Just this past weekend, my D&D group finally reconvened for our ongoing Waterdeep Dragon Heist campaign. The player’s are still in Chapter Two, trying to gather funds to turn the Troll Skull Manor into something other than den of nightmarish horror. In one of the faction missions, they were tasked with rescuing a cat from a gazer (a small, dumb Beholder) from inside a locked up bookstore. These side quests are purposely left somewhat open ended so there is plenty of room for improvising and ad-libbing on the part of the DM. This is great because it allows for a tremendous amount of creative freedom while still providing a kinda-sort box to frame the encounter. My players work through it and once they find the gazer dispatch it quickly and were left with the task of finding a cat. That part took the longest. Ever try to find a scared cat that doesn’t want to be found?
It wasn’t until they found the wayward kitty that it occured to me that this was the perfect opportunity to insert something that I’ve been thinking about and that my players had regularly expressed interest in. We’re all big fans of the hit comic series ‘Monstress’ by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, an ongoing offering from Image Comics. Without going into crazy detail, there is a race of characters known as Ubatsi that are essentially intelligent cats who have multiple tails in addition to other curious powers. I have been slowly pushing my Dragon Heist campaign out of ‘Forgotten Realms’ and into my own homebrew setting I started way back in the early 1990’s. I had an idea for a race very similar to the Ubatsi but never got around to implementing into the setting. After so many years, I pick up the project work on it and put it down again. I didn’t have a D&D group for a long time so all this went to the back burner and this cycle just sort of kept happening.
Now, I had an idea how a race of highly intelligent magic wielding house cats would fit into my homebrew with respect to world lore if not the hard numbers of game mechanics. While the depiction of this race in the pages of ‘Monstress’ is great, it isn’t exactly what I had in mind. My players were very familiar with the kitty cat people in the comic but not in my homebrew. Having a cat trapped in a bookstore seemed like an easy way to insert this new race in the form of an NPC rather than just offering it up as an option to my players. Introducing outside inspired material into your tabletop game is something we’re all guilty of and really there’s nothing wrong with doing it as long as you handle it with some forethought and common sense. We have all seen things in movies, TV, anime, comic books, video games etc. that we thought would be cool at the table. Making a feasible interpretation work out? Well, I’ve rarely seen it actually you know – work.
This is almost without exception due to total lack of planning or experimentation at the table. The DM or the Player & DM who want to use this new material sort of eyeball it or dial it in and often the end results is rather dumb, lacks the cool factor that got your attention in the first place or it’s just broken to the point of being unplayable. So if you do happen upon something you want to adapt to your game there’s a few things you can do to successfully make your adaptation work.
It should go without saying that you respect the thing that – let’s face it, you’re swiping and modding for your own use. As long as you don’t turn around and try to pass off your final product as your own creation, nobody is going to know or even care. When my version of the Ubatsi is finished don’t bother looking for it on DMsGuild.com. If your final product won’t leave the dinner table, knock yourself out. Know the source of your inspiration. Get as much information about it as you can from the original creation. The more information you dig up, the more information you have available to extrapolate something resembling actual rules. It will also prove helpful if and when you decide you need to see how this new element fits into your game lore-wise.
Knowing my source, I could form an idea for how to slip this new character race into the game without bringing everything to a halt for countless sessions of playtesting. Since the first experience my players would have with an Ubatsi would be in the form of an NPC, from behind the screen, I could begin to work out the hard dice throwing rules aspect of making the Ubatsi available to players without disrupting the game or the ongoing narrative. This ought to be the top priority when you as a DM want to attempt something like this. Don’t sink the campaign because you dumped unvetted rules or options onto the table!
Having the player’s first encounter being in the form of an NPC allows you to then use that character to begin feeding your players some much needed lore and worldbuilding. The NPC can begin to engage the player characters and explain their backstory, the history of their people or profession (race or class) and why it is reasonable given the circumstance of the game narrative that this is the first time your players are encountering this new thing. You could think of it as well intentioned stalling. You need time to work out the numbers, you need time to craft lore and your players and their characters need time to wrap their heads around it. If your end goal is to make this new rule a playable option, this NPC can be a splendid way of cultivating interest in this new character option in your players so that they will consider trying it out later on down the road.
Depending on the needs of your game this NPC could join the party for an extended stay. This method works best if you have already more or less fleshed out what you want the class or race to be able to do and have a firm grasp of how and why this new thing exists within the context of your game world; be it in homebrew or an established setting. The NPC could also be offered to the players as more of a recurring character. This method is better if you don’t have a fully formed vision of how this race or class (or other player character option) fits into your game or you are still fiddling with the dice chucking numbers element of gameplay. Every time the NPC drops in, he demonstrates new abilities or lore to your characters.
No matter which method you choose, see how your players respond to it. See what happens in things like combat, social interaction, spellcasting as it progresses in the story. Keep what works, fix what needs fixing and discard the rest. Keep building off of that and eventually you’ll distill it all into a useable addition to your game. Remember, someone else created this thing so it will take some time to decide where and how it fits into your world. This is especially true if it’s your homebrew setting. You might get away with “this has been here the whole time, you just never noticed” in an established game setting like ‘Forgotten Realms’ but in your homebrew, that isn’t going to fly. You’re going to have to make this thing that someone else made fit into the puzzle of your setting without shoehorning it in with no changes at all. If you do, it’s going be very obvious that this wasn’t your idea at all and unfortunately it will only detract from what may very well be your own original and cool ideas. I can tell you that after 20 plus years of experience that if you don’t tailor the things you want in your setting to fit seamlessly you’re going to drive yourself to madness trying to make the idea of someone else work. Rather than a sophisticated tapistry, you’ll end up with a nonsensical patchwork quilt of other people’s ideas. Trust me, this is crucial if you want another human being to read your work and not have them roll their eyes after scanning page one.
There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by the works of others. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to adapt something you like into a table top game like D&D. We all do it. Literally everyone in the hobby did it at least once. It’s cool. If you want it to become a lasting aspect of your game you’ll have to put in the time and effort to craft it into something that is, in the end, familiar to an audience but still uniquely your own. Be patient. Be diligent. Keep your eyes open for fresh ideas. Always practice safe homebrewing.
Do you have any stories about homebrewing things from outside media? How did that work out? Any suggestions? Leave a comment below. We love talking table top!