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5e: How to Homebrew Everything

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

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In the D&D campaigns I’m currently playing or DMing, there is a lot of unofficial content going on: I play Matt Mercer’s gunslinger, a friend plays his bloodhunter—two homebrews so ubiquitous a new player might mistake them for official—there’s a Fire Domain cleric and a Death-Touched sorcerer (which I co-designed with a fellow DM), plus heaps of original monsters, items, and more. I also have a couple homebrew class archetypes up on the DM’s Guild. So, how is it done?

Unofficial D&D content produced in a hobbyist or semi-professional fashion is broadly called homebrew by the game’s community. A lot of homebrew comes from players’ unmet needs by the official content or creators’ desires to explore the possibilities of D&D as a medium/set of mechanics.

Take it from a guy who made a Cat Patron (more on that later) for warlocks with the express purpose of seeing his girlfriend’s eyes light up. 

Putting on a game-designer hat and getting to work on homebrew might sound like a daunting task at first, but 5e’s design makes it quite approachable. One of 5e’s core design values is simplicity. With that in mind, let’s explore how you can go about brewing your own home stuff. 

Should You Homebrew?

There are many reasons why you might decide to get busy making content for the most popular tabletop roleplaying game in the world. Off the top of my head:

  • A character idea you’re in love with doesn’t fit a pre-existing option (this one’s for both DMs and players).
  • You want your players to have more stuff to choose from.
  • The lore of your world requires that X thing exists, and it doesn’t exist officially in D&D.
  • Something your players do or have that forces you to counter it somewhat.
    • A personal example: a Player Character (PC) in my Curse of Strahd (CoS) campaign is a Triton, which means he can breathe underwater, and this, in turn, made me realize how the Water Breathing spell can make Barovia a lot less scary. CoS doesn’t have any underwater threats, which would make the water bodies a safe space—which I refuse to allow in this campaign. I also wanted to surprise the players if they ever went to the water, so I homebrewed nasty things that live in it. Some DMs would forbid the offending spell/race, but that’s not my style.
  • An exciting “what if” popped up in your head, and you’re compelled to pursue it: 
    • What if there was a nonmagical support class? 
    • What if there was a blood-theme hag? (been there, done that)
    • What if the sex-monster bard could get hilarious STDs? (same)
  • You notice an opportunity to add narrative or thematic flair to a character’s toolkit with something small like an invocation or special weapon. That’s how one of my warlock players got something I call Rusting Touch.
  • You want to use something outside of the context it’s meant for: throw a Medusa at third-level PCs without outright killing them, use Ankhegs in the tundra, and so on. 

In some of these cases, you might want to have a thorough look at official, playtested content to exhaust tried-and-true options before you get to work. That feat you were dreaming up might already exist in a better-balanced form in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE), or maybe the quirk you want to add to a monster is already a special property of something in the Monster Manual (MM).

Or, as the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) puts it: 

“Need a fiery phoenix? Take the giant eagle or roc, give it immunity to fire, and allow it to deal fire damage with its attacks. Need a flying monkey? Consider a baboon with wings and a flying speed. Almost any monster you can imagine can be built using one that already exists.”

Sometimes homebrewing is the only option, though, or maybe you just want to make something, which leads us to the rest of the article.

5e: How to Homebrew Character Options

Homebrew character options are a great way to make the mechanics of a character line up with the creative vision behind them or serve as a jumping-off point for new and exciting character ideas. Most are pretty easy to design once you have a solid concept, but classes take some additional effort to get right, game-balance-wise.

How to Homebrew Classes in 5e

A class is the bulk of a D&D character’s mechanical identity and a huge factor in who they are as people. It’s something players pick based on their intended party role or creative vision for the character. 

When designing a class, your decisions should revolve around what it is supposed to be good at and what’s unique about it—meaning why not make it an archetype of a pre-existing class?

Once you have these things figured out, you can refer back to your plans when making design decisions. We can split these decisions into two groups: narrative and mechanics. Let’s start with the easier of the two.

Narrative: How do you become a member of this class? What powers it?

In 4th Edition D&D, the power sources of each class were defined mechanically—arcane, divine, primal, martial, psionic, shadow—but they don’t exist in 5e unless you play in a setting that shoehorns it in. 

Still, it’s useful to know where your class’s power comes from. Deliberate study of the arcane? Martial Prowess? A higher being? So it goes. You can even mix different sources: Martial prowess + a god’s blessing is how you get paladins, for one. Knowing that, you can think about what life paths lead to becoming a member of this class and even come up with lore. 

When narrative and mechanics mesh well, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s the whole reason why I hype up Spire so much, and you can get some of that in D&D 5e.

Class mechanics

On to the hard stuff: For a new class to be worthwhile, it should have a particular feel, and it must do so within the constraints of the game. We’ll go through the basics of class design, step by step, so that you can design along with us and have a serviceable first draft of your very own class by the time we’re done.

Combat Roles, Hit Dice

Every class has a combat role or two that it’s built around. D&D comes from the wargaming tradition, and most of the rules are for killing stuff. We’ll get to the other elements later.

The usual combat roles (which are also relevant for homebrew monstercraft) usually are as follows:

  • Tank: a character who’s at their best rushing into the fight and keeping the enemies away from everyone else. Deals solid damage and can withstand a beating thanks to big hit points and good Armor Class (AC). Their hit dice tend to be d12s and d10s.
  • Striker: Squishier than tanks but more mobile. Strikers specialize in getting into position to deal high single target damage, then slipping away. Their hit dice tend to be d8s.
  • Glass Cannon: The squishiest, and usually not that mobile, but they can deal massive damage from far away and completely change the state of the battlefield with their magic. Tanks protect them; strikers hunt them. Their hit dice are d6s.
  • Support: These are characters with a focus on protecting and augmenting the other party members. Damage prevention and healing, buff and debuff, control, and utility: it’s all within their purview, though some focus is needed. Their hit dice tend to be d8s

Some classes are more focused than others when it comes to combat roles: bards are supporty as hell, barbarians are tanks, rogues are strikers. Conversely, artificers are incredibly generalistic. That’s not to say you can’t go wild with archetypes—in my homebrew game, we have a paladin striker (UA Oath of Treachery), and the tankiest character is a cleric (Tempest Domain)—or subvert the entrenched way of things with clever design. I think the pugilist class is a good example of this.

Archetypes (subclasses)—every class needs at least two—add flexibility to a focused base class or bring some specialization to a generalistic one. When designing your class, you need to decide what the intended role is and what the archetypes are for (we’ll dive into how to write good archetypes soon).


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Key Ability Scores

After you decide on a role or mix of roles, you pick the key ability scores. As with multiclassing, beware the MAD (Multiple Ability Dependency): if the class requires solid scores in three or more ability scores to work, it will suck in the hands of anyone who doesn’t roll stats supernaturally well. Alternatively, if all it takes is one solid ability score, it’s almost certainly broken.

Pick your two main ability scores for the class. One of them will be the primary ability score upon which most of the damaging toolkit stands; the other will play more of an auxiliary role. For instance: martial characters’ primary scores should be Strength or Dexterity, while casters’ are Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma.

Constitution, due to its all-around benefits, should never be the primary.

Some mixes will be inherently more interesting than others because they won’t be retreading ground the official classes cover (high Strength and Constitution brutes in the frontlines, sleek and smart casters at the back, etc). This is also what makes them harder to design: they are counter-intuitive. Props to Matt Mercer for creating a solid martial class with an emphasis on Intelligence: the bloodhunter

Multiclassing Requirements

The Key Ability Scores determine the multiclassing requirements of the class. 

Example: If your class is a Charisma-caster (because we definitely need more of those… /s), the multiclassing requirement is 13 Charisma. Some classes that aren’t as SAD (Single Ability Dependant) might have two requirements (see: monk, paladin, ranger).

Always note that Multiclassing is an optional rule.

Out-of-Combat Capabilities

Once key ability scores are set based on the combat role and narrative aspect of the class, you need to come up with out-of-combat abilities that use them. It’s bad form to have stray features tied to ability scores that the overall class design encourages the player to dump. There’s a reason no barbarian feature (even subclass-wise) is based on their intelligence.

This is when other party roles come in: 

  • The Face: the one who talks the most and generally represents the party in social settings. 
  • The Skillmonkey: the one with the highest average scores in skills, usually proficient in more than the other members.
  • The Utility Caster: lots of spells that are useful outside of combat, but may also have e good number that are good for battlefield control.
  • The Enchanter: Can make trinkets, magic items, and scrolls. General utility through crafted or imbued objects.
  • The Survivalist: great at finding what the party needs to survive in the wild, particularly in the environment the campaign takes place. Situationally useful, but potentially amazing in wilderness campaigns without magic to provide for basic necessities.

There are more than just the above roles, but that covers the most common bases. Some of the official classes clearly emphasize an out-of-combat role along with being a striker/tank/glass cannon/support: rogues and bards make great skill monkeys and party faces, for instance. Wizards have the best utility in the game, and so on. 

Barbarians and fighters tend to not have much to contribute outside fights, but a creative, invested player finds a way with what they have. You can still make a class that’s entirely focused on combat and have it be good, but then you have to work twice as hard to make it feel distinct.

Proficiencies

Proficiencies include saving throws, skills, tools, weapons, and languages. They encompass every area of activity and aren’t particularly complicated. We can go over them as follows:

  • Saving Throws: Every class starts with proficiency in two types of saving throw. One is a common one (Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom), the other is uncommon (Charisma, Intelligence, Strength); this is important from a game-balance standpoint. One of these is usually with the class’s primary ability, but not always. 
    • Some classes get another saving throw proficiency later as late-game class features (see the rogue’s Slippery Mind), or something else that makes them better at a save they are not proficient with (barbarian’s Danger Sense).
  • Skills: what characters can do that’s not necessarily fighting. Some are useful in a scrap (Athletics, Acrobatics, & Stealth), but most are meant for utility, social interaction, exploration, and so on. A class usually grants proficiency in two to four skills from a list, based on their conceptual identity.
  • Weapons: the more fighting-oriented the class, the more weapon proficiencies they get. If the class is mainly a spellcaster or packs good utility, the arsenal tends to be fairly limited. 
  • Tools: special equipment that’s required for a particular type of task. These proficiencies range from regular trade tools to music instruments, gaming sets, and vehicles. 
    • One might have clever fingers, but that doesn’t mean they can pick a lock any good. That’s what proficiency in thieves’ tools is for (our post on those tools here). Conversely, good knowledge of Nature and Arcana alone doesn’t enable you to brew potions. Alchemist supplies and Herbalism kits do (more on that here). Not every class provides these proficiencies.
  • Languages: Some languages are not the language of a people (race, nation) but of a creed, faction, or occupation (like druidic or thieves’ cant). Not every class gives a language proficiency. When they do, it tends to be stereotypically “smart classes” like wizards and rogues. 

Spellcasting

There are five well-established ways to handle spellcasting in 5e class design:

  • Non-casters: characters who can only possibly access spellcasting by feats, racial features, or magic items. Otherwise, they go from 1st to 20th level without any spellcasting, archetype included. 
  • Third-casters: characters who get limited spellcasting starting at 3rd level, likely from an archetype in a base class that offers no such thing. The maximum spell level they can cast is 4th.
  • Half-casters: Characters who get spellcasting at the second level, which they wield in tandem with martial abilities. The maximum spell level they can cast over time is 5th, but they have some spells unique to them
  • Full-casters: They get spellcasting from 1st level and can cast up to 9th level spells by the time they hit level 17. They have many signature spells. 
  • Pact-casters: Officially just the warlock. They have very few spell slots at any time but always cast their spells at the maximum possible level (which caps at 5th). They do regain these slots on short rests, however, and might get single castings of spells at a higher level through tier upgrade features (see the section below).

Feel free to ditch all this and make up your own way of magic, but be careful not to overcomplicate it by coming up with too many new mechanics. Bounded accuracy is D&D’s bread and butter and is something one should always keep in mind as well.

Features and Leveling up

Class features are how their identities are expressed in the game by providing tools that empower characters in line with the intrinsic narrative of the class. 

At levels one and two, each class gets the core features that cement these identities, signature moves, if you will. They should all feel and play differently from the get-go, after all. Sneak Attack, Divine Smite, Rage, Metamagic—the good stuff. 

By level three, every PC gets, or already has, an archetype, regardless of their class, and the archetypes themselves also have said signature moves: Assassinate, Combat Wildshape, etc. 

After these, leveling up differs a bit depending on whether the class is a spellcasting one or not. Generally speaking, every class gets a minimum of 5 Ability Score Improvements (ASI) at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th levels. Classes that get more ASIs are classes that don’t have any spellcasting capability (excluding archetypes like Arcane Trickster and Eldritch Knight). Officially, these are the fighter (7 ASIs), rogue (6), and barbarian (6, the final one coming as a class feature at 20th level).

When designing a class, every level should add something to the character. The standard way to do this are ASIs, higher-leveled spell slots, and class or archetype features. 

Hugely powerful features are usually better timed to coincide with a change in the tier of play (5th, 11th, 17th levels). It’s possible to have these upgrades come from archetypes instead of the base class.

Full casters or pact casters don’t get these features and instead have spell slot level increases when going up a tier. The same goes for half-casters, except for 5th level—they get higher level spells and extra attack at once if you follow the lead of the paladin and the ranger (which you don’t have to).

Naturally, the 20th level feature should also be a beast, despite the final archetype feature that comes around 18th level being a force to reckon with. By 17th level you enter the “we’re gods” tier; by 20th you kind of “beat” D&D.

Once all of the above are in place, you can add less powerful, more flavorful, or situational features deriving from the class and its archetypes. 

Homebrew Class Analysis 

Let’s have a look at the pugilist. At first glance, it might seem like a reskinned monk (orientalism: removed) with Strength and Constitution instead of Dexterity and Wisdom as key ability scores: You burn Moxie (Ki) to do The Ol’ One-Two (Flurry of Blows), Stick and Move (kinda Step of The Wind) and Brace Up (which resembles Patient Defense).

It actually feels and plays quite a bit differently, though. Just to get it out of the way, the narrative fluff is great, and the text can be quite humorous at times. I particularly like this bit: 

School of Hard Knocks: By 10th level, you’ve graduated top of the class at the school of hard knocks, and you took most of them on the head. You have resistance to psychic damage and gain advantage on saving throws against effects that would make you stunned or unconscious.”

The subclass runs on an ethos straight out of Rocky: It’s not about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. This hard-boiled bruiser sure hits harder than a monk, but with crappier Armor Class. The way a pugilist stays up is mostly soaking up damage instead of avoiding it. Getting beat up even refuels their main resource: Moxie.

In a good fight, their hit points yoyo from the pinnacle to the pit.

The archetypes (called fight clubs) offer a lot of variety:

  • Dog & Hound fights with a dog companion
  • Squared Circle is a grappler-extraordinaire (grappling being something that deserves more love in this game)
  • Bloodhound Bruiser is more detective-like and street smart
  • Piss & Vinegar is a dirty brawler
  • Arena Royal is a luchador, which I like less and find a bit MAD for my taste
  • and there’s more!

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5e: How to Homebrew Archetypes (Subclasses) 

Worry not—this section is shorter. As previously stated, archetypes add flexibility or specialization to base classes and can impart whole new flavors to a character. This section will be a bit of a case study of something I made because I have unique insight into how my own thought process went (duh).

Warlock archetypes come from the patrons who grant their powers. In this case, I wanted the patron to be a powerful cat. The goal was to make a warlock with some roguish flavor and cat-themed abilities. This subclass privileges a more up-close fighting style than usual for casters.

Warlocks get their patrons at 1st level, and I had to open the archetype with something that defines them as cat-like: they get dark vision, the ability to always fall on their feet and take less damage from falls, and expertise in a skill at which felines tend to excel. The flavor can be augmented by cosmetic and behavioral traits from tables in the archetype document. 

Moving on, we get magical retractable claws that can be used to sneak attack in case of rogue multiclass and dual-wielded, as well as an attack run-up effect inspired by the pounce monster feature (based on the panther). 

Later the archetype gets “paranormal vision” inspired by the idea that animals, especially cats, can notice things like ghosts and an allergy aura as the capstone at level 14. It adheres pretty strictly to the cat theme without sacrificing function. The Eldritch Invocation options enhance the main features of the archetype.

Then there’s added fluff to help DMs roleplay cat patrons. I encourage anyone creating a subclass to dedicate time to crafting good flavor text. We play RPGs in no small part to have our imaginations tickled and experience some good fiction firsthand. 

5e: How to Homebrew Races

Race governs two things when it comes to player characters (PCs): innate characteristics and culturally enforced ones

There is debate about whether the ubiquitous ability score increases (sometimes penalties, as in some of Volo’s Guide to Monsters offerings) represent one category or the other, and many think it’s distasteful to assign things like a predisposition to higher intelligence based on race

Still, the ability score increases from races are baked into the mechanics and hard to get rid of without handicapping a PC. So, when homebrewing, they should be included even if you handwave away the race and simply say, “put them wherever you like based on your idea of who the character is.” This is actually an increasingly popular choice backed up by Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE) on page 7.

With that out of the way, the building blocks of a homebrew playable race are:

  • Ability score increases: Generally, it’s +2 to one score and +1 to a different score, though the cap is a score of 20.
  • Size and walking speed: Historically, playable races are either small or medium, never tiny or large and up. You, however, need not be fettered by this. Movement speed for medium creatures is usually 30 ft.; 25 for small. If you go above these, consider what that does to the overall balance of the game. Some classes get added speed at later levels. The same applies to flying or swimming speeds. 
  • Signature traits: these are usually quirks of biology or magic, such as Dwarven Fortitude, or elves and half-elves’ Fey Ancestry (they can’t be put to sleep by magic and have advantage on saving throws against being charmed).
  • Languages: save for special cases negotiated with the DM, everyone speaks common. Then there’s an extra language: dwarves get dwarvish, elves get elvish, and so on. Most of the time, this extra language is a suggestion based on the likely heritage of someone from a given race.
    • The complication here is that sometimes the extra language is supposed to be an innate part of the character for magical reasons—much like celestials and fiends are basically made of alignment—instead of a thing likely learned from their environment. Tieflings speak Infernal because it’s in their blood
      • To avoid ambiguity and circumvent this, it’s good to explain why a given language comes with the race and whether it’s negotiable without rebrewing it (something I think the official books should do).
  • Other proficiencies: much like the case with languages, these are suggestions based on cultural heritage and upbringing assumptions. Not every race has these.

Now, we’ve gone through the mechanical building blocks of a race, but these are not where you start. To decide what is inherent to the race and make the assumptions based on which suggestions like language as tool proficiencies will be made, you need to have a strong concept and some inkling of this race’s history

The DMG (pg 285) lists several questions to ask yourself about the race you’re creating before you make it playable:

  • Why does my campaign need the race to be playable?
  • What does the race look like? 
  • How would I describe the race’s culture?
  • Where do the members of this race live? 
  • Are there interesting conflicts built into the race’s history and culture that make the race compelling from a storytelling standpoint?
  • What is the race’s relationship to the other playable races?
  • What classes and backgrounds are well suited to members of the race? What are the race’s signature traits?
  • In the case of a new subrace, what sets it apart from the other subraces of the parent race?

5e: How to Homebrew Backgrounds

Backgrounds are fundamentally about the narrative of a PC’s life. Their background defines what sort of experiences they had before they began adventuring (which is also helpful for roleplay and social situations), what kinds of people they might know, etc. 

When homebrewing backgrounds, it’s all about the flavor. Everything it grants must also line up with the flavor. Now, what does a background grant?

  • A background feature: these are never combat-oriented. In fact, such features are almost always about relationships, social standing, and utility. Charlatans have fake identities; sages know the most efficient ways to learn things. 
  • Skill proficiencies: Always two. Sages get Arcana and History; soldiers get Athletics and Intimidation
  • Tool proficiencies: Not all backgrounds have them. When they do, it’s usually two. 
  • Languages: Not all backgrounds have them. When they do, languages substitute tool proficiencies. Volstrucker agents (Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, pg 202) get one tool and one language, for instance. Sages get two languages and no tools.
  • Equipment: this is in addition to whatever the PC gets from their class. It includes things that were useful in their former occupation.
  • Starting Wealth: Naturally, a guild artisan has a heavier purse than a hermit. Still, starting wealth tends to be around 10 gold pieces. 
  • Suggested personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws: flavorful prompts on tables to help you craft a character or further develop them (more here on those).
  • Miscellany: Some backgrounds have unique additions to help flesh out the character’s story. Folk heroes have defining events; Volstrucker agents have tragedies.

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5e: How to Homebrew Monsters 

In a game with as much fighting as D&D, interesting opponents—even allies, occasionally— are a big part of the enjoyment. The simplicity of D&D lends itself to DMs with original ideas tinkering with it and coming up with all sorts of creatures. 

Sometimes it’s as easy as mixing and matching parts of official monsters, like in the phoenix example from the beginning of the post, but not always. 

Pages 273 to 283 of the DMG are dedicated to monstercraft, but the homebrewing community has already highlighted how the main table of monster statistics by CR is flawed (we wrote about it briefly here), so take it with a grain of salt when we get to it. I will not be reproducing all the tables here, but referencing them instead.

First of all, I recommend this stat block generator to properly format things and put them in a coherent shape. Now, how do you decide on all the mechanical stuff? Sometimes you will start with just some flavorful description or origin story or a fun ability. Whatever the case, narrative and mechanics should mesh. A good way to do it is by using a series of associations between elements to tie everything together

Example Monster

Let’s make a beast from the frigid depths of the sea. They could have tremorsense, dark vision, or some other way to perceive the world in the absence of light, immunity to cold damage, and a decent swimming speed.

If they are cephalopods, most of their nervous system is in their limbs, so resistance to psychic damage and advantage on saving throws against mental effects could be a good call. Between making this hella nimble with its boneless, quasi-fluid body or giving it a nautilus-like shell, I pick the former. But you do you.

If you’re coming up short on what traits to give your monster, here’s a link to a master list of monster traits. Credit is due to user PhotonMammoth, but I rehosted it in case it was ever taken down. 

What makes it meaningfully different from a giant octopus or a nerfed Kraken? To achieve uniqueness, the differences have to reach what the homebrew monster can do, not just its passive properties. To get at this, we better know what the intended Challenge Rating (CR) is.

The CR system is flawed but not outright useless, and it works as a guideline for damage and hit points. I’m of the opinion that the deep sea and its denizens should be terrifying, so it shouldn’t be low. 8 is good, and our boy is also large-sized.

Looking at the tables on pages 274 and 276 of the DMG respectively, we arrive at 176 hit points. Problem: looking at the CR8 monsters in the game’s SRD, you see not a single one of them has this much HP, though the hydra comes close. Let’s push this hp back to the 120s, then.

We also get from the table in 274 its proficiency modifier, number of actions and average damage per round, to-hit score, and so on. All of them are subject to tweaking on the go.

It’s always good to look at official monsters in the CR range that you’re aiming for because it helps to calibrate your process. The T-Rex is CR 8, but its to-hit is +10 instead of the table’s +7. Its AC is a measly 13, though. 

Now, equipped with the tables and mental tools we need, let’s get this monster done:

On Boss Monsters

Naturally, boss monsters aren’t ordinary and should have extra oomph. When considering adapting a monster for its boss role or making one from scratch, remember that a perfectly average monster for a higher-level party can pose a boss-level challenge to the level you are aiming for. And still, if they are all alone, they’ll need more actions and ways to withstand a whole party wailing on them. 

If the monster is a boss in the more everyday sense of the world, minions are a good idea: they draw player aggro and pester them. You can read more about it in our D&D speed combat article.

For more antisocial bosses, legendary and lair actions are important (more on that here), as well as legendary resistances. To quickly summarize: 

  • Legendary resistances: A number of times when a creature can choose to succeed on a failed saving throw. 
  • Legendary actions: Special actions a creature takes outside its turn, always after another creature’s turn. All spent legendary actions are regained at the start of the creature’s turn. The creature can choose not to use them, and can’t use them if surprised or incapacitated. 
  • Lair actions: Another type of special action a creature takes outside its turn. These always take place on initiative count 20 (losing any ties with players’ initiative) and represent the creature harnessing the ambient magic of their lair. 

As usual, I recommend you check out the following Matt Colville videos if you have the time:

5e: How to Homebrew Magic Items 

The DMG (pgs 284-285) provides easy-to-follow guidelines for this, but they can only take you so far. Still, they are a decent primer. Here’s the table:

Item RarityMaximum Spell LevelMaximum Static Bonus
Common1st
Uncommon3rd+1
Rare6th+2
Very Rare8th+3
Legendary9th+4

The table assumes the spell with which an item is enchanted should have a limited number of castings (once per day or similar).

So, suppose you decide to put Pocket-Sand of Sleep somewhere in your world, and you’re wondering about its rarity. Three uses per long rest, takes an action to use. The table tells you it’s a common item. According to the DMG (page 135), it should cost 50-100 gp if it’s for sale. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything calculates a bit differently: (1d6 + 1) x 10 gp. More on that here.

But do all magic items have to be things like a +1 scimitar, Boots of Haste, and so on? Not quite. This is where you have to get improvisational because the books offer no help. In Taliesin Jaffe’s immortal words: let’s get weird.

In my homebrew campaign (yes, the very world is my brainchild, so help me gods), there are two magic items I’ve doled out to the party, which I’ll use as examples.

Examples

Maji’s Wand of Chickens (uncommon, requires attunement): The wand has three charges and regains 1d4-1 (minimum 1, maximum 3) per long rest. It expends a charge to infest a 25ft cube with a blizzard of spectral chickens (which provides half cover).

The cube’s center has to be within 60ft of the wand’s wielder and visible to them. The cube’s area is difficult terrain (creatures in it can only move at half speed), and anyone in it takes 1d4-1 (minimum 1) force damage per 5ft square traversed. Loud, angry chicken noises can be heard.

This is a whimsical thing the party got in a riddling competition against an aspect of a mad god. It has been helpful on more than one occasion and is in good hands with a tactically-minded player.

The reason why it is an uncommon item, despite the low damage, is how it can severely impair enemy positioning efforts, slow down retreats and even serve as a defensive measure. Not too strong in the usual sense, but full of possibilities and flavorful.

Claw of Araphel (rare, finesse, light, requires attunement): a wicked, jagged, black claw-gauntlet. The wielder can choose to use their Charisma modifier instead of Dexterity or Strength on attack and damage rolls. The claw deals 1d4 slashing damage.

Once per long rest, the claw’s wielder can cast Vampiric Touch at 3rd level without expending a spell slot. All damage dealt by the claw is doubled against celestials. The wielder can also use the claw to parry (add their proficiency bonus to AC) melee attacks as a reaction.

Yes, this item enchanted with a 3rd level spell is rare. Because the perks don’t end there. They could, but with the party barreling towards 9th level, it would be an underwhelming find. So I tacked on a very situational—yet narratively impactful—damage multiplier against celestials (Araphel is basically this world’s Satan), made it work with Charisma, and threw a little defense in the mix.

Some of you will notice how incredible in the hands of a rogue or paladin this thing is (even a planetar wouldn’t scoff at double Sneak Attack or Smite damage!). This is by design: the claw was taken off the centuries-old remains of a drow assassin in league with Araphel’s cult. Narrative and mechanics align

A good way to go about creating unique magic items is first coming up with a fun concept, then considering at what stage of the campaign they show up. The tiers of play are good guidelines for this, which I wrote about here. Knowing these two things, you can dive into the specifics with a good grasp of what you’re trying to accomplish. As usual, the best step is starting with a good idea and filling it out as you go.

Hopefully, these examples will inspire you to make your own cool things.

5e: How to Homebrew Spells 

When setting out to create a spell, there are a couple useful guidelines in the DMG (pgs 233 and 234):

  • “If a spell is so good that a caster would want to use it all the time, it might be too powerful for its level.”
  • “A long duration or large area can make up for a lesser effect, depending on the spell.”
  • Avoid spells that have very limited use, such as one that works only against good dragons.” Such a spell could make sense as part of a storyline and even serve as a McGuffin (questing for a superweapon created to destroy the BBEG? Awesome), but is a waste of prep for a class that requires preparing spells unless there is the certainty that the conditions to make the spell useful will be met.
  • “Make sure the spell fits with the identity of the class.” Careful not to encroach on other classes’ territory or make jarring additions to a given class’s toolkit. 

To these, I add

  • Be mindful of the action economy. Denying enemies their actions or turns, as well as adding actions to your allies, is a big deal. This is why targets of spells such as Hold Person and Slow can repeat the save every round
  • Remember to include hefty material component gold costs in the more powerful things you come up with. Some spells are just too good, and there has to be something that keeps them from being cast willy-nilly. Part of the gravitas of something like Revivify is that it’s limited.
  • If a spell does damage and imposes some sort of penalty on top of it, it’s likely a good call to make the damage a little subpar for the spell’s level, as it’s not all the spell does. 

Ok, now talking damage and healing, there’s this nifty table:

Spell Damage or Healing

Spell LevelOne TargetMultiple Targets
Cantrip (shouldn’t heal)1d101d6
1st2d102d6
2nd3d104d6
3rd5d106d6
4th6d107d6
5th8d108d6
6th10d1011d6
7th11d1012d6
8th12d1013d6
9th15d1014d6

You likely noticed that Fireball and Lightning Bolt are overpowered according to this. It’s by design, kind of a D&D meme at this point, especially with Fireball. It has been overpowered from the beginning and will be forever if the people making the game remain steadfast.

Homebrew Spell Example

Gentleman Scholar Tokki’s Switcheroo

  • 4th-level transmutation (wizard, bard)
  • Casting time: 1 reaction
  • Range: 30 ft.
  • Components: V, S
  • Duration: Instantaneous

As a reaction to a melee or spell attack against either you or an ally, you quickly establish a link between the attacked creature and another, then magically cause the two to switch places. If either resists, they must succeed on a Strength saving throw against your spell DC or be forcefully pulled through an extraplanar threshold to switch places. If even one succeeds, the spell fails. 

After the spell takes effect, if the triggering attack roll beats the original target’s AC, but not the new target’s AC, it misses the new target.

In a scrap, as in a game of hnefatafl, positioning is very important. More than once in my travels, I’ve been better served by battlefield control than a fireball. Besides, who doesn’t love a little slapstick?” -Gentleman Scholar Tokki

Summary

Phew! Hefty chonker of an article, this one. No hope of concocting a good summary that’s not a short article on its own. What I will do instead is present some highlights: 

  • Whatever you brew, narrative and mechanics should mesh.
  • Exhaust tried-and-true options before you get to work on homebrew. You may find something that saves you the work or teaches you a necessary lesson.
  • When designing a class, your decisions should revolve around what it is supposed to be good at and what’s unique about it.
  • Class archetypes (aka subclasses) add flexibility or specialization to a base class.
  • Race governs two things: innate characteristics and culturally enforced ones. Sometimes language is innate for magic reasons, but it’s mostly enforced. When alignment is innate, it’s distasteful. Proficiencies are enforced.
  • Background features are about social standing, relationships, and utility. 
  • Pages 273 to 283 of the DMG are dedicated to monstercraft, but the homebrewing community has already highlighted how the main table of monster statistics by CR is flawed, so take it with a grain of salt.
    • Boss monsters need legendary and lair actions, as well as legendary resistances. Minions are a good idea for bosses that actually boss other monsters around. 
  • The DMG (pgs 284-285) provides easy-to-follow guidelines for homebrewing magic items, but they can only take you so far.
  • When setting out to create a spell, there are a couple useful guidelines in the DMG (pgs 233 and 234). I have some extra ones of my own.

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