Design Insights: Defining Success

Intro

We’re continuing the Design Insights series with a bit of a different topic. It’s one that’s probably more fundamental than the ones we’ve covered off so far, but I wanted to get the other ones out first to set the tone of the series.

Anyway, the whole point of this series is to help you get better at making homebrew and 3rd-party content. Today we’re going to be talking about what ‘successful homebrew’ actually is. When we say ‘successful homebrew’ what do we really mean? How do we measure that success?

Defining Success

Right out the gate it’s worth acknowledging that ‘Success’ can mean different things depending on what your goals are going into something. When we start designing a piece of homebrew content we often don’t think about what our actual goal is.

We probably have the implicit goal of ‘Make something that’s cool and good’, but that’s not a very measurable goal. How do we know that something is cool? Sure someone can tell us they think it’s cool but that’s subjective feedback. We can have someone tell us it’s good, but what does ‘Good’ mean? Does it mean ‘Balanced’? Does it mean ‘Fun to use’? Does it mean ‘I like the idea of it’?

So firstly we need to actively consider our goal, then we need to figure out what measuring that goal looks like.

Setting Good Goals

Now there’s a lot of maxims out there about setting good goals. I’m not going to re-hash those broad maxims, instead I’m going to focus very specifically on goals for our homebrew content.

Obviously a lot of people will have different goals based on what they’re trying to accomplish. The goals of someone trying to run a Patreon to generate some income will be very different to those of someone trying to give their players cool new stuff. It’s also possible to have multiple goals for a single piece of content.

Without being too prescriptive, though, I would say the most fundamental goal for any piece of homebrew content should be ‘Make something players enjoy’.

Now it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between that and ‘Make something fun’, and there’s also a difference between that and ‘Make something that gets a bunch of upvotes on Reddit’. We’ll look into those differences in a moment.

I’m going to focus this piece on that core goal of making something that players enjoy. From there you can figure out your own peripheral goals based on what other outcomes you’re after. If you want to run a successful webstore then your goals might be ‘Something players enjoy and has broad appeal’. If you’re making something for your local club it might be ‘Something players enjoy and is tailored specifically to how we play’. You get the idea.

What Is Enjoyment?

So this is where I’ll unpack those differences I talked about and dive more into what that goal of ‘Making something players enjoy’ is.

Something enjoyable is surprisingly very different to something ‘fun’, and there’s a few reasons for that. Something that is bonkers overpowered will probably be very ‘fun’ for the one person playing it, but what about everyone else? They probably won’t have a very good time, and even the guy playing the broken homebrew will probably get bored of it soon too.

Similarly, different people measure ‘Fun’ in different ways. To some people, Champion Fighters are fun and Wizards are boring, and others are the opposite. The crucial thing with those examples though is that the people not playing those characters because they don’t find them fun will find the experience of having one around enjoyable still.

So the word ‘Enjoyable’ has a sort of broadness and longevity to it in this context. Something enjoyable is going to go a lot further than something that is only fun. Now it’s important to note that something enjoyable should still actually be fun, it just needs to be fun in a way that is a) lasting and b) does not diminish other fun.

I’ll also quickly say here that the internet as a hive mind is terrible at judging quality. I’ll go more into that later, but suffice it to say that having a thousand strangers on the internet look at your content and go ‘That looks good’ is not tantamount to having made something actually enjoyable. Those strangers haven’t played with your content. They have no idea if it’s really enjoyable when it hits the table.

The ‘Fun’ Part

I said above that the ‘fun’ part of ‘enjoyable’ as we’ve defined it needs to be lasting fun that doesn’t tread on anyone’s toes. This is something that I think is best explained by outlining the premise then giving a counter-example, so that’s what we’ll do.

Lasting Fun

Really this ties into what I mentioned earlier about how something that’s just overtuned as hell will be fun, but will stop being fun after a while (probably a short while). The main reason for this ties into the somewhat complicated psychology of rewards. In case you’re doubting me, how many hours have you played Skyrim? Now how many hours have you played it with godmode-level mods turned on?

So imagine a homebrew item that, say, doubles a Wizard’s spell slots. Ok yeah the Wizard is going to have a great time for a couple of sessions, but the fun will wane. Essentially what’s happening is we’ve designed something that removes part of the reason to play a Wizard (or any spellcaster really), which is managing your spell slots. Removing the challenge might be temporarily fun, but the net effect is we’ve removed one of the systems that can generate a reward. Usually when you interact with the system well (i.e. manage your spell slots efficiently over the adventuring day) you are rewarded with a satisfying experience. If you remove that challenge, you remove the possibility of that reward.

If our homebrew content removes too many challenges, we also remove the rewards that overcoming those challenges provide.

So it’s crucial that we make something fun long-term, and we do that not by removing challenge/reward systems but by adding them. An item that, say, once per day lets the Wizard re-cast a spell they cast the previous turn would accomplish that. It gives them another resource to manage, and they’re presented with the challenge of using the item at the most effective moment. This item will provide lasting fun.

Diminishing Other Fun

The other thing our ‘fun’ needs to do is not diminish other fun. Now in a way we’ve already talked about that above. When talking about the notion that removing challenges removes fun we’ve inherently touched on the idea of how the fun that your homebrew provides can spoil the fun that’s already present in the game.

But we’ve already covered that part. We know how to make sure the player doesn’t step on their own toes, so this portion really pertains to not stepping on the player’s toes.

Now for the most part this is basically making sure you don’t create homebrew content that overlaps with already-existing content. Giving your Wizard an item that lets them pick two Metamagic options and gain a bunch of Sorcery Points is going to diminish the fun of your Sorcerer player, because now their unique ‘thing’ isn’t unique anymore. Their toes have been trodden on.

That part is obvious enough. Don’t step on anyone’s toes mechanically-speaking. What’s less obvious is how you can tread on the other players’ fun thematically.

Imagine if you will a homebrew class that makes the character able to ride a dragon from level 1. This may be made to be exceptionally well-balanced, but in the context of 5e this character is going to thematically outstrip the ‘Coolness’ factor of most other characters, at least in the early game. Now this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Some tables might not mind this kind of character in their midst. Many will, though, so when we’re talking about ‘Successful Homebrew’ we best make sure the people we’re designing for won’t find your homebrew sucks the fun out of playing their own characters because they’re so thematically overshadowed.

For the record, this is so often what goes wrong with what I’ll call ‘Anime protagonist’ homebrew. It’s very hard to mechanically adapt the stuff that makes the main character from a piece of media ‘cool’ without it being way cooler than what’s already in the game.

Measuring Our Goals

So now that we’ve established our goals, the main body of which is ‘Make something players enjoy’, now comes the question of how to measure whether or not we’ve reached that goal.

I mentioned something earlier on about how relying on a bunch of people to eyeball-test your homebrew is a terrible way of seeing if we’ve reached that goal. Putting your homebrew out there for feedback is important, because people can catch things like broken interactions you hadn’t considered, or wording errors, or all sorts of other stuff. There’s probably a whole different piece I could do on what you will and won’t get out of going to the internet for feedback.

So where do we measure? Well, I hate to say it but there’s no substitute for playtesting.

Actually that’s not true. I don’t hate to say it. I love to say it. There are an egregious number of people out there designing homebrew and distributing it online who have never playtested what they’re creating. They’ll theorycraft, they’ll check for so-called ‘balance’, they’ll get feedback (and affirmation) from strangers on the internet, but they’ll never have actually put it in a player’s hands and had it get used in a campaign. Playtesting is the most important part of designing successful homebrew.

In fact, if there’s nothing else you remember from this piece except for ‘you must must must playtest your designs’ then I will consider this lesson a success.

Anyway, playtesting is how we measure whether or not we’re achieving our goals and I’ll deep-dive on playtesting another time. For now we can move on and start looking at what happens after we playtest.

Success!

Here’s an interesting thing. I have at this point designed 3 full classes with a 4th in the works. They are the Gunsmith, the Oracle and the Death Knight. Of those, the Oracle has received the most attention online as well as the most sales through our webstore. I genuinely think it’s my best designed class of the lot. The Death Knight has been playtested to hell with good results. The Gunsmith was my first ever class and it’s got some weird things about it that I objectively think were poorly designed.

But the most successful class? The most successful one was absolutely the Gunsmith. I barely talk about it, and it’s not even available through my online channels right now (except for a WIP version of the redesigned class on this site). Why is it the most successful? Because it’s the one my players play the most. They keep coming back to it. After getting a bunch of players (including myself) to help playtest it, a number of them went on to use it of their own volition in subsequent games. Some of them even picked it up for use in their other games.

That is the absolute hallmark of success. I designed something, playtested it, tweaked it, and my players all had a good time with it to the point where it has become fully integrated into my and their campaigns.

So when we reach the end of the design process and we examine that goal of ‘Make something players enjoy’ the easiest way to tell if we’ve reached it is if our players want to use the content again. If it’s an item they’ll be asking if they can get it in future games. If it’s a class they’ll be asking if they can make a character with it. If it’s a spell they’ll be asking if their character can learn it. You get the picture.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, if you’re designing okay homebrew that people sort-of enjoy and you’re making ten thousand bucks a month off Patreon then all power to you. In reality most of the people at that level aren’t making mediocre homebrew, and I am in no way, shape or form saying that people with solid Patreon income are making bad homebrew.

What I absolutely am saying is that if your goal is to go into this to make money by selling 3rd-party content then you may think your success is measured in dollars, but those dollars will only be generated by creating successful homebrew. As we know well by know, homebrew is only truly successful if our players actually like playing with it.

If you build it, they will come.

Thanks for reading.

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