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First post and newish to tabletop RP games

Is it normal/acceptable for DMs to essentially create their own world, races, classes, and abilities? I have kept some of the traditional races and classes of D&D but I've created some of my own and omitted others as well as created some of my own classes and abilities. I try to format everything off of what I can find in the books and from various web resources to keep it in balance with the game. I am just starting to get self-conscious that I'm bastardizing the game too much, and either over-simplifying or possibly over-complicating things. I'm looking for some assurance what I am doing is "normal" or acceptable or if I should stop and leave it alone.

Background Info: So, in college I wanted to play D&D but didn't have anyone I knew that knew how to play. I had friends that wanted to play but no one wanted to read the books or let alone afford them. So I essentially took the rules (3.5) and super simplified them into 6-7 pages. We did some campaigns, everyone enjoyed it, and the more I DM'd the more I understood the rules in application. The more I've understood the rules, the more I've adapted the 6-7 pages to how I have understood how the mechanics work for the game and how they make sense to me. As a result I've added/omitted parts of the game because I either couldn't understand how they worked or thought the system I was using seemed more effective.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ possible duplicate of rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/99366/… \$\endgroup\$ – Destruktor Oct 9 '17 at 1:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might also look at community efforts to simplify the 3.x rules such as Microlite20. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad Oct 9 '17 at 9:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd be interested to see your rule set. Do you have it online anywhere? \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 9 '17 at 12:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ No the rules aren't online anywhere excluding my personal GoogleDrive and laptop. If you wan't I can share them with you or post them somewhere on the site. If I do post them it will not be until after Oct 21. That is when I am doing my first campaign with revisions I made to the rules and want to make sure if there are any gaping issues with it I resolve them before sharing. \$\endgroup\$ – Waffulz Oct 9 '17 at 15:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do wonder how far you can go with modifying the core rules before you're not technically playing D&D. Doesn't make it less fun -- I once even knew of somebody who tried to mashup Pathfinder and D&D's old Spelljammer system into some crazy spacefaring version of Pathfinder! ;-) \$\endgroup\$ – A C Oct 11 '17 at 14:00
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The official texts encourage it.

The official books, especially the DMG, explicitly encourage homebrewing. While the other answers give some nice perspectives, it's worth pointing out that it's offically sanctioned too.

I'm citing from my edition of choice, 5e, but other editions also encourage homebrewing.

To address your specific concerns, DMG 9 recognizes that the world will become your own even if you use a premade setting:

Even if you use an existing setting, such as the Forgotten Realms, it becomes yours as you set your adventures there, create characters to inhabit it, and make changes to it over the course of your campaign. This chapter is all about building your world and then creating a campaign to take place in it.

...and DMG 285 has a section on modifying or making your own player options:

If the options for player characters in the Player's Handbook don't meet all the needs of your campaign, consult the following sections for advice on creating new race, class, and background options.

Similar text exists in the official books for pretty much every feature of the game, ranging from spells to magic items to backgrounds.

In fact, the DMG gives you full authority over the game, even over the rules (263):

As the Dungeon Master, you aren't limited by the rules in the Player's Handbook, the guidelines in this book, or the selection of monsters in the Monster Manual. You can let your imagination run wild.

There's even some articles online that explains the developer intent behind the classes, and gives some insights into how you might change them if you wanted:

However, modifying a class is not something that should be undertaken lightly, and the job requires some serious effort, playtesting, and revision to get it right... This article presents methods that will help you to use existing mechanics as a model, while drawing upon features of other classes for inspiration.

3.5e, the only other edition I have access to, also has similar guidance. Briefly, the table of contents for the first DMG has sections for "Modifying a Common Race" on pg 171 and "Creating New Classes" on pg 175. The second DMG has an entire section on making your own prestige classes, and indeed assumes that prestige classes are usually created by the DM (203) (though it didn't really play out that way):

These DM-created tools lend specifics and actual mechanics to the details of your world. In short, you come up with a particular group or role for your campaign, and create a prestige class based around that idea. The following material focuses on your needs as the DM.

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OMG! - Wizards of the Coast have a SWAT team on their way to your place right now! Run! RUN!!!

Seriously, do whatever you like - there is no one right way to play a RPG. If you and your players are having fun then you are playing it right.

Unless and until you are playing in an organised system like Adventurers League or a tournament you are under no obligation to play according to the rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Unless and until you are playing in an organised system like Adventurers League or a tournament you are under no obligation to play according to the rules." Which applies to all RPG and board games in general. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Oct 9 '17 at 3:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RobertF I hate it when I'm playing Monopoly and pass Go, but then a kobold comes and steals my $200 because I lost initiative. Guess that's what happens when I forget to tap my properties. \$\endgroup\$ – Mage Xy Oct 9 '17 at 17:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Best game I had was a mash-up between Vampire & Cyberpunk. Ten hours to steal a car and deciding the rules on the fly on what cyberwear gets pushed out as the body transforms to a vampire. Player hated me, but he needed a blood transfusion and I was the fastest Machiavellian - lots of "shut up, your unconscious" :D \$\endgroup\$ – Darren Bartrup-Cook Oct 10 '17 at 14:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MageXy OMG. I need to play this game. \$\endgroup\$ – Shane Oct 10 '17 at 21:41
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Back in the early days of the hobby, it was often difficult to find all of the official rules. I had the three little brown books of OD&D, but Chainmail, for instance, was almost impossible to get your hands on. Most tables therefore had some degree of houseruling, just to make whatever they had work. Also, it was common when there were few alternatives (I'm talking mid-to late 70s) to build your own systems from scratch, if you wanted to play anything other than the few existing worlds/systems. The production values and polish were low enough that there was a strong sense of "heck, I could do that!"

So yes, it is perfectly normal and acceptable for a gamemaster to create their own rules and backgrounds. Some systems (Hero, GURPS) are even designed with that end in mind.

The advantages are a complete mastery of your own table. Since you have created the background, or winnowed your rule set to a specific variation, you are the ultimate authority on how things work, and can keep the game and its action flowing.

The downside of this approach is that not all players are comfortable learning new rule systems, or prefer a more portable experience. It might be more difficult to find and attract new players. If your table is cool with it though, and has a stable player base, your way should be very smooth.

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Yes, as others have noted, house rules are common and encouraged (except for in situations like Adventurer's League play). However, you should be clear about this at the start of the game. And, you should be clear about the degree of customization.

  • Do you have one or two pet house rules? These are things like "I like to do critical successes and failures for skill checks" or "I'm allowing everyone to take an extra feat at first level" or "I don't use passive perception very much — I like everyone to roll". Most DMs have a few of these and should explain them before or as characters are created, because they can make some character choices much stronger or weaker than written.
  • 5E in particular has a large number of optional rules, some of which are often assumed (like the "variant human" or allowing feats) and others of which are more rare (the "facing" rules). There is also a matter of allowed rules sources — just the PHB, or are other things permitted? In my experience most DMs are ok with anything published in final form in hardcover (as long as they have access to the material) and are willing to consider official-but-experimental content from online (e.g. "Unearthed Arcana") on a case-by-case basis. Whether third-party sources (DM's Guild, etc.) are allowed varies wildly. This is stuff to go over at the first session.
  • Are you using a homebrew campaign setting instead of a published one? This can be awesome, especially when the world is fleshed out, or the DM is willing to work with players to add depth where it is missing. This is actually where many of the published settings come from in the first place. It's worth noting that there is some edition-specific setting affinity: 5E defaults to Forgotten Realms, while 4E had a default world called "Points of Light", and 3/3.5 was (more lightly than the others) Greyhawk out of the box. In general, players ask "What world are we in?" rather than assuming.
  • Do you offer custom classes and races? This is generally fine (especially if they complement the setting!), although getting the balance right is harder than it looks — and you may find players less interested in them than you are.
  • Do you forbid particular choices? Some DMs hate gnomes. Others don't like the warlock. I played a game where the DM forbade all of the spontaneous-caster classes because he didn't think magic should work like that. Or, maybe dwarves can't be wizards and elves can't be barbarians and halflings are always rogues. I strongly caution against this — you are likely to run up against at least one thing one of your players really enjoys. When that happens, rather than arbitrary limits on official material, this is a good place to figure out how to say "yes, okay, I can fit that in". (That said, some things like "No evil characters" go more to table dynamics than personal choices and can be positive as long as it's upfront.)
  • Have you reworked particular classes and races? Some things can be setting-based: Elves are technology-obsessed, halflings eat other humanoids? Set that out at the beginning (and consider exceptions with background-based reasoning) and it's generally good. But, major changes to how things work, like "rogues have to be behind someone to sneak attack (in 5E)" or "clerics have to learn spells individually like wizards" generally reduce player fun unless everyone agrees that they prefer to alter the game that way. This can go for power-increasing options, too — if elves get advantage on all attacks, it can be less fun because all other choices now seem sub-optimal.
  • Have you reworked how a whole game system works? Is combat significantly different than the rules in the books or does spellcasting use some completely new thing you've invented? This can be okay if you are good at these things, but you should definitely be up-front about it.
  • Have you reworked basically the entire game? In this case, perhaps it might be better to describe your game as "D&D-like" or "D&D-inspired" rather than as D&D. (There are plenty of games out there that are just that!) Players might be interested (especially if they share your design sensibilities), but again, being upfront is important.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I have changed some stuff and have the rules set out explaining how they work so it is inescapably clear, unless the players come up with something I didn't think of at which point we collaborate on what should be done. I don't ban any races class combos or weapon types I let my players design their characters exactly how they want them and learn from their mistakes or find creative ways to make it work. I offer race adn class suggestions but it is up to them entirely. \$\endgroup\$ – Waffulz Oct 9 '17 at 22:37
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Of course it is ok.

However, clear with your players if they want to play under such conditions. Roleplaying is a social activity and if the players are looking forward to meeting their favorite from-the-books NPCs in their favorite from-the-books locations while fighting all those fantastic from-the-books monsters that they love so much - you might find yourself without players.

This is one of those Big Picture moments, where you need to take a step back and look at your gaming group from a meta perspective. You are basically asking if the game can be played with house rules, except that in this case it's not about rolling 3 dice in monopoly and picking 2 but changing big parts of the background and setting. But the basic rule in all of those "change part of the game" questions is always:

Yes, if everyone on the table agrees.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think there's an in-between here. I generally enjoy playing in entirely invented campaign worlds — I don't care about by-the-books NPCs or locations. But, I don't usually want significant changes to the familiar races, classes, or game subsystems. If there are one or two homebrew options, that's fine, but if clerics no longer get spells and rogues have to flank to sneak attack and elves get double XP... eh. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 9 '17 at 6:49
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Yes, it is absolutely ok to create worlds, races and pretty much whatever you like. The only caveat I would add is that as the DM you want to make sure that you are consistent. By this I mean that anything you create should be fleshed out and documented enough that you can answer basic questions the same way every time. For example if you create a race make sure you create a physical description, note special abilities and weaknesses. I'm not saying that you need to be exhaustive here, only that you make some notes so that you answer player questions consistently. As a player, it would drive me nuts if I asked a question about a new race and get contradictory answers.

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From 3.5's perspective, its outright STATED, rather explicitly, that the DM should be homebrewing, as he pleases.

Races, DMG, p170

An easy way to customize a campaign is to change the races that players can choose from when creating characters.

Classes, DMG, p.174

A DM should consider carefully the classes in her world, for they define the people who live there. Presented in this section are ideas for modifying Player's Handbook character classes.

Classes, DMG, p.175

Its possible to create entirely new classes, or rather, to alter existing classes so drastically that they're no longer recognizable.

Prestige Classes, DMG p.176

Prestige Classes are purely optional and always under the purview of the DM. We enocurage you, as the DM, to tightly limit the prestige classes available in your campaign. The example prestige classes are certainly not all encompassing or definitive. They might not even be appropriate for your campaign. The best prestige classes for your campaign are the ones you tailor make yourself.

And Chapter 5 of the Monster Manual is so explicit, the title of the chapter is "Making Monsters" and gives zero explanation before diving into explaining the process.

While I couldn't find direct quotes for certain particulars(feats, base mechanics or skills) the overall tenor of 3.5 is that the DM has full carte blanche to homebrew whatever he needs.

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Everyone (well, so far) agrees that the answer is yes. But I'd like to talk about why and why the different examples you gave matter. Some groups/players/GMs will be fine with some of those and not others.

Consistency is key

That's what rules and canon are really all about. If you look at fandoms like Star Trek with a lot of concern for canon, most of the complaints are essentially about contradictions. If one episode says the show is set in the 27th century and another says it's the 23rd, that's a problem. If one episode establishes how fast the ship can go but then another episode shows the ship going somewhere it couldn't have gotten to in time, that's also a problem, but a somewhat smaller one - in the show. However, in a RPG, that will still be a big problem. Games need to be more precise than linear entertainment because the show must go on, but players can stop and argue for as long as they want.

Some players (and fans) don't really care because their view is local - they only care about what's happening right now and whether that's interesting. I'll call these people "Group A." It might be because they always see the game/show as nothing more than that and simply don't care about consistency, or it might be because they don't like to worry about an ever-expanding set of circumstances that are never going to be 100% perfect anyway. Others care about it a lot because they like a sense of a bigger world that isn't real but could be. They enjoy it when something that happened at the beginning of the adventure has a lasting impact that comes back around later, for better or for worse. I'll call these people "Group B."

Neither style is wrong but it means that if you have players from Group B in your game, you have to be consistent or these players will be unhappy. Group A players will rarely be unhappy when a game is consistent. So when you set up your game, take care that you remain consistent - even if it's just to what you've created yourself.

Make changes that meet player expectations

Building your own world is probably easier than races/classes/abilities. As shown in earlier answers, the GM is expected to make the world their own. But different players will accept different levels of this in different situations. Perhaps in your version of Forgotten Realms, Baldur's Gate was destroyed by a volcano and is now inhabited entirely by undead, and Waterdeep has been conquered by orcs. That would certainly be a major change and Group B players who really like (or at least are really used to) Forgotten Realms might grump about it. At the other extreme, you could worry about whether some particular uninhabited hex on the map has the "right" kind of monsters according to lore, or which specific noble family hates which other specific noble family (unless that's particularly relevant to the plot). Most games fall in between. Wherever you draw the line, once you've established that Waterdeep is now full of orcs, when the players go back it better not be full of giants, or your Group B players will be cranky (unless you've shown that there was some big war between giants and orcs and now the giants have control).

On the other hand, if you don't call this "Forgotten Realms" but just your own world where there's a big city that the orcs conquered, nobody will bat an eye. They might ask what happened to the rest of the country that the city was in, whether there's a royal family in exile plotting to reconquer their territory, whether the orcs are actually manage to run a civilization or whether they've descended into constant infighting because they're orcs, what the neighboring kingdoms or city-states are going to do in response, and you need to have answers ready for all of that (even if the characters don't know immediately). Those answers are likely to form the starting point of your adventures, hopefully. But nobody will complain about the basic premise, because you've started from a blank slate.

And catering to the Group B types isn't just about limitations, either. Lots of players will enjoy figuring out what's going on and it can help the GM too. So to give an example again from my current game - if you have a Yuan-Ti pureblood make an offhand comment that the slaves you just freed would have been happier as snakemen (rather than just serving them) - that's a clue that the snakes are probably brewing up some Yuan-Ti broodguards - which in turn implies that there's probably a brood - and they'll make plans based around this information. When you're consistent with established lore, and have experienced and smart players, you can let the world do your foreshadowing for you. That's great! And also easy, because you don't have to remember everything you ever did, some stuff you can just go back and look up.

When you start making up worlds and races, you can irritate the sensibilities of your players (careful with the Dark Skin Makes You Evil trope cough cough drow, or any other kind of harmful stereotyping/biases that can easily find their way in).

Watch out for mechanics

Races, classes, and abilities are much harder to get right because now you don't just have to be consistent within the story - you also have to come up with working mechanics and that is much harder. If your Waterdeep is full of orcs, it's just full of orcs, okay? But if you introduce a new ability that lets a particular class do 50% more damage than any other (which is most likely to happen because of unintended consequences rather than something obvious), that's broken and everyone who isn't playing that class will hate it. Then you make a change to "fix" it and now the player who is playing that class hates it. It took TSR/WotC until 5th Edition to get paladins right, and now rangers are screwed up instead. If you are planning on making whole new races and classes yourself, you might end up regretting it. Or you might end up creating the next Dragonlance (which started exactly that way). More likely you'll end up with something that basically works, but has some problems and doesn't really "feel like D&D" - to players who care about that sort of thing. And remember that Dragonlance was created by experienced players and GMs on purpose - not to avoid buying rulebooks.

You also have to watch out for munchkin players. Once you start letting homebrew stuff into the game, some players will start coming up with random stuff that lets them break the game and trying to convince you to let them use it. This is no fun for anybody except them. Sometimes this happens even with published material. For example, there is lots of published material (official and otherwise) about how to make monster races into player races. Some players like this because the idea of a half-dragon half-troll half-ogre half-orc werewolf who's also a bugbear with 18 charisma appeals to them. Others... don't, and find that sort of thing to be complete garbage. Know your players!

But all that doesn't mean you shouldn't homebrew at all. One common homebrew in 5th Edition is fixes to the aforementioned ranger class. Another common one is an intelligence-based warlock (rather than charisma as it is in the book). These aren't exactly new classes, but they fix deficiencies in the book as written (stinking on ice in the case of the ranger, and abilities not matching the lore, and weird multiclassing situations for the warlock). Tinkering is easier than starting from scratch!

I recommend looking at sites such as enworld.org, giantitp.com and rpg.net, which all have extensive discussions about homebrewing.

So, to sum up: World yes but remember the pitfalls, everything else maybe sometimes, because you have even more pitfalls.

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Absolutely!

Running a tabletop RPG is a creative endeavour (even if you buy and run pre created systems, setting books and adventures, because players rarely do what you expect).

You'd be surprised about the number of well known IPs that started out as someones "home brew" D&D setting, the Elder Scrolls universe is one example.

In a world that exists solely in the imagination of the players, why limit yourself to what somebody else has written?

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