7 Discarded D&D Rules That Could Still Improve the Game

Past editions of Dungeons & Dragons include many, many rules that fifth edition drops. No one misses racial level caps, any of the old grappling rules, or the unplayable AD&D initiative system. But old editions also included rules that improved the game, often in subtle ways. Some might have improved the fifth edition. Still, the D&D designers dropped each rule for a reason, but did they make the right choices?

1. Add the bloodied condition

Fourth edition included a bloodied condition triggered when creatures lost half their hit points. The designers likely dropped bloodied because it seemed to offer too little benefit to merit the weight of another condition. Besides, DMs hardly need a rule to describe the status. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You can describe a monster taken to half its hit points as bloodied, giving the players a sense of progress in a fight against a tough opponent, and helping them judge when to use their most powerful spells and abilities.”

But the bloodied condition added more than a sense of progress. The bloodied condition can trigger extra abilities that show a creature’s rage or desperation, adding a useful way to bring a second stage to boss battles. Just as a showdown settles into a familiar pattern, a bloodied monster could gain new powers, transforming to add new excitement. The bloodied trigger proved so irresistible that the D&D designers designed something similar when they gave some high-level monsters the mythic trait. “If you wish to increase a battle’s stakes, though, using a monster’s mythic trait results in some mid-battle twist that changes the way the monster behaves, restores its resources, or provides it with new actions to use.” The bloodied condition could enhance monsters of all levels.

2. Limit hit point increases after 10th level

By the time fifth edition D&D characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Obviously, DMs can still create challenging encounters by adding more and more dangerous monsters, but that solution can prolong battles, turning exciting fights into grinds.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks deal more damage. This adds challenge, but it makes concentration spells much weaker.

What if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points? If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat to high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters typically enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Up to D&D’s third edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classes gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus a constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

In a fifth edition version of this rule, after level 10, barbarians that gain d12 hp per level would only gain 3 hp, d10 classes like fighter would gain 2 hp, d8 classes like cleric would gain 1 hp, and wizards would gain 0 hp. High-level wizards get plenty of goodies to make the difference.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9? For more, see Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?.

3. Award skills for high Intelligence

In modern D&D, Intelligence vies with Strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. See Should PC Intelligence Matter? Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. Unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages, contributing to the attribute’s low value.

The D&D designers found good reasons to stop awarding smart characters more skills. Fifth edition awards skills based on background instead. This emphasizes the importance of a character’s history by pairing it with mechanical benefits. By ignoring Intelligence, the designers let every character gain enough skills to get ample mechanical benefits based on their history. Besides, if Intelligence led to even more skills, wizards would check almost every box and those brainiacs show off enough.

If the game awarded fewer skills based on background, class, and race, and awarded more skills based on Intelligence, then Intelligence would switch from an easy place to dump a score of 8 to a worthwhile choice.

4. Require some recovery period after dropping to 0 hp

In first edition, characters reduced to 0 hit points needed a week of rest. “The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else.”

All that rest seems too limiting for a heroic game, but fifth edition not only lacks any consequences for reaching death’s door, the game offers a sort of reward. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the rules will only heal characters when they drop to 0 hp, because damage below 0 heals for free. Imagine being injured but denied healing until you lie dying on the dungeon floor because the magic somehow works better that way. As an adventurer, I would find a less psycho group of comrades in arms.

The remedy ranks as one of fifth edition’s most popular house rules: Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

By making characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion, the dying condition becomes something to be realistically feared rather than an inconvenience where players can exploit their metagame understanding of fifth edition’s lack of negative hit points.

Players gain an incentive to heal their allies before anyone drops to 0, losing the incentive to let party members drop and revive in a macabre dance.

5. Require magic ammunition to overcome resistance

When you blog about D&D long enough you gain a limited ability to see the future. So when I post, I can predict many of the comments. For example, if I gripe about an overpowered character feature, some readers will advise countering by giving foes the same capability. As if players would return for a campaign where every monster took the Sharpshooter feat.

If I gripe that the fifth edition rules make archers too effective, readers will remind me that historically, bows do beat swords. Weapons that let you poke holes from a distance always rule. For example, polearms also beat swords. Still, thanks to millennia of promotion by a ruling class of men on horses with swords, we romanticize swords and most D&D players favor them over polearms.

Like punching monks and loincloth-wearing barbarians, D&D gives swords and other melee weapons a boost to make fun but fanciful characters attractive options.

Still, the boost falls short. The rules make ranged weapons far better than swords, axes, and such. This imbalance weakens the game. Players choosing swords and spears for their characters must accept weaker characters. Also ranged combat usually proves less fun. Movement and terrain disappears. Instead, characters stand at the door and shoot, tallying damage until the battle ends. I could list more consequences, but I already did.

Fifth edition skips a few rules that made ranged attacks a bit less attractive in past editions.

  • Arrows shot into melee used to suffer a chance of hitting allies.
  • Ranged attacks used to lack a damage bonus based on Dexterity to match the damage bonus melee attacks gained from Strength.
  • To overcome resistance to magic weapons, attackers used to need magic ammunition rather than a magic bow.

The first rule deserves to stay on the scrap heap. Hitting allies hardly feels heroic and the risk creates bad feelings between archers and melee attackers. No one wants to shut down their ranger once the barbarian reaches melee.

As for the second rule, D&D’s math rests on damage bonuses based on Strength or Dexterity. Removing the Dexterity plus for ranged weapon damage would crack the game’s foundation.

The third rule boasts potential. In D&D, ranged martial attacks gain their biggest edge because no one bothers tracking arrows or crossbow bolts. Even if a DM required the chore, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Some gamers recommend using toothpicks to track arrows. That’s a lot of toothpicks. But what if only magic ammunition overcame resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks?

Such a rule makes sense; after all, the silver arrow hurts the werewolf, not the silver bow. Even if DMs give out more magic ammo, magic arrows merit counting. At low levels the lack of magic arrows would hardly matter, but as levels rose and more foes brought resistance, a demand for magic arrows would create interesting and realistic resource management choices.

6. Use healing surges or hit dice as a limit to healing

In early D&D editions, limited healing challenged players to carefully manage their hit points and healing spells. Except for days of bed rest, the game offered no easy substitutes for healing spells. Players faced thorny decisions over how to best use their healing resources. Should the party delve deeper into the dungeon toward greater rewards despite the risk of running low on hit points and healing?

Third edition erased that resource management strategy. Even 2nd-level characters could afford enough wands of cure light wounds to completely heal between fights without using a single spell. In modern D&D, inexpensive healing potions create the same effect.

The fourth edition designers aimed to return some of the old resource management strategy to the game. The edition added healing surges to limit the healing characters could use between encounters. Characters had a set number of healing surges. During a short rest, players could spend surges to restore lost hit points, so healing surges worked much like fifth edition’s hit dice. But healing surges also capped the magical healing available to characters. In battle, spells and healing magic like potions let characters trade surges for hit points without stopping to rest. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

Without a limit like healing surges, fifth edition campaigns can’t recapture the slow loss of healing resources and the strategy that limit created.

For a house rule that turns hit dice into a resource more like healing surges, see D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.

7. Add the dazed condition

The stunned condition brings a harsh penalty. Stunned shuts down a player for a turn or more. A stunned monster can’t take actions, turning a potentially fun battle against a legendary evil into a quick beatdown of a helpless opponent. I’ll roll my damage in advance and go make a snack. The most common source of the stunned condition comes from the monk’s Stunning Strike ability, a power that can turn every boss into a piñata and that tempts DMs to “cheat.” Well-designed monks stun frequently enough to diminish the fun. Other players wind up beating helpless foes while the DM just counts damage and runs monsters with cartoon stars circling their heads.

A redesigned monk that remains fun to play calls for a condition that counts as half stunned, something like fourth edition’s dazed condition. Attacks against dazed creatures gained advantage. On a dazed creature’s turn, they could choose between moving, taking an action, or taking a bonus action. A more fun Stunning Strike ability could daze first and then stun if the dazed creature took a second strike. Such an adjustment would bring Stunning Strike down to the power of the monk’s other abilities that cost ki points. This lesser stunning strike would weaken the monk class, but a bigger allotment of ki points could make up for the change.

Of course, returning the dazed creatures could improve more than the monk. The dazed condition would add flexibility, allowing new character and monster abilities that just won’t work with a condition as punishing as stunned.

17 thoughts on “7 Discarded D&D Rules That Could Still Improve the Game

  1. Gashren

    I disagree with opinion that shooting into melee shouldn’t have chance of hitting ally. I would definitely not want archers to try and shoot the enemy engaged in close combat with me, and that should go for characters as well!

    I’d give the target half (or even three-quarters if target is smaller than the oponent) cover and if attacker missed due to the cover-granted AC then the shot has a chance of hitting the ally (with attack rolled again, this time vs ally’s AC).

    Too bad the Sharpshooter still lets the archer ignore that chance completely (as it ignores any cover except full, when the target can’t be targeted at all).

    Reply
    1. Frederick Coen

      Ooops, I meant to comment on this one too! RAW: Shooting past a creature gives the target Cover. OPTIONAL RAW: If you miss the target due to Cover, you strike the Cover. In my game, we handle it like this: If your attack roll when shooting at a target with Cover is a natural “1+Cover bonus” or less, you strike the Cover; roll a new attack to hit/damage the cover. For example, the mage tosses a Firebolt at the orc fighting the barbarian, from behind the barbarian (because where else would the mage be?). The Orc has Cover (+2 AC) because of the barbarian; if the mage rolls a 1, 2, or 3 (Nat 1 misses, and then there are 2 points of cover), he rerolls the attack against the barbarian! Please note this is consistent whether shooting past allies, enemies, or brick walls – if the mage were trying to shoot past an orc warrior to hit the orc mage, a 1/2/3 would potentially strike the orc warrior. It’s *not* a “hit allies” rule… but if allies are in the way, it might!

      Reply
  2. Frederick Coen

    Comments, some house rules that address your points, and a rare few “RAW works here”…

    1) Bloodied. As a DM, I don’t allow talk about Bruno – oops, I meant HP. Players may not state their HP totals or current values. PCs and monsters communicate status with “Bruised” (down 25%), “Bloodied” (down 50%), “Battered” (down 75%), and “Crippled” (down 90%). A Bloodied wizard might only need two Cure Wounds to be back at full health, while a Bruised barbarian might consume five or six! [Additionally, we impose “-1 to attacks and skills” per level of injury, starting at Bloodied; a Crippled creature (mob or PC) is -3 to hit.]

    2) Limit HP over level 10. We talked about doing this. My fellow DM and I agreed on doing this. And then the players rebelled. Of course, my campaign is only 6th level after a year; his is reaching 9th, so we’ll see how “normal” feels before changing the rules in mine. However… we both use homebrew (or 3rd party) monsters and semi-PC foes (i.e. actual Rogues for “thieves”, not the ‘thug” or “assassin” generic 5e monster), so they hit harder. But I get the point about Concentration spells. Hasn’t been an issue yet in either game; I think only two spells have been lost due to lost Concentration total, ever (cleric’s Shield of Faith, and a warlock’s Fly spell).

    3) Skills for High INT. Basically “giving wizards more stuff” is the primary objection here. One Redditor had a simple fix: “if you are in an INT-based class, you receive 2 fewer skills.” This is just a straight-up nerf, but brings balance in a way. More RAW, though… our campaigns (mine and fellow DM) have a lot of Lore and Investigation checks. Having even a mere 10 INT is greatly frustrating, as we can’t figure out how to open the secret door we found, or can’t remember/learn what this unusual undead’s powers and weaknesses might be, or figure out how to get through this puzzle-locked door, or….

    4) Recovery after 0hp. This one’s easy. “Hit 0, gain 1 level of Exhaustion”. Once is a “Freebie” (but still disadvantage to all skills, including escaping grapples), recovered overnight. [Ok, IMC, it’s a CON save DC 10 to recover, modified by sleep and lodging quality, but still…] Do it again in the same day, though, and you’re exhausted for at least 2 days, and moving slow. Do it again, and you’re now actively a vulnerability with disad on saves [including recovering from Exhaustion, IMC].

    5) Magic Ammunition. Ya got me here, I agree. 5e considers magic ammunition worth “half” a magic weapon though, on a one-for-one basis (i.e. a single +1 arrow is a “consumable uncommon item”) – but it stacks with the bonuses from a magic bow. Note, though, that Ranged weapons don’t threaten, they don’t flank, and they don’t benefit from flanking. The melee combatants can get advantage on their attacks this way (if the DMG Optional Rule is used), and also benefit from attacking Prone targets – while the ranged attacker is *weakened* by a Prone target. But having a magic bow fire a nonmagical arrow and harm the golem… yeah, not a fan. *I* don’t have this problem IMC, simply because I haven’t provided any magic ranged weapons. At best, the rogue has a few mithril-tipped bolts that are “treated as magic” against undead, aberrations, and *specific* Story-based golems… But the other characters all have at least a mithril dagger or shortsword (the cleric has a mithril warhammer). [Okay, it’s not mithril, it’s a campaign-specific metal that ties to Story – “argentium” – but close enough.]

    6) Healing Surges. I totally agree here. IMC, I created a complicated compromise between the DMG’s “Lingering Injuries” rules, Vitality Points, and HD, called “Lingering Damage”. Basically, it keeps things abstract (no broken bones, twisted ankles, or popped eyes), but impairs both magical and natural healing (and recovery from Exhaustion!); you take an LD from every crit and any hit doing 25% MAX HP or more (so, usually 2 from a crit!). You heal one LD per day, maybe, or per powerful Cure spell/effect. So the party can keep adventuring until the healing spells run out, but they will accumulate LDs (and possibly Exhaustion) that could take days to recover from. And which make it harder to start the next day fully healed, or benefit from Short Rests….

    7) Dazed. Totally agree here, too. I put dazed back into my game, starting with “a successful save from anything that would stun you, dazes you” (as a benchmark, not as a spell-buffer). It also can be a side-effect of a powerful hit from a bludgeoning weapon or lightning damage. One monster’s powerful stench in the last encounter caused the Poisoned condition… and while Poisoned, you were also Dazed! I love Dazed!

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  4. sulicius

    Great article! Lots to think about! I definitely will do more with hit dice in my next campaign. Maybe my heroes don’t return to full health after a long rest, but just regain all their hit dice.

    Reply
  5. Talaraskan

    I have never actually played 4e. It was released during a time when I had stepped away from the hobby, being tied up with career and real life issues. However, I have read quite a bit about it and the Bloodied condition feels like a handy tool. Having a potential trigger like that just seems like an easy way to add an extra layer to an otherwise mundane combat.

    Reply
  6. mAc Chaos

    Would it make sense for Dazed to also confer disadvantage to your attacks? Kind of like the Restrained condition but letting you move. Or maybe it should only stop your action economy.

    What I do to throw a bone to INT is say if you have 15 INT, you can choose a new language, and if you have 17 INT, you can get a new skill. It helps wizards too, but it’s not really a big deal.

    I like the idea of 4e style healing surges and have thought of using them. The issue is that using HD instead of the healing spells makes the spells all the same — Cure Wounds heals 1d8 + STAT, but Healing Word does 1d4 + STAT — what happens here, do they both heal the same amount?

    Reply
    1. Nathan Dowdell

      So, in 4e, a healing surge healed an amount equal to 1/4 of your total hp, and each PC had 6-10 depending on their Class (fighters, barbarians, paladins, etc., tended to have the most, paladins especially as they could spend their own surges to heal allies with Lay on Hands).

      Individual healing powers varied in a few ways – some added a bonus on top of the healing surge (a stat bonus, or a random roll), or healed alongside another effect (such as an attack that also let a nearby ally spend a healing surge, or letting you attempt a saving throw to shrug off an effect as well as healing). The most powerful ones let you heal without spending a healing surge – they gave the target the hp but didn’t cost anything – but they were the rare ones you’d only be using once a day.

      Based on that, personally, I’d set Healing Word to “Target may spend 1 hit die”, increasing how many hit dice it lets them spend with each level of spell slot (so using a 3rd level slot lets them spend 3 hit dice at once), then have Cure Wounds do the same but each hit die rolled heals a minimum of your caster stat bonus (so, Wis 16 Cleric, any hit die from Cure Wounds that rolls 1 or 2 or less counts as 3), to make it more reliable to compensate it being an action and a touch spell.

      Reply
      1. Frederick Coen

        Before my players rebelled, we were using “Healing Word: Costs a HD, but restores only half”, while “Cure Wounds: Costs a HD, restores a HD + Caster’s WIS mod”. We based all other healing effects (like Celestial Light from the Warlock, or Lay on Hands from the Paladin) on whether they more closely matched Healing Word or Cure Wounds. For example: Lay on Hands was more like Cure Wounds, costing an Action and 5~D8, while Celestial Light was more like Healing Word (bonus action, d6 + no mod).

        Reply
        1. Matthew Clarke

          I’ve been using a house rule that magical healing requires the expenditure of Hit Dice equal to the number of healing dice rolled. e.g. level 1 Cure Wounds heals 1d8 + mod hp AND you lose 1 hit die. level 2 Cure Wounds heals 2d8 + mod hp AND you lose 2 hit dice.

          The players are used to it now and they don’t mind it but they don’t have much healing anyway with a Warlock, Paladin and Fighter in the party.

          I did write a new version of Lay on Hands that used the target’s own hit dice but I didn’t make the Paladin use it so Lay on Hands does not cost any HD. I figure that each class should be the exception in some way or another and this is what makes the Paladin special – their magic healing doesn’t cost HD.

          I also (basically) use David’s healing potion method except I don’t have different varieties of healing potion – the potions essentially “level up” with the characters. i.e. Tier 1 characters get the regular potion, Tier 2 the moderate potion etc. It means we don’t track multiple potion types and you don’t have to down a dozen ‘potions of healing’ at higher level to get the same effect you got when you where lower level.

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  7. Justin Whelan

    Great article, thanks David. Hit Point limits and magical ammo (not bows) are very intriguing ideas! Dazed I love off the bat. Intelligence = skills seems like one of those tricky balancing acts, mainly because as you say Wizards are very strong already. But I do find it annoying when every character has 8 Int (and then makes complex tactical decisions like their 16+ Int player…)

    The 0hp exhaustion rule I already apply (only on magical healing, for what it’s worth – you take that 1-4 hour nap, you’re good IMHO), and it’s really working for my groups. I’ve read others complain about ‘death spirals’ but I suspect that’s only because some players aren’t actually adjusting their playstyles around that new mechanic. My players cast heal spells *before* 0hp now, and have a much higher desire to not get dropped even once per day. PCs on low hp sometimes even retreat while others step in – imagine that!

    Reply
  8. Nathan Dowdell

    On the subject of “recovery after hitting 0hp”, I think 4e’s version of death saves works nicely here.

    Basically, in 4e, a successful death save meant simply that you hadn’t failed that turn. A 20 meant that you got back up with 1hp, and you still counted failures and died after 3 failed death saves, but there was no “succeed at 3 and stabilise”. More importantly, if you did get back up, any failed death saves stayed with you until you had a short rest (only 5 minutes back then, but it did mean you were a bit more fragile after going down for the rest of that fight).

    Make those changes in 5e, and being knocked down to 0 feels a lot more impactful.

    Reply
  9. Fergus

    Healing surge idea:
    Every time you get healed by magic you use HD equal to the amount healed divided by the maximum of the HD plus CON bonus, rounded up.
    So if you were healing for 26hp, and you had a +2 Con bonus you would use 4xd6 or 3xd8 or 3xd10, 2×d12 of your HD.

    Reply
  10. enriqueguion

    Heroes definetely have too many hit points. But I think that stop gaining HP’s after certain level it’s kind of weird. What I do is that I only give HP in the first level AND every EVEN level: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 and 20. Believe me, it work wonders!

    Reply
    1. Nathan Dowdell

      I’ve found that 1st level characters are typically far too flimsy for my tastes, so I’ve tended to rearrange it so that characters get Max Hit Die plus Con *Score* HP at 1st level (so a Con 15 Fighter would start with 25), but reduced HP at each successive level (Barbarians get 5, Fighter/Ranger/Paladin gets 4, Rogue/Cleric/Druid/Bard/Monk/Warlock/Artificer gets 3, Sorcerer/Wizard gets 2).

      So, that Con 15 Fighter starts with twice as much, but by 5th level he’s on 39 instead of 44, by 10th he’s on 61 instead of 84, and so on. Start with more, but never reaching quite the same totals as in the base game.

      Reply
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