“You can Homebrew D&D into Anything!”

The strong increase in popularity of Dungeons and Dragons brought about both by the increased accessibility of D&D’s Fifth Edition as well as the growth of the nascent streaming and actual play communities has meant that there are a whole lot of people getting introduced to D&D. Now that this growth has been going on for a few years, there is burgeoning realization that role-playing games as a medium are capable of a lot more than dungeon crawls and Tolkien derivatives. This is great news for everyone, right? We all know there’s a whole world of RPGs out there, from the big glossy traditional games to indie zines and everything in between. Well, something’s getting lost in translation for some, and in the #dnd world on Twitter you’ve likely seen questions like this:

“How can I make John Wick in D&D?”

“What can you do to run Star Trek in D&D?”

“It would be really cool if I could run Harry Potter in D&D!”

Fortunately, these all have easy answers: Don’t, please don’t, and I don’t think it would.

There is a logical fallacy whereby people believe that if Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular role-playing game, it must have some amount of breadth to explain its popularity. This is fundamentally untrue. While the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons features some conscious design choices to make it appealing to a broader range of players, the game is ultimately about entering dungeons, killing monsters, reaping the rewards of killing said monsters, and then using your new powers to return to the dungeon and kill more monsters. Sure, there has been expansion of the rules over the years; going outside was an optional set of mechanics in the original edition (where it actually required you to purchase a game made by a different company), and at some point skill rolls were added to classes other than the thief. Joking aside, while D&D has broadened out over the years it is still only good at a few things and not good at most others.

Before going into specifics about design elements, let me address the elephant in the article: I am aware that it is possible to homebrew D&D into anything, given enough work. I’m not saying you can’t, I’m saying you shouldn’t. This is an argument that rests on two basic pillars: First, it is a fact that there are hundreds of RPGs out there which do different things than D&D. I am of the strong belief that for virtually every fictional property out there you’d want to homebrew into D&D somehow, I can name at least one if not two or three other games that all work better than D&D, will play better than D&D for your given property, and require less work (sometimes no work at all) to adapt. I’d also bet, thanks to the funny way computer RPGs developed, that most exceptions to this were themselves based on D&D at some point in their design history, or at least came from the same genre on which D&D was based (i.e. Swords and Sorcery). Second, there are deliberate design choices in D&D which are genre-reinforcing, and homebrew that ventures outside the conventions of the swords and sorcery genre requires the removal or alteration of these choices to work well. Once you begin removing the elements of D&D that make it D&D, it begs the question of why you didn’t pick another game in the first place.

Let’s talk some D&D design choices. How about levels? The ascent from level 1 to level 20 in D&D represents a broad, sweeping power curve, so much so that many derivatives of D&D like 13th Age and Dungeon World cut it in half. Leaving the number of levels the game covers to the side, level-by-level advancement produces fairly large step changes in character power as the primary mode of advancement. Significant changes in personal power brought about by personal accomplishments and experiences makes perfect sense in the fantasy genre writ large, but doesn’t really work anywhere else. Of course, stacking abilities gained level by level is nearly the only expansion of character power written into D&D, so rewriting the advancement system would require disassembling the game. A character like John Wick, whose abilities are cemented at the beginning of his story and change little over the course of three movies, would be poorly served by this mechanic. Something like Fate, where Aspects could change to reflect the relationship John has with both his abilities and his peers, might be a better starting point.

When looking at characters gaining levels in D&D, they also gain hit points, which is a curious decision. While the debate about “are hit points meat” has raged on in some circles forever, the basic mathematical truth is that having more hit points makes a character harder to kill. In Fifth Edition especially, monster difficulty is strongly driven by quantity of hit points, and both player characters and monsters gain hit points as the levels increase. This makes D&D utterly unsuitable for most modern games, or any game where there is supposed to be a sense of danger. A pistol as statted in the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide does 1d10 damage. By even third level, most characters would have enough hit points to survive a direct hit from a pistol with no ill effects. Changing this would, realistically, require completely rewriting the hit point logic; D&D characters spend most of their adventuring careers with enough hit points that a gunshot will never be a significant fraction of them. You could write shock rules, but you’d be writing them whole-cloth and they’d be incongruous if you left the hit point system in place. A setting like Star Trek, where Romulan disruptors and Federation phasers can canonically vaporize people, isn’t going to really work with expanding hit point totals. Of course, Star Trek Adventures is a highly suitable game for Star Trek and would require no tweaking at all.

Let’s take a moment to talk about skills in D&D. I don’t want to talk about skill lists at length, they’re easy to expand and D&D is hardly the only game where the skill list is tuned directly to the game it’s supposed to be. Instead, let’s talk about the proficiency bonus. In Fifth Edition D&D, you improve in every skill at exactly the same rate. While this wasn’t always the case, the skill ranks system in Third Edition was both convoluted and poorly balanced, providing no reason to do anything other than max out as many skills as you could (and indeed, this is one of the reasons Fifth Edition switched to the proficiency model). The other issue with the skill system is that there’s little integration between skills and the abilities which are modeled within the class progression trees. This tends to make character classes narrow; Third Edition D&D solved this by opening the game to extensive multiclassing, while Fifth Edition simply gave each class options with a smattering of abilities from the other class types (you can have your magic-ish Fighter and your fight-ish Warlock and…etc.). Ultimately, D&D is still at its core a class-based game, though the class builds are made less unique by trying to make them feel less pigeonholed (compare this to Apocalypse World, where each class is unapologetically unique and non-overlapping). It’s possible to build a game where more options are possible, but this would require moving away from classes entirely, another core element of the game. If you were to run a game set in the world of Harry Potter, every character would be a wizard. You’d have no use for classes (making classes based on, say, Houses would be contrived as all the students took the same coursework), so instead you’d want a system where the range of magical and nonmagical skills are all put on a level playing field. Here, the Genesys system has a few advantages. First, the verb-based magic system allows for a lot of flexibility and will do well in a setting where spells were introduced as they became necessary for the plot rather than according to any structured system. Second, the social encounter system in Genesys is underrated, and provides the sort of support necessary to run a campaign that mixes fighting monsters with boarding school drama. And finally, the advantage/threat system can make every spell attempt interesting, which is perfect for a game where the characters are teenaged pre-wizards.

There are a lot of stories in D&D’s wheelhouse; warrior kings like Conan and strange sorcerers like Elric of Melnibone are perfect inspirations for D&D characters. The core systems of D&D have translated incredibly well across the fantasy landscape and into post-apocalyptic and pulp science fiction realms, stories that highlight the exploits of powerful characters venturing into harsh, unknown worlds. Outside this core, though, the translation becomes much less direct. Gamers realized the need for other games very early on; the first space opera game and the first superhero game both came out in 1977, only three years after D&D itself. Now, we live in a world where the number of RPGs available to us means that every genre has more games than anyone could play or even read in a lifetime. Every game has a limited list of things they’re good at, even so-called universal games tend to excel in a limited swathe of game types. D&D serves as a point of entry for many, many people into the hobby, and it does that well in many ways. But once these new players want to branch out, the way to do so is to go out and see what else exists and what other neat things have been done, not jam square pegs into round holes.

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11 thoughts on ““You can Homebrew D&D into Anything!””

  1. D&D is fundamentally a good game, as long as you want to play D&D, is what you want to say. I think the main issue with D&D in most editions is the power curve. You start weak and become stronger. That’s the deal. And this is not what you want when you play e.g. Star Trek, as mentioned. You don’t want the experienced captain of your exploratory vessel to be able to slaughter half an army because he/she is level 15. It’s a narrative format that works when your character tries to be Conan, not Kirk.

    That said, if you can justify in your head why something might use that power curve, then go for it. Star Wars for example had RPGs based on 3rd edition D&D, and that worked fine. I guess it helped that Star Wars was more fantasy than sf to begin with.

    Liked by 4 people

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