This is a pretty rules heavy post.
I am a big fan of D&D and currently 4th Edition. However, every role-playing game works differently with each group, and there are a few issues I have with 4E. But they aren’t the ones I usually hear. I love utilities and the way combats function. What I hate is the feeling that I have to decide between combat and non-combat, when I want to do cool stuff in both. I’m also not a big fan of picking races to match my class and ending up with parties where everyone is a different race, even if it doesn’t make sense in the setting.
To solve some of these issues, my group created a set of house rules that we’ve started using exclusively in our games. And yes, every rule can be changed for your own games! If you only like parts of the system, don’t use them all. That should be the number 1 rule in all role-playing games.
Now, here is my version of D&D 4.5.
Character Creation Guidelines
All characters start at level 2. Level 1 does not exist.
Characters all use the Inherent Bonuses rules and do not gain magic items at character creation, no matter their level. Magic Items can never be purchased. Essentially, they do not exist unless the DM directly gives you one and should be treated as powerful artifacts that will stay with your character rather than simple combat effects.
Before creating your character roll 4d6 dropping the lowest for each statistic IN ORDER. You may then swap two stats. Finally, replace one stat with an 18 and another with a 16.
To avoid monster squads, all characters are reskinned as Human, UNLESS specified by the player. In addition, any race, class, or ability can be reskinned to fit the flavor of the setting. For example, I am playing a Human Shadow Wizard Mage Hunter in a campaign, but his stats are for a Drow Assassin.
No characters receive themes unless specified by the DM.
Characters may not choose backgrounds with combat bonuses. Ex: Born Under a Bad Sign
At first level, every character receives two bonus Feats. (Originally this was intended to give every character Expertise and Focus, since they are mandatory feats for most classes, but we decided players should be able to decide for themselves if that was really the case for them.)
Each level that your character receives a Feat, they gain an additional feat that cannot have a direct combat effect. Ex: Languages and Skill Training (This translates to TWO bonus feats at level 2, even if you are Human)
Each level that your character receives a Utility, they gain an additional Utility that cannot have a direct combat effect. (In extreme cases, the DM may allow a player to select a Bonus Utility from another class, if they believe it would fit the character better or there are no out of combat options available that work.)
Immediate Actions and Warlocks
Immediate Actions may be used during a character’s turn, but expends the single Immediate Action for the round until the beginning of the characters next turn. This rule change is specifically targeted at situations when it would make sense for the action to occur.
Ex: Some Warlock curse bonuses do not activate if the Warlock kills the curse target on their own turn. This has been determined to be silly.
Skill Challenges as written tend to simply be rolling dice and are intensely boring or frustrating affairs. Instead, the DC should be dependant on the player’s IDEA not simply their roll. If the player has a great idea and even an ok stat, they should usually be able to make their action work. Under normal conditions, a roll may be completely unnecessary. Rolls are better for dangerous, dramatic, or even funny moments, when it really matters if the player succeeds or fails. In the same way, only the most extreme skill/roll combinations should overcome an idiotic idea, and the DM can simply rule that even a 20 fails.
Number of successes is a mechanical and uninteresting way to measure defeat of a skill encounter. Instead, skill checks should directly lead to changes in the story, situation, or future encounters. Find a way to reward good skill uses and checks other than “defeating a skill encounter.” It’s about telling a story through player agency, not rolling dice for XP.
Success VS Failure and Grey Areas
I do not believe that skills checks should result in a success or a failure. There is a whole range of how actions can play out. For example, if a player makes a weak roll, they might still succeed at the action they were trying to perform, but not as well as they had intended.
When to Call for a Check
It is not necessary to make a skill check whenever you want to look for something or talk to another characters. As a standard role, the DM can declare if an action is simply impossible, like intimidating a monster, or an automatic success, like opening a simple lock as a great thief. Only call for the check if you are unsure if the action would succeed or fail, if the result of the roll would greatly adjust the way the scene will play out, or it would be climactic if the character would succeed or fail.
Players should never be allowed to call for a roll and then claim that they succeed at something you don’t want them to.
Action Points & Heroic Points
In their most basic form, Action Points allow players to occasionally feel more heroic. An element that I began using in my games was “Heroic Points.” How do you let a character feel like they are truly cutting through their enemies with advantage? Or feel rewarded for “wasting” their actions to save a civilian from a monster? I often award Heroic Points.
Heroic Points are Action Points that can be spent once per round but as many times as the player would like in each combat. They help represent the momentum of meeting objectives or coming into combat completely prepared. Heroic Points may be earned for individual actions and heroism or as a group to be spent by any member.
Short and Extended Rests
Characters should not simply regain their powers, because they take a nap. It is an over simplification of the power system. Sometimes in a session, your characters will have to travel for days by land or boat, and you don’t want them regaining all their abilities and healing surges. Instead, Short Rests are assumed to occur after any major combat or skill encounter.
Extended Rests only occur when the DM designates them. You may get one during a session, or from resting. You may not receive them for multiple sessions. They should not be related to the number of encounters the PCs have experienced, but entirely at DM discretion. Don’t handicap yourself by giving an exact number. USUALLY there will be an extended rest at the end of each session.
In addition, the DM may declare that Short and Extended Rests occur in fractions of that time. Maybe you charge through battle, and once you’ve captured the bridge, you immediately charge into the keep’s courtyard. But the DM declares that the momentum and accomplishment of capturing the bridge give you a boost of strength and you receive a Short Rest, even though there was no opportunity to actually rest. Magical effects in combat could fill the same role.
For the DM
Magic Items are powerful and important artifacts, not trinkets covering heroes. When a magic item is introduced to the game it should have some significance to an individual, society, or the world as a whole. It is recommended that it’s power not be directly related to combat, so that it doesn’t feel like a game mechanic, but instead a useful tool to battle the party’s enemies.
Sword of the Planes: The blade of the sword changes color to indicate the presence of extra planar beings. Knowledge of the colors allows the user to determine their origin.
Orbs of Communication: Two Orbs are permanently connected to communicate to each other.
Spear of Elencros: The Spear of Elencros acts as a regular spear in all regards except that it was the weapon used to banish the Demon Lord Elencros two centuries ago and is the only weapon known to be capable of doing it again.
Major Out of Combat Actions
One of my favorite aspects of role-playing storytelling is the opportunity for major world changing goals. Summoning dark Gods, becoming ruler of your own kingdom, or calling down a great beam of destruction that could destroy an entire city. It just so happens that rules for these kinds of actions, rituals, and player goals do not exist in 4E. So make them up. All I wanted to say on this point is don’t be afraid to work with your players to create cool stories and events whose scope lies outside of the rules.
Optional: Infiltration Special Rules
When infiltrating in stories, characters will often kill or knockout individual guards while moving through an area, or a surprise attack would cut down men in seconds, before they are able to get ready for a fight. 4E simply doesn’t function like that. It takes 3-4 strong hits to bring down even standard enemies. For these kinds of scenarios I run “Infiltration Special Rules.”
Essentially, in the first round of a surprise, all standard enemies are considered minions OR a damage modifier is applied to all attacks, such as x4-x5. It makes the initial attack feel devastating, and the PCs might be able to take an entire group of enemies out in a single round, which is the goal in an Infiltration mission.
Do not feel like this is always necessary, but it can be cool and helpful in specific situations.