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.


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.


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.**
- 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.