Don’t Fear the Homebrew
I saw this meme recently and it gave me a good, hearty chuckle. It’s funny ‘cause it’s true! All D&D players come to accept this simple fact: Dungeons & Dragons is math. Every dice roll, every monster block, it’s all math, waiting to be compared, added, and subtracted at the right moment. Unfortunately, that often causes players to fear D&D homebrew games, because another universal fact is: everyone hates math. People encountering math often looks like this:
But, you shouldn’t let that hold you back from an exciting campaign! There are plenty of ways to overcome this and have the homebrew campaign of your dreams.
What Homebrewing Means
The exact definition of a homebrew game differs from person to person. For some, it’s all about the numbers. It’s likely these people are robots in disguise. For others, it’s about altering the rules of the game and invoking unique D&D homebrew monsters. Truth is, both are right, in a way. Homebrewing is in essence the act of taking what’s there and making it your own. Yes, you’re going to have to get creative. But, you can always use someone else’s homework and change it just enough no one notices. That’s what the galaxy brain players do.
Unfortunately, the fear of what a homebrew game could be has held back many players and 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 looks too complicated”? Trust me, I’ve been there. But hey, practice makes perfect. We can’t all be gaming prodigies. The fear of a D&D homebrew comes from a reluctance to step out into the deep. What if I break the game or my monsters are overpowered or my spells make characters unmanageable? Well, that’s part of the fun! And if anything goes wrong, just pretend that was your plan all along. Even Jeff Bezos trusts this handy trick. Follow along and you’ll be in your own wang-shaped spaceship in no time.
The Reluctance to Homebrew
For many, the very concept of a homebrew game is intimidating. We’ve all ready about people who’ve taken the core system of their favorite RPG and built a new game from the framework. Like the team that’s rebuilding Oblivion and Morrowind in Skyrim’s engine, or the hundreds of Pokémon Rom Hacks (which, for legal purposes, don’t exist). We hear about the hours they spent crunching the numbers, running simulations, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and modifying. We wonder how they keep their soul while doing it. But, for some players, that’s part of the fun, a key component of D&D homebrewing, monsters and all. But for the most part, the definition of a homebrew game has drastically changed.
The New Rules
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 crunchy, video-game style RPG in Fourth Edition to one 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 what kind of game they want to play: story-driven, combat-based, or anything else. The possibilities are limitless. WotC created a system that wants you to take the reins. You are the captain now in your homebrew game.
The Reality of Homebrewing
I’ve been DM-ing for around half a decade now. I got my start in the dreaded and feared D&D 4e, and I worked my way through that gamed-out system and realized I’d 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. I fell in love with role-playing games right then and there. But, as someone who can never really be satisfied, I immediately began to wonder: what changes could I make for the game to be better?
A New Beginning
This is where D&D 5e comes in. I dipped my feet in the pool in 4e, but that wasn’t particularly conducive to homebrew games. With that edition, you may as well say “Fine, I’ll do it myself,” if you want a quality game. I started off running pre-gen games in the Forgotten Realms, following the paths of professionals at WotC. As I played more, I got braver. I started with a few little changes here and there: homebrewed D&D monster or villain. It was all about making what was there my own. I was like a Cyberpunk 2077 modder, taking broken game mechanics, fixing them, and perfecting them. And my players loved it.
There’s nothing more rewarding in a homebrew game than when your players fall in love with your creations. When I first started straying off the pre-written path in 4e, I was afraid of doing anything beyond simple changes. The system didn’t welcome customization. Nonetheless, the changes benefited the game tremendously. It was actually an exciting, working game now. It’s too bad Cyberpunk still isn’t. With the implementation of 5e, WotC dove into homebrewing in a way that they never had in the past. They took the lid off Pandora’s box. Everything was possible. New mechanics, new stories, even the terribly written LOTR fanfiction, was possible.
Embracing the Homebrew
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, even outside of homebrew games. But, with the launch of new initiatives like D&D Beyond, WotC is not only supportive of homebrewing, but actively encouraging it. They’re going the Minecraft route of letting players’ imaginations run wild. An entire portion of Beyond’s site is dedicated to uploading homebrewed D&D monsters, items, spells, and more. There’s no need to fear D&D homebrews anymore. It belongs to the people, now.
The Essence of it All
In a nutshell, that’s what homebrew games are. They’re about taking this game we all love and customizing it for your table. Assuming your players trust you, they’ll want to see what you can do. Imagine their joyous surprise at encountering your personal shadow dragon with its own doctored spells. Or the hunger in your wizard’s eyes when you hand them your own personal spells or new magical items. You don’t know how many years on these Forgotten Realms you got left. You gotta get real weird with it. Trust me, your players will appreciate what you do.
A lot of people ask me if there’s a secret to homebrew games, but there really isn’t one. In the immortal words of Shia LaBeouf (and Nike), just do it. As with most things, the secret is that there is no secret. There are no magic tricks and shortcuts to get you the homebrew campaign of your dreams. You’re going to have to put in a little effort and get a little creative. That’s really what it’s all about. Having your own fun with the building blocks that are set out before you. Whether there are right or wrong answers, that’s up to you and your standards. Do yourself a favor and go easy on yourself. You can’t just snap your fingers and get perfection. That is unless you have the infinity gauntlet lying around.
At the end of the day, the best trick for a good homebrew game is to open your computer or notebook and start writing. Don’t waste time overthinking the details or fearing your D&D players’ reactions to your work. Just write it all down. As the famous saying goes, “writers hate writing but love having written.” That’s equally as true for D&D homebrews. Once you get to the end, you’ll find it was worth it. You may end up meandering, but remember that not all those who wander are lost. Give it your best, and 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.