Here are some of the hacks and house rules I’m currently using, or would like to use, in the D&D games I run. Any of these can be tagged on to any version of D&D with only a tiny bit of tweaking, but the examples I discuss below are all for 5th Edition specifically. Not only do I describe the hack/house rule, but I also note where I am stealing it from (when applicable).
I like for Charisma to be less of a dump-stat for characters who don’t use Charisma for spellcasting, and to get some extra story mileage from those social proficiencies. In order to make social dynamics matter a bit more, I added a reputation system to my Twilight of the Gods game. (This is also appropriate for any situation where the PCs start out as “murder hobos” or other kinds of rootless, opportunistic strangers)
PCs start the game with disadvantage on all social rolls – they are outsiders, oddballs, and so on. They will have difficulty convincing anyone to trust them, or making their threats stick, because they don’t have names and reputations to back them up. In order to remove this disadvantage with a particular group or in a particular place, they must win a reputation as a quest reward. For example: the PCs are hired to clear out a local ruin on behalf of the town council of Greensward. They do, and as a result, they earn “known in Greensward”, meaning they no longer have disadvantage. Now, say the PCs go on to rescue Greensward from a goblin attack. As a result, they are awarded the reputation “heroes of Greensward”, meaning they have advantage on all social rolls.
Of course, when they go to the big city, they’ll be unknown again, and once again will have the social disadvantage. But – if they find someone from Greensward in the big city, it’ll be a big relief, because they’ll have advantage on social rolls with this person or people. This not only encourages PCs to worry about what people think of them, but it also keeps them connected to where they have already been.
Debts (Urban Shadows)
Players keep track of non-monetary, social debts that they owe others and that are owed to them. If a character interacts with someone who owes them a debt, they have advantage on social rolls until that debt is paid. This encourages the PCs to be helpful, even if for selfish reasons. If they do a favor for the King’s Steward, the Steward now owes them a debt, even if he or she cannot pay them in gold or items. That debt means they can bend the Steward’s ear whenever they choose, and that later they can call in that debt at an opportune time.
Initiative (Clockwork: Dominion)
I am the editor for Reliquary Game Studios’ Clockwork: Dominion RPG, and Clockwork has a fantastic initiative mechanic. Check it out – it’s honestly one of the best I’ve ever seen at a table. This initiative system requires a deck of cards – Clockwork uses a custom deck that provides exactly the proportions that they want for the game, but in this case you can use a regular poker deck, or a cool custom deck like Story Cards, as long as the cards are numerically set apart. (In this case, suit doesn’t matter)
Every player begins a round of combat with three cards dealt to them. The highest card goes first – ties are broken however you’d like to break them (by suit, coin toss, Dex mod, etc.). Acting normally costs 1 card; the player pushes the card forward, declares their action and movement, resolves them normally. Reactions do not cost a card; for example, casting shield or counterspell, since every character gets one reaction per round. Interrupting another’s action costs 2 cards; this is a cool option that is higher cost but some players will really want to do it. Let’s say an NPC declares an action. A PC can push two cards forward and act first, which can be an important way to deal with spellcasters or other sudden threats. On the other hand, that player has spent 2 cards, and the NPC might have 2 left to use later in the round.
Combat continues until all cards are used, at which point the round ends and new cards are dealt. If no one uses a reaction or an interrupt, then each character will act about 3 times in a given round, meaning more happens in that round than usual. Also, having the option to interrupt will keep players more engaged in all of the action in a round, rather than checking Twitter while they wait for their turn to come around again.
Players with high Dex modifiers start with higher cards automatically, and are then dealt 2 more cards randomly as usual. A character with a +5 modifier gets an Ace; +4 gets a King; +3 gets a Queen; +2 gets a Jack; +1 gets a 10. +0 and lower don’t get anything special. Now, obviously, a character might get their automatic Jack and then be dealt a higher card randomly – that’s fine. The point is that one’s base initiative modifier guarantees them at least one high card to use that round.
At character creation, ask the players to roll randomly on the trinket table on page 160-161 of the PHB. Note the trinket that their character gets, and make it important in some way if possible. Even if not, let the player solve a problem or open up a new part of the story by using the trinket later in the game. For example: a dwarf barbarian in my current Twilight of the Gods game has been carrying around an old bronze key for nine sessions. Faced with a locked door that the party couldn’t pick, the dwarf pulls out this key and tries it in the lock (they were in an abandoned dwarven settlement, so it made sense as a possibility). It fits, of course, and enables them to bypass a nasty trap.
Fellowship/Party Sheet (WFRPG, The One Ring)
For Twilight of the Gods, I had the players create a simple Fellowship (Felag) sheet to track their shared reputation and shared loot. I like the idea that they, as a group, might have distinct reputation. It is also convenient to have a place to list loot before it is spent, traded or distributed individually.
This is actually an idea that I would like to expand upon. I really like the party card in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition – that was probably my favorite part of that game (though I’ve only played it once at a convention). I also liked the fellowship mechanics in The One Ring, which I GMed for a short campaign. The party of PCs is a thing in the fiction and in the way that the game is played, and it should be a mechanical thing as well. For now, it’s just an entity that can have its own reputations and inventory.
The DM Love Letter
This is what the guys at Fear the Boot call the long, involved background that some players give to their DM at character creation. Some players will of course write almost nothing, and character creation using the personality traits and backgrounds in the PHB should get all players involved at least minimally in their character’s pre-adventure lives, but there are some who will write a love letter. Skim through the love letter and mark between one and three things in the letter – names, places, events, etc. Keep those one to three things as elements to use in the setting or to build plotlines or encounters.