Tag Archives: feats

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.

How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter

When I wrote a post rating the Sharpshooter feat as overpowered and naming its combination with Crossbow Expert as the worst thing in Dungeons & Dragons, some readers stepped up to expose my bad take. But nobody said the feats were weaker than I claimed, because most folks who read my posts have played D&D.

Many folks refuted the power of Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert by naming a spell with the power to win an encounter. Animate objects (5th), mass suggestion (6th), and forcecage (7th) make particularly good examples. My posts on the most annoying lower-level spells and higher-level spells add ammunition to this line of thinking. Still, a look at the spells-per-level tables shows that even high-level spellcasters rarely get more than one chance to cast one of these spells per day. D&D lead designer Jeremey Crawford explains, “We constrain how many spell slots you get at those upper levels. You’ll look at your table of spells slots and you’ll go down the slope and you’ll get down there and you’ll go, “Oh, just one.” And it never goes up. That’s on purpose because it allows us to make 9th-level spells, for instance, just crazy bonkers. But you get that crazy bonkers no more than once a day.” Meanwhile, a martial character optimized for damage blows up every encounter.

Most commonly, folks tried to refute my point by citing other character builds they rate as even more broken. What could possibly be more ridiculous than the Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert feats combined with either a fighter using the Samurai martial archetype or a ranger using the Gloom Stalker archetype? Also, you might ask how to build such ridiculous characters (but only because your story concept arrives there organically). Read on.

1. Great Weapon Master + Polearm Master

Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master offer the combination of feats most comparable to Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert. Great Weapon Master lets characters trade -5 to hit for +10 damage with a heavy weapon, including polearms such as halberds and glaives. Polearm Master lets characters use a bonus action for an extra attack. Sure, the extra attack only starts with 1d4 damage, but when each hit still deals 13-15 points of fixed damage, the d4 is just seasoning. Plus, you can use a reaction to attack creatures who enter your 10-foot reach.

To create a character based on this combination, choose human to take Polearm Master at creation, then add Great Weapon Master at level 4.

Either barbarian or fighter makes a good class to combine with these feats.

  • Barbarians can use Reckless Attack to gain advantage, making landing blows at -5 easier.

  • The Battle Master fighter gets combat maneuvers like Trip Attack that enable you to gain advantage on follow up attacks. Later, the fighter gains more attacks. Plus the Riposte maneuver lets you use your reaction to attack creatures who miss you with a melee attack.

Are these feats better than Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert?

As strong as the combination of Great Weapon Master plus Polearm Master seems, three factors make it less troublesome in play.

  • These warriors must enter melee and stand in harm’s way. Flying foes can avoid their attacks.

  • These warriors usually must move to attack and to switch targets.

  • No fighting style comparable to archery offers a +2 bonus to hit with great weapon or polearm attacks.

Paladin also makes a fun combination with these feats, but the class needs both Charisma and Strength, so trading ability score improvements for feats hurts more.

2. Polearm Master + Sentinel

Polearm Master and Sentinel creates a combination of feats able to frustrate monsters and dungeon masters alike. The polearm master gains ways to trade bonus actions and reactions for extra attacks. When the sentinel lands an opportunity attack in a polearm’s 10-foot reach, the creature’s speed becomes 0. The combination of reach and literal stopping power lets these warriors plug a 25-foot gap.

To build a character based on this combination, choose human to start with your favorite of the two feats.

For fighters, choose the Defense fighting style. The Battle Master martial archetype brings several abilities that save your bonus actions and reactions for the feats. The Goading Attack, Lunging Attack, and Sweeping Attack maneuvers seem like particularly good picks.

The Cavalier martial archetype also combines well with these feats. The Unwavering Mark helps you draw attacks and punish foes who attack your allies.

Barbarians make a good match because they can shrug off damage better than any other class. Choose the Path of the Bear Totem Warrior for resistance to everything but psychic damage while you rage. The Path of the Ancestral Guardian also makes a good choice, although the Spirit Shield feature takes the reactions needed to power your Sentinel abilities.

Unlike armored fighters, unarmored barbarians need Dexterity and Constitution to gain a high armor class, so they suffer more when they trade an ability score improvement for a feat.

Are these feats better than Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert?

A character built on these feats rates as the best way to frustrate monsters and DMs looking to maneuver past the party’s front line. Still, these characters shine less in bigger spaces, when attacks come from multiple directions, and against ranged and flying foes.

While these combinations prove strong, they lack the consistent dominance of Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert. But forget feats. The most common builds rated as more powerful combined a paladin’s martial proficiency and smite ability with a spellcasting class able to fuel more smites.

Next: The best multiclass combinations with paladin

Related:
How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D.
The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

How Dungeons & Dragons Gained Feats

At a Dungeons & Dragons game, I overheard a player explain that feat was short for feature.

That’s not right, but I kept quiet for 2 reasons:

  • I don’t want to be the guy who butts into conversations to say, “Well, actually…”

  • I like the feature explanation much better.

Using “feat,” a word for a stunt, as a game term for a character feature or talent bothers my wish for precise terminology. Back in the third-edition days, this word choice annoyed me to such an embarrassing degree that I griped about the misnomer on the Wizards of the Coast D&D boards. That post probably only exists on a backup tape labeled “GLEEMAX” in magic marker.

How did we end up with feats?

Designer Monte Cook explains that feats came from the development of the third edition’s skill system. Two ingredients from D&D’s history contributed to skills.

The designers aimed to combine the two threads. “What we saw was that there were certain skills that we wanted to put into the game, but they were unlike the others because there wasn’t a check involved,” designer Monte Cook explained in an interview. Some of those proficiencies granted an ability to use things like shields, but others unlocked stunts that a character learned to do.

The design team called those stunts “heroic feats. As the game element developed, the team dropped the heroic bit. “Feats opened up a way for us to give cool character powers and abilities that weren’t skills and that weren’t tied to your class.”

The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

In February, the folks at D&D Beyond shared the most popular feats among their users. The favorites included entries I would expect. The top three all appeal to risk-averse players building a wide range of characters.

Hate losing spells to failed concentration saves? Take War Caster. Hate damage? Take Tough and make damage hurt less. Hate flubbing rolls? Take Lucky.

Ranking 4th, Sharpshooter suits fewer character types, but it proves so powerful that it rates as the worst thing in D&D.

Well past the broadly useful and the overpowered, the list includes Sentinel and Polearm Master. These potent feats suit narrow character types—often characters built with the feats in mind.

For me, the surprise comes from two powerful feats that failed to rate.

Inspiring Leader lets your group finish every rest with temporary hit points equal to your level + your Charisma modifier. It grants something close to Toughness to everyone in the party.

Healer lets you spend one use of a healer’s kit to restore 1d6 + 4 hit points, plus additional hit points equal to the creature’s maximum number of Hit Dice. A creature can only regain hit points this way once between each rest, but this still counts as the cheapest healing in the game.

Why do so few players choose these outstanding feats? Perhaps because the character taking the feat only gets a small benefit for themselves. These feats’ strength comes from lifting the whole party.

Related:
10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party
7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing