January 20, 2016

Working with Homebrew

People often ask, 'How do I use homebrew in our game?' Here's a smattering of things to keep in mind if you plan to include homebrew options in an upcoming game.

Player Options

When a player approaches the Dungeon Master with a homebrew option in mind, in many ways, he is offering a trade: player investment for game complexity. If a player has their sights set on a character concept that can't be replicated through the core game, asking them to play something else means compromising their vision of their character, and reduces their investment in the campaign as a result. On the other hand, allowing them to play using homebrew options maximizes their investment in their character and your campaign, but adds a small measure of complexity to your game, be it a single rule or an entire subsystem. It's the Dungeon Master's job to mediate this trade to maximize the fun for everyone. No one player should have too much power, nor should the game be too bloated for anyone to play.

Ultimately, how to make the decision of including a player option in your game is a matter of the Dungeon Master's wisdom, and it is wise to respect that. If a player gets shot down for his character concept, it's best if he or she tries to replicate it in core, skinning something similar and keeping the character's theme intact, even if the mechanics don't make perfect sense. Typically, this is a strong median choice, even if the player isn't completely happy, as it doesn't force the player to completely abandon their vision and use a different character. As a player, it's important to remember that the DM has a lot on his plate, and that there are a thousand reasons that a character can fail to fit in a campaign.

Dungeon Master Options

Including Dungeon Master tools, like additional magic items, monsters, or NPCs, is a completely different matter. As long as the rules remain consistent once you introduce them into the game, difficulty remains reasonable, and people are having fun, go completely nuts. I have a hard time imagining a Dungeon Master that doesn't use some measure of their own custom material to keep things interesting. Thinking on your feet is part of a Dungeon Master's job, and using homebrew content allows you to put some of that thinking on someone else's plate.

Also, using NPCs with homebrewed player options in your campaign gives the cautious Dungeon Master an excellent chance to test player options before allowing them freely. Not sure strong that base class or archetype is? Just try it out in a real game as a bad guy.

(In)consistent Themes

Maintaining a consistent theme in the game (high-fantasy, low-fantasy, magitech, whatever) matters way less than DMs think it does. Invested, interested players matter far, far more. For example, if a player has a character that is more in line with Eastern tradition (like a ninja or samurai), rather than Western medieval fantasy, it's best to side with the player, and allow the character with an improvised explanation and some hand-waiving.

What to Include? 

Typical procedure for including homebrew is simply to use it as an expanded list. At the character creation stage of a campaign, a Dungeon Master might allow Core + approved Class Pack 1 or Core + approved Giant in the Playground. It's important to recognize that no expanded list should be without the word 'approved.' Homebrew content should pass through the Dungeon Master before it enters the game, but it's not the DM's prerogative to read every bit of it. By letting the players seek out and find interesting tidbits to incorporate into their characters, it gets them invested in the content on a roleplaying level, rather than a strictly mechanical one.

Another technique (less common in my experience,) is to just allow everything and balance the game on the fly. If a character is too powerful in combat, monsters will target the character more often and deal more damage on a hit. If a character has too many resources outside of combat, the world will conspire to ruin some of the character's choices. Using this technique requires that the players and Dungeon Master be on the same page, and that no party is too concerned about hard, objective fairness. Certainly, it can work with the right gaming group.

Know When to Call It Out

If one of your player is using homebrew that optimizes beyond the level of the party, or is otherwise making the game unfun for the other players, it might be a good idea to pull that player aside after a game and explain the situation, and ask them to tone down their character or switch to a new build. Homebrew only makes sense if it's making the game more fun for everyone, and it's the DMs job to intervene if it's not.

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As always, if you have any questions, DMing-related or otherwise, feel free to contact us at middlefingerofvecna@gmail.com.


  1. Our group has three principles regarding homebrew...

    First, it's all open as long as it fits into the campaign. Our group is about 15 years old so we've played enough that if your character idea doesn't work in this campaign, there's a good chance it'll work in the next one. Plus we run two campaigns so it gives a lot of opportunity to play a character that doesn't work for the newly spinning up campaign.

    And second, homebrew introduced by the players comes with the understanding that if it is too powerful or starts causing too much work that it begins interfering with the play... then it's subject to change or removal.

    And lastly, any homebrew a player introduces is absolutely fair game for the DM to use. This tends to cut down on stuff that might be OP right at the beginning.

    1. That's some great advice!

      A lot of gamers tend to use the guiding principle that if the players use it, then so can the DM, which I always thought was a little curious, because I don't tend to create too many limits for myself as a DM to begin with. So much happens behind the screen to make the game happen, I can't imagine that there's a strong expectation as to what I use and what I don't.

      I guess instead I conceptualize the 'fair game for DM' principle as karma. If you build something OP, or if people are having a bad time, you accumulate bad karma. And bad karma means mind flayer assassins take an interest in your PCs.

  2. Nice post ! My group and I use here as a good place to find balanced and fun player options. I was wondering, if it was allowed, if I could post my own homebrew here ? If possible, how would I go about that ?

    1. Drop us an email (preferably with a plaintext version of your submission) at middlefingerofvecna@gmail.com or at finger@ofvecna.com