‘Every game master is a game designer.’ – Matt Colville
Sooner or later, you are going to want to tinker with something in your game. The thing is, should you? What’s worth tinkering with, and what is better left ‘as is’?
In this article, I want to address three things: how to homebrew, what to homebrew, and what not to homebrew. For the purposes of this article, I’m using the term ‘homebrew’ fairly loosely here: not just the creation of new options like feats and monsters, but also rules ‘hacks’ like my mana check options.
Some basic principles
If you want add, remove, or change something in your game, the first question is not how but why. A few tests here:
- Does the change make the game more fun?
- Who asked for it? Me or the players?
- Will it speed up play or slow it down?
- Could I live with the status quo?
- Is it a major change, or just a tweak?
Bear in mind that many of the rules we use today were probably homebrew first. Inspiration, advantage and disadvantage, ascending AC, individual initiative . . . none of them are in the original game. But ultimately, the best ‘hacks’ are there to make the game more fun for everyone at the table. Try not to lose sight of that. If you’re making lots of far-reaching, fundamental changes to the game, you may be better off trying out a different system entirely.
This is what your D&D game looks like if you start to mess with the basics too much.
As a general principle, have a grown-up conversation with the rest of the group before you change anything. Say ‘can we trial this, see how it goes, and if it doesn’t work, tweak it or leave it as it was?’ Explain why you want to change it and listen to any suggestions or concerns. Ultimately, playing with new rules for one session is unlikely to upset the apple cart of a whole campaign.
What can you change?
Looking through the core rulebooks, there are a number of game elements that you could tweak, remove from, or add to. Let’s go through them.
New species are relatively easy to do. The question is, do you need them? Depending on how you count them and which sourcebooks you allow, there are at least 60 races in 5e now, and the rules for custom lineages in Tasha’s give you even more options. The challenge is not so much one of mechanics as one of imagination: can you come up with something genuinely new? Unless your new species is fundamentally different somehow, like warforged were in 3rd edition, or you wanted them to play a key role in your fiction, like kender in Dragonlance, I would probably adapt the options already available.
Classes, on the other hand, are major. Bear in mind that 5e underwent two years of playtesting and brought in thousands of fans to get things right. In the ten years since then, only one new class has made it into the core rules (the artificer). Even big third-party publishers steer clear of meddling too much with core classes. MCDM have tried a few (the Beastheart and the Illrigger), and Matt Mercer has given us the Blood Hunter, but none of these have caught on in a big way. Wizards of the Coast made three attempts at making a psionic class before they abandoned the effort and made subclasses instead. Creating new classes is a serious undertaking: I wouldn’t recommend it.
Subclasses are not as big a deal as creating a new class, but considerably more work than a new species or background. Depending on the class, you might only have to design a handful of features: a warlock patron, for example, is essentially a spell list, a key mechanic, and features at 6th, 10th, and 14th. Bard colleges get most of their features at 3rd, with one or two other features at 6th and 10th. The problem is, some of the features that you get from a subclass can have a significant impact on the way the game works. Consider the beast master’s companion, for example, which needed serious fixing between 2014 and Tasha’s, or the echo knight’s Manifest Echo feature. These require careful handling and testing.
Backgrounds are one of the easiest things to homebrew – so much so that the DMG almost encourages it. This is a great way of tying your character to the setting, and you can’t really go too wrong with the customization rules. The big debate in the community at the moment is backgrounds that give feats at 1st level. Personally, I think it’s power creep, but it probably doesn’t make that much difference.
Mundane equipment is covered pretty well by the existing rules, but maybe you want something for your world which isn’t covered already, like a chakram or a khopesh. Reskinning can get you far (a katana is mechanically not much different from a longsword, for example) but sometimes you want something fundamentally different, like a hand cannon or power armour. That’s much more work – but doable.
Feats: again, plenty of choice already! In Xanathar’s, Tasha’s, and the Player’s Handbook, there are 72. Players love feats, though, and like a subclass, a new feat can unlock completely new ways of playing the game. But consider the impact of feats like Great Weapon Master, Lucky, Sentinel, or Sharpshooter – four very popular player options. Feats might seem like a small bit of game design, but they can have a big impact on game balance if you go wrong.
Core mechanics: this might be something like how hit points work, or initiative variants, or ways of treating armour as damage reduction. This is quite a broad category; some things you can tweak, others are much more delicate. For example, something like initiative or inspiration isn’t going to have a huge impact on game balance – it’s more about ‘how we do things at our table’. But something like hit points, armour class, or the six stats – now you’re tackling things that’s almost as old as the game itself. If you fundamentally dislike how D&D handles these things, you should maybe take a look at other systems.
Like feats, spells are a bit of a ‘sweet spot’ as far as game design goes: not as big an undertaking as a class, but a fun way of making something that feels ‘new’. I can’t think of many new spells that have really riled up the community – silvery barbs is probably the main offender. You also might end up with a spell that is a bit complicated like synaptic static. Generally speaking, though, the biggest risk with designing a spell is that you make something that goes ignored – or could have been achieved through reskins.
Now on the one hand, magic items are good for DMs to tinker with because, by default, they are not commonly bought or sold. If a character gets a magic item, it is because you have allowed them to have it. On the other hand, most magic items are permanent, so they can definitely get a bit broken, especially if they change the game’s math in quite a fundamental way (consider the humble stone of good luck, for example) or introduce significant complication (eg, the deck of many things). Magic items are probably what I have homebrewed the most in my games, and generally artifacts: magic items that are meant to be broken.
Finally, monsters: the biggest category on this list after magic items. There are well over a thousand monsters in the core books now, and probably a few hundred more in the various adventure modules (and that’s before you get into the world of third-party material). I’ve done a bit of homebrewing here, too, and the main thing I would say is this: the advice in the DMG doesn’t really work. And I’m not the first person to say so. The upcoming Forge of Foes from Sly Flourish and friends looks like it will really help DMs make new monsters, and I’m looking forward to receiving my copy.
If I were to rank these homebrew elements from least to most difficult, I would probably go:
- Mundane equipment
- Core mechanics (fluffy stuff)
- Magic items
- Core mechanics (crunchy stuff)
That’s all well and good, but how do you homebrew something? What’s the process?
Maybe I’m grossly oversimplifying it, but to me, the process looks like this:
- Start by defining your ‘new thing’. Try to start with the fiction; the mechanics-first approach never feels quite as satisfying.
- Research! Look around to see if something does what you’re looking for. Be lazy: if you can, reskin something that already exists.
- If you really can’t find what you’re looking for, try to follow the format of similar game features and keep it as simple as possible. Compare it to other spells, monsters, subclasses to see if it feels too powerful (or not powerful enough).
- Try it out! If it works, great. If it doesn’t, change it or abandon it.
A good rule of thumb is this: if it’s so weak that no one would ever choose it, or so good that no one would ever choose anything else, you need to go back to the drawing board. There’s a reason no one ever takes the ‘vanilla’ human from the Player’s Handbook, for example: everyone wants a feat. There’s a reason no one plays a purple dragon knight (banneret) from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide: it’s just sub-par compared to the other fighter subclasses. Flavour and story can help a bit, but every edition of D&D has options that are better or worse than others – and in some ways, that’s part of the fun. Don’t worry too much about it: this kind of creativity is one of the things we love about the game!
Have you had homebrewing success? Do you disagree with any of my advice here? Let me know in the comments below.
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