10 D&D House Rule Pitfalls

10 D&D House Rule Pitfalls

By Luke Hart

Today in the Lair, we’ll be discussing 10 house rule pitfalls that dungeon masters can easily find themselves falling into. And if you avoid these pitfalls, chances are your games will be greatly improved.

Now, if you find yourselves doing any of these things, don’t sweat it. Don’t go off and cry in the corner or something. No one is perfect; everyone has room for improvement. Also, sometimes we dungeon masters are doing things that aren’t exactly good, and we just don’t know it until someone tells us. The key here is to learn from our mistakes and always be improving.

By the way, if you’re looking for some lightweight rulesets you can add to your 5e game, check out our Big Ruleset Bundle. It contains 5e rules for mass combat, sieges, hex crawls, points of interest, and crafting.

Watch or listen to this article by clicking the video below.

1. Too Many House Rules

Come on, really, do you REALLY need 100 pages of house rules? I mean, at what point is it an entirely new game? And do you REALLY expect your players to read and know all of the super special house rules in that massive binder you just slammed down on the table?

I can barely get players to remember how their spells work. I’m certainly not prepared to force upon them reams of house rules. My suggestion is to create ONLY the house rules you absolutely need. The ones that really improve the game for everyone at the table. Otherwise, try to just stick to the core rules. It makes the game more PREDICATABLE and easier to navigate for everyone involved. It also reduces the amount of RULES BOG—that is, how much the game can slow down when there are an excess of complicated rules.

2. The Cost Outweighs the Benefit

Whenever I want to introduce a new House Rule, I consider one very important question: Do the additional rules provide benefits that are worth the cost?

Costs of additional rules include: Slower game because of extra rules, AND the players needing to learn and remember them. Also, not all house rules will be a hit with all players. Some might not like them at all. That’s a cost to consider.

Always ask yourself: do you really need it? Does the house rule actually make the game better? If you find the rule is bogging the game down and no one seems to be enjoying it, that’s a good sign it should probably go. If you as the DM find yourself CONVENINETLY “forgetting” to enforce the house rule, that’s another good sign that the cost doesn’t outweigh the benefit.

3. The Rules Don’t Increase Folks’ Fun

Many times DMs make house rules not because their players request them, but because the DM has “reasons”.  And usually that reason has to do with because of a lack of realism or something that bothers them about the game.

For instance, not liking that PCs can swim in heavy armor, results in special house rules for swimming in armor. And that’s not to say those reasons aren’t good reasons. Because they might be.

Just remember, in any game there is a BALANCE between realism and fun. One doesn’t have to preclude the other, but they often do. Imagine a game of monopoly that involves indepth rules of buying and running companies. Few people would enjoy a game like that.

In games like D&D, the more realism you want, the more indepth rules you’ll need. Rules like that slow the game down, and don’t necessarily make the game more fun for anyone. So, strive for a balance. Just because a rule in the game isn’t “realistic” is NOT a reason to change it. This is a game, not a true-to-life simulator.

DMs need to consider if the house rules are making the game more FUN for them or their players, ideally both! If they aren’t, then get rid of the stupid house rules!!!

4. New DMs Making House Rules

So…you’re just starting to DM. You’re just LEARNING the game. You don’t really understand how or WHY the game mechanics work the way they do, and you already want to change them?

Example. I just learned how to shoot a semi-automatic pistol—say it’s a 1911, a tried and true piece of machinery—and I hardly know how it works, let alone what everything inside it does. However, I feel the need to pull out my blueprint paper and start redesigning it. Yeah, because I’m going to be able to anything besides screw it up.

My suggestion: play the game for a little bit before you start redesigning it. Learn how and why it works the way it does before you pull out your wrench. Is fifth edition D&D perfect? Heck no. Is the CR system and encounter balancing mechanics all borked to crap? They sure are.

But if I don’t understand the how and why, I’m probably only go to make things worse—unless I get lucky, of course, or my players are new like me and don’t know any better.

5. Not Getting Player Buy-In on House Rules

Don’t just plop your butt down at the game table and announce to your players what the new rules are going to be. Players are part of the game, too, and their thoughts and opinions should be listened to and valued before making changes.

Instead, explain to your players your DESIRE to make some house rules. Explain WHY you want to make the changes, and what the changes would be. Then see what your players think about them. Listen to their input, and maybe even make adjustments to the house rules based on their input.

At the end of the day, you ideally want all your players to be okay with the new house rules. This will make them feel better about the changes and hopefully help ensure the new rules improve the game experience for them.

Now, you are still the DM, so you have the “authoritay” to make rules changes, but always strive to get player buy-in first. It will go a long way to improving your game and helping make the house rules successful.

6. Not Getting Feedback on Your House Rules and Updating as Needed

Don’t just set and forget house rules!!! It’s a house rule you dreamed up. You theorized it. It still needs PLAYTESTING and tweaking to ensure it accomplishes the purpose for which it was designed.

Now, it just so happens you’re playtesting it in your group, and your players are your playtesters. So, after a while of using a new house rule, get your players’ feedback on how it is going. Ask what works, what doesn’t, and how it could be improved. And then make tweaks as needed to improve the rule for everyone. Then continue playtesting and tweaking as needed.

I’ve introduced many house rules over the years. Some we use for 1 session, decide we don’t like and throw out. Others we use for a YEAR or longer, and then decide we don’t like and get rid off. Others are real winners, we all love, and we keep.

You just don’t know which way it’ll go when you introduce a house rule. So be willing to update as needed, or even throw out and go back to Rules as Written when a house rule clearly isn’t improving the game for everyone.

7. Not Communicating Your House Rules to the Players

Let players know in ADVANCE of the house rule becoming applicable. Ideally before or just after they join the game. Don’t tell them about your super special house rule where 0 hit points equals immediate death right when a PC drops to 0 hit points!

If you have house rules, your players should know about them! And ideally, they should be written out and made available to the players, so they can read about them as needed.

Sure, print off a binder if you need to, or better yet, post them on the Discord channel you use for the game. It takes some upfront effort to write them up and make sure they are clearly explained, but it’s an investment that pays off in the long run.

8. Allowing Homebrew Content without Reviewing and Balancing It

Especially when a PLAYER has created the homebrew, it needs extensive review and rebalancing before being allowed. Players often create things that are super overpowered. Potential issue, too, is that homebrewing player are way too attached to their creation, and they are not open to discussions about potential nerfs or even buffs.

Said it before, I’ll say it again: most homebrew I find on the internet is either incredibly broken, overpowered, or both. DMs need to review them before allowing them in their games!

Right about now someone is furiously typing in the comments “Luke, you’re a big meanie. Won’t let players use homebrew. Stifling creativity. Ruing the game. You suck!”

I bet to differ. In fact, lest you forget, I publish a monthly 5e and Pathfinder 2e magazine that is FULL of homebrew content for DMs and their players to use. The difference is that we review everything for game balance concerns. So there are at least a few eyes on everything we publish to HOPEFULLY ensure nothing crazy broken or OP slips into Lair magazine.

So, I’m certainly an ADVOCATE for using homebrew content in your games. I’m just also an advocate for not being a complete MORON when you do so.

9. Creating House Rules on the Fly During the Game

First, there is a big difference between creating a temporary ruling because of a GRAY AREA and creating a house rule that applies forevermore. For instance, during combat, making a ruling on “Does your sword that you rubbed a silver coin all over hurt the werewolf for an attack or two?” …is a whole lot different than saying, “Henceforth, magic items do NOT work on lycranthropes; only silvered weapons do.”

Gray area rulings in the heat of things is what DMs must do. It’s part of their job description. But making a house rule that screws players over at the worst possible moment—yeah, that’s not cool.

House rules should be thought out in advance, evaluated for balance, and then proposed to players, explaining your reasons and how it would work. This happens, too, when a DM creates a house rule on the spot to prevent players from solving a problem in a way the DM didn’t anticipate. This isn’t house ruling, fellow dungeon masters; this is being a wangrod to your players.

10. Creating Biased House Rules

DMs who create house rules that benefit certain players (husbands/wives or children) but punish others (the stinky guy at the table), have earned a special place in the Nine Hells. House rules should be as fair as possible to all players. Don’t show favoritism.

Get 5e House Rules for Your Game

If you’re frustrated that there are some big gaps in the 5e core game system, the DM Lair has your back. With the Big Ruleset Bundle you’ll get lightweight rules that cover important mechanics such as mass combat, sieges, hexcrawls, points of interest, poison, hexes, curses, crafting, and more. Remember, these rules are lightweight, meaning it won’t take you and your players ages to read and learn them.

Now if you’re looking for information on running Skill Challenges in 5e—another mechanic oddly missing from the game—check out How to Run Skill Challenges in D&D 5e.

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