The top 5 most frequently tossed out rules in D&D
Dungeons & Dragons has always encouraged making the game your own. From the very beginning, the rulebook stated that the DM has discretion and final say over the rules. The architects of the most popular TTRPG game in the world knew that every eventuality could not be accounted for; some rules, some game tables, and some situations require flexibility and ingenuity.
Over the years and subsequent editions of Dungeons & Dragons, many rules have been tweaked or even thrown out. A popular philosophy regarding the dismissal of certain mechanics goes something like, “if it doesn’t help gameplay, it doesn’t belong at my table”. After scouring the internet, posting on forum after forum, and asking DM’s far and wide, I have compiled a list of the top 5 most popular rules to get the boot.
Please note, these rules work at some tables and not others. If you use these rules effectively and feel they add to your game, then awesome! This list isn’t meant to pick apart what works for you. On the other hand, if you find your game can run slow and clunky, streamlining some system mechanics may help. Look at what other DM’s do and think about whether it could work for your table.
Recovering Arrows after a Fight
Depleting ammunition after an encounter is an old rule going all the way back to AD&D, and it’s a legacy many tables choose to ignore. According to 5e RAW (Rules As Written), after an encounter, you can recover 50% of the ammunition fired rounded down. That means if a Ranger fires 4 arrows from your longbow, after an encounter you can recover 2. If a Ranger fires 5 arrows, then they still only recover 2. Half of 5 is 2.5, so then you round down still leaving you with 2.
Just because this is a frequently ignored rule, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place. I played under a DM that required players to keep track of fired ammunition. I would describe his style of game as “D&D God Mode”. He was by far the hardest DM I have ever played under. Sometimes 5E gets criticized for being too easy, but not at his table! I would also say, however, that as an experienced player, this was one of the most fun tables I have ever played at. If your table is full of adventuring veterans, then upping the difficulty with these types of rules can make a game challenging and exciting.
On the other hand, requiring players to keep track of ammunition can slow gameplay. Every time the party enters a town, the bow-slinging characters need to track down a fletcher. When wandering through a massive dungeon crawl, searching through every single fallen enemy’s quiver can end up dragging down the pace of a game session. Unless you’re trying to up your game’s challenge rating, requiring archers to constantly search for arrows may not be worth anyone’s trouble.
Some tables throw this rule out altogether while others soften it with a slight variation. I’ve heard of some DM’s offering a 50-50 die roll per piece of ammunition fired. If a Ranger fires 5 arrows, at the end of the encounter they would roll a D10 five times. Every time the role lands on a number between 1 and 5, an arrow is lost, 6 through 10, an arrow is recovered. In this situation, the player at least is a chance of saving more than half their arrows after an encounter.
Tracking Spell Ingredients
Casters have it rough. Complicated rules, stacks of spells in need of memorizing, and a ridiculously low AC all give players a fair share to ponder while running a spellcaster. To top it off, the magically inclined need to figure out where in the 9 hells they can buy bat guano! If you haven’t played a caster yet, some spells require a material ingredient, and sometimes that ingredient is consumed upon casting. The mage must then replenish the lost material before they can cast that spell again.
*Bat guano is the material component for one of D&D’s most popular spells, Fireball.
Like recovering arrows, tracking spell ingredients can slow down gameplay. Unlike plucking arrows out of a slain enemy, however, some spell ingredients offer a mechanical function. A handful of incantations possess unusually powerful and impactful effects. For the sake of balance, the game designers placed a monetary value on some components. For instance, “Resurrection” (a spell capable of returning someone from the dead) requires a diamond worth 1000 gold. The price tag attached to the material components makes this a spell you don’t cast every day.
Spells with a monetary value attached to their ingredients should probably require components. Most DMs recognize the importance of maintaining the challenge of acquiring ingredients for these potent invocations, but what about all those other materials? A pinch of sand, a bit of cloth, a lizard’s tail; is all that truly necessary? No, not really. That’s why most classes that make magic their primary weapon can utilize a spell focus. The developers already knew that material components slow down gameplay, so they built a backdoor for DM’s. Classes that use magic but don’t make it their primary shtick can’t use a spell focus. Most DM’s, however, just don’t give a damn.
Because trying to track down and keep track of components turn the game into a slow and grueling slog, most DMs don’t even bother with spell ingredients unless it has a monetary value. The whole system just gets thrown out the window.
Personally, I like the idea of spells requiring ingredients, but hate the idea of wasting game time on hunting down specific components. My homebrew rule gives players a component pouch, but places charges on it. Every time they cast a spell, a charge is depleted. When they return to town, casters need to spend a little money in the market or at a magic shop to refill the charges. Magic is supposed to be expensive, so charges requiring a consistent but low-cost keeps the spirit of that challenge.
Traversing an Ally’s Space
Occasionally, the party finds itself in a dungeon…
Okay, maybe “occasionally” isn’t the right word. After all, this is Dungeons and Dragons were talking about. And dungeons by nature are dark, dank, and cramped places. It’s easy for an adventuring party to get bottlenecked within the claustrophobic layer of an undead sorcerer. Sometimes this can work to the adventurer’s advantage, but sometimes it means someone getting left on the back line.
The official rule as written states that you can move through a nonhostile creature’s space, but you cannot end your turn in that creature’s space. Additionally, you traveling through an occupied space counts as rough terrain, and rough terrain reduces your speed by half. So if Billy, the Halfling Barbarian, needs to pass through Sally, the Saucy Sorceress, then traveling through her 5 ft area counts as traveling through 10 ft. Adventurers traveling through an exceptionally narrow passageway could realistically bottleneck and leave half the party unable to proceed during combat.
I’ve noticed many DMs prefer to stamp down this rough terrain ruling. They argue that allowing players to move through an ally’s space unimpeded offers players more tactical options while eliminating scenarios that could potentially strip some players of their entire turn. If you’re in a 5 member adventuring party and you end up fighting a string of undead abominations while traveling through a 5 ft wide hallway, characters are going to end up trapped either in the front or the back of an adventuring kebab.
Though I see the logic behind this ruling, it’s not one I employ in my games. As a DM, I’ve noticed that players enjoy combat scenarios that require tactical thinking. I regularly employ complicated terrain in my dungeon maps for this very reason. It gives players either an opportunity to use the landscape in their favor or a challenge when the enemy has the “high ground”.
The Advantages of Gaining the High Ground
Speaking of the “High Ground”, was Obi-Wan Kenobi truly benefited by his elevation at the end of Episode III? According to D&D, it was up to the DM. Officially, there is no rule giving combatants Advantage or Disadvantage as a result of their elevation. The closest we get to a RAW ruling are the guidelines for describing DM discretion.
“The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.”
That being said, giving an advantage to players that found the high ground comes up a lot and D&D forums. The community seems to be pretty split, but there is an enthusiastic group supporting the “high ground advantage” rule. They argue that a combatant fighting from an elevated position can aim their attacks at vital points on their opponent’s body, such as the head and neck. Whereas those fighting from a lower position cannot aim for these critical targets.
At my table, gaining a substantial elevation in melee grants advantage for the above reason, but there is another reason, it’s fun! The more there is to do within the game, the more fun it is. Players have an opportunity to look for higher elevations, but they must also be wary of the low ground. It isn’t just the good guys that gain advantage from the elevation, after all, the baddies do too. Since the high ground ruling offers opportunity and risk, it expands the game while keeping it balanced.
How Long Does it Really Take to Guzzle a Potion?
Kevin, the kobold barbarian, feels the poisoned sting of an assassin’s dagger bring his HP down to 14. Only a few feet away, the towering Firbolg killer readies herself upon a staircase. Kevin needs to decide whether he attacks or downs a potion. Can he dispatch this dastardly cutthroat in one turn, or would he be better off drinking the reinvigorating elixir he keeps in his pack? Perhaps there is a more relevant question, why can’t he do both?
In the 5th edition, there seems to be one rule that is thrown out more than any other. Taking a potion requires a full action to accomplish. After scouring the forums, blogs posts, and directly asking the community at large, no other rule seems to be dismissed more frequently than the cost of a full action in order to take a healing potion. Why is this rule so widely dismissed? Why did Wizards of the Coast include this mechanic within their system?
The answer to both questions could compose an entire post, so I will attempt to summarize. The answer, in short, is “action economy”. Ultimately, the developers wanted to increase the inherent challenge of a combat scenario. DMs and the community at large, however, found this ruling to be a needless weight that slows the pace of combat. Both points are fair, but I believe that the majority wins this argument.
In D&D 5E action economy plays a primary and central role to the nature of the game. Dungeons & Dragons is about exciting fights. Yes, there is a story, there are NPCs, there is intrigue, but ultimately, this is an adventure game. Action packed combat scenarios stands as the foundation of this system. As such, the game must maintain a degree of threat and risk for the characters. Games aren’t fun if you can’t lose. Action isn’t exciting if the protagonist is never in any real danger. Therefore, health regeneration in the form of healing potions was deemed in need of mitigation.
On the other hand, DMs often find that potions end up being pointless unless they can be taken as a bonus action. A common healing potion provides 2 D4 +2 HP regeneration. This comes to a general average of 8 HP per potion. Not bad at lower levels, but it’s not going to provide a substantial benefit for very long. Even at level 4, 8 HP can easily be knocked out in 1 round. Therefore, if a player spends an entire action downing a healing potion, they may be at best prolonging the inevitable. They can’t make use of that additional HP because by their next turn, the enemy may have already wiped out the little benefit it provided.
Seeing that healing potions provide little to no practical use during combat, DMs often allow potions to be taken as a bonus action. With this ruling, a player can attack and chug a potion in 1 round, so even if the replenished HP is stripped away by the enemies next attack, the player still has another opportunity to strike. Instead of delaying the inevitable, it gives players a “Hail Mary” tactic. Your HP is depleted, but you down a potion and make an attack. On your next turn, you make one more strike hoping it’s enough; hoping that one extra attack will save the day. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t, but either way, it’s an exciting game.
At my table, I make chugging a potion a bonus action, kind of…
Early on in the game, I provide the players a “Alchemist’s Belt”. This item has hoops sewn into the leather providing spaces for 3 potion vials and 3 flasks. Plucking a vial or flask from the belt is a bonus action. Without the belt, pulling a potion from your adventuring pack and drinking it is a full action. This belt is relatively expensive but still a mundane, common item. It’s a piece of quality equipment but can be purchased from virtually any leather worker. It is, after all, just a belt.
I created the “Alchemist’s Belt” for a few reasons. First and foremost, it makes potions relevant. I do subscribe to the belief that requiring a full action in order to take a potion detracts from gameplay. So why don’t I simply make consuming a potion a bonus action? Because I also believe that players need to earn their wins. The game is more fun when your accomplishments mean something tangible. Inversely, when powers and items are simply handed over, the joy of adventuring diminishes. If players find an Alchemist’s Belt in the treasure trove of an defeated enemy, then the item means more. If the party tracks down a master leather worker in order to make more belts, then they’ve earned their belts. The item becomes important to the players because they had to work for it. We remember the accomplishments we bled for more than the gifts dropped at our feet.
These are the top 5 rules I see DMs throw out of their game over and over again, but it is, by no means, a conclusive list. Dungeons & Dragons is an excellent game for creative and imaginative minds, and those minds brew up all kinds of interesting rules and systems. I highly recommend joining a DM group. They can be an excellent source for inspiration when trying to expand the principal rule set.
I’d also like to hear from my readers. Was there anything on this list you disagreed with? Were there any rules that you also throw out or alter? And, most importantly, what rule wasn’t on my list?
Let’s get some conversations going in the section below!
Until next time, keep brewing Dungeon Masters…