I have yet to encounter (or even hear of) a group that plays with zero house rules. House rules can be many things: attempts to clarify existing rules, attempts to create rules to fill in gaps, or changes to rules that just don’t work. As with every group, our house rules attempt to address all three. Of the most importance is consistency; I started a House Rules document to ensure that the universe the players functioned in resulted in the same answers every time. Whenever we answer a complex question, we make sure to write it down. That saves looking it all back up again at a later date!
Hit points are a combination of the ability to take physical damage, and the more ephemeral ability to avoid damage. For years we used a slightly more complex system dividing hit points up into those two components, defined as “Body” and “Skill”. The character had the same number of hit points, just divided between the two categories. Body was the character’s Constitution. Skill was, well, everything else. By default all damage started at Skill; once all Skill points were gone damage went to Body. Blows that hit by greater than 5 went directly to Body.
I really liked this system. It provided the ability to damage a character with many hit points by applying damage directly to the Body. Characters could heal Skill points much faster than Body, so daily healing could be much faster if characters were only wounded into Skill. Yet every time the party rested, there was always some level of confused player discussion, and I eventually (with regret) retired it as unworkable.
A number of our house rules are just inclusions of obscure rules, or clarifications of gaps in the rules. When trying to find answers to those questions, I default back to earlier editions and Dragon Magazine before resorting to answers in later editions.
I come from a background of twenty years of full-contact armored combat (the SCA), so I tend to view combat very tactically. As players are wont to move about in combat, we eventually adopted a hybrid of the 2e initiative system. Each player rolls a d10, and then adds whatever bonuses (or penalties) to their initiative. Characters act in order of their initiative. The secret sauce to that is that actions take place in sequence. If a fighter rolls an 8, then wants to move less than half their movement (+4), then swing their sword (+5), then they will complete their blow at 17. If a spellcaster is casting a spell through the area the fighter is moving through, we know that the fighter is in that area between 9 and 13. If the spell goes off in that interval, the fighter could be affected. If the spell goes off before 9, then the fighter will be unaffected.
All of the spell-casting classes are provided the ability to flex their spell casting to make the spell-casters more adaptable. Magic users can swap two “memorized” spells (or a spell one level higher) for a single, different spell. Clerics can swap any spell for a necromantic (healing) spell. Druids can memorize twice as many spells as normal, but only cast the same number they could usually cast. Clerics memorize more interesting spells than healing, but have healing available if necessary (more often than not!). Magic users get usage out of those obscure spells that previously no one ever memorized on the off-chance it might be necessary, normally preferring “standard” spells of more utility.
There is no edition of Dungeons & Dragons that has a good non-weapon/hand-to-hand combat system. We attempted for years to come up with a system that dealt appropriately with combatant level, armor class, and number of opponents, before finally settling into the system we use now. It’s an opposed system, where each combatant rolls dice and compared the results for success. The system uses THAC0, primarily defining success based on character class and level. We now use this opposed system for all sorts of things, like breaking through an enemy line, or disarming.
We don’t normally pay a lot of attention to encumbrance, trying to just use common sense. We have some players that are very detail-oriented, tracking the weight of every spike, and other players who just want to play. After a long session determining just how much treasure the party could haul out of a particularly lucrative lair, we needed something in the middle. I created a generic encumbrance system for the less-detail-oriented players. Those players who go to the effort of tracking everything get a slight advantage, because the generic system assumes a bit more weight than normal, but a small enough difference to leave everyone happy.
House Rules (revised)