DnD 5e - Balancing Homebrew Character Options
Last Updated: October 9th, 2020
RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
It finally happened. Someone in a campaign that you run came to you with something that's not in the official sourcebooks. Maybe they saw it online somewhere, or maybe they wrote it themselves. Either way, you might feel suspicious about whatever they've presented to you, and you might not feel comfortable deciding if it's safe to allow in your game.
In this article, we'll go into detail on what you can do to safely allow homebrew content in your game. It will take some work, but in the end it can be very satisfying.
If you're considering writing your own homebrew content, you may also enjoy my article on Writing Homebrew Character Options.
Before You Start
Before you consider any specific homebrew options, here is some general advice which I hope will help you feel more confident:
Try to say "Yes, but". While "Yes, and" is a common mantra in improvisational acting (and it's a good suggestion in roleplaying), character options are mechanics, no play-acting. As the Dungeon Master you're the arbiter of the rules, and you have a responsibility to keep them from falling apart. You can allow homebrew content, but it's often wise to impose limitations. "Yes, but I need you to not do X" is a perfectly fine answer.
Decisions Can Be Changed. If you made a decision and you just had a session where you regret it, it's totally fine to change you previous decision. If you allowed the homebrew content unmodified, maybe you make some small tweaks. If you already made tweaks and they didn't work out, try something else.
It's Okay to Say No. If something is so fundamentally broken that you're not okay using it, it's totally fine to say "No" to your player. They may be disappointed, but you're the one bearing the burden of whatever crazy new thing they want to introduce to the game and it's perfectly fine to decline that additional burden on top of being a Dungeon Master. Your job is already challenging.
Much like creating homewbrew content, reviewing other people's homebrew for use in your game can be a process. Here's a general idea of how I handle homebrew in my own games, and which I think you may find helpful.
Your player will be an active participant in each of these steps.
If you're reading this article, you may have already reached this stage. In this stage, your player presents you with the content which they would like to use. This is an important stage because it will inform the rest of the process.
Ask a lot of questions at this stage. Figure out why your player wants to use what they brought you. What about it is exciting? What does it let them do which they couldn't do with official, published options? Who wrote it? Where did they find it? Has it been reviewed by anyone else?
The "Sniff Test"
While I generally recommend keeping an open mind to homebrew content, there are some "red flags" which you can watch for which might lead you to reject content with little or no other consideration. Remember: Try to say "yes, but", but it's okay to say "no". If the content can't pass a sniff test, it may be best to reject it outright since it may be too problematic to salvage in a form that interests your player.
It's X but better. This is the easiest red flag to spot. There are very few truly awful official character options, and generally if your player is looking at a homebrew version of those options it may be buffed to the point that it's too powerful. They might even be looking at powered-up versions of things which were already really good.
If your player says "It's X but better", give them a squinty, suspicious look and ask "Better how?" If they give you a detailed, well-considered explanation about how it addressed funamental problems in the original, official content which it replaces, this may be a false alarm and your player may have found something great. But they say something like "more damage", it's probably garbage.
I Found it on X Wiki. Let me first say that Wikipedia is the most well-vetted, thorough, and factually acturate encyclopedic resource in the history of the human race. I am not disparaging wikis as a concept. However, your players are not finding homebrew content on wikipedia. They're probably finding it on suspicious wiki sites like fandom.com and other unofficial wikis which players might still mistake for content produced or endorsed by Wizards of the Coast.
Fan wikis rarely see thorough review of their contents since their audiences tend to be small, and if the wiki allows homebrew content there will generally be many more authors than reviewers. If your player ever gives you a link to "dandwiki.com", reject whatever they send you. That site is an especially egregious example of this issue, and nearly every piece of content I have ever seen from that site has been overpowered nonsense that falls into the "X but better" trap.
I Just Made It. Good homebrew content takes time and effort. I Wrote an article about Writing Homebrew Character Options specifically because doing so is so hard. If your play "just made it", they probably haven't followed any of my advice on the subject, and whatever they wrote is probably in really rough shape. On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to collaborate with you player to help polish their idea into something great. You get to be a peer reviewer of their creation (see the Iteration step in the linked article), and you might even get to help playtest it!
The first step before accepting homebrew character options is to research what's already available. If there is already a comparable option, you might simply ask your player to use what already exists. If there isn't, look for options which you can draw comparisons to in order to help you assess the homebrew content for balance.
Your player should help you with this. If they want to introduce something new, they should know what's already available.
If nothing quite matches the homebrew content you're considering (or if it's a replacement for existing content), it's important to determine if it's balanced compared to other options. Look for abuse cases, wording issues, and things which break the rules of the game or deviate from the text used in similar options. Small wording changes can make a big mechanical difference.
If this is something that your player created, ask them if they took notes. Asking them to "show their work" is totally reasonable, and may give you a lot of insight into how they created this thing and why. It may even help you determine if you're happy using it in your game.
At this stage, hopefully you have an idea of any balance issues in whatever your player has brought you. Even if you don't, that's perfectly fine. But you'll still need to do some negotiation with your player before you allow the homebrew content. They likely want to use the content unmodified (unless they already identified problems and have proposed fixes), but I recommend adding the follow ground rules before going any further.
No Multiclassing. Most abuse cases involve multiclass builds. If you remove that variable, your life will be much simpler. Once you've played with the homebrew content long enough to have a good understanding of how it works, you might choose to remove this restrictin. But it's a good requirement for anything that you're using for the first time.
Re-Adjust After Every Session. At the end of every session where the homebrew content is used, you'll discuss it with the player and make adjustments. Keep in mind that changing character options might require the player to adjust their character build, so be willing to allow some changes to accomodate whatever changes you're mandating.
Reverve the Right To Say "No". Sometimes homebrew stuff just doesn't work out, and nothing you do with it seems to make it work how you'd like. It's unfortunate, but it happens. Sometimes you just have to save "no". Your player may be disappointed, and that's understandable. Try to be patient and compationate, and help them find something else that they might enjoy instead. Depending on the option you're removing, you may need to allow them to fully rebuild their character.
Acceptance and Iteration
Now that you've done research, layed some ground rules, and started negotiating with your player, it's time to bring the homebrew content into your game in a way that makes you comfortable but also feels satisfying to your player.
In most cases, I don't recommend using homebrew content unmodified. Not to disparage the wonderful community of homebrew content creators, but most people's content won't be peer-reviewed, so most content will have problems. I've published 500+ pages of homebrew races for DnD 5e, and both versions of Monstrous Races start with a disclaimer explaining that players should read my design notes and make adjustments. Still, sometimes people get things really right, so don't blindly assume that you need to make adjustments.
If you make adjustments, try to keep them minor and avoid changing the core concept of the homebrew content. Adjusting numerical values is frequently enough to get something to a comfortable balance point, but there are other things that you can adjust like a magic item's rarity, or a spells level.
This will give you a starting point for the homebrew content. After every session, check in with your player and see how things went. Maybe you need to make more adjustments, or maybe you need more time to see how things work out. That's up to you and your player.
I posted on social media asking people to share some of their own homebrew content for this section of the article, and several wonderful people offered some really novel ideas. I've selected a handful of them to serve as examples.
A lot of really wonderful people sent me great ideas for inclusion in this article, so it's unfortunate that I couldn't include everything. I picked the examples below because they served as good examples for the article. If you sent me something and I didn't use it, know that I read what you sent me, and I appreciate that you took the time to share your hard work.
For each example, we'll go through the process that I suggest above. We'll skip the Presentation step because I recieved all of these examples via messages over social media. If it helps, imagine a player pulling my aside before a game session to talk in excited tones about something exciting that they concocted and wanted to try out in the game.
Example: Warhammer for a Tempest ClericSubmitted by @HellbornHero on Twitter
Warhammer that deals 1d8 Thunder damage (1d10 versatile) instead of bludgeoning, and it has the following properties.
It gives the user the Extra Attack feature, if they don't already possess it.
It has the thrown property with a normal range of 20 feet and a long range of 60 feet, and returns to the user after the attack.
The third is that the user can spend a spell slot of third level or higher to cast the Lightning Bolt Spell, Wis-Mod times per day.
It requires attunement.
@HellbornHero explained that he wrote this magic item to address some balance issues within the party he was DMing: most of his players were character optimizers, and the player who wasn't was feeling left behind. To address this issue, @HellbornHero gave his player an item to complement his Tempest Cleric's capabilities.
From a DM perspective, that can be a great solution to balance issues within the party, so long as everyone in the party is comfortable with that and no one is going to complain about "preferential treatment". But that's a very different article, so let's talk about what we can do with this hammer.
The "Sniff Test"
I don't see any "X but better", and this didn't come from a dubious website. There's a bit of "I just wrote this", but it sounds like @HellbornHero got to see a player use this at the table, so it has gone through some amount of playtesting.
One immediate red flag is that @HellbornHero didn't assign a rarity. If this item was meant for broad publication, that would be a problem. But since this was tailor-made for a specific player, we'll ignore that.
Finding similar examples for this item is difficult. It changes the weapon's damage type to Thunder and grants Extra Attack, and that alone is pretty spectacular. Adding the thrown property is novel, but without a way to recall the weapon it's also a dangerous gamble. The hammer also allows the user to cast Lightning Bolt, but they need to spend spell slots to do so, so it's basically just a free spell known with a daily usage cap. These are all complicated abilities, so it makes sense that the warhammer requires Attunement.
The most obviously similar item the Hammer of Thunderbolts, but the similarities are purely cosmetic. The Scimitar of Speed is somewhat similar since it grants an extra attack, but it requires a Bonus Action and can be used in conjunction with Extra Attack. The Thrown property is similar to the Dwarven Thrower, and both return to the user's hand after being thrown. We could also draw comparisons to wands, but those require spending your own spell slots. It's honestly difficult to find items which quite line up, which isn't very helpful.
Perhaps our best option is to look at the underlying rules. The random treasure tables give us an idea of when players should be able to find magic items of various rarities. Normally you'd need to do some research on your own here, but my campaign skeleton in my Practical Guide to Campaign Planning details when players can expect to get magic items of various rarities based on the random treasure tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Players should expect their first permanent uncommon item around 4th, their first rare around 10th, their first very rare around 16th, and their first (and likely only) legendary around 19th.
With that knowledge, we can compare when characters would get things like Extra Attack and Lightning Bolt. Both come online at 5th level at the earliest, so it makes sense that our warhammer should be at least as rare as other items which provide options available at 5th level. A Wand of Fireballs is Rare, which gives us a great starting point for the Negotiation phase.
At this stage, give the player the initial ground rules which I suggest above, as well as anything else that you need to settle before you allow the new item. Since this is a magic item, maybe we say that they won't get another permanent magic item for a while.
Acceptance and Iteration
Before we proceed: remember that this item was specifically written to address a balance issue in a single game. We're going to pretend that this was written for general publication.
We need to make some adjustments so that we're comfortable with the form in which we bring the new Warhammer into the game. The first thing we should do is to try to give it a rarity so that we can compare it to other magic items.
Since it provides two effects not available to players until 5th level, it's at least Rare. Since it provides so many effects, I think Very Rare is a better fit, so we'll call it Very Rare.
Even at Very Rare, this is still a really powerful and complicated item. I'd like to see some limitations on it that go beyond Attunement, and generally the way that's done is with charges. We can make each specific function of the hammer require expending a charge, which would prevent the hammer from being abused to the point that it's a problem. If we want to see the hammer used more or less we could adjust the number of charges that the hammers holds and how many it regains each day.
To start, I'd suggest 5 charges. Expending one charge allows the weilder to attack twice with one Attack action, and have their weapon's damage be replaced by Thunder damage. One charge allows the user to throw the hammer as though it had the Thrown property, and also to deal Thunder damage with the attack. One charge allows the weilder to cast Thunderbolt using a spell slot as though they had prepared Thunderbolt at the end of their last long rest, and the hammer may be used to perform Somatic components for Thunderbolt when it's cast this way (so you don't need to drop your shield or whatever else). We'll allow the hammer to regain 1d4+1 charge at dawn each day.
That gives us an initial version of the hammer. From there, we could make adjustments over time. Maybe require attunement by a cleric rather than by literally anyone. More or fewer charges, or adjust the rate at which they're regained. Maybe add an option to regain charges when a thunder/lightning spell is cast, but be careful because that will make the item even more complicated. If the Extra Attack thing is a major problem, we could allow a second attack as a Bonus Action instead. If the Thunder damage is a problem, try adding 1d6 Thunder damage to attacks made with the hammer until the beginning of the weilder's next turn.
Magic items have lots of room for adjustment, so there's a lot to try until we're happy with the results. But don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If the hammer feels like it's satisfying for your player and it's not causing problems in your game, that may be a good point to stop making adjustments.
Example: Dryad RaceSubmitted by /u/claminthesea on Reddit
/u/claminthesea shared their version of the Dryad as a playable race. (Refresher: dryads are fey tree spirits, frequently depicted as vaguely resembling humanoid women made of wood. Think Spriggans from the Elder Scrolls franchise.) I consider myself an amateur expert on race design, so I'm excited to give their work a look. I've written and published my own version of the Dryad, but I'm going to go into this with objective eyes and consider their work on its merits rather than trying to compare it to my own works.
The "Sniff Test"
This passes all of my sniff tests. It's not just a powered-up version of official content, and /u/claminthesea took the time to nicely format everything on GMBinder, which is a great site for writing up homebrew stuff in a format that matches the official sourcebooks. They clearly put time and effort into this.
Comparing races is typically pretty simple, but there are occasionally interesting traits which don't quite line up with published races. There are couple such traits here, but I think we can still draw some comparisons.
/u/claminthesea's version of the Dryad starts with core traits which look similar the the Elf. There's nothing scary here, and you get a choice of either a Wisdom or Charisma increase. I like decision points, so I like that. You also get to choose from one of three subraces.
Oak Dryads get a Strength increase and once per day they can get resistance to common weapon damage types until the beginning of their turn as a Reaction. That's a cool way to mitigate damage, and it seems like the Oak Dryad is built for melee. The ability to halve damage from a few attacks may sound problematic at first glance, but it's little different from casting Shield. Personally, I'd allow this once per Short Rest rather than one per Long Rest.
Leafling Dryads get a Dexterity increase and the ability to teleport by moving through trees, similar to the Tree Stride spell and the Dryad monster's ability to do so. Short-range teleportation is available with spells like Misty Step, and races like the Eladrin provide similar benefits, so there's definitely a precedent here.
Fern Dryads get increases to both Charisma and Wisdom, and some innate spellcasting from the Druid's spell list. The levels of the spells resemble the innate spellcasting provided by the Tiefling, so there's precedent here, too.
Taken as a whole, it's clear that /u/claminthesea did their homework, and based their version of the Dryad on precedents set by existing races.
At this stage, give the player the initial ground rules which I suggest above. I don't see much risk for problematic rules interactions, so we might even tolerate multiclassing here.
Acceptance and Iteration
For an initial version, I would accept /u/claminthesea's druid as it's written. They clearly did their homework and put in the time to create a balanced race, and there are some great design choices here.
I might even look for ways to add stuff to the race, like a second skill proficiency as part of their core racial traits and maybe make some tweaks to the subrace traits. As it stands, the race is similar in power to the Dragonborn, which is one of the weakest published races. Still, if a player brought this to me and said "I want to play exactly this with no other changes", I would be perfectly happy allowing it.
Example: "Threaded Cane" WeaponSubmitted by @bryanc2013 on Twitter
The Threaded Cane is a weapon which can transofrm from the equivalent of a shortsword to the equivalent of a whip. @bryanc2013 drew the example from the popular game Bloodborne, but we've also seen similar items in other games like Soul Calibur. The concept isn't totally unique, and there was even an official version of such an item in the 3.0 supplement Arms and Equipment Guide.
Still, it's a cool item, and weapons are very small in a mechanical sense, so they're great for experimenting with homebrew content.
@bryanc2013 shared the following text to describe the weapon:
Shortsword that transforms into a whip with a bonus action or as part of a weapon attack.
It's not much to go on, but we know the stats for a shortsword and for a whip, so that's really all that we need in this case.
The "Sniff Test"
I don't see any "X but better", and it's not from an inherently suspicious source (though it's fair to argue that social media sites/apps have their own issues). The weapon has a bit of "I just made this", but let's not hold that against @bryanc2013 since I was asking for suggestions via tweet and specified that they didn't need to be good.
The benefits of this weapon are that you can change its form without needing to stow or drop it and grab a different weapon. Normally drawing a weapon requires an item interaction. Allowing characters to switch weapons more quickly is a minor benefit, but we also need to consider that buffs like the Magic Weapon spell might be on the weapon, so changing your weapon's stats without actually changing weapons can be impactful.
We're not looking at an unchangeable part of the character's build, so we don't need to be especially strict in our negotiation. We're going to do some adjusting to play with the weapons's stats, but I don't see this as anything game breaking and it's not more of a problem than a regular shortsword or whip.
Acceptance and Iteration
As an initial version, we'll allow the player to change the weapon's state using a Bonus Action, so long as they take the Attack action on the same turn. We could also try a Reaction, we could make the change it to use the character's Free Item Interaction, or we could just allow it once per turn during the Attack action with no actual action cost.
I think that the Bonus Action option justifies the added utility of changing weapons without losing buffs or needing a second magic item, but playtesting might show that the action cost doesn't justify the benefits. Experiment with it over time, and see how things work out.
Example: Kineticry CantripSubmitted by @DNR_L on Twitter
@DNR_L sent me several wonderful things, and I picked thir Kineticry cantrup from several snippets which they shared. They also shared some really unique magic items from Clyde Blackthorne's Book of Rogues (Affiliate Link), several of which I would happily give to my own players. The spell below is a preview of an addition which hasn't made it into the book yet as of this writing.
- Casting Time: 1 Bonus Action
- Components: S
- Duration: Instantaneous
You touch an inanimate, nonmagical object that weighs less than 1 pound, infusing it with kinetic energy. Until the end of your turn, the object magically becomes a thrown weapon with a range of 20 feet when you make a ranged attack with it. you can make a ranged weapon attack wit hthe object, adding your proficiency bonus to the attack roll. On a hit, the target takes force damage equal to 1d4 + your dexterity modifier. Whether the attack hits or misses, the spell's effect ends on the object and the object is destroyed.
The range of the kinetic object increases by 20 feet when you reach 5th level (40 feet), 11th level (60 feet), and 17th level (80 feet).
The spell is intended for the Bar, the Sorcerer, and the Wizard. It's an interesting option to turn random objects into weapons. I imagine that this is targeted at rogues and similar characters who might rely on making weapon attacks to deal Sneak Attack damage or apply similar effects. It also changes the attacks damage type to Force, which is a powerful option for characters normally reliant on normal weapon damage types.
One issue in the spell (which I'm sure @DNR_L will correct before publication) is that the spell's duration is actually "1 round" rather than "instantaneous" because the magic effect lasts for a full round. This is the kind of stuff that you need to watch out for and discuss with whichever player wants to use this in the game because minor textual errors like this open up abuse cases.
The "Sniff Test"
@DNR_L bundled their new cantrip in a 43-page (as of this writing. I know that @DNR_L is working on adding more material) document which they packaged and posted for sale on DMsGuild. The effort is definitely there, so this passes the sniff test.
The obvious comparison here is to the Magic Stone cantrip. Magic Stone is available to a very different list of classes (the Druid is the only overlap), but cantrips are generally allocated where it's thematically appropriate, rather than based on balance, so it's still fine to compare the two cantrips despite their differing availability.
There are some significant differences between Kineticry and Magic Stone. First, Magic Stone affects three items, while Kineticry only affects one. Second, Magic Stone's damage is 1d6 + spellcasting modifier bludgeoning, while Kineticry is 1d4 + dexterity modifier force damage. Third, Magic Stone's range is fixed at 60 feet (though you can use a sling instead), while Kineticry's range starts at 20 feet and gradually increases to 80 feet. Finally, Magic Stone makes a ranged spell attack, while Kineticry makes a ranged weapon attack.
Allowing a range weapon attack means that Kineticry can deal Sneak Attack damage, as well as other effects which might only apply on weapon attacks. Making the attack Dexterity-based means that martial casters like the Arcane Trickster Rogue are the only ones likely to make use of the spell. Force damage is resisted by nearly nothing. All told, this allows rogues to apply Sneak Attack at range as force damage with base damage equivalent to a dagger, but with considerably better range (though obviously you could get more range and damage from a ranged weapon like a crossbow). The object used is destroyed, but since there's no minimum size you can carry a bag of tiny pebbles and turn them into weapons (Magic Stone does the same thing). You could even use something lighter like slips of paper.
Since this is one of few spells which allows a weapon attack, we should also compare it to Booming Blade and Green-Flame Blade. Both spells add a considerable amoung of extra damage, not to mention the secondary effects of both spells. However, neither spell requires a Bonus Action to be expended separately, so the action cost is arguably lower.
All told, it's hard to say if this spell is balanced compared to published options. I'm not sure that it isn't balanced, but when using homebrew I always encourage caution.
Start with our usual ground rules. I think the most likely audience here is the Arcane Trickster Rogue, but multiclass builds may be able to turn this into a real problem. Adding Extra Attack to the Arcane Trickster would allow the player to make two attacks without spending their Bonus Action, which could lead to a huge improvement in damage output due to the added opportunity to deal Sneak Attack if their first attack with Kineticry misses.
Acceptance and Iteration
I think that the spell as-written is a good starting point, though be sure to correct the spell's duration to 1 round because that has a real mechanical impact if you encounter antimagic fields or Dispel Magic or similar effects.
Beyond the starting point, we can experiment with the some changes. Maybe we make it take an Action and you get to attack as part of the Action (in which case we could also make the duration Instantaneous). Maybe we reduce the duration until the end of the same turn. Maybe we change the target so it needs to be a weapon or piece of ammunition. There's a lot that we could try here without changing the heart of the spell.
Homebrew is hard. Writing it is hard, using it is hard. But like a lot of parts of this hobby, if you put in the time you can make it really worthwhile. Hopefully this helps you to make homebrew work in your games.