My history with designing roleplaying games dates to the very same day as when I played my first one. I was eight years old and had been invited to my neighbor for a game of Swedish TTRPG Drakar &Demoner. As soon as I saw the book, I was immediately hooked, and the game itself threw me into a life of nerdy passion that is with me to this day. After my first time playing, I went home sad that I did not have that cool book myself, so I opened a notepad and started to write my own game. I had never really read any rules before, but I had played a character for that one game, so I basically copied what I remembered and made rough drawings to go with it. I knew I was the best eight-year-old game designer in my neighborhood.
As I got older, I stopped writing games and started writing fiction. I never did it professionally, but I was passionate enough to attend classes in creative writing to try to develop that side. I developed this creative side that made me enjoy building my own worlds. When I later got back into tabletop roleplaying games, my go-to game became Exalted. Though I did a lot of creative writing at this time, I still did not write any homebrew. That started when I began to GM the game myself. I realized that there was always something my players or I wanted that was not represented in the books, and I tried to design rules for this myself. At times I got these fits of creativity that made me just want to write out some idea I had. Because I almost only played Exalted, all my homebrew at the time were for that.
One of the first homebrew projects I posted online was when I revised the Dragon-Blooded Charm set for Exalted Second Edition and wrote rules for Dragon-Bloods associated with the Underworld. I then went on to revise the Martial Arts styles from Scroll of the Monk. There was a lot of revising material that I did in my early homebrew days, and I believe that this was the most important factor behind my development as a game designer. By revising material, you learn the fundamentals behind that game’s system, and you develop an intuition for how the different rules connect. You are not just putting an idea on paper. You are trying to merge your idea with an existing game system, and by testing this homebrew in play, you get an understanding of what works and what does not.
Not every GM needs to write homebrew to get a solid understanding of the system they play but doing so is a good creative exercise to get an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the system. By posting the work online and getting feedback on it, you are speeding up this understanding exponentially. I recommend that all GMs or aspiring tabletop roleplaying game designers try to write homebrew for their favorite games from time to time as a creative exercise. Whether you are a GM for Dungeons & Dragons or Exalted, try to write down some magic items or stat up some monsters. Compare them to existing items or monsters in the game to see how they fare against them. If you do this occasionally, you will not only get a better understanding of the ins and outs of the game’s system, but it will give you more options for creative additions to your own stories. If you have players who have read all the books, letting them face new stuff they are unfamiliar with can be very good for your continued games.
For aspiring game designers who want to create their own tabletop roleplaying games from scratch, writing homebrew for existing games is an important first step – since developing your understanding of one game system can be of benefit to help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of a system of your own making – even if the games themselves are unrelated. You do not need to be a professional writer to gain something from writing homebrew. What is important is that it is fun and never feels like a chore. You should only do it if you think it is fun.
Art by © Grandfailure / Adobe Stock