The Games Master’s Toolkit: To Homebrew or Not?

Hello everyone, welcome.  I recently had a disagreement with some folks on the internet about the contents of a Youtube video.  Yeah, hold the front page, people squabbling over a Youtube video, hardly worthy of mention you might think.  Actually, it is noteworthy for two reasons.  In the first instance it is the only instance I have seen in recent years where a disagreement over content on the internet remained respectful.  And the second reason is the topic of the video.  The topic being Homebrew settings for roleplaying games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons.  I am not intending to link to the video as I feel that to do that and then follow it with this post would seem like an attack on a content creator, and I made a pledge not to add to the negativity of the internet.  Another reason for not creating even the perception of an attack is I have seen some more of this creator’s stuff and I found it interesting though so far it was not necessarily useful as it was stuff I already knew.  That being said what was already known to me is useful to others, so fair play to this individual.  Also, as I note later when we had our disagreement I conceded that my viewpoint may have been limited by my experience playing other games and in other circumstances.

The topic of the video was Homebrew settings in Dungeons & Dragons, and the reasons you shouldn’t use them.  Let me clarify, the topic wasn’t that you shouldn’t ever use them, but that there are circumstances where the creator believes, and states that Dungeon Masters have no business using them.  If there is one thing that is going to irritate me about a roleplaying game, it is to have a player (even a dungeon master) telling me what I should or shouldn’t do in a game.  This caused me to watch the video with some skepticism and then discuss it in the facebook group it was shared (this is where the disagreement came in).

The Basic premise, somewhat simplified, is that if you are not adding your own stamp to your Dungeons & Dragons World, then you should not be homebrewing the game as there are plenty of campaign settings to choose from.  The justification for this is that players don’t (necessarily) want to play your campaign so much as they want to play their characters.

I actually empathise and agree with the last bit somewhat.  I have played in games where the setting and campaign didn’t grip me, but I had an interest in developing my characters.  However, the statement overall was problematic for me.  For a start it seemed to be inventing a problem, and this is what I shared in the FB group.  I said I didn’t get the point of the video as it was inventing a problem.  Surely a Homebrew, by definition, has your own creative stamp on it?  The responses I got, whilss respectful, disagreed with me.  Many folks in the group had experience problems in homebrew games as described in the video.  I argued the point, but then conceded that my RPG perspective was perhaps different as I tended to play other games at the time.  The discussion ended amicably.

The second part of the statement was about plenty of premade campaign settings.  That is a fair comment, and I have played in some of them back in the days of 3.5, and it was fun.  I can’t disagree with the statement there are plenty of good premade settings.  Then I come to the last statement, about players wanting to play their characters again.  I previously noted that I certainly could appreciate that perspective, as it certainly applied to me.  However I have played with folks in the past who have had very little interest in playing a character and were only interested in leveling up a statline.  My point here being there are different player types that get satisfaction different ways, and the video ignored that.  So, that is the prelude to the point of this post.  Let us now eaxamine reasons to use a premade setting versus reasons to homebrew.  Let me preface this by saying that whatever choice you as a Dungeon Master make, premade or homebrew, is right.  It is your game and no “expert” should tell you otherwise.  That being said, there are lots of tips and techniques – some of which I hope you get here on this series of posts – that are readily available online, and DMs shouldn’t couldn’t consider themselves as the be all and end all.  There is always more to learn.

Premade Setting

There are a couple of major benefits of the premade setting.  First and foremost it means you, as Dungeon Master, don’t have to do all the heavy lifting.  The stuff is already there for you.  Second of all, if the players are massive fans of the lore, using an established campaign or setting connects with the players on an emotional level.  If they already have a passion for Forgotten Realms, they are likely to be excited when they meet Drizzt, Volo or Elminster for the first time just to give an example.

Homebrew Stting

However, there are also benefits playing homebrew.

First and foremost there is a reassurance thing (or in my case, a control freak thing).  It is reassuring to me to know that I wrote the setting and so it is all in my head somewhere.  I don’t believe I would feel so secure if I was running an adventure using a setting book, and I can imagine myself constantly referencing stuff which I imagine could slow the flow of play (it may not, I may be gettig paranoid here).

If I am telling a story, with a group of players, I want to be the one setting the scene and plot.  I want to see the impact of my content meeting the player’s actions.  I am trying to fathom where a DM’s fulfillment lies when they are running something exclusively from a book or a box.  I know it must exist else the premade settings wouldn’t be so popular but for me I am not feeling it.  And this reason, more than any, is why I will almost always homebrew whether I have something amazingly different or not.  Most of the times I will, but it really doesn’t matter because the Dungeon Master gets to play too, and if part of the enjoyment for the DM is watching players navigate your plot, then telling someone they have no business homebrewing makes no sense to me.  (I am still a bit unclear about how a homebrew isn’t personalised, but perhaps someone can explain to me in the comments as I may be doing a disservice here)

Surprise.  And by that I mean D&D is much more mainstream than it used to be, and the number of people who have read the setting books and monster manual are only ever going to rise.  Discovery and exploration are key elements of D&D and inventing your own stuff is a good way to keep things fresh and to astound players.

Finally, it is very easy to fold a setting and campaign around players if you invent from nothing.

I am going to come back to the video here.  As you can see I am an advocate of the Homebrew setting, and I am saying if you want to Homebrew, then go ahead.  However there are somethings, mentioned in the video that are worth remembering for a Hombrew DM.

  • Your world will need internal consistency and rules
  • Your races are going to be living breathing entities and they will react to one another.  Consider their politics.
  • Consider the gods.  Who are they?
  • What is the geography like?

You don’t need to know every creation myth, you don’t need to know where elves came from or if in the beginning there was one god that birthed all the others (unless the campaign is about that) but you will need to create some structure in the world and some unbreakable rules so that you remain consistent.  This is the hard part of homebrew.  There is a fair bit of work involved building your world, but from my perspective it is absolutely worth it.  My advice.  Start with a concept, think about the pantheon then start small.  You can always expand later.

For my campaign I started with a basic concept.  An Empire ruled by the Dwarven High King.  I wanted Imperial and Royal Institutions, Iron Law (Imperial Land) and Tribal Law (Sovereign Land of member territories).  That was all I had as a campaign heading until my players started creating characters.  From that I got the first adventure, the Tribal Land it was set in and then extrapolating a campaign Idea, I got a land mass in mind.  And because pictures are always fun, here are some of my campaign maps (still in progress).

This was my first major map supplied to players when I told them they were going to be adventuring in the Halfling Greensea Federation.  It is a cropped version of the first quarter of the main landmass map.  I stopped using campaign cartographer and started using Inkarnate for this kind of overland mapping, as Inkarnate was so much more user friendly.  However its scale is limited so my main overland map has to be made in 4 quarters.  The featured image is the first quarter I did.

I zoomed in on the first main map and added some town names for the area where the first chapter takes place.  The Lost Ranger hills is where one of the rookie players made his first ever dice roll.  Also his first ever botch.  Imagine him as Aragorn navigating his way out of the Shire and getting lost, needing Merry and Pippin to lead him to safety.

An empire ruled by Dwarves would need a Dwarven Capital so the second quarter of the main map included the main homeland of the ruling Dwarves.  This is a cropped element of that quarter.

One of the players wanted to play a Blue Dragonborn, so I gave them a homeland with a bit of lore surrounding it.

I could go on and on.  I think I may have digressed a wee bit, but I think the point is that whilst homebrewing does require effort on the part of the DM, it doesn’t all need to be done at once.  Most of the time it takes 20 minutes to make one of these maps on Inkarnate, so the effort in creating everything is not so strenuous as you might think.  Once you have a few ideas that you settle on.  Anyway, whatever your choice Homebrew or not, whatever your game DnD or not, have fun.  And remember, no one can tell you what you should be doing, but seeking advice is good practice.

All the best.

Maps made on Inkarnate.  Feel free to use them if they are useful to you

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6 thoughts on “The Games Master’s Toolkit: To Homebrew or Not?

  1. I think home brewing can be fun if you have played DnD a bunch and you know what you’re doing. I don’t think I would personally home brew if I was the DM, but wouldn’t mind being a player in a home brew if that makes sense.

    1. It makes a great deal of sense. Go with whatever is comfortable when you are running things. As for playing homebrew, arent you already doing that in your dark ages game that you are writing about on your site?

  2. I’m a GM homebrewer too. With a prefab game, I felt limited by the author’s boundaries. And players never stay inside boundaries. In fact, I’m reasonably certain they do their best to find said boundaries and jump them as soon as possible. Or maybe that’s just the players that I’ve run? … oh … and what I tended to do as a player, too.

    1. I absolutely get you when looking at premade stuff. As for boundaries, that is something I think every gm has to deal with and the only time I ever try and enforce a path is early on in a campaign where the players aren’t already a premade group and I need them in a place to resolve the starter plot. After that, if they go off the beaten track I can generally cope with it more easily in my own setting than in a premade. Plus if they go off the path in a forgotten realms adventure a clever dick at the table might figure out the way to Waterdeep or something as a result of their prior gaming knowledge and go there. They are less likely to do that sort of stuff if they are as familiar with the setting as their low level character. Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed.

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