Why Homebrew Adventures Suck

I’ve suffered through my fair share of homebrew disasters. For example, there was The Session Where Nothing Happened.

The GM had been bugging me all week, bursting with anticipation of how awesome Saturday’s adventure would be. The weekend comes around. We roll up characters and started off in an infinite plane. We walked and walked, curious about strange obelisks we kept passing every mile or so.

It turns out we were going nowhere. An invisible, teleporting wall kept returning us to our starting point.

And that took three hours of gameplay to figure out.

While this is an extreme example of homebrew gone wrong (or maybe more of an indictment of my low IQ as a player lol), the GM was honestly excited for us and his awesome infinite plane adventure.

So this serves as a good reminder that what we think might be fun could roll flat at the table.

With that in mind, here are three mistakes to avoid when building our own adventures:

1. Lack of Clear and Fun Goals

Some prefer to play vicariously, happy to be surprised with what each moment brings. Alas, I’m not blessed that way. I need a purpose, a mission, and a challenge to noodle on. I need to know if I’m making progress or losing ground against….something.

If you be plagued by such accursed players as I, give your homebrew adventures, including each act or milestone, a clear and fun goal:

  • Helps distracted players to focus
  • Gives puzzlers something to burn their brain on
  • Helps tacticians and planners steer party direction.

Best case is each character and player has an objective they eagerly lean into that could pay off this session.

2. Forcing Story Over Gameplay

In the 1980s, TTRPGs moved away from tournament-style dungeons โ€” where the object was to rack up XP โ€” to campaign play…where the object was to rack up XP. ๐Ÿ™‚

I have fond memories of The Night Below and Temple of Elemental Evil campaigns. But then companies figured out they could make a lot of money selling expensive adventures hundreds of pages long with story hard-coded in.

While fun to read and loot, this story-first approach makes GMing difficult. Players come to the table to make choices, roll dice, and find out what happens.

Our GMing becomes a horrible and stressful experience of herding the cats when adventures:

  • Assume outcomes we must somehow make happen
  • Depend on specific outcomes we struggle to orchestrate
  • Require players to make specific choices we cannot control

And because we use published adventures to inspire our designs and copy what they do sometimes, we often fall into this poison spike pit trap of needing players to follow a plan we concoct.

In my experience, this causes disasters behind the screen.

Instead, when homebrewing our adventures we should:

  • Prepare to Improvise so we stay agile but also aren’t ever caught off-guard
  • Mine our campaigns to craft irresistible hooks sure to grab – and keep – our players’ focused attention
  • Plan situations instead of stories so we run a fun game instead of dictating to a passive audience

Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re hard-coding story into our designs. For example, chatting with a GM recently about their campaign they said, “When the players get to the tower, climb up the outside wall, and break into the upper floor, then I’ll reveal the villain’s plans.” So let’s avoid the mistake of hard-coding story when homebrewing our own adventures.

3. Do Too Much at Once and Get Nothing Done

While homebrewing, we have great visions for how awesome our adventures will be. We want to take cool ideas, build them out until ready to hit the table, and add subtle and deft touches to surprise and delight our friends.

When I try to do three things at once, nothing turns out well. And sometimes everything breaks and gameplay just becomes boring gray sludge.

To fix this, we need to break our homebrewing out into three phases before game night:

  1. Skeleton & Sinew: Create an outline first. Get your ideas down and ordered
  2. Muscles & Flesh: Build things out so they’re ready for contact with the players
  3. Clothing & Accessories: Add twists, surprises, and cool gaming moments

By separating the stages of adventure creation into three phases, we can focus on one job at a time and thus dramatically improve the quality of our homebrews.

We first outline our adventure and its potential encounters to provide the other phases with inspiration and guidance. Then we build our ideas out so they’re ready to GM and interact with. Then we add cool touches to take things to 11 out of 10 for our players.

When we try to outline and build and add the cool factor all at the same time, we get overwhelmed and frustrated. The finished work feels incomplete, hodgepodge, and rough around the edges. We fear how bad it’ll land at the table. And we worry we’re missing important details that could derail everything.

Let’s avoid this mistake next time we prep and homebrew an adventure. Take a deep breath and focus on one phase at a time.

It’s Your Turn

While general in nature, these three mistakes have kiboshed many homebrewed adventures for me over the years as both GM and player.

If there are no clear and exciting goals relevant to our players and characters, we’ll experience a lot of difficulty trying to keep our plans on track. We’ll waste a lot of time and energy dealing with unexpected player choices.

And if we force choices or remove choice from our adventures because we define the story and its outcomes ahead of time, we’ll really frustrate our players โ€” and ourselves. Why bother playing if the future is pre-ordained?

Last, when we do too much at once, we fail our spot checks when we present boring goals (or no goals at all). We also cut corners and base designs on our most desired outcomes instead of accounting for players making choices. And we tend to make boring pasta dishes with just one spicy bit, leaving the rest of the noodles unflavored and boring.

When homebrewing:

  • We want clear and fun goals
  • Set up awesome gameplay instead of pre-written stories
  • Break development into manageable chunks that ensure great quality after each step