands on either side do not touch, and here is a seam that descends to the very roots of the earth.
An end. Below the ground are the remains of a hero. They set out on a quest that was the last hope of many people, and yet here they died. No great duel or mighty task laid them low, merely an accident. A wineskin left uncorked; an infected cut; a map carelessly left at camp. So great is the shame that chance could end the lives of so many, the wind itself has tried to cover their bones.
A sacrifice. The gods walked the young earth, completing it and setting in motion its destiny. But here, no god has ever stood. This inch of the earth is still new. You could complete it and send it on its way! A great pattern of your choosing could begin here, but at what cost? 
A door. The joy of the land is seeping out of a crack. With the right tool it could be forced open.
The end of all things. One day, Sorg's hunger will have claimed all of creation. The last of the luminous void will close as crags and seething forests fill all seven ways of the sky, an ocean of stone leaving no place for life. When it does, Sorg will turn upon itself. A decay will begin, an eternity of lightness, crumbling caverns until all that' left is dust and darkness. You have found the place where it begins.

Monday 17 January 2022

After the Lords of Memory v0.23

After a very long hiatus, here's a new version of my home system, After the Lords of Memory.

After the Lords of Memory v0.23

If you haven't followed along:

Like many games, probably, the impetus for writing it lies somewhere between an elaborate preparation for a specific campaign and a laborious expression of my preferences.

This version is massively cut down from the previous version (which was nearly 80 pages). I work in expand/contract phases, and what I'd left myself was a core system smothered in a big, bloated pile of half-written subsystems.

Inspired by the wave of chopped-down, very short systems like World of Dungeons, Knave, and so on, this is me clearing the decks, keeping only what is definitely the solid core. Something small enough to share (possibly even right on game night) and clearly communicate expectations.

This is not a "complete" game. There's nothing on creatures, buying things, treasure, or moving around in the wilderness. (All that is left to the GM.) Nor is the text edited!

This version still doesn't meet all of my original design goals. As I summarized in 2019:

The core works, it's been playtested in a home game over a period of years--you can make characters, take them places, adventure, fight, advance, get injured and so on.

However, the whole point of writing this game was to enable a particular campaign style, and that hasn't emerged organically from my playtest campaign. If you read the design goals post, essentially what you get is a fairly simple, theatre-of-the-mind game where grubby villagers go forth and either die or become heroes. You don't get geographic advancement.

However, this does feel like a chassis to heading towards them once more.

First up, Rituals. One of the (aspirational) sources of geographic advancement are the secret demands that players. These were just buried by complexity. In this version, hopefully, they'll operate a little more like the player-facing quest generator they were meant to.

Anyways, here we are for now!