Tag Archives: critical hits

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.

10 Things in Pathfinder Second Edition I Like (and 1 I Don’t)

In 2008, Paizo sent designer Jason Buhlman to the Winter Fantasy convention to sample the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and report on the game. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalls the outcome. “From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 System Reference Document: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” See The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers.

While fourth edition featured a bold new design aimed at saving D&D, Pathfinder became an alternative that refined D&D’s 3.5 edition. For a time, sales of Pathfinder rivaled D&D. But after nearly 10 years, Pathfinder needed an update. So in August 2019, Paizo released a second edition. In a post, lead designer Jason Buhlman named the update’s number one goal: “Create a new edition of Pathfinder that’s much simpler to learn and play—a core system that’s easy to grasp but expandable—while remaining true to the spirit of what makes Pathfinder great: customization, flexibility of story, and rules that reward those who take the time to master them.” Even new, Pathfinder 2 offers more character options than fifth edition.

On reading the new rules and playing a short introduction, I can share 10 things I like in the new game, and 1 thing I don’t’.

1. “Ancestry” instead of “race.” In the The Hobbit, Tolkien calls hobbits a race, and started the custom of referring to elves, dwarves, and other fantastic kin to humans as races. But the term “race” has a common meaning different from the game meaning, which leads to confusion. Referring to even imaginary “races” as intrinsically talented, virtuous, or corrupt feels unsavory at best. “Species” makes a more accurate term, but its scientific flavor makes it jarring in fantasy. Pathfinder replaces “race” with the more agreeable term of “ancestry.” Unless Wizards of the Coast resists an innovation “not invented here,” expect to see “ancestry” in some future sixth edition.

2. Fewer action types. The Pathfinder team saw new players stumble over the original game’s zoo of swift, immediate, move, and standard actions. In a bid to simplify, this second edition consolidates the action types into a system that gives characters 3 actions and 1 reaction per turn. This means even new characters can attempt 3 attacks per turn, although the second strike suffers a -5 penalty and the third a -10 penalty. In practice, only more proficient attackers will land extra attacks. Most spells require 2 actions to cast. When I played a Pathfinder 2 demo, its simpler actions proved very playable, even elegant.

In a related refinement, Pathfinder adds clarity by calling a single attack a strike. This avoids the confusion that the D&D rules sometimes cause by using the same word for an attack and for an attack action that can include multiple attacks.

3. Animal companions level up. To many D&D players, animal companions offer a special appeal, but the game’s support for pets remains shaky. Pathfinder devotes an entire section to animal companions and familiars, showing pets the attention they deserve. Rather than keeping animal companions close to their natural abilities, pets improve in lockstep as characters level, making them capable of staying alive and relevant.

4. A manageable encumbrance system. D&D measures encumbrance by pound. While this system seems to add complicated bookkeeping, it proves simple in play because everyone ignores it. Pathfinder measures encumbrance by Bulk, a value representing an item’s size, weight, and general awkwardness. You can carry Bulk equal to 5 plus your strength bonus. Bulk streamlines encumbrance enough to make tracking playable. (Plus, the system charms the grognard in me by recalling a similar rule in Runequest (1978) that tracked encumbrance by “Things.”)

5. User-friendly books. Paizo devoted extra attention to making the core rulebook into an easy reference. For instance, the book includes bleed tabs, and I love them. These bleed tabs don’t show how to play a metal song on guitar; they make finding chapters easy. Unlike typical tabs that jut from the page, bleed tabs show as printed labels on the page that go to the edge and appear as bands of color. The book combines an index and glossary into a section that defines game terms, and also leads readers to pages containing more information. Every game rulebook should include these features.

6. Degrees of success. Roleplaying games often include core mechanics that determine degrees of success or failure, but D&D only offers one extra degree: a 5% chance of a critical on attack rolls. The Pathfinder 2 system delivers a critical success on a 20 and a critical failure on a 1. Also, a check that exceeds the DC by 10 or more brings a critical success and a check 10 or more less than the DC brings critical failure. Pathfinder avoids the punishing effects that make some fumble systems too swingy. For instance, a critical failure on a strike just counts as a miss. Sorry, no fumble tables that lead characters to put their eye out. Where natural, fumbles and criticals affect spell saves. For example, a successful save against Gust of Wind lets you stand your ground, and a critical save leaves you unaffected.

7. The Incapacitation trait of spells. Save-or-die spells have proved troublesome in high-level D&D play. Campaigns that build to an epic clash with a fearsome dragon instead end with the beast helpless in a force cage and stabbed to death in a dreary series of damage rolls. Pathfinder gives spells like Force Cage and Banishment the Incapacitation trait. Creatures twice or more the level of the spell typically need to fumble their save to fall under its effect. To me, this beats D&D’s solution to the same problem, legendary resistance.

8. Character customization without decision paralysis. Fourth edition D&D focused on offering players vast numbers of character options. Players uninterested in the solitary hobby of character tinkering soon found the options overwhelming. For my characters, I turned to the Internet to find character optimizers who sifted through countless options and helped me choose. Pathfinder aims to give players room for character customization without forcing a bewildering number of choices. The system works by presenting character options as feats. At each level, players make selections from small menus of feats. Even first level characters of the same class can play differently, and they grow more distinct as they advance.

9. Skill DCs replace passive checks. Pathfinder dispenses with passive perception and passive insight in favor of Skill DCs, “When someone or something tests your skill, they attempt a check against your skill DC, which is equal to 10 plus your skill modifiers.” Often skill DCs work just like passive abilities, like when a stealthy character attempts to beat someone’s perception score. In the most common use of skill DCs, a sneaking creature would roll against a character’s perception skill DC.

Without passive perception, a game master must roll secret perception checks to learn if exploring characters spot traps. Passive perception aims to eliminate such die rolls, but I consider rolls to find hidden traps useful. Without a roll, DMs just compare set DCs verses passive scores. DMs who know their players’ scores decide in advance what traps get found, with no luck of the roll to make the game surprising. Skill DCs also replace opposed ability checks—a second core mechanic with skewed odds that clutters the D&D rules.

10. Limited opportunity attacks. To encourage more movement in combat, Pathfinder 2 limits the characters and creatures capable of making opportunity attacks. At first level, only fighters start with the capability. Opportunity attacks mainly existed to help front-line characters protect the unarmored magic users in the back, but D&D and Pathfinder make once-fragile character types more robust now. Opportunity attacks make sense as a fighter specialty, especially if that encourages more dynamic battles.

That makes 10 things I like. What do I dislike?

Pathfinder 2 features a proficiency system that leads to the sort of double-digit bonuses that D&D players last saw in fourth edition.

In trained skills, every Pathfinder 2 character gets a bonus equal to at least 2 plus their level. This steady advance makes characters feel more capable as they level and rewards players with a sense of accomplishment as their characters improve. “The best part about proficiencies is the way they push the boundaries for non-magical characters, particularly those with a legendary rank,” writes designer Mark Seifter. “Masters and especially legends break all those rules. Want your fighter to leap 20 feet straight up and smash a chimera down to the ground? You can do that (eventually)!”

As in fourth edition, Pathfinder game masters can justify the sky-high DCs needed to challenge high-level characters by describing obstacles of legendary proportions. At first level, the rogue must climb a rough dungeon wall; by 20th level, she must climb a glass-smooth wall covered in wet slime—in an earthquake. At first level, you must negotiate with the mayor; by twentieth level, he’s king. And you killed his dog.

At least as often as fourth-edition dungeon masters flavored higher DCs as bigger challenges, they just paired routine challenges with higher numbers. That tendency leads to the downside of such steep increases in proficiency. In practice, characters usually just advance to face higher and higher numbers for the same challenges. In fourth edition, a steady rise in attack bonuses and armor classes meant that monsters only made suitable challenges for a narrow band of levels. This may also apply to Pathfinder 2.

I favor fifth edition’s bounded accuracy over the steep increases in proficiency bonuses featured in Pathfinder 2. For more, see Two Problems that Provoked Bounded Accuracy.

Aside from these 11 things, how does Pathfinder differ from its sibling Dungeons & Dragons?

Gamers often describe Pathfinder as more crunchy—more rules heavy—than fifth edition. After all, the core rulebook spans 638 pages! But that book includes content that D&D splits between the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and those books include almost exactly the same number of pages. In some ways, Pathfinder proves simpler. For instance, its system actions and reactions simplifies D&D’s action types. Still, Pathfinder devotes more crunch to describing outcomes and conditions. For example, in D&D, characters make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb, but the DM gets no help determining the outcome of a failure. Pathfinder describes outcomes: A climb failure stops movement; a critical failure leads to a fall. D&D describes 14 conditions; Pathfinder describes 42.

Without playing more Pathfinder 2, I feel unready to label this post as a review. Nonetheless, I like most of what I see and I’m eager to play the game more.

What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?

Dave ArnesonWhen Dave Arneson set out to create the combat system that would become a pillar of Dungeons & Dragons, he did not aim to create a realistic simulation.  In a 2004 interview, he describes the system’s genesis from Gary Gygax’s Chainmail rules.

Combat in Chainmail is simply rolling two six-sided dice, and you either defeated the monster and killed it…or it killed you. It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn’t have. The initial Chainmail rules was a matrix. That was okay for a few different kinds of units, but by the second weekend we already had 20 or 30 different monsters, and the matrix was starting to fill up the loft.

I adopted the rules I’d done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer and do more. They didn’t care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn’t care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn’t want the monster to kill them in one blow.

So the D&D rules for hit points and armor class stem from rules for ironclad ships trading cannon blasts, hardly the basis for an accurate simulation of hand-to-hand battles.

Soon after I began playing D&D, the unrealistic combat rules began to gnaw at me. In the real world, armor reduces the damage from blows rather than making you harder to hit. Shouldn’t it work the same way in the game? And how could a fighter, no matter how heroic, survive a dozen arrow hits, each dealing enough damage to kill an ordinary man? In reality, a skilled fighter would stand a better chance of evading blows, but no better chance of surviving a single hit.

Quest for realism

In the decade after D&D’s introduction, a mania for creating realistic alternatives to D&D dominated the hobby. Every D&D player who ever wielded a sword in the Society of Creative Anachronism cooked up a more realistic alternative to the D&D combat system. Runequest (1978) stands as the greatest early success. Characters’ hit points remained constant, but they became more able to dodge and block blows. Hit locations transformed characters from blobs of hit points into flesh and bone. Armor reduced damage by deflecting and cushioning blows. Arms Law and Claw Law

If you enjoyed the AD&D Weapon Armor Class Adjustment table, but felt it needed to go much, much further, the Rolemaster Arm’s Law (1980) system offered more than 30 tables matching weapons versus armor.

In this era, everyone formulated a critical hit table, because nothing adds fun to a system like skewered eyes, fountaining stumps, and sucking chest wounds. (Follow this blog for my upcoming list of supposedly fun, but not fun, things we did in the early days of role playing.)

I sought realism as much as anyone, first with Runequest, and then with GURPS. I quickly learned that making combat more realistically deadly made D&D-style, combat-intensive play impractical. Forget dungeon crawls; even skilled characters would eventually perish to a lucky blow. As I described in Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map, early D&D combat lacked excitement anyway, so I hardly missed all the fights.

But I would come to realize that my dismissal of the D&D combat system was completely wrong.

Next: The brilliance of unrealistic hit points