n.b. The Rules Lab feature presents house rules and variants I am currently using in my D&D games or that I once used and am now experimentally updating for 5E. Today’s post shares some of the house rules I use in my current D&D games to foster the kind of engaged, challenging, and dynamic combat my groups have enjoyed for many years now. If you want to skip the preliminary intro and explanation and get right to the rules, click here.
For a while now I’ve been wanting to write a post about how I foster dynamic combat in my D&D games. While the length and static aspect of D&D combat has been a regular complaint from gamers since at least the advent of 3rd edition (where use of minis/tokens became the default), I personally have never had anyone complain to me about the involved (and occasionally very long) combats I tend to run in my games. Just the opposite. Heck, I have run entire five-hour sessions that were in initiative from beginning to end that got me a round of applause for the scenario, not the groan of the proverbial “slog” players dread. While there are aspects of encounter design and operational philosophy (i.e. how to actually run the opponents and situation) to fostering that kind of combat, I thought it might be beneficial to split them from the house rules we use to help make it happen. As such, this installment of Rules Lab focuses on rules, while a possible part two will focus on the philosophy of developing and playing through dynamic combat encounters (assuming I can ever figure out a way to explain it that satisfies me).
Some of the house rules presented here are grandfathered/modified from previous editions, some are modified/adopted from options suggested in the 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide, and some are just brand-new house rules. When possible, I do my best to explain the sources for them and my thinking in terms of adopting them.
Before going any further, however, it probably bears mentioning that even running theater of the mind combat, I am not into what many people call “cinematic action.” The rules suggestions here are crunchy and based on actions player characters and monsters can reasonably take and that (hopefully) make sense. Nothing here (or in my gameplay philosophy for D&D) is built around the so-called “Rule of Cool,” of which I am not a fan. That is not meant as a put-down of that style of play. I’ve played games where I felt it was more genre appropriate (like Supers games) but I don’t feel that way about D&D. What is cool for me is what happens and the stories we tell about that afterwards.
I like to use minis and terrain whenever possible (even my online games use a table camera pointed at the same map, minis, and terrain I use in my in-person games rather than using a VTT), but I am equally comfortable running theater of the mind combat, and I use the same rules for either approach. I say this because I know what I consider engaging tactical combat is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I do think some of my suggestions would help super-charge the tension and difficulty of folks’ 5E games but exactly which of them might do that for you is up to you to decide. Like I’ve said a million times and will probably say a million more, “I can’t tell you how to run your game, but I can tell you how I run mine.” Other players might find some of the rules my groups use “annoying” and/or “too hard.” I find they drive careful consideration of tactics and force the dynamics of the battle to change as it progresses—sometimes as a result of successful strategies and sometimes as a result of failing ones, and sometimes just because of plain ole bad luck. Some of these call on the DM to keep track of a lot of moving parts, but I am not sure there is any way to run a game and not be spinning plates, and while I can understand trying to limit the number of plates, you only get better by being ambitious and doing it over and over again.
Before moving on I do want to add that, I do not recommend trying to implement all of these suggestions all at once even if you and your group do end up liking them all. This is especially the case if you are a new DM or are running for a group of inexperienced players. Heck, even with experienced players, I usually introduce a little at a time, discussing with the players what we are trying and why. Furthermore, I think that word—trying—is an operative one. If you implement a rule and it is not working for you, don’t be afraid to tweak it or drop it. Not every house rule is for every group and or for every campaign.
Lastly, I think when used piecemeal, some of these suggestions work better together than others. For example, using the flanking rules and rules presented here for firing ranged attacks into melee combat work well together because they foster more tactical movement and shifting positions for both melee and ranged attacks. In some ways, the “Death Saves Revived” rule makes dropping to 0 hps more dangerous, but it can also make it a lot easier for dying characters to potentially save themselves. You may have to consider if you incorporate this rule, whether using Hero Points in all the ways I suggest below might make it too easy. Then again, if you have people dropping in combat all the time, both might help mitigate that. You might simply start with “Ad Hoc Dis/Advantage” and just test some of the other rules through the application of them in specific situations in order to get an idea of how they work in practice. As you read each of the suggestions below, you should get a clearer sense of which one or two you want to start with before moving on to more, whether they are other ones from this list or ones you come up with yourself.
Below are anchor links to each of the rules in use in my current 5E games:
- Ad Hoc Advantage/Disadvantage.
- Everyone is an Ambusher.
- Allies, Cover, & Ranged Combat.
- Death Saves Revived.
- Hero Points.
- Ready & Delay.
- Diagonal Movement (& Measuring Sticks)
Ad Hoc Advantage/Disadvantage.
I list this first because it is easiest to apply and most of the recommendations to follow build on this simple idea. The DM should apply Dis/Advantage to attacks or ability checks based on the battle conditions when player characters, their NPC allies, and opponents attempt or exploit them. Does a character have higher ground and is in a situation to exploit it? Grant advantage! Are they on a narrow ledge where keeping one’s balance is complicated by the rigor of swings and blows of combat? Apply Disadvantage. Is the battle happening on the deck of a ship sailing on a storm-tossed ocean? Everyone gets Disadvantage! Is your foe distracted by a wizard’s frightening illusion of a dragon? Grant advantage for blows against him! Make combat dynamic by playing up the dynamics of the circumstances. Make some things harder and other things easier. Reward clever thinking and punish foolish moves.
Everyone is an Ambusher.
To tell the truth, I did this one for a long time before I realized it was not the rule-as-written. I just assumed that when you attack someone who is surprised your attack should be at advantage. I see no reason not to do this. Surprise needs to be more of an advantage for those doing the surprising than getting one attack in (or two if you are lucky and roll a high initiative) before your surprised opponent gets to act. And don’t tell me not being able to take a reaction is sufficient. Talk about unfun! Unfun is surprising a foe and then missing on your one free round of attacks. This is also unfun for the DM when the situation is reversed for the monsters and the scary opening round is a flop instead. Advantage gives everyone a decent chance of hitting and lets rogues really shine in surprise situations through use of their sneak attack.
If you are worried that this undermines the threat of a monster that already has the Ambusher ability, just give it something else in addition, like a bonus action or reaction it can only use against surprised opponents.
This rule comes straight from 3E and from the options listed in the 5E DMG. Back in 1E and 2E days, we played with facing, so when switching to 3E, flanking felt like a compromise, and over time, I came to prefer its abstract simplicity over all the fidgety concerns that come with facing/flanking rules (back in 1E days your AC was higher on your shield flank, but not modified from the other side or the back, and so on). In my games, I grant Advantage to allies who flank the same opponent. That is, if you and an ally are on exact opposite sides of an opponent you both attack with advantage (see figures 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3). A friend of mine has argued that this is too powerful, and it is better to keep flanking as it was in 3E (granting +2 to hit), but I don’t agree. I mention this disagreement to leave the smaller bonus as an option for folks who do agree, but I think making it Advantage as suggested in the DMG makes combats more deadly, move faster, and drive tactical movement to both avoid and accomplish.
While flanking can’t normally be accomplished using ranged weapons, you might consider developing a feat that allows for this if the opponent is within 30 feet, along with some other minor ability related to bows, crossbows, and thrown weapons.
Allies, Cover, & Ranged Combat.
This is another house rule that has its origins in campaigns I ran for 2E and 3E. (I honestly don’t remember how 1E handled it.) Anytime someone makes a ranged attack against an opponent engaged in melee combat with an ally they must attack at Disadvantage to represent working to avoid hitting that ally. If the target is standing between the ranged attacker and their ally (see fig. 2.1), the attacker may then make their ranged attack as normal. Remember, even though minis and tokens look static, combat is not just two or more people standing still and chopping at each other. The position of a mini or a token is a representation of a position, not a description of their actions. In other words, two or more opponents may be squatting down, jumping up, lunging left or right, circling each other, and so on. Disadvantage represents holding back from potentially hitting an ally involved in all that with a stray arrow or spear.
Of course, inevitably, a player will ask, “What if I don’t care if I potentially hit my ally?” To which I reply, “You can’t be actively trying to hit a target while not caring about something else potentially in the field of fire.” The only way to counter the Disadvantage is to find a way to gain Advantage to cancel it out.
As a result, you may want to design a feat like 3E’s Precise Shot, that lets the shooter roll as normal.
If a ranged attacker is shooting into melee from a position in which an ally acts as cover (see fig. 2.3), they must still attack with Disadvantage. Furthermore, if the attack misses by an amount equal to or less than the bonus granted by that cover the ally is hit instead (assuming it is a number high enough to hit their armor class).
Again, of course, inevitably, a player whose character is in that position will ask, “What if I don’t care if I potentially hit my ally and want to attack normally?” To which I reply, “Option one: Find a way to gain advantage and thus cancel out the disadvantage. Or option two, roll as normal and there is a percentage chance equal to the amount of cover they grant that the ranged attack hits them instead.” In other words, if your ally is granting an opponent half-cover, there is a 50% chance the attack will hit them instead (again, assuming the attack roll is high enough to hit their armor class).
This rule makes positioning even more important as ranged attackers vie for an optimal angle on the enemy. Even as I write this, I know it can seem a little complicated, and I can hear the imagined voices of naysayers suggesting this kind of granularity will slow combat. But I can truly say, it is never the application of the rule itself that slows things down (it actually doesn’t always come up) but the hesitation of some players when faced with hard choices. But since my antidote for that is not a house or optional rule, but an element of table culture (“Let mistakes be part of the game and part of the stories we tell of what happened”), I won’t take the time or space to explain it here.
Instead, what makes these rules worth it for me is that they encourage movement on the field of battle, jockeying for position, ducking behind cover, moving around enemies, and taking big risks.
Death Saves Revived.
I started using ThinkDM’s “Death Saves Revived” rules over the summer. It allows PCs (and some important NPCs) to remain conscious at 0 hps, allowing for desperate and/or dramatic action. Basically, when a character drops to 0 hps they fall prone and must stay that way while dying. They can crawl (half speed). Any attacks or ability checks (and in our case Strength or Dexterity saves) are made at Disadvantage. When you have two failed death saves, you are Incapacitated. If your failed death saves surpass your successes, you fall unconscious. Thus, it is possible to have two successes and two failures, crawling around looking for a potion of healing, or making a last desperate sacrificial attack! Check out the link for the details of how it works.
I could never remember to award Inspiration and none of my players could ever remember to use it. I considered simply ruling that everyone begins every session with Inspiration and make it a use it or lose it situation, but simply being able to reroll a die didn’t feel interesting enough. Instead, I instituted a system of “Hero Points” (based on something we implemented in our 3E games called “Action Dice”). Characters have a number of hero points equal to their level +1 and they are replenished every time XP is awarded. That works for me because I am old school and award XP after an adventure is completed—this is rarely more often than every six or seven sessions. If you award more frequently, you may want to connect replenishing them to going up a level. If you are using milestone advancement, you can easily make the points replenish every time the PCs reach such a milestone. The DM can also award a hero point during play as a reward for instigating an interesting turn of events or for a particularly heroic act for which they did not use a Hero Point. However, no one can ever have more Hero Points than their maximum and you can only ever use one Hero Point at a time.
Hero points can be used as follows:
- Trade in a point to roll an additional die (depending on character level) which is added to an attack roll, saving throw, damage roll, or ability check before the results have been determined. This does not stack with bardic inspiration. This is its most common use.
- Spend a point to change a death save failure into a success.
- Spend a point to use a bonus action to give an ally that you can see and that can hear you a hero die appropriate to your level. They must use it within the next 10 minutes.
Use #2 is self-explanatory but uses #1 and #3 provide players with a chance to leverage a very limited resource for tasks that seem crucial or dire to them. Just considering the option of using one turns a run-of-the-mill attack roll (for example) into an opportunity to weigh the importance of this attack, and it can help when the dice are turning against you. Need to climb a wall and you aren’t great at climbing? Adding a +1d4 or +1d6 can make a huge difference when getting to the top of that wall is a matter of life or death for you or an ally.
At my table, I keep a plate of special black hero dice that folks take from to represent their points and roll them. This also adds to the sense of their specialness and reminds folks to use them.
Ready & Delay.
Grandfathering the Ready and Delay rules from 3rd Edition was the first change I made when I adopted 5E for my D&D games. I did this even though it doesn’t quite work with how certain conditions (especially from spells) play out round to round in the later ruleset. I don’t care. The static initiative order of 5E felt boring to me. Even using a reaction does not change your position in the initiative order. This sameness is broken up when a character can be proactive or reactive and move around the initiative order as a result.
When you take the Delay action you skip your turn completely. You cannot move or take an action or bonus action. Instead, you may choose to act as normal at any point before your next turn. Your action is resolved after the current turn’s action is resolved (i.e., whomever is taking their turn when you declare your intention to go, resolves their action first). This is your new place in the initiative order. So, if you do not take a turn before it comes back around again, you simply have lost the previous round’s turn. This is especially useful if you want to see what someone else is going to do before deciding to act and aren’t sure how you’ll react until it happens. You announce your intention to go once someone else’s turn is over and before the next turn begins.
Example: Ratchis of Nephthys and his companions are fighting a rival adventuring party. The cleric/ranger rolls a 20 for initiative, allowing him to act early in the round. However, while hostilities have begun, he wants to see if his companion, Roland of Bast, is able to persuade the other group to stand down before he acts. Roland makes his attempt on his initiative (a 12). When Ratchis realizes his companion’s words are failing to achieve the desired effect, he chooses to take his turn after Roland’s is complete. Ratchis’s new initiative is also a 12 but acting after Roland.
When you take the Ready action, you set conditions under which your character takes a specific action (like attack, grapple, dash, disengage, etc…). You may move before declaring your readied action and can use any remaining movement when your readied action goes off. In the case of Bonus Actions, you can take one before declaring the readied action or after it goes off. You can also ready a bonus action, but if you do so you cannot take a normal action in addition, as readying an action counts as an action. You may still take Reactions while you have a different action readied.
The readied action interrupts the trigger and is resolved first. If the action allows for more than one thing (like multiattack) you may resolve them all at this point. This is your new place in the initiative order. If your readied action is a spell, you must use concentration to hold it ready (requiring concentration checks if you take damage before it goes off). You may choose to ignore the trigger if/when it happens. If the trigger does not occur before your turn comes back around, you may take a new action or maintain your readiness. Both the trigger and the action to be taken must be specific enough to be clearly followed. Including which weapon, tool, spell, or item it to be used in its completion. For example, “I ready an action to shoot an arrow at any bugbears that come through the door” or “I ready an action to dash towards the far end of the bridge if the Balrog arrives.”
Example: Alston and His Big Folk are searching the grounds of the local prefect’s house when the heavily armed and armored sheriff and his deputies arrive, barking at them to surrender. The original spotting distance is 75 feet away. Alston’s companions shoot arrows and throw javelins as the men close. Alston has rolled a 17 for his initiative and decides to move to get some cover behind a haystack and readies an action. “As soon as the sheriff is in range (60 feet) I cast Heat Metal on him.” On 13, the sheriff closes, coming within 60’. Before his movement is done, Alston’s readied action interrupts and the gnome casts the spell. After this is resolved, the rest of the sheriff’s turn is completed. Alston now acts on 13, but always before the sheriff.
If you are under an effect that is resolved on your turn (such as making a saving throw against an ongoing condition) when you Ready or Delay, it still happens at your original initiative. If the condition or effect continues into the following round, it is resolved as normal during the new initiative. In this way, someone cannot avoid making saves by Delaying repeatedly. Obviously, this can potentially lead to some disparities and weirdness, but in running for two different groups that use these rules for over three years, it has never once come up, which makes me feel like it is not that much of a concern.
I have a saying about using battlemats and minis. “The grid is made of imaginary lines in an imaginary space, so they are imaginary twice over.” In other words, use the grid as the guide it is meant to be but don’t forget that it is supposed to represent real space. While I can get my brain to believe that in general every small or medium individual in D&D needs five feet of space around them to fight with swords or cast spells and the like (and Large size creatures need 10 feet, and so on), I cannot make my brain disregard the reality that several people can fit in the five-foot space (or a 10-foot space, etc)—the total number depending on their size. Normally, no one can stop their movement in a box occupied by someone else, but I have modified that rule to only apply to enemies. Allies can share a space if they are willing to deal with the penalties.
Rather than come up with detailed rules for this kind of positioning, I play it by ear based on the environment and activity but use the rules for squeezing into small spaces as a guideline. I limit the number of Medium creatures that can squeeze into a space and still attack or cast effectively to two. Three Small creatures can squeeze into a space and fight with squeezing penalties. As written, the current rules allow Tiny creatures to be four to a box (since they take up 2.5 feet of space) before suffering any penalties at all. As such, while you could squeeze up to 8 in a box with the above penalties, once you’re dealing with that many Tiny creatures (or more) occupying a space, you might as well make them into a swarm.
Creatures squeezed together into a space suffer the following penalties: Disadvantage on attack rolls and Dexterity saving throws and Dex-based ability checks. Furthermore, anyone attacking either of the allies in the same space rolls with Advantage and the larger creatures provide the other with half cover.
The halfling nimbleness trait allows halflings to ignore these penalties, thus they can squeeze into space occupied by an ally and attack, save, and defend as normal, and gets some cover if their ally is bigger than they are. This makes halflings excellent at fighting in close quarters, though their non-halfling allies still suffer the penalties.
This is an ad hoc adjudication, so be sure to disallow it if it would not make sense or even add another layer of penalties (or exception to penalties) if the players figure out a way to describe multiple people in the same space trying some task. For example, there is no reason why a human wizard squeezed into a five-foot space with two other medium sized creatures could not cast a spell that only has a verbal component.
In the end, these are severe penalties but allowing for this squeezing, even if penalized, gets past the limitations of the grid, and lets players try things with their characters rather than simply disallowing it because of an abstracted conceit of the rules.
Diagonal Movement (Measuring Sticks).
This may seem contradictory to my claim when discussing squeezing multiple creatures into the same 5’ space that the grid is imaginary and just a guideline to not get hung up on, but if there is one thing I have a hard time accepting, it is when diagonal movement on the grid is counted the same as horizontal or vertical movement. Moving diagonally or measuring range that way is further than the number of boxes would suggest. Each box is 7.5 feet from diagonally opposite corners, not five. By enforcing this difference, movement becomes both more fraught and more varied. When players have to think through the distances and the number of rounds it takes to cover that distance, combat becomes about more than running up to the enemy and whacking them with your weapons (though obviously sometimes it is still that). When some routes take a longer or shorter time than others, players will consider things like moving to cover or up to a higher vantage point or toward some crucial object or spot that the combat revolves around.
Assuming in-person play with everyone having a clear view of the table, the easiest and fastest way to list speed on your character sheet is not (only) in feet but in boxes and then counting movement as 1 or 1.5 boxes depending on the angle of the movement or ranged attack.
So, humans and other medium creatures move 6 boxes (30 feet), a gnome or dwarf move 5 boxes (25 feet) and a lizardfolk moves 4 boxes (20 feet). For my own part, I just use the easy framework that two diagonal boxes in a row is the same as moving 3 boxes and if you get to a point with less than a box of movement left, you have gone as far as you can go. I find this a lot easier than the way it is described in the 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide as “every other diagonal box counts as ten feet,” but some people’s brains freeze when they must deal with even simple fractions, so whatever works for you.
The D&D groups I have DMed for have measured diagonal movement and range as box-and-a-half with little trouble figuring it out. Or at least, that was the case until my most recent group. These players were new to the game and we only played in-person for two or three sessions before having to move to playing over Zoom for 14 months online due to the pandemic. As such, they never got the practice they needed counting out movement, as I moved all the minis based on their descriptions. Once we moved back to in-person play I discovered a work around to this occasional frustration: minimizing the counting by crafting some measurement sticks. I made some of different lengths and colors marked at one-inch increments using some dowels, craft paint, and a sharpie. I have sticks for Medium creature movement (6 inches), Small creature movement (5 inches), and one for measuring out spell and weapon ranges (12 inches). The sticks make things move a lot faster and circumvent the grid except at the beginning and end of measuring movement. Heck, some people go completely gridless with this method. The trick is to lay the measuring stick from the edge of the mini’s base and then moving the mini to the closest full box that matches up with the one-inch space at the end. DM Scotty over on The DM’s Craft YouTube channel suggests just such gridless play and has an instructional video for making measurement sticks.
Of course, such a method does not easily account for some modifications to speed. Just remember that difficult terrain, climbing, moving through an ally’s space, and some other forms of movement costs two boxes of movement instead of one.
Finally, if you play using theater of the mind style, you don’t need the measuring stick, but as DM make sure you keep in mind different distances a player describes their character’s movement towards, away, through, and around terrain features and opponents. Have them propose a route so that you can inform them if their speed allows for going that way before they make their final choice of what to do.
I believe it was 4th edition that introduced the idea of minions to D&D, but since I hardly played that version, I could be wrong. It could be that 1E’s rule that allowed fighters to make as many attacks as they have levels against foes with fewer than one hit die is the real origin for this. Regardless both that oft-forgotten 1E rule and the more recent introduction of “minions” serve to represent battles in which puissant warriors cut through swathes of mooks or stealthy adventurers quickly and quietly dispatch minion guards to make their way to the real threat. Either way, I don’t quite run it as some people are used to.
Unlike 4E’s version of minions, which were regular monsters with only 1 hit point, my version is a little more involved. Any opponents that outnumber the PCs 2-to-1 or more in any given battle (or 5-to-1 or more in an overall location, like a dungeon), have a CR that is 1/4th or less than the party’s average level and doesn’t have too many special attacks or abilities (or any single complex ability) can be made into a “minion.” These minions have the abilities and hit points as normal for the creature (though you can tweak them down to a nice round number). However, if any one of them takes damage equal to half or more of their total hit points, the next damaging attack against them drops them to 0 regardless of how many hit points they have left. Conversely, if such a minion takes less than half than their maximum hit points from any blow, any blow that follows that does half or more (even if not totaling their max) drops them to 0. Minions save against individually-targeted spells and other effects as normal. When it comes to spells or effects that cover a group, just assume at least half fail. If the DC is over 15, assume three-quarters do. Either way, apply the damage the same as above. In this way, the DM does not have to keep careful track of their hit points, just how many points of damage they take relative to their maximum at any given time.
This system is also very good for simulating the idea that all these different creatures of the same type actually have different hit point totals and some die more easily than others without having to worry about the record-keeping of having different totals for them.
And there you have it, ten rules or considerations for better 5E combat. The other side of the coin from these mechanical options and additions, is a philosophy of running combat that has the DM considering the role of terrain and setting in every combat (and building encounters that make use of them), considering the motives and goals of all combatants from the lowly goblin to the mightiest dragon, and modeling the kind of behavior in combat you want the PCs to consider when strategizing. I find these perspectives harder to express without simply making lists of possibilities (when the point is to develop a framework for thinking about where a fight is taking place, with who, and why), but someday I may get around to explain this outlook in a way that might actually help other DMs and their tables.
Lastly, do you have any house rules your group implements for more dynamic and tactical combat? Let me know in the comments!
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