Homebrew doesn’t mean making everything up from scratch

One of the things I am is a Medievalist, which is probably why I like Fantasy Roleplaying Games (they’re usually at least “pseudo-medieval”). And one of the interesting things about the Middle Ages is their attitudes to what we would call “authorship”.

In our era, the “author” of a text is the person who made it up out of their own knowledge and imagination. But that was only one of four Medieval ways of “making a book”.

If you composed an original work based on your own ideas, using your own words, you were an auctor (the Medieval Latin root of our word “author”).

But perhaps you were just the person who transcribed the words (the auctor may not have bothered to write their composition down, and certainly wouldn’t have made every copy of it). Then you were the scriptor, or “scribe”. And before you dismiss these folks, know that Medieval scribes regularly made a lot of “helpful corrections” to the texts they copied, sometimes considerably altering the meaning of the work in the process.

Because Medieval scholars valued works from the past (especially religious writings), their work often consisted of writing interpretative commentaries on these works. In which case you were a commentator.

And finally, if you pieced a number of related works into one larger work, you were a compilator, or “compiler”, and this is the kind of author that best sums up the Homebrew Gamemaster.

Building and running an entire world is a big ask. Most people just can’t do it alone. Sure, there are famous exceptions: Tolkien’s Middle Earth; Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms, George R. R. Martin’s Westeros. You know what these authors have in common? They are (or were) hella old men who had decades to work on their fantasy worlds. And even so, if you scratch the surface, you’ll find they were compilers too. The basis of Tolkien’s work was language, and his elf languages were derived from Finnish (for Quenya) and Welsh (for Sindarin). He took the dwarf names from Old Norse. And if you’ve read Medieval literature or studied Medieval history, you’ll know where George R. R. Martin drew much of his inspiration.

But there’s an even better reason to be compiler than merely decreasing your workload, and that’s the sheer bulk of amazing material that already exists out there.

As a case in point, I dislike High Fantasy, High Magic settings, so I’ve never been interested in most of the official adventures for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. But I love Gothic Horror, and I was already a fan of the original Ravenloft module, so I bought a copy of Curse of Strahd and decided that Barovia would be a part of my world. To stop it jarring completely with the Early Middle Ages feel of my starting area, I put it on the far side of a divisive mountain range, reachable only through a dangerous mountain pass called the Bjorgir Pass (inspired by the Borgo Pass, as mentioned in Dracula), which is full of monsters. The adventure hook is that the creatures who live in that pass have been venturing out, into the Northern part of the world, and some adventurers are needed to investigate it (as detailed in my post on running Curse of Strahd for my kids). Of course, when they do, they get trapped in Barovia by the mists and have to remain until they defeat Strahd.

The upshot of this is that, if my players are successful, they will effectively open the Bjorgir pass for trade, creating a direct link through the mountains to the mysterious east. So by importing someone else’s material into my setting, I got a fully fleshed-out adventure region, a compelling adventure quest, with any number of side quests, and a long-term consequence for the world as a whole. All because I think vampires are cool.

I have also found places in my world for Chult, the Temple of the Frog, the Tomb of Horrors, and Rappan Athuk. And this is in addition to the homebrew areas and adventures I have created from scratch. So my world is really a pastiche of things I’ve made myself, supplemented with my favourite material from D&D’s past and present. It saves me work and gives my players a chance to experience some of the classic modules, like the Temple of Elemental Evil or the Keep on the Borderlands (neither of which I’ve used yet, but definitely plan to).

The reason to start homebrewing is because you have your own ideas. But others have good ideas too, and if you like them, use them. Sew them into your own world. You’ll only be making it richer.

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Running Curse of Strahd for kids: the set-up

Between having a cold and a visit from the grandparents, I haven’t had time to run my OD&D game recently, so I thought I’d start on the stories from the 5E game I run for my daughter, her cousins, and their dad. Apart from the two grown-ups, the age range is 8-12, and when people found out I was running Curse of Strahd, they were like “You can’t run that for kids!” (Though strangely no one has batted an eyelid about me running Rappan Athuk for my 5yo.)

Obviously, when something really heavy or age-inappropriate comes up, I omit it or Bowdlerize it (I mean, c’mon, they’re kids). But there’s plenty of stuff that they can handle as is. And it has one of the best dungeon-crawls ever.

When I began running D&D for just my daughter, I used a homebrew adventure, but when I started running for her cousins, I decided to put that 5E Starter Set to work and run Lost Mines of Phandelver, transplanted into my homebrew setting because I hate the Forgotten Realms.

Not long after the game started, Wizards of the Coast released Curse of Strahd. I’m a big fan of Chris Perkins, Gothic horror, and the original Ravenloft module, so I just had to run this, and I began setting it up.

[Spoiler alert: if you haven’t played through Lost Mines of Phandelver, you may want to skip the rest of this post. Also I name-drop a lot of NPCs from Phandelver and Strahd without really explaining them, so heads up on that.]

The first thing I did to tempt the party to (eventually) travel to Barovia was reskin the +1 longssword they found in the dungeon beneath Tresendar Manor to have a raven motif on the hilt, instead of a “bird of prey”. I also changed Aldith Tresendar’s nickname from the Black Hawk to the Raven. Though the players still don’t know it, the blade of this sword is the blade of the Sunsword, and when reunited with its original hilt in Barovia, will become fully functional. (That isn’t how the Sunsword works in Curse of Strahd, but it is how it works in the original Ravenloft, so it’s what I’m doing).

As the fighter attuned to the sword, he had a vision of the wizard Khazan’s apprentice smuggling the blade, sans hilt, out of a deep dark wood (the Svalich Woods), pursued by wolves. He manages to pass the blade to a mounted warrior – a young Aldith Tresendar – before the wolves take him down. Tresendar escapes and returns to his home in the country of Frisjen, where he has a custom hilt fashioned in a Raven motif (ravens had tried to defend the apprentice from the wolves) and has an illustrious career fighting evil, earning the title Knight of the Raven.

The players were so impressed by this that they began calling themselves The Order of the Silver Raven, after the sword and the trinket the fighter just happened to roll at character creation.

This will probably start to sound very railroady, and in my defence, I seeded some other adventures as well, such as Temple of the Frog (which I linked to the frog statuette they found in the Cragmaw Hideout), and some other homebrew adventures. But the Raven stuff was what they were biting on, so I carried on developing that.

The next seed I planted had to do with the Black Spider himself. Why does he want the forge of spells? What does it do? It makes magic weapons. So either he or his employer wants a magic weapon.

The Black Spider is a male drow, and males are de-valued in drow society, which is why ambitious male drow pursue their careers in the over-world. But up here, he’s an upstart and an outsider, and in any case he’s probably used to taking orders, so likely he’s a lieutenant or high-ranking henchman for someone else.

Who? Strahd!

In my game, Strahd hired the Black Spider to find the fabled forge of spells and use it to craft a magic sword, the Darkblade, which would be a foil to the Sunsword. Strahd has learned that the Sunsword wasn’t actually destroyed, but deconstructed and hidden, and thus could be remade and threaten him again. He would like some insurance against that eventuality. He’d seek the forge of spells himself, but he can’t leave Barovia.

The players haven’t uncovered all of this yet, but they do know, from the Black Spider’s letter to Glasstaff, that he was working for someone called “Strahd” and that he wanted to make a magic sword. (They killed the Black Spider dead with a fireball in the final encounter, so he won’t be telling any more tales, and I learned a valuable lesson about what happens when you level a party up too early.)

The last and final “clue” was my favourite. Part of the treasure in the lair of Mormesk the Wraith included a map that “shows the location of a dungeon of your own creation.” This is one of my favourite tropes in D&D adventures: the blank spot for the hook for the next adventure.

When the party found this treasure, it was in a tattered book with draconic runes on the spine. The runes read “The Journal of Argynvost”. Unfortunately, the words in the journal were not in draconic runes. They were in a spindly script never seen before in Frisjen. The party had to roll some History checks before they realized that, though it was unfamiliar, it was related to the Latian “legal hand” used for documents in Frisjen and other parts of the Freefolk Empire (all of this is flavour from my homebrew setting, btw.). Once they had deciphered the script, I gave the fighter the “Journal of Argynvost” handout from Curse of Strahd, and a copy of the players’ map of Barovia, which “slipped out of the journal.”

The party’s fighter (played by the only adult player) is a dragonborn, and part of his backstory is that he’s an oprhan. His family was killed in a mountain pass when he was a baby. They were warriors, on their way to protect an area from evil. Presumably, the evil forces got the jump on them. I decided that this mountain pass was the Bjorgir Pass, which in my setting connects the Freefolk lands to Barovia. His parents were party of the Order of the Silver Dragon. They were fleeing Barovia after the fall of Argynvost, and Strahd had evil Vistani ambush them. Again, not all of this has been revealed to the party, but they are starting to piece it together.

With three adventure hooks in play, I probably didn’t need to do any more, but the players themselves actually gave me one more thing to use to entice them. More than anything in the adventure, they enjoyed clearing out Tresendar Manor, and immediately talked about fixing it up and using it as a base of operations. I cracked open the Dungeon Master’s Guide and started doing some calculations, taking into account that they wouldn’t be building from scratch, but restoring an existing structure. Of course, they have nowhere near sufficient funds, and were appropriately disappointed.

Enter Sildar Hallwinter, who has become the party’s patron, and has invited the fighter to join the Lord’s Alliance. Sildar informs the party that the Bjorgir Pass is becoming a problem. It has long had an evil reputation, but until recently, the creatures that dwelt there stayed on the far side. Now they are passing into the Freefolk lands and terrorizing the locals. Unfortunately, the Freefolk cannot send any troops to deal with the problem, as they are all busy putting down rebellions among the Shortsword people, whose lands lie between Frisjen and the Freefolk. Sildar has been asked to find a small band of capable people to travel to the Bjorgir Pass and investigate the goings on, deal with it if possible, and otherwise report back on their findings.

In return for this, Sildar assured them, the Freefolk Empire will grant them funds to convert Tresendar Manor into a stronghold.

My thinking here was that, if they survive Curse of Strahd, they’ll be 10th Level, which is the traditional level you should build a stronghold. Then they can hire retainers and all that good stuff. Then maybe they can finally sort out that pesky Temple of the Frog.

In forthcoming installments, I’ll talk about the long route from Frisjen to the Bjorgir Pass, the introductory adventure I selected, and how I linked each character’s backstory to adventure, so they all have a personal stake.

You CAN run D&D for just one person

When you read internet forums on things you’re interested in, you’re gonna read stuff that pisses you off. I was recently on a local gaming forum and came upon this:

DnD isn’t 13th age, it needs class spread and doesn’t really work well with fewer than 4 players.

This is, indeed, a common misconception (not about D&D being better or worse than 13th Age; that’s a matter of taste and opinion). And to be sure, most published adventures suggest a group of four to six PCs, and the 5e monster Challenge Ratings, for those who pay attention to them, are balanced for four PCs (so a CR 1 monster should challenge a party of four level 1 characters).

But here’s the thing: finding a group of willing players who can all meet at the same time and place regularly is literally the hardest part about playing D&D. It’s easier to take down the tarrasque than to get a group of five adults in the same room often enough to play through a single adventure, let alone a campaign. Hence this meme:

organizingan-rpg-session-okay-greal-we-play-on-the-5th-16376717

There are ways around this, of course. You could look for an online group on Roll20 or another online service. You could try Adventurers League (though they have space issues too). But if all else fails, you may have to sit down and run D&D for just one or two people.

It’s like making tamales in foil instead of corn husks: foil tamales are better than no tamales.

The first time I played D&D, I ran a homebrew game for just one person: my (then six-year-old) daughter. Because she was the only one who wanted to play with me. And you know what? It was great, and she’s still my favourite player.

The Original D&D rules from 1974 recommend 1 “Referee” (which was what they called the Dungeon Master back then) and “from four to fifty players”. So it looks like the standard party of four PCs was hardwired into the game from the beginning. But think of the other extreme: 50 players? In one game? How in the hell did that work?

The answer is, they didn’t all play at the same time. Kent David Kelly’s book series, Hawk & Moor, goes into great detail about the early D&D games in Gary Gygax’s basement. In those days, there was no “adventure module”, no “quest”, no “adventure hook”. There was a big bad megadungeon nearby, full of monsters and treasure, and you were going down into it to get the treasure. The dungeon had many levels, each more dangerous than the last, and many entrances and exits. A single session of the game would involve you and any other available players entering the dungeon with a specific goal, say, to clear a certain number of rooms on certain level, or find a specific treasure or magic item you know or suspect was in a certain area. Or get revenge on those ogres who killed your last character. If you survived, you headed back to town to rest, heal up, and replenish your supplies. Then went back, to clear more rooms, kill more monsters, and get more treasure (if the other players hadn’t got there first).

All 50 players were never in the dungeon – and certainly never at the table – at the same time.

The other thing that becomes clear from Kelly’s book is that, while some groups often adventured together, a lot of players did go into the dungeon for solo crawls. In fact, Gary’s own son Ernie, playing the wizard Tenser (of Tenser’s Floating Disk fame), made an impromptu solo delve so that he could be the first to reach the fabled level 13 of the Greyhawk dungeon (totally screwing his frequent companions Robilar the Fighter and Terik the Cleric, in the process). So the first person to face the “Final Boss” of Castle Greyhawk did it as a solo player.

There were also some adventure modules designed specifically for solo play, such as this one for Basic D&D and this one for AD&D. Of course, these modules were designed as introductory or side quests, not for taking a PC from 1st to 20th level, but nevertheless they illustrate that running an adventure for just one player is far from unheard of.

Of course, many aspects of Old School D&D have fallen away, and certainly from 3rd Edition onward both the game mechanics and the published adventures have tended to assume a standard party size of four to six PCs, and one PC per player. This means that if you want to run for a single player, or even just a smaller-than-usual group, you will need to do some tweaking. This article from Geek & Sundry has some helpful advice, and I have some suggestions of my own (some of which are even based on personal experience).

Homebrew

No prizes for guessing that this would be my first suggestion, but homebrewing your own adventures is definitely a way to customize D&D for solo play. Whereas a standard published adventure has a spread of challenges intended to test a wide variety of skills, if you homebrew, you can focus on things that will challenge your player and their character, without being completely insurmountable. A solo wizard will never be a star of melee combat. A solo fighter with no ranged weapons will stand little chance against a tribe of goblins who stay at range and pepper him with arrows. And a cleric will probably not be able to pick a lock or disarm a trap.

For example, homebrewing puts you in control of how much combat is in your adventure, and how combat is handled. Combat can be scary for a lone PC, but if your bog standard published adventure has a series of fights, increasing in difficulty and ending with an epic boss fight, maybe your solo adventure has a series of puzzles, skill checks, and roleplaying encounters, with a bit of combat at the end (perhaps under favourable conditions if the player has succeeded in a lot of the preceding challenges).

And just as you can use homebrewing to avoid challenges that would be impossible for the lone PC, you can also avoid things that will be too difficult for the player. Don’t put in riddles if your player sucks at riddles. But if they love riddles, go for it. With only one player to please, there should be a lot of scope for creating the ideal game to suit them.

And homebrewing doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch. It can also mean taking a published adventure and adapting it for solo play.

Go Old School

There are a lot of things that used to happen in D&D that don’t really happen anymore, but reviving them can be a big help for the solo player.

Henchmen and Hirelings were a part of the core rules right through to AD&D. And if your solo player has some starting gold to spend, why not hire some help, so they don’t have to adventure alone. You can look up some old-school rules for what hirelings cost, but in general, a “commoner” who’s just along to carry stuff and hold a torch is as little as 2 gold pieces per week, while an NPC with actual class abilities will be much, much more expensive. Generally these hirelings expect a share of any treasure recovered (in addition to their fee), and earn a share of Experience Points (even if they don’t level up), which stops a solo PC getting too rich and powerful too fast.

Henchmen generally refers to NPCs who serve out of loyalty. Though they must be “maintained” (the player has to pay for their room, board, and equipment), they don’t necessarily charge fees. Like hirelings, they take a share of treasure (including magic items) and XP, but they can grow in power similar to a PC, and have much more “presence” than a simple red shirt. These are friends or sidekicks. They have names and backstories, and a personal connection to the player. If they die, it’s a big deal. Old School rules used to limit how many of these you could have, based on your Charisma score. For 5e, you might consider allowing a solo player to have a number of henchmen equal to their Charisma bonus. So bards and paladins will do well with this rule.

Another Old School thing no one does anymore is run more than one character. Hirelings and henchmen are both at least partially under the DMs control. They are, when all is said and done, NPCs. But in the olden days, it wasn’t unusual for players to run two characters in the same adventure. It was so common that there were rules forbidding PCs from sharing magic items if they were run by the same player. So allowing your solo player to run two or more PCs could restore some of the balance that modern D&D is built on. Note that this is not a good option for absolute beginners. Generally, it’s enough for first-time players to get to grips with running one PC; adding more is just confusing.

Give them a “friend”

I have more experience running D&D for one player than I have running for groups, and this is something I do pretty much all the time. I’ve tried a few variations on it, some with better results than others, though all of them worked.

The first time I ran D&D, my one player rolled up her character, and then we rolled up three other players to round out a classic “party”. My daughter ran her character, and I ran the others, but purely in the mechanical sense. They took their turns in combat. They made skill checks if they were proficient, and if my daughter suggested it. They didn’t roleplay, or look for clues or any of the fun stuff, firstly because I knew where all the secrets were, so that would be cheating, but mostly because it was my daughter’s game, I didn’t want to spoil her fun.

This is not something I recommend highly, as it too easily descends into one bored player watching the DM roll dice by themselves. And that’s not fun. Also, I feel that, as a DM, I have enough to run without having to be a player as well.

One of the things I’ve tried to improve upon this is running fewer characters. Instead of giving the solo player an entire NPC party, just give them one NPC friend. You’ll want this friend to be a easy to run as possible, and if you’re very comfortable with design, you might consider not making them a character class at all. Just decide what they should be able to do, based on what your player will need help with, and assign them the numbers. If they need a ranged attacker, give them a shortbow, some arrows, and +5 to hit (+3 to damage). If they need some healing, allow them 2 uses of Cure Wounds per day and the Spare the Dying cantrip. But if you’re not ready to play it that fast and loose, build them as a level 1 character class.

The way this differs from rolling up a full party is that it’s less work, and less time spent watching the DM play with themselves. I would also recommend that you gradually relinquish control to the player, asking them for more and more input into what the NPC should do until they’re making pretty much all the decisions. Eventually this could bleed into the player running two characters, but at a pace that allows a beginner to get to grips with it.

The way this differs from traditional henchman and hirelings is that there’s a “story reason” for NPC to come on the adventure, and no money is involved. Sometimes I’ve had these NPCs be someone the player rescues, and then they join forces to escape from the dungeon. Sometimes it has been an NPC with an adventure hook, but instead of sending the PC off on a quest, they come too. Once I even suggested the NPC and the PC were friends before the game began.

Logic would suggest that you give this “friend” abilities the PC doesn’t have, to help round them out, but actually three of the four times I’ve done this, I’ve accidentally given the PC a helper of the same class. And to be honest, I didn’t notice much of a difference in how successful the adventure was. Also, it proved a useful teaching method for beginners. You can have the NPC do something, and then point out that the player’s character can do that too.

As with the “dummy party”, you don’t want this NPC to be leading the adventure. They’re the sidekick at best. The player has to be the star of the show (if you want them to keep playing).

And my last observation is that, of all the times I’ve run D&D for solo players, the most successful PC, who accomplished the most and was consistently in the least danger of dying was a Rogue. Rogue is my favourite class, but they are seriously overpowered in 5e, even at first level. With high dex and finesse weapons, they have decent AC and good attack options in both melee and ranged weapons. With light weapons (and they get two daggers as part of their starting equipment), they can make two melee attacks per round. They have proficiency in more skills than any other class, and are just as good at avoiding danger as they are at facing it. If they continue to fly solo, they can take the Arcane Trickster archetype and access a little magic as well, including some damaging cantrips like Fire Bolt and Shocking Grasp, so they can even respond to threats with resistance to non-magical damage. I’ve never run a solo game for a Bard, but I can only assume that they would be just as, if not more, successful, especially considering their Jack of All Trades feature. So maybe push for the Rogue or Bard, if your potential solo player isn’t sure what to play.

Is running D&D for one player ideal? Absolutely not, nor is it typical of the D&D experience (there’s only so much banter you can have with just two people). But it is fun, it’s better than not playing at all, and is far more doable than you might think.

D&D has always been a “customizable” game, so if you want to run a game and can only find one willing player, don’t think twice. Just jump in and do it. If nothing else, it may inspire you both to put more effort into finding a full group.

Just do it: how I started homebrewing D&D (and how you can too)

The first time I ever played D&D was as a dungeon master, and I was running a completely homebrew adventure in a completely homebrew world. Yay me, right?

Wrong, because it’s actually not that hard. If you’re reading this, I’d say there’s a 99% chance you can start homebrewing too. So roll percentile dice!

In gaming terms, homebrew is anything you create yourself, either alone or with your group or other amateurs. It can be a setting (as large as a complete world or as small as a village where the party can rest before exploring the next adventure site), a new in new game mechanic such as a class, race, feat, weapon, or spell, an adventure, or even a whole campaign. Tal’Dorei is Matt Mercer’s homebrew setting (though if I bought it and used it, it wouldn’t be mine).

There are three DMs everyone goes to for advice on gaming: the aforementioned Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, and Matt Colville. Mercer obvs homebrews both his adventures and game world, but the other two don’t.

Chris Perkins is probably my favourite adventure designer in the history of the game, and definitely my favourite of the current WOTC staff. But as far as I know, he has never run a homebrew setting. He once tweeted that it’s easier to play in someone else’s sandbox than to build your own. And he’s right.

By contrast, Matt Colville runs in a completely homebrew world but, regardless of how much he tweaks and alters them, exclusively runs pre-written adventures. He once said in a video that there are enough good pre-written adventures out there for you to play D&D for four hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, and never run out of adventures to run. And he, too, is right.

So why homebrew at all?

Homebrew is cheap. Homebrewing something costs you time and effort, but tends not to cost money. This is a great advantage if you haven’t got a lot of money to spend, or you’re new to the hobby and aren’t sure you’re ready to commit a lot of financial resources to it.

Homebrew is your fantasy. If you think back to when you first heard about D&D and decided you waned to play it, you probably had a mental picture of how the fantasy world would “look”, what kind of things you’d find there, what kind of adventures would happen. If that metal picture matches up well enough with the official setting, (currently the Forgotten Realms), then that’s fine. But if it doesn’t, then homebrew is your chance to make a world that does.

This applies to any aspect of the game. For example, I love the idea behind the Tyranny of Dragons series: a dragon cult is attempting to bring Tiamat into the Material Plane? Awesome! Unfortunately, those adventures suck. They’re railroady, they fail to make good use of dragons and draconic monsters, and the final fight with Tiamat is underwhelming. Pretty much anyone could steal the idea and make a better adventure, which is precisely what I recommend you do.

Homebrew is easier to run. The art of gamemastering is the art of improvisation. No matter how thoroughly you plan and prepare, you will at least occasionally have to improvise when the players do something you didn’t expect. But it’s a lot easier to improvise when it’s your content to begin with. Even if you haven’t built the area the PCs are trying to explore, you probably have a rough idea of what you would have put there. If the players try a tactic against your Big Bad that you didn’t expect, you probably have a good idea of how they would react, because they’re your creation. You don’t have to re-read their description in the overlong tome that is most published adventures, at least in 5e.

Homebrew is easier to write than you think it is. I was really nervous, making up my first adventure, especially because I had never even played before. But having done it, and succeeded at it, I’m convinced this is something basically anyone can do.

In the first ever edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax wrote that “your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors” to building a campaign. Time is something we all must struggle with, but the fact that you are interested in playing a tabletop RPG at all indicates you have enough imagination. So with that in mind, I thought I’d talk about how I cooked up an adventure as a rank amateur, and give some advice on how you can do the same.

1) Steal!

Ever since the Romantic Period, we’ve had this idea that everything has to be “original”, but before the early 19th Century, originality was not a criterion of good art. Homer didn’t “make up” the Odyssey; it was a traditional tale, as was the Iliad. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. And every one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, not to mention Gandalf himself, comes from the Norse Eddas.

And these are great works of literature. But a D&D game is not meant to be a great work of literature. It’s meant to be a fun game to play with your friends.

If you want to be really clever, steal from sources you know or suspect your players won’t know. But don’t feel self-conscious about stealing something obvious if you have to. Sure, your players may realize your adventure is just The Hobbit, but think about it: here’s their chance to find out what would have happened if the party went North around Mirkwood instead of through it. And they’ll be ripping their characters off from Lord of the Rings no matter what you run.

When I created my first adventure hook, I ripped off Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven: a young peasant asks the party to help defend her village from brigands. Other encounters and areas were inspired by the Norse sagas, a book called The Satanic Mill that I read in middle school, and even an old D&D module called Temple of the Frog, which I hadn’t read at the time, but knew featured a swamp and giant frogs.

And you can steal more than just stories. I used the free visitors’ map of my city’s botanical gardens to run my Haunted Forest. It was a mini hex crawl, so the players never saw the map. Points of interest were already numbered, so I just populated them with encounters.

My whole campaign setting is an amalgam of Beowulf and the film Dragonslayer. NPCs can be based on characters from films, books, comics, whatever. Anything you need to run the game, you can probably borrow from somewhere. There’s no copyright at the gaming table (unless you plan to stream it).

My only caveat is to steal from sources you already know and love. It’s too much investment to check out a new film or novel on the off-chance it could prove useful. You might he hate it, in which case you’ll have wasted your time.

2) Don’t write a script. Another way homebrewing is not like writing a novel is that you are not in control of the protagonists. This is one of the most important lessons of DMing. Player choice and player agency are the main selling points of the game. As soon as players feel they have no choice, or that their choices don’t matter to the story, they still disengage and get bored.

So if you catch yourself thinking “and then the PCs will do this”, stop. You don’t know what the PCs will do.

Many great adventures have a beginning, middle, and end, but the trick is not to make the next segment of the adventure depend on one course of action or one outcome.

For example, in my first adventure, I took what I later realized was a big risk with my adventure hook. The PCs were supposed to stop the town drunk from beating up the locals on market day. This display of prowess would prompt the peasant girl to ask them to come defend her village. But what if the PCs chose not to fight the bully? What if they lost?

An issue like this can be fixed any number of ways. The easiest is probably to make sure more than one NPC can give the adventure hook. They might give it a different spin or flavour, but the essential information is the same: where the party needs to go, what they need to do, and how much money is involved.

Almost any element of your adventure should have more than one potential connection to the rest of the adventure. This sounds complicated, but there’s a “zen” shortcut: don’t plan a linear adventure. Your beginning (the adventure hook) and final boss fight will be special, pretty much necessary bookends, but instead of designing a logical series of steps to connect them, just think of a bunch of cool stuff that you might like to see happen (or better yet, that your players might like, if you know them well enough), and stick them in wherever they fit. As you’re fleshing them out, you can think about ways they might lead to other parts of the story, but the exact path the PCs take through your adventure is ultimately not up to you.

3) Don’t write a novel. If you’ve read a published adventure, but haven’t written one yet, you may well assume your homebrew adventure has to read just like the professional ones do. But unless you are planning to publish it, there’s absolutely no reason to be that wordy. Don’t write pages of , lore and backstory, unless you need it to run the game, and never write more than you absolutely need.

My first adventure took the party from 1st to 5th level (I knew that Lost Mines of Phandelver did that, so I assumed that was a normal thing). It started with unarmed combat, featured two sections of overland travel (one through a swamp and one through a forest), a home base and two small villages which were adventure sites, two additional wilderness adventure sites (ruins and a bog), an optional side-quest dungeon, and a final, 3-level dungeon featuring an adult red dragon.

And to run all this I used 22 pages of handwritten A5 in a notebook. Sounds like a lot, but Lost Mines of Phandelver is 64 pages of printed A4.

I didn’t write any lore. I just knew it, because I’m the one who made it up. I didn’t write down villain motivations for the same reason. I didn’t have any “boxed text” descriptions of rooms or areas. I just ad-libbed it. Because I could. I was my world. I already knew it all. I didn’t write down monster stats unless I changed them from the standard version, and even then I only wrote down what was different.

Not everyone will need the same kind of notes. If you aren’t good at ad-libbing descriptions or villain monologues, go ahead and write them out. Just don’t write anything you don’t need. You will save time, effort, and space. The beauty of a homebrew adventure is it’s lean. Trim all the fat!

4) Play to your strengths. We all have skills and aptitudes in real life. Find ways to use yours to enhance your game. If you’re naturally artistic or good at crafts, augment your game with custom maps, miniatures, sculpted terrain. If you’re a good artist, draw the locations, NPCs, and monsters, so the players can literally see them. These touches can transform what looks like a pretty standard dungeon-crawl into a memorable experience your players will be talking about for a long time.

I suck at art. Absolutely suck at it. So I focus on story, structure, character and motivation, etc. I have also read a lot of medieval heroic literature, and I have a good memory, so I have a big pool of obscure fantasy content to draw from. I would love to add some visual flair to my games, but until I can afford to get someone else to do it for me, that’s just not going to happen. So I focus on what I can do well.

5) Play to your tastes. Everyone at the table needs to enjoy the game, but you’re justified in prioritizing your own tastes a little higher than everyone else’s, because of the amount of work you are doing. I find it takes 2-3 times as long to prep a game as it takes to play. So if you’re planning a 4-hour session, you can probably expect to spend 8-12 hours prepping it. It’s hard to motivate yourself to do all that work, let alone to sell the game to your players at the table, if you yourself are not into it.

That’s why I run a homebrew world in the first place. I tried running in the Forgotten Realms once, but I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t work up the enthusiasm I needed to run the game if it was going to take place in that world.

Of course, you can homebrew an adventure in an existing world, but taste applies here too. The classic monster choice for low-level parties is goblins or kobolds. Personally, I prefer undead, so I use zombies and skeletons. And because I like my minions to match their boss, I tend to have necromancers or greater undead like liches as my Final Boss. But that’s my game. Use what you like. Your game has to excite your players, yes, but it has to excite you a little more, because you’re doing all the work. And if you’re excited, it will be easier to get them excited.

6) Let the rules inspire you. The reason I put two overland travel sections in my first adventure was because I loved the Movement and terrain rules, and wanted to try them out in my game. That was also why I made one of the travel sections a swamp: it’s difficult terrain, and movement is restricted. The forest, though “haunted”, was inhabited, and had some usable paths, so terrain was not as difficult, but it had a higher likelihood of random encounters.

When you’re reading the rules (especially the monsters), pick out the things you definitely want to use, and find a way to use them. Design encounters with opportunities for cover, or use monster that grapple, if you like tactical combat. Write an adventure that focuses on oozes, if you think those are super-cool (one independent game designer has actually done this). Do you like the rules on encumbrance? Put them in your game. Like skill checks? How about a whole section full of physical and mental obstacles. No monsters, just skill challenges. Using your favourite monsters and mechanics will make your adventure unique, and keep you engaged while writing it and running it.

And, finally,

7) Give your players what they want. This would seem to contradict some of my earlier advice on following your own preferences, but you do have to balance your taste with your players’ expectations. The game, after all, belongs to all of you.

I never would have made a dragon my final boss, at least not my first time out, but it was requested by a player (and the player was my daughter).

It’s easy to forget, but you should try to make time for a conversation about the kind of game everyone wants to play. What experiences they want to have, what monsters they want to fight, high or low fantasy, how deadly they want it to be. You won’t be able to please everybody all the time, but having these things on your radar will help steer you. And sometimes working that player-requested monster in leads you to a cool adventure you wouldn’t have written of your own accord.

This advice isn’t complete, and it focusses mainly on writing a homebrew adventure for personal use (not for publication), but when I think back to how, as a first-time player, I managed to run four PCs from 1st to 5th level without cracking a single punished module, this is what I got.

I may write about my experiences with other aspects of homebrewing (monsters, settings, entire campaigns) in the future.

Can you play D&D for FREE?

One of my favourite YouTube channels is DravenSwiftbow, a Canadian DM who has been playing since the days of AD&D, and in a recent post he suggested something that I have long believed myself: you can play Dungeons and Dragons without spending any money at all!

So in this post, I want to address two questions that arise from this assertion: 1) Is it true? and 2) Why does it matter. And I’m going to go with the second question first (sorry).

D&D, or Roleplaying Games in general, is a hobby, and many (if not most) hobbies cost money. Let’s say you’re an amateur painter. You’re going to drop cash on paints, brushes, canvass, easels, etc. Let’s say you play golf: don’t even get me started on how much that costs! In addition to gaming, another hobby I indulge in (when I can) is music. I play guitar and bass guitar, and I can tell you that buying a quality instrument is not cheap. And then there are board games and video game consoles, all of which are hella expensive, considering it’s all just for play. So why should we care whether you can play D&D for free, or balk at having to cough up some cash for something we enjoy doing?

And this is a valid question. D&D first came out in 1974, and when TSR, the original publisher of the game, went bankrupt in the 1990s, there was a real possibility that there would never be a new edition or new material for the game ever again. So shouldn’t we be happy to pay for the current publisher (Wizards of the Coast) to continue to support and update this game? And the answer is yes, of course we should. So why I am even writing a post like this?

To be honest, a big reason I’m interested in cutting the cost of gaming is my age. I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, when D&D was under attack on two fronts: on the one hand, it was seen as super nerdy and uncool, and to play it openly made you a target for ridicule and bullying; on the other hand, there were the famous accusations of Satanism that led many parents (including my own mother) to conclude that the game was dangerous. So now, as an apparently responsible adult with a wife and two kids and a mortgage, I feel self-conscious about spending too much money on a hobby that I still remember being so stigmatized.

In reality, no one cares that this is my hobby, and as I said, if I had any other hobby, I would be spending as much or more on it, so this is probably just a personal hang-up of mine, and I should just get over it.

However, another reason for this post is that, like pretty much every fan of the game, I am always encouraging people to give it a try. But not everyone is willing or able to fork out $50 for a hardcover book and some dice on something they are just “trying out”. And that’s fair enough. What if you don’t like the game? What if you just can’t find a regular group to game with? And what if you just can’t afford it? It’s important to be able to cut the cost of playing D&D to avoid pricing people out of the game, and to enable more potential new players to try the game without a major financial commitment.

So now, is it really possible to play D&D for free? The answer is Yes with a But.

Wizards of the Coast isn’t exactly known for going easy on your wallet. Think of their flagship game, Magic: The Gathering, also known as “cardboard crack”, or the infuriating paywall behind DnD Beyond, which basically requires you to re-purchase content you already own in hardcover. But one thing I give WOTC full props on is that the Basic Rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is still available online as a free PDF. So, assuming you already have at least one device capable of accessing the internet and/or a printer and some paper, you can literally start playing the current version of Dungeons and Dragons at absolutely no cost.

But (told you there was one) there’s a catch. These “Basic Rules” are pretty basic. All the general mechanics are there: levelling up, rules for combat, spellcasting, movement, etc. But it gives you very limited options for creating your character. The Basic Rules limit you to choosing from the four “core” races of Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human, and the four “core” classes of Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. Further, the descriptions of these classes are limited to only one “path” for further development. The Basic Rules for the Rogue, for example only includes the Thief archetype, so you can’t play an Assassin or an Arcane Trickster. And the number of Backgrounds is also limited.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re a beginner. For example, I recently started playing Pathfinder, which has so many options for creating a character that I nearly dropped out before the game even started, and in the end decided to play something basic like a Human Cleric until I got more familiar with the game. Not everyone will agree with this, and they don’t have to, but if you’ve literally never played an RPG before, it probably is best to stick with something “classic”, even “basic”: a fighter who’s good at fighting, a Cleric who’s good at healing. After you’ve played an entire adventure, you can play the multi-class tiefling monk/cleric who for some reason can pick locks like a thief and plays a mean lute.

There are more race and class options available through the free version of DnD Beyond, because it includes the complete SRD material, but each class is still limited to one progression path.

So if you’re an absolute beginner, the free Basic Rules is an excellent way to get into the game for free. And if you’re an experienced player who for whatever reason isn’t willing or able to buy the complete game, you will have to settle for a scaled back version of it. But that’s better than not playing at all. And the experimental material released as Unearthed Arcana is also free to download, assuming your DM allows you to use it.

However, we’ve left out one thing: dice! And dice ain’t free.

Now, there are any number of free online dice rollers and free dice rolling apps. I use them myself, especially when I’m running a dragon (I’m not going to run 22d6 for dragon breath at the table). But as a player, nothing beats rolling live dice. It’s actually one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. So, keeping in mind that you can roll virtual dice for free, I feel that, for most people, the minimum spend to get into D&D is at least one set of dice. However, that’s quite a bargain.

So that covers playing the game. But surely it isn’t possible to run the game for free, right?

Actually, you can, but again, there’s a but: an even bigger one than last time. See, in some ways it’s easier to run the game than play in it, because you can ignore the rules. Pretty much every edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has pointed out that the entire set of rules are really more like “guidelines” and that the DM should feel free to change whatever they want/need to. The DM can do this, because the DM is the referee, the storyteller, the world-builder, and the final arbiter of every conflict and dispute. The individual players can’t just rock up and play by their own rules, because that would be chaos.

This means that the limitations of the Basic Rules are less of an issue to the DM. WOTC publishes a free download of Basic Rules for DMs, including a pretty decent selection of monsters, and magic items. None of this is anywhere near as thorough as what you’ll find in the Monster Manual or the DMG, of course. But if you’re up for homebrewing your own content, you could potentially run an entire campaign on nothing more this free PDF.

And therein lies the But. Whereas, from the players’ side, the issues with playing for free are fewer options for building or customizing your character, for the would-be DM, the less you spend in cash, the more you have to spend in time and imagination. Some of it isn’t that hard. For example, the basic rules include stats for an adult red dragon. Need an adult black dragon? change the “fire” to “acid” (it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the point). You can use the “free” monsters as models to build your own monsters, and if they’re not exactly the same as the “official” versions, well, it’s your game. Where you’ll really feel the pressure is when you have to come up with your own adventures from scratch. Of course, many of us do that anyway. But that, I think, is the irony: the more likely you are to be into generating your own homebrew D&D content, the more likely you are to be willing to fork out the cash for the Core rulebooks. This is certainly true of me. I homebrew a lot. But I also own all three rulebooks and several official adventures. Also, most people comfortable with running a homebrew game like that are probably experienced DMs already, so even if they’re saving money on 5e, they almost certainly own the books for one or more previous editions of the game.

Still, I have always wanted to point out this possibility. On a planet of over 12 billion people, there must be some first-time DMs who are willing to build their own fantasy world from scratch using nothing but the Basic Rules and their own imaginations.

So in conclusion: is it really possible to play D&D for free? The answer is yes, if you are willing to use a limited version of the game and virtual dice. And if you got a lot of imagination and confidence, you can even run the game for free.

But the vast, vast majority of us are at least going to have to $50 for the Player’s Handbook. But if all you want to do is play, you can pretty much cap your spending there.

Unless you need minis.