TTRPGs are filled with creativity, and one of the most rewarding things about being a Game Master (at least for most of us), is crafting your very own campaign (and campaign setting). The very act of homebrewing, of crafting your own original (and sometimes less-than-original, but we'll get to that) lets you unleash your creativity on your players.
Just as importantly, it means that you can craft your campaign to fit your players and their characters, something that can be difficult to do with pre-bought campaigns and adventures. These still have a place for even experienced GMs, but there they'll serve more as a base, or an inspiration, rather than the be-all-and-end-all. (For beginning GMs, using a pre-bought setting or adventure is highly recommended though, as it'll free up brain space to focus on what the heroes are doing).
So what makes up a good Homebrew Campaign?
Create a Distinctive Setting
Most of us are more than capable of word building in our heads, but it takes a bit more than that. Your world needs a "shtick" or a "gimmick" that defines it. I know that the word I've chosen here might be something that makes you go "Why?", but I'll try to explain.
The Shtick is what makes your setting special. What makes it stand out from those around it? And what is the central conflict? To give you an example, think of the Dragonlance setting, especially during the War of the Lance era that most of us know best. It actually has multiple shticks to hang its hat on: No gods, no good dragons (until about halfway through the campaign at least), a continent-spanning war with unique creatures (draconians) and unique magic "rules" in the form of the 3 Orders. As for a central conflict, they literally went with "Good vs. Evil".
Then think of something like Planescape: It's infinite (the multiverse), connected to every other setting (well, almost), unique locations and monsters, and the ability to physically go to heaven or hell. It's central conflict: Good vs Evil and Law vs Order, but on the grandest scale of them all.
Then we look at something like Forgotten Realms, which seems to have no real shtick because it has a bit of everything, but the underlying conflict is again stability vs. disorder, usually personified as the harpers vs. the baddies, it has INCREDIBLY powerful spellcasters and a moon/asteroid field that's inhabited. For Forgotten Realms, the conflict is almost always more important for the story than the shtick, which kinda makes it the shtick for the Realms. You can find anything there if you look long enough.
There's even our very own Cloudsea as an example. Cloudsea is technically a post-apocalyptic world, inspired by the roaring 20s. Music plays a pivotal role (if you know where to look, we're not telling you. :P), and everything involves flying. The central conflict is anarchy vs autocrats, the people running the government/businesses. It's a teeming mass of life, flying above an ocean of death.
Every good setting must have compelling characters, but we've already covered that in a recent blog post. Go check that out. :)
Embracing the Narrative
Our games are filled with unexpected twists and turns. As the old saying goes "No plan survives contact with the enemy" and so, our carefully planned out plots and adventures inevitably change when the players start messing about. They may not even mean to do so, but they will. Adapting and improvisation during games can cause this as well, as you (and your NPCs and the world) react to whatever the heroes are doing. Perhaps your villain is befriended and redeemed, and instead of being the main villain, they now become the heroes' greatest ally. Perhaps it is something far smaller: your heroes buy a farm, and because it is well-defended, local bandits attack a neighboring town instead. Adapting to these events, and embracing these changes, big and small, will make your world feel more alive, and will help your homebrew stand out.
There are other tricks to embrace, as explained in recent blog posts, but I will skip over those here, but do go and check them out, as they'll also help your craft better and more believable homebrew campaigns and stories.
See you back next week. :)