I keep on hearing about homebrew in D&D and I was just wondering what it meant.
Homebrew is beer or other alcoholic beverages brewed at home as opposed to those brewed commercially and bought at a shop.
By analogy, homebrew is any major addition to or omission from the official rules of a game (including RPG but also video and board games) that a particular gaming group uses. For minor changes, the usual expression is house-rules; where a house rule becomes homebrew is an ill-defined line.
For example, there is a common house rule in Monopoly that fines and taxes are put aside and collected by anyone landing on Free Parking - it's not in the official rules. The Speed Die rules at the start of that Hasbro Monopoly ruleset are optional-rules; an official variant made by the maker of the game. The ruleset for Monopoly that combines elements of poker, darts, and deep-sea fishing is well into homebrew territory.
Whether you should use it depends on whether you think you will enjoy it. Like homebrew beer, some of it is really, really good but most of it is really, really bad.
What is 'Homebrew'?
Homebrew material is fan-made content designed to supplement first-party material.
It is distinguished from house rules by being game content rather than game rules. For example, a new kind of monster you create using the guidelines in the DMG is a homebrew monster. A new rule you make that says dwarves get a +1 to attack rolls against goblins is a house rule.
It is distinguished from rulings by being (ideally) a thought-through, perhaps playtested, complete system or subsystem intended to be reused potentially across multiple campaigns, as well as by being content rather than a more abstract rule-like entity. For example, if you have to handle one of your players throwing a Locathah's spear back at them and decide on the fly that a roll of 15+ will hit and deal 3d6+Str damage that's your ruling on the matter. When you later design new weapon stats for a Locathah's spear for use whenever your players get ahold of one, you've created a homebrew weapon.
The boundaries between these terms are not always clear, distinct lines, but often fuzzy boundaries. For example, if you house rule dwarves as getting a +1 to rolls v.s. goblins, and goblins a +1 v.s. elves, and elves a +1 v.s. dwarves you've created a homebrew 'racial enmity' subsystem out of a series of houserules that may have developed independently over time. If one day one of your players decides they want to shove their souls in a broomstick to animate it and you decide that it works but now they can't get out of said broomstick, you may find you've essentially committed to coming up with a homebrew 'broomstick person' race as a result of your rulings. Furthermore, it is often desirable when replacing an on-the-fly ruling with homebrew material (whether your own or someone else's) to ensure that the new material continues to have or allow the same results from the same actions as you'd let the players' accomplish so far. Consequently rulings you make on the fly can often shape and constrain the sort of homebrew you later come up with-- though you could always instead make use of a retcon or other continuity breaking solution if need be.
Should I use homebrew in normal games?
Yes, ideally, all the time.
Unless you believe that the 5e first party sourcebooks are divinely inspired, inerrant, and completely sufficient on their own for every aspect of play (for the record, they aren't), there ought to exist material that is superior in some way either for games in general or at least for your particular game. Thus, the ideal, perfect 5e game must always include homebrew material because that material must be what makes up what is lacking in the base system or base system+third-party content that prevents it from being the absolute objectively perfect rpg system for the particular group and campaign and surrounding environmental circumstances the game takes place in. So, on a purely theoretical level, the theoretical limit of game quality requires that any actual set of rules that we can accept are not perfect or at least not complete could at least theoretically be improved by the addition and/or substitution of the right homebrew material.
Practically speaking, there's nothing inherently wrong or right with homebrew material, and so sometimes it's good to include and sometimes it's not. It's probably a good idea to include some homebrew if people are bored of the published material and want new options. It's probably a bad idea to include some homebrew material if all of the players strongly distrust your ability to come up with material that isn't terrible, whether or not that distrust is justified, or if you don't have the ability to share the homebrew material with the group beforehand and the group doesn't like finding out about that sort of thing later.
Every time you start a campaign or one-shot or other D&D-y-thing you have to decide what material you are going to include in your game. Myriad social and artistic considerations can play into those decisions, and sometimes it's a better idea to not use something because it is homebrew or, yet more rarely, to use something because it's homebrew. Far more often, the correct decision is made based on the individual merits of the content in question-- is it well written? Are my players excited about it? Does it fit the feel I want? Am I excited about it? Is it balanced? etc.
What is Homebrew?
In the context of role-playing games, "homebrew" is anything made up by players/DMs/RPG fans that are not from the official source books.
For D&D this is typically going to be new races, magic items, subclasses, monsters and so on.
As other answers have pointed out, there are also "house-rules" which are a little bit different, though the lines can get blurred. (House-rules are more like variations of official rules that you like to use. For example, ruling that drinking a healing potion is only a bonus action rather than a normal action would be a house-rule).
Should I use it in normal games?
If you want to!
I doubt any DM or player has played for long without at least wanting to create something of their own. A good RPG encourages creativity, and the temptation of including some cool monster or magic item of your own in an adventure (or something cool that somebody else created and posted on a fan site) is probably going to hit anyone at some point.
And there is certainly nothing wrong with that
My only advice, DM to DM, would be to try and consider any homebrew idea in the context of the rules and ensure it's balanced. The temptation, sometimes, is to go a bit overboard with something you think is a cool idea only to discover later that it's SO cool - or overpowered - that every player has to play your Oojimifrat race and wield a SooperDooper Sword of Ultimate Killing in order to not get overshadowed by every other player with the same thing. (But even then, don't be afraid of mistakes - they can always be rectified, even if it requires admission of mistakes and some frank discussion with your players).
But otherwise...have fun and be wild!
Should I use Homebrew in my game?
Several others have covered what homebrew is (in-depth alterations to how the game is played that go beyond house rules) so I'm not going to address that half of your question. However, the second Q: No, not at first.
Play the game a little bit vanilla and learn the game. Homebrew can be great, but it takes a decent understanding of how the game works to be able to decide what mix is right for your group. In the same way that you probably shouldn't start brewing beer if you've never drunk beer, altering the game without knowing exactly what you're changing it from is a recipe for disaster on a number of fronts.
TL;DR: Homebrew is great, but play some Vanilla D&D before you try it so you'll know WHY you're making the changes.
A house rule is a change to the official D&D rules that a group of players use in their own personal games. Usually the players agree to a house rule before starting the game, after which it's the GM's job to enforce it. In D&D Adventurers' League, the GM and players are expected to follow the official rules, but house rules are perfectly fine in private games as long as everyone is on-board.
However, keep in mind that:
House rules need to be explained to new players, some of whom might prefer the standard rules.
House rules are easier to forget, because players can't look them up.
Ideally, players and especially GMs will know the rules. However, D&D has a lot of rules, and they are sometimes ambiguous or interact in weird ways. When this happens, many books advise the GM to make a ruling on the spot to keep the game going rather than stopping to look it up.
Unlike house rules, players don't agree on rulings ahead of time - they can't, because they didn't think of it until it happened. The GM simply has to use their best judgment and decide what's most reasonable.
Later, you can look up the official rules and decide what to do in the future. The greatest danger here is usually that the DM's ruling creates a precedent that's ripe for abuse. In this case, the DM might decide to use the official rules in the future. If the GM isn't concerned about that and the group prefers the GM's decision over the official rules, they can adopt it as a new house rule.
When a GM creates a new monster, spell, magic item, or even an entire class for use in their own games, they are homebrewing. Usually they start with an existing monster/spell/whatever and modify it, but not always.
Homebrewing may or may not include creating new rules. Creating a whole new class should probably be called a "rules change". Creating a new monster by adding Regeneration to a chimera doesn't require any new rules. A monster with a new ability created specifically for it is sort of a gray area.
Again, none of this would be legal in D&D Adventurers' League, but it's perfectly fine in private games.
Also, if the GM writes the campaign themselves (as opposed to using a published campaign), I might call it a homebrew campaign. Even if the GM uses only monsters, spells, and magic items from the core rulebooks, the GM is still mixing it all together on their own.
It's also possible to homebrew a whole new game with its own rules. This is a monumental task, and not something that I would recommend.
To Shake Things Up and Avoid Metagaming
Separating player knowledge from character knowledge can be difficult, even for experienced players. Many players will recognize a troll even if their PCs have never seen one before. The players now have an annoying choice to make:
- Bust out the fire and acid, even though their PCs might not know to use those things.
- Ignore their metagame knowledge and do the "wrong thing" even though (as players) they know better.
The GM can avoid this by inventing a new monster similar to a troll with a different look, such as "a Large gorilla-like creature with blue fur and a pair of sinister horns". Against this new monster, the players will likely use their standard tactics, notice that it regenerates, and experiment to figure out how to stop the regeneration.
In this case, the GM doesn't even to change the stat block - just use the troll's normal stats and say it attacks with its horns rather that its bite. This isn't really homebrewing so much as reskinning the monster, but it's an easy way to give experienced players a new challenge to overcome.
Another simple homebrew is to create a variation of an existing monster. Published adventures do this all the time - the author likes the look and feel of an existing monster, but the regular version isn't quite right, so they make a variant. You can add a ghast's Stench to the regular flesh golem to make a decaying flesh golem, or add a manticore's Tail Spikes to an otyugh to make a mutated otyugh with a ranged attack. From there, you can start making more elaborate changes and creating entirely new creatures as you get comfortable.
To Create Something Unique
A lot of GMs create new things not out of need, but simply because they want something in their game to feel like their original work. Just to be clear, I think that even if a GM runs a published adventure exactly as written, they're doing original work - each GM will use different words, make different rulings, and portray NPCs somewhat differently. But sometimes a GM has a particular vision in mind that they can't quite realize with the core rulebooks, and they build it through homebrewing instead.
GMs also do this to work in elements from a PC's backstory. My current campaign (which is actually a Pathfinder game, but the idea is the same in 5e) is based on a published adventure, but I have a few PCs with backstories that I've incorporated into the main story. To do this, I've homebrewed several new NPCs, a few new monsters, and a couple other things.
To Give the Players More Options
Sometimes players feel restricted by the class, spell, and magic item options presented in the rulebooks. Maybe they want to play a ranger with a limited version of a rogue's Sneak Attack - the GM can create rules for this (5e tries to minimize the need for this with class archetypes, but it still happens sometimes). Maybe they want a spell like Fireball that freezes rather than burns - the GM can make one (it's rumored that this is why cone of cold exists - Gary Gygax decided that fireball should be able to destroy treasure, so his players requested another spell that wouldn't).
These are probably the most difficult and dangerous homebrews, because GMs have to live with them. If a homebrewed monster turns out tougher than expected, the GM can change it behind the scenes - the players won't know it's Str is now 16 instead of 18. But when homebrews are given to players, changing them often means a player now has to settle for a lesser version of that cool spell or ability they loved to use. Homebrewed classes in particular are notoriously difficult to balance, since classes have so many parts.
Homebrew simply means any content created by the group, rather than the publisher of the game. Most common homebrew content are adventures, dungeons, character backgrounds, npc's, item & monster variants, locations, lore.
Most tabletop rpg's support homebrew content (see 5e Dungeon Masters Guide) and many games will encourage the GM to make the game 'their own'.
Some GM's try to keep homebrew at the bare minimum to save time, or out of concern to accidentally break the game. Others create entire campaign settings and spend hundreds of hours into fleshing out the history & lore. And finally, some GM's are game designers who even create their own core mechanics from the ground up.
Homebrew is the set of rules that are not found in any written rulebook or supplement, but which arise from the GM and, somewhat less often, from the players. These are typically unique to either a GM or to a campaign, although sometimes one GM will take a good idea from another.
Sometimes these rules arise because something odd happened in a game that just wasn't covered in the written rules. Then the GM made a ruling to handle it, and if that situation arises often enough the ruling is also used often.
Sometimes these rules arise because the GM thinks an established, written rule is defective in some way (this includes everything from "That's not fun!" to "That doesn't fit my game world!") and changes it.
Sometimes these rules arise because the GM wants to introduce something new into his campaign. Most often, this will be a new monster, a new character class/race, or a new magic item.
Usually when I hear "homebrew" I think naturally of the third category-- something substantial and distinctive-- but I would argue that the first two categories (sometimes called "house rules") also fit the bill.