Anatomy of a Bad Homebrew
Having topped 1000+ entries in The Warp's alien power database, many of which had to be typed in manually, I have had seen a lot of homebrewed aliens over the years. Some are quite ingenious, and a few of those have even made it into published form. However, it is generally agreed that most of these aliens are not great (and that is putting it mildly). I've had two home-made CE sets, and that has given me opportunity to try out a LOT of made-up aliens... I have 200 of my own, and the playtesting is invaluable for testing mechanisms, balance, funability, and ultimately discovering if your homebrew is crap or not. It's helped me to edit my own powers...
Short of playtesting though, there are ways to recognize if a homebrew is crap... let's dive in!
There have been homebrew powers that have great concepts for how they work... but the alien name was somehow off. The "theme" for Cosmic Encounter is, of course, galactic conquest... nevertheless, there is precedence for alien races that play around somewhat loosely with the scifi theme. I think we can agree that Philanthropists, Assessors, Pavlovs, and Boomerangs don't necessarily evoke images of raging space battles. Indeed, gameplay and interaction are the primary concerns for Cosmic Encounter, and the space theme is secondary (a close second, especially considering the environmentals in the game).
Nevertheless, when you have an alien with a name like "GROCERY CLERK", or "NICOTINE PATCH", or "FLINTSTONE", you are probably straying too far off course. Now, it's no secret that I have some aliens called "LANCELOT" and "CTHULHU", but in my defense those come from confined sets of aliens for modified versions of the game (Camelot Encounter and Lovecraftian Encounter). For your general-play aliens, I think you need to think harder about what the name oughtta be.
2. Short Description
This is a little nitpicky, but it does give insight into the effort and skill that likely went into the creation of the alien as whole. The short description is the one-line summary of the alien (it appears upside down at the top of your alien card). Something like "Multiplies in Attack". It doesn't have to be the full-on description. I've seen a few that sounded something like "Retrieves Ships That Can Be Used to Either Reduce Encounter Totals or Draw Extra Rewards During Your Turn". Ugh. That's pathetic. Some people don't even bother with it, and it falls to me to sum it up. Personally, I think if you can't summarize your alien in one-line, you need to rethink it. Certainly some aliens in the published set have other aspects of their power that do not appear in the short description, and that is okay. Zombie's is "Never Goes to Warp", but Zombie also frees ships for others in a deal.
3. You have the power of...
Here's another instance where creativity often breaks down. I'm something of a stickler for this part of the power description. I always try to stick with ONE WORD that describes the nature of the power, following the example set by Eon. A couple published powers sneak in another word or two, and that's fine. When yours is "You have the power to mess things up for others sometimes", you should quit making up powers immediately. I also mark down for uncreative things like "You have the power to be annoyed." Come on! Didn't it occur to you that "You have the power of annoyance" is a little more elegant? This is what I'm talking about. Elegance. Try to have the Power of Elegance when dreaming these things up... it's attention to detail that will eventually win you friends and influence.
4. The Power
This is the thing that occupied most player's focus... they want to introduce a new power to the game, and as a result, this section gets most of the attention in the Homebrew Department. I've combed through all 9 issues of Encounter Magazine, and I've seen a lot of submitted powers. Most of them were power descriptions and little else. Wild and Super flare effects come in second. The short description, histories, etc. are quite often never bothered with. That is a shame. It tells me that you didn't put a LOT of thought into the power, and very likely haven't tested it... not even virtual testing, in the mind's eye.
The trick with creating a new power is that you have to delve into a game aspect that hasn't already been covered (and probably better). There ARE a lot of ares for exploration: encounter dynamics, resource gathering, hand management, destiny, victory conditions, etc. The way homebrews break down (and consequently lose their elegance) is when the creator tries to pack too much into a power. Too many times I've seen alien powers that do something like this: "On your turn you may take three ships belonging to another player and remove them from the game. If you lose your next encounter, they are permanently removed. If you win, the ships return, but the players they belonged to must give you a card at random. You also add +5 to your total in the encounter if you are facing a player whose ships you removed. You are immune to Edict Zap." Now... portions of that power might make for a pretty decent power (in fact, this is not a power anyone has ever submitted to The Warp- I just made it up, and I kinda like some of it, so look for it appearing in some form soon). But all together it's just too much. Sure, it's a great power to have (and I think that is the only perspective an author takes). But it would SUCK for everyone else in the game. I believe you should have in mind strategies for dealing with a new power for everyone else in the game when you are writing it. And these strategies can not rely on the presence of specific aliens being in a given game ("oh, it's not so powerful in a game with Healer, Schizoid and Trader").
Many homebrews seem to combine effects of pre-existing aliens. "You may see another players hand, and if you like it, you can trade hands with him". Yeah, that's pretty nifty... but in a game with Trader and Mind, it makes the older aliens look like chumps. You should just try playing with multiple powers.
Some homebrews are too frigging long! If your description is five paragraphs long, it's either too complex to be in the game, or it does too much, or you just can't write. A lot of the best aliens are easy to describe. Yes, there are exceptions... some very cool concepts do take a little more explanation to be fully understood... but do your best to be direct and simple.
Try to avoid creating an alien that blatantly conflicts with existing aliens. Nothing bothers me like seeing "Do not use with Insect, Planet, Miser, Healer, Void, Vulch, Monkeypants, Dr. Spock, Nicotine Patch, and Blumpkin" at the end of a power description. Go back to the drawing board and see if you can't tweak the mechanics so they don't muss the gameplay. Kevin did a pretty admirable job with the 50 FFG aliens, making sure they conflicted as little as possible. This if Cosmic Encounter, though, so 100% conflict-free is not really possible.
I'm as guilty as anyone about flaking out on writing the histories. Still, nothing says you care like a well-written, insightful, and amusing backstory for your alien race.
But, beware the cliches! I've seen one too many history of late that sounds like "Long ago the Monkeypants were oppressed by other alien races. They learned to use their power to be annoyed to great advantage. Now they seek to conquer the Cosmos." Snore. The best histories tell you something interesting about the race itself. Read the history of the Pirates (and then look at the original Eon artwork for a real chuckle). I like histories that give you some clues about what kind of alien it is... humanoid? Tentacled? Gaseous? Play around with it.
The extra challenge in power creation is adding in the Wild and Super effects on the accompanying flare card. The idea behind the flares is that the wild gives another player a taste of the alien's power (or at least the concept behind their "You have the power of" statement). This is a great place to start looking for inspiration on how to create the flare. What I hate to see is an alien with the power to shuffle the deck, and the Wild is "you may shuffle the deck". There's no creativity here. I know shuffling the deck is probably a lame power (it's just an example). A better Wild in this case might be "shuffle the discard pile". It's in the same ballpark as the power without BEING the power. Worse is when the Wild has no resemblance to the power at all. It would be like if the Zombie wild was "You can play three attack cards instead of just one". Huh? Granted, some flares, like Anti-Matter bear no resemblance to the power at all... There are different reasons behind this... most stem from no one but the Anti-Matter or someone specifically challenging him would benefit from his power's effects. In this case, I think the "Power of Negation" line in the power description.
The Supers are a can of worms all their own. If your power is hinky to begin with, the Super is probably Super hinky. Remember, the Super is supposed to enhance your power, or expand its influence. A common application of a Super is making it available when you are an ally (when normally it is restricted to use as a main player). This is usually adequate. Check to see what that might do to an encounter though... it isn't always appropriate. What you want to avoid is the Super that is just off the charts... like "You gain two bases every time someone Negotiates". No matter what your power is, that is probably too much of a muchness. Don't forget that game balance is not entirely tossed out the window in Cosmic Encounter. It only looks that way sometimes.
So, good luck with your adventures in homebrewing. I am, as ever, happy to add YOUR powers to The Warp. Just follow these simple guidelines for inclusion:
Some things I need to make the entry:
Short Description (this is the upside one-line summary of what it does)
You have the power of blank. (Describe power in detail here...)
Restriction: Other aliens it shouldn't play with, or "Use only in games with Lucre", etc.
Author: Who came up with it... your name, names of collaborators, or gaming group that dreamt it up.
The Origin for the alien will appear as "FFGfo", meaning it first appeared on this forum (otherwise let me know where it was first printed/posted)
It's relatively easy for me to make edits to the alien after it gets added.
And, even if your alien kinda sucks, I will still add it... it will have plenty of company.
Article by Jack Reda