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.
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.
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.