I’d like to preface what I’m about to say with this: this is as much a helpful guide (maybe), as it is a cautionary tale. Writing a homebrew – as you may have guessed – is REALLY hard. It took a lot out of me, and frankly, I’m not actually done. And I started working on this thing more than 2 years ago.
That being said, here are the general steps I took to get it started. Obviously, things have veered off course pretty drastically, and I was woefully underprepared for what my players were bringing to the table, but I’m going to call that a learning experience. Definitely not a failure… No, it was a failure. I’m not giving up on it, though. I plan to continue to run this game. Whether that means running it into the ground or not remains to be seen.
The way I started, and the way many other people most likely start is with a story (duh). It was actually something I was developing as a book idea, but it has become an entirely different beast now. I started writing the story as a novel in 2012, and really only got about 6 chapters done before dropping it entirely. Let’s not discuss that part of my process anymore – I would like to sweep that deep under the rug and into a hole I dug in the floor. Let’s talk about what I did with that husk of a narrative instead.
I adapted the HELL out of it, is what I did. I completely ripped it apart and reconfigured it for the world of Pathfinder. It literally bears about 0.01% resemblance to the original chapters I wrote, and that’s probably what will happen to whatever story you set out with as well. At least, if you start out the same way I did. If you want to birth a whole new story with homebrew creation already in mind, you may have better luck tailoring it to the system straight away. I don’t roll that way, baby. I’m fast and loose with it.
Anyways, what I’m saying here is: get ready to let go of some things if you want to adapt a story you’ve written as prose. And if you start with a story tailored to Pathfinder (or your game system of choice), I suggest starting from a vantage point of rules and math. Look at some cool mechanics, items, monsters, and maybe even settings, and start writing your story around those things. Don’t start writing something thinking you’re going to be able to make it work eventually – you will end up backpedaling (a la… miss Jessica Negin).
That’s tip number one, and in case you haven’t noticed, I belabor every point. This is why I can’t actually be a writer. Anyways, let’s start in on the explanation of tip number two and then discuss it at great length.
As I said, if you’re looking at mechanics, understanding monsters is super important. And on that same note, you’re going to need to get familiar with the math behind combat difficulty. I know – not super fun – but you can find a ton of handy guides online that make it really simple. I can’t point out any specific guides as I’ve put this information together more through practical means than actual reading and researching, but I know almost every beginners’ GM guide will include a breakdown of CR, etc. This is essential whether you’re homebrewing your monsters, or using pre-made ones. “Why do I need to understand the math behind combat even if I’m using pre-made material?” you ask. Great question! Because your PCs will inevitably either be underpowered or overpowered for the fights, and the only way you can adjust reliably is to understand what you’re adjusting. My handy dandy tip here is to use size changes and apply it only to stats, not to the actual size of the monster. But if I get into any more detail about that here, this will turn into more of a genuine guide and less of a general overview of what not to do. And that’s not what I’m trying to write.
When it comes to monsters, what you need to remember as a GM is that you’re there to tell a story together, to challenge your players to use their ingenuity and the skills of their characters to overcome obstacles, and to make sure they’re not breezing through everything. Which brings me to my next point: study up on your players.
This is, of course, assuming you’ve already created the homebrew, gotten a group together, and gone through the entire process of character creation. If you’ve reached this step, get a copy of their character sheets, and READ THEM. I can’t tell you how many times I set something up expecting the difficulty to be almost too much for the party, only for one or more of them to reveal they have some crazy ability that I forgot about and therefore can blast apart my not-so-carefully constructed encounter. I’m an idiot. Don’t be like me.
Without challenge or adversity, the game completely falls flat. The last session I ran must have felt like hell for my players – they did flips through every hoop I raised for them. That doesn’t create drama or interest or intensity. It made for a drab, uninteresting trudge towards the next part of the story that ended with none of the NPCs making an impact on anyone, and everyone sort of staring at each other like “should we even keep doing this?” This game can get like that sometimes, and that’s fine when it’s only occasionally, but it can become a slippery slope if you let it slide even once.
The alternate, however, is also a problem. Building encounters and challenges and traps that are WAY above the skill level of your party is equally irritating, boring, and without merit. So I say again: READ THEIR CHARACTER SHEETS. I still haven’t done this for my party, because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m BAD at this. That’s why I’m qualified to give advice. The title of this article should be: How I Wrote My Homebrew – Everything NOT to do When Creating a Campaign Setting.
That is not to say I’m going to stop, however. I’m really determined to keep trying at this, and I think that’s the main thing you need – perseverance. Or maybe blind stupidity and stubbornness. It’s some sort of amalgam of all of the above for me, I think. I’m not one to sing my own virtues, but that’s really what I have going for me in this process. I keep f***ing doing it. And I keep subjecting my players to my experimental dabblings. I’ve written, rewritten, double-rewritten, reverted, and tripled-back on this mess several dozen times now, and I’m going to keep doing that. For all the kvetching I’ve done in this article, it can actually be very fun.
I’ll stop droning on now and leave you with this final thought: buy a campaign module. It’s so much easier.