My current project (“The Dark Order”) is based on a universe and story of my own making. However, it is heavily based on the game mechanics of the well known Dungeons & Dragons franchise (dice rolling rules, alignments, skills, skill checks, saving throws, ability modifiers, etc.) which is one of the motivations for this project.
I’m not sure if I’m infringing copyrights by replicating those specific rules, and being my intention to publish the game one day through Hosted Games, I’m thinking of changing those components and creating my own rules. On the other hand, D&D rules would be one of the features that I think would be very interesting (and would appeal to a lot of people). As for the characters, world and story, they are entirely being designed by me.
Has anyone ever been in a similar situation? Any thoughts? Thanks.
From my limited experience, both personal and talking to those more experienced, it depends on which version of the rule-sets you are using.
As I understand it, Wizards of the Coast has the permissions published and accessible to review, so I do suggest going directly to them to look over their permissions, before making any design and/or execution decisions.
WotC is very protective of their various IPs, especially D+D and MTG. So I would advise caution on anything with them that even skirts close to copyright issues. They’re not as openly litigious as, say, Disney. But they do keep a strong eye on things.
Whether it’s an actual legal issue…that’s where you’d need someone who specializes in copyright/IP law. I’ve just been a writer long enough to have half a foothold on the basics, and a nerd long enough to have seen WotC jump swiftly into action. And if I’m giving advice, I almost always err on the side of caution.
You are legally allowed to use anything and everything from here:
This is a complicated issue, because you can’t actually copyright basic game mechanics; but you can copyright the explanations of mechanics, and trademark all sorts of specific words/phrases. Furthermore, “what’s probably legal” and “what you can afford to prove is legal in court against a team of lawyers” may overlap, but they’re not the same.
One significant issue is that you really can’t say “This uses D&D mechanics!” to promote your game, even if you can use a lot of the mechanics in question, because then you’re using their trademarked name to sell your stuff without their permission. So if you want to appeal to people by using those mechanics, the USE of the mechanics might be legal, but telling prospective customers that it’s those mechanics might not be! (And that’s before you get into issues like making sure you’re not using terminology like spell names that could also be under copyright. Or trademark. Which are different, but often conflated.)
Now, there was the whole OGL thing back in the day, which I believe still works. (See the PDF posted by someone else.) But you need to be very careful about selling a game as “like Dungeons and Dragons!” explicitly. And decide how much risk you want to run of being sued for IP infringement even if you’re probably within the law.
My understanding (not a lawyer!) is similar to the above, you can essentially use the same gameplay mechanics, but can’t refer to any materials or properties of the D&D franchise (including descriptions of those rules).
TL;Dr if you’re using D20s and considering 20 as a critical hit, that’s probably fine.
To add a caveat, I’m not a lawyer either! I did work for a game publishing company for a few years right around when the OGL hit (though that company didn’t use it), and there was much discussion of copyright vs. trademark (vs. trade dress), and what each could apply to, and where it was safe or fraught to give fans permission to use something for their fan pages vs. actual publication.
Reiterating over what has been said: the ruleset is licensed under the OGL (Open Game License), @JBento posted the SRD (System Reference Documentation) above, but here’s an oficial web page from Wizards of the Coast explaining what you can do with it.
As mentioned, you can use the mechanics with no problem. You cannot use the world lore, established characters (e.g. Strahd), items, spells and whatnot unless mentioned in the SDR. Be careful with names of classes and races, some are pretty common place for fantasy settings, such as “elves” and “sorcerers”, others are specific to D&D, such as “kobold”, “tiefling” or “aasimar”.
As for advertising, I’m pretty sure you cannot say that it is a D&D game, although saying that it is a D&D compliant game could fly. I’ve seen a couple custom settings advertised like this. But if you want to be on the safe side, just say that it is a D20 System and call it a day. Anyone familiar with D&D will know what that means.
Finally, if you are unsure, do reach out to professional advice. Needless to say, this post is not professional advice.
Not trying to nitpick here, but I wouldn’t include kobold’s in that list. They were a thing long before DnD. Makes it extremely frustrating when things like DnD rip off so much from folktales and old stories, hard to tell what they really “own”
Didn’t know that . And it’s true! It’s hard to know what they own.
Okay. I did a quick search, and though “kobold” is from folklore, they’re supposed to be gnome-like creatures, whereas in D&D they are a draconic species. So the name may exist outside of D&D but their version of kobolds are still specific.
// Standard disclaimer that IANAL and this is not legal advice //
When I looked into this before for a project, I came to the conclusion there are three options, basically:
Don’t use anything remotely similar to D&D
Only use stuff that has spread far beyond D&D and entered the realm of generic convention. This is tricky, because it’s hard to say what is generic enough. Rolling dice? Probably generic enough. Rolling dice with modifiers derived in a specific way from a player’s class and race? It’s already getting dicey.
You’re probably OK sticking to mechanics, but this is Wizards of the Coast we’re talking about.
License the content you want to use under the Open Game License. If you’re going this route, I’d confirm with COG that they’d publish it. ChoiceScript has its own license, and while I don’t think they’d conflict, IANAL.
Using the Open Game License
Not sure anyone needs a refresher, but to quickly recap: Wizards of the Coast (WotC) publishes a tabletop roleplaying game called Dungeons & Dragons (D&D/DnD). D&D is under copyright, but WotC releases a portion of it as Open Game Content (OGC) under the Open Game License (OGL). WotC describes what portion of D&D is OGC in a document they call the System Reference Document (SRD).
SRD5 is for D&D 5e, SRDv3.5 is for D&D 3.5e. Pathfinder has its own version of the SRD called the Pathfinder Reference Document (PRD) and there are a bunch of other books licensed under the OGL as well. You can mix and match and if you’re looking for core mechanics, I’d suggest the SRDv3.5 and PRD over the SRD5 — they’ve got a lot more material.
If you comply with the terms of the OGL, then you can use OGC in the SRD to make your own games/systems/supplements/etc. And you can sell them for money. This is how Pathfinder exists.
Going off of memory, to comply with the OGL you need to:
Include a complete copy of the license in your game.
Update the copyright notice section of the license to list the material you’re using (including the copyright notice for the OGL itself), as well as a listing for your own game.
Clearly state what (if any) of your own content you’re releasing as OGC.
Clearly differentiate between OGC and Product Identity. Many supplements do this with footnotes and/or by having OGC appear on a different colored background.
Agree not to use anything declared as Product Identity. This is a pretty important point, because it can cover material you’d otherwise be able to use. If WotC declares “John” as part of their Product Identity, then you can’t have anyone named John in your game if you want to use their OGC.
I may be forgetting some things — definitely look into it further.
Bottom line: it is NOT as simple as saying you can use stuff “because it’s in the SRD”.
I think it would be safer to go with the tried-and-true “compatible with the world’s most popular roleplaying game”.
I’d personally rather avoid any chance of running afoul of the d20 System — a trademarked WotC property that is partially released under the OGL, but also has its own separate license which is an entirely different can of legal worms.
Honestly, I thought D20 System was a generic term. Learning some things here.
I am a lawyer, but I only specialize in bird law. However, I’ll step out of my normal sphere to comment here. First off, kudos for trying to do a ChoiceScript D&D-ish game. Many have attempted, only few have made it really far with it. I say that as one of the fallen; my only abandoned public WIP was in this vein and absolutely overwhelmed me from a coding perspective until I just threw up my hands and walked off.
As much as D&D specifically may be a draw, it isn’t worth the risk. Change anything you can at least a little, so nothing can be said to be lifted whole cloth if anyone does a code dive, which they absolutely will (if only to copy all of it and post a slapdash fabrication on an illegal site for their own profit). Do not mention D&D in your description, since that lowers your chance of even getting on their radar. Emphasize fantasy roleplaying, look at that SRD (just seeing that acronym reminds me of long nights poring over d20srd.org for play-by-post 3.5 gaming) and scrub anything specified or even anything close to that, and as was said by @Raven_de_Hart , just err on the side of caution. You’re not going to be as sad that it was slightly less D&Dish as you wanted than you will be if you get a subpeona.
Thank you all for your insight on this matter.
First of all, I consider this topic and your responses important for anyone thinking of going down the same path to be able to make a decision, given the popularity of the franchise in question and the work involved in something like this.
Unfortunately I only remembered to ask the question AFTER I had implemented pretty much all the mechanics of combat, skill checks, spell levels, character progression, etc. As you can imagine, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to this matter and to programming these rules (more than to the story itself, so far). BUT everything has positives, and with this process I I really learned a lot about programming in ChoiceScript and also about choice game development. And now I am able to play D&D without needing the reference book whatsoever.
I decided to review all the mechanics in order to implement a framework of my own (and make it reusable in subsequent projects). Regarding locations, creatures, etc., the project never included material exclusive to WotC.
Although it will still be inspired by the franchise, there will be no elements that could be considered copyright infringement and that could, should the project be worthy of being published, put the publisher and myself at risk.
I trust in my ability to build a story and a game that, regardless of the mechanics, will keep the reader’s attention from beginning to end.
Thank you all again.
Check out Solasta: Crown of the Magister. No license, direct adaptation of mechanics, thanks to the SRD/OGL. They faced no legal trouble and neither will you.