Variant and Optional Rules in 5th Edition D&D

With about a month or so until the start of the my first ‘proper’ 5th edition campaign, I’d like to spend a moment hammering out the rules we’re going to use to play the game. After more than two years of playtest packets and limited options, the whole breadth of the new PHB and DMG are now at our disposal, along with all the variant content and optional rules modules that the game now offers. By my count there are more than 90 variant rules scattered through the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and I’m going to go through every one of them in this post. Some I will just briefly touch upon, while others I will dwell on in more detail. I’m going to list all the variants and optional rules that I’d like to use in the game, and all the ones that I’ve chosen to ignore – and I’m going to explain why. However, this is meant to be a discussion not a monologue – so if you disagree with any of the options I’d like to use, or want to make a case why another variant is really the bee’s knees, then let me know. Here’s a hyperlinked summary:

Optional Rules to Adopt

Optional Rules to Ignore

Alignment (PHB p122)

In D&D 5th edition, Alignment has little mechanical effect on the game. Spells and abilities that mention alignment do so in name only. For example, the paladin’s traditional detect evil ability has been remained “Divine Sense” and doesn’t detect Evil, but instead detects the presence of celestials, fiends or undead creatures. There are a tiny, tiny handful of abilities where alignment does play a role in the rules, and if these do come up in play then we’ll have to muddle through them as best we can.

As Alignment has so little mechanical influence on your character, then you can take it or leave it. It’s entirely up to you. If declaring that your character is one of the nine available alignments helps to define who the character is, and make them easier to roleplay, then by all means use alignment. If you think your character’s back-story, personality traits, ideal, bond and flaw are more than adequate, then you can ignore Alignment entirely.

Of course, all this depends on the campaign.  The general concept of “Alignment” – of Good, Evil, Law and Chaos – may be quite relevent in certain circumstances. If you’re playing in a Planescape campaign then the it’s quite a fundamental thing that the Outer Planes are aligned along moral and ethical lines. Travel to Mount Celestia and you will see a plane that is the personification of Order and Goodness. That plane affects you in different ways depending on your Alignment. If such a thing were ever to come up in a campaign, I think we’d just have to make a ruling on where your character stands. It’s not hard to work out if you are playing a Good or Evil character after all. I’d prefer to do this, than insist everyone defines their character by alignment.

So: ignore Alignment if you want to. If it does come up in play, we can make an adjudication then as to what happens to your character.

Action Options (DMG p271-272)

In ‘Action Options’ I’m grouping together six different optional rules designed to provide more variety to combat at the table. These are all options that would have appeared in the ‘Combat Manoeuvres’ section of the third or fourth edition PHB. I like them all in principle because they feel as though they are things that any character should be able to attempt in battle. However, some may tread on the toes of other abilities already in the rules, so I would like to get your views. This is what is on offer:

Climb onto a bigger creatures: Rules to allow a small or medium character to climb onto a “suitably large” opponent. A contested roll is all that is required for the smaller character to climb onto the larger one and start clambering around him as if the larger creature is difficult terrain. This seems flavourful and is easy to adjudicate.

Disarm: The attacker makes an attack roll that is contested by the defender’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. If the attacker wins the defender is disarmed and the weapon falls to the defender’s feet. The attacker’s roll is at disadvantage if the defender is holding a weapon in two hands. The defender’s roll is at advantage (if it is larger than its attacker) or disadvantage if it is smaller. Do these rules overlap with the Battlemaster Fighter too much? The Battlemaster can attempt a special disarm by spending a superiority die. The battlemaster attacks and adds the superiority die to the damage he rolls. The foe then makes a Strength saving throw (DC 8 + attacker’s proficiency bonus + attack’s relevent ability score modifier) or be disarmed. The Battlemaster’s ability does damage which the standard disarm attempt does not, and probably has a greater chance of success. I think they can live side-by-side. There are other issues with disarm, but I’ll deal with those in a future blog post.

Mark: When you make a mêlée attack against a foe you can choose to mark the target. The act of marking is not an action. The mark lasts until the end of the attacker’s next turn. An attacker gains advantage of any opportunity attack made against a marked target. While not quite as powerful or useful as it was in fourth edition, this version of Mark does make more practical sense.

Overrun: This option is used when you want to push through a hostile creature’s space. It’s a simple contested check – the larger character getting advantage on the check. This is just a codification of a common-sense ruling.

Shove aside: The ability to shove a creature backwards (and perhaps push them over) is part of the core rules and listed by p195 of the PHB. This option simply allows you to reposition your foe by shoving them in a different direction. It’s perhaps a more useful option if a battle grid is in play, but I guess I can see circumstances where you would like to push a foe out of the way, than backwards. Because it isn’t linked to any class abilities or feats, it costs us nothing to include the option here.

Tumble: This allows a character to make an opposed Acrobatics check to move through an opponent’s space. The wording seems a bit odd to me, and Tumble doesn’t seem to allow you to avoid opportunity attacks from moving out of an opponent’s threatened area, which doesn’t seem to make it terribly useful. However, I’ll leave it in as an option for the time being. Niggling rules issues will be dealt with in a future post.

Alternatives to Epic Boons (DMG p230)

In fifth edition, 20th level is the highest level your character can attain. There is no level 21. You can’t multiclass or continue to improve your current class at that point. Instead for every 30,000 XP earned past level 20 you get an epic boon. These boons are truly… epic. I love them. You won’t miss gaining levels when you can get these boons instead. Epic Boons are part of fifth edition – they’re not optional. What this variant rule does is allow a character to select a feat or improve an ability score instead of gaining an epic boon. Such a choice may work for some characters, and I’m happy for it to be in the game.

Cleaving Through Creatures (DMG p272)

This optional rule states that if your mêlée attack reduces an undamaged creature to zero hit points in one blow, then any excess damage carries over to another target within reach (as long as the initial attack roll was high enough to hit the second target). For example, a standard goblin has 7 hit points. If three attack the PC barbarian and the barbarian hits one goblin for 18 damage, then that one blow will kill two goblins and inflict 4 damage on the third. This only applies if the foes are unwounded to begin with. You have to make a mighty swing that kills in one blow.

The reason that I don’t want to use this variant, is because 5th edition has been billed as a game where low level monsters remain threats to the PCs into high levels. A bunch of six orcs is still to be taken seriously by a ninth level PC. This optional rule makes it a bit too easy for high level mêlée combatants to despatch numerous low-level foes. I could be wrong, but my gut is telling me to avoid this one. If you want to create a character than can cleave through its opponents you still have the option of taking the Great Weapon Master feat – it’s not quite the same, but it’s thematically similar.

Crafting a Magic Item (DMG p128)

I don’t want to close off options for PCs that have existed in previous editions of the game. As such, I am going to allow you to create your own magic items if you want to do so. The rules that exist in the DMG take up less than half a page, and are fairly easy to implement. The creation of magic items require a certain amount of time, a certain amount of gold and a story-related element that is dependent upon the DM. It’s this last element that makes the process fun. Perhaps the player needs to consult long-lost plans and schematics, or decipher the mad jottings of a githzerai mage. Or maybe the actual process of making the item is easy… it’s where you make it that’s the sticky wicket. Maybe a flame tongue sword can only be forged in a volcano, or deep in the elemental plane of fire. No spells or feats are required in order to make magic items. Technically any spellcaster can do it. But the rules are such that you simply cannot produce healing wands on a production line. Magic items are unique. Making them is a special event. It’s an adventure in itself! I’m more than happy to support PCs who want to go down this road, but be aware that it’s not supposed to be an easy process.

Creating and Modifying Game Elements (DMG p273-289)

I only include this entry for the sake of completeness. The DMG sets aside several pages for advice and guidelines on how to creature new monsters, magic items, class options, races and backgrounds. The official 5th edition D&D stats for the both the aasimar and the eladrin both appear in this section. These are the guidelines I’ll be using to adjudicate whether new material for the game works or not. So this is mainly all for me as DM. However, the section of creating a Background could be useful for players as well, as could guidelines for inventing your own spells.

Customising Ability Scores (PHB p13)

These are the rules for generating ability scores using the point-buy system rather than the standard ‘roll-4d6-and-drop-the-lowest’. In fifth edition particularly, where such weight is placed on the ability scores, adding any truly random elements into character gen seems unwise. A player is only one bad set of rolls away from creating a sub-normal freakshow. The 27-point buy allows you to create the sort of character you want to play, it means you can generate characters autonomously, and it completely levels the playing field between players. I think it’s a no-brainer.

Encumbrance (PHB p176)

The standard carrying capacity rules in 5th edition are very simple, and extremely generous. A standard medium-sized creature can carry equipment that weighs his strength score ×15 in pounds before being incommoded. So an average human with a Strength of 10 can carry 150 lbs with no bother at all. In third edition the maximum light load such a character could carry (before the weight started applying penalties to the character) was 33 lbs. And the maximum that character could possibly carry was 100 lbs. The Encumbrance optional rule complicates carrying capacity introducing a more realistic limit on what characters can carry, and allowing characters to be lightly, partially and heavily encumbered. It’s more much like the third and second edition rules. Personally, I’ve always found the rules for carrying capacity to be a terribly dull exercise in book keeping. A wizard who isn’t strong enough to carry his own spell book is only funny for five minutes. The player has to live the encumbrance rules for the rest of their career. So “no” to Encumbrance. I’ve never been a GM that pays particularly close attention to what your characters are carrying, and the standard rules are good enough for me. However, it’s worth mentioning in case anyone desperately wants to object.

Equipment Sizes (PHB p145)

A common sense optional rule that basically says that armour and clothing that fits one character won’t necessarily fit someone else. Yes, I can’t believe this is a variant rule rather than a default assumption, but there you go. What this means in practice is that if you kill a 7’5″ bugbear and steal his full plate armour, you’re going to need to employ a smith to do some considerable work resizing it for your dwarven paladin.

Fear and Horror (DMG p266)

In certain situations your character may see thinks so vile, or be so overwhelmed by the futility of their predicament that the rules for Fear or Horror come into play. If circumstances call for it (perhaps you’re faced with overwhelming odds, or a foe you know you can’t beat) then the DM could call for Wisdom saving throw: fail it and you gain the Frightened condition. Horror calls for a Charisma saving throw. Fail that and you could gain a Madness (q.v.). I like the rules for Fear and Horror. They are not intrusive, and only need to be wheeled out in specific circumstances. DMs running Ravenloft would certainly use them more, but I see a place for them in most D&D campaigns.

Feats (PHB p165)

Yes, we are going to be using the optional feat rules. No discussion here, I think that they really help to flesh out your character.

Firearms, Explosives and Alien Technology (DMG p267-268)

The DMG very sensibly includes rules for more and futuristic weapons. Alongside the rapier and the great axe, we have rules for muskets, shotguns and antimatter rifles. There have been plenty of games over the years such as d20 Call of Cthulhu or d20 Modern that prove the Dungeons and Dragons system is not entirely incompatible with other eras and genres. Pathfinder incorporates such elements into their Golarion setting after all.

Now when I say I don’t want to adopt these rules, I mean that these rules are largely not compatible with the campaign I am intending to run. I do like having the rules here, and if I was running a world where guns and explosives were common place then I’d turn to these optional rules without hesitation. So no to this for now.

Healer’s Kit Dependency (DMG p266)

Usually during a short rest, a character can expend hit dice to heal himself. Every character has a finite amount of hit dice that get replenished over time. While spending hit dice in this manner keeps the game ticking along, it all seems a bit supernatural for a set of rules that seek to represent the natural healing process. Now, if you’re running a game that is little more than a series of fights and dungeon escapades (as I’ve been doing recently with the Phandelver game) then I can see the value of the core rules, but normally my campaigns aren’t like that.

This variant rule is the same rule we used during playtesting. A character cannot expend hit dice to recover hit points at the end of a short rest until someone expends the use of a healer’s kit. This represents bandaging the wound and applying alchemical salves to the damage. Only one use of the kit is expended regardless of how many hit dice the character chooses to spend. I like this variant. It explains how hit dice work in the context of the game world. There’s a degree of verisimilitude that the normal rules lack. And it gives the healer’s kit a beefier role in the game. I like that to. If a character runs out of hit dice to spend then a healer’s kit can be of no more use to him. This also makes sense to me, because presumably you can only benefit from so much medical attention. Yes, I like this variant a lot. It will take much to persuade me not to use it.

To be clear, I should point out that this variant doesn’t affect the Fighter’s ‘second wind’ ability in any way. That works as printed and doesn’t require the use of a healer’s kit. Magical healing from spells and potions also works without using a healer’s kit.

Healing Surges (DMG p266)

This introduces 4e-style healing surges into the 5th edition game. Characters can spend hit dice in the thick of combat as well as during a short rest. I don’t like this variant, as it effectively gives everyone pseudo-magical healing. It’s not a necessary addition in a game than tends to lean away from combat.

Hero Points (DMG p264)

I’m been going backwards and forwards on the merits of hero points. At the moment, I’m going to include them – but I want to see how they work in play. Unfortunately, by their nature Hero Points don’t work well in one-off or obviously finite games. They only really work in campaigns, so I can’t test them until the new game starts.

Hero Points are there to give the player a little control over how good their die rolls are – to make them more likely to suceed at heroic or dramatically appropriate times. A character has Hero Points equal to 5 + half their level. This total is reset every time a character gains an experience level, so you can’t horde them over the course of many levels. Spending a hero point can have several effects, but usually it’s to add +1d6 to an attack roll, ability check or saving throw. Just enough to turn failure into success.

These are very similar to the rules from the third edition Eberron campaign setting, and they’re also reprinted in the Unearthed Arcana supplement for Eberron which is on the Wizards of the Coast website.

Because you have so few Hero Points you have to ration when you use them, which is generally why they don’t work in one-offs. A well-spent Hero Point can be the difference between death and victory, but I’m sure you can all see how it might easily be wasted.

Hitting Cover (DMG p272)

Cover is granted by any substantial object placed between you and your attacker. The bigger the cover, the larger the bonus you get to your armour class. Half cover gives you a +2 bonus, and three-quarters cover a +5 bonus. If you have total cover you cannot be targeted with an attack. Cover is one of the few elements in fifth edition that grants a specific numerical bonus rather than simply conferring advantage. If you are attacked when you have cover, there is a greater chance of the attack missing. This optional rule asks how did the attack miss.

Neville the swashbuckler is fighting an orc in mêlée combat. Feckless Dave the ranger is trying to shoot the same orc with his longbow. Neville and the orc are battling in such a way that Neville is providing half-cover to the orc. The orc is usually armour class 13, but thanks to Neville, it is actually armour class 15 against Dave’s attack. Dave attacks and hits armour class 14 with his attack roll. He has missed the orc. But the roll would have been good enough to hit the orc had it not been for the cover, so the attack must have hit the cover instead. The DM now compares the Dave’s attack roll with Neville’s armour class. If the roll is good enough to hit Neville then he gets an arrow in the back. If it’s not good enough then it still struck Neville, but didn’t do him any damage.

Rules for hitting allies when firing into mêlée are always fun. I like these rules and will definitely be using them in the game.

Honour (DMG p264)

Like Sanity, the variant rules for Honour gives the player character a seventh ability score. Honour is used to measure their adherence to bushido, or a similar creed. You could make an Honour saving throw to avoid making a courtly faux-pas, or make an Honour ability check to decide on the most honourable course of action. This is all well and good if you’re playing in an Oriental Adventures or a Five Rings game, but it’s not a good fit for every campaign. And it’s not a good fit for the one I’m planning to run.

Initiative Variants (DMG p270)

The DMG offers a few variants to either complicate or simplify the way Initiative is calculated in combat. These include Initiative Score (no-one rolls initiative, but instead uses a passive value); Side Initiative (each side in combat rolls initiative, rather than individual creatures); Speed Factor (you size and the action you attempting affects your initiative).

Speed Factor is name-checked from second edition. With these rules if you are small or using a light weapon you get a bonus to your initiative; larger creatures or those wielding large and heavy weapons act more slowly. Spellcasting also slows down initiative, as does attempting any other complex action. These optional rules make logical sense, and are the only ones of the three I might think of adopting. However, unless anyone objects, I’m going to leave well alone with this. These rules are more hassle than they’re worth, and I think they’ll just serve to bog down combat.

Injuries (DMG p272)

Worried that your character may get though a session with all his limbs intact? Worry no more, the Injury rules are riding to you rescue! I’ve been playing these rules in the Phandelver game over the past couple of sessions, and I like the way they make combat a little more unpredictable. The threat of a major injury from a random roll of the die focuses the mind somewhat.

The way I have been running this variant (and way I intend to continue running it) is to have an injury occur every time a critical hit is rolled. On a critical hit, roll a d20 and consult the table of injuries. A roll of 1, 2 or 3 is pretty bad and requires a regeneration spell to set right. Anything else is either minor or temporary. If I were to take this into a campaign proper, I think I’d want to rewrite the injury table slightly to take into account different shaped creatures, and to offer some further options for specific types of attack: you shouldn’t really be able to sever someone’s leg with a warhammer. The critical hits tables from the old AD&D 2nd edition Player’s Option series might help me in this – but I don’t intend to go into excruciating detail

Inspiration (PHB p125; DMG p240)

This might seem something that’s hardwired into fifth edition, but it is actually an optional rule. DM’s can award a character Inspiration for playing the game well. Quite what this means might differ from table to table, but I think it means roleplaying your character, giving up mechanical benefits to fit your character’s story, being heroic, striving to drive the action onwards, doing something unexpected that leads to some fun encounters and roleplaying for everyone… basically just enriching the session. If you have inspiration you can apply Advantage to any one ability check of your choice. You can only have Inspiration once, so you can’t bank it for six months and then have one glorious session where you roll advantage on everything. I’ve been somewhat remiss in awarding Inspiration in my fifth edition games. Honestly: I forget to do it. When the new game starts, I will endeavour to get my head around the concept. Perhaps putting a “Have You Awarded Inspiration Today?” post-it note on the inside of the DM’s screen.

Level Advancement without XP (DMG p261)

In these rules the DM doesn’t award experience points at all. Instead he simply allows your characters to gain a level at a suitably appropriate point: maybe the end of an adventure, or when you’ve accomplished something significant. I’ve tried running D&D without awarding any experience points in the past (I did it during that 4e campaign) and I didn’t find the results particularly satisfying. It didn’t feel like D&D to me.

If you read my thoughts on Milestone Experience, you can see that I’m intending to simplify how I award XP to your characters. In a way, because I’m only award experience for accomplishing goals I am sort-of using this variant… only you’re still being awarded experience points.

Loyalty (DMG p93)

This is a rule that the DM uses to measure how far NPCs might go to help or hinder a player characters. All NPC are given a loyalty rating between 1 and 20 that is influenced by the most charismatic member of the adventuring party. The DM can see at a glance which NPCs are likely to risk life and limb on the party’s behalf, which regularly spit in their soup, and which are most likely to shank them with a sharpened bar of soap. I can’t imagine ever keeping track of NPCs in such a manner. For one thing, it seems too much work – but more importantly, reducing a (hopefully) three-dimensional character down to an integer just seems largely dissatisfying. It’s a mechanical solution for something that doesn’t need a mechanical situation.

Massive Damage (DMG p273)

Under the rules for Massive Damage, a character who takes more than half their hit points in damage in one blow must make a Constitution saving through at DC 15 or roll on the System Shock table. Anything called “system shock” immediately has my interest, as I remember the old system shock rolls in second edition and how utterly terrifying they were. Of course, these rules are also the product of the general Death from Massive Damage rules that appeared in third edition and were subsequently modified in 3.5 and Pathfinder to take into account a character’s level, size or hit point total.

In fifth edition a roll of the table doesn’t mean instant death. There’s a 3 in 10 chance you’ll be reduced to zero hit points, but not killed out right. Other effects may be stunned, forced to make rolls at disadvantage for a short time and so on. I do like these rules, and I will playtest them very soon, but I’m genuinely in two minds whether I’ll use them exactly as they are written. These are my thoughts:

Firstly, this is pretty brutal for low level characters. They are not likely to make can’t make DC 15 Constitution saving throws in the first place, and the threshold for having to making them is pretty low. At first level, even a barbarian with a Con of 18 would need to make a saving throw every time he takes 8 or more damage in one blow. That’s going to happen fairly often. For a wizard with a Con of 10, they need to make the save when then take 3 or more damage.

I’m also concerned with how this works with the Injury rules. Picture this likely scenario: a character receives a critical hit that does more than half his hit points in one blow. That character takes a lot of damage to his hit points, has to roll on the injury table, and has to make a Constitution saving throw or roll on the massive damage table as well. Makes combat much more brutal, no?

Plus these rules need to apply to the bad guys as well. So as a DM I have a lot more to keep track of, and low level mooks are likely to be having to roll on the system shock table very frequently. I think that it would slow the game down too much.

I’m think maybe a damage threshold would help here. Maybe 20 points of damage in one blow, or half your hit points (whichever is more). That would remove most of my objections. We’ll have to see how it works.

Milestone Experience (DMG p261)

I’m not going to get into a rant about this, but I’ve never liked awarding experience points for killing things in D&D. I’m of the opinion that if you get XP for killing, then it forces the party to become a bunch of killers. Yes, combat has its role in the game, but it’s only one weapon in the party’s arsenal. Clever plans, alliances, roleplaying and tactics can circumvent the need for combat. The important thing for the party is succeeding in its goals.

The Milestone experience rules suggest that the DM give away experience for accomplishing story goals, such as finding information, overcoming obstacles and completing adventures. As written this variant is supposed to sit alongside the rules for awarding XP through combat – but I can see how you can remove the combat XP entirely and advance the party without it.

So in the game you will all earn XP for completing milestones – certain goals scattered through each adventure. Some of this XP will be shared equally among the group, while other XP might be just for your character – if you complete a goal associated with your character’s background, for example. The experience I will award will keep you on target in regard to advancing your character in the same way as it would if I’d using the standard rules. You won’t lose out. However, as a result you might not receive experience every session.

Mixing Potions (DMG p140)

These rules are straight from the AD&D 2nd edition DMG so I am compelled to use them. Quaff a second potion while still under the effect of a first, or mix potions together and consume the results… and something unexpected may happen. Maybe one of the potions will become permanent, maybe you’ll poison yourself, maybe you’ll explode! The dice will decide.

Morale (DMG p273)

The Morale rules offer a mechanical means of adjudicating the whether an opponent flees from combat. It offers a list of potential triggers for a Morale roll – which is a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw by the opponent or the leader of a group of opponents. The rules are solid enough, but I don’t really see the need for them. As a DM I’d prefer to decide whether enemies retreat or flee from players, and not leave it in the hands of a random roll. If I honestly can’t decide I might resort to a Wis save – but I wouldn’t be relying on the Morale rules to do it.

More Difficult Magic Item identification (DMG p136)

Under the normal rules you can identify any magic item by handling it and experimenting with it over the course of a short rest. By the end of the short rest, you know all these is to know about the item. I think that’s a bit dull. Magic items are, after all, supposed to be unique items of power in 5th edition. Therefore you’ll need to cast the Identify spell, or embark on some serious empirical research, to learn all there is to learn about a magic item. Some may give up their secrerts easily, others may not.

Multiclassing (PHB p163)

D&D would not be D&D without multiclassing, and I wouldn’t dream of removing this option from the game. However, consider the ramifications before you multiclass as it’s easy to create a mechanically sub-optimal character through multiclassing, and the concept you’re going for might be better reflected with a background or feat. I’m not against multiclassing within the same class to gain the benefits of two different archetypes in principle, as long as the resulting character isn’t an obvious nonsense. However, I think that in practice the resulting character would be pretty weak compared to his companions. We’d have to look at this on a case-by-case basis. So, Multiclassing is an option, but it’s very much buyer-beware.

Only Players Award Inspiration (DMG p241)

As a variant, it is the players rather than the DM that get to award inspiration. They can’t give it to themselves, but they can give it to anyone else at the table. If they award Inspiration more than once, then karma kicks in and the DM gets to give one of his NPCs inspiration as well. This variant is appealing in that it removes Inspiration from the number of the things that I have to think about… but I’m not sure how well this would work at the table. Obviously, some groups would abuse it, but that’s not the reason why I don’t want to use it. I guess I’m too much of a control freak to let go.

Piety (DMG p23)

Piety takes the rules for Renown and applies them to religious faith. A character’s piety is given a numerical value (usually between 1 and 50) that represents how close a character is to the god they worship. It’s not a rule that just applies to clerics: any character can worship a god, and so any character can display faith in that god’s teachings. The more closely you follow the path laid down by your god, the higher your piety becomes. Some magic items (i.e. holy relics) may only function for characters that are suitably pious. While I’m quite keen to embrace the general Renown rules, I don’t have much time for Piety. I think it’s a mechanical step too far. I don’t really think that something like faith should be measured mechanically. I’d rather leave this to how you play your character. I can see that it might work in some campaigns, but for what I have in mind… I think it will be an additional complication rather than a benefit.

Planar Effects (DMG p50-66)

The Dungeon Master’s Guide introduces a number optional effects to bedevil player characters when they visit other planes of existence. These are (take a deep breath): Feywild Magic, Shadowfell Despair, Psychic Dissonance, Blessed Beneficence, Pervasive Goodwill, Overwhelming Joy, Hunter’s Paradise, Beast Transformation, Immortal Wrath, Power of the Mind, Mad Winds, Abyssal Corruption, Prison Plane, Vile Transformation, Cruel Hindrance, Pervasive Evil, Blood Lust, Law of Averages, Imposing Order, and Planar Vitality. So if the player characters happen to go on a jaunt to the Outer Planes, these are the rules I’ll be referring to in the first instance. Of course, second edition AD&D had some pretty interesting rules for planar effects as well, so I’m sure I’d wind up using a combination of both.

Playing on a Grid and Using Miniatures (PHB p192; DMG p250-252)

It should really come as no surprise to anyone that I don’t want to play the game using a battle grid, miniatures or counters. The great thing about 5th edition is that it is not built around the assumption that you will use miniatures, and as such there are no rules hardwired into the system that are difficult to adjudicate without them. If you compare the third, fourth and fifth edition versions of the Opportunity Attack you will see what I mean. I stand by what I said a couple of years ago when we talked about Tactical Combat in Pathfinder. There will be times when a battle is so complex that a visual aid is helpful, but knowing the exact location of your character to within five feet is not required. It’s especially not required in fifth edition, where you actually have to import a number of additional rules to make it a viable and mechanically interesting alternative to gridless play. If we don’t use these rules then (by default) we also do not use the variant rules for Flanking, Diagonals and Facing. It’s probably worth underlining Flanking from this list. Piling on a target to gain a flanking bonus has been a favoured tactic for us since third edition appeared in 2000. Those rules do not exist in 5th edition. There is no numeric bonus for flanking, although double-teaming an enemy can still be advantageous, especially if you’re a rogue.

Plot Points (DMG p269)

These rules take the idea of co-operative storytelling to a new level. Up to once per session, each player can spend a plot point to offer up an event to be incorporated into the session that the other players and the DM must accept as true. This could literally be anything – such as the arrival of a long lost cousin, discovery of a secret door, acquiring a new mission from a patron. Once all PCs have spent a plot point, everyone gets another plot point to spend again. The variant can be extended by calling on a second player to add a twist every time a plot point is spent, or (at the most extreme) run a game where there is no permanent DM at all.

A game like this could be a lot of fun. But it needs to be a special sort of game, with the right group of players. It’s not for my ongoing campaign, but I would like to see game like this work. I’d love to play in one.

Proficiency Check Variants (DMG p263-264)

I’ve devoted a whole blog post to the D&D skills system. In the end I think the consensus was to generally leave it alone and see how things went. Although the DMG did not offer any variants on how to complicate the proficiency rules, I does present us with ways to simplify them. I have no intention to include any of these variants, but for the sake of bring thorough, they are:

The Ability Check Proficiency rule does away with skills entirely. Characters are proficient in one or two of their Ability Scores and add their proficiency bonus to all checks made with that score. The Background Proficiency rules also remove skills from the game. In this variant, the proficiency bonus applies to any check that makes sense from their character’s background. Obviously, all characters would need a fairly extensive background, and the onus is on the player to come up with ways to justify proficiency in a given situation. The Personality Trait Proficiency rules also remove skills. In this variant the proficiency bonus applies to anything relate to the positive personality traits of your character – such as being a bad planner, but good at improvisation.

These are interesting variants… but they’re not for me.

Proficiency Die (DMG p263)

This variant was in several playtest packets. In the standard rules the proficiency bonus is a static modifier. It starts at +2 for first level characters and rises to +6 at level seventeen. These rules replace that static bonus with a rolled die that grows as the character gains levels. So instead of adding a +2 proficiency bonus you instead roll an extra 1d4 and roll it to the total; +3 becomes 1d6; +4 becomes 1d8; +5 becomes 1d10; +6 becomes 1d12. If you have Expertise then the proficiency die is doubled.

So a 1st level fighter trained in Stealth and with a Dexterity modifier of 14 would roll 1d20+1d4+2 to sneak about at first level instead of 1d20+4. A seventeenth level rogue with a dex of 20 and expertise in stealth would roll 1d20+2d12+5 to sneak instead of 1d20+17. These rules would also apply to attack rolls and saving throws.

Personally, I think this is too fiddlesome for the table. There are too many dice being rolled, which takes time and increases random chance playing a role in the combat. Given a choice, I wouldn’t use this variant. And I have a choice, so I won’t.

Renown (DMG p22; 129)

Renown is an optional rule that can be used to track a character’s standing in a particular organisation or faction. Not all PCs join organisations, so it’s not a rule for everyone – but for those who do join, I think this will be very helpful indeed. Renown is expressed as a number than can rise and fall depending on a character’s deeds within the organisation. Characters that reach certain levels of renown may get some special perks or be promoted to positions of authority. Your character can also try to gain renown during ‘Downtime’ in the same way that other characters might be running a business, training for a new skill, or making money by busking. Renown needs to be tailored to each particular organisation, but works well with guilds, mercenary companies, arcane colleges, and religious faiths alike. You may think that it’s a bit of a mechanical crutch for an in-game concept that should be measured by roleplaying, and I appreciate that. However, if you’re planning on running a game where there are a number of different organisations on offer, and each confers different (and sometimes mechanical) benefits on your characters – then an objective way of measuring your standing in that organisation is essential.

Rest Variants (DMG p267)

In the standard rules there are two types of rests: a short rest of at least one hour, and a long rest of at leave eight hours. Other rules lay down everything a character can accomplish during such rests. These variant rules seek to shorten or lengthen the time of the rests. Under Epic Heroism the short rest is 5 minutes and the long rest 1 hour. Under Gritty Realism the short rest is 8 hours, and the long rest is seven days.

Personally I prefer the balance of the standard rules. Combined with the optional rules I intend to use on healing and recovery, I think they work well enough. Both Epic Heroism and Gritty Realism are too extreme for my tastes.

Sanity (DMG p264)

The concept of Madness is an inherent part of D&D 5th edition. The rules for Madness are on p258 of the DMG and I intend to make use of them. They basically state that adventurers might be driven mad by spells or the terrible sights that they see. If such a thing should happen then a Wisdom or Charisma saving throw might be called for. How important Madness is, and how often such saving throws are made, depends on the nature of the campaign or genre. Something like Ravenloft would call for it much more often than Spelljammer, for example.

While I am intending to use the Madness rules, I won’t be using the rules for Sanity. Under the Sanity variant, all characters have a seventh ability score called ‘Sanity’. They are called upon to make Sanity saving throws to avert Madness, and also as the ability score to recall Lore about terrifying non-Euclidian entities from beyond. Sanity ability scores can also fall should a character suffer from a long-term Madness. Anyone who’s ever played Call of Cthulhu will recognise where this has come from. For this to work, you have to be running a very specific type of campaign. While I like using horror elements in my games – and the new campaign will certain have its fair share – I prefer to create scenarios where the characters are empowered to change things for the better. They are able to overcome the odds, strike a blow for justice and come out on top. Horror in roleplaying games relies on disempowering the PCs – weakening them, and then taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. It can be fun to do, but I find it a bit heavy going if I’m in such a campaign for the longhaul. I like to be occasionally creepy, but I find it much trickier to maintain ‘bleak’ and ‘hopeless’ for any length of time.

Scroll Mishaps (DMG p140)

As in 2nd edition there are two general types of scrolls in the new game. There are spell scrolls (that contain a copy of a particular spell). You can only use these if the spell on the scroll appears on your class’s spell list. If it does you can cast the spell automatically if it is of a level you can normally cast. If it’s not a spell you can cast make a check using the your magic ability modifier aiming for DC 10 + the spell level. The second type of scroll can be used by anyone who can read, with no chance of failure. Only one of these is presented in the new DMG, the classic Scroll of Protection. Under this variant rule, if you have to make a roll to use a scroll (probably because the spell on it is too high a level for you) and you fail that roll then you have more to worry about that the spell not going off. You need to make a saving throw or a mishap occurs – this mishap might be annoying, debilitating or deadly. It’s a random die roll.

Skills with Different Abilities (PHB p175)

As I mentioned in the previous post on skills, one of the variant rules allows the player or the DM to suggest using a different ability score when making a proficiency check. For example, swimming is normally a Strength (Athletics) check, but if you’re trying to swim a very long distance the DM might decide that success is more dependent on your endurance than brute force. He might therefore call for a Constitution (Athletics) check instead. It’s a rule to be used sparingly, and players are encouraged to suggest creative uses of their abilities in particular circumstances.

Slow Natural Healing (DMG p267)

The general rules allow PCs to regain all of their hit points at the end of a long rest. Regardless of how wounded they are, eight hours of sleep or playing tiddly-winks is all it takes to knit all wounds and be as good as ever they were. There are types of campaign where this Wolverine-level healing factor is a necessity, but my campaign isn’t going to be one of those. As a DM I would like (on occasion) to put the PCs in a situation where hit points become a valuable commodity. PCs who are wounded and can’t heal just by sitting around become desperate and creative. It’s not something I would want to overdo, but it’s a cool narrative tool in the DM’s arsenal that I don’t wish to discard. Then we have the issue of verisimilitude. If the PCs are humans, and the PCs can heal all their wounds over night, does that mean that all humans are possessed of such miraculous powers? Why are their doctors, or healers or hedge witches? The world begins to break down. I can’t get my head around it.

So, in this variant PCs don’t heal any hit points overnight at all. The only way they can heal themselves is by spending their hit dice during a short or a long rest. PCs only have a number of hit dice equal to their level and (as discussed elsewhere in this post) they’ll need to have a healer’s kit to spend their hit dice at all. As in the standard rules, all PCs get half their hit dice back after each long rest.

There’s just one problem I have with this variant, and it is that under these rules no-one can heal naturally without a healer’s kit. That seems a bit harsh, so I’m going to modify the variant slightly. Any character with 1 or more hit points, that does absolutely nothing but rest for an entire day, regains hit points equal to one hit die + their Con modifier at the end of that day. If they are treated and can spend hit dice they do not get this benefit. This rule is purely designed for characters who are left to get better on their own.

Spell Points (DMG p288)

We’re in the process of play-testing the spell point rules at the moment. My personal bias is toward not using them, which is why these notes appear in the ‘rules to ignore’ section of this post. This may be a bit baffling, considering that I’ve run almost every session of D&D since 1992 with a house-ruled spell point system. Truthfully, I don’t dislike the optional spell point rules at all, and I think I’d be okay playing in or running a game that used them. However, I also like the standard rules for magic and spell-casting. So I’m happy to take the path of least resistance and use the default system. Of course, once I’ve gathered evidence from a few sessions of play I might change my mind.

So how does this work? In the default rules all characters know a certain number of spell slots of each level per day, and use those slots to cast any spell that they have prepared. For example, a fifth level wizard has four 1st level spell slots, three 2nd level spell slots, and two 3rd level spell slots. He spends a spell slot to cast a spell of the same level. The spell point system replaces spell slots with a pool of spell points. A spell costs between 2 and 13 spell points to cast depending on its level: 2 for a 1st level spells, 3 for a second, and 5 for a third. A fifth level wizard using the spell point system has 27 spell points in his pool. This allows the character to cap off the same number of spells per day – [(4×2)+(3×3)+(2×5)=27] – but obviously with much greater versatility. A wizard using the spell point system could cast up to thirteen 1st level spells in a day.

There is a benefit to using the default system over spell points, but not until level nineteen. Under the standard rules wizards pick up a second 6th level spell slot at level nineteen, and a second 7th level spell slot at level twenty. A caster using the spell-point rules can never cast more than one spell from each of the four highest spell levels (6, 7, 8 and 9) per day regardless of how many spell points they have. But considering how likely it is that a character ever reaches nineteenth level, this seems much of balancing factor. The ability to cast significantly more lower level spells (many of which are quite potent) seems too good an option to ignore.

So spell points make spellcasters more versatile and more powerful. There’s no doubt about that. But that’s not why I’m inclined to reject the variant. I honestly think that the system we have works fine. Also the variant rules in the DMG don’t tell us how this change affects all the other rules in the game that reference spell slots – such as the wizard’s Arcane Recovery class ability. Adopting the variant would therefore necessitate creating house rules to make sure it works soundly and consistently throughout the game. That’s too much hassle isn’t it?

I feel I should point out that the rules for spell points in no way mitigate the need for casters to prepare spells in advance. All casters must prepare their level + their magic ability modifier in spells per day. Whether they go on to cast that magic using spell points or spell slots is irrelevant to the process of preparation.

Training to Gain Levels (DMG p131)

As an optional downtime rule, the DM can insist that characters spend time and gold in order to go from one experience level to another. On the whole, I don’t like this. I prefer the conceit that characters simply get better by the experience of adventuring. That said, if a character decides to multiclass into an area that he has no previous experience – a fighter chooses to become a warlock, for example – then I’d find it very hard to wave my hand and say that it’s something that simply happens on the fly. I think I’d view it as a roleplaying opportunity – the fighter needs to gain an eldritch patron to power his new warlock abilities. So I won’t be using this rule, BUT, the story of the campaign trumps the mechanics. If a level gain can easily be explained away within the campaign narrative, then that’s fine and dandy. If it can’t, then we need to pause and assess how a character received these new abilities. How did Quentin the Surprising Erudite (barbarian level 8) pick up a level of wizard during a spelunking expedition on the Rock of Bral? There’s a story there, and it’s always fun to tell stories.

Unearthed Arcana (online)

Generally-speaking I’m happy to adopt and absorb material published in the monthly Unearthed Arcana column on the Wizards of the Coast website. As of writing, there have been two such columns: one focusing on player character options for the Eberron campaign setting, and one looking at mass-battle rules for the 5th edition game. You can see a list of all the Wizards website articles here, although you’ll have to look through to find the Unearthed Arcana content or use the search box.

Obviously some of these articles will be more useful than others, and some of them might be immediately vetoed. The Battlesystem rules for mass combat look fine if I ever did want to semi-accurately simulate two armies having a go at one another – of course, how often such a thing would come up depends on the needs of the campaign. The Eberron material gives rules for warforged, shifters, changelings, dragon-marks and artificers. I’m happy to view this as simply a broadening of the options available to players. 5th edition needs extra player options and I’m not going to turn my back on any.

Variant Backgrounds (PHB p130-136)

As presented in the PHB the backgrounds for Spy, Guild Merchant, Knight (and it’s associated ‘Retainers’ Feature), and Pirate are all optional to the game. As I would encourage players to invent their own backgrounds for their characters I can see no harm in adding these into the mix.

Variant Human Traits (PHB p31)

By default, a human gains +1 to all their ability scores as a racial trait. Optionally, humans can gain +1 to only two of their scores, and also choose one feat and one additional skill. I liked this approach in third edition and I like it here in fifth edition as well. I’m not going to hesitate in adopting this.

Wands that don’t recharge (DMG p141)

Magic wands in fifth edition have a cool new mechanic: each has a finite number of charges for you to use. Every day a few of the expended charges automatically recharge, unless you have expended all the charges in which case there’s a chance the wand crumbles into dust. This variant gives us back the third edition wand that has more charges but is non-rechargeable. I prefer the new rules, so we won’t be using this.


5 thoughts on “Variant and Optional Rules in 5th Edition D&D

  1. I’d personnally give everyone the option of generating their stats through either the 27-point buy, or 4d6 drop the lowest, or even 3d6 straight … I like the randomness of the dice roll, even if the resulting character is below par … it gives more room for roleplaying.

    • problem with rolling on bad rolls they want a re roll. If not given will just kill of char. happens all the time so have to let re roll. build works much better with Monster manual. Rolling is fun, catch
      so many players adding a point here or there not worth it.

  2. It’s not very likely, but I do want to say that it’s entirely possible to sever limbs with a warhammer. It doesn’t require great skill, either. I mean, you’re unlikely to sever a limb with a crossbow bolt, so I largely agreed with this opinion and made my own injury tables per weapon class, a la Rolemaster critical tables. Still, while a couple of results don’t make sense in some contexts, don’t discount any without some extra thought.
    Thank you for writing this review and summary of interesting aspects of Fifth Edition, and I hope that your campaign is/will be going well.

  3. I just came across this article and appreciate your viewpoints, most of which, I agree with. Those that I tend to find worry with will just have to wait to see how the game handles it. I’m not sure my group will like some of them since they are a “hack n slash” kinda group at the moment. I DM with more emphasis on roleplay but am waiting my tern behind the big screen in this group. As a player with 20+ years I appreciate other’s insights. I’ll bookmark this and try to follow any updates and links you might provide. CIAO !

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