23
\$\begingroup\$

I intend to write a D&D module and publish it under the OGL (I know 5e itself isn't OGL, see note below) for use with both D&D 5e and AD&D. I know there are areas where I can't draw directly (copyrighted worlds, spells, characters, etc.), but can I include more generic information drawn from the major core books?

For example, in an encounter where the party fights Zombies, can I include the 5e zombie stats like HP, AC, attack types, etc.? Would I need permission from Wizards of the Coast to include specific information like this? Or, since it is a generic monster, am I free to use D&D stats from the Monster Manual or other books?

Basically, if I have a party encounter a 'generic' monster like a Skeleton, can I include stats in the description of the encounter like so:

AD&D: AC 6, HP 4, damage: 1d6 or by weapons (or other data drawn directly from the AD&D Monster Manual)

D&D 5e: AC 13, HP 13, damage vulnerabilities: bludgeoning, damage resistance (etc., etc., drawn directly from the 5e MM)

So, can I draw in the exact stats and damage info from the D&D manuals regardless of edition, without a license? If I keep it under 400 words, would this fall under the "fair use" clause of copyright?


Note: My understanding of the OGL is that it is not exclusive to the 3e ruleset. And while copyright law seems to indicate that the OGL isn't needed to publish add-ons at all, just about every publisher I've seen includes an OGL statement. And some publishers (such as Frog God Games) are making supplements for 5e while claiming use of the OGL. As I understand it, publishing my module under the OGL is independent of whether the edition of D&D I intend it to be used with is also published under the OGL.

\$\endgroup\$
29
\$\begingroup\$

You're somewhat confused, which is understandable since intellectual property rights and D&D is a confusing issue.

OGL

The OGL is a specific license with specific terms. D&D 3e/3.5e was made open for others' use under the OGL and the open portion was published as a SRD, or System Reference Document. Other games derived from the d20 SRD (like Pathfinder and Mutants and Masterminds) and totally unrelated games, like FATE, use the OGL. 4e used a non-open license called the GSL, and previous versions had no available user license except under contract with TSR. You can read the blog post Open Gaming for Dummies to understand these very specific legal terms.

There are some "retroclones" that use the OGL and actually pull the OGL 3.5e information from the d20 SRD into something that looks more like an older version of D&D. See also What content can I reproduce from Pathfinder? that has a similar discussion specific to Pathfinder. Some people use the OGL to put out modules for various other non-OGL D&D versions, but that's actually somewhat complex and you need to understand the rest of what's going on in IP land to know how and why.

Wizards has also released 5e - or at least some of it - under the OGL as well. You can download it and the SRD on their site. Be careful, the SRD only has a subset of the game's content, and it's all that can be used under the OGL.

Intellectual Property

Let's talk about using game IP in other games outside the scope of the OGL. The more general discussion in Can I use existing game mechanics in my own designs? has a lot of relevant details for you here, as well as Is it legal to "use" (reference) copyrighted material in a way that requires ownership of its original publication? You have three main areas of IP concern to contend with - copyright, trademark (including trade dress) and patents.

Copyright Basics

First of all, "fair use" does not apply in this case. At all. It's one of those phrases people like to use on the Internet but don't understand. If you up and use text from another work in your work, and it's not part of the very limited scope of fair use (educational, review, journalistic, etc.) it's illegal.

Secondly, game mechanics cannot be copyrighted. "Copyright does not protect the idea for a game, its name or title, or the method or methods for playing it. Nor does copyright protect any idea, system, method, device, or trademark material involved in developing, merchandising, or playing a game." (United States Copyright Office, "Copyright Registration of Games").

However, "the text matter describing the rules of the game" may be protected by copyright "if it contains a sufficient amount of literary or pictorial expression". For example, a passage describing character creation for the Clans of the Sun and Moon, explaining their society and why they tend to have the skills they do, would probably be protected by copyright. A section merely describing the steps involved in rolling a number of dice or expending a number of points on X attributes would probably not be. (rpglibrary.org) Note that this means even charts and tables can be copyrighted. Everything's copyrighted, there's not a registry or list or anything (well there is, but stuff not on it is still copyrighted).

In general, this is the escape clause some people use to put out supplements/modules that simply have "goblins" and "skeletons" in them which may have "HD: 2+2" or "a DC 12 Perception check" outside the scope of the OGL. If it's "mechanics" and not "expressive" that's legal. But head onward and read about trademark...

Trademark

However, various aspects of the game rules may also be trademarked. Several D&D monsters are, and in general things that would usually be Product Identity in an OGL game can be. Characters, game worlds, etc. Without a more specific license allowing it, you absolutely cannot set your module in the Forgotten Realms and have Elminster fighting a beholder in it. The reason many of the retroclones do use the OGL is so they don't have to fret over whether somewhat unique terms like "Hit Dice" end up getting trademarked or not, since as a term you're explicitly allowed to use it if you are using the OGL.

You will note that many products/publishers, out of fear of trademark won't say they are "compatible with Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition" but instead say circuitous things like "for 5e!" Normally, expressing compatibility with something is an OK use of trademark, Hasbro themselves lost a lawsuit on that v. RADGames about a company claiming Monopoly compatibility for an add-on pack. But the OGL giveth and the OGL taketh away, the OGL says you can't claim compatibility in its terms so those using it can't legally say "D&D".

Note that trade dress also means you can't use graphics/art/logos/etc that make your product look "too much like" products from an existing publisher.

You can do trademark searches to look for trademarks, see the discussion in Are the names of the more generic planes copyrighted under the OGL as Product Identity?

Patent

Game mechanics can be patented, since processes can be patented. I do not believe there is a patent on file for RPGs or D&D but I'm not an IP lawyer. You can do patent searches as well. At least one RPG publisher applied for a RPG patent, check it out here (article on it). Just wanted to mention this for completeness.

Dungeon Masters Guild

Speaking of more specific licenses, Wizards has come out with one! Their "Dungeon Masters Guild" program is designed to specifically allow publishing of 5e material with a number of restrictions, primarily that such content may only be distributed through their online storefront and they get a 50% cut of the sales (though you can make it free - although you can't distribute it other than through their site). The upsides are that (a) you can use the Forgotten Realms as a setting and (b) you can use all of5e rules/content, not just the subset provided in the SRD.

Bottom Line for Modules

"I am not an IP lawyer and this is not legal advice blah blah" but in general you have three paths open to you. All require a nontrivial amount of legal understanding, so taking a RPG.SE answer and going forth to publish would be the height of folly.

But the first is to use the OGL, limit yourself only to things found in the SRD, and don't claim D&D compatibility. Most folks do this, for example Frog God as you note. For an adventure, with a little oversight, you are probably fine with just writing general scenario content with pure rules references.

Or, you can not use the OGL, navigate the copyright/trademark waters yourself (and/or hope Hasbro doesn't care), and even claim compatibility. KenzerCo did this with some products; their owner, David Kenzer, is a lawyer so he knew what he was doing and figured he could hold his own. Since modules usually don't contain large amounts of rules content with the exception of stat blocks, the problem space is pretty narrow.

Now, profit vs it's a freebie on the Web doesn't change most of the legal factors, but it does change immensely the likelihood you'll get in trouble over it, so if you're not really looking to publish for sale, go ahead. If you're starting out and looking to publish for sale, it might be a good idea to do that through an established third party company (like FGG) that can help you navigate these waters.

Or, you can use the Dungeon Masters Guild program, if it suits your needs.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer could be improved by removing or shifting down the OGL historical elements and moving up the short & sweet answer to the question, which is that yes, parts of 5th Edition D&D are under the OGL, they are available in the SRD, and all of the questioner's specific examples are in the SRD. The rest of the answer is all true and generally good to know, but pretty tangential to the question itself. \$\endgroup\$ – Polisurgist Aug 13 '16 at 19:34
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I think that the legal issues around publishing are complex enough that if you don't have the patience to read and parse even this amount of history and information - you probably shouldn't embark on this at all, and your truly legal options outside of OGL and DM's Guild exist and are worth understanding. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 13 '16 at 20:35
4
\$\begingroup\$

I published a lot of material using the OGL. What I do and seen many others do is refer to the original book. I typically limit myself only to the Monster Manual and my own monster/ stat blocks.

Skeletons (5)

See Monster Manual

If I change something from the original monster, then I create a full stat block for it.

Ninja Skeletons (5)

[Full Stat Block]

Finally, when using material from another source, refer to that book's OGL. Make sure you understand what is and is not Product Identity (PI). Most include stat blocks are part of their PI (I do).

\$\endgroup\$
0
\$\begingroup\$

Whatever else you do, talk to the IP holder for the work you're making an add-on for about this. In the past TSR was kinda crazy-psycho about letting people make, use, talk about or think sideways at D&D, but Wizards definitely understands that the existence of fan content increases, rather than decreases, their profits. They might cut you a deal and just flat-out allow you to do this royalty-free if they like your idea, or even buy it off you/pay you to develop it for them (all of this is incredibly unlikely). More reasonably, they might let you know what you can and can't do (really, what they do and don't want you to do), which might solve your problem depending on how derivative your work is and if they're ok with you using whatever it is you are using of theirs. It is likely that they will also offer you a proprietary liscence involving you either paying them a fixed sum to use the material, giving them royalties on your sales, or both. That offer might be worth taking/negotiating, depending on the exact details.

Wizards does publish their own modules and, while I think this is unlikely, they might be hostile to you for that reason. Just remember that what they say, even if the person talking to you is a lawyer might not be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If you don't like what you're hearing, get a second opinion, do some research, and generally follow the advice in @mxyzplk's answer. In any case, be polite and friendly-- the less animosity in these kinds of things the better.

Generally, the best way to avoid IP problems, when possible, is to work with, rather than against the IP holder. If they are ok with you doing something with their work and you can get that in writing (or email, etc), you're good to go. It's always worth at least trying this approach; even if it goes badly the worst that happens is that the IP holder knows you'd like to make something influenced by their work.

If your government regulates who's allowed to give legal advice, this isn't it.

\$\endgroup\$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.