The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook can be overwhelming, but many would argue that one of the distinct joys of DnD is learning the rules! Some 5e DMs and players like to dabble with house rules in order to improve their campaign; whether it’s adding to those pre-existing rules or replacing particular lore.
The DnD community is an active one, search for house rules or homebrews and you’ll find hundreds. However, with so many house rules being shared it can be hard to ascertain the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
7 DnD 5e house rules for DMs to avoid
While some house rules can improve your campaign, many can lead to problems and should absolutely be avoided. Fortunately, we’ve rounded up seven house rules for 5e for DMs to avoid at all costs…
#1 – Banning human characters
We get it, given the versatility and diverse nature of playable DnD races, opting for a human character can seem like the boring, “vanilla” option. In addition, sometimes setting parameters can actually spark more creativity.
But restricting specific races (human or otherwise) is a bad idea in any context, real-world or fictional. I don’t think I need to explain this any further…
#2 – Banning anything unless players agree in advance
This is an extension of rule #1. Banning anything whether it be races, classes, or character traits restricts a player’s creativity. Yes, it might be cool for the DM to mould the world to their whims (like the megalomaniacs we all know you are!), but there’s nothing fun about denying players options in a game.
Players can form close attachments to their characters (I know I certainly do) and they are often extensions of themselves. So, restricting anything related to character creation is likely to be detrimental to enjoyment.
I’ve played other TTRPGs where character creation is limited and while it can create challenges and force players to roleplay outside of their comfort zone, ultimately, it leads to disinterest and boredom from many players.
#3 – Pre-emptive initiative
We get it, you want an easy life. One where you don’t need to work out the initiative of your NPCs and your players at the start of each encounter (combat and social interaction). So, you roll initiative at the beginning of the session and decide that will dictate the turn order for all actions for the rest of the game.
In theory, it sounds like a good idea, but it can negatively impact your game because it severely limits your playable characters and their core traits, strengths or weaknesses.
To illustrate this point, imagine your band of adventurers encountering an NPC. Even if one player wanted to hold a conversation with that NPC, they would be unable to without breaking the turn order enforced on the group. And what if the character who is first in the turn order has low Charisma? It also puts a lot of pressure on that first character to roleplay when they might prefer to wait for others or play a more introverted character.
#4 – “I am death incarnate” rules
Difficult campaigns in games have been around for a long time; whether it’s a video game, board game or tabletop RPG. Though when it comes to DnD, unless players have specifically asked for or expressed an interest in a challenging or difficult campaign, you should avoid house rules which make the game harder.
Some players live for hard mode, but forcing these rules on a party without clearing it with the players first will make the game incredibly frustrating. Remember, it’s a game – players should be focused on playing the game, not surviving it.
#5 – Players must roleplay character skills
This house rule dictates that when a character rolls for a certain skill, there must be some element of roleplay involved. This can add more entertainment value to a game but it can also hinder it.
Let’s take a character who has a high Charisma skill level encountering an NPC.
In order to further the story, they may opt to roll for Charm in order to gain information. They roll a success, however, the DM asks that player to “act out” or explain exactly what they are going to say in order to charm the NPC. This particular player may not be able to improvise on the spot. As a result, the DM deems that they have been unsuccessful because they (the NPC) are not convinced.
Forcing penalties like this on a player can lead to multiple unsuccessful interactions regardless of the character’s skills, attributes or dice rolls. Especially given that players are not expected to perform physical attributes in real life in the same way. I certainly don’t have the dexterity that my rogue halfling does!
#6 – Critical fumbles (& successes) on skill checks
You have a 5% chance on a d20 to roll a 1 or 20. And this happens far more often than players expect. If playing with beginners or at a lower character level, this may be a great rule. However, as your players level up their characters, it can cause frustration.
For example, take multi-attacks. At level 5, a Fighter character can attack twice, and at Level 17, three times. In this case, higher-level Fighters are increasingly likely to roll a 1 and fumble purely due to the number of attacks they have. This is unfair as extra hits are one of the benefits of playing a Fighter. As such, critical fumbles can be counter-intuitive. Multi-attacking should suggest your character is extremely skilled at using their weapons. Which, as a result, means they are less likely to drop their weapon or make an obvious mistake.
When a character inevitably rolls a natural 1, imposing penalties (such as damaging themselves) doesn’t really make sense. Their main skill is strength, they are weapon-wielders, and as such have the experience and previous knowledge to avoid hurting themselves unless they are under the influence of poison or magic. However, it’s the same when it comes to DMs rewarding natural 20s with instant success. Why? Well, let’s take the Fighter example further…
Let’s say the DM asks the party to roll an Arcana check in order to detect magic. In this scenario, the Fighter has an intelligence of 0. If the Fighter then rolls a 20, it does not make sense that they would get an instant success. Nor does it mean that they now suddenly know magic or can sense it. It cheapens the skills of magic-using characters, can ruin the immersion and ultimately, doesn’t make any sense.
#7 – The DM’s way, or the highway
In a way, this rule relates to all others in this list.
Your role as the dungeon master is to act as a guide for players, to further the narrative, create a rich and varied world and give players a satisfying, and at times challenging experience. Enacting the ‘What the DM says is final’ rule can be tempting to pursue, as is deciding things without a dice roll.
But here’s why you should reconsider…
Some players like to be led while others enjoy the illusion of free will. If you deny things to players, whether this is in the rules or not, they’ll lose interest. It’s a risky endeavour.
A good DM will listen to feedback and to what their players enjoy. Did you know that many DMs develop the skillset of a good leader, director or manager? It’s true, you can even add the skills you’ve developed as dungeon master on your CV or resume.
Beware of homebrew havoc
If you’re a DM, beware of house rules. Try not to make house rules or dabble in homebrew unless you know exactly what you’re doing. It’s likely you have good intentions and are trying to fix a flaw or hindrance in the OG rules. In which case, go for it! Just make sure it actually fixes what you intend it to without breaking something else. It’s a delicate ecosystem where one small change can end up affecting other things in unexpected and unpredictable ways.