I saw a meme recently that gave me a good, hearty chuckle.
It’s funny ‘cause it’s true! I’ll be the first to admit this simple fact: Dungeons & Dragons is math. Every dice roll is math. Every monster block is a series of numbers, ready to be compared, added, and subtracted at the correct moment. And that math component is often what drives players and DMs away from homebrewing. In the realm of RPGs, “homebrewing” is defined differently from person to person. For some, it’s all about those numbers. For others, it’s about altering the rules of the game. Truth is, both are correct. Homebrewing is, simply, the act of taking what’s already there and making it your own.
It’s the fear of what homebrewing could be that has held back many players an DMs over the years. Do you ever find yourself looking over your core rulebooks and saying to yourself, “I’d love to make my own monsters and spells, but this all just looks too complicated”? Let me be the first to say, I’ve been there. That fear of homebrewing comes from a reluctance to step out into the deep. What if I break the game? What if my monsters are over-powered or my spells make characters unmanageable? What if my players don’t like my creations?
The Reluctance to Homebrew
For many, the very concept of homebrewing is intimidating. We’ve all read about people who’ve taken the core system of their favorite RPG and essentially built a new game from the framework. We hear about the hours they spent crunching numbers, running simulations, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and modifying. For some players, all of that is part of the fun, a key component of the experience of homebrewing. For me, and I believe for most of the gaming community at large, the definition of “homebrew” has drastically changed.
With the rise of the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, we saw a shift from Wizards of the Coast in their game design. They went from a very crunchy, video-game-y style RPG in Fourth Edition to one that is built from the ground up to be whatever the player wants it to be. The Dungeon Master’s Guide introduces the DM as the one who chooses just what sort of game that they want to play: story driven, combat-based, etc. WotC has created a system that is not only willing to let you take the reins and make it your own, it wants you to.
The Reality of Homebrewing
I’ve been DM-ing now for around half a decade. I got my start in the dreaded D&D 4e, and I worked my way through that gamed-out system and realized that I had been missing out on one of the most exciting and creatively-inspiring games ever created. The first game I ever ran was the starter adventure included in the 4e Red Box. We played through it, and I fell in love with role-playing games. But being the analytical-yet-creative type that I am, I immediately began to wonder: what if I made some adjustments of my own?
That’s where D&D 5e comes in. I cut my teeth on 4e (and I love it for that), but I think we can all agree that it wasn’t particularly “homebrew-friendly.” I started off running pre-gen games in the Forgotten Realms, following the paths set out by the professionals at WotC. But the more I played, the braver I became. I began implementing little changes here and there: an adjusted monster, a new villain. My homebrew manifested itself by taking the story that was there and making that my own. It felt a little like cheating, taking something that had already been created and only tweaking it rather than creating something all-new. But then I made a startling realization: my players latched onto the bits that I had created way more than they did the careful creations of WotC.
The Reward of Homebrewing
There is nothing, nothing more rewarding to a Homebrewer than when their players fall in love with their own creations. When I first started to stray from the pre-written path in 4e, I was admittedly afraid to do anything beyond the simplest of changes. The system itself didn’t invite much in the way of customization, and I was new enough that I lacked the confidence to really take the plunge. But with the implementation of 5e, WotC dove into homebrewing in a way that they never had in the past. Don’t get me wrong, players have come to the table expecting DMs to create their own stories since the earliest days of D&D. But with the launch of new initiatives like D&D Beyond, the creators at WotC have shown that they’re not only supportive of homebrewing, they’re actively encouraging it. There is an entire portion of Beyond’s site that is dedicated to the uploading of homebrewed monsters, items, spells, and more. Their renewed “mantra,” if you will, is that D&D belongs to the players: make the game your own.
And that’s what homebrewing is. It’s taking this game that we all love and making it better for the people at your table. Your players trust you, they want to see what you can do. When your players go up against a boss monster, imagine how surprised and excited they’ll be when this ancient shadow dragon that you’ve tweaked and doctored starts casting spells at them. Picture the hunger in your wizard’s eyes when you hand them a list of spells that you’ve created, or a new magic item you’ve built from scratch.
What’s the secret to homebrewing? In the immortal words of Shia LaBeouf, just do it. As with most things, the secret is that there is no secret. Sure, there are tips and tricks, and I have many that I would love to share. But at the end of the day, the trick to a good homebrew is to open your computer, or pick up a pencil, and just start writing. I’m confident that, once you do, you’ll find that it was in you all along.
Never fear the homebrew.
Paul Shirley is a new dad, long-time husband, and life-long nerd. He spends most of his spare time these days working on an actual-play D&D podcast called Make-Believe Heroes while spending the rest juggling between family, gaming, reading, writing, and the youth group he leads at his local church.