5e, houserules

House Rules for Spellcasters

I can’t say that I love the core spellcasting system in 5e, but I do like it. 5e spell slots are easily managed at the table and flexible enough to add flavor in just about any campaign setting. It’s true that part of me yearns for something more complex like the richer, more complex magic systems in fiction, but every time I start to write something up or read someone else’s interpretation on reddit, it never passes my house rules test:

  1. Is it fun?
  2. Is it simple?
  3. Is it worth it?

My house rules are usually mechanical overrides to the core systems of the game, but sometimes they are simply statements about how we play the game. For spellcasting in 5e, I’ve tried to keep my proposed house rules to a short list.

Identify

First up is the identify spell. Here’s my change to the spell:

  • If it is a magic item or some other magic-imbued object, the DM describes for you a vision that gives you clues as to the object’s properties and how to use them, whether it requires attunement, and how many charges it has, if any.

Let’s compare this to Rules as Written (RAW) at the table, first RAW:

After defeating the goblins in the forest, the party finds a pair of fine leather boots in an old chest at the back of the goblin den. The wizard steps up with owl feather and pearl in hand, mutters a few words, and after 1 minute lo and behold these are Boots of Elvenkind (check them out on page 155 of the PHB).

The spell did what it was supposed to and now the caster has the info they wanted. It was also boring and (ironically) took the magic out of the moment of discovery. Here’s the same scene with my house rule:

The wizards steps up with owl feather and pearl in hand, muttering under her breath. She reaches out to touch the boots and the color in her eyes pales. She catches her breath as a vision comes to her: a lone elf wearing the same boots, moving silently through thick brush. These are Boots of Elvenkind.

The spell functions almost identically to RAW for regular magic items. The player still gets the info they wanted but I try to give them an additional bit of history that ties the item to our world or even to their quest. For story driven items or artifact-level magic items I always hold back some details or introduce a complication to the vision. Very powerful magic items have a tendency to reveal themselves to the players on their own schedule, not just because the wizard asked nicely.

The dragon lies dead in its lair and the exhausted party finally gazes at the ceremonial knife atop the central pedestal in the chamber. The wizard approaches with one hand in his pocket and the other extended to touch the artifact. Behind the wizard’s closed eyelids he sees a vision: the back of a priest in robes standing over a frail man stripped of his clothes on the flat stone of an altar. The naked man struggles against thick ropes that hold him in place. The priest raises the knife above his head and plunges it into the screaming man’s heart. The gem in the knife’s hilt glows red and the man’s blood rushes up the blade to be consumed by the gem. In just a moment, the man’s skin has turned grey and he stops moving. The priest pulls out the knife and the now dead man’s eyelids open suddenly revealing solid black eyes. The priest turns toward you. You recognize him. It is your benefactor, Lord Honrach.

This house rule gives the DM a powerful storytelling tool. Even common and uncommon items found on a band of roving goblins have a history and the vision that you describe for your players can instantly strengthen your party’s connection to the story and the world.

Bonus action casting times

At my table there is no restriction on spells cast in the same turn.

  • You can always use both your action and bonus action to cast on your turn, provided that you have the spell slots to do it.

I’m not sure why RAW places restrictions on casting both a full action spell and a bonus action spell in the same turn. Specifically, if you cast a spell with a bonus action, “you can’t cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action.”

The rule seems to protect against edge cases that aren’t game breaking without closing loopholes like a multi-classed fighter/magic-user casting two spells back to back with their Action Surge. With RAW you can cast a full action cantrip and a bonus action spell but cannot cast a full action spell with a bonus action cantrip? There are only two cantrips with bonus action casting times listed on D&D Beyond: magic stone and shillelagh. Neither of these give the spell caster an extra attack or otherwise mess with the action economy. So what exactly is the point of the restriction?

It feels overly complex, sucks the fun out of the spellcaster’s turn, and I don’t have time for that noise. 🙂

Ritual casting

Spells with the ritual tag can be cast without expending a spell slot but it take 10 minutes longer than the normal casting time. I like that this allows spellcasters to showcase their talents more often in the exploration and role-playing parts of the game without worrying about the economy of spell slots. I add one caveat:

  • While casting a ritual, the spellcaster must remain stationary for the duration of the ritual or effect.

This small change does two things. First, it stops the less-than-scrupulous wizard from ritually casting identify on his recent acquisition while fleeing the rightful owners at a gallop.

Second, being stationary gives a small hint as to how those extra 10 minutes should be used. By asking my players what casting a ritual looks like I introduce another small opportunity for role playing something that might become common or mundane later in the game.

Add flavor to your spells

This one is less of a house rule and more like a piece of advice. For players out there that aren’t already doing this:

  • Spell descriptions are only suggestions and should be customized to match your vision of your character. Players are strongly encouraged to make each spell their own by describing it as you cast it.

Talk to your DM and take ownership of your spells! At my table I usually even let players reskin spells to cause a different type of damage. Playing a wizard from the freezing tundra and want to reskin fireball as iceburst? Go for it.

Spell points alternate rule

The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers an alternate spellcasting system (page 288) that uses spell points in the place of spell slots. I’ve seen players use both systems and each has their pros and cons. Spell slots are simpler to use but a bit less flexible. I always recommend new players start with spell slots.

Spell points are more difficult to manage but also more flexible – so much so that I think you end up with more powerful spellcasters in the hands of certain players. Veteran spellcasters that are OK with doing more math at the table will likely love using spell points.

Passing the test

Are they fun?

  • Yes, they introduce new content for the DM and players to interact with without nerfing character abilities.

Are they simple?

  • Yes, none of these rules introduce new rolls or any additional resources to track. In fact, in the case of bonus action spells, they simplify an overly complex rule in RAW.

Are they worth it?

  • Yes, these are minor mechanical changes but have great impact at the table and are easy to remember.

These make the cut on my short list of house rules for D&D 5e. What about yours?

Have fun out there.

/jm

5e, houserules

Dying – The Final Act!

Today I’d like to talk about a specific house rule at my table… the dying condition.

In D&D 5e when a character falls to zero hit points they fall unconscious, which is a named condition that is exactly what it sounds like. The character blacks out and the player just starts rolling death saving throws. Playing an unconscious character is pretty boring stuff. Worse yet, if their character does end up dying on the battlefield three turns after the killing blow, it is an anti-climactic moment to say the least. To be clear, I have no problem with the death save mechanic itself (I know some players don’t like it). I just think that the process of rolling them is boring.

Enter my house rule and a new condition called dying. Instead of dropping unconscious, when a character drops to zero hit points, they enter the dying condition.

#### Dying

- **A dying creature is incapacitated (see the condition) but is still aware of its surroundings and can speak.**
- **When a dying character fails their third death saving throw, they can immediately take any single action except the Dash action.**
\column
- The creature drops whatever it's holding and falls prone.
- The creature automatically fails Strength and Dexterity saving throws.
- Attack rolls against the creature have advantage.
- Any attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature.
formatting courtesy of The Homebrewery

This is nearly identical to the unconscious condition but for the two bullets in bold. First, a dying creature is still awake and able to speak.

  • A dying creature is incapacitated (see the condition) but is still aware of its surroundings and can speak.

Just like Rules As Written, the creature has lost their ability to take actions or move so attacks and spells are impossible but, because the character is still conscious, they can still turn the tide of battle from the sidelines:

“Tossed aside by the fearsome yeti, Kyrill can feel the warmth of his own blood trickling down the back of his neck but it is his cry of alarm that warns his sister Kayla of the winter wolf hiding in the tangled thicket on the other side of the clearing.”

“Maklak knows that he is close to death. He can feel it in his bones. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, but he knows that his life is inconsequential compared to the disaster that will befall his family if the orcs get through this pass. With a smile he shouts “hey you! yeah, I’m talking to you… come here and let me spit on you!”

Now the player has a reason to stay engaged. The ability to shout out a warning or even a cry for help seems a small change but has fun implications. A dying character’s time is short as each failed death saving throw moves them closer to death. They should have every opportunity to make the most of it.

If they do fail that last save, I don’t want to miss that opportunity for role-playing either. So let’s make those final moments more exciting by giving the character a dying action.

  • When a dying character fails their third death saving throw, they can immediately take any single action except the Dash action.

Just like in the movies, I want our heroes to have one last shot at a glorious ending. At a minimum they can speak a few last words… a bit of role-playing that may bring the character to a more meaningful end. By giving the player the option to take a dying action, they also have a chance to go out with a bang. No, casting a healing spell on yourself at this point does not stop you from dying. Similarly, using your dying action to misty step into a fountain of healing might teleport the character but they are dead on arrival. The dying action is a reaction to failing that last save and cannot alter its result. The DM may even rule that the character is dead before they see the result of their dying action.

As the dying character crosses death’s door, they can’t change the inevitable or run across the room, but they can go out in one last burst of glory.

“Hillibrand the Wise had a bad feeling about this trip and for once it seems his premonition was true… there were just too many of them. Vile creatures these gnolls, but if there are any survivors they will pay a heavy price for messing with Hillibrand today. He still has just enough energy for one spell and Hillibrand has been holding onto a particularly nasty incantation all day…”

“Corelios watched as his comrades stood against the onslaught of undead. He would likely soon stand among the unholy horde, but while there was still light in his world he would do what good he could. Extending his arm as far as he could he touched the shoulder of the fallen knight by his side and channeled into him what lifeforce he had left.”

“Markus only had the energy to draw his bowstring one last time and so he knocked the Arrow of Bh’agulzar that had been buzzing at him since he found it. The old hag had warned him against ever using it, but he knew it was now or never. The darkness took him as he let loose the bowstring and the shaft found its mark, banishing the dark druid forever.”

At my table, the dying condition gives players a bit more to do while they make death saving throws on their already short turn. Players can sway the course of battle by calling out but caution is advised as some enemies may choose to finish off the overly talkative wounded. While every player is hoping for that natural 20 that will get them back into the fight, they also have three rounds to consider how to make their character’s death a memorable one. Could this house rule radically change the outcome of a battle? Yes, and your players will remember it forever!

Have fun out there.

/jm

5e, digital, dndbeyond

Divine Smite on D&D Beyond

For the past few months, I’ve been using the D&D Beyond character sheet to run my Aasimar paladin in a friend’s online campaign. She’s awesome. She’s great. I love her.

I’ve also come to really like the online character sheet… frankly more than I thought I would. Especially with the addition of the dice roller and game log. It works. It works well. Being able to click on just about any number of the character sheet to roll some dice is just soooo convenient. There’s probably more to say on that… but for now, I wanted to post the workaround I needed to make that dice roller work in one more edge case – the paladin’s divine smite.

I’m sure it is in the devs’ backlog, but divine smite only shows up on the sheet as a class feature description, not a roll-able feature. I asked the question to the community for confirmation (as have others) and got a number of great recommended workarounds. I played with a few things and this is the one I landed on.

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digital, diy

+1 Deck of Power(Point)

ppt

I’ve got a couple of sessions with the display under my belt now, which means I’ve spent a good amount of time learning how to prep for my digitally-enhanced game. After doing a bunch of research and experimentation Microsoft PowerPoint has become one of my go-to tools to drive the display. Why? How? Read on…

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digital, diy, tools

Blending Analog & Digital

As a technology enthusiast – computers are both my job and (one of) my passion(s) – I’ve experimented for years with the blending of digital and analog tools to both make my time at the table a bit easier and maximize the players’ experiences. I’m a strong believer that D&D is best played around a table as an analog game, but I’ve long used tools like Photoshop, OneNote and PowerPoint to create content for the table and organize my game. I think I’m ready to take the next step… a leap of faith and an experiment with hardware/software.

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5e, homebrew, spell

New Spell – Cannibalize

Many years ago I wrote a homebrew magic system for AD&D that centered around the idea of a universal magical force. I realize that this idea might not be 100% original. 🙂 Anyway, spell-casters in this system had a shared hit point and spell point pool… their own life force powered their spells. It actually worked very well and created some interesting opportunities as the players explored other sources of magical energy (force vampires are fun).

I’m still fascinated by the concept and have been thinking about how I might work this into a Sorcerous Origin for the 5e sorcerer class. As a stepping stone to that end, and with dungeonmook’s help, I wrote a cantrip that gives 5e spell-casters an option to dig deep, tapping into their life force to cast beyond their normal abilities. It comes at a hefty price though… so be careful out there.

NOTE: We’ve gone back and forth a number of times tweaking this one… debating the balance between the cost of casting such a spell and the potential benefit. I keep picturing this as a “last ditch” spell, one that you might use when you are out of spell slots and need one last punch to defeat an adversary; even at the cost of your own life. That said, it should be somewhat useful at other times as well. The first version below is closest to the original idea and directly burns hit dice and hit points in exchange for spell slots. The second taps into the exhaustion framework in the PHB to simulate the drain on the spell-caster’s body. Which one do you like better?

 

Cannibalize I

Transmutation cantrip
In the Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, and Warlock class spell lists.

Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: Self
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous

You tap into the very life force that keeps your heart pumping to power your next spell, sacrificing hit dice and hit points to regain a spent spell slot. When you cast Cannibalize choose how many hit dice you will sacrifice up to your current hit die count. You regain one spell slot equal in level to the number of hit dice you choose to expend. You can only regain a used spell slot and cannot gain a spell slot that you would not normally have.

When you use the regained spell slot, you gain advantage on one spell attack roll (or you can impose disadvantage on one targets’ saving throw against the spell). The regained spell slot is usable until the end of your current turn, at which time it expires.

At the end of your current turn, as an additional cost to casting Cannibalize, roll each expended hit die and you lose hit points equal to the result.

 

Cannibalize II

Transmutation cantrip
In the Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, and Warlock class spell lists.

Casting Time: 1 bonus action
Range: Self
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous

You tap into the very life force that keeps your heart pumping to power your next spell, pushing yourself to the limit to regain a spent spell slot. When you cast Cannibalize you regain one spell slot. You can only regain a used spell slot and cannot gain a spell slot of a level that you would not normally have.

When you use the regained spell slot, you gain advantage on one spell attack roll (or you can impose disadvantage on one targets’ saving throw against the spell). The regained spell slot is usable until the end of your current turn, at which time it expires.

At the end of your current turn, as an additional cost to casting Cannibalize, you suffer from exhaustion as determined by the level of spell slot regained.

Spell Slot Level Regained Effect (as per PHB 291)
1 1 level of exhaustion
2 1 level of exhaustion
3 2 levels of exhaustion
4 2 levels of exhaustion
5 3 levels of exhaustion
6 3 levels of exhaustion
7 4 levels of exhaustion
8 5 levels of exhaustion
9 6 levels of exhaustion
5e, homebrew, magic_item

New Magic Item – Powder of Precognition

This magical consumable was inspired by the incredible magic system in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn fantasy novels. I know a lot of work has been put into bringing the forces of Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy to tabletop role-playing, including the Mistborn Adventure Game, and I’d love to see some of these ideas folded into rules modules for D&D – maybe new classes or variants of Sorcerer? But that’s a project for another day. For now, here is a consumable that takes inspiration from the effects of burning Atium, but with a somewhat more colorful delivery mechanism.

 

powderRuin’s Presage Powder

Rare, consumable

This chalky white powder is refined from the ground bones of a long dead god or demigod. Sniffing the powder induces a narcotic high that enables you to see just into your future. Appearing as a ghostly overlay to your normal vision, you observe the actions of those around you just before they happen. The longer you observe the future in this way the further ahead into your own timeline you can see (never exceeding more than 5 seconds). But be careful, because the more intensely you embrace and react to the vision, the more your body will be feel its loss when the effect of the powder ends.

Inhale the powder from its small paper packet as an action. Beginning immediately, and for the next 1 minute, add a d4 die to a new, precognition dice pool each time that you:

  • make an attack roll,
  • are attacked or required to make a Dexterity saving throw, or
  • make an ability or skill check that uses your Charisma modifier.

After the normal dice related to any of these events are rolled you may choose to roll all of the dice in your precognition dice pool and add them to the result of the original roll (or to your AC until the end of the current turn if you were attacked).

At the end of any turn during which you have rolled your precognition dice pool, you must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw (DC 10 + result of your precognition dice roll) or the effects of the powder end immediately.

When the effect ends (either after 1 minute or due to a failed save), you suffer 1 level of exhaustion for each time you rolled your precognition dice pool since inhaling the powder

5e, homebrew, spell

New Spell – Distract

Distract

2nd-level enchantment
In the Bard, Cleric, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard class spell lists.

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 60 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

You attempt to put a sentient creature that can hear you at complete and total ease, placing them in a pleasant, waking dream. Creatures that can’t be charmed are immune to this effect. The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be distracted. Once distracted, the target becomes unaware of their surroundings and will allow you and your allies to circumnavigate them unnoticed and unmolested.

At the end of each of its turns, the target can make another Wisdom saving throw. On a success, the spell ends on the target. The spell automatically ends if the target takes damage or is shaken vigorously as if waking someone from a deep sleep. If the spell ends before the spellcaster wishes, the target is immediately aware that it was mysteriously distracted.

At the end of the spell’s duration, or when the spellcaster ends the spell, the target will have no memory of the distraction.

At Higher Levels: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional sentient creature for each spell slot above 2nd level.

5e, homebrew, magic_item

New Magic Item – The Apprentice’s Spell Die

ApprenticeDie

Apprentice’s Spell Die

Wondrous Item, uncommon (requires attunement by a spellcaster)

This rough-hewn, die of bone is worn smooth at the edges. Its four runic inscriptions are stained dark from years spent in the pocket of a nervous young adept. Often crafted as an exercise by a student of the arcane, the runes on each of the four sides are imbued with the magical energy of its maker.

When the die is cast by a spellcaster, its own power can contribute to the strength of some types of spells.

As you cast a spell that has an “At Higher Levels” clause in its description, choose the spell slot level that you will use to cast the spell. Before any attack, saving throw, or damage rolls are made roll the Apprentice’s Spell Die as a somatic spell component of the original spell (use a d4 at the game table). Add a number of spell slot levels equal to the result on the die to the spell slot level you chose to cast your spell. Use the new, combined spell slot level to determine the effects of the spell, but only the original spell slot level is consumed. Once cast, the die remains inert and cannot be used again until the next midnight.