My thoughts on homebrew (custom content) have changed a lot over my time playing and running D&D! This is something that is unique to each person—some DMs start out ready to take on anything the players bring to the table, whereas I was pretty wary of any option that wasn’t from the core books. I’m more confident in running (and making) homebrew content now, since I (like to) think that I’ve got a good handle on the game as a whole.
Let’s talk about using homebrew content on both sides of the table—Dungeon Master and player.
Broadly speaking, homebrew content is anything that isn’t officially published. If you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, any content that isn’t in the books (the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, et cetera) is homebrew.
As a Dungeon Master, it’s pretty common to run or see others running their own world, instead of placing their campaigns in the Forgotten Realms. Making your own campaign setting and writing your own adventures is often a first step into homebrewing your own stuff, especially if your campaign setting defies some of the expectations of the core game (for example, if dark elves and orcs aren’t evil by default in your setting).
In my experience, Dungeon Masters usually don’t have to tell their players that they’re planning on running their custom campaign setting. That’s something the players I run for tend to expect. On the flip side, if I’m running out of a published adventure, I usually feel the need to clarify that ahead of time (“Hey guys, I’m thinking of running a Curse of Strahd campaign”).
Dungeon Masters are also able to devise their own antagonists and monsters to throw at the players. Actually, as a player, I’m excited to encounter a monster I can’t recall the Monster Manual entry for. Whether it’s just reskinning an existing monster or something totally original, homebrew enemies can help you get exactly what you need for next session’s encounter. The Dungeon Master’s Guide even has a section guiding you through designing such a thing!
At the same time, a Dungeon Master has plenty of options available in books like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes to expand beyond the Monster Manual without spending time to craft a custom monster. Those books alongside WotC’s collection of official adventure modules give a DM lots of choice without moving outside official content.
All this to say, what you use behind your DM screen is up to you. You have a lot of options, so you can try things out and see what works for you!
If your custom campaign world differs from the default world, I’d recommend letting your players know ahead of time. Using a custom pantheon, having different race options available, changing how different races are perceived, altering the magic system, all of those things are stuff you’ll want to give your players a heads-up about. It’s as simple as “hey, in my world, humans are actually pretty rare” or “you can still play a cleric, but most people think the gods are dead.” You’ll probably get some questions, so be prepared to work with your group!
On the other side of things—
As a player, the situation is a little different. Let’s say you’re starting a new campaign with a new group. You’ve never played with these people before. It never hurts to askwhat sources you can use for character creation (especially as new official sources roll out), and if you’re going outside of official sources, I recommend clearing it with your Dungeon Master. Actually, even if you’re just grabbing some Unearthed Arcana, I’d check with the DM before getting too attached to my idea.
The reason for this is that your character is—hopefully—going to stick around a while. You’re creating a character who will play a major part in the game you all are playing!
The Dungeon Master’s role is to run the game and help everyone have fun. To that end, they’ve chosen a setting for this campaign (or one-shot, et cetera). They’re coordinating with the group to get all of this set up. Communicating with them is the best thing you can do to help them out. It also makes a good impression if you’ve never played with them before.
“Hey, [DM’s name], what sources can we use for character creation? Are we sticking to the Player’s Handbook, or can I use the bladesinger from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide?”
“Hey, I’m excited for the campaign to start! One question—I found this homebrew [class/race/whatever] and was wondering if this was okay to use for my character.”
“I’m starting to work on my character for next week’s game, and I was wondering what you thought about using homebrew or Unearthed Arcana.”
These questions are all great for starting a conversation with your Dungeon Master. It’s a good idea to give your DM a link to whatever homebrew you want to use. Being specific is better—most DMs are more comfortable with reading over and okaying one homebrew document, instead of broadly accepting anything you can find on the Internet.
Your Dungeon Master wants to work with you, so do them a favor and communicate with them ahead of time! Some DMs might take a crack at writing mechanics themselves to fit your vision for your character. This is really fun, but also keep in mind that not every DM has the time or will to do those things.
On top of all that, your DM might say no, and that’s okay! Just try to work with them to come up with a different character concept. Your character is your own creation, but it’s reasonable for your DM to want them to fit not only with their world but with the other characters in the group.
If you do end up using a, for example, homebrew class for your character, be aware that things might change as you play the character. A mechanic that looks fine on paper might turn out to be disruptive during play, or your character might not pack as big a punch as they should at their level. Designers put a lot of work into their products! But D&D is a complex game, and every table is different. You and your DM might have to modify things to help everyone continue to have fun during the game.
Essentially, good communication with your group and DM can—in more situations than just this—help everyone have fun.
The official rules function as basic assumptions about the game and the world that game happens in. Homebrew can be a fun twist on those assumptions—either changing what was already there or introducing whole new elements. This is what makes custom content exciting! It can also make things more complex. It’s up to you whether or not you embrace that new complexity!
How does your group approach homebrew? Have you designed a homebrew option for your players? Drop a comment below, and let’s talk!