Foreward and Rule Number 1
Herein are gathered those “house rules” with which I have seen fit to modify campaigns played under my roof. They include both changes to rules in the published, canonical rules set and additional rules of my own creation or which I have adopted from others. Before I discuss these specifics, though, I should first address my most general house rule: I run Core D&D, Edition 3.5.
When I say Core, I mean the Corest of Core. Three books: the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. But that’s so limiting, I hear you cry. In a way, yes, and in a way it is not. Having a rule or book of rules for every contingency under the sun is not liberty. In fact, it may be the opposite of liberty. Much like excess legislation in national politics, it creates an environment of legal oppression, a tyranny of red tape and lawyers under which no one is really sure anymore just what the rules are. Limiting the rules set to that minimum necessary to play a Complete game goes a long way toward reducing the occurrence of unforeseen consequences, conflicting rules, and of course those situations so esoteric that they require hours of delving into scores of tomes to resolve them. The larger the rules set, the less complete any one individual’s knowledge of it will be, and less complete knowledge leads to a greater reliance on ad hoc and arbitrary decisions. For this reason, expanded rules sets are ultimately self-defeating. They set out to create a less arbitrary treatment of various concepts outside the scope of the core game, but in the end they only engender so much more arbitrariness.
Meanwhile, the chief virtues of that core game are more overlooked with each “splat” addition to the rules set. The chief virtues of Core D&D 3rd Edition, in case you did not know (because you’ve been playing splat-heavy games all your life and have therefore never encountered them) are generality and versatility. (If you have not read my article on proper interpretation of RPG rules, you may wish to do so. I will here assume that you have.) The core game system, being little more than a most basic statistical model of a given person’s capabilities, leaves its users wide freedom to interpret its declarations aesthetically, assigning the why and how to its very shallow determinations of “what happens.” Furthermore, because it addresses events in this very shallow, general way, it can easily stretch to encompass new scenarios or ideas that were not part of the original consideration of its design. By not asking too much of the world it models, it is prepared for anything that world may throw at it, up to and including such wild diversions as modern and futuristic game settings, which we will discuss specifically later on. Given a proper understanding of the rules as they are, one can see how they will encompass these and other new concepts, often without even any minor adjustments, much less the full-bore, stand-alone games that are often created around them.
And what about campaign settings? I hear another voice ask. You can’t run an Eberron game without the Eberron book. Well, this is true. If you’re into fluff, you do need fluff books, just as those who are into splat need splat books. (For those with less exposure to gaming terminology, “splat” refers to expansions of the rules set, usually introduced in later publications following that of the original core rules. Under the “splat” label I choose into include everything outside the first three D&D 3.5 books, including those additions which are considered close enough to canon to be included in the free System Reference Document under the Open Gaming License. Your SRD does not impress me. I know your Psion rules for the splattery splat they are. “Fluff,” meanwhile, refers to aesthetic details which are published to help players and Dungeon Masters flesh out the story side of their game. Essentially, “fluff” is information about a setting, coming either in the form of documents directly descriptive of a setting, such as the Eberron rulebook, or in the form of novels and stories which are sanctioned by official authority and have the stamp of canonical authenticity. “Warhammer 40,000” makes wide use of fluff novels to fluff up its game world.) But to hell with fluff, says I. While I have known campaigns in established game settings which were extremely fun and compelling, I myself have little use for such limits on my creativity. Every decision someone else has made about the setting is a decision I am no longer free to make, or one that I must make as an explicit change, my campaign then ever after bearing the label of Non-Standard or Non-Canon—or, to the 40k crowd, Heresy. The Warhammer 40k crowd feels very strongly about Heresy. This would not be a problem except that, having told my players I’m going to use a particular setting, I would then have to confuse the issue and leave them ever after wondering what else I’m going to toss out the window like the Heretic that I am. It is much simpler and more honest to home-brew a setting from the outset.
The other thing I don’t like about established game settings is that they are often quite silly. “Shadowrun” takes the Gold Medal for creating an entire game system around 1980s-era Military-Industrial-Complex paranoia that comes across as hilarious when it intends to come across as dark and edgy.
The last and probably most significant argument I have with fluff material is that by its very definition it adds something to the game setting which is not supposed to be there: knowledge. It’s all well and good for a science fiction game to come with a great big map of The World As It Really Is, because such maps are reasonably available to characters within the game world. People in a modern world grow up with a modern understanding of that world and a general sense of how it all fits together. They may very well be mistaken, but at least they think they know how it works. As Agent K would say, they think they have a good bead on things. The average character in a medieval fantasy world, by contrast, is possessed of no such confidence (or arrogance). Refer to my description of Magic in the essay on proper rules interpretation. The world to such a person is a great, black, howling void of potential horror and chaos, illuminated only in his immediate vicinity by his immediate observation. He can tame it somewhat through exploration, mapping a place and then returning there later to prove that yes, it has not spontaneously metamorphosed in his absence into an unrecognizable landscape, but even so, whenever he departs, some measure of shadow does close in behind him, potentially bringing with it all the demons, monsters, and mysteries which scuttle and slither in the dark. Far more accurate to the experience of such a character than a thick volume containing a detailed world map and history would be something like the masked maps of typical strategy videogames, where the player paints the landscape into visibility out of a black void by exploring it, and even those areas so revealed are enshrouded in a literal “fog of war,” which hides events taking place on any explored portion of the map which is not under direct observation by the player’s characters.
This is how I run a game. To the extent that I create a world map and history beforehand (and I certainly do not always, depending on the needs of the game), I keep it hidden close to my vest, and otherwise I and my players create as we go. Our game world is thus endowed with the qualities of mystery and vastness which it should by rights and reason possess.
So, about those house rules. No game system is perfect, but D&D 3.5 is eminently playable as published. The bits and pieces represented below relate more to my own experiences and sensibilities than to any fundamental argument with game canon. It is ironic but true that the sort of people inclined to model violent, deadly combat using dice and computers are as a general rule the sort of people least qualified to model combat with anything at all, they being (again, as a general rule) about as martial as a Free Love demonstration in San Francisco. Even so, by some combination of research, intelligence, and sheer luck, the creators of 3rd Edition D&D have stumbled upon a model more elegant and realistic than any other I know. Even those aspects which at first seem counterintuitive, such as the heavy reliance on Strength in melee combat, or the use of a general Base Attack bonus and weapon “proficiencies,” rather than specific weapon skills, capture as well as I have ever seen them captured those subtle aspects of martial development that make great fighters great. Sure, a championship boxer might not be proficient with a Filipino rattan stick, but I dare the average computer programmer to an Escrima duel with him.
Here then begins the list of purely personal changes I make, which others may like or not like. I will attempt to keep this list up to date and sorted in some kind of order, with the generally more massive or specific alterations nearest the bottom.
I do like Action Points, as described in the Eberron Campaign Setting. Since they are relatively simple to explain and implement, I will describe the rules here. Courtesy of Eberron: Every character has, upon gaining a new character level, a number of Action Points equal to five plus half of its character level (rounded down to the nearest whole number). Over the course of that level (it takes on average 13 encounters to reach the next character level), a character may spend its Action Points as follows. Once per round, on a single action which requires the roll of a d20, the player may elect to spend an Action Point to improve the character’s chance of success. The player may declare the use of an Action Point at any time up to but before the Dungeon Master reports the success or failure of the roll. Upon declaring the use of the Action Point, the player rolls a d6 and adds its result to his roll total as an additional bonus—a Heroic Destiny bonus, if you will. A character of level 8 or higher, when spending one Action Point, may roll two d6 and select the better of the two (not the sum) for his bonus. A character of level 15 or higher may roll three d6 and select the best result of the three for his bonus.
Action Points have other uses specific to certain features of Eberron and other non-Core games which do not feature and are not related here.
Therefore, Action Points are available to characters according to the rules specified above.
This is essentially to say that poor archers are punished enough. Forcing them to pay a -4 attack penalty in addition to the expenditure of a feat slot (and the prerequisite Point Blank Shot feat), just to achieve some kind of damage output halfway commensurate with other combat mechanisms seems cruel.
Therefore, anyone who wishes to attempt the Manyshot trick may do so at the standard penalty rate. Those who have taken the Manyshot Feat face penalties reduced by four, as they are now proficient in this method of archery.
This is another addition designed to add some punch to the archery game, which is usually left to rot after about level three, as the power of the melee combat system expands and outstrips it. The mathematics here are identical to those of Power Attack: at the beginning of its attack action, a character may choose to redirect (for all attacks to be made that turn) a certain amount of its base attack bonus from its attack rolls to its damage rolls. That value is fixed for the duration of the round and may not exceed the character’s Base Attack. Unlike those of Power Attack, the exchange rate between attack bonus and damage bonus is never multiplied; it is always one-for-one.
This feat requires Point Blank Shot as a prerequisite, but it is not limited to the thirty foot range. The trade-off mechanism may be applied to any shot, at any range, if the character is so confident that it can overcome the various cumulative penalties.
Therefore, Called Shot:
This reflects the fact that the 3.5 Edition rules for the Paladin’s Mount make No Sense At All. Everything about the Paladin bespeaks commitment and loyalty. The Paladin’s faith is steadfast and unflagging. When every other soul has betrayed the just cause or abandoned his post, the Paladin remains true. His horse, though, that thing will just—Poof!—vanish into thin air whenever it gets bored? Hardly! If the Paladin’s Mount is to be endowed with Celestial qualities, then let it be endowed in the proper sense. Let it be a creature of the World (as the Paladin is a creature of the World) that gains a higher dimension by contracting with its master (exactly as does the Paladin). If that higher dimension should include extraplanar parking privileges, then let it be able to make use of those privileges according to the degree of its power, and remain meanwhile the symbol of its master’s heroic qualities that it is supposed to be.
Therefore, the dynamics of Paladin’s Mount summoning as described in the Player’s Handbook 3.5 are simply reversed. The durations given there describe the amount of time the creature can remain dismissed, after which it returns to the material realm either at the Paladin’s side or at the point where it was dismissed. (Settle on one behavior for the campaign and stick to it. Either way, hilarity may ensue.) And may I just say: What a silly idea. A fickle Paladin’s mount? Honestly!
This is the most significant change I have made to the shape of the core rules. It has long been admitted that Paladins and Rangers lack the punch of their peers, both melee and spellcasting. What they lose to the penalties of being multispecialists they seem never quite to gain back in benefits. (That is, of course, the nature of multispecialism: it is inherently inefficient. Jack of all trades can be master of none.) Even accepting that they will never rival Clerics and Druids for sheer might (We can’t all be Druids, after all. Having just one in the game is bad enough.), debate has long raged over how to empower them at least to a level comparable with their mundane melee brethren, the Fighters, Barbarians, and Monks.
Having pondered the same question myself for years on end, never satisfied with my own ideas, I finally stumbled upon an archived discussion of the problem in which it was mentioned that both Paladin and Ranger were originally intended to be Prestige classes, which are the more specialized, abbreviated classes meant to represent specific careers or destinies adopted by a character later in its life. This made perfect sense to me. Paladin and Ranger do represent specific careers, as opposed to the other classes which tend to each represent an umbrella covering a multitude of possible occupations with certain common qualities. Furthermore, Paladin and Ranger careers carry with them a particular moral dimension, a commitment to particular principles and sacrifices, which no one can make without first having some experience in the world. They both represent the image of the One Who Turned Back, the Beowfulf-like character such that, when everyone else gave up and turned for home, this one hesistated, paused, turned back, and said, “Well, someone has to do it.” And then alone he returned to the battle, and there he remained, forever severed from his peers by his sacrifice and his acknowledgement of a higher calling.
This is not the kind of thing one does straight out of High School. However, it is the kind of thing one will do for most of one’s life, potentially. It is the kind of commitment that tends to be made not by boys, but neither by old men; rather, it is the commitment made by an occasional, singular young man which seals his doom for the rest of his years to come. Therefore, it seems eminently reasonable to me that these should be 15-level Prestige classes with some prerequisite of, if nothing else, adventuring experience.
I did, upon receiving this flash of enlightenment, promptly research the Prestigious, 15-level versions of these classes available in the SRD. I liked what I saw, for the most part. Compressing the classes by five levels produces exactly the kind of class feature density commensurate with the other classes. Furthermore, it allows for a much simpler mechanism by which to regulate the character’s spellcasting power. The Ranger or Fighter simply gains an effective level of Druid or Cleric (respectively) for spellcasting purposes at every second level of the Prestige class. This creates a slightly more liberal spellcaster with a wider selection of spells and the opportunity to at least touch upon 5th level spells, though not to master them. Improved magical prowess makes up for the lack of combat- and damage-oriented class features which are so prevalent to the other melee-oriented classes and also balances against the reduced potential of class-level-proportional powers like Favored Enemies and Smite Evil. In combination with the features a Prestige Paladin or Ranger character retains from its class or classes of origin, these Prestige classes are enough to make that character competitive with other base and Prestige characters throughout the game and allow Rangers and Paladins to be more substantial and influential presences on the battlefield at any level. In short, they have that nice, hefty, beefy feel of feature-rich Monks and Barbarians and Feat-rich Fighters.
The only thing I really don’t like about the 15-level Prestige classes as published is their spellcasting prerequisites. These seem to me to defeat the purpose. A Ranger or Paladin gains supernatural powers as part of his career choice, as a tradeoff for the sacrifices he makes personally—not because he is a poor man’s Fighter/Druid or Fighter/Cleric multiclass. Forcing a character to dip Druid to become a Ranger or dip Cleric to become a Fighter is, in short, lame.
A character wishing to become a Ranger must meet appropriate feat, skill, and base attack prerequisites (those outlined in the SRD suit me, but I have no qualms about tweaking them if a good reason is presented). The character may then pursue the Prestige class as written, with the exception that for spellcasting purposes it does not gain a “level of existing divine spellcasting class” at each even Prestige level, but rather gains a level of Druid spellcasting, plain and simple. Prestige Ranger retains any spells unique to the Ranger spell list.
A character wishing to become a Paladin follows the same rules as those for Ranger, with the exception that it gains for spellcasting purposes levels of Cleric rather than Druid. Prestige Paladin retains any spells unique to the Paladin spell list.
Regarding Prestige Paladins as published in the SRD: Please note that Prestige Paladins gain new levels of their spellcasting class at odd Prestige levels, unlike the Ranger. Please also note that Prestige Paladin simplifies Turn Undead rules for Paladins. Prestige Paladin levels are identical to Cleric levels for purposes of Turn Undead. Finally, note that Prestige Paladins are given an arbitrary three-level-bonus for balancing purposes to the Lay On Hands and Special Mount features.