The house always wins
Dungeons & Dragons is a game of rules and a large part of it is learning this vast ruleset and how best to navigate it. But sometimes they need a little tweaking and this is where DnD house rules or “homebrew” rules come in.
House rules can replace lore, adjust the canon or add to pre-existing rules to better accommodate the party in some way.
Head to any DnD forum and you’ll find an active community with lots of players and dungeon masters sharing their favourite house rules. These rules can add variety or ‘pep up’ a campaign if you’ve been playing for a long time.
And while many folks out there would argue that without rules, there is no DnD, some house rules have even made it into later editions of the game. For instance, not dying at 0hp used to be a house rule for many. Naturally, this eventually made its way into the official rules, with the version of saving throws in 5e which exists today.
House rules showcase the creativity and flexibility of DnD players and are actually a testament to how good the base content is, highlighting its malleability. With that in mind, here are 10 house rules for 5e for DMs to try to improve your campaign…
Rule #1 – That sounds awesome!
When a player describes something cool they want their character to do, as long as it advances the story, then give them an instant success.
As a player, you’ll know the feeling of describing a potential action or finding a unique and creative solution only to be let down by the dice roll. As a DM, this is equally disappointing, so if the scenario works, why not let the player succeed?
For the less lenient DMs out there, you could offer the player an advantage on the roll as opposed to giving them automatic success. It’s compromises like this that makes DnD enjoyable for everyone, whether you’re running the game or playing as an adventurer.
Your job as a dungeon master is to guide players, to strive to give them the most satisfying experience, to challenge them but also to celebrate them. If you’re out to punish your playable characters or destroy them, then you’re a bad DM, end of.
In fact, some the best DMs develop the skillset of a good leader or manager. You could argue that dungeon master skills look great on a resume or CV, as they guide their players, drive the campaign forward and support their players.
Rule #2 – Intelligence rewards
Some players will have Intelligence bonuses, so why not reward them and introduce a rule to offer additional languages or tool proficiencies for each bonus? After all, it can make high Intelligence characters more interesting and help you come up with richer stories or NPCs for your party to stumble across.
Alternatively, you could allow wizard or mage characters to learn new spells or receive bonus spell slots. I’ve actually experienced this house rule as a player and it made my personal experience within the campaign far more enjoyable and exciting as I was able to test out lots more spells.
Some DMs opt to utilise this rule at a cost to the player in the form of deductible XP.
Rule #3 – Stealth only when necessary
Give players the option to roll Stealth, but only at the moment of possible detection. The Player’s Handbook doesn’t say exactly how Stealth works, it’s not clear when players are supposed to roll their stealth skill.
The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM com pares the Dexterity
(Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter. If you’re surprised, you can’t move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can’t take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren’t. (The Players Handbook, 2014, pg. 173)
If we’re being practical, many players (myself included) choose to roll Stealth before a battle where possible. So, when a character says they are going to creep, crouch or keep in the shadows, you don’t technically need a dice roll to do this unless there is an NPC or monster around.
It can also add additional tension and make your session more exciting. It makes for fun hidden encounters too, as rolls can be made in secret for enemies out of sight.
And of course, there’s nothing more fear-inducing for a player if, as a DM you suddenly ask them to ‘Roll for stealth’.
Rule #4 – Flanking enemies
If you’re looking for more complexity in your combat and want to add a little extra zing to the stripped-back combat of 5e, then re-introducing flanking is a great way to do that.
It can also encourage players to think more carefully about working together to take down an enemy. Which in itself can lead to some fun and interesting encounters.
After all, there will no doubt be times when players are merely spectating, awaiting their turn. But the option to flank enemies together can reduce the number or idle players twiddling their thumbs or reaching for their phones.
Rule #5 – Weightless equipment
Forget being over-encumbered or ditching kit to make room for shiny new equipment and weapons. Though some players enjoy this realistic aspect of the game, for many others, working out weights requires additional and quite frankly, unnecessary mathematics. Counting dice rolls is enough, any more and it feels like work.
As long as it seems realistic (i.e. not a Goblin or Gnome carrying an oversized weapon) then the DM can consider it fair game.
Here are the current Dnd 5e rules on oversized weapons:
If a monster wields a manufactured weapon, it deals damage appropriate to the weapon. For example, a greataxe in the hands of a Medium monster deals 1d12 slashing damage plus the monster’s Strength modifier, as is normal for that weapon. Big monsters typically wield oversized weapons that deal extra dice of damage on a hit. Double the weapon dice if the creature is Large, triple the weapon dice if it’s Huge, and quadruple the weapon dice if it’s Gargantuan. For example, a Huge giant wielding an appropriately sized greataxe deals 3d12 slashing damage (plus its Strength bonus), instead of the normal 1d12. A creature has disadvantage on attack rolls with a weapon that is sized for a larger attacker. You can rule that a weapon sized for an attacker two or more sizes larger is too big for the creature to use at all. – (Dungeon Master’s Guide, 2014, pg. 277)
In addition, a player’s Strength determines the amount of weight they can bear. The carrying capacity of a player is their Strength score multiplied by 15. The number is the weight (in pounds) they can carry. For most players, this number is much higher so doesn’t come up often. However, size and weight is also a factor, with smaller creatures being unable to carry heavy items.
If your party consists of lots of small creatures these rules can be restrictive. For instance, a Kobold (one of the lightest races in DnD) can weigh between 25-30 pounds so would be extremely limited.
If you need an additional justification for ditching weight rules, I suggest you look to other popular fictional characters who wield humorously large weapons. In fact, it’s commonplace, just look at Cloud Strife with his infamous Buster Sword in Final Fantasy VII or Guts’ weapon in the popular manga and anime series, Berserk.
Rule #6 – Change places!
The default setting in 5e is Faerûn…but it doesn’t have to be! Experienced DMs may wish to continue a campaign in a more familiar setting or within any of the lore regions, not just Faerûn.
Alternatively, DMs may wish to time jump. I once played a campaign where due to a mind flayer encounter gone wrong (a series of incredibly bad rolls and decisions). In the next session, our DM had us wake up and find ourselves 200 years in the future.
In this “new” location, there were statues of our characters in several towns praising us for our heroic actions (of which we were none the wiser) and the majority of townsfolk would go on pilgrimages following our steps before we mysteriously vanished.
Bards sang songs and told tales about us – which led to some hilarious conversations as NPCs twisted the truth, like real-life historical accounts. It became a mystery for us to solve, to work out how we became heroes, what we did and to retrace our steps. We had to pose as adventurers following in their footsteps and more importantly, each member of the party was engaged, eager to find the next clue.
Rule #7 – Flexible initiative
It’s great when players decide to combine their efforts and work together but it can be frustrating when their turn orders are too far away. If someone rolls high initiative, giving them the option to lower their initiative to benefit the party and flow of battle.
Flexible initiative can empower players to plan better which in turn strengthens teamwork and can lead to more strategic battles and encounters.
Rule #8 – No limits to race
While setting limits or parameters on DnD rules can encourage players to be more creative, limiting race is a recipe for disaster. Again, if it makes sense and you can present your argument to the DM well, why does it matter?
One example of this is the idea that Druids can’t wear metal armour. As a player, I’d argue that because Druids pay for goods with metal coins and use metal tools then it makes no sense why armour isn’t allowed.
Rule #9 – Inspiration for everyone!
Players tend to horde Inspiration points, which is why having a separate group Inspiration can be a great idea. Doing so encourages players to utilise this mechanic more often.
Not only that, but awarding the group with Inspiration encourages the party to work together as a team. As a result, DMs can reign in those loose canons who like to act without the group.
Limiting the group inspiration to as many pieces of inspiration as players is usually a good number, any less and players will be hesitant to use them.
Rule #10 – You say it, you pay for it
This rule is a lot of fun and is a bit like the chess rule of ‘any piece you touch, you have to move’.
In my experience, most parties are hesitant to act or make quick decisions and will agonise over preparing for potential encounters.
This is especially true if they’ve lost a battle in previous games, had an unexpected encounter with a gelatinous cube in a dungeon that almost killed them, or because they forgot some important item or didn’t discover a crucial bit of information which now affects how NPCs react to them.
In fact, in one of the campaigns I’ve been part of, we had a mage who did ‘detect magic’ checks so often that the DM simply made the assumption and built it into every future encounter as standard.
If you want to give your players a bit of a gentle nudge and get them out of their comfort zone, then this rule is your friend. It can lead to some entertaining sessions and is satisfying for DMs to enact, especially those wanting to live out their Captain Picard fantasy.
For example, if a playable character exclaims “I’ll use fireball to burn this door” because they are thinking out loud (and it is not obvious they are brainstorming with other playable characters), then the DM makes it so and makes them roll for it.
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