Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
So this week in our D&D new players’ series we’re delving into the topic of house rules. If you read that term and have no idea what it means, don’t worry. House Rules are simply rules that specific tables of players use for their game that aren’t necessarily part of the official rules from Wizards of the Coast. Almost every table uses at least some and some tables use a lot.
If you’re a new player trying to find a game, it can be helpful to understand how these are going to affect the game you’re trying to find. It’s not really about having a perfect understanding of the mechanics and more about how the mechanics will alter the vibe of the game in major ways.
So first up is the biggie, player character death. In 5th edition D&D it is surprisingly hard for a PC to die. By rules as written, when a PC drops to 0 hit points they actually go unconscious. At the start of each of their subsequent turns they roll what's called a Death Saving Throw, just a flat d20 roll. On a 2-9 they fail. 10-19 they succeed. Three failures leads to actual death and three successes leaves you stable (unconscious but no longer dying). On a natural 1 you get two failed death saving throws (rapidly speeding up the rate of your death or killing you a whole turn early). On a natural 20, you regain 1 hit point and become conscious again immediately.
Lots of classes have healing abilities and any amount of healing given to a dying character brings them back to that many hit points immediately. So if you were dying and healed for 10 by a Cure Wounds you would immediately be conscious and have 10 hp. With spells like healing word that can be used as a bonus action and all the various abilities of your teammates, it's very easy to have a party where death is rare if not unheard of.
Some tables don’t like that. PC deaths can sometimes be major plot and roleplay moments that advance the story in profound ways. But the possibility of death also serves as an underlying tension to the whole game. Part of what makes your decisions meaningful, whether in combat or out, is the thought that you or a party member could very well die from a foolish course of action.
And this is before we even get into resurrection. Several classes/subclasses get Revivify (usually around level 5). This lets them bring a fully dead character back to life within 1 minute at the cost of 300 gp and a spell slot. Higher level versions (mostly limited to Clerics and Druids) can revive targets that have been dead even longer.
So to raise the stakes some tables decide to tweak death rules by doing one or more of the following:
This is actually one of my favorite house rules and one I always use. It is listed as an optional rule in the DMG but it was a major feature of earlier editions. Flanking is whenever you and an allied creature are adjacent to a third creature, on opposite sides. This gives you both advantage on your attack rolls until one of you (or the creature) moves. I like it because it promotes tactical movement in combat but some do rightly point out that it devalues abilities that grant advantage like True Strike and the Barbarian’s Reckless Attack.
Another issue every table has to deal with is what to do when players are away from the table. It’s going to happen. You or someone else is going to miss a session for various life reasons. So what happens to your game? Here are some of the options:
D&D has a lot of items. But in reality only a handful of them are really valuable or noteworthy. Often your backpack will be loaded down with various odds and ends you might never use. RAW each character can only carry an amount up to their Encumbrance (based primarily on their Strength score). Many tables end up ignoring this rule since the bookkeeping isn’t everyone’s favorite. So here are some approaches:
Cleave is a simple house rule. When you deal more damage than your target has hit points, the leftover damage is applied to a nearby enemy. This can rapidly speed up fights against weaker enemies, moving the story along. On the flip side it also removes some of the threat of swarms of weaker enemies (which are actually pretty scary with the way 5th edition’s math works out). Cleave naturally makes certain abilities that hit multiple enemies a little less valuable since damage is naturally distributed in the most effective way.
Critical Attack Damage
By RAW, a natural 20 rolled on an attack roll (meaning a 20 on the die itself) always hits and deals twice the amount of dice worth of damage. So an attack that does 1d6+3 now deals 2d6+3. While this can sometimes be epic, by adding additional dice rolls you can also get very underwhelming critical hits. Technically the 1d6+3 can deal 9 damage and the 2d6+3 can deal 15. But in reality the 2d6+3 could also come out to 5. So some tables amplify this damage either through added effects (like a Critical Hit deck which adds special effects by drawing cards) or by adding a set amount of damage. This makes crits feel more impactful but does make the game more swingy. If only the PCs get it, it's a substantial power boost. If PCs and NPCs take advantage of the rule then combat can become much more suddenly deadly.
Critical Skill Check
This is a house rule that is used so often that players often think it is RAW. Technically a natural 20 as a Critical only applies to attack rolls and Death Saving Throws and nothing else. But many tables choose to allow natural 20’s on ability and skill checks to be considered critical as well because getting a 20 on the die is exciting and makes the endorphins go “wheeeee.” Some tables take this to extremes and allow really ridiculous things on a nat 20 which can ding realism (I crit on my Deception check and made the guard believe they were dead so they died etc.). Most good DMs/tables will find a balance if they use this rule, Critical successes giving a notable reward without becoming completely ridiculous or cartoonish (or maybe totally cartoonish if that's the vibe you want!).
The reverse of the Nat 20 is, of course, the Nat 1. A natural 1 attack roll always misses no matter your attack bonus or the target’s AC. Technically this is the full extent of the RAW. But some tables like to amp this up by adding additional penalties or even zany mishaps for a nat 1. These are generally called Fumbles. They might include hurting yourself or an ally, dropping your weapon or falling prone. Nat 1 skill checks are often considered fumbles as well, so that even a character with a huge bonus can fail a check.
A lot of house rules can come into play during character creation. Sometimes a setting calls for disallowing or emphasizing certain classes, races or abilities. Sometimes character creation rules are in place to make characters more balanced or customizable. I’m just going to quickly run down the list.
So we'll have a lot to come back and say later about Homebrew. But the short version is this. Homebrew is content developed for D&D either by players at the table or publishers outside of Wizards of the Coast. This could be new classes, monsters, spells, races or magic items. Really any aspect of the game can have homebrew content. Homebrew can also be a term for whole new systems that tweak or change the game. Homebrew can be a great way to add something new to a game, especially if you can use it to closely match a vision you have for a character or element of the game.
The flip side of all this though, is that Homebrew doesn't necessarily follow the same standards of style, care and balance that WOTC uses. While they don't always nail it, they're at least making the attempt. Some homebrew is borderline unusable either for its poorly written abilities or their under/overpowered nature. Look for well known publishers like Kobold Press or MCDM who have playtesting and take balance and style into account. There is a lot of great homebrew out there but be sure that it fits at your table.
(PS I post homebrew subclasses, items and monsters both here and on Twitter, check them out!)
This is another quick and easy category. RAW, using a healing potion is an action. This slows down combat a lot and makes healing during combat often a poor use of your turn. Healing is generally in small increments and a dedicated enemy will hurt you faster than you heal. If healing takes an action you’re not only failing to actually gain health but also not dealing any damage or moving the fight to a close. So some DMs change using a healing potion to a bonus action.
Some tables will just outright ban certain classes, races and abilities. Usually this is on the basis of game balance. WOTC tries to make sure that the content that is released all meshes together well but there are always a few things that sneak in or combine together in unexpected ways. Aarakocra are a common example. Not only do they get Flight at level 1 (allowing them to bypass a ton of obstacles) but they also get it at a 50 ft. per turn speed which is much higher than most races. Other tables ban spells like healing word which can radically change combat. Some tables ban spells like divination, augury and zone of truth that help PCs bypass puzzles, mysteries and information gathering,
Hopefully this has given you an idea of the sorts of questions to be asking as you look for a game that fits you. While these changes from the inconsequential to the massive, all of them can affect the flavor and style of the game you are looking to join. Think of them like adjusting the spices in a recipe. You're not changing the core components, just a bit of spice here and there to tweak things to taste.
So how have House Rules worked for you all? Are there any you particularly like or want to use? Let us know in the comments!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.