Have you ever been looking online for Dungeon and Dragons homebrew and noticed that much of it doesn’t feel like official content? Sure, it may look like official content with fancy images and custom fonts, but upon reading the submission, it certainly doesn’t sound official.
Homebrewers for a long time have been dedicated to making their content look polished and professional. Knowing that there is a value in having their ideas emulate the core D&D manuals, many homebrewers look to websites and expensive image editing software to make their submissions match the official content as much as possible.
Yet this emulation is superficial. While countless hours are spent in making the content look legit, homebrew creators give little attention to their actual writing. Worse, few homebrewers actually acknowledge the writing style of D&D manuals—let alone follow it when writing out their work.
When you open the D&D Player’s Guide or flip to a random page in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, you may notice that each section inside both manuals have the same voice and use the same jargon, even though both manuals were written years apart and by multiple authors. This is possible through the use of a strict style guide that all D&D sections adhere to when explaining mechanics.
Here at Half-Cover, we expect homebrew submissions to follow the writing and editing style of the official manuals as much as possible. However, this is no easy feat. In the real world, brands and companies hire professionals to ensure that style guidelines are followed. After all, it takes a lot of extra work and dedication to follow someone else’s style.
Therefore, in order to avoid sounding outright elitist, I think it’s important to explain what a style guide is, why it’s important for your homebrew to follow the official D&D writing style, and how you can follow the writing style to the best of your ability.
What is a Style Guide?
A style guide (sometimes referred to as a “style sheet” or “editorial style”) is a list of writing and editing guidelines that encourage uniformity and cohesion throughout a project. Any professionally document, whether it is a game manual or a press release, follows a style guide. They are vital for any content written by multiple authors and D&D is no exception
Growing up, you may have encountered some styles guides in school (MLA, AP, APA, Chicago, and Turabian, just to name a few). While these abbreviations might bring sudden flashbacks to last minute class papers, they are the lifeblood of various academic and professional disciplines. Each style guide lists rules on how paragraphs should be written, how heading should be stylized, and even how numbers should be included (e.g. 555 or “five-hundred and fifty-five”). All of these rules are tailored to fit the needs of a particular field from journalism to theoretical physics.
However style guides and style sheets are more prolific than just your college papers. Organizations develop and use custom style guides because they want their brochures and websites to sound like they are coming from one unique entity, not a group of different writers. Nothing draws your attention more as a reader than when a writing style suddenly changes. As an author or an editor, your primary goal is to avoid distracting your audience from content you are trying to convey.
Moreover, instruction manuals, like the official D&D manuals, use the editorial standards in style guides to organize sections and to establish that certain words and phrases mean certain things, even when they are repeated in different chapters or in different manuals.
In the face of “rule lawyer” players, tabletop game manuals are particularly keen on following a strict protocol style-wise. Dungeon masters expect that the D&D manuals are consistent in their wording of the rules, so that they can make split-second decisions and treat their players fairly. This is why spells or saving throws have very specific wording, that way you can distinguish one spell’s effect differently from another. Likewise, dungeon masters and players assume that each section is organized in a certain manner and usually jump to the middle of a chapter to find features or rules. This is why D&D has guidelines for how paragraphs are organized in the class or race sections within the Player’s Handbook. For example, starting equipment is always before class features in any class section.
Simply put, style guides are a set of writing and editing guidelines that encourage authors to merge their individual writing styles for the sake of consistency. They can be absurdly nick-picky. Yet all of these rules help readers find and understand content within a manual or a document.
Reasons to Follow the D&D Writing Style
Although there are some clear and important reasons why you should always follow a style guide for anything professional you are writing (especially when you are writing with others), you may not be convinced to do the same for your homebrew, especially since it is extra work. However, there are some special reasons for why you should implement the D&D writing style in your homebrew.
As I mentioned before, as a homebrewer you already know the importance of polish. Reviewing your content before publishing it (the metaphorical equivalent of a spit shine) is the best way to make others evaluate your work more seriously.
Sadly, many homebrewers value appearances more than the actual substance of their work. But hours spent on making your homebrew look pretty are hours wasted if your writing is not also polished. An experienced homebrewer will quickly be able to find places where your writing style doesn’t match the official manuals. If your style is off enough, average readers will also take notice. Not only does all of this distract from your brilliant ideas and make you look like an amateur, such off-style writing may cause readers to dismiss your homebrew altogether.
Avoid Reinventing the Wheel
Often, the more basic something is in a tabletop game, the harder it can be to explain to players. Something simple like turn order or initiative may take whole paragraphs to explain, but only take 30 seconds to demonstrate in person.
Fortunately, the authors of D&D most likely had to go through various staff meetings and editing sessions to certify that game mechanics were clearly and properly explained. Additionally, players and the D&D community already understand the original writing team’s explanation of game mechanics.
Thus, by using the writing style in the D&D manuals, you can use the writing team’s initial suffering to your advantage and simply replicate how D&D explains things. This saves you time (and your sanity) while making your content clear and understandable to those who already play the game.
One overlooked consideration for homebrew content is that your homebrew only works if your ideas can be successfully integrated into the larger game. Within your writing, you need to establish which mechanics work with your new feature. This is important because you can’t always predict what other mechanics or builds a player or a dungeon master will use.
Observing the writing style of the D&D manuals can make integration easier. D&D mechanics were already written with integration in mind. That is why rules in the manual are written in a precise way to prevent other rules or mechanics from accidentally interacting with them. This carefulness can be seen when certain features or feats give you a new cantrip. In these cases, the feature will always clarify what happens if you already have the cantrip because of another mechanic or feature in the game.
In addition, following the D&D writing style helps to integrate your content with future D&D content. This is because if new content is added by Wizards of the Coast, the authors will make sure that the new content works with the wording of the original content (instead of trying to republish the original manuals).
This thinking can also be applied to future homebrew content, assuming that other authors are following the same writing style as the official manuals.
How to Follow the D&D Style Guide
Understanding the importance of using the D&D style guide and actually applying it to your writing style are two vastly different tasks. I wish I could say the process was straightforward, but unfortunately, to my knowledge Wizards of the Coast has not yet published the official style guide for D&D 5th Edition.
A few people have tried to pinpoint some of the style guidelines, but these guidelines are not always perfect. Ronny from Dungeon Master’s Assistance has a well developed list of basic guidelines https://olddungeonmaster.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/5e-writers-guide/, but his blog post also includes some non-official content (like abbreviations that are used in the D&D fandom community, but not in the actual manuals themselves).
Therefore, the best way to draft your homebrew is to inspect the actual manuals to discover how you should be writing something. While not even this route is guaranteed to be perfect, it is the best technique to make sure that your writing is adhering to the style guide, since you can always backup your decisions with evidence from the official manual.
Below, I go over how you can inspect the official manuals for content depending on your situation.
Applying the Writing Style to Most Homebrew Content
The first and most important step to following the writing style is to find materials in the official manuals that are similar to your homebrew idea. Most homebrew ideas are usually derivatives of core rules or they are adding content that is analogous to something already in one of the manuals.
At present, there are several manuals to choose from, which means between the different books there are hundreds of examples at your disposal.
Once you locate content similar to your idea, use the original content as a reference and make the necessary changes for your idea to work. Try to make the changes as minimal as possible in order to safeguard the actual writing style. Generally, you may only have to change a few specific words such as a saving throw or an ability score. Sometimes numbers may need to be altered but the actual writing will remain the same.
As a cheat sheet, here are some important references for a few homebrew ideas:
- Disintegrate (Player’s Handbook page 233) – For anything that does an effect after someone reaches 0.
- Barbarian’s Primal Champion (Player’s Handbook page 49) – For any ability that increases an ability score’s maximum to over 20.
- Gray Ooze’s Corrode Metal (Monster Manual page 243) – For an effect that damages or alters a weapon or a piece of ammunition. Also for an effect that only applies to non-magical weapons.
- Red Dragon’s Fire Breath (Monster Manual page 97) – For any Dexterity saving throw that applies half damage on a successful save.
- Fighter’s Action Surge (Player’s Handbook page 72) – For any additional actions that are not a traditional action or bonus action.
- Oil of Slipperiness (Dungeon Master’s Guide page 184) – For any magical item (such as an oil) that requires being applied to a creature or object.
Applying the Writing Style to Completely Innovative Content
If you are developing something absolutely brand new, as in it is not similar to or based on anything from the official manuals, adhering to the writing style can be more difficult. That being said, it can be accomplished with care and time.
Before you begin though, I would always advise double checking to make sure that your idea is 100% unique. Because you are essentially developing an extension to a pre-existing game, it is really difficult to develop a new mechanic that is completely unlike anything in the hundreds of pages that already exist. More often than not, homebrewers who think their ideas are truly innovative forget about obscure rules or features that are similar to what they are trying to create.
Furthermore, it’s important to review your idea to make sure it isn’t just a combination of two or more pre-existing mechanics. If this is the case, separate your idea into different parts and try to see what pre-existing mechanics you can use to draft out those respective parts.
In the end, if you perform your due diligence and believe that there is nothing comparable to your idea, your only option is to try and write something you believe is consistent with the official writing style. There are no hard and fast rules with this one. My only recommendation is that you use the core manuals as a reference for tone and diction.
Collaborating with Others
Once you have written out your idea, you should always contact other homebrewers. By having others read over your mechanics and your explanations, you can make sure that your writing is clear and precise. You can also debate and discuss with others to see if your idea works as intended and properly integrates other mechanics. Here at Half-Cover, this is the step that we believe is the most important to developing high-quality homebrew. Since following the writing style of the official manuals is more of an art than a science, getting feedback is imperative to making effective and creative homebrew.
As I said before, observing the style guide of the official D&D manuals is not an easy undertaking. Wizards of the Coast hired professionals to develop the style guide and to ensure that the writing in each manual adheres to it. Without an actual official style sheet from the authors and editors of the D&D manuals, following the official writing style will require regular reading of the manuals and a collaboration by homebrewers.
Nevertheless, this work is worth doing. Having content that is written well and sounds official is vital for others to adopt your ideas and accurately use them in their games. It also prevents issues with integration and balance that are often found in homebrew hosted online.
So many homebrewers spend hours developing their ideas and even more dedicate hours to superficial changes. If even a fraction of time devoted to image searches and editing software was given to the actual writing style of a piece, most homebrew content would improve exponentially in terms of quality.
Ultimately, writing style is a complicated topic and this blog only discusses the basics. In the future, I hope to work with others to expand on the writing style of D&D and to develop a more complete style sheet that every homebrewer can use.