D&D is a game of imagination. All of those rules, the classes and races, abilities and spells, are all still contained within our brains and we can do literally do anything we can think of. We don’t, because that makes the game consistent and fair, which means people will come back to play with us. But then, how do we make characters unique? And how do we make the character in our heads the one that’s played at the table?
First, let me get my demagoguery out of the way and remind people that playing only D&D does limit our perspective. You don’t know what you’ll learn as a player or a DM until you take off the training wheels and play or GM something else. I’ve yet to find a system that didn’t teach me something. So learn something new.
Right. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about our topic today: Reskinning.
Actually, we’ll be breaking that up into 3 parts and talking about all three levels of it. Homebrewing, Reskinning, and flavoring.
D&D is a lot like Katamari. They’re being cautious about it this edition, but, every year, we’ll get a new adventure, a new book with options for DMs or players, and the game will get a bit larger. It’s happened every addition. People want new toys to play with. Sometimes, those people are not patient enough to wait for official release. So they make new content of their own.
We call that “Homebrew.”
There are good things that come off of homebrew. People who need a specific spell that makes their character act just like action movie guy. Or they want to be a ninja and are frustrated by their options. So they write up a thing or find one online. And all is good, right?
Well… no. See, the official publishers have metrics for trying to balance the game. We’ve been given a some of those numbers that they use in the DMG, but that doesn’t mean people actually read those numbers. Or understand them. And if you’re focused on what you want to do, you sometimes lose scope of the things outside of what you’re working on.
I’ve seen some pretty crazy classes out there. Some pretty powerful races. I’ve built magic items that proved to be so powerful, I had to take them back from the players, because they were destroying my game.
Now, none of that is a bad thing, if its the type of game you want to run. Note that I said play, not run, because this is a DM-level decision. Because a over powerful homebrew makes anyone not playing look weak. Because the guy who lucked into the Sword of Ages can solo giants, while the rest of the party is having trouble with wolves.
If your table is having fun with it or likes the chaos, go for it. But giving the players a ton of power makes the tools we have for judging the difficulty of an encounter even more worthless. So beware.
Also, for my table, Adventurer’s League says no.
This is a tool DM should be familiar with, because it’s very useful. If you need a quick city guard, for example, it might be easier to take an orc, make the minimum amount of changes and BAM he’s the rough and tough captain of the guard.
Where Homebrew is making things new out of whole cloth, a reskin is a small change, a fast change. For example, back before Volo’s Guide came out, there wasn’t a kobold option for a race. But, if you took a halfing, swapped its Luck for some trapsense and squinted really hard, you could use it as a make shift kobold. And we did, for a while.
Swapping around spells is a common thing. Maybe there’s a cleric spell that would complement your warlock perfectly. Or your sorcerer mutant superhero would totally have that one spell from the wizard’s list.
Or changing some damage types. I had a player who was an ice based caster, so I let him cast Iceblast instead of fireball. Same spell, just some tweaks.
I’m generally okay with this in certain games. WotC has a bias for pyromancers. If you r a flame wielding wizard, you have an option basically every level. But if you’re trying to element up in non-fire, you’re got maybe one spell for each spell level. Its a bit better since Xanathar’s came out, but, still, not great.
You do need to talk to the DM, tho, before playing with a reskin. Maybe they’ve heard of something you haven’t. Maybe they think doing it this other way will be better. But it’s still a change to the mechanics of the game, so the DM needs to approve it before you play with it. It’s a lot less earth shattering, though.
Also, for my table, Adventurer’s League says no.
Flavoring (or Refluffing)
Finally, we come to the heart of character customization. Oh, the miracles that can be wrought with a good solid flavoring. If you recall, back to the top of this article, RPGs are games of imagination. And because of that, as long as the mechanics don’t change, the descriptions of what things do is free game.
Let’s take the fly spell. As written it says: “You touch a willing creature. The target gains a flying speed of 60 feet for the duration. When the spell ends, the target falls if it is still aloft, unless it can stop the fall.” It also says you need a bird’s feather as a component to cast.
First off, let’s start with the description: There is none. None. Zilch. Nada. It’s an open book to write cool things. So, Sorcerer, how do you fly?
You can sprout wings. You can have a giant tentacle come from the sky and wrap around you. You can do that anime thing where you make jump steps under your feat. You can become weightless. You can throw yourself at the ground and miss.
All interesting options, right? Pick which ever one is right for your character. There is, however, one more option I want to make sure is highlighted for you: “Hit the button on your wrist control to activate your jetpack.”
See, you don’t even need to have the core explanation for your flight be based in the fantasy world! If you were clever and really wanted too, you could use 5e to run a Sci-Fi campaign changing only some descriptions!
Of course, how you fly isn’t the only thing you can change. The components and the actions to cast the spell are free game as well. A cleric can totally jot down a small bit of a rhyming prayer to say when casting her spells. A warlock can get graphic with their material components. My brother once played a bard that used matrix quotes to power his spells and abilities.
The only thing you have to remember is that if a spell’s material component requires a cost, that gold is a mechanic. So whatever you’re using to replace your diamonds or pearls, remember that you still have to buy it, no matter what it is. The gold is designed to balance the spells. Somehow.
The casting time can also be reflavored. Donaar of the Acq-Inc C-Team takes 10 minutes to cast Find Steed, not because the spell takes 10 minutes of meditation to cast, but because he doesn’t do it correctly. It’s 10 minutes of trial and error for him, until he finally gets it. Then his dragonborn dusts his hands and says “First try!” Which is exceedingly in character.
Being able to reflavor things is one of my favorite parts of the game and probably one of the reasons I play so many spell-casters. My current character a Sorcerous Dragon Tortle, has all of his spells reflavored into fire and smoke. His version of casting invisibility involves burning a leaf down to the little plant veins, attaching it to someone’s forehead, then the visible part of their body burns away like the leaf did. Its evocative, its unique, and it doesn’t mean anything more than “I Cast invisibility” but, in the end, there’s more substance there.
So what can you reflavor? Basically anything. Do you want to make weapons out of ice? Sure. Tell me how you’re making frozen crossbow bolts that are mechanically identical to regular crossbow bolts and fire away. Want to use your tail as a unarmed weapon? Go for it!
For my table, Adventurer’s League says nothing, so I say “Do it!”
There is one important thing that games never really talk about. Well, Planet Mercenary did, but they won’t make a poster of their Player Guidelines. See, part of a player’s job is to try and fit in with the rest of the table . Not like, super hard core conformity, but you don’t want to disturb the rest of the players. If the game is zany and fun, your Hannibal Lector isn’t going to fit well. If the campaign is dark and gritty, your Deadpool isn’t going to be welcome (Fun fact: Deadpool is rarely welcome in any aspect of my life.)
So pay attention to the tone being set, try to follow it, and be as cool as you can be. Within reason.