House rules I love and loathe

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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11 thoughts on “House rules I love and loathe

  1. For the max damage on crits, I think a compromise rule of maxing one *die*, rather than one roll, still gives you a good floor without overbuffing paladins and rogues. This has the added benefits of giving a possible reason to take a greataxe over a greatsword, and means that you can apply the same rule to monster crits without them getting out of hand.

  2. Thanks for the mention! We used to have a player that would frequently roll his dice over enthusiastically, and then we’d have to wait while he found it and rerolled. Thus, that house rule was born.

    I like most of these. For Heroic Resolve, I would change it from psychic damage to a level of exhaustion. Lost hit points can be easily recovered in battle, but not exhaustion, which will imbue a penalty for the rest of the fight.

    Regarding the drinking potions as bonus actions, we have a weird set of rules.

    Drinking anything but a healing potion is an action.

    Drinking a healing potion as an action means the healing potion heals you the most it could. If you drink it as a bonus action, you have to roll.

    Administering a potion is always an action.

  3. I’d make the weapon damage die (or dice, for greatswords) be max damage, plus another roll; extra damage dice (sneak attack, divine smite, flametongue, etc.) just roll twice.

  4. Sorcerers as Constitution casters.
    I’m curious where you saw this and if there was any other discussion about it that I could review.

    I’ve never understood Charism based casters, with the exception of Bards- that one makes the most sense. And warlocks are basically faith based casters but their “god” is otherworldly. I’ve been running this CON rule for sorcerers at my table for about three years and every time I have a new player I get push back.

    Great article.

  5. I’m trialling bonus action potions in my new campaign and so far I like it.
    The problem with potions is that they only seem to get drunk as between battle healing or for reviving downed characters.
    When combats last 3 or 4 rounds using an action on a potion is almost never a good choice.

  6. I feel like the Fumble mechanic is good, though an old group I ran with had the rule that any crit (Nat1/Nat20) would have a secondary roll to determine “severity”. Only doubles would result in a “typical” crit (Double Nat1s end in humiliating fails like “You trip and fall on your face, dropping your sword and accidentally stabbing Bob in the arse”, Double Nat20s are the “You slip cleanly past the opponent’s guard, and in a single seamless motion, your sword comes down, cleanly cleaving through the enemy’s armor and flesh, sending their body to the floor in two pieces”)

  7. Max damage + dice roll seems like too much damage for a crit. Normally you’re doubling the average damage delt, that triples it. We do either double dice, or max damage, player choice prior to rolling. On average, double dice is slightly better (1/2 pt per die), but has the risk of being lower.

    Not a fan of crits on initiative.

    Arduous rally & hit to crit with exhaustion both sound like interesting options. “Heroic resolve” seems too powerful, but maybe also adding a point of exhaustion could balance it.

    DM can veto rests seems bad as presented. The DM should never veto a player doing something that the character could do. Instead of vetoing, the DM should remind the players of other consequences. The party can sit and rest, but while they do so, the bad guys are gathering their forces and getting stronger, etc. While the player characters do nothing, time still passes within the world, and the NPCs do their things.

  8. A rule I brought in with my players when they were low level and very squishy was glancing blows. If the attack roll after modifiers is equal to ac then the damage taken from the hit is halved. giving the idea that the their armour is thick but the blunt force from a blow still hurt or they are fast but the tip of an almost dodged blade is still sharp. Also makes them fighting high ac creatures now they are higher level not feel like an eternal grind of misses

  9. The death rolls, for a PC can be done only after a determining action has been taken, then roll all of them in succession.

    I.e. PC drops; 5 rounds later a healing action is taken (spell, potion, check, etc.); roll stability checks or the like. If the character lives/stabilizes early they were unconscious untill the action to revive them was taken. It would ad a hint of realism give the player some time to relax, or grab a sandwich, then all the emotional tension is allowed to play out in the open, with no fudging of die rolls.

    I started doing this in 3.5 just to mess with the other party members and found that it was so fun to let them think I was dead only discovering after the fact if it was true. It also allowed me plenty of excitement, not knowing if I was dead or alive.

  10. We have three house rules:

    1. Max damage plus roll on Crits
    2. No PvP
    3. We usually start a new game at 2nd level and everyone gets a feat (VarHum gets two, of course)

    Our DM balances the game to work with these.

  11. With regard to the potions as a bonus action, one of the DMs I play with uses a variant of this house rule – basically you can have one potion “prepped” that you are able to down as a bonus action (though delivering a potion to someone else always requires a full action). Once you’ve used that one potion during combat, drinking any further potions requires a full action, as normal.

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