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D&D > Off Topic > Tabletop RPGJul 15, 2021 2:00 pm CT

What are house rules, and how should you use them in your D&D game?

I’ve mentioned before that it’s okay to not always know all the rules when running an RPG. I mean, you should be conversant with them, but they’re not divine commandments. A DM can decide that they don’t like specific rules as written, and may want to change them or ignore them entirely. Changes like this are usually called house rules, and they’ve been used for as long as D&D has existed.

Why do I bring this up? Because I want to talk to you about how and when to use house rules to make your games more fun. This advice is generally useful for any TTRPGs, like Pathfinder for example, but we’ll be using D&D just for convenience. So let’s talk about how to make the most of house rules in your game.

House rules can include any changes you want to make to your game

Here’s an example of a house rule and why I use it. One of my least favorite spells in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is True Strike. On the surface it seems pretty good — it’s a cantrip, so you can cast it as many times as you want in a day and it grants you advantage on your first attack roll after you cast it. So far so good, right? The problem is, it takes an action to cast it, meaning that on a round you cast True Strike, that’s your action. You can’t (outside of certain very specific edge cases) cast True Strike and then actually attack anything until the next round. Second, it’s a concentration spell, so if you cast True Strike and then take damage, you’ll have to make a concentration check or lose the spell you spent an action to cast.

Thirdly, it can only be cast on a target within 30 feet, so you’re much more likely to take damage when you use it and potentially waste an entire action, which is brutal when you’re a Wizard or Sorcerer and you could have just cast Fire Bolt or Acid Splash, much less for a Warlock who would have just wasted his Eldritch Blast chance to cast a spell that just grants advantage. There are certain times you’d want to use True Strike — an Arcane Trickster Rogue looking to get off a Sneak Attack might be willing to lose a round in order to do so, or maybe an Eldritch Knight Fighter who is planning on using it and Action Surge to get advantage on their next attack.

I really found it irksome how situational this spell is and how easily you can end up wasting an entire action and getting nothing in return, so I made a house rule — when I run D&D, True Strike is not a concentration spell. I didn’t want to make it too good, so it still requires an action to cast it — if I made it a bonus action, you’d just cast it every round, especially for Arcane Tricksters or Eldritch Knights. The only real change is, there’s no concentration and thus no concentration check needed if you get hit before you get to use that advantage on your next attack. You cast True Strike, you give up this round and you get advantage next round.

Well, unless you’re stunned or knocked out or something. But as long as you can make an attack next round, you will get advantage on it. In my opinion, that makes True Strike a more useful spell, without making it overly powerful since you’re trading off the ability to take two actions in two rounds for the ability to make one attack with advantage in two rounds.

Using True Strike in this way is explicitly against the rules as written. But it’s my table, my rules. When you run a game, you get to decide which rules are important, which rules are flexible, and which rules you want to throw out entirely.

Modify your game to be the game you want

This, in a nutshell, is what house rules are all about — they’re choices you as the DM make for the campaign you want to run, sometimes by yourself, sometimes with the help of your whole group. Maybe you want to run a high action game with a lot of magic and mayhem, so you decide that any ability that refreshes on a short rest now refreshes after combat ends and any ability that takes a long rest now refreshes on a short rest. I don’t recommend doing that unless you want Warlocks to be gods, but it is something you could do.

Dungeons and Dragons has what is called RAW, or rules as written, which are the rules as they are presented in the core rulebooks, with occasional errata and supplemented by new books like Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. But one of the core tenets of D&D and indeed all role playing games is that the rules are there to help you play the game you want to play.

House rules have existed in D&D for as long as D&D itself has existed — the original Unearthed Arcana book was literally a series of house rules from various campaigns that Gary Gygax and others at TSR had run, just collected and offered up to players, with new classes like the Cavalier and sub-classes like Barbarian (which later became a class). And while these were the house rules people who worked at TSR were using, plenty of other house rules were out there in home games that never got published. Every DM has a few house rules.

How do you decide when to make a house rule?

My first piece of advice is to really consider what will happen if you change the core rules. Let’s take my example of changing abilities that reset after a short rest to reset after combat ends and abilities that reset after a long rest to reset on a short rest, really consider how this will disproportionately affect specific classes. I mentioned Warlocks, who would get all of their spell slots back after each combat, but what about letting your Barbarian get all their rages back on a short rest? Are you ready for a campaign where your Barbarian can rage on practically every single minor encounter? Or Cleric Channel Divinity? Paladin Lay on Hands? Imagine a Monk getting all of their Ki back as soon as a fight ends! Are you prepared for that?

In the case of my True Strike example, the only real change is that it’s a bit harder to keep the caster from getting to use the spell. You can still interrupt them by stunning them or rendering them unconscious, and they still have to lose an action to cast the spell in the first place. It makes the spell more useful, but it’s not perfect. Letting Warlocks and Monks basically throw everything they have at every possible encounter will make these already strong classes even stronger, and that’s something worth considering if you don’t want a campaign that’s just all Monks and Warlocks.

Once you’ve considered a rule change and decided it wouldn’t unbalance your game, you should discuss this potential house rule with your group. If your players are perfectly fine with True Strike as it is, there’s no reason to change it. For that matter, if they still feel like it’s not worth casting compared to other cantrips — and you could definitely make a case that waiting a whole round to attack just to get advantage on one attack isn’t really worthwhile save for a few edge cases.

Be careful with your newfound cosmic power, Dungeon Masters

One of my friends who DM’s doesn’t like flanking granting advantage, because he feels it trivializes abilities that grant advantage — like, as an example, True Strike, or a Barbarian’s Reckless Attack ability — and so he house rules that instead flanking grants a +2 to attack. I don’t like this house rule for my own games and I won’t use it, but I’ve played in a few games with it, and it doesn’t have any major unbalancing effects and it does make Reckless Attack a lot more attractive for my Barbarian. Another friend decided that the Bear Totem version of Barbarian damage reduction was standard in his campaign, which essentially guts Bear Totem Barbarians — he really likes it, but it definitely makes Zealot Barbarians and other Barbarians with damage dealing special abilities very powerful. Probably too powerful.

Before making the final decision on a house rule, think about whether the change will make the game less fun for players. If you decide you’re going to put in a house rule that makes cantrips have spell slots like other spells, this makes cantrips less powerful and makes it so spell casting characters can end up running out of cantrips. It will definitely impact Warlocks, who will lose their most reliable attack, and since they have extremely limited spells otherwise it may render them much weaker than in the rules as written. It will definitely make your Warlocks unhappy, and it will require a lot of work for you to make Warlocks remain on par.

In the end, your house rules should make the game more fun for everyone at the table — that’s why it’s important to consider them carefully before you implement them. But remember: it’s your table, so it’s your rules. If you don’t like something in the rules as written, you can tweak it or throw it out entirely. You have the phenomenal cosmic power to make the game world your own, so use it wisely.

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