Recently, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast, sought to rollback its Open Game License, which had been in place since 2000. For over 20 years, a whole industry of individuals and small businesses has relied on the license for permission to create, publish, distribute, and even profit from compatible content using essential copyrighted aspects of the game. This support has contributed significantly to Dungeon & Dragons’ popularity. Yet in January, the publisher wanted to replace the license with a more restrictive and proprietary instrument. The fandom revolted. After a short and intense row that made national headlines, Wizards of the Coast reversed course, abandoned the proposed changes, and even took the extra step of licensing Dungeons & Dragons through the Creative Commons.
As this drama unfolded, I began to wonder if J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation could provide us with insight into the ferocity of fandom’s reaction. In popular culture, few entities lend themselves to imaginative world-making, or sub-creating, as well as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). To the fans, Wizards of the Coast’s move had threatened to take away something they had helped create.
Tolkien spent decades imagining the Middle-earth of his novels, imbuing it with diverse peoples, each with their own languages and histories, which he fleshed out voluminously. Tolkien described his world-making as “sub-creation.” To him, fantasy was a mode of worship: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” In Tolkien’s view, our human impulse is to imitate our Creator, including making whole worlds out of the fabric of our imaginations.
I discovered D&D at age 12 and sub-creation marked my whole experience with it. I immediately recognized in the game an outlet for all the fantastical imaginings inspired by reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Even before I was finally able to buy my first set, with money earned from my paper route, the floodgates of creativity had burst open: I dreamed up whole worlds, drew maps, and imagined the peoples living in them, as well as the evils that threatened them. With D&D, my friends and I seldom bothered with the published adventure “modules;” we invariably made up our own.
Turns out, my experience with the game was actually fairly typical. Everyone at the table participates in the creative process of the game, whether as the Dungeon Master or by playing a character. Long before the Open Game License (OGL), right after Dungeon & Dragons’ first publication in 1974, early fans played a huge role in defining the nature of the experience—even before the game itself really knew what it was. The cover of the original version described itself as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.” Role-playing game was not yet a term in use. Early adopters quickly realized this was no mere wargame; they had something entirely new and different in their hands. The original game’s somewhat vague rules left it up to players to fill in the gaps, most importantly for what it meant to role-play.
In popular culture, few entities lend themselves to imaginative world-making, or sub-creating, as well as Dungeons & Dragons.
Jon Peterson’s exhaustive work on this period, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, describes in depth the rigorous conversations and scrappy debates that raged in the fanzines and conventions of that early era. With a remarkable sense of the moment, these fans talked through the role and scope of the Dungeon Master, the motivations and limitations of characters, and even the purpose of a dungeon! Their ideas, questions, and of course their gripes all helped guide co-creator Gary Gygax’s development of the game. Fan feedback inspired the game to become more dynamic, bursting from the confines of dank dungeons and into worlds fleshed out in Tolkienesque detail.
These early adopters felt a strong sense of shared ownership in Dungeons & Dragons. Peterson quotes one commenter declaring, “D&D is too important to leave to Gary Gygax.” By the effort they had put into defining the game, the fans thought they had earned a say in what happened with it. It was partly in long-overdue acknowledgement of this that Wizards of the Coast originally issued the OGL in 2000.
As a Christian kid, I wouldn’t have said that I was worshiping God as I sketched out the mountain ranges in the kingdom of Alidine on graph paper. In the turmoil of the mid-80s “satanic panic” surrounding D&D, I actually worried that my enjoyment of the game was somehow sinful. Yet, playing it generally produced good things in my life: I had a tight friend group who were having too much fun collaborating together to bother with beer parties or to experiment with drugs. Without doubt, D&D opened wide avenues of sub-creation for me. Tolkien related his ideas about sub-creation mostly through his discussion of “fairy-story.” He describes the gospels as embracing “all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance. . .” This fairy-story did what no other fairy-story has done; it “entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.”
The stories and worlds we weave on the looms of our imaginations may or may not be considered worship, but fantasy enables us to emulate the creativity of our Creator. In this way, the theory of sub-creation does help explain the visceral reaction to the revocation of the Open Game License: it threatened the creative release that is so essential to the experience of D&D. Thankfully, cooler heads at Wizards of the Coast heard the community’s outcry and realized that Dungeons & Dragons is too important to keep to themselves.