Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D

In the beginning, Dungeons & Dragons required house rules to run. For instance, for 10 years the game suffered from an unplayable initiative system, so everyone used a house rule. Every dungeon master grew accustomed to tinkering with the game, leading to a generation of amateur game designers who sometimes graduated to the pros.

Fifth edition has proved sound enough that the game’s designers resist tweaking even the worst parts of the game. The reluctance makes sense: No customer wants to learn that the rules in their game book are changed by some notice on the Internet.

Nonetheless, everyone who plays the game long enough wishes something played a bit differently, perhaps a bit better. Forty-some years on, the roleplayer’s urge to design and redesign remains. My search for fifth-edition house rules turned up an avalanche of favorites.

What are the most popular house rules for D&D and how do they stand to scrutiny?

Players may spend inspiration to a gain a reroll.

Spending inspiration gives you advantage an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check, so you must choose to use inspiration before the roll. Meanwhile, so many people think that inspiration allows a reroll that every convention DM who runs by the book can tell a story of being falsely accused of not knowing the rules. “You may be right,” we lie. “Go ahead and look that up for me.”

Advantage. The original conception of Inspiration supposed that players would gain inspiration more frequently than typical now. During the edition’s design, Mike Mearls wrote, “A player can gain it once per significant scene or important combat. Inspiration fades quickly, so you must spend it within a few minutes in game time before you lose it.” The lighter benefit of advantage suited this frequency. With most DMs awarding Inspiration less often, a stronger reroll benefit works fine.

Disadvantage. You may foster a misunderstanding that causes your players to call out some poor DM who plays by the book.

Players roll their characters’ death saves in secret.

Groups who adopt this house rule allow players to override their secret saving roles to spare their character or, I suppose, speed a tragic end. This change doesn’t actually change D&D rules, so the pedant in me wants to call it a table convention.

Advantage. By rolling their character’s death saves secretly, players gain more control over whether their character dies. This suits groups who emphasize story and would rather not see the campaign arc overturned by a blown save.

Disadvantage. Allowing players to choose not to die may seem like a violation of the game’s spirit to players who value a genuine threat of death.

See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.

DMs roll the characters’ death saves in secret.

Advantage. If you play fifth edition long enough, you suffer through this scene: Your character drops early in a fight, and because you never fail a death save, no one bothers to heal you. The players know your character remains 3 turns from death, so no one feels urgency. Meanwhile, for all the characters know, their friend is hearing her dead parents calling her toward the light. (As an adventurer, her parents are as inevitably dead as a Disney lead’s mother.)

If the DM rolls death saves, or the player rolls and only shares the result with the DM, the rest of the party stops gaining metagame information about a dying character’s closeness to the final curtain. This adds urgency to the need to heal fallen characters and can heighten feelings of peril. Such secrecy encourages players to quickly bring their friends back into the action.

Disadvantage. Particularly if the DM rolls, the players lose a sense of control over their fate, even if that false sense only comes from throwing the die.

Precedent. If Gary had invented death saves, you know that he would have rolled them secretly for players.

Critical hits deal maximum damage plus damage from a second roll of the dice.

Advantage. In fifth edition, we’ve all experienced the excitement of a critical, followed by the roll of a handful of dice that yields mostly ones, twos, and a big letdown. Reinforcing critical hits guarantees big damage. This favors divine smiters, sneak attackers, and the kid at my game table whose “practice” rolls uncannily end when he rolls a 20. “Look! Another critical!”

Disadvantage. Apparently, none of the folks bolstering criticals have played a paladin and realized that the class rates as almost too good without smites backed by stronger crits.

Criticals offer fun, but they are secretly bad for players because characters endure far more critical hits than any monster. Dialing up extra damage increases the chance that a monster’s attack will kill a character dead. For criticals that avoid the bummer of low rolls without adding risk to player characters, make criticals deal maximum damage.

Precedent. In third edition, criticals let you double your damage bonuses along with your damage dice. Fourth edition backed away from doubling damage bonuses by just making criticals deal maximum damage. That favored players, but eliminated the fun of the roll and the chance of huge damage against monsters. The fifth-edition system opts for a mechanic converging on maximum damage, but with extra dice to roll.

Lesser Restoration and remove curse won’t automatically remove diseases, poisons, and curses.

Lesser restoration and remove curse turn poisoning, diseases, and curses in D&D into the loss of a spell or a donation at the local temple. To match folklore and for story, we want curses and other afflictions to prompt quests, so many groups add limits to the spell remedies. The limits run from an ability check similar to dispel magic, to a requirement for special material components, to more. Adventurers League administrator Greg Marks writes, “I’m a big fan of any story-based poison or disease requiring a story-based solution in addition.” If a character gets hit with a bestow curse spell in a random encounter, then remove curse fixes it. If the party is cursed by the dying breath of a witch queen, then that’s an adventure to fix.

Advantage. Limiting lesser Restoration and remove curse opens D&D to a type of story that pervades the tales that inspired the game.

Disadvantage. Limiting these spells hurts characters who prepare them, but not as much as in earlier editions. Originally, clerics who prepared a just-in-case spell like remove curse lost a spell slot, which they could have devoted to a healing spell that would always prove useful.

Precedent. Many adventures through D&D’s history include curses and other afflictions that resist mere spells.

Healing potions can be consumed with a bonus action.

A character can spend a bonus action to drink a healing potion. Administering a potion to another character still requires an action.

Advantage. When a typical round takes several minutes of real time, losing an action to drink a healing potion feels like a bummer. Also, a player who needs a potion probably needs that action to turn the tide of battle.

Disadvantage. If your campaign awards a typical amount of treasure, then the 50 gp cost of a healing potion quickly becomes negligible, especially when characters have little else to spend money on. If drinking becomes a bonus, expect smart players to litter battlefields with empty vials. Still, this change probably won’t upset the game’s balance.

Lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford might prefer that you not mistreat bonus actions as just a lesser sort of action though.

Characters gain a bonus feat at first level.

Advantage. Granting characters an extra feat enables more customization, especially for groups who tend to shorter, low-level campaigns. Some DMs even allow characters who reach ability score increases to gain both an increase and a feat rather than choosing one.

Disadvantage. Some feats grant big boosts in power. See The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves, How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter, and How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D. Also, the Lucky feat may as well be called Never Fail a Save. The power of feats means that bonus feats steeply increase the power curve for characters. Some groups don’t mind because they see combat as a way for characters to show off their prowess rather than a challenge that endangers heroes. Some DMs don’t mind because they happily dial up the opposition to match.

Also, pairing extra feats with ability score increases strongly encourages multi-class characters to take class levels in blocks of 4.

Precedent. If you like this rule because it allows extra customization, you may benefit by switching game systems. Pathfinder 2 modularizes character advancement into choices of feats and allows much more customization of characters.

Players can delay their turn to take a later place in initiative.

Advantage. Too often, the slow, tough characters who open the dungeon door roll a low initiative while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. The tanks in front wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way.

Also, some groups enjoy the tactical options unlocked by letting characters delay.

Disadvantage. The D&D designers sought faster play and a leaner game by dropping the delay option. For more, see 3 Actions D&D Players Want That Defy the Game’s Design Choices.

I favor a lightweight alternative to a full delay option. Before combat starts, let players opt for a lower initiative than they rolled.

Precedent. Third and fourth edition both included a delay option. For a suggested delay rule adapted from those editions, see What to Do When a D&D Player Wants to Be Ready, Call a Shot, or Delay.

Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

Advantage. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the game rules will only heal characters when they drop, 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.

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.

Disadvantage. Although this penalty encourages players to keep their friends in the game rather than incapacitated by 0 hit points, the rule remains a penalty that will sometimes prove unavoidable.

Precedent. In first edition, characters brought to 0 or fewer 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.” However, due to house rules, I never saw this penalty enforced.

14 thoughts on “Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D

  1. Matt

    4e did have ways to get big damage on a crit. Some magic weapons had bonus damage on a crit. (I can’t remember if it was a common feature or if those we just the weapons our party gravitated towards)

    Reply
    1. Frederick Coen

      Every magic weapon in 4e did at least “Xd6” bonus damage on a crit, where X = your “+” of enhancement. Of course there are exceptions to the rule (chillwind did “ongoing 20 cold”, for example), and some “weaker” normal powers were boosted by having a stronger critical effect (like “Xd8” or “and bleeding” or “and prone”). It made a +1 sword significantly better than a normal or even masterwork weapon. Crits did max damage, on all dice, plus this bonus magic-weapon-damage. Some monsters could do the same (like, IIRC, the 4-armed skeleton Tomb Guardian, wielding magic scimitars that did bonus crit damage).

      Reply
      1. Dan

        Also, some weapons such as picks and great axes were “High Crit,” dealing an extra die of weapon damage per tier on a critical hit. So all together, a 13th level barbarian with a +3 great axe could roll an extra 2d12 + 3d6 on top of max normal damage.

        Reply
  2. Frederick Coen

    I use most of these rules. DM rolls the death saves (not the players). We use “Luck Points” instead of Inspiration, but they allow rerolls (Inspiration is saved for Inspired Actions, when you act in accordance with your traits, ala Angry GM). You get the level of exhaustion for hitting 0 hp; guaranteed event, not “if you fail a death save”.

    Potions heal maximum when drunk carefully, outside of combat; in combat, it’s a bonus action and you roll the healing, but you only have 4 potion slots in your “standard” adventurer’s belt.

    For critical hits, I use “maximum weapon damage + roll your bonus dice + [STUNT or EXTRA DAMAGE]”. So you can grapple, or disarm, or knock prone, or cause a bleeding wound, or daze, or blind, or impose disadvantage, etc… or roll all those lovely dice again. Monsters usually just inflict mega damage, but sometimes they behave in accordance with their desires — a bugbear brute might break the PC’s line by shoving a character back, while an animal might try to grab and drag off something (someone!) to eat.

    Also, as DM, that gives me a chance to not outright slaughter someone because the goblin rogue critically hit with his 2d6 sneak attack. His sword is maxed for 8 damage (d6+2), then he rolls 2d6 for sneak (not “auto 12”), then he (I) can choose to roll 1d6+2d6 more (all the dice), or do a stunt.

    Reply
    1. Quirkyhndl

      Yes, but you might be surprised how often they will let the death stand. If they just had a bunch of creepy rolls and ended up in a ridiculous situation early in the adventure, this allows them a free out. If they got torn apart by the end boss or something, players will often let it stand. This is best for groups that prioritize story over mechanics.

      Reply
    2. sapphirecrook

      Considering player death can result in a session hard crashing, or a person sitting in the corner of character creation shame for the next 30 minutes, I don’t think it’s unfair to give them the power to avoid any of that.

      You’re saying this like death saves are somehow more principled than other rolls, not the fudge-fest most GMs make it anyway. I’ve seen GMs who get fidgety and scared when a player actually bites the bullet, and giving the player this power is, if anything, a good thing for everyone involved.

      Reply
  3. Dan

    Surprises you didn’t mention removing ability score increases from the class progressions (aside from the extra ones that fighters and rogues get) and making them follow total character level instead, just like cantrip damage and proficiency bonus do.

    Reply
  4. Abelhawk

    Instead of doing maximum damage + the extra dice for criticals (to avoid a 1st-level cleric critting with inflict wounds and doing 33–60 damage), I just maximize one die of every damage type involved in the crit. To balance this out, I use “Glancing Blows”—that is, if you roll exactly a creature’s AC, you deal half damage.

    Reply

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