Dungeons & Dragons is a fairly complicated game. As a result, new and experienced dungeon masters often improvise rulings to avoid interruptions to the flow of the game. Good dungeon masters will research their rulings, adjust them for the future, and notify their players of the change. That’s what this post is about. As a DM, running regular one-shots for D&D Newbie Sessions, I need to clarify a few things for my players.
1. The Crit 20 Conundrum
I used to play a LOT of Team Fortress 2. I absolutely love that game, but I hated random crits. I understand that they help level the playing field and can be satisfying, but I hated them because it meant there was less skill involved. I want my games to be challenging and rewarding over the long-term by building skill. I don’t want to be rewarded by luck. So I almost exclusively played in servers where crits were disabled.
When I started playing D&D, I saw crits in a similar light. Sudden and drastic increases in potential damage that could swing a fight in one direction. But I didn’t want to remove them entirely because they were exciting for players to roll, so I compromised by running crit 20 attacks as “max damage” attacks. For example, if you were wielding a greataxe with 1d12+4 damage, it meant you automatically hit and did 16 points of damage. No roll was necessary and 16 felt much more stable than 2d12+4 delivering a possible 28 points of damage in a single blow.
I also used this house rule because I don’t understand the logic behind the core ruling. Doubling the damage die has the potential to deliver a lot of extra damage, but it can also deliver less (see below). To me, a critical hit means that you struck with your weapon perfectly. You delivered the maximum potential you, and it, can deliver. In the default ruling, I’m not sure what a critical hit is or represents. How can a critical hit result in less than maximum damage?
My current theory is that it’s not about the weapons potential, but about what actually happened when you rolled. For instance, you roll 1+4 with your greataxe attack, but, instead of delivering 5 points of damage, you get to roll an additional 1d12 and improve the hit that just took place. The crit happens to the specific attack, not to the weapon in general.
After some careful consideration, I realized that most of my players aren’t wielding powerful weapons like greataxes anyway. In most Newbie Sessions, they have weapons that do 1d6 or 1d8 damage and critical hits only marginally increase their total damage output. Not to mention that rolling dice and scoring extra damage is fun. It also could save the party from a dire situation, cuts down on confusion, increases consistency with other DMs, and has minimal impact on my games overall.
As a result, I will continue to keep this ruling reverted and utilize the standard 5e ruling instead.
2. Simplified Spellcasting
Spellcasting consists of known spells, prepared spells, spell components, spell slots, and mechanics around restoring spell slots and learning new spells. For official Newbie Sessions, we have simplified spellcasting since the very beginning. All we require is that players track the number of spell slots they’ve used versus their remaining spell slots.
This house rule will continue for two important reasons:
1. This is often the first game of D&D our players have ever played. There is a LOT to absorb and I don’t feel like these mechanics are critical enough to make the cut. There are simply more important aspects of D&D I want them focused on and plenty to slow down games as-is. Players can opt to use these mechanics if they want, but it’s not required.
2. This system allows players to freely cast any spell they’ve added to their spell sheet. I think it’s valuable for new players to be able to cast the spells they think are cool as opposed to what they have prepared. Newbie Sessions are an opportunity to experience the game and what it has to offer; not be restricted by it.
3. Newbie Friendly Death Saves
When you reach 0 or less hit points, you fall unconscious and start fighting for your life. Each d20 roll inches you closer to life or death. If you happen to get a natural 20, you recover with 1 HP at the beginning of your turn and can still act. If you roll 3 successes without a natural 20, you stabilize, but are still unconscious.
For Newbie Sessions, I have been running games where 3 successes brings you back with 1 HP. This allows parties to recover from dire situations, but is technically a house rule. I’ve done this because I don’t want brand new players to TPK on their very first game and this reduces the odds of that happening. It’s still possible, but exceptionally rare. The other reason is because being stabilized is really boring. I don’t want a brand new player to go down, succeed on their death saves, and then sit around doing nothing.
As it stands, I will continue to use this house rule because I think it positively benefits our player’s experience of the game.
4. Clarifying Surprise
Surprise is a temporary effect applied to an affected target on the first round of combat. Targets lose their ability to act, move, or react when surprised (technically it’s a little more complicated than that) and it is not something that happens outside of combat during a “surprise round” (despite that being common in some circles).
Over the past year, a few players have wanted to attack outside of combat and I’ve allowed it. In the moment, it made narrative sense, but I’ve always regretted it later. Attacking outside of combat makes the transition into combat unnecessarily confusing and opens the floodgates for other players to take advantage of it.
Having experimented with the concept, I can see why the official ruling is in place, despite “surprise rounds” seeming logical at first glance. As a result, I will no longer allow attacks to happen outside of initiative and leverage the surprise effect as it was intended.
5. Critical Failures
When I first started as a DM, I thought it was fun to have consequences befall the players if they rolled a 1 on an ability check. I experimented with weapons breaking, hitting allies, major roleplaying failures, and other effects. It made sense at the time because rolling a critical 20 could result in incredible damage so the opposite should be significant as well. However, in practice, I realized that this wasn’t fair or positive and often seemed overly detrimental. This became even more apparent when I heard the argument that adventurers are good at what they do and shouldn’t be severely penalized just because they fumbled some roll.
I’m guessing that this concept originated from players wanting to spice up their games. It feels like a party game element which could be really funny with the right audience and storyline, but shouldn’t be applied broadly. This is especially true for Newbie Sessions where we want brand new players to feel like heroes, not bumbling idiots.
Fortunately, I’ve never actually instituted this house rule as part of D&D Newbie Sessions and will continue to avoid it. Critical failures will simply remain as stated in the PHB: the attack misses regardless of any modifiers or the target’s AC.
6. Rolling Dice in Astral
Lastly, this doesn’t technically fall under house rules, but it makes sense to mention it here anyway. Moving forward, I will ask that all players in official Newbie Session games roll digitally inside Astral Tabletop or whatever virtual tabletop the DM is using.
The primary reason I want to do this is because I’ve noticed a significant decrease in the level of excitement when rolls happen “off screen” either physically or via another tool. When rolled in Astral, there are moments when our collective breath is held and we cheer or groan together when we see the result. It’s exciting and dramatic and we lose that when we can’t see the rolls.
The second reason I want people to roll in Astral is more unfortunate. I can’t say for certain, but there have been a tiny minority of players who may have been fudging die rolls outside of Astral. It’s possible they weren’t, but after I did the math, some of the players odds of rolling as well as they did we’re far less than 1%. This behavior results in other players noticing and becoming distracted, it takes the wind out of the sails for me personally, and ultimately distracts me from being able to perform at a high level.
I appreciate your understanding and, as always, thanks for reading!