Why an SRD?

2020-02-12

As I noted in a previous post, many RPG publishers reuse some or all of their rules1 between RPGs in different settings and genres. Sometimes one publisher will license another’s core rules either to provide supplements to the first publisher’s products or to adapt the system for another setting and/or genre.

Beginning in 2000 with Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons 3.0, some companies compile and publish a “System Reference Document” (SRD) which contains bare-bones rules, classes, skills, spells, etc. Under WotC’s Open Game License or another “open content” license like Creative Commons (CC), anyone can include some or all of the SRD’s text into their own work, with some (usually minimal) restrictions.

But why do it?

Let’s look at a few cases.

Dungeons & Dragons: Patient Zero

Wizards of the Coast created the OGL and the first “Open Gaming Content” twenty years ago, as a set of RTF files.2 A few years later they did the same for their “d20 Modern” system.

Wizards started a trend – some might say fad – of releasing open SRDs for every system in the early and mid 2000s, including Mongoose Publishing’s knockoffs licensed versions of classic RPGs RuneQuest and Traveller. These spawned numerous variants, notably True20 and Mutants & Masterminds from the d20 and d20 Modern SRDs, OpenQuest from Mongoose’s “Runic SRD”, and The Cepheus System from the Traveller SRD.

If I were a reporter, I’d interview the principal authors and ask their opinions. As I’m merely a random blogger, I spent ten minutes of Googling (actually DuckDuckGoing) and turned up two blog posts by Monte Cook from 2007, near the end of the infamous “d20 Glut”3.

In those posts, Cook explains the benefits of the OGL and Open Game Content as follows:

  1. An open license to extend and remix D&D 3.x gave the fledgeling version far more support than Wizards could manage.

  2. A “free”4 version of their game allowed the game – as a set of rules and as a “meme” – to spread more widely that Wizards’s marketing could.

  3. With numerous variants of the game out in the wild, players will gravitate toward Official D&D content, if only out of curiosity, rather than jump to wholly new systems like GURPS.

  4. Open Game Content lowers barriers to entry, which leads to more support (ahem) and more available game material. Even the aforementioned glut meant that some people were making good stuff, even if consumers had to dig for it.

  5. What’s good for D&D and Wizards is good for “the Industry”, because D&D is (like it or not) the 800 lb. gorilla driving role-playing games.

Cook also opined that, given the confusion about the 3.5 edition (vs. earlier 3.0), Wizards should wait until gamers asked for a new edition, and that it should remain under the OGL.

Wizards, in fact, did neither of those things.

In 2008 Wizards released their top-to-bottom rewrite of D&D as “fourth edition”, under a more restrictive “Game System License”. It delineated what terms a third party publisher could reference, including headers in the 4th edition Players Handbook. Very vocal fans reviled this new edition, mostly because of the rules; combat turned into a complex skirmish wargame rather than the “theater of the mind” that earlier editions supported. (I definitely was not a fan.) Still, the GSL didn’t help. Third party support for 4e was notably sparse. An “essentials” version in 2010 tried to clarify and pare down the new rules, but in 2012 Wizards announced a new version was under development.

Beyond 4th editions own flaws, Wizards had created their own competition. Back in 2009, Paizo had published Pathfinder, an increasingly complex fork from the d20 3.5 SRD. Arguably it gained a lot of momentum from 3.5 fans who felt left behind. Because it descends from the 3.5 SRD, it, too, has its own SRD, as does its second edition and its science fantasy variant Starfinder.

D&D fans had yet another alternative in the mid-2000s: various “retro-clones” that recreated older editions of D&D from the text of the 3.0 and 3.5 SRDs. This “Old School Renaissance” spawned a plethora of “old school” D&D that moved beyond simply reproducing rules of the past to modernizing, streamlining, re-contextualizing, and augmenting rules. All these diverse variants tried to “fix” some perceived problem in older versions, extended the D&D framework to other genres and fantasy sub-genres, attempted to recapture the feeling of playing D&D in one’s youth, or pursued some other, more niche aesthetic. Wizards later hired designers from this Old School Renaissance5 to design their latest edition of D&D, codenamed “D&D Next”.

In 2014, Wizards released D&D 5, with an OGL SRD6 once more. Granted, much of D&D 5 derives from D&D 3.5, but most of the interesting options are not part of the OGL content. The 5th Edition SRD defines a very restrictive, if (nearly) complete, subset of D&D 5th edition. We’ve yet to see a similar “gold rush” of 5th edition content. D&D-adjacent publishers publish mainly adventures, fairly conservative support for the main game, or occasional ports of 5th edition rules to other settings and sub-genres, e.g. Onyx Path’s Pugmire.

Fun fact, though: legally a publisher doesn’t need to use the OGL or OGC to write a D&D-like game. Kevin Crawford wrote Stars Without Number completely from scratch; it blends ideas from “old school” D&D and Traveller, but all in his own words. His Sine Nomine Publishing provides most of the game for free, but the text is entirely under his copyright; he can license and monetize his work as he chooses.

So what gives?

Note that I am not a lawyer, but this is my understanding of some very similar and easily confused terms:

Note that copyright covers only the expression of an idea, not an idea itself. In sofware this can be tricky – there’s only a few ways to write an iterative loop, for example – but in prose there’s innumerable ways to describe, say, rolling a 20-sided die and adding modifiers. This is how Mongoose created their SRDs for RuneQuest and Traveller: by avoiding trademarked terms and recognizable text from Chaosium’s and GDW’s originals, they effectively reproduced the rules of those games. Mongoose licensed the settings of Glorantha and the Imperium for their published games, but kept those references out of the SRDs (mostly). Design Mechanism, in turn, rewrote their version of RuneQuest (later renamed Mythras) based heavily on ideas they developed for Mongoose’s RuneQuest (later renamed Legend), but with enough differences in expression that they avoided copyright infringement … and being bound by the OGL.

The distinction between rules and expression, or mechanics and a complete RPG, sometimes confuses even professionals. Recently the head honchos of Chaosium seemingly declared Mongoose’s “Runic SRD” null and void. Except that, technically, they can’t do that. As Newt Newport, the author of OpenQuest, pointed out, while the licensing agreement between Chaosium and Mongoose is long dead, and Mongoose and its licensees can’t use any RuneQuest-specific content, the explanations of mechanics in the Runic SRD are legally safe, to the extent they contain no copyrighted material not under the OGL.7 Newport still intends to rewrite OpenQuest for numerous reasons including a more solid foundation for its license.

GUMSHOE: A Simple Idea With Rules

Yet, despite these legal complexities, modern publishers still publish SRDs.

Recently (2020) Pelgrane Publishing released Vesion 3 of their GUMSHOE SRD which includes rules from their One 2 One and QuickShock rules from last year’s Yellow Sign RPG. (And under a Creative Commons license which requires only attribution.) Those additions double the size of the document. Why give all this away for free? According to Pelgrane, the SRD is intended for “professional game designers who want to create their own GUMSHOE settings”. The SRD is pretty bare-bones; it delineates mechanics, and even a laundry list of abilities, but it lacks the background and character specifics of the full game. Arguably that’s the hard part, so they’re giving away comparatively little.

More importantly, though, Robin Laws designed GUMSHOE to fix a problem in many RPGs in which finding a clue requires a player to succeed at an ability roll; a failed roll means no clue. While not a problem in typical dungeon crawl or action/adventure scenarios, in a largely or exclusively investigative game like Call of Cthulhu missing a clue can either handicap the player characters or cause the entire adventure to grind to a halt. GMs can provide workarounds, and frequently do, but GUMSHOE specifically exempts Investigative Abilities from the caprice of bad die rolls. Laws and his co-designers want to spread this philosophy, embodied in GUMSHOE, to the rest of the hobby. Everything else is a way to sell this idea. One can even strip out the rules for non-investigative activities and substitute something else; Lorefinder, which won a Silver ENNie Award in 2012, grafted GUMSHOE’s Investigative Abilities into Pathfinder. Lorefinder removed skills wholly covered by Investigative Abilities, split others into a Investigative Ability and a regular Pathfinder skill, and tweaked remaining rules to keep some semblance of balance. The changes to Pathfinder required, all told, about 25 pages.

Revving the Year Zero Engine

As part of a Kickstarter for Forbidden Lands, Fria Ligan published a Year Zero SRD containing core rules for Forbidden Lands, Mutant Year Zero, and indeed nearly every game they’ve produced. That said, there’s a lot missing: concrete character generation rules, Essentially they’re “giving away” their dice pool mechanic, the names and definitions of attributes, skills, and talents, their default combat system, tables of mental and physical Critical Injuries, and very brief references to rules in their other games. Someone would have to do a lot of work to turn the SRD into a playable game. Furthermore, the resulting game would bear the Year Zero System logo and references to the Fria Ligan authors … essentially, free advertising.

Recently Fria Ligan started a Free League Workshop on Drive Thru RPG, to encourage fans to support their products. The SRD is a related, and probably necessary, effort.

The Pros and Cons of SRDs

One can cite other examples, e.g. the Fate System, but at a guess the reasons are substantially the same:

With two decades of experience, though, we’ve seen the downsides:

It’s hard to assess the impact of SRDs besides D&D’s, since no games with SRDs have even a fraction of its market share. Ultimately, though, I suspect the main benefit of an SRD is to encourage third party support not only from other publishers but from fans. Believe it or not, TSR – the company that created and owned D&D before Wizards of the Coast – threatened to sue its fans. Many other factors led to its eventual bankruptcy, but surely this didn’t help.

In the role-playing game “industry”, companies that don’t own D&D can extend their reach only by leveraging their fan base. Between open content and technological advances, barriers to entry into the “industry” are exceedingly low; a large number of “publishers” are just gamers with a license for InDesign.

Older, more established publishers like Chaosium may prefer to zealously guard their “intellectual property” and stick to traditional company-to-company licensing agreements. Newer ones may prefer to set “fair use” boundaries without giving up any copyrights to potential competitors. Those with less to lose, or who are willing to take some risks, seem more than willing to give up licensing fees and editorial control with an open license in hope of gaining a larger share of a notoriously small market. Or maybe, like the creators of the open source licenses that inspired the OGL, they hope to change the world of role-playing games … as small and isolated as it is.


  1. a.k.a. their “system”, although how cohesive and “systematic” those rules are varies between vendors and between products. ↩︎

  2. Apparently Wizards doesn’t host the 3.0 and 3.5 SRDs any more, but sites like http://www.d20srd.org have formatted them for the Web. ↩︎

  3. In which numerous publishers were pumping out adventures, alternate classes, new feats, new spells, new monsters, and so forth, often with little if any play testing. To paraphrase Sturgeon’s Law, at least 90% of it was crap, and most of the companies involved evaporated. ↩︎

  4. As in “free speech” but, from context, mainly “free beer”. ↩︎

  5. a.k.a. the Old School Revival, but I’ll stick with the older term. ↩︎

  6. The official 5th edition SRD is at https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/systems-reference-document-srd, but http://5e.d20srd.org/ is easier to browse. ↩︎

  7. Granted, anyone can sue anyone over anything in the U.S., and the party with deeper pockets and/or a sympathetic judge tends to win. ↩︎