designing homebrew

Designing Homebrew that Stands up to Player Scrutiny

Designing is always more complicated than it first looks and designing homebrew for Dungeons and Dragons is no different. You want to make something unique and special to your game, but that great idea needs rules and boundaries. Let’s look at a sample creation and talk about how to create something that you can use in DnD without forgetting about the most critical piece: your players interacting with it.

Starting Small: Designing a Single Thing

It’s easy to bite off more than you can chew when making your own content for Dungeons and Dragons. Most people’s first foray into homebrew content is often in the form of creating their own campaign setting. These are often rich with lore, special rules, and history. The problem with starting this way is that your players will unknowingly act as quality control and poke and prod your world, looking for flaws.

For new Dungeon Masters, it might be better to start cutting your teeth on a single homebrew creation rather than an entire world. You might think that a single object is easy to make, but even something simple can be extremely complex beneath the surface. Let’s design a plant for our first example.


Your Very First Homebrew

A plant might not seem super exciting, but it’s a good place to start. Trying to make something amazing right off the bat could easily have unintended consequences for your game or sour your experience if it doesn’t turn out the way you imagined. It will still be a fantasy plant with some fantastic qualities, but we’re keeping it simple.

The first thing you need to do is start with a concept and answer a few questions that will come up in play:

  1. What does the object look like?
  2. What other senses can be involved in your description? Smell, touch, taste, and sound.
  3. What does the object do? Is it inert or does it have some function?

So what’s our plant like?:

A squat and vibrantly green plant, it has long aloe-like leaves that fan out from its base. At the center of the plant a short stem supports what looks like a closed flower bud with four sections that interlace their rigged edges. The plant seems wholly unremarkable at first glance. But what catches your attention is not its appearance, but its smell. The plant gives off an odor that is both repugnant and overly sweet. The smell closely resembles rotting meat and honey.

This description is not a complete designed item, but it’s enough description to get started. The whole thing began with an idea: creating a plant in a fantasy setting. We could even stop here and say this is a plant, it smells bad and looks funky, but that’s it. Next we’ll look at function.

What About Function?

We’ve described our plant, but what does it do? You might have decided to make a plant that just smells bad. But your players will get one whiff of this thing and immediately pour all of their attention into it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s something interesting and new and they want to explore the fantasy world they’re in; it’s one of Dungeons and Dragons main draws.

So it should probably do something. You should think more about why it would do something rather than all the things it could do. If we just chose something at random, we could make it grant wishes. But there’s no rhyme or reason to that and it’s a lazy design. Instead, let’s look at what a plant wants.

The plant wants to survive. Perhaps it smells bad as a survival mechanism. A strong odor might deter some predators that would otherwise graze on the plant. What if the odor deterred predators, but also attracted insects? What if the flower bud was like a venus fly trap? Now we’ve created a carnivorous plant. That’s neat and all, but this is DnD and we can do better.

Let’s suppose that this fly trap doesn’t digest the bugs it collects, but instead stores them. When the plant is disturbed, the flower bud erupts and spews a swarm of angry insects into the air! Thinking like a plant, this defends the plant from predators and could be how it reproduces, emitting pollen covered insects that will seek out and land in another area, continuing the species.

So that’s it, right? We’ve got a plant, a description for it, and we know what it does. Unfortunately, this is where we can run into issues.

Preparing for Players

You’ve made an interesting plant at this point. It’s a set piece, it’s got a description, it’s relatively interesting and is kind of a trap in it’s own right. But how will your players react to it?

“I taste the plant!”

Believe it or not, your players will try this. Ours have many times. I once had multiple players in the same session lick multiple objects that should not be licked. I had to figure out what would happen and here’s where your homebrew will be tested.

Despite this plant being full of insects and smelling awful, there’s always a chance someone is going to taste it. Is it poisonous? You might be tempted to say yes immediately, but then what are the effects of the poison? Does it kill the player outright?! Does it give them the trots for 1d4 hours? Who knows if not you? You hadn’t planned for this!

No worries, there’s a solution.

Players often act in bizarre and unpredictable ways and ingesting weird stuff is high on that list. Other things they might try are burning the plant, taking a sample of it, casting various spells on it, or talking to it. Do you know what your plant would talk about?

You’ll start to see the complications that arise from this scenario very quickly. Not only do you need to know how the plant reacts, you need to know about the effects of any outcome from any interaction. You could easily write an entire book about this one plant, and that’s just a plant. We’re not even close to building a whole campaign setting! The whole endeavor suddenly seems daunting and fruitless, but don’t worry; this is why we build frameworks.

How to be Prepared for Everything

You’re never going to be able to write out every scenario for everything your players might possible try. Instead, create frameworks and map out the notable features. This is a lot about prediction, but also about a willingness to not know.

If your players decide to use the plant you’ve created in a potion, you don’t have to know what it will do right away. Roll for it! Flip a coin to see if it has a positive or negative effect, let them experiment and find out what happens. That’s the fun part too; not even you know what will happen, but you’ll sort it out during the course of the game.

Some of this is improvisation. You might know your plant is poisonous if eaten, but the exact effects could be unknown until your players eat it. Here you can rely on tables to help build out your possibilities, or you can make your own based on what you might need to do.

If you’re not into preparing tables, a trick we often like to use is the d100 d20 rolls combo. With this you have a player roll a d100 to determine the general effects: above 50 is good, below 50 is bad. The higher or lower they roll, the better or worse the scenario you describe. Their d20 roll is how well they deal with the situation reflexively.

You can adjust these things on the fly easily, and this kind of preparation is a core skill of DMing. Prepare far enough that notable and unusual things are mapped out, but mundane or unknown interactions are up to chance. Then you role play and use the rule of cool.

This part is vitally important: if a random effect for something would outright kill a player, don’t kill the player. While it makes sense that a player who sticks random stuff in their mouth might straight up die, it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of that. Deter the player from doing that by punishing, but pull your punches here.

Okay, but what if it’s something more complicated? A plant is one thing, but what about an ancient artifact with magical powers? It’s not more complicated, it’s the same thing. If you don’t know what will happen, improvise with some general dice rolls and little creative storytelling. Don’t rush into the effect. Buy time by setting the scene.

If it’s a weird magical interaction, describe a build up of magical energy while you think about what’s going to happen. You can even ask your players what they want to do, which should delay longer and build an awful amount of suspense.

In many cases you might have specific ideas you want to map out, but sometimes it’s better to handle things on the fly. A curated experience can be great, but as we’ve discussed here, you won’t think of everything. Don’t write yourself into a box by limiting how much flexibility your homebrew has in the future.

Designing Homebrew, Designing Possibilities

The takeaway here is simple: you can’t think of everything, so don’t try to plan for everything. When designing content for DnD you shouldn’t obsess over every little detail. Paint in broad strokes instead. Include details when they’re important, but for the most part you only need to fill in a framework of ideas. This will help you make decisions about the unknown actions your players take in the future. When armed with the knowledge that your players most certainly will test the limits of what you’ve created, you can be free to design better open-ended things for them to play with.

Happy DMing.


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