5e: Houserules for Ability Scores, Hit Points, and Initiative

This week’s blog post presents three house rules you can use in your games: Group Ability Generation, Rule of 4s Hit Points, and Oscillating Initiative. The article starts with a preface explaining the conceptual space that Group Generation and Rule of 4s fill. Oscillating Initiative is a solution for a different although not entirely unrelated issue (the common thread is how random it is).

Preface to Group Ability Generation and Rule of 4s Hit Points

Why I Believe Random Character Generation is Bad

I’m a big believer in removing the random elements from character creation and leveling up. I’m fine with the chaos of dice rolling in the game itself, for without the ebb and flow of fate’s tide the narrative would be a stagnant sea indeed. When it comes to characters, though, the idea that the default is that their strengths and weaknesses should be determined at random is baffling to me. The primary reason for my opinion is one of game balance—simply put, rolling all these characteristics makes the idea of game balance pretty much laughable.

Rolling Dice

Now, the idea of game balance in a roleplaying game is a bit of an illusion to begin with. We’re talking about a game with hundreds of system options alone, in which its players have complete freedom of choice. Among other things that means an almost limitless ability to find or stumble into ways to exploit or bend the rules that do exist, or discover holes the rules don’t cover ultimately resulting in a houserule. With all these features in play, unforeseen reactions are a simple fact, and it’s probably foolish to think you can build a system which is 100% fair 100% of the time. But, you can strive to get close. Building a game where players feel that their characters are equally valid and have as much to bring to the party is a noble goal in the pursuit of mutual fun. It’s something that D&D obviously attempts given its rigid class- and level-based system. Which is where things get confusing for me. If balance matters, and is baked into the game at all levels, why is all of that then thrown away on a bunch of randomised rolls before the game even begins?

I’m talking, of course, about ability scores and hit points. Ability scores are the worst offender by far. When you roll it’s theoretically possible to have arrays ranging from six 3s to six 18s. It’s an extreme and unlikely disparity, but it illustrates the point. The modifiers for those six abilities have a knock-on effect on the usefulness of every other meaningful statistics or character ability. and have every other game statistics of the PCs be improved or debuffed, including hit points, which are then randomised as well! For example, a run of terrible rolls in abiltiy score generated followed by hit points rolls after first level are all that separates a 5th level Barbarian with 21 hit points and a 5th level Barbarian with 52 hit points.

Why You Don’t Have to Listen to Me if You Don’t Want to

But look, this is an old and well-hashed debate. Chances are, you’ve picked which side of it you come down on already. The game already has solutions for both sides—those who prefer not to roll can use Point Buy for ability scores and take average hit points when PCs level. I’d personally prefer these to be the defaults rather than what’s considered optional, but it is what it is.

Why These Houserules Exist

The reality is, many groups include a mix of players from both camps. Being a good DM can often be about finding the right compromise to satisfy as many players as possible, even you’re one of the ones who has to concede something. Sure, you run the game, but it’s not yours exclusively. It wouldn’t exist without the group. The following houserules, “Group Ability Generation” and “Rule of 4 Hit Points”, both aim to find a solution that is at least mostly fair, with a bit of room for variation. They should satisfy both kinds of player.

Group Ability Generation

I’ve already made it clear that I don’t like rolling because it leads to disparity between PCs, which is something I personally feel undermines any concept of balance in the game.

But what if there were a way to roll for ability scores and yet for it to be completely, 100% fair? That I’d be open to.

Adventurers at Rest (scene comprising stock art by and © Brett Neufeld)

Group Ability Generation works as follows:

  • All players roll 4d6, discard the lowest result, and add the remaining three numbers together (or substitute your group’s preferred method of rolling an ability score). Each player should make a note of the total result.
  • In the event a generated ability score is less than 6, the player should ignore the total of the dice and write down 6.
  • The above is repeated six times, until all players have six ability scores between 6 and 18. These six scores are collectively known as ability arrays.
  • As a group, players compare the generated ability arrays and decide among themselves which of the arrays that all players will use.
  • Once the array is decided, each player may adjust up to three of the scores upward by +2, to a maximum of 18. For each number increased in this way, one of the remaining numbers must be decreased by -2, to a minimum of 6.

For instance, with an array of 16, 15, 13, 12, 9, and 7, you might choose to increase the 16 to 18, the 9 to 11, and the 7 to 9. However, you would then have to make three -2 adjustments, reducing the 15 to 13, the 13 to 11, and the 12 to 10.

  • After making any adjustments they like to the selected ability array (as described above), players assign each the six ability scores from the chosen array to any ability they choose.

Impact of Group Ability Generation

  • Preserves the fun of random generation.
  • Achieves completely fair ability scores for all characters.
  • Allows some customisation to satisfy players who enjoy builds, or allow for necessary adjustments to make a concept work in the event of a slightly awkward ability array.
  • Has a side effect of making PCs slightly tougher than the normal average, without breaking free of the bounds of the system’s normal tolerances. A particularly useful side-effect a low levels when PCs are at most risk.

Group Ability Generation should satisfy pretty much any player’s preferences and needs from the ability generation portion of the game. Plus, as with point-buy, if a one PC ends up significantly more powerful than another you’ll know it wasn’t because of their rolls and can focus your analysis elsewhere.

“Rule of 4s Hit Points”

This variant takes the form of two straightforward rules:

  • Replace a class’s Hit Points at Higher Levels formula with d4 + (max of original die size – 4).
  • The minimum number of Hit Points gained per level is 4, regardless of the roll result.

The new formulae for each hit die size are shown on the table below.

Rule of 4s Hit Points at Higher Levels

Original Hit Points at Higher Levels Original Hit Point Average New Hit Points at Higher Levels New Hit Points Average
d4 + 2
d4 + 4
d4 + 6
d4 + 8

Impact of the Rule of 4s

  • Ensures that the majority of a character’s hit points are predetermined, so characters are on a mostly even footing.
  • Retains a small amount of randomness, to satisfy those who like some chaos in their character generation.
  • Ensures that the random factor is consistent across the board.
  • Has a side effect of making PCs slightly tougher than the normal average, without breaking free of the bounds of the system’s normal tolerances. A particularly useful side-effect a low levels when PCs are at most risk.

The Rule of 4s is nice and simple, the slight quirk of the minimum 4 hit point rule notwithstanding. There is an important reason for the presence of that clause, though. See if you can reason it out, and if you think you know why it’s there, leave a comment!

Oscillating Initiative

Initiative is an area of the game that I feel is lacking in its present form. I don’t want anything as involved as Speed Factor Initiative or the ludicrously complex (in my opinion at any rate) “Greyhawk” Initiative. All I really want is an Initiative system where a character’s Initiative bonus actually matters, and isn’t dwarfed into insignificance by the random factor of the roll.

Oread Ascetic (stock art by and © Brett Neufeld)

Presently, a character’s Initiative is simply their Dexterity bonus. The only way to change that is to take the Alert Feat and receive a +5 bonus. Factoring in the ability score caps as well, that means that most characters have an Initiative modifier of between -2 and +5. The average of that is +1.5. Let that sink in. The average impact of a character on their Initiative roll is +1 or +2. That is essentially meaningless compared to the random element, the d20.

I also want legendary creatures to have an extra boost to Initiative, as I believe one of the reasons they can often underwhelm in play is the real possibility of the PCs overwhelming them if they don’t get their turn early enough in the first round. I’ll be discussing that in another article I’m planning called “Not So Legendary Monsters”. For now, just bear in mind that I’ve added that to the houserule to satisfy a personal requirement but it’s nonessential. If you don’t like it you can ignore that part of this houserule with no impact on the rest.

Fate Dice

The Oscillating Initiative rule makes use of a single Fudge or Fate Die, (the term Fate Dice is probably better known these days, but they were Fudge Dice first). The roleplaying systems Fudge and Fate use four of these special six-sided dice. The “Plus” symbol is printed on two faces of a Fate die, the “Minus” symbol is on two other faces, and the remaining two are left blank. You can order Fate Dice from pretty much any online dice retailer, and likely your favourite local gaming store too. It’s well worth owning a set, given that Fate Core is a great, painless system for one-off games. And once they’re in your collection, you can find other uses for them. This houserule for instance! Since there are only 3 possible results on a Fate die, it can also make a handy d3 should you need one.

If you don’t own a Fate Die and for some reason can’t acquire one, any six-sided die can substitute. You can treat a 5 or 6 as a “Plus” result, a 1 or 2 as a “Minus”, and a 3 or 4 as though you had rolled a “Blank”. In practice, this is probably not the best approach for this houserule as you’ll be rolling the Fate Die along with a d20, and you won’t want another mental process to slow down the game. A better solution might be to use stickers or some other solution to mark the sides of the die you’ve chosen.

Q-Workshop Fudge Dice

The Oscillating Initiative Houserule

  • All PCs and monsters have a passive Initiative score equal to 10 + their Dex or Intelligence modifier, whichever is highest, + their Proficiency.
    • Legendary creatures add double their proficiency bonus to their passive Initiative score.
  • At the beginning of combat, players roll a ten-sided die and a Fate die.
    • If the Fate die is a +, the PC adds the result of the d10 to their passive score for that combat.
    • If the Fate die is a -, the PC deducts the result of the d10 from their passive score for that combat.
    • If the Fate die is blank, the PC uses their passive score for that combat.
  • For ease of play, monsters always use their passive Initiative score.

Impact of Oscillating Initiative

  • Using a Passive score with a possible variation of d10 in either direction has roughly the same range of variation (21 possible results compared to the d20’s 20 possible results), while ensuring that the character both has a competent baseline and never strays too far from it.
  • A character’s Initiative bonus is more than just their Dex mod, it grows along with their Proficiency. Characters can also use their Int instead, increasing the chances a character will have a fair to decent bonus. The combined ability + proficiency bonus has a greater impact on the character’s Initiative roll.
  • There is a 66% chance of using your passive score (typically a decent number) or improving upon it, which should be more satisfying overall.
  • The Alert feat retains its competitive advantage. A +5 is a significant addition to a character’s passive Initiative score.

With this variant, the odds are in favour of either using your passive score or a result not too far from it. Therefore, the passive Initiative score is very important; characters who should be good at Initiative in relation to others will see this reflected in Initiative results, though it remains possible for other characters to have lucky breaks and get ahead in the initiative order sometimes.