Getting Started with Homebrew in D&D
How do I Homebrew?
If you have played Dungeons and Dragons for any amount of time, you have undoubtedly heard the term “Hombrew”. Maybe you’ve only heard it in passing but were afraid to ask what it meant. Maybe you’ve played in a “homebrew campaign” or your DM has “homebrewed” a monster for your party to encounter. Or maybe you have never heard of the term at all! In any case, in the context of D&D, the term is used to describe any aspect of the game that has been created but isn’t published in an official book.
You can “homebrew” just about anything you want in the game, from simple items, spells, and monsters all the way up to entire civilizations, worlds, and pantheons of Gods. Dungeons and Dragons has a well-established framework to base these custom creations on and all it takes is a little bit of creativity to add some truly awesome elements to make your game, and your story, epic. It can be more than a little overwhelming though, so if you are thinking about creating some custom elements for your game but aren’t sure where to start, this article is for you!
*Warning*!! Before you incorporate any Homebrew aspects into your campaign, talk with your players, and make sure that they are ok with it first. If you are a player trying to create some cool things, of course, talk with your DM about what you’re trying to accomplish first. It is entirely possible (and absolutely ok) that some or all of your group don’t enjoy playing with homebrew items and prefer to use the rules as written or adventure as published. That’s entirely fine, we’re all here to play the game the way we want to play it and if that doesn’t include homebrewed unicorn tiaras, that is entirely up to you. For those of you with players that want to find out what a Unicorn Tiara of Supreme Powerfulness does, I invite you to read on…
Ok, Why Would You Want That?
Dungeons and Dragons is, at its core, a game of shared storytelling (and of course monster mashing from time to time). You can tell that story using plot points and monsters from published adventures but often there are some elements of those published guides that are uninteresting to a group, or you want to add a little something extra to make it your own.
Maybe you just want to play a shorter version of a published game, or a longer version! You want to cut Curse of Strahd down to a one night or one weekend Halloween excursion for your friends? Homebrew time. You want to take your players into the 9 Hells, but don’t want to spend a whole year there? Time to splice some Descent into Avernus into your campaign. Maybe you just want to create some cool magical items to give to your party. No healer in the group? Create a homebrew item that lets them cast some healing spells a few times a day. Or maybe you’re playing with a bunch of experienced players who know the Monster Manual by heart and want to add some surprises to the creatures they find along the way. Just Kobolds you say? Easy you say? Nope! They are homebrewed Kobold Artificers with all sorts of tricks up their scaled sleeves. Adventure!
Homebrewing allows you to play the type and style of game that you and your players are looking for and allows you to maximize the amount of fun that you can have at your table. Which, after all, is why we play it, right?
There is an overwhelming number of ways to do this, but I recommend starting off small before diving into a fully homebrewed campaign in a brand-new world. Let’s start off with some examples of the simpler things we can homebrew and then we’ll work our way up to the crazy stuff!
This is the easiest place to start because there aren’t a whole lot of rules that you need to follow, especially if the NPC isn’t going to be taking part in combat. A great example of doing this type of customization is to create a new NPC for your players to meet and interact with as part of a published campaign that you are already running. This can take an otherwise transactional encounter and turn it into a hilarious confrontation or a sinister brush with the underlings of the villain, foreshadowing what is to come. Creating a custom NPC like this can help add a little bit of flavor to your published adventure, without adding a whole lot of work. To make it easy for yourself, you can start with an NPC that is already published in the adventure you’re running but change a few aspects. Their name, background, and physical features are good places to start, and you can follow that up by giving them an interesting new backstory. You can ask yourself ‘Why are they in the tavern today?’, ‘Who are they looking for?’, or ‘What do they need from the party?’. Keep it simple to start with and add more complex elements once you become more comfortable with the process.
If you’re ready to take the next step, you can customize an NPC that will take part in combat somehow. One of my favorite places to start for this is in the back of Volo’s Guide to Monsters where they have stats for various types of generic NPCs including Archers, Warlocks, Master Thieves, Priests of various types, and many more. Start with one of these stat blocks that seems close to what you’re looking for and adjust it to fit your situation. Switch out some spells, languages, weapons, maybe some senses like darkvision or even keen sight if there’s a good reason for it. If you’re feeling really bold, you can start to blend some of these stat blocks together to give you an even larger variety of options. A Warlock Priest of the Kraken? I’m here for it!
Another option here is to just create a full new character as you would normally. You might feel more comfortable doing this, but it’s actually less desirable, in my opinion, because characters are much more detailed and nuanced than you need for an NPC and you can get bogged down in too many details. However, if it’s easier for you to do it this way to start, it will absolutely work!
Keep in mind as well that these NPCs could work with the party or against them (or even ~gasp~ both!!) so don’t limit yourself to thinking of them as only adversaries.
Moving up the homebrew ladder we come to homebrew items. There are many options in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for interesting and very powerful items that players can find around the world, but it can be a little overwhelming for new DMs. A good place to start if you want something safe is to create an item that recreates the effect of a spell. Maybe your party doesn’t have a wizard or other spellcaster and you want to give them some magical help with a certain upcoming encounter or story arc. A wand of ‘Find Greater Steed’ will make the upcoming travel montage so much more exciting! Be mindful with these items still though, there are lots of creative ways that your players can use them to entirely derail all of your plans! Alternatively, you can combine multiple spells into one item, just make sure to put appropriate limits on the number of spells they can cast from it per day so it doesn’t become too overpowered.
Combining spells into a thematic item that grows in power over time is a really interesting and fun way to approach this as well. You can find great examples of how this is done in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount with the Vestiges of Divergence. For example, you could create a cloak that starts off letting you cast disguise self as well as the mimicry ability (you can make your voice sound like someone you’ve heard speak before). As it grows in power over the campaign, they are now able to cast pass without a trace, but only on themselves, once per long rest. Finally, at full power, the item will also let you cast dimension door, once per long rest. Now you just need to give it a cool name: “Cloak of Shadows” or “The Infiltrator’s Assistant” maybe. This item could be used to get the party out of some bad situations, or maybe into some as well, but whatever they do with it will surely be memorable.
Something important worth mentioning here is to make sure that these items don’t overshadow another party member’s ability. You want to find the gaps that your party has, and try to fill them in with fun and useful items. If the Paladin is all of a sudden much better at sneaking than the Rogue, that’s not going to be much fun for the Rogue.
Now we are entering into some serious homebrew territory. Much like the NPCs, starting with an existing monster is the best place to begin. Start by adjusting some smaller details like weapons used or type of damage dealt. If it is a spellcasting creature, you can adjust some of the spells it has and you can easily adjust the amount of HP it has, up or down, as well. The reason that this starts to get tricky is that you can easily over or under-power a monster by changing just a few seemingly small things. The Challenge Rating (CR) system is fairly well explained in the Dungeon Master‘s Guide, and there is also an in-depth explanation of how to figure out the CR of your shiny new monster. This should be taken with a grain of salt, however, since the CR system is really only a guideline.
My advice here is to start small and get comfortable with how the changes will affect their performance in combat. If you get halfway through combat and you realize you have made a terrible mistake, you can certainly adjust things on the fly as required. If you gave the enemy way too many spells, just don’t cast them all. To few HP? Buff it up a little to make sure it lasts more than 1 or 2 rounds.
Something that I find extremely interesting is adding additional actions to a lower level creature. Most of the time the monsters are severely outnumbered and are overcome entirely by the action economy built into the game. To even out the odds you can add some additional actions that take place at a certain initiative order in combat. These could be something as simple as movement that doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks or an area of effect attack that it can use. These extra actions can take a one-sided, walk in the park encounter up into a tense battle for survival pretty quickly and can really make your combat encounters exciting, surprising, and memorable.
Creating a spell is a lot of fun, but even more so than monsters you can really overpower or under-power them with very small changes. My suggestion here again is to start with an existing spell and customize a few things about it (are you sensing a theme here?). You can easily change some of the flavor text of your spell and create some really cool effects. Does your Great Old One Warlock have Mage hand? Maybe the hand that the spell creates isn’t a hand at all but is instead a slithering tentacle or grotesque hairy spider leg. Fun, yet terrifying! Changing the flavor of the spell or what it ‘looks like’ is a great place to get your creativity flowing because the actual mechanics of the spell aren’t changing. The tentacles can still move at the same speed and hold the same amount of weight, they are just now thematically awesome.
Swapping damage types is usually fairly worry-free as well (Cold damage for Lightning for example) but you should be careful about changing things like casting times, duration, and range. Don’t be afraid to try out some different options and to re-work the spell over time. Just like a Wizard working out the details of a new spell, you’re not going to get it perfect the first time!
Ok, you’ve tried your hand at some cool new items and NPCs to use against your terrifying franken-monsters and maybe even a new spell or two. Time for a side quest! You can have one of your new custom NPCs give your party a quest to search for some ancient relic or battle their way across Avernus to save their captured loved one who made a bad deal with a devil.
The best way to get started with this is to inspire yourself by reading through some of the many published adventures. Splicing various aspects of published campaigns together can bring an entirely new flavor to your game. Did your players just win a ship in a fight club gambling ring? Well, let's take a little trip to Ghosts of Saltmarsh for some inspiration! Maybe you don’t want to play for weeks and weeks as a pirate crew, but a few sessions might be fun! Take the encounters and towns that are the most interesting to you and stitch them together into a loosely cohesive plot and you are all set! The sky really is the limit here, so feel free to pick and choose from the elements you find the most interesting and see where your imagination takes you.
You can start to weave in some of your own story into the published adventures as well. Maybe you have an idea but you’re not sure how to build it out into an entire campaign? You can create a few side quests or even a little mini-story arc to get your feet wet. As you get more comfortable with running your creations, you can start to build them together into a full campaign
Xanathar's Guide to Everything Cover Art by Jason Rainville
Once you are comfortable will all of this, you are ready to start creating some of the most complex elements. These could be large cities, kingdoms continents, story arcs, campaigns, and even entire worlds. But we’re going to save those for a future article.
These are just a few ideas to get you started on your homebrew adventures. My advice to you is to start small. With a little practice, your party will soon be riding around on laser zebras and plane hopping into the Feywild in search of the lost bowl of Towovu. In all seriousness though, adding homebrew elements to your campaign can be some of the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of the game and will often be the center of some of the most memorable moments with your friends. Also, who wouldn’t want a laser zebra, right?
Well, that’s where we’re going to leave this week’s session. Thanks for tuning in, and I hope to see you next time!
-The Intrepid Adventurer