Customization - Adding Flavor to your Home Brew
One thing that makes D&D such a fun game to play is that every campaign is a bit different. DM’s bring their own particular interpretations to the rules, include some rules and exclude others, and bring their own spin on established lore, or create their own worlds whole cloth.
The pulps, which early edition D&D were meant to emulate, did exactly this. Every pulp author created their own version of a fantasy/sci-fi world for their characters to interact in, and each one did their best to give their version a different flavor. The basis of adventure and excitement was there in every iteration, but technologies, magic, other things were varied.
One of the challenges of longer running D&D games is that you want to bring that flavor to your world as well, unless your goal is exact duplication of a genre’s flavor (e.g. you want to run a game in Middle Earth so you use orcs and elves, or you want to run a classically themed game so you use sylvan monsters, cyclops and medusae, etc.), then you want to do things that make your game unique.
I thought I would run through how I have done this in my game.
I love the mechanics of the AD&D spell casting system, it has risk/reward, resource management, and it’s limited in various ways to keep spell casters from dominating the game. However, after many years of use it can get too familiar, so when I was starting up my current six year running campaign, I decided to work a bit on flavor.
I also wanted to shift the model of the magic user a bit. In 1e magic-users are so vulnerable that they have to slink around and hide for the most part until they hit mid levels. They are not anything like the bold, danger seeking wizards I read about in my Jack Vance stories. I wanted to do something that would make them dangerous but not overpower them so much as to make them boring.
Here are some examples of the changes I made to make magic-users a bit different:
1. Social Structure
Magic-Users in my game are called “warlocks”, whether they are men or women. They are treated with respect in my city setting, they don’t hide and let others fight for them, they are bold, public figures who use their abilities to climb in the city social hierarchy and obtain power. They are aligned with and get their patron’s from city noble Houses and get tattooed when they declare allegiance to a particular House. A city warlock dresses outrageously and moves with confidence, and they have elaborate names to match their personalities. Many are are named after colors or gemstones, e.g. Jimnir the Garnet. They often travel with retainers and hangers on. Here are some examples of what warlocks in my game might look like:
No pointy hats here
Also, I “calibrate” the game world so that about 95% of the game world is non-classed, non-leveling NPCs. That means they are all zero-level with 1-6 hp. So that magic missile spell you have that never misses its target and ignores armor does 4.5 average points of damage to a city guard/soldier/mercenary that has on average 3.5 HP. This makes even low level magic users with spells like burning hands and shocking grasp BADASSES.
3. Scroll Spells
When warlocks level up and get their “free” level up spell (BtB) they have to choose from their patron’s spells, they get one copy on scroll for their use and one to scribe into their spell books. In addition, it is quite common for warlocks to have scroll copies of higher level spells on them. I use the magic tables BTB and scrolls with higher level spells come up a lot, so this is a common thing. That means ANY warlock, even a low level one, MIGHT have a powerful spell on them. They could screw up casting it, to great effect, but the possibility is there. I have also created around 300 home brewed warlock spells for the game (for magic-user warlocks and illusionist warlocks), all of them are “named” (e.g. “Bigby’s” Hand, “Tenser’s” Floating Disc), there is a mix of about ¾ published spells and ¼ home brew spells in use in the game. Also, I roll randomly for all spells, in treasure hoards, for NPC casters and for spells from mentors. So warlocks in the game are tactically opaque, it’s almost impossible to know what spells your opponents will have beyond a few core spells that are common (e.g. magic missile, dispel magic).
4. Dual and Multi-Classing Rules
I eased up on the restrictions for dual and multi-classing in my game, any race can be dual or multi-class, each has benefits and costs. This makes the creation of warlock hybrids like fighter warlocks and thief warlocks more common. This gives a much greater variety of warlocks in the game without having to proliferate sub-classes each time you want a variation. So if you want to have a warlock who wields a sword you might take a level as a thief or a fighter first, that sort of thing.
5. Component Substitution
I allow component substitution for my warlocks (this is an optional 1e rule). So if a warlock is missing a particular component for a spell they can try a “similar” component to get either no effect, the same effect or an enhanced effect.
6. Scroll and Magic Item Creation
I specified and simplified the rules for creating scrolls, potions and magic items so it is expensive and requires finding rare components, but it can be done by lower level PCs (with odds of failure based on level). This makes it risky but possible to make magic items, and if the low-level PC aligns themselves with a higher level patron they can get bonuses to their rolls (e.g. for the use of magic tomes and equipment they would not normally have or afford). It is mainly used to scribe scroll spells. This makes the collection of monster parts and other rare ingredients almost as important as finding magic items. Creating your own spell has a cachet in this setting, and is a mark of maturity and power.
I expanded the range of familiars considerably, they are all still low level and low power, but they have a lot more flavor and can be tailored to the setting.
Warlocks in my game are all sages with a major and a minor field, and two specializations within their major field. This allows me to use the percentages in the DMG to see if they know relevant information about what they encounter when they adventure. Since they don’t generally have their books with them as they adventure I will shift the question on the chart or add penalties, but it gives them a chance to know obscure lore in the game that other players don’t get to know. It’s a class based ability that comes in handy, but it isn’t a blanket “ask anything” as it is linked to specific areas of knowledge.
Listed magic-user casting times in 1e are all low compared to the other classes, so I leveraged that advantage by creating an initiative system that uses casting times and weapon speeds for regular initiative. In short, initiative is a d6 roll plus weapon speed/casting time. I halved weapon speeds from the listed values, rounding up. With this system warlocks are by far the “fastest on the draw” when it comes to weapon versus spell or spell versus spell combat.
10. Specified Components
Spells in 1e require verbal, somatic and material components. 1e specifies the material components, but not the verbal or somatic. I specify the verbal and somatic components for spells. For the somatic component it varies, for example, for magic missile the caster touches their forehead and pulls out a missile of energy, which then hovers near their finger, they then “flick” it towards their target, or whirl their finger/arm around and then hurl it at their target. I allow the warlock in question to decide what the missile looks like, e.g. an arrow, a bolt, a sphere or a spike, that sort of thing.
For shield the warlock has to place the back of the wrist of their right hand against the inside of the wrist of their left hand and hold them both at chest level.
Since these are necessary components to spell casting, if the warlock is restrained in certain ways they can’t cast these spells. So for example, if a warlock only has one hand free they can’t cast shield, but they could cast magic missile. So sometimes this is just for flavor, sometimes it has real game consequences.
Additionally, I specify verbal components. To make this more flavorful I translate the English word components, into Hungarian for magic-user warlocks and into Czech for illusionist warlocks. I sometimes mess with the spelling a bit as well. My setting is the Earth thousands of years in the future, so the assumption would be that language would change a lot in those years.
So for example, magic missile has the words “varázsló nyila” as the verbal components of the spell. That means “wizard arrow” in Hungarian.
Put these together and here’s what it looks like when a warlock in my campaign casts magic missile.
“Luxifal considered several spells, stinking cloud would have worked wonderfully if the beast was in one place, but flying with a high wind, that was risky. He settled on accuracy as his goal.
Luxifal placed a finger on his forehead and spoke the words “varázsló nyíl”, he then drew out a scintillating, pulsing orb, about an inch in diameter, and he twirled his finger around, the orb rolling on the tip of the finger. He sighted the beast and swung his hand in a wider arc, the orb stayed on his finger as he whipped it around.
Finally he released, and the orb flew through the air with a keening shear, and Luxifal drew a second orb from his forehead and did the same.
The first orb sizzled as it struck the manticore full in the chest, sparks flew in a shower from the entry point and the beast let out a choking cry. The second orb shot through the air and smashed into its head, a plume of sparks cutting across the black of the sky as it landed.
The beast moaned, then began a spiral downwards to the water, barely controlled.”
I find this a lot more exciting than saying “I cast magic missile… 4 points of damage”
Note that only 1 of these changes (the first) is independent of the existing rules, in most cases I either chose optional rules or altered things modeled on existing rules, so I eased the restrictions for dual classing rather than making a ton of new sub-classes to expand the magic-user, I specified spell components when they were left general, that sort of thing.
Changes like these have made magic-users into something familiar but different, and kept the game fresh and fun for a group that have familiarity with the rules. Never be afraid to tinker with your game, it will make it unique and add flavor to the experience at the table.