Listen to this story
The Power Struggle for Dungeons & Dragons’ Soul
To be a consumer in the internet age often requires a choice between convenience and control. Look at your Spotify account: It offers a sprawling library of music at your disposal on any device, at any time — much easier than thumbing through a stack of CDs or clicking into a folder of downloaded MP3s. But as legions of Taylor Swift fans learned the hard way when she pulled her music from the platform in 2014 (only to return years later), Spotify’s offerings can shrink without warning. Control is in a record label’s hands, not yours.
Far away from greedy music execs and pop stars, in realms like Mystara and Eberron, or the sprawling cosmic expanse of Planescape, things aren’t any less complicated. In recent months, Dungeons and Dragons, the 44-year-old role-playing game in which players conjure entire fantasy universes through pen and paper, has become an unlikely symbol of the compromises demanded by digital services. A culture once known for DIY adventures is changing, and it’s all the internet’s fault.
Wizards of the Coast, the company behind D&D, as it’s more colloquially known, didn’t exactly step into the future with the launch of D&D Beyond in 2017, but the company did make a firm stride into the present. The selling point was simple: Convenient online services for a complicated game. No longer would players have to flip through the index of a hardcover book to look up the minutiae of an obscure rule, or rewrite a lost character sheet from memory — a painstaking process that can take forever, as players try to recall the enchantments on a half-orc’s helm or whether a sorcerer had mastered “Scorching Ray” or “Aganazzar’s Scorcher.” D&D Beyond promised, at last, a digital toolkit to simplify or automate the most arcane processes required to play the game.
There was just one problem: Enthusiasts had already created a ton of unofficial resources for D&D. Many people preferred taking things into their own hands and creating solutions for no compensation at all, dodging the small subscription fee — either $2.99 or $5.99, depending on access level — that Wizards charges for full access to resources in D&D Beyond.
Take those character sheets, for example. In D&D, building out a new character — the most fundamental part of the game — requires you to dig through a lot of clunky tables and other reference material, which is especially daunting for newcomers. You have to create a character concept (maybe you’re a plucky Indiana Jones type, with a bow instead of a revolver), pick a class, build out your ability scores, and determine how your class abilities work—all while recording this vital info, in pencil, on a physical page. It’s a lively, collaborative process, pounded out on a table between friends, often over a few cold ones.
D&D has always embodied a DIY spirit, with players building out labyrinths of house rules so complex they become their own games.
But drinking will never fully obscure the fact that flipping through the many pages of the game’s $50 Player’s Handbook to ensure you’ve distributed statistics and skill points properly for your new tiefling rogue, is, well, kind of a pain. That’s why people have invented unofficial online solutions. Joost “MorePurpleMoreBetter” Wijnen is the sole developer behind one of the more popular custom sheets, which automates most of the math of character creation and leaves players free to focus on how they imagine their elven wizard or gnome ranger.
The custom sheet is so easy to use, in fact, that it became the number-one product on the Dungeon Master’s Guild, an online storefront for D&D material that splits profits with Wizards of the Coast. That was great, until it wasn’t: After Wizards launched D&D Beyond in August 2017, Wijnen’s custom sheets were removed from the Guild. It was an unwelcome surprise; Wijnen had created his program to make things easier, and it felt like a punishment to have it removed.
“I was unhappy with the current character sheets for Fifth Edition, so I found one that a person made on Reddit, and I decided to learn how to automate certain parts of it,” Wijnen told Medium. “I just did it mostly for my own group, but the response was incredible.”
Wijnen got a letter from the Dungeon Master’s Guild that accused him of reprinting copyrighted content in his character sheet. He responded by asking if all character sheets were under the aegis of copyright, and thus banned from the site. According to Wijnen, the reply was vague, stating that he needed to consult his own legal counsel to figure that out for himself. Frustrated, he left it at that.
From one perspective, Wijnen’s tale sounds like a case of corporate overlords lashing out at a small fry who had the gall to deliver a better version of their product. But, as he himself admits, there’s a little more to the story. Under the Open Gaming License introduced in 2000 by Wizards, creators are allowed to publish some portions of the game mechanics for free, but not others. Wijnen’s sheet included some of the disallowed content, which technically violated the license. But the sheet had included the offending material for more than year, and was the best seller on Dungeon Master’s Guild for quite a while.
“I figured if I needed to change it, they’d let me know,” he said. “It was on the top of the charts; it’s not like they didn’t know about it.”
As a hobby that casts enterprising “dungeon masters” into directors of their own fantasy world, D&D has always embodied a certain DIY spirit, with players building out labyrinths of house rules so complex that they become their own distinct games. However, when players can endlessly hack your products and “home brew” their own adventures, magic artifacts, or character classes — and when piracy is as easy as passing a handful of PDFs from friend to friend — actually turning a profit off this cultural icon has proven a substantial challenge to the various masters of D&D over the years. Wizards took over the franchise when it acquired original owners TSR in 1997, and became a subsidiary of physical gaming giant Hasbro two years later.
Compared to the usual array of thick grimoires, the more contemporary subscription model of D&D Beyond seems like a move toward a more consistent revenue stream, which might make the shareholders at Hasbro grin. But Beyond also requires users to buy digital copies of every volume in the current edition, even if they’ve already spent $200 for the full physical library over the past three or four years. It’s a familiar problem: Tabletop developers, struggling to turn a profit, have often relied on a small pool of die-hard players to buy “special editions” or slightly updated rulebooks over the years. Fed up with spending big money on small updates, some players turn to pirated alternatives.
It doesn’t take a crack investigator to stumble upon one of the internet’s massive troves of illegal RPG PDFs, which grant players access to every document they need to run their own game of D&D, Pathfinder, or any other tabletop ruleset. While companies like Wizards could potentially hit the hosts with rafts of legal paperwork, these servers are often located overseas, making it difficult to follow through on cease-and-desist threats. What’s more, attempts to actually prosecute the hosts of such material, like the notoriously lengthy and expensive Pirate Bay trial in Sweden, rarely result in decisive action against the offenders.
“I’ve never received a cease-and-desist letter from Wizards of the Coast,” says “Remuz,” who hosts a popular archive of D&D reference material. “I don’t really worry about it because the server is located in another country.”
For fan-creators, the new status quo is all about dodging Wizards’ hovering mallet.
Because they can’t singlehandedly solve the problem of internet piracy, companies like Wizards settle for the next best thing: taking on battles they can win, against small creators like Wijnen or software developer David Flor, who got hit with a cease-and-desist letter in 2011. According to Wizards, he had violated D&D’s Fourth Edition license by uploading material that referenced and expanded copyrights that belonged to the company — specifically Gamma World, a sci-fi counterpart to D&D that was last updated in 2010.
“Here they are telling me they have ‘no plans’ for Gamma World, and here I am trying to serve a gap in the market,” Flor said. “Well, it turns out that gap was there for a good reason.”
Taken as a whole, Wizards’ dilemma represents one of the most vexing issues that creative companies face in 2018: how to keep your fans happy while also getting enough money from them to keep the lights on. New online services like D&D Beyond make things more convenient, but they also make it easier for companies to trample non-compliant fans.
For fan-creators, the new status quo is all about dodging Wizards’ hovering mallet. After the scuffle, Wijnen removed the offending content from his popular character sheets and moved to Patreon, where he now pulls in more than$5,000 a month from players eager to support development.
However, some clever Redditors unaffiliated with Wijnen have developed scripts that add all the offending material back in, with very little effort on the user’s part. It’s yet another shade of gray in the messy world of fans and companies, each hoping to gain a tiny leg up over the other — and save a little money in the process.