House rules and advice for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons games run by Sean. Please read before the first session.

For players new to D&D

Welcome! You will find yourself needing to read various parts of the Player’s Handbook when creating your character. However, please also be sure to read the following parts of the book in full: the Introduction; chs. 1, 7, and 9. If your character can cast spells, also read chapter 10.

Don’t worry if it takes you a few sessions to get into the swing of roleplaying your character. There is a lot to take in, but group dynamics will surely emerge.

For players coming from third edition

Including players coming from Pathfinder

In addition to the parts of the Player’s Handbook that you will find yourself needing to read while creating your character, I recommend reading chapters 7 and 9. If your character can cast spells, also read chapter 10.

I suggest keeping an open mind about the simplifications that fifth edition has made. Some of them seem stupid at first, but it is likely that you will later come to feel that third edition’s complexity rarely added to the game.

It will help you understand how skills and tools work if you stop thinking of players as making skill checks. These no longer exist. PCs make ability checks, and often a proficiency, granted by a skill or training with a tool, may be applied to the check.

This also replaces the distinction between trained and untrained use of skills. If you do not have proficiency in Acrobatics, you cannot make an Acrobatics check (really: a Dexterity (Acrobatics) check), but you can make a Dex check.

House rules

Character creation

Ability scores

  1. Roll four d6, discard the lowest roll, sum the other three.

  2. Repeat six times so that you have a set of six numbers.

  3. Repeat this whole process again, so that you have two sets of six numbers.

  4. Select one set.

  5. Assign each number of this set to one of the six abilities as you prefer.

Permitted material

You may not use any classes, subclasses or races outside of those found in the Player’s Handbook and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. I will make exceptions to this rule if you can make the case that your character concept cannot be made suitable for any of the core classes and races.

The purposes of this restriction are to

  1. ensure we’re using the material that has been most throughly playtested;

  2. reduce the total size of the active ruleset, so that more than one person at the table knows how your character works; and

  3. avoid gimmicky classes and races taking the place of creative roleplaying.

Levelling up

Hit points

You must always roll your hit points. You cannot take the average. Randomness is fun!

During play

Rolling dice

Re-roll cocked dice. Re-roll any dice which fall off the surface upon which you intended to roll.

Non-lethal damage

Fifth edition has made it too easy to avoid killing creatures with whom you are crossing swords. In order to do non-lethal damage, you have three options, all of which must be declared before you roll your attack:

  1. ”pull your punches” – halve any damage dealt;

  2. avoid vital organs – take disadvantage on your attack roll; or

  3. at the DM’s discretion, use a class feature, such as spending Ki points. Requires stunting!

Ranged attacks & line of sight

If there is a creature between you and your target, ally or enemy, the target is considered to have half cover (+2 bonus to AC and DEX saves).

(PHB, p. 196 says that creatures provide half cover.)

Ability checks

I encourage you to suggest opportunities to use a proficient skill with an ability other than the default ability for that skill.


We’ll use the expenses rules in the PHB, pp. 157–8, to cover food, drink, accommodation and the restocking of adventuring and camping supplies. This means that you’ll have to pay your usual expenses for the month even if you spent a week in a dungeon.


Per the PHB, p. 146: “At the end of the battle, you can recover half your expended ammunition by taking a minute to search the battlefield.” Otherwise, you need to be sure to restock in town.

Note for magical ammunition, you must keep track of whether it hit or missed: “Once it hits a target, the ammunition is no longer magical.” If you missed with magical ammunition, we will roll to determine whether it is in the 50% recoverable ammo.

Switching weapons

To switch to a different weapon and make an attack all in one turn, you must

  1. drop your the weapon you currently wield: this is free
  2. use your turn’s object interaction to draw the other weapon
  3. use your action to attack

The PHB is explicit in several places that your turn’s object interaction can involve only one object.

Mike Mearls, one of the designers of fifth edition, had this Twitter exchange:

what would the action sequence be like for sheathing one weapon,drawing another,and attacking?Is that all 1 action?

yeah - the intent is to avoid punishing players for that stuff by charging an action.

I’m ignoring this because it seems to break the action economy stated several times in the combat rules.

Magic items

We are using the variant rules described on p. 136 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide: you cannot identify the properties of a magic item merely by taking a short rest. You need the Identify spell and/or appropriate experimentation.


We’re using the standard inspiration rules (PHB p. 118), including the ability to pass it around, and we interpret “gives you advantage” to mean that you must declare you’re using inspiration before you roll. Note that it can be used to cancel disadvantage.

In addition, we’ll use the variant rules where players award inspiration, rather than the DM (DMG p. 241). Each player may award it once per session. Be sure not to forget one of its purposes: encouraging genre emulation.

Social conflict

All rolls are opposed

We break social encounters which require a check into two classes: convincing someone that a proposition is true, and convincing them to do something. Instead of using DCs, we always use opposed rolls. In the former case, Deception versus Insight, and in the latter case, Persuasion versus a Wisdom save.

(These were chosen because it is possible to be proficient in each of these four; if there were no Wisdom saves, we would need to add a new stat, ‘Metal’.)

Making the roll first

The opposed rolls occur before roleplaying the encounter, or as soon as it becomes clear that the encounter is going to involve an attempt to deceive or persuade.

PCs and the DM should adjust their roleplaying to the result, which is known by both sides. If the roll failed, the PC should see this as an opportunity to develop their character’s flaws and weaknesses: how would they screw up this social encounter?

The aim of this rule is to avoid the following sort of scenario: player gives moving, convincing speech, then fails their diplomacy roll, and the DM comes up with an barely-convincing explanation of why they failed to convince.

Group Checks (DMG p. 175) should be used when the group as a whole attempts social interaction (for example, persuading some guards to let them into the district when it’s not the case that only a spokesperson for the group approaches the guards). The distribution of successes and failures should also be factored into the roleplaying (for example, the group passes the check but one party member failed; that member should make some mistake and the other party members cover for them).

Skills challenges

See my house rules for these.


There is some controversy over these, so here are my rulings.

The necessity of tools & improvised tools

In the PHB (p. 154), tools – which includes both physical sets of tools and learned abilities to control ships/types of mount — are defined as giving you the ability to do something you couldn’t otherwise do. So in general, if you don’t have the tools, you can’t make the check. E.g. you can’t disarm the trap if you don’t have thieve’s tools.

However, in some cases, you might be able to override this requirement by improvising a tool. For example, you could use a sword in an attempt to jam a trap. Such a check imposes disadvantage, but if you are proficient with the regular tool, you may add your proficiency bonus.

Do tools require proficiency?

In general, tools may be used by anyone (PHB p. 154), with or without proficiency. Just possessing the tool lets you make an ability check to do something that you couldn’t even try to do without the tool.

However, specific tools might be unusable without proficiency, or unusable for certain tasks without proficiency. For example, it is clear from the DMG (p. 103) that proficiency with thieve’s tools is required to pick a lock, but not to disarm a trap (p. 121).

(this is an instance of the “specific beats general” rule for the interpretation of rules)

Tools and skills together

We use both of the suggestions on p. 78 of XGE. Namely, if a tool and a skill (or the knowledge/skills typically possessed by someone proficient in the tool and a skill) both apply to an ability check, and the character is proficient in both the tool and the skill,

  • add your proficiency bonus once and make the check with advantage; and
  • success on the check will grant some additional benefit (see XGE pp. 78–85 for examples).

Players should suggest to the DM additional benefits that might be granted.


While there is no Bloodied status in 5e, it remains the case that creatures show signs of injury once they drop below half of their HP total. We will use the term ‘bloodied’ to refer to this state and I encourage players to announce when they are bloodied, as I will for monsters.


We use the Tumble combat action (DMG p. 272).

Additionally, some monsters can use Strength (Athletics) to oppose the tumble. PCs must always use Dexterity (Acrobatics).

House suggestions

Consider using a pencil and paper character sheet, rather than a generator or a form-fillable PDF or spreadsheet. The rules of fifth edition are simple enough to permit this, and it keeps you focused on the rules that are actually relevant for your character.

If you don’t own a copy of the Player’s Handbook, and are relying on a friend’s copy or an electronic copy of the SRD, print out the details of your class features, including spells. You ought to be able to reference them quickly.

Useful links


Many of the house rules come from the mind of the Dungeon Master of my first fifth edition game, Nathan. He would not agree with all of my choices! The “Social conflict” section is based on ideas of Kvetch.