How to Homebrew D&D: Part 2

Brainstorming

Welcome to the second part in a blog series on homebrewing rules options and game content for Dungeons & Dragons (but which will hopefully also work for other game systems).

It’s exceedingly rare that when creating a rules option for Dungeons & Dragons or a similar game (or any game system for that matter) that you use all your first ideas. While there might be the starting point of a “good idea” in the initial design, very often the first thing you think of is either bad or has already been done. This often means you need to brainstorm multiple powers or features, to think of additional or variant design. 

However, even if the option practically writes itself and all of its features just materialise fully formed in your brainpan, it’s worth brainstorming to see if even better options can be generated. Or you might think of ways to revise and improve your existing ideas, merging the original concept with the brainstormed thoughts.

Brainstorming develops quality by first generating quantity. 

Often, you’ll end up sticking with your initial idea. This isn’t rare because what grabbed you and drew you towards that initial idea is often the simplest and most evocative idea. But even if you end up going back to your first idea, the brainstorming might lead you to other ideas for future design, or give you a secondary idea you can merge with your first concept to make it stronger. Even if it’s just some alternate flavour your can offer to players.

Ideas On the Page

I tend to go low tech when brainstorming, pulling out a piece of paper and a pen to quickly scribble ideas. Being able to connect ideas with lines & arrows, add a sub-idea, or hastily scribble a thought just aids my thinking process in a way that a word processor with its firmly delineated lines does not. But you have to do what works best for you. Find what works and use it.

While brainstorming mechanics or ideas, I’ll write quick hooks and phrases, which I can expand and build upon if I decide they’re worthwhile. The point isn’t to write down fully fleshed out class or racial features or work the design into anything remotely balanced, but to have fragments of mechanics or story ideas that can be turned into mechanics. It’s a foundation.

I’ll also often add reminders to myself. D&D has a lot of mechanics and features already in the game, and no one should be expected to memorize them all. At the brainstorming phase you don’t need to worry about getting the rules correct, but you can (and should) leave notes to yourself to double check rules you’re unfamiliar with or could use a refresher on. Similarly, making a note to check out exactly how some rules work might give you ideas for modifying said rule through the option.

Build On The Theme

During this brainstorming process, I’ll frequently look back at the original idea: the story and flavour for the option I’m designing. Examining the story hook in different ways can often provide me ample brainstorming opportunities.

I think about the idea and jot down what I would expect such a character to be able to do if I was hearing about one second hand with no knowledge of the game. I think about the idea and jot down what I would expect such a character to be able to do if I was hearing about one second hand with no knowledge of the game. Or what I’d describe that character doing in a fictional sense—like a short story or a movie—rather than an RPG.

Often, having the story hook is a vital limiting factor. It’s hard to brainstorm when the potential ideas can be “anything and everything.” There’s nothing to work with. As such, having a story idea, an interesting visual, or even just a cool character concept to work with can provide workable limits for your imagination. A structure or framework to build upon. 

Extended Example

Continuing my example, in my Artificer Expanded book I included a subclass I eventually labelled the “shardsmith”, an artificer option that focuses on gems and jewels, ostensibly using a crystal as an arcane focus. 

When I initially devised the subclass, I envisioned an option that made use of dragonshards or could toy with the execution of gemstones as material components. This idea didn’t last long, as I quickly realized that dragonshards don’t really do anything except count as spell components or act as a MacGuffin for crafting. They’re treasure, and ideally a subclass shouldn’t assume certain treasure for baseline functionality. For example, a class feature that allows you to turn one potion into another potion works great in theory, but in practice you might not reliably get potions, especially if the DM is using a prepublished adventure. I considered letting the class alter gems, turning rubies into diamonds for example, or cast spells using gems at a reduced cost. But the financial cost of those spells is often set for a reason, and an important limiter to prevent abuse. It allows a DM to restrict a spell by restricting access to its components, such as preventing raise dead by allowing few diamonds in the game. I didn’t want to step on the toes of a DM.

This left me with a vague idea—an artificer focusing on crystals—but no firm ideas for its class features or mechanics. 

Which meant I needed to engage in some hardcore brainstorming. 

I wrote down as many ideas as I could for gem-based powers. Implanting gemstones into objects like the Diablo games was one easy idea. Creating crystal constructs and golems was another, which made me consider 3e era psionics and a mentalist artificer. But not having published rules for psionicists made this harder to implement, so that idea didn’t last long. At this stage I even wondered if I could make a Green Lantern style artificer work, creating energy constructs using gemstones. 

Ideas often chain together, which is one of the advantages of brainstorming. Having thought of Green Lantern, I also mused about the potential of a radiant-damage focused artificer. A blaster that walked around shooting laser beams out of crystals. A usable idea that would certainly make a decent artificer class, filling a different party role (the striker/ blaster). However, it was also one that overlapped with the artillerist (in Rising From the Last War) and my planned wandslinger in Artificer Expanded

But the idea of a light-focused artificer using dragonshards or crystals as prisms worked. If the striker role didn’t work, what if it filled a different party role? Healing and buffing were already out, but there were other options. A controller was one idea, blinding enemies or creating walls of light. As was a trickster artificer that overlapped slightly with the illusionist wizard. 

This last idea jumped out at me. A deception-based artificer was different than any of the existing options. And an illusion-focused artificer worked well with how artificer subclasses were designed, by implying an entire school of spells that could be added to the artificer’s spell list. (Trawling through lists of spells to find interesting yet thematically appropriate spells to add has always been my least favourite part of designing subclasses, so anything that makes it easier is desirable.)

I pictured an artificer holding up a lens or prism and becoming invisible while a copy of themselves appeared elsewhere. Or creating headache inducing distortions. It’s an idea that let’s the artificer do something different and occupy a different role in the party than buffer/ healer—to be a very different type of character—which is probably a sign it was a good idea. And best of all, it wasn’t a one-character type concept, which is a trap ideas can sometimes fall into. It’s hard to envision a wandslinger that isn’t a gunslinger with magic or a tinkerer that isn’t a crazed Dragonlance gnome. But a gem-using illusionist artificer would also work as a gnome trickster, or a kenku obsessed with shinies, or elven scientist obsessed with prisms and light. 

Satisfied with that concept, I moved onto actually designing the subclass and writing out its features.

Next time I’ll get into the actual writing of its powers and outlining of the subclass.