Back from vacay, ladies and gents, and I've been catching up on John's videos, and our Game On! content that I missed, and the whole process got me thinking.
There have been a few rules that I have adjusted in my games. Some to add flavor, others to streamline, and a few to add flair to an encounter or a creature. So I'd like to present those to you, complete with what it actually says in the book (if anything), what previous editions might have ruled, what I rule, and why. This way, peeps have a better idea on what to expect in my own games.
Let's get started.
1) Powerful Enemies Auto-Crit Unconscious Characters
ME: when a creature drops to 0 Hit Points, they fall unconscious. If struck by another blow in this situation (being at 0 Hit Points and otherwise helpless), the character loses 2 death saving throws automatically, as if being struck by a critical hit, dubbed "auto-crit." This occurs even if the attack is beyond 5 feet away.
Book: "If you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer instant death."
Subnote regarding Conditions: "Unconscious [...]. Any attack that hits the creature is a critical hit if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature."
Why: When working with intelligent tacticians, a creature at 0 HP is an easy target. You are helpless, and those that have the capability to notice the overall strength of a party - or have witnessed your healing capabilities - know that it would be unwise to ignore you just because you fell over. This mentality, coupled with the fact that you are HELPLESS before them in that moment, deems many creatures the ability to auto-crit on your lifeless form, forcing you to lose 2 death saving throws. This is less a custom ruling, and more an adjustment of the capabilities of certain creatures. A mindless grunt won't take notice, but a seasoned sword fighter would, and would probably take advantage of such a situation. I call this feature Twisting The Knife, and intelligent creatures above a certain CR will often have it.
But why, though? Dangerous entities should remain dangerous, and going toe-to-toe with something dangerous is risky. This ability adds dynamic stress to a situation when someone goes down, and it also offers opportunities for villains to do more than just wipe out a party. They can force ultimatums, draw their blades toward the party's cleric and force them to back down, lest they decide to end her life then and there. It can create a Change Of Circumstance, and can further alter the battlefield. These kinds of moments can define an encounter, and those are the things I love. Building interesting encounters with dynamic foes.
2) Critical Hits Double The Rolled Number, not dice
ME: when you score a critical hit, I have you roll all relevant dice involved in the attack (including Sneak Attack, Smite, and the like) BEFORE adding modifiers. Then, total that number and multiply it by 2. After that, add on your relevant modifiers.
Book: "When you score a critical hit, you get to roll extra dice for the attack's damage against the target. Roll all of theattack's damage dice twice and add them together. Then add any relevant modifiers as normal. To speed up play, you can roll all the damage dice at once."
Why: I first saw this practice adopted by Matthew Mercer of Critical Role, and it seemed to really speed things up. As cool as it is to roll a literal mountain of dice (which is what we Wizards LIVE for), the associated math can often bog down play in intense situations. So instead, I have peeps roll the appropriate dice involved, double the total, then add on modifiers. This also allows me to grant opportunities to the players to further multiply their damage with my custom Assets, special weapons that harken back to Pathfinder (where swords grant a x2 critical, with critical on 19-20; while most axes only crit on 20s, but offer a x3 multiplier), situational bonuses, and great ways to communicate a creature's weaknesses (oh, that creature is weak against Psychic damage...we'll just double that number now). ;)
3) Better Descriptions Yield Lower DCs
ME: the better you describe an action or present an argument, especially in character, the lower the DC to beat. Conversely, the more vague you are or the more terrible you present an argument, the higher the DC.
Book: this one's up for DM interpretation. For each thing you're trying to accomplish, the DM decides what ability or skill is relevant, then sets a DC in their mind all the way from 5 (Very Easy) to 30 (Nearly Impossible). There's no hard and fast rule here.
Why: it adds agency to a player's ability to PLAY. Improvise, argue, call people out, fall flat on your face. You get to use your acting and descriptive abilities to better (or worsen) your chances at success. Which is a good thing.
4) Downing Potions
ME: downing a potion consumes your Bonus Action, but not your Standard Action. FEEDING a potion to another character, which is more involved, consumes your Standard Action. No, you may NOT down two potions in a turn (thus consuming your Bonus and Standard actions). I allowed that once, to disastrous effect. Never again. The DM will remember this...
Book: this one required some clarification. This was later ruled as Use Magic Device or Use Magic Object, but either way consumes your Standard Action, just like the Use An Object Action.
Why: Sitting there downing potions, unable to do much else can rob a player of their class abilities, and I'm not a fan of that. This way, there's still a cost to using a potion, but to a seasoned adventurer, downing a vial of liquid doesn't take much.
5) Called Shots are a thing
ME: you can specifically target something by claiming that you are making a Called Shot. This sets up a few changes to the battlefield. 1) By targeting a specific place, you make the shot or strike exponentially more difficult, as combat is fluid, so the AC for this shot gains a +5 bonus. 2) If you hit, you deal an extra 10 points of the weapon's damage - BUT if you miss, you have disadvantage on your next attack this round, as you recover from the creature dodging you. 3) Hitting may cause a Change of Circumstance - maybe it partially blinds them (disadvantage on attack rolls), knocks out their knee (advantage against them), or some other flavor that I have to make up (which is actually fun).
Book: the term Called Shot does not exist in D&D 5th Edition, but it's existence is referenced in previous editions and exists in all its glory in Pathfinder. Pathfinder grants penalties to the player, instead of boosts to the AC of the target.
Why: this offers a mechanical opportunity for players with keen observation and tactics to change the course of battle, but with enough risk to support their own skill or specialization. A well-built archer can accomplish this more times than not, and our critical-fishers (advantage fishers) can achieve this to change the course of a tough fight, rather than just hitting it again.
And there you have it. Five ways that I like to augment my games. As these are custom rules, they may change, but they've gone through some rigorous testing and I'm pretty pleased. What custom rules do you use in your games? I'd love to know.
Till next time, friends. Hope to see you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.