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Breaking the 4th Wall—House Rules

Breaking the 4th Wall—House Rules

Arthur Hughes - Sir GalahadIn my very first 4E D&D session, the first thing my DM said to us was, “Right. First house rule—you get a +2 bonus to skill checks that are relevant to the profession you had before adventuring.” This was several months before backgrounds were released in Dragon 366. It made me smile; it wouldn’t have felt like D&D without a house rule or two.

Apart from that initial game, I don’t think I have come across any other house rules as a player. Maybe it is because the system closely matches the needs of the people using it, maybe the balance of the game is so revered that people are reluctant to upset it, or maybe it is because a lot of the rules rest in the powers that players use and they can be house ruled on a case-by-case basis. If there are general rules that can be tweaked to make the game more fun, then unbalancing the game slightly should not stop you.

Breaking the 4th Wall is a series of articles that hopes to help you bend 4E into exactly the system that suits you. Over the next few articles, we hope to give you tools and advice to enrich your 4E experience.

Transition Scenes by Brian Liberge offers a way of mechanically incentivising players to roleplay, stealing a beat from storytelling games.

Turning the Tide: Morale Rules in D&D 4E by Adam Page adds the classic morale rules to 4th Edition.

In Legendary Locations of Midgard: Dynamic Environments, Paul Baalham shows how to use disease tracks to keep track of how PCs are coping with a hostile environment.

John Pope discusses the often mentioned problem of combat length in 4E in Faster Combat, Faster.

The rest of this article discusses some house rules for 4E.


A natural 20 when rolling a minion’s attack can feel wasted. When this happens, double the damage dealt by the attack.

Action Points

Each PC gets one action point each encounter. It is easier to track and allows PCs to feel more heroic. That said, some PCs are built so multiple effects occur when action points are used. This house rule effectively doubles the amount of times these moments occur, which can be unbalancing to the game, so keep that in mind. Another negative is that some DMs like giving action points as rewards for good roleplaying, writing session reports, and other activities, which would be meaningless with this house rule.

Skills as Minor Actions

Some skill uses are listed as standard actions in the rules. To encourage improvisation, let them be used as minor actions so that players can still use a standard action as well.

Recharging Daily Powers

If you find that your players take extended rests when they have used their daily powers despite having enough hit points and healing surges to carry on for a few more encounters, consider letting them have the opportunity to recharge their expended daily powers. After the first encounter, whenever initiative is rolled for a combat encounter, each player gets to rolls a d6 for each daily power they have used. On a roll of 6, they get the power back. This is definitely only suitable for certain types of groups, but can help elongate the adventuring day for them. The downside is that the party’s resources are less predictable, which may upset the plans of the DM.

Escalation Die

In Kobold Quarterly #22, Rob Heinsoo explained how to use the 13th Age Escalation Die mechanic in 4E (as well as for other systems). This speeds up combat and ramps up the action at the end of the fight when the fight can drag. To use the escalation die, grab a d6 and put it where all players can see it. The escalation dice increases round by round and is added to the attack rolls of every PC. Ignore it for the first round of combat as the escalation dice starts at 0. At the start of the second round, the dice is set to 1 and players add this to their attack rolls. At the start of the second round the dice is increased to 2, and so on until the start of the 7th round when the dice is turned to 6 and all players get +6 to their attack rolls.

Divine Die

A single d20 is placed in the middle of the table. It can be used to reroll any d20 roll, but only once per session and once per group. This can be great to help rescue a situation that looks lost.

These are only a selection of the house rules that would be possible in 4E. What house rules do you use in your 4E games? Let us know in the comments below.

15 thoughts on “Breaking the 4th Wall—House Rules”

  1. Morgan Boehringer

    (Legendary Locations of Midgard has Midgard spelled “Migard”)

    I like the Divine Die. Even sounds cool.

    The Recharging Daily powers rule is nice, kinda like the recharge a lot of creatures get already during combat.

    As for the Escalation Die, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here – I’d only use it if it worked both ways – heroics are not the sole right of PCs. Having though about it a bit more, I think the chassis of the mechanic is fine, but there are perhaps different things it could be attached to, rather than a blanket attack roll. Mixing it up a bit might be nice, from reflecting general tiredness as a battle rages (increasing penalty to damage as muscles flag) to the opposite – growing adrenaline and ferocity (the increasing bonus to attacks as detailed above, or damage as the spirits rise or desperation increases).

  2. As a DM, I make a slight change in procedure when trying to disable a trap. When a PC rolls to disable a trap, I have them do it in an overturned dice cup. However, the roll remains hidden until the other PCs have declared their actions. Only then is the cup removed and the success or failure of the roll revealed. How confident are you that the rogue disabled that thrusting spear trap. ^_^

  3. 13th Age includes some monsters that use the escalation die. It assumes that while your average orc isn’t likely to do something heroic, the orc chieftain might. The ogre that’s guarding the bridge might not use the escalation die, but almost all dragons do. The death knight that’s been plaguing the party all campaign? Definitely.

  4. Here are some of the hosue rules I have used:

    Powers: I let my players recharge daily and encounter powers by spending a healing surge. I surge for an encounter powere and 2 surges for a daily power.

    Revised actions: 1 standard/1 minor/ 1 move/ 1 reaction (OA or Immediate)/1 free per round.

    Next actions: 1 standard/1 minor or 1 move/ 1 reaction (OA or Immediate)/1 free per round.

    Gritty: Two HP tracks, THP (Tactical Hit Points) and BHP (Bloodied Hit Points). THP=1/2 HP & BHP=1/2 HP;THP is luck, vitality, endurance, etc; BHP is actual damage. When a player takes damage he/she decides whether to deduct THP or BHP. Critical hits remove damage from both. If THP is gone, all damage is BHP. Surges only grant THP healing. Extra healing on top of the surge can be to either THP or BHP.

    Hardcore gritty: THP = 1/2 class HP as above; however, BHP is based on size. Small creatures have 4bhp, medium 16bhp, large 64, huge 144, gargantuan 256

  5. Skill Feats

    At every odd-numbered level, you learn one new skill feat. This feat must be either Skill Training (phb 201), Skill Focus (phb 201), Skill Power (phb3 183), or some other purely skill related feat.

    Heroic Surges

    Healing surges and action points are combined into a single pool of heroic surges. Spend a heroic surge whenever you would normally spend a healing surge or action point. Rules governing when you can spend a healing surge or action point still apply normally. Your class and Con score determine how many heroic surges you have. You regain one heroic surge after a victory and short rest, and all your heroic surges after an extended rest.

  6. Well I guess we didn’t worry about breaking the system since we have a lot of house rules:

    Action Points
    Characters can gain AP by rolling hit points when they gain a level (at 10th level they all have 8-10 APs)
    Characters can use in a given encounter 1 AP + the number of milestones they have (no more than 1 AP per round)

    Characters earn a +5/+10/+15% bonus on encounters after the first milestone

    Armor class doesn’t grow with levels but only with ranks (depending on PC class – strikers and leaders get +3, defenders +4, controllers +2)

    Every 3 levels a PC earns a +3 bonus to a sub- skill he frequently uses (eg arcana checks to identify magic items)

    Healing surges
    Surges are equal to a PC hit die + Con mod + 1/2 level

    You die at Con value + level
    If you are resurrected you permanently lose an healing surge (if you have no surges left you are GONE)

    They all balance themselves quite well, and my PCs are happy….

  7. Luck Points

    If you have an unspent Action Point at the end of a session you may convert it into a Luck Point.

    Luck Points can be used to add 1 to any die roll.

    Once they are used they are lost.

  8. Good comments here. I especially like the disable trap die in a cup. I’ll be stealing that Robby.

    Something that I forgot about when Paul was writing this article is that I allow PCs to use more than 1 Action Point per encounter but not per round. If they take a Prestige Class or other add on that would normally grant this, they instead get to use more than 1 a turn. It adds a bit more resource management but its fun.

  9. Well, I have two to show off.
    First, My standard ability score generation rule. Every PC has a 16 and an 8 automatically and rolls the other 4 scores. Arrange as needed for Class/Build. This ensures that each PC has something they are really good at and something they are really bad at, regardless of how hot or cold their Dice luck is. Rolling is also done in front of me, of course.
    Second, all healing abilities and Potions that use dice for part or all of their healing are “Brutal 1”. In other words, dice for those abilities that come up as a Natural 1, are rerolled until they show something else. This House rule has been in effect since early in my first campaign, for D&D 3.0 way back when! And it has been needed quite a lot since!

  10. Cool stuff here all around! I recently instated the ‘All skills as minor actions’ last game actually.

    My PCs are hitting mid-paragon tier and it can be tough to challenge them in combat without potentially increasing the length of the encounters. To mitigate this on the fly I modify the monsters slightly.

    1) Round the hit points down to the nearest 50 (or 100 if time is short) increment.
    2) Double the damage die

    They will hit hard but also fall hard. Of course, this is not a cure all but for a group that is fast approaching epic tier, it works in a pinch.

  11. I’ve got my couple I’ve developed after running for three years…

    The one I immediately installed upon reading the rules and playing a couple of times was one roll for area effects, instead of rolling against each individual. Speeds up combat.

    I only recently essentially shifted to action points per encounter, and I’ve stopped tracking milestones completely. I don’t run dungeon delves often, and the milestone rules are very linked to that kind of gaming. So, that means rings (which have been one of the few rules really linked to milestones in the rules) have their extra powers always. Magic items are so weak to begin with that I don’t think the extra powers being always on is really a problem.

    I also like using Rodrigo’s rules for Skill Challenges from the “Critical Hit” Major Spoiler podcast. He allows any skill to be used, with justification, but the player can’t use the same skill as the previous player, nor can he use the same skill he used last turn, and he follows initiative order.

    I’m sure I have others, but I’ve been pretty bad at documenting them. :-)

  12. Ineffective NPCs: Whenever an NPC who isn’t a hero has to fight, I have them roll d12s instead of d20s for attack. This highlights the fundamental difference between PCs (heroes) and most of the rest of the world. (I stole this idea from the NEXT concept where zombies roll a d6 for initiative, because they’re so slow).

    Unified pet rules: For any of the many different variations on companion critters regarding action economy, I tend to just use the rules for the Essentials Sentinel Druid (share move actions, use your standard or minor). This makes it much easier for everyone to manage summoned, Animal Master companion, Fey Beast companion, spirit companion, mount, familiar, special Lolth-only familiar, elemental companion, etc. So far that’s worked okay, though some of them have very specific HP rules for very specific reasons, so those still have to be kept at whatever the book says they should be.

    Memory of 1k Lifetimes as a dramatic device: This is more of a DM style houserule, but I often use a random flash of memory thrown at the deva PC in my group to give sudden insights that otherwise the PCs would have no reason to know, especially memories about ancient ruins or artifacts.

    Action Points are better in early rounds: I’ve seen a number of folks post about this idea in various places. If an action point is spent in the first round, any attack made with that action gets +3 damage (+2 in second round, +1 in third). This helps to encourage PCs not to horde that resource.

    Losing Healing Surges with Fear effects: I’ll often give players the option of losing a healing surge instead of being stunned by a fear effect, or losing the surge to auto-save vs the effect on their turn. HS can be a measure of your willingness to fight, and terror takes away that willingness.

    And Robby, I think I’ll be using that cup idea for lots of my group’s die rolls. I hate when players decide to assist after they see that a particular roll is not as high as they’d like.

  13. Well it seems I was wrong about the lack of house rules used in 4E :) I guess I need to game with more people.

    It is great to see all of these house rules and to be honest, I think the comments are better reading than what I wrote ;)

    RE: Escalation Die. I was up against a word count and so didn’t mention the monsters using it (I also didn’t want to reproduce the whole text from the magazine). But yes, Rob mentions how to use it to with monster powers in his article.

    Thank you everyone for sharing your house rules.

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