This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty Five on 21st August 2019.
Lennon: Ha! In your face ROSTRO
RaeRae: You know it doesn’t have a face.
Lennon: Whatever, the point is, I just created an entirely new race and class to play in D&D, and I didn’t have to touch my calculator once! Behold my Fire Giant Alchemical Archer!
Ostron: Okay, so I’m assuming this is an Artificer with the Alchemist specialty and using a crossbow, that’s Unearthed Arcana but still valid, but Fire Giants aren’t a playable race. Is it balanced?
Lennon: Pah! Forget balanced. There isn’t a single homebrewed rule in here.
Ostron: That’s not possible.
Lennon: It’s perfectly possible. You just have to use your imagination!
One of the reasons a lot of people in the D&D community keep clamoring for new classes and devour homebrewed attempts on the DMs Guild is that they have an idea for a character that does things differently from how D&D classes do. Usually they come out of pop culture. Let’s say you want to play spiderman; how do the web shooters fit into things? How do you play as John Wick when there are no firearms? And what class is Batman, anyway?
If you go online to answer these questions you’ll have to wade through PhD dissertation-level arguments where people defend a particular character being one class or another, but if you push through those you might actually start to see some character builds suggested, and that’s where things get interesting.
Despite Lennon’s criticism earlier, creating a character that does a lot of what you want but doesn’t need entirely new rulesets involves looking in detail at different abilities in D&D.
Something that people sometimes forget in D&D is that roleplaying and imagination don’t have to be tied to the rules. There is no “childcare” skill for example; if characters are in a situation where they are looking after a child, the players and the DM will probably have to discuss what skills and effects apply, for example requiring numerous perception checks, wisdom saves, and automatically getting two levels of exhaustion after one hour (side note: most parents are actually undead. 90% of parents will agree with this. The others have gone insane).
In that case, what was done is the actual activity of childcare and it’s effect on characters was broken down. Break it down far enough and you’re likely to find one or more things that *do* tie in to existing D&D abilities; keeping an eye on the children turns into perception checks. Knowing when they’re in trouble and need help is the wisdom saves. The absolute drain of any energy you ever had is the exhaustion levels.
Let’s start with that John Wick example. In the movies, he’s an amazing fighter capable of taking a lot of punishment, using multiple firearms expertly to deal with multiple opponents, and also being dominant in hand-to-hand combat. Many people would jump to translating guns to bows or crossbows and start looking at Fighters or Rangers, but dealing with multiple people both at a distance and up close brings them up short. By the rules, Rangers and Fighters have to specialize at ranged or close attacking. They end up being much better at one than the other. A Rogue can do well at both thanks to sneak attack, but they only ever get one attack; how do you emulate the ability to deal with multiple people?
As suggested, a solution to the problem is to look at Wick’s effect and how he achieves it, rather than trying to translate the details. He dispatches multiple people, but he’s often using pistols and shotguns at very close range when he’s not physically assaulting them.
Enter the Sun Soul Monk. That class has the ability to attack in melee *or* at a range of 30 feet, and with their Ki points, monks can increase the number of attacks they have pretty much at will.
Now the class description says that the Sun Soul Monk is firing bursts of radiant energy, but they don’t have to. You can easily say this character has specially modified hand crossbows firing projectiles and it’s not going to break the game. Technically they’re doing radiant damage, but that’s one of the damage types that very rarely affects things one way or the other, so you could conceivably play an entire campaign without it coming up.
The point is that we took the mechanics apart from the description and just focused on what we wanted to do, rather than how it was being done. Another example of this can be seen in Deborah Ann Wohl’s Relics and Rarities show, where Xander Jeanneret [Jon-er-ay] played his character Rikki Huckster as a druid, but all of his spells were cast by means of potions he held on his person.
Lennon: For my Fire Giant Alchemical Archer, *mumble* I started with a warlock
RaeRae: *smug* I’m sorry, what was that now?
Lennon: I started with a warlock build, okay!? But it doesn’t count!
See what I did is I chose a pact of the tome warlock and loaded up on cantrips. So now my character has Ray of Frost, Firebolt, and Acid Splash, but instead of spells, they’re all arrows that I fire. And when I want to shoot normal arrows, it’s Eldritch Blast to the rescue. In game terms I’m still doing damage of a particular elemental type just as I’m supposed to, but in terms of the story, I’m firing specially prepared arrows.
As for the Fire Giant bit, I’m not actually going to be wandering around as a huge creature, I just reflavored a Fire Genasi to say they’re a Fire Giant suffering from a debilitating curse that shrunk them to Medium size.
Now for the part everyone’s been waiting for. When you’re going to do this:
Talk to your DM
The whole point of this is that you aren’t actually changing the mechanics, or at most you’re changing them to a minor degree, so the DM shouldn’t need to worry about it, but even just changing the roleplay flavor of a character can have consequences on the story, particularly if the DM is homebrewing a setting. Lennon’s character brings that up in two ways.
First, Warlocks usually have a patron that they’re beholden to. Lennon’s character totally ignores that part of the lore, so if his DM buys into the reflavoring of the character, there won’t be any eldritch guidance coming from beyond the veil.
Also, his fire giant is cursed. Is that something the character is trying to get fixed? If there’s a wizard that gets access to a level 9 wish spell, is it going to be used for that? If not, why?
Beyond that, while the changes I’ve introduced don’t change the mechanics of how the character works, there are certainly minor changes that would make sense if I want to pursue them. For example, as a caster increases in level, eldritch blast acquires more projectiles. That makes sense with the archery reskin, but the other cantrips I picked increase damage instead. If I wanted to change it so those started firing more projectiles that’s something I’d have to clear with the DM. According to Ostron I’m actually hamstringing myself with fire bolt if I choose the projectiles over the damage boost, but the explanation got numerical really fast and the only part I paid attention to is the DM would probably be okay with it.
A similar issue exists with our John Wick the monk idea as Ryu mentioned; the sun soul attacks do radiant damage. That can be reskinned to piercing damage for the sake of making them more like bolts, but piercing damage is something a lot more creatures are resistant to, and crossbows aren’t inherently magical like divine power from a monk.
None of these are insurmountable problems and there are fairly easy in-universe fixes that can get around them, but the point is you and your DM have to agree on what those fixes are in advance.
Advance notice helps for several reasons. First, as we touched on before, your DM may need to alter their campaign if they’re integrating backstory information into plot lines. Second, if you or your DM actually wants to adjust game mechanics for this idea, you’ll want to figure out how that works. All of that leads to the third reason, which is you’ll want time to work all that out; you’re also going to have to explain the character to the other players, and if anything *has* changed about how they work, it will help to have the DM working with you to explain it, rather than trying to get the DM’s buy-in at the same time the rest of the players are trying to figure out how exactly your Lycanthrope character is different from a normal Barbarian.
Overall, though, the point is if you have a character idea, whether it be from pop culture, a game, a novel, or just an interesting concept that doesn’t quite fit in existing classes or races, you might be able to save yourself the headache of designing new mechanics by playing with the lore descriptions instead.
Ostron: It’s a good point but I’ve never gotten a headache when I’m working on game mechanics.
RaeRae: *mumbling* That’s because when you switch on ROSTRO your head’s never the first thing to hit the floor when you pass out.
Ostron: Pass out? Why would I pass out?
Lennon: Oh, goodness! Would you look at the time?!
Ostron: Oh, yes! We’d better head to the Scrying Pool to see what the listeners have for us.