To follow up on the subclass post from last week, I thought we’d tackle the simplest types of homebrew next. These are significantly less popular than subclasses and classes, but simultaneously are some of the easiest ways you can completely change a character.
Without further ado, let’s talk options!
Playing in C Minor
Is there even a C minor? Hell if I know, I’m here to talk fantasy logistics not music.
In any case, today we’re talking about minor character options, not the big ones that most people go to first. Beyond race, class, and subclass, there are several other areas in which a player can distinguish their character from other, similar ones.
The main things I’ll be covering today are Feats, Non-Magical Items, and Low Level Spells. I’m going to touch on minor class/subclass options as well, but unfortunately those are too varied to be lumped in with the rest of what I’ve got.
Feats of Strength (or Dexterity, or Wisdom, or…)
Before we begin, it should be worth pointing out that some DMs don’t even use feats in their games, so its always a limited market. I didn’t allow feats in my old 2e games, but I’ve since come around on my opinion of them.
A good feat should be roughly equal to a class feature, usually a low level one. In a way, all feats are just class features that you choose – your class determines when you get one, and you almost never get any other class feature at that level.
For that reason, I try to balance all feats as 4th level class features. If a feat has certain prerequisites, you might up that number a bit. A feat that requires a certain amount of a particular stat could be a 5th level class feature, while one that requires something more complex could be even higher.
Also remember that the other option most times is for the character to raise one of their ability scores by 2 (or two scores by 1). In my mind, a feat should always be weaker than choosing to raise your primary ability score by 2, but always be stronger than raising a non-important or dump stat by 1. So, basically, if a character still has a primary score to raise to 20, then that should be the “best” option, numerically speaking. However, if a character already has all their important stats where they want them to be (primary stat at 20, Constitution high enough to survive combats, good save stats at a respectable level…), then they should feel free choosing a feat without sacrificing anything.
The main power of any feat lies in the fact that any character can pick up the feat, and thus any character class can step outside of its normal boundaries to get this extra power. Getting a single cast of a 1st level spell per long rest may seem weak, but even the barbarian can take that feat – it isn’t really intended for characters that have access to spells through other means.
And if a feat doesn’t allow characters to step outside of their normal class boundaries, then it usually gives some sort of ability that’s useful to any adventurer. Look at Alert, or Mobile, or Durable – each one is essentially a class feature you’d expect to see on a general “Adventurer” class. Thus the power here is in the fact that these feats allow a character to be better at the entire game of Dungeons and Dragons, rather than being focused on one aspect (which most class features are).
In conclusion, feats are powerful character options not because of the bonuses and abilities they give, but because of their wide availability. Every single class has at least five chances to pick up a feat, and some have more than that. And unless the DM uses one of the stricter and more limiting ability score determining techniques, every character can probably count on picking up at least one feat by the time they hit 20th level.
Now the only question is… how do I figure out what to make? A lot of the most obvious choices for feats are already included in the Player’s Handbook – feats for improving your proficiency with armor, feats for having a good memory, feats for being stupidly lucky… you name it, the PHB probably has it. So that can make it feel difficult to come up with new feats to make, forget worrying about how to make them.
Personally, my favorite way of figuring out what new feats to make is actually to read books, watch movies, and play video games. A lot of times the main characters of a story will have special skills outside those that can be found in a class’s feature list (or at least outside the list for the class those characters best fit in), and these make for perfect feat fodder.
One example: Newt Scamander, from the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, is a wizard, but he also has a very good way with animals – this could inspire me to make the Animal Handler feat.
And in Skyrim, you can gain small, daily powers from different standing stones across the map. While some are standard fare for a class-based system, others might be right at home as optional feats.
Hell, there are even people who can very convincingly claim that Gandalf from Lord of the Rings is just a fighter with the Magic Initiate feat (and though I could refute that theory, I won’t due to length constraints). So feats really can be found everywhere, even if it takes some paying attention to see them.
Feats are Pretty Important in Races, Too
This is more of an aside than a true section, but with WotC’s Feats for Races article there’s a whole new realm of feat possibilities. They’re no different in power from normal feats, but are quite different in source and flavor.
I’ve done some racial feats of my own, and found that the best way to explain them is the following – racial feats allow you to make a race choice into a class. If you were to make a class called “Stereotypical Elf” then racial feats would be the class features.
Some earlier editions have actually done things like this, with prestige classes based on race alone. These new racial feats act as a good counterpart in 5e, and should allow for stronger race identity in games that use them.
An Aside for Class Options
Before we continue, I just wanted to stick in a little note on why I’m not covering any of the other minor class/subclass options that I included alongside feats in my hierarchy of homebrew difficulty.
First, when I say “minor class/subclass options” I’m talking about choices that are made within class or subclass features. Examples include… the totem spirits from barbarian’s Totem Warrior, the different expanded spell lists of the Circle of the Land druid, Combat Maneuvers from the Battlemaster fighter, the various Elemental Discipline abilities from the Way of the Four Elements monk, the sorcerer’s Metamagic options, and the warlock’s Eldritch Invocations. Phew.
As you can probably tell, that’s a lot of different things. Too many to cover in an article that also covers feats, items, and spells. They’re also too varied to be covered together anyway, so they’ll likely be covered within any articles or discussions on the classes themselves.
Despite that, I will offer one piece of advice – read the official material. There’s no better way to get a sense of how a mechanic works than to just read what’s already there, and these minor character options are no different.
Some Assembly Required
Next up… items! I did notice one little issue when I went back to my first “Creating a Homebrewer” post – I didn’t specify what kind of items I was lumping in with low-level spells and cantrips. Oops.
In any case, today let’s just focus on non-magical items and I’ll circle back to magic items at a later date. Non-magical items aren’t necessarily the most popular things to homebrew, but there are quite a lot of ways that they can be some of the most enjoyable homebrews out there.
In my mind, there’s really only two different kinds when it comes to non-magical items – weapons, and not weapons. While armor is also a thing, generally any armor homebrew is either magical, or a simple reskin of existing armor. So we’ll just look at weapons and not weapons for now.
Homebrew weapons are the most popular of the non-magical items, since there are hundreds of real world weapons that aren’t reflected in game. Many of these can pretty safely be simple reskins of existing weapons – a kris is basically a dagger or shortsword based on length, and a hanger is literally just a short sword. But some… can’t.
When making a homebrew weapon, the first question to be asked is “what makes this one different?” It doesn’t have to be a unique mechanic or tactic, it could just be a different damage die, but there has to be something. And, whatever that thing is, it can’t be much stronger than any other weapon.
Generally, you want to avoid special attacks when designing non-magical weapons. While a bill’s specialty is hamstringing horses, you really don’t need a whole separate action for it. Instead, go for new weapon properties.
The current slate of weapon properties covers most cases, but is missing a few options. One property could be Concealed, which makes the weapon easier to hide (advantage on Sleight of Hand checks to hide it). Another could be Adaptable, which allows you to switch a weapon’s damage type between two or three options (some poleaxes had hammers on the opposite side of the shaft from the axe, and some of those even had piercing spikes in the middle of the hammer head).
The point is this – there are few weapons that use special rules for a reason. Namely, they’re annoying. If you like, you could potentially borrow some of those special properties (a bola using the same special rules as a net, for instance), but making new ones is much harder.
Oh, and one last note. When determining damage, keep in mind that no weapons save for two heavy, martial weapons use two damage dice. This isn’t an absolute rule or anything, but its good to remember that 5e’s design philosophy seems to have said that only heavy, martial weapons can deal 2 dice worth of damage.
When it comes to, well, everything besides weapons, homebrewing in new items actually becomes a bit harder. Most items are covered in the PHB, or are simple enough that any DM can adjudicate them without instruction. Things like nail filers, keys, etc, don’t really need to be homebrewed.
For some things, however, a bit more info is needed. Maybe you want to make a pocket sundial (they’re real), sextant, or compass. Other options could be horse armor, siege weapons (which weirdly qualify as “Not Weapons” here), or even general rules for using flammable oil in combat. All of these things need a bit more describing.
If the item is a real-world thing, most of the description can simply be defining the limits of the item. What disrupts a compass reading? How bright does the sun have to be for a pocket sundial to work? How much damage can burning oil do, and how long does it last? These simple limits can take care of most situations that would arise when using the item in game.
If, on the other hand, you’re homebrewing in a sundial cannon, you might need to do a bit more work. The weirder the item, the more you have to define intrinsic aspects of it to ensure that its used properly. Does a sundial cannon deal damage when the gunpowder inside explodes to mark the hour, and is there a failure chance? How does a mechanical skeleton key work? What weight could a grappling hook hold easily, and what sudden weight would snap the cord?
The most important thing to remember here is to be thorough. Always remember that at the forefront of every DM’s mind is the desire to be able to answer any and all questions as simply and quickly as possible. A poorly described item might just derail a whole session into argument and frustration.
Can’t Rip into Cantrips
Personally, I think that cantrips are some of the easiest spells to make… if they’re damaging cantrips. That’s because damaging cantrips function pretty similar to weapons, really. Choose a damage die, choose a damage type, choose a range, and add any special qualities.
The only general rule to remember with damage cantrips is the damage increase system. Cantrips increase their damage depending on total character level (rather than specific class level), going up by one damage die at 5th, 11th, and 17th levels.
So if your cantrip deals 1d8 damage, it’ll deal 2d8 at 5th level, 3d8 at 11th, and 4d8 at 17th level. Remember that any character who learns the cantrip from any source has access to that power, not just spellcasters who have it on their spell list. Don’t give the cantrip any special ability that you wouldn’t want a character to be able to activate every single turn in combat. And you’re done!
Making a non-damaging cantrip, however, is much harder. Non-damaging cantrips are vague by their very nature, and often have a lot of power when used by creative thinkers. Hell, minor illusion is ridiculously strong for a cantrip, and its only real limit is the fact you can’t use too many instances of it at once.
So when making a non-damaging cantrip, keep those facts in mind. Otherwise, simply ask yourself – what would a powerful wizard need on such a moment-to-moment basis that they’d develop a cantrip for it? Or, to put it more succinctly, what cantrip would you want if you were to be as lazy as humanly possible? Getting up to turn off the lights at night? Use mage hand. Power goes out and you don’t want to bother with a candle? Boom, light. Accidentally bumped your car and dented it? Ha ha, mending. The list goes on and on, and it’s all about laziness.
For more hard rules, I’ll just say this:
- Always make sure a new cantrip is weaker than any similar spell by a large margin. It’s okay to make a cantrip that is a basic copy of a higher level spell, just remember that it needs to be drastically weaker.
- All cantrips should have durations and ranges that you can find in a 1st level spell – if no 1st level spell has a duration or range that high, chances are your cantrip shouldn’t either.
- And never, ever, make a cantrip that restores health or grants temporary hit points. Seriously, this is the easiest thing to abuse in the game no matter how you try to make it work.
Spelling Bee Qualifiers
When it comes to 1st and 2nd level spells, you’re really best off just checking the DMG. There’s a quite useful table there (pg 284) that serves as a really good guideline to spell damage. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say much about non-damaging spells.
For those, the best thing you can do is consult similar spells. Determining range, duration, components, and spell level is all a matter of comparison – you don’t want a spell to be too much stronger or too much weaker than other spells of its level, and your primary methods for adjusting that (on non-damaging spells) are range, duration, number of targets, and components.
Additionally, 1st level spells are a bit special when compared to other spell levels simply because they’re the easiest spells for non-spellcasters to get. Any character can take the Magic Initiate feat and get access to any 1st level spell, even if they can only cast it once per long rest. Likewise a character can easily multiclass and dip a single level into a spellcasting class to get access to several 1st level spells. This isn’t too big of a deal, but you can see several instances in the PHB where a spell is clearly 2nd level only to prevent characters from grabbing it with a feat or a tiny multiclass dip.
One other thing about spells that can frequently stump people is choosing an ability score to use for saving throws. Some are obvious, but many exist in a place where they could easily fall multiple ways. I’ve put together my own reasons on saving throw ability choice below, which hopefully can help if you have no idea which to use.
- Strength saves are for spells that physically push, pull, or crush a creature. However, this is only if the effect is unavoidable – a solid wall of force pushing out can’t be dodged, it can only be pushed back against.
- Dexterity saves are for spells that rely in any way on a projectile or something that can be dodged. If a spell would normally seem like a Strength save, but is based around something avoidable (like a bar of falling stone), then it should be a Dexterity save.
- Constitution saves are for spells that affect the body’s basic physical health. If it makes you sick, nauseated, or withered, this is what you want. You can also kinda assume that most spells that deal necrotic damage are Constitution saves.
- Intelligence saves are primarily for things that seek to trick you, or for things that affect the brain itself. Or psionics. Mostly, you’ll be using this for illusion spells and not much else.
- Wisdom saves are for things that seek to charm, control, or dominate the target. Spells that change your alliance or force you to behave against your will are Wisdom saves. One useful trick is to remember that, in previous editions, these were called Will saves – much more on-the-nose, honestly.
- Charisma saves are for things that seek to alter your magical or spiritual self. They’re kind of like the Constitution saves of the soul. Anything that teleports against the target’s will is a Charisma save, as are all possession attempts.
I realize that some of these might be a bit obtuse, but it’s the best I can do here. If I do some sort of analysis on the different ability scores (which sounds like a good idea honestly), I’ll have more space to go in-depth.
The End (For Now)
And there you have it! This is a bit of medley post since it combines so many different concepts into one, but its the best I can do to get across all the basic information for these types of homebrew. Each one – feats, items, spells, etc. – could very easily be a post of its own.
But this isn’t the time for that, honestly. Right now, this post will hopefully help beginners start homebrewing right away, and we can go more in depth at a later date. And for people out there with more experience, feel free to let me know how you do it, or if I missed anything potentially important!
Thanks for reading!
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