Homebrewing memorable magic items: interview with AbyssalBrews

I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew from AbyssalBrews about their process for homebrewing magic items for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. I've pulled the most interesting and actionable highlights from the 90+ minute interview.

Magic items for 5e created by Abyssal Brews.
What we call it is joy.

There needs to be some amount of joy in every item that we have. Something that, when you get it, you go - that's funny! Or you go - that's cool! Whatever that special thing is, there has to be some level of joy within each item.

- Matthew, AbyssalBrews

I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew from AbyssalBrews about their process for homebrewing magic items for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Their magic items stand out from the crowd because of their creative mechanics, focus on flavor, and high quality standards.

Today's newsletter walks you through their approach, and provides insights you can use to improve your own magic items. I've pulled the most interesting and actionable highlights from the 90+ minute interview.

Who is AbyssalBrews?

AbyssalBrews is the combined talents of Matthew and Fernando, a duo of 5th edition content creators. They design homebrew systems, options, adventures, and more for Dungeons & Dragons.

Matthew is the writer, graphic designer, and friendly fellow you can talk to on Twitter. He has been running TTRPGs for about 15 years.

Fernando is the illustrator. Inspired by TTRPG legends Larry Elmore and Wayne Reynolds, he has gone on to practice professional illustration for the last 10 years.

They recently celebrated hitting 5000 followers on Twitter. You can learn more about their origin story on the How Not to DM podcast.

Now let's explore their process for creating magic items.

Step 1: Find the most interesting ideas

Discover ideas everywhere by being an active observer

The magic items created by AbyssalBrews are notable for their creative breadth. Many people ask Matthew where he gets those ideas? His answer: everywhere.

Matthew has deliberately practiced paying attention and asking questions whenever he is experiencing something. Rather than passively watch a movie, Matthew pays attention and stays on the lookout for idea sparks that he can forge into his next creation.

He recommends cultivating this mindset by being an active listener in conversations. Asking questions of people you talk to pushes you to start asking questions of the media you consume.

Broaden your sources

A common practice of professional creatives is to look for inspiration in many different types of media. Matthew watches movies, reads source books, looks at graphic design trends, scours Pinterest - the list goes on.

One particular book recommendation from Matthew was The Tome of Adventure Design. I took Matthew's advice and bought a copy, and I'm so glad I did! The book really helped kickstart my ideation process when I wrote the Example Projects for LegendKeeper.

Another novel approach Matthew uses is to browse ArtStation and look for interesting characters and worlds. He then asks himself questions like "What kind of magic item would that character use?" or "What kind of magic item would be in this world?"

Don't take notes

Matthew believes that ideas are cheap.

No one will care about your idea until you shape it into something real. When Matthew gets creative ideas for magic items, he doesn't write them down.

Most are forgotten. But that's okay! We are creative people who can reliably generate more great ideas whenever we need to.

A select few of the ideas, the most interesting ones, tend to come back. Those are the ones Matthew sends to Fernando (the illustrator) in Discord.

Step 2: Add flavor as the cornerstone

AB items are dripping with flavor. We like to make things that feel like they have a soul.

Like Billy the club - he's a simple club with a little bit of bite damage and some acid, but he has a soul to him you know? He's a real character in the story.

All of our items need to have some amount of that.

- Matthew

After some initial back and forth in Discord, Matthew and Fernando quickly decide what they want to make. At this point it's just a basic idea - an object and possibly one hook.

Consider for example the early concept for Rootway - a magical, druidic doorknob. At the beginning, the idea was to make a doorknob, that could open a door wherever you place it. There was no sign of  druidic magic yet.

Focus on story, not mechanics

Illustration of Rootway, a free magic item for 5e by Abyssal Brews

Some small percentage of people love mechanics. Mechanics are certainly required when experiencing items within the context of a game. But what people really care about, and what makes a magic item stand out, is the flavor.

Matthew contends that the flavor of the item is where you can add joy, cool factor, humor, and all the emotional hooks that humans are wired to look out for.

This step is absolutely critical for the duo. Finding a story that inspires them makes the rest of the process flow all the way through to publishing. Whenever they get stuck on the writing or mechanics, they can refer back to the flavor and the intended emotional experience to get unstuck.

Going back to the Rootway example, their next step was to realize that they both wanted to design something with a druidic influence. This provided the key flavor ingredient, and the anchor for every other step.

Aside: Playcentric Design Process

AB's decision to begin with flavor and story is similar to the design philosophy that's recommended in Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton. Fullerton calls this the "Playcentric Design Process".

The sooner you can bring the player into the equation, the better, and the first way to do this is to set 'player experience goals.' [...] These are not features of the game, but rather descriptions of the [...] situations in which you hope players will find themselves. For example [...] 'players will feel a sense of happiness and playfulness rather than competitiveness'.

- Tracy Fullerton, Game Design Workshop, p.11

Think cinematically

A factor that made "druidic" the right flavor anchor for Rootway was its cinematic potential. Matthew described a door of living wood, its roots writhing out from the earth to form a passage for the adventurers.

That type of visual description is exactly the kind of thing that can inspire the illustration process, not to mention the players who discover it!

Cinematic ideas also informed the designed for Emberdancer's Tinderbox.

Illustration for Emberdancer's Tinderbox. A free magic item for 5e by Abyssal Brews.
Whenever we're developing a magic item, that's part of the key of it. What is the cool cinematic moment? Every item has to have a cinematic moment that we can picture. Like the Emberdancer's Tinderbox that we did recently as an add-on for Campfire.

We had this wonderful thought of the people sitting around a campfire. With our system there's that evocative visual of the campfire, and the smell of the smoke, and the warmth in the front, and the cool on your back.

You can feel it. And we're like, well, what do people do with a campfire? You know, whenever it's just you in the wilderness. People will try to entertain, right? There's an oral tradition of storytelling or discussion that happens around a campfire and that's an evocative thing.

So what can we do with that? And we had this idea of, well, what if this were some form of entertainment, not for the benefit of you, the people around the campfire, but for the campfire itself?

And so that was where the Emberdancer's Tinderbox was born. This fiery spirit that is living within the tinderbox. Whenever you strike a fire with her, she forms into the flame and she is looking for you to entertain her. She's just so bored and thinks 'Please give me something because I am trapped in this tinderbox. Give me a chair or something'.

That was the cinematic moment.

- Matthew

Flavor informs mechanics

Illustration for Sugar Coat. A free magic item for 5e by Abyssal Brews.

With the right flavor in the team's shared imagination, the rest of the process becomes much easier. Coming up with mechanics is a matter of translating the intended flavor, and the cinematic moment, into complimentary crunch.

Matthew gave an example from The Sugar Coat (a collaboration for Fat Magic RPG). The flavor and visual starting point was the fact that sugar can have two states - crystalline solid, or syrupy liquid.

From there, the mechanics suggested themselves. Cold weather would make sugar hard, and something hard would increase AC. Hot weather would make sugar melt, and melted sugar would make projectiles stick to you.

How important is game balance?

I'm not going to bash anybody for playing the game that they want to play. As long as everybody at the table is having a good time consenting to everything. Cool. Great.

But for me, balance is a red herring. It's a unicorn, right? It's an uncatchable. Because there's so many moving parts and twiddly bits and little things you can't predict.

- Matthew

Matthew goes into greater depth on his position on game balance in his blog post "Hobby DM: The Myth of Balance".

When it comes to magic item design, his approach is to throw in every idea he has that supports the flavor into the first draft. After that, he edits it down to avoid making the mechanics obviously broken or overwhelming.

Beyond that, pursuing perfect balance yields diminishing returns. Matthew believes in keeping the focus on what's fun, and adapting to the players on the fly when running the game.

Step 3: Add illustrations to bring excitement

Fernando walks through the timelapse illustration of Mortal Hold.

Once the duo has the idea and flavor direction, Matthew continues with writing while Fernando begins illustrating.

Start with many rough sketches

To kick off the illustration process, Fernando creates many, low-fidelity versions of the magic item. He gets as many ideas on the page as he can in a short time and then sends them to Matthew for feedback. They discuss them, and Matthew might ask for certain tweaks or more focus on certain aspects.

This back and forth is critical to their creative process. By bouncing ideas off each other, they can rapidly converge on the most interesting direction.

Once they do this a few times, Fernando is ready to start on the final illustration.

Show your work

The basic process of illustration is:

  1. Line art
  2. Flats
  3. Color
  4. Shading and Depth
  5. Lighting and Texture

You can watch it unfold in the timelapse video shown above. The AbyssalBrews YouTube channel has several of these timelapse videos, with Fernando going into great detail on how his thought process unfolded during each creation.

Fernando uses Procreate for illustration. It allows the team to easily generate the time lapse videos. These are fun to watch and they double as great marketing assets!

In addition to the videos, Fernando keeps Matthew in the loop as each major step progresses. This keeps up the excitement as Matthew completes the final writing.

Step 4: Publish and market the items to connect with your audience

Many creative people are confident until they hit this step.

Marketing gets a bad rap in creative communities. But what people actually hate is sleazy, attention hacking gimmicks that seek to extract money from people.

AbyssalBrews understands the true value of good marketing - its about knowing who will find joy in your creations, then finding those people and forging a genuine connection.

Here are a few insights into how they bring a completed homebrew magic item to the world.

Limit your channels

A "channel" is another word for a place people hear about your creation. For example, Google Search Results, YouTube, email, and billboards are all channels. AbyssalBrews has found success by mostly focusing on 1 - Twitter.

They also post to instagram, but Matthew admitted it has been a very difficult platform for them to reach people on. This was a surprise considering their creations are so visually attractive. I would advise caution to anyone spending energy on Instagram who does not have a strong illustration component.

In addition to social media, AbyssalBrews maintains their own website as a hub for all their work, and a Ko-fi shop for receiving donations in exchange for access to the complete art assets for each magic item.

I wouldn't consider those two places "channels", but I want to highlight that they fulfill two other important functions: collecting money, and investing in a platform they fully control.

Use templates

AbyssalBrews provides every magic item as High-res JPG & PNG art files, Tarot sized item cards, Tarot sized foldables, and Twitter & Instagram social media JPGs.

With so many formats and a few channels to consider, templates are an essential part of their publishing flow.

Matthew has templates set up for every format and channel so that when it comes time to publish, its simply a matter of dropping the words and art into readymade slots.

Most professional writing and graphic design programs provide a way to create your own templates.

Aside: Use LegendKeeper Templates for faster layouts

Templates are a core part of LegendKeeper.

LegendKeeper Templates allow Dungeon Masters to rapidly create pages that conform to an ideal layout. The Template system even supports nesting so you can create, and then reuse, multi-page hierarchies.

One last tip: Follow the WOTC writing style but don't be limited by official item mechanics

People start in the wrong place with focusing too much on the mechanic that they want to get into. Allowing the flavor to direct your items definitely changes it. If you look through the DMG, there's a lot of great magic items in there, but a lot of them are just skins of one another.

But one thing that you should pay attention to is the technical writing that goes into the DMG, and the magic items that come along with it. So don't get stuck on exactly what properties they have on everything, but you should get stuck on how they write them. There is a system to how WOTC magic items are written and how they are presented.

I think that that's very important for people to maintain whenever they're creating their own items. There's a language that you learn to understand within each of those magic items. And whenever you have one that you're introducing as a third party into the game, you want it to fit with that wording. It gives an air of professionalism to your writing that makes it feel like it has a place within the Wizards of the Coast items.

- Matthew

AbyssalBrews keeps things fresh. They make the magic items that they truly want to make. But they understand that conforming to the expected style guides provides a real service to the people who use the items in real games.

You should feel free to be your crazy self when it comes to ideation and concept. But don't go off the rails when you get to final production and technical writing. The best products find the balance between wild personality and existing customer expectations.

You can download a copy of the official D&D House Style Guide for free on DM's Guild.

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