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Leuku's Discussion on Innovative Class Design
Hello, my name is Leuku, and this is the much-too-long delayed sequel to my prior article, “Guide to Balancing (and Judging the Balance of) Homebrew Classes”. Today’s article is a discussion on design creativity in 5e homebrew class mechanics. This is a discussion as opposed to a guide because creativity has even fewer, if at all, identifiable objective rules or limitations. We can compare and contrast damage numbers, but not whether it is better (or worse) to be parasitically infested by an eldritch octopus or an interspecies child of one.
In the following discussion, I will:
|A)||Make a distinction between homebrew class feature design that is driven by Mechanics versus Narrative|
|B)||Expand on Narrative and its core components: Lore, Story, and Tone|
|C)||Expand on Mechanics and its different forms: the Poached, the Composite, and the Unexplored|
|D)||Unintentionally create a Random Mechanic Generator|
|E)||Provide meaningful perspectives from my homebrewing peers|
Mechanics: “The aspects of a feature that enables or improves a class’ ability to tangibly influence or resist the influence from the world around them”
Narrative: “the aspect of a feature that informs or expands upon the lore, story, or visual of the class”
Mechanics-driven class design: “feature design that focuses on how it functions mechanically before its narrative is considered.”
Narrative-driven class design: "feature design where the lore and visuals produced by the theme inform the designer about what the mechanical result should include or resemble when finished."
Spirit of 5e: Utilization of the Advantage/Disadvantage system wherever possible; respect for Bounded Accuracy and AC; and the avoidance of small, static, stacking, temporary, conditional modifiers.
Mechanics vs Narrative
To acknowledge the elephant in the room, there is no truly meaningful barrier between Mechanics-driven and Narrative-driven. Tendencies towards one or the other do exist, and I am an example of someone who resides primarily in the Mechanics-driven side of the venn diagram, but my real purpose behind making such a distinction is to give this article a kind of structure or template to follow.
As I progress down these concepts, please be sure to keep in mind that neither method is inherently superior nor inferior to the other.
Mechanics-driven features are often expressed in two ways: Either A) the coopting of an existing mechanic from an existing source, or B) the creation of a mechanic that is not or under-utilized by existing content. An example of the former case is a homebrew class that incorporates the Rogue’s Sneak Attack class feature, either wholesale or with a variant, because the homebrewer feels that, besides Sneak Attack, the Rogue class chassis is inadequate or ill-fitting for their homebrew needs. An example of the latter would be the creation of a psychic power-based class independent of spellcasting, such as the UA Mystic. Regardless of their expressions, Mechanics-driven features prioritize the functionality of the mechanic before Narrative is considered.
Innovative Mechanics-driven features generally follow two paths: Either A) twisting or adding a new element to a coopted mechanic from a different source to create a new expression of that mechanic, or B) the creation of an entirely new mechanic that is not bogged down by excessive complexity. The italicized clause is in reference to the risk of creating a mechanic that forgets the players and DMs who will have to interact with it. A new mechanic that utilized a base 8 numerology and incorporated the use of a joystick controller would certainly be unprecedented, but it would likely be unplayable to most groups. This does not mean that you should be afraid of complex features, but rather that you should always keep in mind how much time and effort you expect DMs and players to take executing your class round by round.
Another pitfall to consider regarding Mechanics-driven features is that absent a unifying theme, sets of mechanics may lose association with one another. This may break a player’s immersion in the class as they question the relationship between the ability to shout a dragon down to its knees and the ability to eat all 87 wheels of cheese using an Action. When mechanics are created in a vacuum, they might be balanced, but they might not make sense.
Meanwhile, Narrative-driven features first flow from the imagination. Mechanics are then picked and designed with the intention of recreating that imagination in an actionable form. This often results in the combination of mechanics that would not normally be associated. For example, the ability to defy gravity while riding an undead steed would not normally be associated with the ability to judge a person’s soul and burn them from within with the weight of their sins, but a class informed by the narrative of the Ghost Rider would create that association.
The immediate difficulty with this method is finding the right mechanics that not only adequately execute your imagined concept, but are also balanced with existing mechanics at similar levels. Due to the leveling nature of player character growth, you can’t get everything you want immediately without making trouble for your DM and party. You might not be able to achieve an accurate reflection of your imagined character until the highest levels, where few campaigns go on for long.
Another issue is that your idea might not be executable within the framework that 5e provides. You might want to homebrew a class based on Dark Souls, but you wouldn’t be able to adequately express Dark Souls’ essential dodge-rolling and parry mechanics into a balanced form due to 5e’s turn-based encounter system. Consequently, in an effort to ease the difficulty of developing new and balanced mechanics, a Narrative-driven homebrew class has the tendency of poaching features from existing classes and assuming that such an amalgamation might be balanced because each individual feature already exists.
It’s not too uncommon to come across a homebrew class that has both Extra Attack and the Rogue’s Sneak Attack, or the Fighter’s three Extra Attacks and a fullcaster’s spellcasting, due to such a build matching the depiction of a character from a different media. For example, a fully realized Batman class would have the strength and endurance of a Fighter, the martial skill of a Monk, the stealth and deadliness of a Rogue, the utility belt of a Tinkerer, and the investigative intelligence of a Scholar. Attempts to recreate Batman within the 5e system tend to focus only on one or two of those things, due to the inherent limits 5e places on PC power.
Innovative Narrative-driven features find the best combination of existing mechanics that may not normally be associated with one another or create new mechanics that retain the spirit of 5e to express the exact flavor the homebrewer is looking, all while maintaining relative balance. For me, the spirit of 5e means the following: Utilization of the Advantage/Disadvantage system wherever possible; respect for Bounded Accuracy and AC; and the avoidance of small, static, stacking, temporary, conditional modifiers.
Lore, Story, and Tone
Having etched these principles into our brains, let’s consider Narrative more in-depth. Imagine if Narrative could be reduced to the following component parts: Lore, Story, and Tone. In brief terms, Lore covers history and facts, known and hidden, that set the grounding for all events that transpire. It is the circumstances and parameters that set the stage for the comings and goings of heroes and villains alike. Story is the conflict that drives the motivation for change and growth. It is what compels individuals to act, to adventure. Tone is sensation, what you see, hear, feel, even smell when you think about the class and any of its particular abilities. These aspects tie the class into a cohesive whole and set the degree of verisimilitude or immersion that a DM and player must accept. If Mechanics are a class’ bones and muscles, then Narrative gives it its brain and heart.
When it comes to Lore, I’m generally the wrong person to ask, as I tend to create the lore that I need to justify mechanics rather than have lore help inform me of the mechanics I need. Further, I have never intentionally utilized the lore from any established DnD setting such as the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Spelljammer. On this subject I defer to more grounded individuals:
"With lore I tend to see two methods. A) Designing lore in a vacuum. Intending it to fit any general fantasy world. When more abstract concept come into it, this can lead to a Kitchen sink world when too many homebrew pieces designed in a vacuum are added to a world. B) Designing based on the worlds established lines. This will tend to mean the piece fits better to the world, but that it may not fit other peoples settings as well, causing a dissonance. A homebrewer tends to want to have as much reach and usability as possible for their product, but if the work is generic without an understanding of how to be put in the world, then that can be just as bad as being overly specific to a world.
Some classes and races are more well suited to a particular approach than others. Classes that are defined according to existing groups; orders, schools, traditions, carry with them an implicit amount of lore that is inserted into the world when the class or subclass is permitted. Others carry no implicit information of the world, only about the character. Integrating the lore of a homebrew into a characters roleplay can be a challenge in either approach." - @Ashley (Discord of Many Things) paraphrased
Every world will have fire. Every world will have hate or love or fear or joy. Every world is going to have madness, and every world is going to have victory. I design with "How can I express the triumphant joy of burning one's foes and seeing them flee before you? How can I inspire in the player that same furious madness that would make one want to do such a violent and horrible thing?" - Obviously, this is a fantasy game and we should keep such desires in fiction, but they're still something people can connect with on a personal level. Lore is just excuses to make those themes and emotions emerge, because that's where the fun in roleplaying is. – @GenuineBelieverer (DoMT, Compendium of Forgotten Secrets)
Story is conflict. Born from trauma (forces beyond our control) and desire (intent from within), story is the retelling of our endeavors to overcome the obstacles found in our paths. The PHB Sorcerer is a good example of a class with an inherent trauma, in that a typical sorcerer did not get to choose to be born with a magical bloodline. A Warlock meanwhile typically chooses their otherworldly patron likely out of a desire for the power to acquire or accomplish something. They each carry clear implications of story that inspire the call to adventure. When crafting the Narrative for your class, consider from which type of conflict your class may be born from. It could be a combination of both.
For example, if you were designing a class that allows you to transform into an eldritch octopus as its primary feature, you might consider that a person adopted this class because in their childhood their village was destroyed by an army of eldritch octopuses (trauma), and then a treacherous octopus deserter came to offer the survivors power (desire) in the form of an eldritch symbiotic parasitism. This Narrative gives me ideas for features based on embracing or resisting the octopus parasite’s will, giving you different benefits depending on your choice. Maybe there are different types of octopuses among the deserters and each offers different powers. Maybe as you gain levels you attract other eldritch octopuses and absorb their powers. Ideas galore can be born from an enthralling story!
Word of Caution
The most popular class to homebrew is likely the illusive Arcane INT-based Halfcaster. Popular due to the void between the Paladin and the Ranger wanting filling. Illusive in that few attempts have measured up as both mechanically satisfying and narratively compelling. There are several reasons for this. 1). It is difficult to find an engaging yet balanced alternative competitor to the Paladin’s Divine Smite, the key highlight Halfcaster feature that marries weapon-use with spell slot spellcasting.
Word of Caution Continued
2). They are almost invariably Narratively bland due to it being a Mechanics-driven reason for homebrewing one (their Narratives tend to boil down to “Magic Soldier Who Does War”). 3), as a result of (1) and (2), they tend to poach existing mechanics (Weapon Bond, arcane variant smite, Fighting Styles) for primary features rather than innovate truly interesting ones. A Narrative-driven origin may be the key that unlocks the secret to a captivating Arcane INT-based Halfcaster.
Lastly, Tone sets the boundaries of immersion. It helps inspire particular behavior from players and has DMs adjudicate the class’ plausibility within the Tones of their campaigns. Consider that my Eldritch Octopus Parasite class carries a Tone of high fantasy, dark horror edginess, and ridiculousness, which might inspire players to argue with their parasite voiced by their DM and might easily find a home in a Cthulu mythos campaign, but not as much in a palace intrigue. Tone helps set the class’ appeal and the range of their expected behavior.
For example, the Paladin and its Oaths’ Tenets set a Tone of rigid adherence to defined principles, and mechanics like Lay on Hands and Divine Smite set a Tone of a duality between mercy and righteous punishment. Tone also helps set the bounds of what kind of mechanics you might develop for your class. A Magical Girl homebrew class might have more tongue-in-cheek features, such as lavish transformation sequences and dramatic entrance bonuses, whereas a Mistborn-inspired homebrew class is more likely to treat its features a bit more soberly (FYI, I totally brewed a Mistborn class; please look forward to it.)
Capturing Tone is an effort to create a clear vision through your class features in order to engage and excite the DM and the player. It is to give them a feeling of what they might be capable of, what they look and sound like when they’re at their best. Imagining a Tone is to picture an image, perhaps of...
Wind billowing through your hair the tips of which leaving trails of blackened smoke, an acrid scent sending your nostrils arching at the jagged spires of violet glass protruding from the palm of your hand, as you cleave the space between you and the charging knights causing motes of light to flower on each of their bodies, sending them dangling suspended in the air, their cries of frustration sending shockwaves up your sinewy back, steadily filling the meter within your head upon completion you know will help you end this once and for all…
Executing that Tone is to translate that image into flavor text (descriptive exposition, quotes from NPCs) and mechanics, enabling that image to be both imagined and actualized in play.
You have successfully transmitted a good Tone when a DM and player looking for the kind of class you’ve made feel excited and inspired by what they read. A strong Tone helps expand imagination on the core concept of the class. A Tone might be weak when the features feel dissociated with one another and the introductory text does not match with what the mechanics enable. Or perhaps the image of the class is muddled and difficult to imagine due to a lack of or confusing flavor text. In this matter, art helps. Though not a required aspect of good quality homebrew, found or commissioned art pieces can help create immediate creative associations.
If you plan to add art assets to your homebrew documents and publish them online for the world to see, then please credit the artist by naming them (and ideally providing a link to where you found their work). Please make certain that you find the original artist and not someone who has simply rehosted the art. If you cannot find the artist, use a different piece of art whose origin you can confirm. Artists differ on their opinions regarding the importance of being asked permission before any of their art is used for non-commercial projects, but ideally you do ask for their permission, and if you’re not willing or capable of asking, then properly crediting them is the bare minimum requirement.
Crediting can be done simply by either adding some text next to the image like “- Dreadful Squid by Octometrist101 or by gathering all art credits onto the last page of the document and placing them together with page number references, like so:
Now that we’ve covered Narrative, let’s go back to the nitty-gritty of my speciality, Mechanics. I’m going to identify several categories of Mechanics. When attempting to come up with Innovative Mechanics, try to keep these categories in mind as both sources of inspiration and boundaries to consider. They are the Poached, the Composite, and the Unexplored.
A poached feature is one that repeats or replicates an existing feature or ability, and is the most common form of homebrew class mechanics. There is nothing inherently wrong with poaching a feature, but there are several Mechanical and Narrative implications to keep in mind as well as significant pitfalls to avoid.
The question to ask yourself when considering poaching a feature is, “Is my class going to feel and play distinctly enough from other classes if I poach this feature?” For example, say you want to make a Ninja homebrew, but you feel that the Rogue’s subclass system is too restricting. You take the Rogue’s Sneak Attack, Uncanny Dodge, and Evasion because they fit a Ninja so well, and then drop everything else, designing new Ninja-based mechanics to fill in the gaps. Even if you have features that allow you to make ninja traps and run with your arms straight behind you, will this homebrew feel sufficiently distinct from a Rogue with a Ninja-inspired subclass? Poaching makes making a homebrew class easy, but making it good difficult.
There are a small handful of features one can poach with little worry. The features that qualify do so because they appear multiple times throughout official published classes, meaning that they, as far as WOTC is concerned, do not retain exclusive relationships with their host classes. These features are: Spellcasting, Extra Attack (1), Fighting Styles, and Evasion. To a lesser extent, some other features are easily poachable due either to their appearance in two classes or the extent of their generic-ness, but often require at least a little more effort to justify, e.g. Arcane Recovery and Extra Attack (2). This is not the end of the list of poachable features, but rather the start of a list of features that are the least concerning when considering Mechanical and Narrative Innovation. Bear in mind that poaching a feature is generally the least innovative in feature design; however, it doesn’t have to be.
Two Types of Poaching
There are generally two approaches to poaching: Wholesale and Tweak. Wholesale is taking a feature whole with no alterations, e.g. Spellcasting, Fighting Styles, or Evasion. To tweak is to take an existing ability and alter it in some way. Wholesale speaks for itself, so let us consider tweaking more in-depth.
A tweak is any poached ability that alters the means by which you would A) gain access to, B) activate, or C) utilize it. Perhaps the most common example of a tweak is any feature that says something along the lines of, “You gain the ability to cast ___ spell…”, followed by some determination of frequency such as “at-will” or “once between short or long rests”. Such a feature is typically reserved for a class that wouldn’t normally have access to such a spell. Several races and creatures have this ability through Innate Spellcasting. Several Warlock Invocations grant this type of tweak as well. This degree of tweaked poaching is likely due to the fact that there are simply so many spells that create so many distinct effects that it is more efficient to simply replicate the effects of an existing spell (such as it is for the 9th level Wish spell) than it is to create an entirely unique feature organically. Do not be afraid to utilize a tweak like this, as simply plucking an existing spell or ability may be the most appropriate for your homebrew class. However, bear in mind that the more tweaks you utilize, the closer your class may end up feeling to existing options.
Strong Narrative implications can help make tweaks more personal, and thus more unique, to your homebrew. For example, a Channel Divinity I recently designed for a silly It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia-inspired Paladin subclass was simply poaching the Enlarge/Reduce spell. I could have ended it there, but I decided to restrict the spell’s use to only the Enlarge function in reference to the subclass’ subject TV show character being obsessed with becoming larger physically. The stronger your Narrative, the easier it will be to personalize your tweaks.
An example of an official mechanic that tweaks the activation method of a spell is the Warcaster feat. When a creature provokes an opportunity attack from you, it allows you to cast a 1 Action, single target spell at the creature instead of a melee weapon attack. An Activation Tweak (or in this case “deactivation”) I might homebrew could be something along the lines of “While raging, you may as a bonus action end your rage early. If you do so, the next time you hit with a weapon attack you deal additional damage equal to 2 x your Barbarian level”. This is not to suggest that this is in any way a good homebrew mechanic, but rather just an example of an Activation Tweak off the top of my head.
A Utilization Tweak alters the ways in which a mechanic would traditionally be used. An example of an official mechanic that does this is the Warlock’s Pact of the Chain, which alters your choice in a familiar as well as how it can be commanded. A Utilization Tweak that I’ve homebrewed involves Paladin-like auras that, instead of having an always-on passive benefit, only grants a benefit when you use your Reaction in response to a specific trigger.
In general, I strongly discourage poaching primary features from classes, such as the Rogue’s Sneak Attack or the Druid’s Wildshape, without extensive, dramatic tweaks. There is want of a Shapeshifter class that functions without fullcasting, so it is not uncommon to see one with the Druid’s Wildshape feature and nothing else from the Druid. From a basic mechanical balance point, obviously a Shapeshifter’s Wildshape will need to be changed to make up for the lack of fullcasting. But just as important will be tweaks that change how it feels and plays, such as at-will basic transformations for minimum combat competency, a list of evolutions that temporarily or permanently augment yourself or your transformations, and so on.
Subclass to Class Poaching
However, I will argue that there is significant room for poaching features from subclasses and then tweaking them into primary features for your homebrew classes. I have done this for a couple of my homebrew classes. The Forge Cleric’s Channel Divinity gave me the core mechanic I required to complete my Tinkerer’s Construction feature in an elegant way. I am presently developing a “soul-infused half-caster summoner” class that utilizes a tweaked version of the Abjuration Wizard’s Arcane Ward. I believe there is room for such poaching because A) at least with regard to many fullcaster subclasses, Spellcasting is a fullcaster’s primary source of power and so its subclass features tend to take a back seat, and B) because they are subclass features, they cannot be expanded upon by the base class and consequently often have much of their potential restricted. With sufficient tweaks born from a strong narrative, I believe subclass features can be utilized to form the backbones of many homebrew classes.
A Composite feature is a mechanic that is composed of several parts of existing mechanics, taking the old and making it new through inventive combination. This can be differentiated from a Tweaked mechanic by the degree with which it is difficult to identify a comparative parallel between a Composite feature and any existing mechanic. It may be easy to identify where its component parts come from, but judging the resultant Composite by them will give you an incomplete picture of its place and function in the class. An increasingly Tweaked feature may eventually turn into a Composite.
An official example of a Composite feature is the Barbarian’s Rage. It is a feature composed of many familiar, individual parts. The advantage on Strength ability checks is reminiscent of Bull’s Strength from the spell enhance ability, the static bonus to damage is similar to the Dueling fighting style, and resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage reminds one of the blade ward cantrip or the stoneskin spell. Packaged together, the Barbarian’s Rage is so distinct and different from anything else we’ve seen before that it’s not even right to claim that Rage poached its individual parts from anywhere; perhaps the things I mentioned poached from Rage instead.
The key to a Narratively strong Composite is association, association meaning “the narrative relation between mechanics, and how the mechanics reinforce that relationship.” How does one mechanic relate to another? In homebrew, I often see a bag of mechanics being handed to a class/subclass under the banner of a single feature, but there being little interaction or connection between the mechanics. For example, a darkness themed subclass to the Ranger might at 3rd level grant darkvision to 60 feet, additional 2d8 radiant (moon) damage on the first attack made in an encounter when it is nighttime, and knowing which phase the moon is in at all times. These are all appropriately themed mechanic, but beyond a vague “I am the Night” vibe, they don’t really interact with one another nor is the image this subclass trying to portray notably clear. This isn’t to suggest that this is a bad bag of mechanics, but rather that perhaps with little more effort it can be made better.
Universal Mechanics List
More meaningfully, there is a set of universal mechanics that are class agnostic and form the basis of all class mechanics. That set includes, but may not be limited to:
- Proficiency with a weapon, armor, a skill, a saving throw, a tool
- Double proficiency with a skill, an ability check under certain conditions, a tool
- Advantage/disadvantage on an attack roll, an ability check, a saving throw
- Resistance/Immunity to one or more damage types
- Additional/subtractional dice on an attack roll, damage roll, ability check, saving throw, AC, and hit points lost/regained
- A static modifier bonus/penalty to an attack roll, damage roll, ability check, saving throw, AC, save DC, ability score, and hit points lost/regained
- Rerolling an attack roll, damage roll, ability check, or saving throw, keeping the second result
- An increase or reduction to maximum hit points/movement speed/range/duration
- A substitution for an ability score in an attack roll, damage roll, ability check, saving throw, or for determining AC or a save DC
- A static substitution for an attack roll, damage roll, ability check, saving throw, AC, a save DC, or hit points regained.
- Grant/Deny an Action, Bonus Action, Reaction, movement, traits, or spellcasting
- Apply/remove a Condition
- Substitute action required for an ability with a different kind of action
- The identification/location/creation/relocation of an object or creature
- Add/subtract number of targets/components required
Generating a Random Mechanic
If I have forgotten any, please tell me in the comments and I’ll add them to the list. As an exercise in hilarity, let’s try coming up with a new feature for my Eldritch Octopus Horror class by randomly choosing 3 options from this list by rolling a d20 3 times, ignoring any results above 15. Lessee, I got a 9, an 8, and a 1. That gives us the following:
- A substitution for an ability score in an attack roll, damage roll, ability check, saving throw, or for determining AC or a save DC
- An increase or reduction to maximum hit points/movement speed/range/duration
- Proficiency with a weapon, armor, a skill, a saving throw, a tool
Random Mechanic Generation Cont.
Each item here has subdivisions, so let’s roll a d6 for #9, Evens or Odds and a d4 for #8, and a d6 rerolling 6s for #1. For #9, I got a 6. For #8, I got Evens and a 2. For #1, I got a 2. This leaves us with:
#9 A substitution for determining a save DC
#8 An increase to movement speed
#1 Proficiency in an armor
Hahaha! Tricky... OK, let’s assume that my Eldritch Octopus Horror class has a universal save DC applied to all of its abilities. Since the theme is Cosmic Horror, then let’s have Wisdom be the usual ability score for determining it. Which ability score should be substituted for Wisdom? No idea, so let’s look at the other options. An increased movement speed means you’re faster, which implies Dexterity, and armor proficiency favors martial combat. If you grant proficiency in armor at a level above 1st, then ideally you only upgrade from either no armor proficiency to light/medium armor, light armor to medium armor, or light/medium to heavy armor (not considering shields). You never want to jump from no or light armor to heavy armor, as your base armor proficiencies set expectations for ability score point allocation, and too dramatic a transition in armor proficiencies will make either your character creation ability score investment pointless or encourage awkward low AC periods in the early game. Always assume that the players will start at level 1 and will have to survive several sessions before reaching level 3, even if most games typically start campaigns at higher levels.
My Eldritch Octopus Horror class does not seem like a class that would have any armor proficiency, so let’s go from no armor proficiency to light armor. Thinking of octopi with armor led me to googling armored octopus, which led me to this remarkable video. And I’m like, “Hot damn! Let’s do that!”
At X level, while wearing no armor, you can spend 1 minute donning random objects onto your body by sticking them to your protruding sucker cups. You must have sufficient object surface area to cover a significant portion of your body. You are considered proficient in this improvised armor. While wearing it, you can calculate your AC as if you were wearing studded leather armor and when you are hit by a melee weapon attack, you can as a reaction choose to dismantle and discard the armor. When you do so, the attacking creature must make a Strength saving throw against a DC equal to 8 + your Proficiency Bonus + your Dexterity modifier, halving the damage of their attack on a success or dealing no damage on a failure. Additionally, your speed is doubled until the end of your next turn, and you can move up to your speed away from the attacking creature without triggering opportunity attacks.
Alright, got all of the mechanics, more or less. Remember, the point is to use these mechanics for inspiration rather than rigidly adhering to them.
Made evident by example, the best Composites will be those informed by the class’ Narrative. In fact, a good Composite may only make sense in the light of a vivid Narrative. Note the high degree of association between the mechanics; they are all interrelated and dependent on one another. You don’t have to create such a strong association in your Composites, but doing can create a more vivid image.
The Unexplored are simply mechanics not covered by the above categories. At times it can be difficult to differentiate between an Unexplored and a particularly complex Composite. At other times you’ll discover a mechanic that is unprecedented in all of 5e. What makes an Unexplored mechanic fun is how different it makes your class seem and feel from existing options. However, it also makes balancing strenuous due to how difficult it is to make a comparison between it and existing options. Fortunately, we are not discussing balance today, so let’s get into unexplored territory!
The easiest place to find Unexplored mechanics in 5e are to look at what 5e left behind in older editions. I am most familiar with 4e, so I’ll only bring up 4e mechanics. From 4e to 5e, At-will Powers became weapon attacks and cantrips, Encounter Powers became Per Short Rest abilities, and Daily Powers became Per Long Rest abilities. We lost sliding and shifting in favor of Disengage and opportunity-attack-free movement so long as you stay within a target’s range. We exchanged Fortitude, Reflex, and Will for saving throws. We lost the Bloodied condition. Personally, I think all of these abilities either already have reincarnations in 5e, or are incompatible with 5e design philosophy, all except one: the Bloodied condition.
You acquire the Bloodied condition when you are reduced to half your maximum hit points or less for the first time during an encounter. Not uncommonly, when you or a monster would become Bloodied, an ability would activate, often changing the nature and flow of the encounter. It was a wonderful mechanic that could really liven the pace of an encounter and I have no idea why it was left behind. I don’t think it violates any aspect of 5e design philosophy and a mechanic with a similar nature is not unprecedented in 5e. The half-orc’s racial feature Relentless Endurance grants you a benefit when you reach 0 hit points for the first time in a day. Suffice to say, I think a reincarnation of the Bloodied condition could make a comeback.
An example of a Bloodied condition homebrew mechanic is from Benjamin Huffman’s Pugilist class from DMsguild. Full disclosure: Yes, I have DMed for and played as a Pugilist, and no, I did not arrange with Benjamin Huffman to discuss this mechanic here. Inside his class is a significant Tweaked Poach of the Monk’s Martial Arts class feature, and that Tweak has Moxie points that function similarly to Ki. When a Pugilist dips below half their maximum hit points for the first time in between short or long rests (depending on the Pugilist version you’re playing), it gains Temporary Hit Points and regains Moxie points. For a class whose Narrative and Mechanics consistently reinforce a theme of “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”, this is a remarkably appropriate feature that combines an Unexplored trigger with Composite mechanics.
Another area of Unexplored territory is Hit Dice. At present, the only things Hit Dice do is help determine your maximum hit points, heal you during short rests, and in a particular instance determine the amount of hit points you regain (Healer feat). As I understand it, narratively Hit Dice represent your reserve of energy or “will to go on”, and the more hit dice you have available to you, the further you can extend yourself in a day with adequate rest. If Hit Dice represent your vitality reserve, then it stands to reason that you could expend that vitality to push yourself beyond your limits, much like how an adrenaline rush can enable us to go above and beyond before subsiding and leaving us to contend with the consequences of our overexertion.
In 4e, instead of Hit Dice we had Healing Surges, and Healing Surges could be used outside of short rests with certain triggers. Abilities or attacks creatures made could allow a creature to spend a healing surge to heal themselves in combat. The 4e Paladin’s Lay on Hands spent your own healing surges to heal another creature. In similar and different ways, I believe Hit Dice can be expanded upon to heal during combat in a pinch, provide additional combat options, or enable us to jump farther and lift more than we’ve ever done before. Innovative Hit Dice mechanics are ripe for the plucking.
When thinking of Unexplored mechanics, consider unique conditions or triggers. For example, a homebrew Barbarian subclass made by user /u/cometdance (#Caim on discord) has a mechanic that only functions when the Barbarian is at full hit points, and when raging that Barbarian can exchange resistance to damage for Temporary Hit Points. When I saw this I was blown away, because beyond the Bloodied condition never did I think to use how many Hit Points you had to determine the activation of an ability, and it blends so well with the 5e mechanic of Temporary Hit Points as well as encourage an entirely new playstyle with the Barbarian. Sometimes an Unexplored mechanic can easily emerge simply by looking at an existing mechanic at a different angle.
Known Unexplored Territory
I’ll now try to list some potential Unexplored mechanics and themes off the top of my head:
Hit Point thresholds: Mechanics that trigger when specific hit point values are reached or maintained.
Hit Dice: Consuming or Expending Hit Dice for mechanics beyond short rest healing.
Psionics: “Spellcasting” system that does not use spell slots.
Non-magic Intelligence: Intelligence mechanics expansion that relies less or not at all on spellcasting.
Magic Item/Object Creation: Crafting, more flexible and scalable conjuration.
Partial Wildshaping: Non or weak spellcasting Wildshape-primary mechanic with greater modulation. Area of Effect Alteration/Extension: Changing the size/shape/length of area of effects.
Non-magical Area of Effect Abilities: Options for non-magic martial “minion-killers” and terrain alteration/manipulation.
Summoning: More flexible and scalable creature creation/conjuration/manipulation.
Initiative order manipulation: Exert greater control over where oneself and allies appear in the initiative order.
Subclass Features as Primary: Poaching and tweaking subclass features to expand their potential as primary class features.
Adventuring Day Endurance Triggers: Mechanics that confer benefits the more one has rolled for initiative within a day or between rests.
Communal No Rest Benefits: Benefits for oneself and allies when taking rests but choosing not to gain the normal benefits of the rest.
Readied Action Expansion: Benefits or more options for taking the Readied Action.
Reaction Expansion: More uses for Reactions.
Martial Expansion: More options for martial-focused characters, with a focus on utility in and out of combat or improving flexibility in encounters.
Social Interaction Expansion: Expand contested social interaction mechanics beyond “make a relevant skill check opposed by X”
Cinematic Cooperation: Special techniques that involve two or more characters acting in unison, likely involving Readied Actions.
THP Resource Consumption: Temporary Hit Points as a consumable resource for the activation or execution of abilities.
Delivering the Point
Innovation inspires more in kind. For each new mechanic, players and DMs will discover a dozen new applications. The difference between Dungeons and Dragons versus video games is that you get to design the game as you play it. If the rules give structure, then you can add, subtract, and alter rules in real time to build the dungeon or dragon of your dreams! My goal is not to make you more creative. That would be impossible. My goal is to give you the tools to help focus your creativity. To turn vague wisps of ideas into sharp, concrete building blocks. On that note, please consider this one piece of advice:
Establishing Your Subclass
Second only to your Primary Mechanics, your Introductory Subclass Features are key not only to distinguishing your class from other classes but also expanding the imagination within your class. When designing your subclasses, think long and hard about what you’re going to call your set of subclasses. Fighters and Rogues have Archetypes, Clerics have Domains, Wizards Schools, and so on. Admittedly, the concept of Archetype is much more vague than the rest, so aren’t really useful, but putting those aside we can see how the simple affiliation to these broad concepts influences homebrew subclass design and how subclasses are related to their parent class.
Up until WOTC released the Bladesinger subclass for the Wizard, the fact that Wizard subclasses were all set up as schools of X established the guiderails that any additional Wizard subclasses should mimic that inspiration. So we get homebrews like School of Geometry, Chronomancy, Hardknocks, and the Hedge Wizard which is a Wizard that never got to finish school. This isn’t supposed to be a criticism of the Wizard but rather a fuzzy illustration of how subclass Narrative and Mechanics impacts player interpretation and innovation.
What, Exactly, is a "Conclave"?
However, this is an opening for me to heavily criticize the Unearthed Arcana Revised Ranger’s subclass concept “Conclaves”. What is a conclave? A gathering, private meeting, or secret assembly. So how do Revised Rangers differentiate themselves? By sequestering themselves in a conference hall and discussing it? As a source of inspiration, the “Conclave” is donkey brains! That’s why in my own rebuilt-from-the-ground-up homebrew Feral Ranger (which I’ll be posting sometime after this article), I’ve done away with conclaves in favor of Fables! Tales told of famous hunters throughout fiction. Rangers that hunt the things that go bump in the night, rangers that hunt the hunters, and more!
"If you are trying to design a new mechanic, I think you have to think in terms of the type of gameplay you are trying to enable, and the narrative you are trying to enable. For example, the rogue's gameplay pattern tends to fall into this risk-taking all-or-nothing pitch-hitter. They get big rewards for leveraging small advantages, since their core feature allows them to hinge their entire round's damage on a single attack. This means the player is now thinking like a rogue. The class is thematically tied to skill and exploitation of weaknesses and so on, and sneak attack makes the player think like a rogue would by actively encouraging that kind of behavior implicitly.
The thing that separates a good or okay feature from a truly great feature is that layer of cohesion between player and player character. That feeling you get when you read a strong feature but it doesn't particularly feel super exciting? Nine times out of ten for me its this layer of cohesion that's missing in my experience. When you can read a mechanic and get the flavor, that's how you know you have a good mechanic." – Izzy
"People oft refer to gamefeel when it comes to homebrew. Does something play nicely with their 5e game in practice? Does the brew seem interesting? Does it speak to them? Here too, the dichotomy will emerge. Purely thematically-minded folks tend to define a good gamefeel as "immersive". It allows them to believe the fantasy, and as long as that belief is managed, so long as the mechanics don't overtly break the balance, it's fine.
However, mechanically-minded folks in the pure sense enjoy having a new niche in play. If they can do something the other races/archetypes/classes can't, they enjoy the discovery of this new playstyle enough that this generates a positive gamefeel for them, regardless of flavor.
Few people are pure forms, but the hypothetical constructs these "pure forms" represent are useful for understanding why a person might lean one way or another. A good example is Caim's Philosopher class, which explores an innovative niche in play, while functioning as a "philosopher" only if you bend your mind around the evolution of a philosophy specifically around being well-rounded and manipulating spells creatively. The gamefeel of the class is unlikely to be good to anyone who actually wants to roleplay a philosopher, but establishes itself solidly as something not seen before in 5e's milieu, while not bolting on anything too exotic to 5e."
"When designing a class, I feel that the most important thing is to cast the player in the role you're trying to create. In the Player's Handbook, the Barbarian doesn't just give you the tools to be a big, scary warrior: Reckless Attack lets you endanger yourself to be more deadly; Rage lets you survive that danger, and Brutal Critical makes you want the biggest weapon you can get your hands on. Before you know it, you're acting like a Barbarian.
The Sorcerer has you pouring your spell slots into Sorcery points, sacrificing all the magic you have for the right spell at the right moment. The Rogue has you hunting for opportunities you can exploit to make the most of each turn. The Paladin shows you a demon and a bandit, and incentivises attacking the demon first, because that's what a Paladin would do. As a creator, it's the best trick you can pull, and 5e does it a lot.
Archetypes can expand on this. The typical Rogue is sneaky, but the Swashbuckler is brash and confident, so it has you running into the fight one-on-one for your Sneak Attack. The Bard is supportive and reluctant to step into melee, so the College of Swords uses your Inspiration to make you an excellent combatant. Twisting mechanics on their head, or even changing the context, can be an excellent tool in your arsenal."
"There’re two simple steps to follow when starting out homebrewing. Step 1 is don’t write a class. A lot of people struggle with this one. Step 2 is to write something you love. Create a mechanic or flavour you’re passionate about and run with it, because then you’ll want to make it the best it can be. Be ready to accept criticism, and maybe even change or compromise on a few things, but if you’re loving the stuff your writing, then homebrewing is easy."
"I’m not particularly proud of innovative mechanics as I am of derivative mechanics - mechanics that exist in the game already but are readily repurposed for a homebrew.
Innovation is new, and untested. This might be an unpopular opinion, but in the real world it is difficult to justify any novel board game idea without some sort of rigorous play testing. I think it’s an inherent flaw in what we do, especially when we attempt to come up with new mechanics."
"Writing homebrew is a series of noticing challenges and attempting to solve them. The greatest challenge of class design is distinguishment from established classes thematically and mechanically. A class is much more successful when both pillars are solved.
Thematically, a class can be re-imagined into a consistent theme strong enough for an entire class, like how the PHB classes have consistency and broad weight. You can keep tweaking the theme until it does distinguish itself well: that is, its concept can't be achieved successfully with current existing material or a smaller version of this project.
Mechanically, a class needs a few core features to build from and a solid subclass design scheme, even if that subclass scheme is lifted or inspired by other classes'. The core features need to interact, fit with the game's design principles, and exemplify the class's theme.
Classes in 5E are not what they were in 3.5E or earlier eds, classes of those sizes are subclasses in 5E. This misperception is the largest hurdle of class design I see in the community, and understanding it is necessary."
"Mechanics are crutches. In a perfect world we wouldn't need them, but our imaginations are not yet bound together by wires or magic, so we are left with mechanics to be able to share our visions. We let the game designers decide how we will play their game. And by doing so, they play beside us.
The making of houserules or homebrew is how we take back this power. We carve from empty air a new agreement between players, between minds and imaginations. It is how we replace the designers haunting our kitchen tables with ourselves. Some even stop to consider if they should first.
But should you decide to take this road, I'd advise you do it right. To become the new, we must understand the old, because all good homebrew is forgery at heart. Your best friends are the patterns that the makers left us. Read what's there. Watch for wording, but more importantly, watch for what is left unsaid. Why 12 classes? Why not 3? Or 25? Who gets this feature? When? And who doesn't? What is the reason for the rule?
Once you look for patterns, you find them everywhere. Follow the patterns or subvert them, either is fine. In moderation. But seek always to understand them."
"I believe innovation is the spice that causes a person to want to play a specific homebrew. Even if you're writing something that has been written countless times, if you place your own spin on it, it could become the best of the bunch. As a critic of homebrew, the line I hate to hear the most from a homebrewer is, this is the only mechanic I could think of. If you're a brewer and you've ever said that, be overjoyed! You have a mechanic you can obviously improve. Unless you plan to sell your work, and even if you do, don't be afraid of innovation, even for innovation's sake. You can edit your work after you've written it, after all."
– Caim, Nimademe#2629 on discord
"My biggest suggestion to those new to homebrewing (as well as to those old, tired souls who have written the word "can" instead of "may" more times than they can count), is to read, read, and read. Beyond getting a sense of the system, its orthodoxies, and its writing style, you will start to see patterns. Then you can begin to question and understand the rationales behind them. Questions like "Why are bard subclasses' Bardic Inspiration features written the way they are, scale the way they do? Why do monk subclasses refrain from granting efficient ways of dealing damage?" Then, pay attention to what others have written - the themes, the mechanics, the play patterns they produce. Finally, informed and exposed to what has and hasn't been published, you can begin to (reliably) 'innovate'.
However, innovation need not be the only motivation behind brewing. Brew whatever you want, for whomever you want! Make it as wild and out there as possible, or as tame as can be. Redesign something another brewer did (though be sure to provide credit!), even if you think it only needs minor tinkering. But, if you want your homebrew to challenge the way people see and think of an aspect of 5e, you'll first need to understand that aspect of 5e to a T."
“Innovation comes from pushing beyond the expected. What I look for isn’t always pretty, at least not at first. It may take some getting used to. It is new and different, but not different for different’s sake. Innovative design is thoughtful, appropriate and ambitious. Innovative design is risky, so not everyone can be an innovator.
I look for those who are risk takers, because we should celebrate them, learn from them, and aspire to be like them.”
– Bobby Martin, Jr., co-founder of Original Champions of Design"
When thinking about your class’ Narrative, you must consider how well your class can be subdivided into distinct concepts that still centrally revolve around your class. And your Mechanics must create clearly different playstyles that still build upon a shared primary foundation. Similarly, your subclass’ Narrative must be distinguishable from the other subclasses and yet still share a thematic relationship with the parent Narrative, and likewise for your subclass’ Mechanics.
Personally, I like how most if not all Bard subclasses augment their Bardic Inspiration mechanic. I try to do something similar with all of my homebrew classes by having one of their Introductory Subclass Features augment the class’ Primary Mechanics. You don’t have to do this, as many official classes do not, but it’s a surefire way of marrying together your base class’ and subclass’ mechanics while simultaneously differentiating your subclasses from one another.
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