Every Dungeon Master has a mile-long scroll of things they would love to share, myself included. It’s important to note, there are very few objectively wrong ways to play D&D. The following is purely my opinion and how I run my games. Use them, abuse them or ignore them. They aren’t an attack on anyone else’s playstyle. Every Dungeon Master is different, and the best ones pick and choose ideas that jive with them.
The greatest thing about 5E is house ruling and game modding isn’t a side thing. It’s baked into the system. I truly believe the reason why much of 5E is so simple, is because of how easy it is for a Dungeon Master to twist and bend it into their own.
Tip 1: Fluff should have mechanical effects
Fluff for the sake of fluff is nice, but when overused can make it feel as though a player’s choices are largely irrelevant except to alter story descriptors. If a player says I shoot my bow at the troll’s eye and you have them roll a simple attack leaving the eye is unharmed if it hits with no mechanical benefit, it’s disappointing. However, letting a simple attack cause a status effect can also be too powerful and easily abused. Luckily you have many tools at your disposal to rationalize the action.
Whatever you choose, make the player aware of the difficulty and see if they still want to attempt the action. You could simply impose a disadvantage. It’s sweet and simple. You could also impose an attack penalty, a -2 to -4 depending on the difficulty of the action. You may also have a damage threshold. If the attack hits and deals an amount of damage equal to or higher than a set number, the eye is affected. You can also make the creature roll a save with a DC equal to the damage dealt. You can use any of these options or combine them depending on the action.
A rogue wants to jump from a high cliff, land and grab onto a wyvern’s back and slice through the webbing of its wing. Absolutely allow it and make the player aware of the difficulty involved and the consequences of failure. In this case, the rogue may miss and fall, taking damage. Have the rogue roll a check to make the jump, and then an attack roll on the wing. Use the above guidelines to determine if the wing is damaged, if it is, great! The wyvern loses altitude, this was the rogues intent. The rogue is now riding a falling creature, have an additional check to determine what they can do in this circumstance to avoid the consequences.
When determining damage and effects from improvised and creative actions, don’t be afraid to dial up the damage and effects. Especially if it was difficult or could have had consequences for failure. You need to only be wary of easier and easily repeated actions. Throwing sand in the eyes of a creature may work once, but I wouldn’t rule it as being blinded, I’d give it disadvantage against opportune attacks that round for example. I would also rule it as a full action. That way it’s a situational attack instead of a go-to.
I recently had a rogue swallowed by a worm, she had her hands free, however, and threw a bead of force as far down its innards as she could. I had the bead deal four times the number of dice it would normally deal, seeing as the bead was expanding from inside of it. Your player’s desire to be immersed inside the world doesn’t suddenly stop because they are in combat. Have actions make mechanical sense in the realm of rules already established in your game world and it becomes much more fun, heroic and tactical.
Remember the core duty of a Dungeon Master is to take what the players do and rationalize what happens. You aren’t limited to what the PHB lists in the combat chapter.
Tip 2: A Dungeon Master should allow spells to have alternate uses
The spell acid splash specifies that it targets creatures. A lock on a door isn’t a creature. Rules, as written, would mean that you couldn’t use acid splash on the lock. Does it make sense in the context of the game world? I don’t think so. Allow the wizard to try it, does that mean they automatically can break any lock with a simple cantrip? No.
Is the lock mundane or magical? Is it simple or complex? What is made out of? Who made it? Following tip one and knowing the answer to these questions will allow you to make a ruling on it. Perhaps you set hardness based on what the lock is made out of and the acid splash needs to meet or exceed it with damage. It’s a cantrip, but if you let the player know this, maybe let them expend spell slots to increase the number of dice. Is it worth it to them?
Or maybe you have them roll an Arcana check with a set DC, judging their magical abilities with the use of the cantrip instead. What if failure meant the lock is damaged and can no longer be picked with thieves’ tools? Any of the above is much more interesting than telling your player, “No, the spell says it targets creatures, the lock isn’t a creature.”
A white dragon rammed a pillar of ice that the sorcerer was on top of…The Sorcerer wanted to use her reaction and an Ice based spell to try and reseal the cracks. I had set a DC, had her burn a sorcery point and she rolled arcana. She managed it, but she also risked failure which means she still would have still fallen, lost a sorcery point, and her reaction on top of it. Risk vs reward.
Tip 3: Customize your monsters
The monsters in the monster manual do a serviceable job in a pinch, but again I feel they are intentionally simple as a kind of blank slate. Feel free to give them new abilities and attacks, or alter their stats. This is a good way to throw off players who are also dungeon masters and have read the book. Spellcasters can be difficult to run unless you have all the spells memorized.
I like to write out shortened information for their spells instead. You can use whatever method you prefer to customize or make monsters. Making templates in word works, or you can find many tools and resources online. My go-to is Critter DB.
Monsters need not follow the same mechanics as player characters, give them new or different spells, or change how they work. Look at how they interact with each other and you can come up with some neat battle scenarios. Tweaking statistics is something that takes practice, but the safest change is HP. If you want to make a lower-level creature tougher for a high-level party, raise it. If you want to make a higher-level creature killable by a lower party, lower its HP.
When doing either, you should make your descriptions clear that a creature is somehow different than its normal kin. These goblins might seem heartier and bulkier than most. This dragon may have scars from previous injuries, walk with a limp, or seem exhausted. The creative power is in the hands of the Dungeon Master.
Tip 4: Monsters are more than stat blocks
Even if you don’t customize the actual abilities and statistics, monsters are more than simple stat blocks. A dragon has no ability that allows it to ram a wall and knock it over, or to pick up a character in its claws. It can and should still do both of these things. It makes sense and makes the battle more fun, unpredictable and dynamic. Goblins are crafty, maybe they cut down a nearby tapestry so it falls on top of a player. Perhaps they climb up a friendly ogre’s back and attack with bows. Maybe the ogre decides he doesn’t like that and throws a goblin at a player. These ideas aren’t coded in the stat block, yet it makes perfect sense within the world.
Likewise, consider the monster’s goals. Is it to kill everyone? Delay the party? Steal something? Having side objectives for both monsters and players to accomplish in a battle makes them more interesting. Will they fight to the death? Animals and people rarely do, at what point will they retreat?
Also, describe the monster’s strengths and weaknesses in fluff-based descriptors. Encourage the players to take your snippets and apply them. If a creature’s AC is high because it’s fast and nimble, describe it deftly dodging out of the way. If its AC is high because of armored plating, describe missed attacks as bouncing off of its tough hide.
Smart players will know that any attempt to weaken the hide of a fast creature will not affect its AC, likewise slowing down an armored hulk will not affect its AC. But what if they could damage and weaken part of the hulk’s armor? Or tear away a tower shield from a bugbear? I also like to have some parts of a creature be softer than others, the underbelly of a beetle for example.
This can be helpful with saves as well. Describe a high wisdom creature shrugging off a wisdom-based spell as doing so with complete ease, barely losing focus. This implies that the creature has high wisdom and perhaps a spell targeting something else would be more effective. If the players don’t pick up what you’re putting down, that’s on them!
It’s normal for Dungeon masters to improvise how NPC’s react to the players outside of combat. It’s really the same principle. Think of them as living breathing adversaries instead of statistics.
Gideon’s House Rules and Homebrews
I can’t list every change I’ve ever made. But I’ll highlight a few. Martial characters often have to be very creative to get cool effects that spellcasters simply get for being a spell caster. Sometimes martial characters can get stuck in a loop of saying I hit it with my weapon…I use a martial power system I built to give them a bit more flexibility.
Before moving to DnD 5E, the game we played had luck points. This actually exists in D&D as a feat. I give all Characters three luck points for free though, they regain them on a long rest and they can take the feat to gain three more. It’s just something that makes my players a lot happier. Yes, this and the martial powers affect game balance. But I already know this and factor it into my encounters. I’m the dungeon master, I have complete control of the monsters and scenarios. I also use the slow natural healing variant on page 267 of the dungeon master guide.
If you are doing everything right, long rests should become hard to come by in the middle of an adventure or should come with potential consequences. This encourages the party to think carefully and helps balance new aspects such as my martial powers or luck.
I’ve changed certain spells that I felt were underpowered. For example, I’ve made blade ward and true strike bonus actions. In some of my homebrew spells, I have implemented channeling. These spells are particularly powerful, but the caster must start the channel in one turn and it takes effect on the next turn. Essentially taking two whole actions. If they lose concentration in-between, the spell fails. This has been popular with my players and is a very risk vs reward mechanic. It’s a lot to give up for a powerful effect, but it also encourages the team to protect a channeling caster. My monsters have channel spells as well and a channeling caster can instill panic in the party!
My players love to carve parts from creatures and see what can be made out of them. You can come up with neat magic items based on creature parts. Part of being a Dungeon Master is creating great things. That means worlds, monsters, spells, items, and everything in-between.
I hope you have found these tips to be helpful, remember, if there is something you don’t like in DnD, change it until you do! Just make sure your players are all on board!
Also consider checking out the The Six Ps of Being A Great DM by Goblin Gaming.
Want a change from DnD? Check out my review of Pathfinder 2nd edition. If you enjoy this content, consider supporting it via my Kofi page!