This might be controversial: I don’t like house rules!
D&D went through years of playtesting. It’s not perfect, but it is robust. Where there’s a ‘problem’ with the rules, I tend to find that it’s either a) the original rules have been misinterpreted (I have a whole series of articles about rules you never knew), or b) the players are trying to force D&D into a game it’s not meant to be. If neither of these situations apply, then the ‘problem’ is probably so deep-rooted that a house rule isn’t going to fix it.
(D&D house rules remind me of the Free Parking rule in Monopoly: anything paid to the bank goes on the Free Parking space, and if you land on Free Parking, you get the money that’s there. It’s not in the rules, but it’s how lots of people play. And in my opinion, it’s a terrible rule: all it does is extend a game that goes on way too long as it is.)
Occasionally, though, a house rule come along where I nod and think, yes, that’s neat. These are the sort of fixes that I’ve tried to include in this article.
There are also a lot of house rules I don’t like which are nonetheless popular. I explain my reasons for rejecting some of these hacks down below. Maybe they add unnecessary complexity and slow down play, or they upset the game balance, or they change the tone of the game somehow.
If you are going to use house rules, it is important to discuss them with your group. Ideally, include them as part of your campaign one-pager or talk about them during your session zero.
As always, add your thoughts in the comments. Know a good house rule I’ve missed? Disagree on my interpretation of the rules? Feel free to let me know.
House rules I like
Heroic Resolve. I think this one comes from Sly Flourish originally.
The problem: conditions that remove player agency. Paralysis, petrification, being stunned. For players, these are not fun. You can easily spend turn after turn doing nothing while the rest of the party is enjoying the game.
The solution: offer the player a trade. To remove the effect, the character can take 1d6 psychic damage per CR of the creature that applied it.
I like this a lot. I’m not sure I would use it after Tier 3 because characters have so many hit points by this point that it’s no longer a meaningful trade-off (‘35 damage? Pfft, no biggy’). But at low levels? This works.
Heroic sacrifice. This is from MCDM, although I’m not sure where it was first published. I noticed it in their latest playtest packet for Flee, Mortals! where it was included on the pregenerated character sheets. I hope they release the full rules at some point.
In essence, the rule is this. You regain one hit point, end any conditions affecting you, and call down a final explosion of damage – radiant damage if you’re a paladin, thunder damage if you’re a barbarian, etc. In the pregens, it’s a lot of damage (eg, 10d12 damage for a paladin), and there might be a secondary effect like being blinded or knocked prone. There’s a DC 15 saving throw for half damage (Constitution, Wisdom, whatever’s appropriate for the character) – and then you die. You activate this at any time, even on another creature’s turn.
That’s one hell of a way to go. The ultimate trade-off.
DMs can veto rests. Another one from Sly Flourish, this is not so much a rule as an ‘agreed way of doing things.’
Rules as written, an adventuring party can take a long rest once a day or any number of short rests. A long rest can be interrupted by combat, but a short rest cannot. As such, there’s little to stop the party from taking a rest whenever they feel like it, which in turn makes combat less challenging.
The alternative: let the story dictate when and where rests can take place. If it feels ridiculous for the party to be resting, the DM can say so. Similarly, if the DM has a good handle on the pacing and feels that the players need an ‘upward beat’, then perhaps the party can gain the benefit of a rest at an opportune moment.
Start the session with inspiration. If you forget to give out inspiration, this is how I would handle it. You can still give out inspiration for other cool moments during the session, but this way, every player has at least one opportunity to shine during the session.
Arduous Rally. Hand in hand with the above approach, this rule comes from Tal’dorei Campaign Setting Reborn, a sourcebook from Critical Role’s Darrington Press. I share it here verbatim:
If fudging game mechanics to support the campaign’s narrative doesn’t feel right for your group, the characters can potentially make use of the option to take an arduous rally instead of a short rest. This involves one or more characters spending 5 minutes to rally their resolve in the face of coming peril, letting their adrenaline fuel the need to push on. A character who undertakes an arduous rally gains the benefit of a short rest, but any hit points restored by spending Hit Dice are halved. Moreover, the character gains one level of exhaustion.
Rules I would try
I haven’t used these house rules, but I’d be happy to try them, perhaps with some caveats. They don’t look too broken to me.
Characters can turn a hit into a critical by suffering two exhaustion levels. I found this one in Dragon magazine. I’m not sure this should be a standing rule – I can see it being exploited by characters like paladins and rogues who hit hard on a crit – but perhaps it’s something the DM can offer a player when combat feels desperate, and a moment of heroism is required.
Crits on initiative rolls. This one came from @DnDWithPlumbing on Twitter. A natural 20 mean an extra turn in the first round of combat; a natural 1 means you are surprised and miss your first turn. Of course, this works for enemies as well as players!
Max damage plus die roll on crits. I can see the appeal of this one. It’s a bit crap when the barbarian crits with her greataxe and only deals 2 weapon damage plus Strength. This method is more reliably fun: you get max damage on your normal weapon attack and then add all your dice a second time. Again, though, I worry about high-damage dealers like paladins and rogues being able to exploit this with divine smites and sneak attacks.
Sorcerers as Constitution casters. I saw this somewhere a few weeks ago, and it’s intriguing for sure. With this house rule, sorcerers use Constitution, not Charisma, for spell DCs and attack rolls. To me, it makes more sense thematically that a sorcerer’s power comes from physical endurance, not ‘force of personality’, and I don’t think this would break the game. It would also help distinguish sorcerers from the other Charisma-based spellcasters and prevent cheesy multiclass builds.
Dice on the floor are 1s. This one is from @SwamperRob and applies to DMs as well as players. A small house rule, but one which stops people rolling wildly!
House rules I don’t like
Many of these are very popular, so perhaps I need to be more open-minded. In each case, though, I can see a reason for sticking with the status quo.
Drinking potions as a bonus action. This was popularized by Critical Role, and I’ve encountered many new players who think it is a standard rule. I appreciate the intent – using your action to drink a potion feels like a waste – but I’m still sceptical. For one thing, it nullifies the thief’s Fast Hands feature. I also like how potions present players with a difficult choice: battle on or take a draught. Making this a bonus action is too easy somehow.
Fumbles. There are various versions of this, but in essence, every time you roll a natural 1 on your attack roll, something bad happens to you. Maybe you draw from a deck of cards or roll on a random table, maybe you have to make a Dex save or drop your weapon . . . I dislike this house rule for two reasons. Firstly, it’s an anticlimactic downward beat. It’s almost ridiculous sometimes what can happen to the character. And secondly, it happens too frequently – at least once a combat, I’d say. Rolling a 1 is bad enough as it is; I don’t want to compound that.
DMs roll death saves behind the screen. As with most house rules, I get the intent here. Death saves become even more tense and dramatic if you don’t know whether you’re succeeding or failing. But here’s my thinking: losing a character is already a very emotional moment, and if it’s going to happen, you should roll everything in the open and let the dice decide. Once it’s behind the DM screen, the question of fudging comes up – and the emotional moment gets messy.
What do you think about these house rules? Do you have any you would recommend to others? Let us know in the comments below.
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