7 Fantastic House Rules for D&D 5e
Almost every tabletop roleplaying group adds some form of House Rules to their game. On the other hand, organized play such as you might find in D&D Adventurers League needs to run without extra or altered rules in order to make the game accessible to the widest number of people. If you prefer the latter type of games, you probably won’t find this article very applicable. However, I think the majority of us in the TRPG scene benefit from having at least some House Rules. These additions or slight changes to the Rules as Written (RaW) can help the group settle common disagreements or reconcile different playstyles before major problems arise.
The rules I have chosen to include in this list all serve to increase the narrative flow of your game (see my previous article on this topic), as well as improving upon aspects of the 5e rules that need a little fine-tuning. The 7 House Rules presented here are: Story Points, Called Shots, Lingering Injuries, Critical Hits, CLICK!, Flanking, and Prone.
House vs. Table Rules
Before diving into my suggestions for D&D 5e (many of which are borrowed and/or adapted from other GMs or game systems), let’s take a moment to make an important distinction. There is a difference between House Rules and Table Rules. Some people use these terms interchangeably, and that’s fine. But for our purposes here, House Rules are changes to the game mechanics or rules system: they alter the way the game is played. Table Rules, on the other hand, are social conventions agreed upon by the players and GM to help things run smoothly at the table, not necessarily in the game.
For instance, one Table Rule that I like is for everyone to show up to the session 10-15 minutes early (extenuating circumstances would obviously be taken into account). Showing up early to the session allows everyone to settle in, unpack their dice, sheets, etc., and chat for a little bit before the game actually starts. You’re probably all familiar with the player who walks through the door 5 minutes late when everyone else is ready to start and then has to set up their stuff, grab a drink, and so on. Before long, the session is already 15 minutes behind schedule. Sometimes this isn’t a huge deal, but most people have normal life schedules and might not be able to afford going overtime because of a late start. (Rant over.)
Another example might be: don’t handle/roll another player’s dice without permission. The point is, Table Rules are a basic code of etiquette. Some groups never need to address these things explicitly: they’ve been playing together for years already and have tacitly consented. But, especially when starting to play with a new group, it’s good to bring these up before Session 1. That way, everyone is on the same page from the get-go. But for the remainder of this article, we’ll be concerned only with House Rules. Ready, set, roll initiative!
Implementing House Rules
Like Table Rules, House Rules should be made explicit to the whole group before any dice rolls: preferably during Session 0 (if your group doesn’t do a Session 0, you should seriously consider it). Since these rules apply to everyone, everyone needs to be familiar with them: you shouldn’t be four sessions in when the GM penalizes a player and then says “Well, you should’ve read the House Rules.” Dick move. House Rules are changes and additions to the normal rules that the whole group agrees upon. These rules aren’t there for the benefit of just one player (including the GM!).
The GM probably has a set of House Rules in mind when planning to start a new campaign, but these rules should be presented to the group for discussion before Session 1. This also allows any other players to make suggestions. After the House Rules have been agreed upon, someone should take the time (usually, this falls to the GM) to write up the rules and make them readily available. The sheet can be printed so it’s easily accessible at the table and/or made into a Google doc and shared with everyone in the group. In the latter case, this allows the rules to be easily updated in the future (without wasting paper), if adjustments are ever necessary.
The final point here is that House Rules should be subject to an open-door policy. During the campaign, if one or more players has an issue with any established House Rule (or RaW), they should be free to approach the group to address the problem. The group can then re-open the House Rules for discussion. Letting the players know that they are completely welcome to bring up issues means that no one will suffer in silence from some oversight in the rules. BUT, this open-door policy should only be acted upon before/after a session: NEVER during a session. Rules discussions absolutely ruin game flow. If anyone has a grievance or suggestion, they should write it down and take it up with the group between sessions. On to the rules!
Story Points (aka Alternative to Inspiration)
One of my personal grievances with D&D 5e is the implementation of the Inspiration system. It was a great idea in principle, but the way awarding/spending Inspiration usually works out is very disappointing. Normally, players are awarded Inspiration for good roleplaying, quest rewards, etc., and can spend their Inspiration for a bonus at some later time: such as gaining advantage on a d20 roll. However, Inspiration is a binary state: the player either has it or they don’t. If a player already has Inspiration, they can’t be awarded it again (even if they deserve it). This can often end up with a player “banking” Inspiration to save it for a critical moment, but then they basically lose out on any other instances that Inspiration is awarded to them. This is disappointing to everyone and ultimately ends up with Inspiration rules being ignored for the majority of the game/session.
My suggestion for an alternative to Inspiration is the Story Point system (adapted from Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars and Genesys RPGs). Here’s how it works:
Story Points: There are two pools of Story Points: one pool for the Players and one for the GM. At the beginning of each session, there are X Story Points in the Players’ pool (where X equals the number of players at the session). The GM’s pool starts with 1 Story Point. During the session, whenever a Player spends a Story Point, it is moved to the GM’s pool, and is thus available for the GM to spend in the future. Likewise, whenever the GM spends a Story Point, it is moved to the Players’ pool. The GM may also move a Story Point from the GM’s pool to the Players’ pool for good roleplaying, creative ideas, and the like.
A Story Point may be spent to 1)Gain advantage on an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw made by your character (or allied NPC), or add 1d6 to a roll that already has advantage. 2) Grant disadvantage to an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw made by an opponent (it’s recommended that the circumstances causing disadvantage should have some narrative explanation). 3) Produce a previously undocumented mundane item (of course I packed an extra set of Thieves’ tools!). 4) Introduce a narrative “fact” to a situation (a dungeon guard happens to go for a smoke break at just the right moment).
I won’t go into all the benefits that this system adds, but I think it is a great way to solve any problems with Inspiration. The whole table always knows how many Story Points there are available, but also knows that spending these Points gives the opportunity for fate to turn against them in the future. The only downside to this system is that the GM or Players start using points too liberally: every action gets a Story Point! I encourage using discretion for Story Point spending, but this is something each group will have to work out for themselves.
Optional Addendum: Story Point pools remain as they are from one session to the next. For instance, if the GM has 3 Story Points and the Players have 2 at the end of Session 3, the pools start with this number of Story Points at the beginning of Session 4. This discourages “wild spending” by the Players at the end of a session that can sometimes crop up using the base version of this House Rule.
I introduced this idea in the previous article on using conditions to enhance your gameplay. I think this rule can greatly enhance decisions and tactics in combat. This House Rule is especially beneficial to martial characters, who often lack ways to inflict conditions compared to spellcasters. This rule represents a combatant’s ability to strike vulnerable areas with precision rather than raw power.
Called Shots: A character may take disadvantage on any attack roll (spell or weapon) to aim at a specific area of the target’s body. If the attack is successful, the attack deals normal damage and inflicts a debilitating effect on the target until the beginning of the attacker’s next turn. If the attack is a critical hit, the effect lasts until the end of the encounter (or perhaps becomes a permanent injury!).
The negative effect must be narratively appropriate to the area and type of creature being attacked (e.g. gelatinous cubes can’t be kicked in the groin). The attacker can choose to inflict one of the following conditions on the targeted creature: blinded, deafened, or poisoned. Alternatively, the attacker may reduce the target’s speed by half (e.g. when targeting a leg, wing, or other means of locomotion), or cause the target to be unable to speak.
Optional Addendum: If the same effect is successfully inflicted for three consecutive rounds on a single creature, the effect lasts until the end of the encounter instead.
I like this rule because it’s fairly simple. Take disadvantage to inflict a temporary negative effect on the target. You can dress up this rule in a bunch of different ways: striking pressure points, vital organs, or especially sensitive anatomical areas. If you want the target unable to break a grapple or easily disappear into the shadows, hit ‘em in the kidney (poisoned). Want to set them up for a vital, follow-up strike? Hit ‘em in the temple to disorient them for a few seconds (blinded). If the critical hit effect seems a little unbalanced, the chance of it happening is 1/400 (natural 20 on both dice). With those odds, something awesome better happen!
I’ve come to love lingering/permanent injuries in D&D 5e from playing in a recent Tomb of Annihilation (affiliate link) campaign. Another of my frustrations with 5e is that being reduced to 0 hp generally has no negative effect except that the character might miss a few turns in combat. But with spells like healing word, the character might not even miss a beat: they can just stand up and keep on fighting. Sometimes this can happen multiple times to a character in the same fight! I’m not balking at the lack of realism here (we’re dealing with magic, after all), but this can make combat feel too game-y, breaking narrative immersion. Simply put, I think there should be some cost to getting beaten within an inch of your life.
Lingering Injuries: This House Rule works as described on pg. 272 of the DMG.
Optional (Highly Recommended!) Addendum: I suggest searching for an alternate/expanded injury chart (I like the ones on this site).
The chart in the DMG is pretty brutal, depending on how often it comes into play. If that fits the tone of your campaign, use it to your heart’s content. Applying Lingering Injuries for critical hits as well as dropping to 0 hp is unnecessary in my opinion, as it can add a little too much extra rolling and stutter game flow.
Lingering Injuries satisfy the same sort of narrative flow that I’ve discussed elsewhere: they can add depth to your character over the long term. Hardly anyone will remember when the paladin went down and then got right back up to slay the centaur warchief without a hitch. BUT, if the paladin goes down to the warchief’s trampling hooves, shattering her arm, and then must convince the party to scour the countryside for a capable healer, that opens the game up for further adventures and roleplaying opportunities. And if a healer can’t be found nearby, then the paladin will have to adapt and make do until the party can find a suitable cure. Overcoming grievous injury is a theme of many adventures and encourages character growth. (Not everyone is as lucky as the Skywalker family, who can get cybernetic replacements so easily.)
Crits are always a tiny morale boost (depending on which side of the screen you’re on) and allow a character to have a cool narrative moment in addition to dealing some extra damage. However, sometimes critical hits are completely lackluster. Rolling snake eyes on your 2d8 longsword crit is just a disappointment to everyone (even the GM, since she should ultimately be rooting for the players). D&D 4e came up with a great way to handle crits, and it can be easily adapted to 5e.
Critical Hits: When a character scores a critical hit, roll the damage dice for the attack normally. Then, add the maximum damage that the attack could have inflicted, applying any bonuses to damage only once. If the attack would deal any extra damage from an ability, spell, or magic item (sneak attack, smite, flaming sword), double the amount of extra dice rolled and add it to the damage total.
The basic part of this rule makes sure that no critical hit ever feels weak or disappointing. For the extra damage from abilities like sneak attack, rolling in addition to taking the maximum is absolutely devastating (e.g. with average rolling, a 5th-level rogue with Dexterity 18 critting with a mundane rapier would deal: 1d8 + 3d6 + 30 (8 + 4 + 18) = 45 damage!). As written, this House Rule would have the same rogue deal an average of 38 damage: still an amazing critical that doesn’t threaten to break the game.
This House Rule comes from the Angry GM and is a great way to make encounters/exploration with traps more fun. Rather than the GM just declaring that a player has triggered a trap and immediately rolling an attack or forcing the player to roll a save, you can use this rule. It adds another opportunity for player decisions to affect the game, and therefore increases player agency. And that is a major aspect that makes roleplaying games unique.
CLICK!: Whenever a character triggers a trap (or hazard), the GM says “CLICK!” and may add a description of how the character triggered the trap (tripwire, pressure plate, magic rune). Starting with the character who triggered this trap, each player announces what their character does as an immediate response to the trigger (drop prone, cover themself with a shield, roll in a direction). The GM determines whether a character’s action would help, hinder, or not affect their ability to avoid the trap. Then, the trap is resolved using those bonuses/penalties.
Dropping prone on top of a pit trap would likely give the character disadvantage on their saving throw. A character who raises their shield to protect their head would likely get a bonus against a dart trap aimed at their face: the dart attack roll has disadvantage, or the character gains advantage on their Dexterity save. Sometimes the player’s action will not make a difference, but that’s okay. Giving the players an opportunity for their decisions to affect the game is what really matters here.
Flanking is given as an optional rule in the DMG pg. 251. As written, flanking is a little too powerful since it grants advantage on attack rolls to the flanking creatures. First, I don’t think flanking should be quite that advantageous. Second, it rules out advantage gained from other abilities, terrain, etc. A flanking House Rule adds an incentive for the characters (and the GM’s NPCs) to maneuver in combat and seek better positioning against their foes. Again, this brings more player agency into the game since the characters won’t want to just stand in the same spot making one attack after another.
Flanking: This House Rule works as described on pg. 251 of the DMG with the following modifications. Flanking creatures receive a +2 bonus on melee attack rolls instead of gaining advantage.
Optional Addendum: If three or more creatures are flanking an enemy, they receive a +5 bonus on melee attack rolls instead of +2.
This version of flanking basically returns the rule to how it was written in previous editions: a +2 bonus. The addendum was suggested on the Dungeon Dudes Youtube channel, and I think it’s a great idea. This basically allows Flanking to mirror the rules for cover: the more cover you have, the higher the bonus to your AC. For flanking, it makes sense that a creature surrounded by more than two enemies is going to have even more trouble defending itself against attacks. Again, these high bonuses reward player decisions, making combat movement and positioning more important to your game.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have a little bit of an issue with the prone condition RaW (PHB pgs. 190-1, 292). Unless a prone creature is also being grappled or restrained, being prone is just a minor inconvenience - the creature must merely spend half its movement to stand up. That’s it. This is usually not a big deal for the creature, especially if it is already engaged in melee: the creature can just stand up and continue their attacks with no problem whatsoever. This means knocking a creature prone (especially when forfeiting an attack to use the Shove action) is rarely much of an advantage. The following addendum to the prone rules was made on the Taking20 Youtube channel, and I think it helps make prone useful enough that characters will take advantage of it more in your games.
Prone Addendum: When a creature stands up from prone and is adjacent to the enemy which caused the creature to fall prone, the creature has disadvantage on melee attack rolls.
If a hulking barbarian knocks down an enemy orc, it’s not like the barbarian then stands back and waits for the orc to get up. The barbarian is going to be standing over the orc, harrying the creature with attacks and trying to prevent him from regaining his footing. Since we don’t want to make things too complicated, the simple penalty of applying disadvantage to the orc’s attack(s) while he struggles to his feet is just enough to give the prone condition the boost it needs.
Those are my seven House Rule suggestions for D&D 5e. There are definitely some others I considered putting on this list, but including more threatened to turn this into a truly monstrous article. I chose these House Rules because each of them contributes to both the mechanical gameplay as well as to the narrative focus of tabletop RPGs. Most of them enhance player agency in the game as well as making up for places in 5e’s RaW that, in my opinion, leave something to be desired. Fare well, my friends, and happy adventuring!