GM Advice: Homebrew

When I first started with Dungeons and Dragons, I was reticent to move towards homebrew content. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “homebrew” originally referred to content that a GM made specifically for their home gaming group, but has since been expanded to include any playable content that hasn’t been published in a sourcebook. Class or race options that you find on DNDWiki, for instance, are clearly homebrew.

Now, I’m a structured person with a weird habit of conceding to authority, so maybe that’s why I stuck to published content for so long. Early on, I thought of the game similarly to traditional board games – I thought that these sourcebooks held the rules, and they’re the only way to play the game.

On the other hand, I also have several friends who have only played homebrew stuff. They approached D&D through outside sources like Critical Role and avoided WotC’s published adventures because of the amount of established history that comes with each adventure. They saw all this extraneous info as an obstacle – constricting for the creative vision of their own adventures – while I saw it as a set of instructions that could inform how to “properly” run published adventures.

Every time that I began a new campaign, I would inevitably have a player who would ask “are you allowing homebrew?” The answer was almost always “no”. As a relatively new GM, I had enough difficulty juggling the classes and races of the core rulebooks to consider loading more into the game. Plus, no matter how much they could, I couldn’t see how a kitsune monk fit into the dark, Eastern-European themed wastes of Barovia.

 

What’s my point? I guess I’m trying to say that homebrew can be a mixed bag. If a GM’s not careful, the chaos that’s inspired by unbalanced homebrew stuff can easily derail your adventure.

But I think that D&D was built to handle custom content. A GM can only run so many adventures with the same old character classes and monsters. And nobody’s going to want to shell out cash every few months for a published adventure that they may or may not like (don’t hate me for this, WotC).

So if you feel like taking on the challenge of homebrewing, just know that you’ll be in for an on-going battle of edits and re-edits. Here are some suggestions to keep things running smoothly.

Start Small. Compartmentalize your new content. If you’re running Hoard of the Dragon Queen, rather than changing the main villain to your own creation, try switching out a monster or two in an established dungeon and see how it affects gameplay. Incorporating new stuff into a published adventure might throw a couple of encounters out of whack, but that’ll be about it. It’s much worse to discover a month or two into a homemade campaign that a playable race has a broken ability. And it’s way easier to build a single dungeon than its entire world from scratch (trust me).

When making magic items, consider making a couple of relatively weak trinkets or talismans before building a custom monster-cleaving sword for your barbarian. For inspiration, use the chapter in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and look at examples of other GMs’ creations in published adventures or online actual-play videos. Be skeptical, and learn from others’ mistakes.

When implementing a homebrew character class, make sure that the player knows how to play the game before you throw some quirky content at them. Including Matt Mercer’s Gunslinger in Curse of Strahd was a challenging experience, but I was glad that both the player and I understood the game mechanics enough to reach a compromise in funky situations. Plus, then we were able to have a great Van Helsing scene with werewolves and silver bullets.

Brace yourself, because failure’s inevitable. A monster’s going to feel weird and clunky, or you’re going to feel uncertain about how to handle a class ability. Just work through it, and recognize that experimentation is part and parcel of using homebrew content.

Homebrewing aspects of your adventure is a great way of making a D&D session your own, and always generates unique experiences for your group. It’s a laborious process, but like most things in D&D it’s a labor of love.

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