How to Homebrew D&D: Part One

The Idea

Welcome to the first part in a blog series on homebrewing.

The obvious first step in creating some homebrew content is having the idea. 

This is the easiest step, and most homebrewers will have completed this step before they ever consider making their own rules. The trickier bit is often remembering the idea and trying to catch it. Pausing long enough from musing “I wish there was a subclass that did ____” to actually deciding to sit down and design it.

Having an idea for new rules option might be as simple as having a character concept that isn’t supported by the current options and would be awkward to achieve through multiclassing and the current rules. This might be a new idea that you haven’t heard of anyone attempting before, or it could be an update of an older concept from a prior edition.

And sometimes making your own content is just necessary. Because no game will ever do everything. Because books are limited and finite while human imagination isn’t. As the movie quote goes “Fantasia has no boundaries.”

Getting Inspiration

The other side of designing is trying to force an idea. Maybe you want to try your hand at designing a subclass for every class, or you’re doing a product for sale and want to hit some arbitrary goal in terms of pages or options. Perhaps you like the idea of a class, but none of the base options seem to fit the character. Or you might be trying to add variety to a homebrew world with new races or subraces.

When trying to design an option, I’ll often turn to products from older editions. Especially if what I’m designing isn’t for the general public. (Rule One of Dungeon Mastering is “steal often and don’t cite your sources.” But, of course, this doesn’t apply when publishing.) I’ll look at old races and monsters and consider how they might work with modern rules or a different take. Or I might look at prestige classes and consider if they’d make interesting subclasses. Examine what came before and try to give it an interesting spin, making it memorable in a way that was formerly lacking while retaining whatever made it cool in the first place.

Reading similar games can also work. When designing content for D&D, Paizo’s Pathfinder game is similar enough that many of the tropes overlap. I can look at their races’ alternate traits or class archetypes and see what sounds interesting. Occasionally the name alone can be enough to spark something creative. The concept or hook for the option is interesting and engaging enough to prompt interesting design, even if the prior execution was lacking. 

Other times this might mean looking at old powers and abilities and considering updating the mechanics. It’s harder to design based on a power or special ability, because mechanics seldom translate directly, but there’s no wrong source of inspiration.

There’s so many other sources you can turn to for ideas. More than could ever be listed in a single blog article. If you want to take a deep dive into other people’s ideas, there’s the TV Tropes website, which even has pages of fantasy classes and races.

Looking at these lists of concepts can provide examples of how other people created or interpreted an idea. You can do a parallel idea, or subvert the trope by doing the opposite.

And all of the above is without recommending going to literature. Because there’s no greater source of inspiration than reading a book or fantasy series and saying “I want to make a character like… Geralt of Rivia” or “a class based on Soloman Kane” or “a lupine race like Butcher’s Canim”.

Sometimes you also need to look at the gaps. Tabletop games have developed roles for the characters, which have been codified by online RPGs: the tank, healer, and damage. Although with tabletop games you can also include the face, crowd controller, trickster, and buffer. There’s some gradation in roles. It’s possible to look at a class and see what roles it fills and what roles it doesn’t fill but potentially could. What might a fighter martial archetype designed to be “the healer” look like? A barbarian that could also be the party diplomancer? 

Similarly, the various races tend to fit certain archetypes while also representing different types of creature. For example, looking at D&D, dragonborn were created to be the default “dragon men.” It’s easy to see there’s no “plant race”, which is a gap authors have tried to fill a couple times with limited success. 

Story First

When designing, I try to consider the story or narrative as much as the mechanics. Sometimes a really neat idea for a power will drive the design, but typically the story and flavour hooks come first. I find it harder to design based around a mechanic because most subclasses have three to five powers, and a cool mechanic only counts as one. Two at best. Suddenly, I need to invent two or three additional mechanics without the cohesive element of a story for further inspiration. 

When trying to create, I often close my eyes and picture what I expect a character with that option to do during combat or while exploring. A cool and evocative visual can make for a cool character as much as a solid mechanic. I imagine a scene from a mental movie starring that character and what exciting things they might do. And then I turn that into rules. What an option will look like in the imagination-space of the game. How a character using that option will look or act .

If an option is evocative, interesting mechanical ideas will flow quickly. And because all the features are being designed to serve a common purpose, potentially disparate mechanics will connect more smoothly, rather than being a hodgepodge of conflicting rules elements. 

Extended Example

I recently published a PDF on the DMsGuild offering a few new artificer specialists. But I wasn’t happy that I limited it to just four new subclasses. It felt like more options were needed. (Which is the advantage of releasing digital products: I can just add another subclass or two as a bonus.) A day or two after release, I decided to kick around ideas to see if I could create a fifth or sixth option. 

Looking at old Eberron books for 3rd and 4th Edition didn’t give me many ideas. There weren’t a lot of builds in the 3e campaign setting, and none of the prestige classes jumped out at me. The 4e artificer was just as weak in terms of story hooks, with options being the tinkerer (a summoner) and battlesmith (enchants equipment). Even looking at paragon paths only supplied the alchemist, battle engineer, and clockwork engineer. All options already done .

If I wanted to create another artificer subclass, I couldn’t rely on past books for ideas. 

I mused about objects an artificer could enchant or use. Because artificers seemed focused on physical objects rather than types of magic or fighting techniques. What they made defined them as much as what they did. Sorcerers are defined by their heritage, warlocks with whom they made a pact with, clerics by their god, fighters by how they fight, etc. 

This is generally a good idea: find what defines the class or rules element and makes it unique, and then consider new concepts along the same theme.

With that in mind I considered different types of magic items. Potions, pets, and wands were done in Rising From the Last War and I’d already done artificers based on scrolls and clockworks. I considered staves and rods, but they didn’t seem different enough. Then I thought of crystals, which made me remember dragonshards. Dragonshards were a key element of Eberron so making an artificer that employed dragonshards would be interesting. A crystal crafter or gemcutter .

As it turned out, combining the two ideas didn’t work so well. Dragonshards are a form of treasure, and used for spell components. It’s hard to make a class that assumes certain forms of treasure are present or modifies the usage of expensive material components. It shouldn’t make casting those spells cheaper. However, a crystal-focused artificer was still a neat idea and their interest in dragonshards could remain as part of their flavour rather than a firm aspect of the mechanics .

But I’ll get into that in the next article.