“The name I had off the top of my head was an ooze-bonded character.” I say, spitballing. “But again, that’s just very simple. They have an ooze and they have a bond.”
“I’m going to do my best to be helpful, but…” says Olivia, stifling a laugh that is a combination of disgust and amusement, “The words ‘ooze-bonded’ sent a horrible shiver up my spine.”
Elliott is laughing and I’m chuckling as I respond, “But is that the tone we’re going for? Because that’s the other, big-picture, design question here; what are we going for here?”
That is how the discussion kicked off late last Saturday evening as I sat down to help homebrew a brand new class for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. One that is based off the concepts and imagery of the Marvel character Venom, of all things. Have you ever thought to yourself, ‘Boy, I wish I had an evil alien goo-monster bonded with my flesh.’? Well, now I can help you with that specifically. At least in the realm of D&D.
My accomplices in this act of cross-media synergy were the incomparable Elliott Lewis and Olivia Gray, both of whom can be heard every week as two of my stalwart adventurers over on Material Components. Elliott even joined John Campbell and myself recently over on Panel Up when we reviewed Venom: Let there be Carnage. Most importantly they are two likeminded individuals when it comes to wishing to partake in a symbiotic relationship with a living slime thing.
Because that is one thing I will say right up front about homebrewing, and game design in general, is that I have always found it much easier when I have folks around to help bounce ideas off each other. They brought with them their own experiences with D&D and the character of Venom that helped us zero in on the way we wanted this class to play and the type of experience we thought players would enjoy.
Homebrewing in fifth edition D&D is actually a fairly simple affair, at least on paper. There are tons of style guides and tutorials online that can teach you precisely what you need to make anything within the game system and keep it consistent with what already exists. DMsGuild.com (a website partnered with Wizards of the Coast for sharing/selling fan created content) has several free documents for this exact purpose.
Most of the component parts are already there, so it is up to you to stitch them together into something that makes sense! In our case, we knew this was going to be a new class so our initial canvas starts simply enough. A character class in D&D has 20 levels. At each of those levels they will gain new abilities and class features. At some point in the first three levels a character will choose a subclass, a branching decision which will focus or alter the character classes abilities in some direction. So right off the bat we know that there are only so many things that need to be created and not every level needs to be wholly original. Every character class in D&D gains ability score improvements at certain intervals (most at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th and 19th levels), so for simplicities sake we kept those the same. Boom! That’s five things we don’t have to come up with and a quarter of the levels covered.
We also knew that the proficiency bonus of this character class (and all classes for that matter) increases at a steady rate no matter what. It starts at a +2 and eventually tops out at +6 by 17th level. Boom! Another thing done for every step of the classes evolution. There are only so many numbers that you are dealing with in the ruleset of fifth edition, with most of the complicated stuff coming from adding up handfuls of dice later on. Once you make a few key decisions about things early on, you are mostly just extrapolating out from there.
A perfect example of this with our class is how, mechanically, we wanted the symbiote-like abilities to work. We knew we wanted it to feel like Venom, so our first step is the create a feature in which a horrible sludge-monster covers the character’s body to give them superhuman and supernatural capabilities. We want it to be able to emerge suddenly, possibly giving the character the element of surprise when revealing their dark passenger. But we did not want to get away from the idea that the true power comes from the bond between symbiote and host. You can’t have a Venom without an Eddie Brock (unless you have a Flash Thompson instead). So we made the primary ability score of this class Charisma. Like a Bard, Sorcerer or Warlock, the powers of this class comes from their force of personality. Or more specifically, the personalities of both symbiote and host.
Deciding the primary ability score is generally an easy first step when homebrewing a class. It is a broad determination of where the powers of the character will come from; like the mighty thews of a barbarian’s Strength or the cunning mind of a wizard’s Intelligence. Our class being Charisma-based was an attempt at drilling down on the relationship aspect of Venom that draws a lot of people to the character. Venom is a one-man conversation, with the suit acting as weapon, armor and confidant. This allowed us to decide right off the bat that some of the powers of our D&D equivalent would focus around turning that relationship into something you can use in combat. From tentacular weapons to head-swallowing attacks, the symbiote would allow the wearer to use their Charisma in place of the normal Strength or Dexterity used in melee combat. While not suited up, this would also allow our class to be a brash liar or steadfast leader when they needed to be.
After that, and deciding that the twelve-sided die would be used a lot in this class (because it’s my favorite dice size), it became a matter of following all of this to its logical conclusion at every level of character growth. We know Venom can climb on walls, so the class gains that ability right at level 2. We know Venom can do some violent and dangerous things by growing tentacles out of his body, so that became the Writhing Actions feature at level 5. The symbiotes' regenerative capabilities are spread out over several levels, getting progressively stronger until it becomes very difficult to even put this class into unconsciousness unless your foes are utilizing Thunder and Fire damage (like the sound and heat that the symbiotes hate so much).
Filling in all these little details was easy enough. The hard part was translating it into rules text. This is where the vast majority of work in homebrewing comes from honestly. A good homebrewed class or subclass can have all the cool ideas in the world jammed into it, but if it isn’t using a consistent style to those used in the rest of the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset, it can feel amateurish, slapdash and unusable at times.
In the rules text language of D&D I can’t just say, “You can climb walls at level 2.” As simple as that might sound, it leaves a lot open to interpretation within what is, at the end of the day, a rule that will be used while playing a game. Giving the powers of your homebrew the clarification and exacting language of a rule book can feel boring and unnecessary at times (especially if you are the only person who might be using it) but in doing so you make it accessible to everyone else. You might not be there to explain what you meant to other people; I know I won’t once this article goes live. So instead of “You can climb walls at level 2.” I would instead write:
“Stating at 2nd level, you gain a climb speed equal to your walking speed while you are not wearing armor. In addition, while climbing in this way, you may move up , down and across vertical surfaces and upside down along ceilings. This style of movement requires your hands and feet.”
So much wordier, right? But it clarifies precisely what the ability can do and puts it in the language that already exists in the game. To be honest, I copied most of that text from the Giant Spider stat block. Which is another big cheat in homebrewing that, if not used, would actually make this process way more difficult.
Your ideas are cool and original (well, not this one, we’re just copying Venom), but in all likelihood there is something in the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset that does something very similar. There is no reason you cannot lift, edit and adapt text from other classes, subclasses or monsters to help give you an idea of how the rules text should sound. In our example, one of the subclasses we created (called Cohesions) has an ability that functions just like the Mage Hand spell except it takes the form of a gross gooey tentacle that sprouts from you body. Having a weird tentacle to grab stuff and manipulate objects seemed important! But instead of banging our heads together to work out the precise nature of how it functioned we said, ‘well, this works just like Mage Hand.’ It’s a commonly used spell and already serves as a baseline that folks can understand. So using nearly the exact same language as the spell (in fact, copying and pasting some of it), I save myself time and energy while still creating something flavorful and in keeping with the main thrust of what I’m trying to create.
There is a patter and rhythm to the rules text of D&D and it is honestly something I still struggle with getting down on paper properly. It is like writing for a college paper in some ways, with its own arcane rules and dialect. But it keeps the information you are trying to convey clear and in keeping with everything else around it. A homebrew class can be unique and strange, taking inspiration from any source or combination of sources, but if it doesn’t gel with its peers it can feel wildly out of place among a play group. The hope with a homebrew is that you make something special and personal but that can be used by others in their own games. It is a big part of why I find being a Dungeon Master so fulfilling, actually. Seeing players take things that I’ve come up with, whether it be a unique magic item or just the game world in general, and getting joy out of it as they play. Passing on your homebrew and hearing stories about what others do with it is part of the fun!
Lastly we come to the most difficult part of any homebrew though, and it is something Elliott, Olivia and I struggled with for the entirety of our three hour brainstorming session. Names. Names are tough. And you have to name everything in your homebrew. Each ability and power, every class feature or subclass. For three hours we talked about how this class should play and what we each wanted to see out of it but not once did we come up with a good name for the class. Clearly “ooze-bonded” wasn’t going to work and we didn’t just want to call it “symbiote” or “the Venom class”. Names are important. They lend weight and purpose to a thing. A fighter fights. Wizards cast spells. Druids are connected to nature. We needed something evocative that avoided copyright infringement if we could help it.
Thankfully inspiration struck after we had ended our call, just as I was rubbing my eyes at 1:30am and wondering how long it would take to organize and rewrite the jumble of notes I had taken. It came from our source material of course and it was so obvious that I kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner. Our class was a big nasty melee brawler, who fought with ooze whips, claws and fangs. They had a twelve-sided hit die to max out their HP and spent their own health to power attacks and powers. They were a shapeshifting, aberrant horror straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing, except they also stood by a party of Clerics, Rangers and Rogues.
What better name could there be than the one Venom himself chose in Venom: Let there be Carnage? Our homebrew class is called the Lethal Protector.
And if you want to play as your own Lethal Protector you can by checking out the full class over on the Material Components Twitter: @MatComRPG