The Story of D&D Part Three: How 3rd Edition Became the Mother Of Many RPGs

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To catch you up on the history of  Dungeons & Dragons, your nerdmates at Geek & Sundry are providing you with this handy-dandy series of stories on the history and impact of the world’s oldest role-playing game! You can  read the first part of this series, on the birth, flourishing, and then economic difficulties facing D&D and its mother company, TSR as well as the second part of this series, which covers the story of how Wizards of the Coast came to acquire Dungeons & Dragons.

Having settled old employees of TSR in their new offices, made things right with Gary Gygax, the next thing for Wizards of the Coast to do with the newly-acquired Dungeons & Dragons property seemed obvious: make their mark on the game by releasing a new edition.  At Gen Con 1999, they announced a 3rd edition of the game.

A 3rd edition had been in the works for some time. Back at TSR, there had been work on a 3rd edition, and Wizards CEO Peter Adkison announced internally that Wizards would be producing a third edition a mere day after the staff learned of the purchase of TSR.

The goal of D&D’s 3rd edition was to create a game that still felt like D&D, but sloughed off the mish-mash of rules that had accumulated on the game over the past decades. The six core statistics (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma), and the ubiquitous character classes would all be present in the game. Players would portray characters who would go on to explore dungeons, and likely fight dragons. But they would do so, hopefully, with more heroism and drama, and less flipping through the rules for contradictory minutia.

The game, when released in 2000, proved to be a great success. Fans saw that Wizards understood and loved D&D, and the game, designed by Monte Cook, Skip Williams, and Jonathan Tweet, is still played by gamers today, although the back of the book might not say “D&D 3rd Edition.”

How is that possible? It’s thanks to an incredible innovation in the world of RPGs, though the decision to unleash it may have been financially costly for Wizards of the Coast.

Setting D&D Free: The Open Gaming License Revolution

Dungeons & Dragons third edition is the mother of a thousand children, and that came about thanks to the Open Gaming License.

The Open Gaming License (OGL) was the brainchild of Ryan Dancey. In 2000, Ryan Dancey was brand manager at Wizards of the Coast, and he decided that the best thing for the future of the game was to set it free. The OGL would allow other publishers to create adventures, settings, and other material using the D&D 3rd edition rules.

This was at the time a sea change in the way the role-playing game industry operated. Before the OGL, TSR would sue companies at the drop of a hat for copyright infringement. They had even managed to sue a number of other gaming companies into oblivion. When word of the OGL leaked out, some other publishers actually thought it was a trap of some sort which would go on to allow Wizards to sue other game companies. It wasn’t of course, but given how litigious TSR had been in protecting the D&D IP, suing even D&D‘s creator, Gary Gygax, the industry was a bit traumatized.

The Open Gaming License would be like J.K. Rowling making the Harry Potterverse public domain. The OGL allowed other companies to use D&D to make money off of the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast. It sounds like this should have been a disaster for Wizards and their bottom line, but there was solid reasoning behind the move: other publishers would make adventures for D&D. These other publishers would become de facto ambassadors of the game. All of their publications would drive new fans to Wizards to buy the corebooks.

The OGL led to a flood of material being produced for 3rd edition. TSR alum Jim Butler, who was working at Wizards at the time, said the OGL “truly super-charged the industry” and allowed gamers to “to scratch almost any itch” they might have. Gamers could play  Call of Cthulhu, science fiction, modern spy thrillers, and superheroes, all while using some variation on the D&D 3rd edition rules. If you play  Pathfinder, Starfinder, or  13th Age, you are playing a flavor of 3rd edition D&D.

Yet the OGL remains controversial. For example, former TSR and Wizards employee Jim Fallone said, “I always thought the biggest mistake [Wizards] ever made was the OGL. It weakened the value of the D&D brand and diluted their sales strength. Right now if you were a fan of D&D growing up the closest thing to that is Paizo”, the publisher of Pathfinder.

To Pathfinder, Starfinder, and Beyond

Paizo is likely the maker of the most popular flavor of 3rd edition D&D, and their most popular product is Pathfinder, an evolution of the 3.5 ruleset. To those who see the OGL as a bad move for Wizards, the very existence of Paizo is their major piece of evidence.

Eight years after the release of 3rd edition, Wizards of the Coast released the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. While the game was fun and enjoyable, many players said it no longer felt like D&D.

Meanwhile, Paizo, the previous publisher of D&D magazines such as Dragon, decided to continue publishing adventures for 3rd edition. They were successful, so much so that they decided to publish their own iteration of the rules, called Pathfinder. The game was a smashing success, even outselling 4th edition D&D at certain points in the sales cycle.  And just this August, Paizo released Starfinder, a 3rd edition-inspired ruleset of space fantasy which was so hot at Gen Con it sold out.

Yet Pathfinder and the success of Paizo would have been impossible without the OGL. Lisa Stevens, who went to Lake Geneva to help Peter Adkison dismember TSR, is now CEO of Paizo. She said that without the sale of TSR to Wizards of the Coast, “I never would have started Paizo, I can tell you that… [because] Ryan [Dancey] came up with the Open Game License, and if there’s no Open Game License… there’s no Pathfinder. There’s none of that.”

We’re now in a new age of D&D with the highly successful and well-received 5th edition. But the 3rd edition of D&D has been prevalent, at times dominant, and successful in the industry for the past 17 years. It may be the most successful ruleset for any RPG ever published. As a gamer looking at the industry in 2017, it is hard not to believe that while the OGL may have been bad for Wizards, it has been a huge boon for gaming as a whole. There are now countless flavors of D&D on the market, and when more good games are made, we all win.

And it would have never happened without the purchase of TSR by Wizards of the Coast 20 years ago.

Did you play 3rd edition D&D? Or an OGL game it is based off of? Tell us in the comments! Don’t forget to share this series with your friends and gaming groups, and show them how a game that almost went extinct became one of the most prolific RPGs in our current golden age of geek.

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Image credits: Wizards of the Coast & Paizo Publishing

A special thanks to TSR alum and creative genius Jim Lowder for his invaluable assistance in providing background knowledge and helping to get interviews for this article. Jim is the fiction editor for  Chaosium. Thanks also to Luke Gygax, Dale Donovan, Jim Butler, Peter Adkison, Margaret Weis, Steve Wieck, Ryan Dancey, Lisa Stevens, Tim Beach, Dustin Clingman, John Rateliff, Jim Fallone and Jim Ward for their help with this material.

Ben Riggs speaks five languages and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on  Twitter, or on the  Plot Points podcast. you can read his novel about the only good orc  here

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