Variant Rules

The TLDR Version:

*No alignment
*27 point ability score buy
*No encumbrance other than common sense
*Yes on Feats
*Hit Dice expenditure requires Healer’s kit
*Yes to Hero Points
*Friendly fire possible
*Injuries sustained on critical hits
*No XP; Session-based advancement
*Do not gain full hit points back after long rest

Alignment (PHB p122)

In D&D 5th edition, Alignment has little mechanical effect on the game. Spells and abilities that mention alignment do so in name only. There are a tiny, tiny handful of abilities where alignment does play a role in the rules, and if these do come up in play then we’ll have to muddle through them as best we can.
As Alignment has so little mechanical influence on your character, then you can take it or leave it. It’s entirely up to you. If declaring that your character is one of the nine available alignments helps to define who the character is, and make them easier to roleplay, then by all means use alignment. If you think your character’s back-story, personality traits, ideal, bond and flaw are more than adequate, then you can ignore Alignment entirely.

Cleaving Through Creatures (DMG p272)

This optional rule states that if your melee attack reduces an undamaged creature to zero hit points in one blow, then any excess damage carries over to another target within reach (as long as the initial attack roll was high enough to hit the second target). For example, a standard goblin has 7 hit points. If three attack the PC barbarian and the barbarian hits one goblin for 18 damage, then that one blow will kill two goblins and inflict 4 damage on the third. This only applies if the foes are unwounded to begin with. You have to make a mighty swing that kills in one blow.
The reason that I don’t want to use this variant is because 5th edition has been billed as a game where low level monsters remain threats to the PCs into high levels. A bunch of six orcs is still to be taken seriously by a ninth level PC. This optional rule makes it a bit too easy for high level melee combatants to dispatch numerous low-level foes. If you want to create a character than can cleave through its opponents you still have the option of taking the Great Weapon Master feat – it’s not quite the same, but it’s thematically similar.

Crafting a Magic Item (DMG p128)

I don’t want to close off options for PCs that have existed in previous editions of the game. As such, I am going to allow you to create your own magic items if you want to do so. The rules that exist in the DMG take up less than half a page, and are fairly easy to implement. The creation of magic items require a certain amount of time, a certain amount of gold and a story-related element that is dependent upon the DM. It’s this last element that makes the process fun. Perhaps the player needs to consult long-lost plans and schematics, or decipher the mad jottings of a githzerai mage. Or maybe the actual process of making the item is easy… it’s where you make it that’s the sticky wicket. Maybe a flame tongue sword can only be forged in a volcano, or deep in the elemental plane of fire. No spells or feats are required in order to make magic items. Technically any spellcaster can do it. But the rules are such that you simply cannot produce healing wands on a production line. Magic items are unique. Making them is a special event. It’s an adventure in itself! I’m more than happy to support PCs who want to go down this road, but be aware that it’s not supposed to be an easy process.

Customizing Ability Scores (PHB p13)

These are the rules for generating ability scores using the point-buy system rather than the standard ‘roll-4d6-and-drop-the-lowest’. In fifth edition particularly, where such weight is placed on the ability scores, adding any truly random elements into character gen seems unwise. A player is only one bad set of rolls away from creating a sub-normal freak show. The 27-point buy allows you to create the sort of character you want to play, it means you can generate characters autonomously, and it completely levels the playing field between players. I think it’s a no-brainer.

Encumbrance (PHB p176)

The standard carrying capacity rules in 5th edition are very simple, and extremely generous. A standard medium-sized creature can carry equipment that weighs his strength score ×15 in pounds before being incommoded. So an average human with a Strength of 10 can carry 150 lbs with no bother at all. In third edition the maximum light load such a character could carry (before the weight started applying penalties to the character) was 33 lbs. And the maximum that character could possibly carry was 100 lbs. The Encumbrance optional rule complicates carrying capacity introducing a more realistic limit on what characters can carry, and allowing characters to be lightly, partially and heavily encumbered. It’s more much like the third and second edition rules. Personally, I’ve always found the rules for carrying capacity to be a terribly dull exercise in book keeping. A wizard who isn’t strong enough to carry his own spell book is only funny for five minutes. The player has to live the encumbrance rules for the rest of their career. So “no” to Encumbrance.

Equipment Sizes (PHB p145)

A common sense optional rule that basically says that armor and clothing that fits one character won’t necessarily fit someone else. Yes, I can’t believe this is a variant rule rather than a default assumption, but there you go. What this means in practice is that if you kill a 7’5″ bugbear and steal his full plate armor, you’re going to need to employ a smith to do some considerable work resizing it for your dwarven paladin.

Feats (PHBp165)

Yes, we are going to be using the optional feat rules. I think that they really help to flesh out your character.

Healer’s Kit Dependency (DMG p266)

Usually during a short rest, a character can expend hit dice to heal himself. Every character has a finite amount of hit dice that get replenished over time. While spending hit dice in this manner keeps the game ticking along, it all seems a bit supernatural for a set of rules that seek to represent the natural healing process.
A character cannot expend hit dice to recover hit points at the end of a short rest until someone expends the use of a healer’s kit. This represents bandaging the wound and applying alchemical salves to the damage. Only one use of the kit is expended regardless of how many hit dice the character chooses to spend. I like this variant. It explains how hit dice work in the context of the game world. There’s a degree of verisimilitude that the normal rules lack. And it gives the healer’s kit a beefier role in the game. I like that too. If a character runs out of hit dice to spend then a healer’s kit can be of no more use to him. This also makes sense to me, because presumably you can only benefit from so much medical attention.
To be clear, I should point out that this variant doesn’t affect the Fighter’s ‘second wind’ ability in any way. That works as printed and doesn’t require the use of a healer’s kit. Magical healing from spells and potions also works without using a healer’s kit.
To mitigate what may seem like the harshness of this rule, characters get the maximum hit points possible from their hit dice.

Hero Points (DMG p264)

Hero Points are there to give the player a little control over how good their die rolls are – to make them more likely to succeed at heroic or dramatically appropriate times. A character has Hero Points equal to 5 + half their level. This total is reset every time a character gains an experience level, so you can’t horde them over the course of many levels. Spending a hero point can have several effects, but usually it’s to add +1d6 to an attack roll, ability check or saving throw. Just enough to turn failure into success. A well-spent Hero Point can be the difference between death and victory, but I’m sure you can all see how it might easily be wasted. Yes to Hero Points.

Hitting Cover (DMG p272)

Cover is granted by any substantial object placed between you and your attacker. The bigger the cover, the larger the bonus you get to your armor class. Half cover gives you a +2 bonus, and three-quarters cover a +5 bonus. If you have total cover you cannot be targeted with an attack. Cover is one of the few elements in fifth edition that grants a specific numerical bonus rather than simply conferring advantage. If you are attacked when you have cover, there is a greater chance of the attack missing. This optional rule asks how did the attack miss.
Neville the swashbuckler is fighting an orc in melee combat. Feckless Dave the ranger is trying to shoot the same orc with his longbow. Neville and the orc are battling in such a way that Neville is providing half-cover to the orc. The orc is usually armor class 13, but thanks to Neville, it is actually armor class 15 against Dave’s attack. Dave attacks and hits armor class 14 with his attack roll. He has missed the orc. But the roll would have been good enough to hit the orc had it not been for the cover, so the attack must have hit the cover instead. The DM now compares Dave’s attack roll with Neville’s armor class. If the roll is good enough to hit Neville then he gets an arrow in the back. If it’s not good enough then it still struck Neville, but didn’t do him any damage.
Rules for hitting allies when firing into melee are always fun.

Injuries (DMG p272)

Worried that your character may get though a session with all his limbs intact? Worry no more, the Injury rules are riding to you rescue! The threat of a major injury from a random roll of the die focuses the mind somewhat.
An injury occurs every time a critical hit is rolled. On a critical hit, roll a d20 and consult the table of injuries. A roll of 1, 2 or 3 is pretty bad and requires a regeneration spell to set right. Anything else is either minor or temporary. Some consideration will be given to circumstances and weapons used, as you shouldn’t really be able to sever someone’s leg with a warhammer. .

Session-based Advancement (DMG p261)

I’m of the opinion that if you get XP for killing, then it forces the party to become a bunch of killers. Yes, combat has its role in the game, but it’s only one weapon in the party’s arsenal. Clever plans, alliances, roleplaying and tactics can circumvent the need for combat. Removing experience point record-keeping also just makes things simpler.
The Session Advancement rules advance levels based on how many sessions the character has played. Levels 2 and 3 are gained after one play session each, and every level thereafter takes two sessions. Each session must be at least four hours.

More Difficult Magic Item identification (DMG p136)

Under the normal rules you can identify any magic item by handling it and experimenting with it over the course of a short rest. By the end of the short rest, you know all these is to know about the item. I think that’s a bit dull. Magic items are, after all, supposed to be unique items of power in 5th edition. Therefore you’ll need to cast the Identify spell, or embark on some serious empirical research, to learn all there is to learn about a magic item. Some may give up their secrets easily, others may not.

Multiclassing (PHB p163)

D&D would not be D&D without multiclassing, and I wouldn’t dream of removing this option from the game. However, consider the ramifications before you multiclass as it’s easy to create a mechanically sub-optimal character through multiclassing, and the concept you’re going for might be better reflected with a background or feat. I’m not against multiclassing within the same class to gain the benefits of two different archetypes in principle, as long as the resulting character isn’t an obvious nonsense. However, So, Multiclassing is an option, but it’s very much buyer-beware.

Rest Variants (DMG p267)

In the standard rules there are two types of rests: a short rest of at least one hour, and a long rest of at leave eight hours. Other rules lay down everything a character can accomplish during such rests. These variant rules seek to shorten or lengthen the time of the rests. Under Epic Heroism the short rest is 5 minutes and the long rest 1 hour. Under Gritty Realism the short rest is 8 hours, and the long rest is seven days.
Personally I prefer the balance of the standard rules. Combined with the optional rules I intend to use on healing and recovery, I think they work well enough. Both Epic Heroism and Gritty Realism are too extreme for my tastes.

Scroll Mishaps (DMG p140)

There are spell scrolls (that contain a copy of a particular spell). You can only use these if the spell on the scroll appears on your class’s spell list. If it does you can cast the spell automatically if it is of a level you can normally cast. If it’s not a spell you can cast make a check using the your magic ability modifier aiming for DC 10 + the spell level. The second type of scroll can be used by anyone who can read, with no chance of failure. Only one of these is presented in the new DMG, the classic Scroll of Protection. Under this variant rule, if you have to make a roll to use a scroll (probably because the spell on it is too high a level for you) and you fail that roll then you have more to worry about that the spell not going off. You need to make a saving throw or a mishap occurs – this mishap might be annoying, debilitating or deadly. It’s a random die roll. Yes to Scroll Mishaps.

Slow Natural Healing (DMG p267)

The general rules allow PCs to regain all of their hit points at the end of a long rest. Regardless of how wounded they are, eight hours of sleep or playing tiddly-winks is all it takes to knit all wounds and be as good as ever they were. As a DM I would like (on occasion) to put the PCs in a situation where hit points become a valuable commodity. PCs who are wounded and can’t heal just by sitting around become desperate and creative. It’s not something I would want to overdo, but it’s a cool narrative tool in the DM’s arsenal that I don’t wish to discard. Then we have the issue of verisimilitude. If the PCs are humans, and the PCs can heal all their wounds over night, does that mean that all humans are possessed of such miraculous powers? Why are their doctors, or healers or hedge witches? The world begins to break down. I can’t get my head around it.
So, in this variant PCs don’t heal any hit points overnight at all. The only way they can heal themselves is by spending their hit dice during a short or a long rest. PCs only have a number of hit dice equal to their level and they’ll need to have a healer’s kit to spend their hit dice at all. As in the standard rules, all PCs get half their hit dice back after each long rest.
There’s just one problem I have with this variant, and it is that under these rules no-one can heal naturally without a healer’s kit. That seems a bit harsh, so I’m going to modify the variant slightly. Any character with 1 or more hit points, that does absolutely nothing but rest for an entire day, regains hit points equal to one hit die + their Con modifier at the end of that day. If they are treated and can spend hit dice they do not get this benefit. This rule is purely designed for characters who are left to get better on their own.

Variant Backgrounds (PHB p130-136)

As presented in the PHB the backgrounds for Spy, Guild Merchant, Knight (and it’s associated ‘Retainers’ Feature), and Pirate are all optional to the game. As I would encourage players to invent their own backgrounds for their characters I can see no harm in adding these into the mix.

Variant Human Traits (PHB p31)

By default, a human gains +1 to all their ability scores as a racial trait. Optionally, humans can gain +1 to only two of their scores, and also choose one feat and one additional skill. I’m not going to hesitate in adopting this.

Variant Rules

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