This week everyone is talking about Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s not for a good reason.
Last week, a revision to the longstanding D&D “Open Gaming License” leaked. I’ve written about the OGL before, but in short it’s the persistent legal agreement that allows independent creators to use the core rules and concepts of D&D to create their own 3rd party material. While that ostensibly exists for people who want to sell their own 3rd-party D&D supplements, it also acts as a safety net for anyone homebrewing their own content.
Many outlets have written at length about the newly-drafted version of the OGL – i09 reporter Linda Codega broke the story at Gizmodo last week. The draft institutes a number of restrictions, including tightening the ability to distribute digital content, enforcing royalty-sharing on big earners, and instituting some potentially-invasive rights to reproduce creator content.
Understandably, both creators and players are in an uproar – after all, every D&D player is also a co-creator of their campaign’s story! Even if they never intend to publish or profit from their storytelling contributions, there’s a pervasive feeling of “this affects all of us” solidarity from the D&D community.
Another reliable leak mentioned that D&D owners Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and Hasbro would be looking at digital DNDBeyond subscription cancellations as an early metric of the community’s response to the OGL changes. A leak coming from within the DNDBeyond team makes a lot of sense. WotC and Hasbro bought DNDBeyond last April from Fandom for $146 million dollars. The DNDBeyond team don’t have a long-term allegiance to the Hasbro corporate overlords and they are watching the stellar good will they’ve amassed as a community platform being quickly eroded by this decision.
As the DNDBeyond team may have feared (but also secretly wished for), this new leak immediately lead to a cascade of hundreds of players posting proof of their subscription cancellations on DNDBeyond forums and on Twitter.
I was one of those players.
Tomorrow is my bi-weekly D&D date with my best friends from the states and I am currently the Dungeon Master of our campaign. That means today ought to be spent finalizing maps and building out potential encounters for my custom campaign that has taken a hard left turn from the official campaign in Storm King’s Thunder.
Instead, I’m spending the day wondering if it’s worth putting in the effort to tell stories in a fictional world that is just another capitalist playground.
Unrelated, but breaking just as I am drafting this post: Rick & Morty co-creator and primary voice-actor Justin Roiland has been charged with domestic violence offenses. The news has prompted many media insiders to chime in that Roiland’s abusive behavior has been a widely-known open secret in Hollywood for some time.
I don’t count myself as a Rick & Morty superfan who campaigned for McDonald’s to bring back Szechuan Sauce, but I do love the show. I enjoy how it uses the profane to say piercingly true things about the human condition. Also, I’m a massive fan of writer Jeff Loveness, and I think his Mr. Nimbus is the best adaptation of Namor that we’ll ever see.
(Coincidentally, there is a Rick & Morty D&D sourcebook.)
It feels like we’ve all been having the “Separate the art from the artist” conversation for years, especially in light of the #MeToo movement. I usually don’t have a problem with that separation. I revere David Bowie’s music even though he openly admitted to committing statutory rape. I will never fall out of love with The Beatles even though several of their songs are about John Lennon abusing his wife. We won’t even get into Michael Jackson.
In each of those cases, I can hold the art separately from the artist because I can experience the art without them. I can listen to a David Bowie song without endorsing his every action. Even if I couldn’t bear to hear John Lennon’s voice ever again, I know how to play all of his songs myself. And, I’ll always have my happy childhood memories of watching “Thriller.”
I don’t know how to do that with Dungeons & Dragons or Rick & Morty. (And that doesn’t even begin to touch the ongoing disaster of Twitter!)
For D&D, even if I cancel my subscription and don’t use a single concept, story hook, or creature from their official books, I’m still devoting dozens of hours a month to telling stories in a world that’s curated by corporate assholes. I am making new memories in their capitalist playground. I’ve always understood that I’m playing with and contributing to the spread of a product, but existence of the OGL and the massive amount of 3rd party material on the market made me feel like I was also a member of the community. I even spend a few months last year covering that community on CK!
And, for R&M, even if I don’t mind hearing Roiland’s voice for both main characters, how do I feel now about using the show as shorthand for explaining co-dependency?
I’ve had similar experiences in comics over the past decade. How did I feel about publishing new Marvel Guides when Ike Perlmutter was in charge of the brand? What about recording weekly shows about X-Men when the editors showed callous disregard in producing stories about queer characters?
These aren’t 1:1 art-to-artist relationships like songs are to songwriters. All of these brands are complex pieces of machinery cultivated by dozens of creators whose content is remixed and spread by communities of millions of fans. Also, I’m engaging with these brands as a clear-eyed adult, which is different than refusing to let an artist’s behavior taint my nostalgia or positive memories associated with their art.
These are the dangers of playing with other people’s toys, even if you aren’t literally playing with them. Every product we buy and every story we consume are produced by fallible human beings. As the saying goes, “There’s No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism,” but this goes beyond consumption. It feels like being a fan of anything is an appointment with future disappointment.
Sometimes it makes me want to give up all of my media consumption and live completely off the entertainment grid. Yet, even if I did, I’d still be consuming food, clothes, furniture – plenty of things made by potentially-disappointing people. E and I have even stripped away many of those elements from our lives – I shop from a local farmer’s market and she makes clothes for the kid… yet, there are still people behind those products.
Is the answer living in isolation in the middle of the woods, growing your own food, making your own clothes, singing your own songs, and playing your own games?
I think there are lot of positive aspirational qualities to that life, but I also don’t think we need to deny ourselves all of the benefits and pleasures of the modern world just for fear of people disappointing us. No person can meet all of our expectations and standards perfectly. Not even ourselves.
I’m going to leave my DNDBeyond subscription cancelled for now, but I am still going to play the game with people I love tomorrow. I’ll be sure to use as many 3rd Party creatures as I can for their encounters, and I just bought a slew of digital assets from indie creators to help me tell my story. And, at the end of the session I’m going to say “I love you” to my friends, as I’ve been doing every two weeks for the past three years.
In a world where no consumption is ethical and every creator could be your next disappointment, we need to accept that we can’t beat ourselves up about every disgraced creator and we can’t participate in every boycott. I’m happy I sent Wizards of the Coast a message with my cancelled subscription, but no one benefits from us cancelling our D&D campaign or switching to another system. I don’t make the world a better place by not thinking of a funny gag on Rick & Morty or refusing to cover “Ziggy Stardust.”
The best way we can combat capitalism is to use its products to create joy whose value far outstrips what we paid.