All Licenses Are Bastards
Hasbro’s moves towards vertical integration1, brand maximization2 and focus in digital platforms3 4 and other vehicles of capture has led to many things, including the overhaul of their “Open Gaming License” (OGL). Hasbro was quite positive about the change, having told its investors they expect the value of their sorcerous subunit to double in value for the next five years5. It faced immediate blowback, had to make some token concessions, but by the time it is moving in with more branded collaborations like Minecraft, everyone has more or less forgotten the ratfuckery and moved on to consuming their branded identity. It is dull, inconsequential and has the artistic value of a Funko Pop; it will not spend time thinking about this more than the festering environment it creates and what this article is about: the desire to be the new Hasbro from everyone, apparently.
Erroneously seen as an institution of generosity, the OGL is another vehicle of capture and enclosure of cultural commons and the general intellect of humanity. The OGL did not “enable” creators to make different games. It uniformized what games are expected to look like, and filled shelf space with license-grabbing cynical games, that made even their competitors play by their tune. You can see how this logic operates in this previous article, but the intent and operational design of the OGL was never secret; you don’t have to listen to weird anarchist transes on that.6
But just because Hasbro is a company promising a 50% raise in profits for the next three years7, that does not mean licensing schemes have to be predatory, right? There is such thing as a good OGL, right? It is not like the entire concept is a framework that only produces awful outcomes, right? Well, I have looked into many of lauded licenses presented to me as alternatives to OGL and/or commended for their generosity.
ORC, an alternative license proposed by rival corporations and led by Paizo, proposed a return to the “original spirits of the OGL”; of course, that immediately taints the well, because other than allowing Pathfinder and Paizo to exist8, the OGL and its consequences have been disastrous for the collaborative art and scene of TTRPGs9. Other key claims seem to be including various TTRPG game systems, and being controlled not by a single company, but by a non-profit organization. But that is what we all have: claims; turns out it is very easy to promise the moon — secured through ethical fairtrade and all the good buzz words — without having to deliver10. A draft of the ORC license was due to have been released eight weeks at the time of publishing; so far, nothing has materialized — in fact, not even a word on the delay or more claims about ORC. A cynical reading of the situation my conclude that they did so only for marketing cheap heat, but those things take time; just like by-lateral agreements with Paizo workers, despite the company recognizing the union of four dozens or so employees in October 2021, as of the time of this article have not reached any collective bargaining agreement11. That has not stopped Paizo from using the “union-made” claim to present themselves as better than Hasbro and OGL, rather than, you know, “made-under-the-atrocious-conditions-that-led-to-the-workers-risk-everything- for-union-organizing-and-that-persist-to-this-day”.
Mork Borg gets lauded as having one of the most generous licenses on the scene, so I gave it a look12. What does the the license grant you? You don’t have to ask permission to declare your work based or compatible with MB, no access to art or text, but you may recite a Prophecy and use the names of things in MB (most of them things that could not be copyrighted anyway), the rules and mechanics may be used freely (very nice of them to let you use something that they cannot deny you in the first place, as at most, patent law rather than copyright law applies to those, and good luck for Frida Ligan to claim those1314). What do you have to give up for that? Well, you cannot use any of their logos (make sense), nor can you imply you are connected with Mork Borg (let’s be honest, it is not for the rules texts and the Baby’s First Dark Fantasy Name Generator that you are using this generator, so it is with a cheeky wink that everyone basically breaks these terms informally), you have to include advertisement for Mork Borg and associated companies in the art produced and, what is this? “Any legal disputes, controversies or claims related to this license shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of Sweden and be settled by a Swedish court”. Oh. I’m sure it is nothing. How bad can Swedish copyright law be 151617? So you get basically nothing, and open yourself for the possibility of a can of trouble; generosity must have a different meaning in Sweden.
The same pattern was repeated over all licenses I was forwarded to. To release a license, is, ultimately, an act of enclosure and reinforcing your ownership. That it can be marketed as generous, only makes it a more effective tool of capture. It gets games homogenised, allows easier co-opting of what may otherwise be challenging and framework-breaking art, it creates a pyramid of advertising, it precaratizes additional work for your games, depressing as working for your license has to compete with “free”, etc. Most people pursuing this may not be cynic, but this is the end conclusion of wanting to make your own enclosure; everytime you see any licensing scheme, you have to ask: why is this not placed under a Creative Commons license? Why this needs to be its own thing? Who benefits from this being a specific license? What art is no longer being made because this is not a Creative Commons?
And most do not even pretend to answer those questions
Not everyone that is unhappy with a Creative Commons is because they want to enclose something and rent-seek. Of course, those that do not seek any enclosure and do not wish to reinforce the ownership-paradigm may find a Creative Commons lacking. If you chaff under the very idea being a middleman, a manager of pretending, a part of how the general intellect commons can be quartered and owned, you can take a framework of stewardship in lieu of the ubiquitous framework of ownership. You accept that you did not make your contributions to collaborative storytelling and games out of thin air, that you inherited from the accumulated knowledge and kindness of countless generations of strangers. That you need to invent ORC and own it because you cannot own an orc18. If you accept that, you realize your stewardship over your game is temporary; you pass it on every time someone buys it and plays it. And you can embrace it. You don’t build fences and invite others into the trap of joining you in co-ownership (on your terms); you are here to be the best stewards you can be and let others be so when their turn comes.
During my ill-advised work inTTRPG critic, two creators have stood out in that embrace of the potential of stewardship. Liberi Gothica Games are under truly open licensing schemes, covering not just the skeleton of systems, but all of their content, including intricate powerful games such as Fellowship and Panic in the Dojo. Newstand Press has a decade of small games and the iconic flagship Flying Circus openly available for anyone to use. You can get most of their work, and reproduce it on your mark. The culture does not get small, like when someone encloses the concept of session zero as part of their influencer brand19; the culture can only keep growing as a common good.
Cynics would sneer about why would any support stewardship? That is the thing about commons, when they are maintained for the common good. And of course, you get stuff; you can get Final Bid books and when you get it, you are entrusted with that stewardship, with the responsibility of keeping the art alive and not seeing to its destruction from the general intellect. It is not just “a book” that you own. And yes, I could take Flying Circus and rewrite the entire thing not using PbtA, but well, then I would be doing it and could ask for support for the labor of that stewardship; but what I could not do is destroy Flying Circus and take this from the world — and the best part of stewardship, is that neither the original stewards could take destructive and neglectful action against it. The culture can only grow under this attitude, these things will become part of the general intellect as long as there is someone tending it for the good of all.
A license-culture of stewardship rather than ownership prevents landlordism, sitting on brands and monetizing them; resources poured towards stewards foster their ability to continue to be good stewards, compensate them for their labor and not for their ability to extract rents. You don’t need permission to make more Fellowship, but we cannot deny the expertise and value of the labor put by the author into it; the moment I heard there was a third edition of Fellowship in the works, I knew I would be supporting it no matter what, for even if it is not a game I personally play, I see the good Liberi Gothica’s stewardship done for it and the very artform. A well-taken care Fellowship has unpredictable potential. Sure I could make Blackout at home, but continuously support Newstand Press’ team in their stewardship allows them to make games and art that I would never imagine doing or even enjoying; to seek in art more than mirrors of myself, to share the fruit and grain of other forms of stewards I could never had have accomplished.
Maybe this search of Good OGL is a misplaced quest; a grail tainted this one may be. We need dedicated stewards, not generous owners. Imagine: maybe we would have a better scene if we put more of those efforts into supporting stewards and stopping those that would steal from them and enclose what they give generously behind digital platform economies.
If they refuse to be intermediary toll collectors, why should anyone else be?
But you know any would be new owners would try. Because behind every claim of ownership, there is a theft from us all.
An outcome I supposed Paizo is neutral about.
They even got the same lawyers that fucked us all over the first time, so you know it will be great.
After all, just hours before the release of this article, announced that their amazingly named C7d20 will somehow be innovative but familiar, fully compatible with every single piece of content made for Hasbro’s IP but somehow, again, better and an evolution from the system. And they announced the books for it. Oh, also on the same announcement they are crowdsourcing to do the actual, you know, design this impossible thing https://cubicle7games.com/blog/c7d20-our-design-goals
Things looking great for the company freelancers and artists if this is the current pace! Rates increase in 2026, perhaps?
Proserfina knows the Tolkien estate damn tries.
Yes, it is real. Yes, it happened. Yes, it is as disgusting as it is pathetic.