For a while now I've been thinking about trying my hand at creating a game similar in spirit and execution to Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and offshoots. I'd rather not face the full bulk of work in implementing my own RPG system - I'd like to use D&D rules.

Now, reading about the subject it seems there is something called "The License" which allows a company to brand a game as D&D. This license seems to be exclusive, and let's just say I don't have the money to buy it :p.

Is it still legal for me to implement and release such a game? Commercially or open-source? I'm not sure exactly which edition would fit the best, but since Baldur's Gate is based of 2nd edition, could I go ahead an implement that?

in short: what are the issues concerning licensing and publishing when it comes to D&D?

Also: Didn't see any similar question...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wizards of the Coast (owners of D&D) are known to be extremely litigious -- IANAL, but I would be very wary about this issue. If in doubt, it might be better to directly contact a Hasbro representative rather than ask here. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 4:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Using the D&D rules is almost certainly a mistake because tabletop D&D operates under very different conditions to computer RPGs and rules translate poorly. I strongly encourage you to develop a system more suited to your target game. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:16

4 Answers 4


You cannot brand your game as D&D, period. You used to be able to brand your game as being D20 System compatible provided you followed a number of stipulations, not the least of which is that you couldn't reproduce or include rules for character advancement (XP, gaining levels, etc.) which basically means a player of your game would need a copy of the D&D Player's Handbook to level up; obviously those requirements are not in any way geared towards computer games, and creating one that is in any way officially a part of the D&D universe is going to require you forking over boatloads of cash to WotC. However, when WotC released 4th Edition D&D, they withdrew the d20 License so you can no longer brand anything as d20. You can just take the 3rd edition rules under the OGL, so long as your rules are also under the OGL. I have no idea how that translates to non-print rules, though, and it may well just be fundamentally incompatible (ask a lawyer; programmer nerds won't be able to answer that for you).

You are basically free to use a ruleset that looks an awful lot like D&D at any time, though. Ever since the first computer RPG, D&D has been "ripped off" repeatedly, down to seeing obviously D&D-original mechanics like THAC0 showing up in a lot of old non-TSR-affiliated computer RPGs. You are legally obligated to avoid WotC trademarks (campaign setting names, iconic creatures like Beholders or Mind Flayers, etc.) and your rules cannot be a direct copy of the D&D source material. If you've got the same races with the same ability modifiers and the same feat tree and the same prestige classes, you're probably going to be in trouble. If you've got your own races and classes and a new "perk" tree and it just so happens that you have Primary Attributes that mathemtically work like D20's Ability Scores and a level advancement scheme that uses XP to gain levels and you get Primary Attribute increases every X levels and a new perk every Y levels and other class abilities each level... well, that's what just about every other combat-based RPG ever made has done and there's nothing WotC can do about it. A system that "feels" like D&D is one thing so long as nobody is going to look at it and think, "holy cow, that's D&D!"

I know it's not an answer to your question, but my advice is to just steer clear, if for the following reason only: different gaming mediums have different strengths and weaknesses, and the design choices and compromises made for one medium rarely make sense when transferred to another. D&D's rules work great in pen-and-paper games but do not work well in a computer game, an ARG or LARP, a card game, or so on. Even awesome classic D&D computer games like Baldur's Gate made a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks to the rules and even then still came out with worse experience than what could have been accomplished with a set of mechanics better suited to a point-and-click real-time dungeon crawler.

And really, inventing your own game mechanics isn't terribly hard in the grand scheme of things. If you can write a game like Baldur's Gate (something a team of fans working on GemRB has still yet to completely finish off even after years of work, and that's ignoring the development of any custom content!), you can absolutely write an RPG rule set. Doing so is going to take a tiny fraction of the time it'll take you to make the rest of the code and content for your game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "D&D's rules work great in pen-and-paper games but do not work well in a computer game". I know it's very tempting to use a known, tested (and likely well-understood and liked) P&P system for your game, but those systems have a lot of abstractions for things which the computer can easily calculate and simulate (damage models, for example), while on the other hand falling back on "common sense" for other less regulated areas (social interaction ...), which the computer can't provide without a detailed ruleset. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 13:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can someone explain why Beholders are copyrighted? Can you copyright mythological creatures in the US or did they "invent" all those creatures? I'm having a tough time believing they were the first to think about a flying eyeball... \$\endgroup\$
    – Mikle
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 18:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ They're not copyrighted, they're trademarked, iirc. Very different set of laws. Trademarks cover any names, images, designs, etc. that can be used to identity a product. So far as flying eyeballs, knock yourself out. Just don't make them flying bodies with a big eyeball and a mouth and eye tentacles with an eyeball on each where each eye has a specific magic power and which the creature is called a Beholder. Note that D&D has "Treants" instead of "Ents" because the Tolkien estate has those trademarked, despite the conceptual creatures being identical. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 4:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ I believe HOMM3 had Beholders, but they also ripped a lot of names for their Heroes from other games (FF7 in particular). Was still an awesome game with very solid balanced gameplay, but they did borrow a lot of names from other games. They also went bankrupt a little while later... coincidence? \$\endgroup\$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Dec 3, 2011 at 0:09


This from the Wizards of the Coast website regarding OGL and software.

Q: So I could make a game?

A: Sure. Remember though, you cannot use any Product Identity with the OGL or claim compatibility with anything. So you can't say your game is a d20 System game or uses D&D rules or call it Elminster's Undermountain Crawl.

However further down the page they say you can't make an interactive game?! Huh?

Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction.


Further however:

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. Once a game has been made public, nothing in the copyright law prevents others from developing another game based on similar principles. Copyright protects only the particular manner of an author’s expression in literary, artistic, or musical form.

Material prepared in connection with a game may be subject to copyright if it contains a sufficient amount of literary or pictorial expression. For example, the text matter describing the rules of the game or the pictorial matter appearing on the gameboard or container may be registrable.

From: Link

It appears that WoTC are fudging the legality a bit. You can make a game called Dungeons and Dragons (title) but it can't look like the dungeons and dragons title which is trademarked, or contain any other distinct likenesses of trademarked WotC elements, ie certain monsters, settings, characters.

WOTC might have patented the Dungeons and Dragons game system, but it appears that they have only patented the magic the gathering system, and all collectible trading card game systems somehow, not really sure how that works... http://search.usa.gov/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&affiliate=web-sdmg-uspto.gov&query=wizards+of+the+coast&go=Go

It would also appear that they can't patent DnD rules, if they haven't already, as it appears you can't patent something after a year has passed since you released it publicly. http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/493249/mythbusting-game-design-and-copyright-trademarks-a

Most info I read though, says the guy with most lawyers wins. I'm gonna patent that system so every time someone with more lawyers wins, they need to pay me royalties.

As for WotC being overly litigious, the only examples I read were when some guy released early pics of their new MTG cards, one guy made a porno version of DnD using the d20 and WotC said we don't want that associated with d20 so he removed the d20 logo and released it under OGL, which differs from d20. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D20_System

Summary, you can make a dnd-like game using OGL even if it doesn't specifically allow games(if you ban an interactive game you effectively ban all games as interactivity is a key component of a game) but you would need to change the names of most identifiably DnD stuff. But the WotC website seems to confuse OGL with d20 trademarked system, so I also did initially. This may be intentional to dissuade people from making a computer game based on OGL.

You can make a game of any type based on OGL, but not on d20. Everything in these system reference documents(SRD) is OGL: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=d20/article/srd35

More info: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=d20/oglfaq/20040123d

Down the bottom they even say they can't copyright a game, and half-way down they say you can make any type of content using OGL. Main rule is you must identify clearly somewhere in your game distribution what content is OGL and you can't use the d20 content but the SRDs from the link above cover nearly every rule you need anyway.

BTW I'm making a game from the SRD in Unity. First step is a character generator which is mostly done.

  • \$\begingroup\$ If you want to add beholders to your game just call them Brutal Gazers or check and see if Eye Tyrants is trademarked, or whatever, if DnD can call "ents" "treeants" then you can call "mind flayers" "brain flayers","psyche slayer" or whatever... \$\endgroup\$
    – Lankhmar
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 18:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beholder look down the bottom, it shows beholders in loads of different computer games and other media. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lankhmar
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 18:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Mind Flayers = same deal en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… \$\endgroup\$
    – Lankhmar
    Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 18:57

You probably couldn't implement 2nd edition. But WotC was kind enough to release 3rd and 3.5 edition under what they called the "Open Gaming License", which is what basically allows RPGs like Pathfinder to exist. Basically, you can probably use the 3.5 edition rules, but without any of the setting details. So no Beholders, etc, nothing that is part of D&D setting-wise.

Now that doesn't guarantee legal cover, but Pathfinder is still around. If they're basically able to implement 3.5 (with modifications), you probably can too. Though the OGL may not cover videogames.

In any case, if you're worried about it, it really doesn't take much to just make the system sufficiently different. Start with it as a base, lose some ability scores, make a couple of new ones, change some feats, invent a few tables. It's not that hard. Plus, you'll likely make a better game if you're not hidebound to some edition of table-top D&D.


You can't implement a direct copy of the D&D rule set, there are however, open rule sets that have been created with the express purpose of being copied and modified for your own use. You can build a game system based on one of these free rule sets, or you can make your own.

You can check out Draft, it's a free RPG rule set.

  • \$\begingroup\$ In most of the world, rule sets (which are just math, after all) can't be copyrighted nor trademarked (though in some cases they can be patented, but I've yet to see one patent on role-playing game rules ...). What stops you from implementing a direct copy of the rules then, exactly, except fear of litigation? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 7:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Rule sets are not "just math". Rule sets may make use of math from time to time, but they do not consist solely of math. They absolutely, absolutely can be and are copyrighted, the same way that video games can be and are copyrighted, even though they make use of math. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 0:32

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