I mention that I often run 3.5 games, and we have reached an era where I can’t just assume everyone has played before. This leads to interesting conversations with folks who hear about the cool stuff I’m talking about and want to try it themselves. 3e is also notorious for DMs with reams and reams of house rules, some of which are so popular you can pay a lot of money for them. I’ve been the guy with 30 pages of house rules, and I’ve been the guy no one wanted to play with because of his 30 pages of house rules. Instead, I recommend minimal house rules. Your players who don’t care about rules won’t read them, and your players who do care about rules will probably be annoyed, even if you fixed a 5% statistical imbalance between two feats.
Over the years, my house rules are much more about removing restrictions. Players like having more options, and even better, they can ignore that they have more options and play as normal just fine. Yes, there will still be wild imbalances in class power levels that every edition of D&D is known for. Thats where talking to your group comes in. I recommend laying out a Balance Point you are shooting for in a Session Zero and asking players to target it with their optimization (I usually try to run games with characters of Moderate to High Balance Points).
When starting a new game, I always make a google doc with notes for the game. When are we playing, who was playing, and what are they playing and share it to the group. I then add any house rules we are using, which I keep written in their own google doc and can simply paste in as needed, and any setting info their PCs would know. This gives the players one central place for basic knowledge, and as my players tend to build characters offline, lets them figure stuff out over a few days (We do a session 0 over the course of about a week, with a mix of IRL chats, and discord chats).
So without any more rambling, the rules I recommend for 3.5.
I use these house rules in every game I run and have never gotten negative feedback. I don’t even think about whether to add them or not. I bold key words so players can skim.
- Classes can be any Alignment they want. If you have a feature that uses alignment, see below for generalities.
- Smite or abilities that offensively target an alignment: you can use them against any alignment. Enjoy.
- Detect ___ or abilities that broadly hinge on alignment but are not destructive: You cannot detect creatures simply through alignment choice, instead detect registers creatures with the appropriate types and subtyes. The other abilities function as written.
- Favored Class penalties to XP do not exist. Multiclass all you want.
- Spell Prep: No one needs to pray or do anything elaborate for an hour each morning for spells. Take 5 minutes of prep or prayers and you are set.
- Level Adjustment/racial hit die – Use the creatures CR, instead of LA and ECL. CR<1 = 0 (this usually means LA 1 and sometimes LA 2 are just good to go). Templates are out.
- Prereqs: Mostly ignored unless they are a requirement to use the feature. EX extra rage requires rage.
- Sneak Attack: You can sneak attack any creature type (applies to all precision damage).
- Spending XP: Any time you would be expected to spend XP for something, instead spend 5GP.
Appraise Skill – for selling
- DM Tells you the value of an item when you get it. You make an appraisal check when you sell it. This governs your ability to find anyone who will buy it at a price you think is fair. Identify items you’d like to sell in town and roll one check. All items are sold during a shopping montage, although we may RP interactions with shop keeps as needed. (Excludes gems, or trade goods which sell at 100% cost automatically as normal)
|DC 10||25% the base cost|
|DC 20||50% the base cost|
|DC 30||75% the base cost|
|DC 40||100% the base cost|
Many of the changes here are removal of restrictions. 3e works best without them, and as an offhand comment, anytime you see one, you can probably remove it and enhance the game. Right off the bat, I remove alignment restrictions on classes. Go ahead and be a monk/barbarian or paladin/bard. This has caused issues with features like Smite Evil on an evil paladin, so I include clarification. Favored class penalties are out the window for the same reason. IMO you have to do some very purposeful, suboptimal multiclassing for it to ever come up anyway.
Spell prep is mostly eliminated, down to 5 minutes, to avoid weird issues that crop up with keeping watch. It’s an aside most of the time, and the same RP value can be had by saying “I spend 5 min in prayer” as can be with “I spend an hour in prayer”.
Level Adjustment and Racial Hit Die are a controversial one. Every so often someone abuses it, and I have to tell them not to, but most of the time someone who does this is still behind the power curve when compared to normal options. Thats how crippling LA and RHD were. This just lets people play “fun” races, like Medusa or whatever. No game’s fun is reduced by a player playing something wild.
Sneak attack broadening allows rogues to play when we battle a mummy. Its yet another random restriction, and comes up very often, because rogue is a cool and popular class.
Spending XP is a hassle, and since I usually don’t award it in favor of milestones, it’s even more so. This is a rough exchange rate, which is needed for some classes to simply work at all.
Prereqs are a favorite of 3e. They level gate a bunch of prestige classes, and feats, but unfortunately, half the time they just gate something way beyond a level when its actually useful. If you eliminate 99% the game is improved. Yes, you should let people play some prestige classes at 1st level, even the good ones. Most of them are pretty weak, and even the good ones like Bear Warrior aren’t going to outshine real, but similar classes like Barbarian. Sometimes you hit one that’s worth it, like Initiate of the Sevenfold Veil. If that happens, just tell the player you are level gating it. “You can take that at level 5”, which is both sooner than normal, and appropriate.
Appraise may seem like an odd one. Ultimately, every DM in 3.x has their own way to handle the inevitable trip to town to sell stuff. This is me spelling mine out. It also pumps up a normally underused skill and streamlines the whole process to take as little time as possible getting us back to less mundane RP.
If I’m playing with a group who is experienced, or I’ve played with a lot, I introduce some basic house rules to pump up some classes and knock down others. I don’t mess with every class but focus on the swingy ends. Even still, I keep this list short and sweet.
- Cantrips and Orisons: Are usable at will. You prepare them each morning as normal, but they are not expended.
- Choose 3 domains at first level. These domains compose your spells known, not all cleric spells as normal.
- You gain an additional domain at 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th level. You can still spontaneously heal or inflict.
- Instead of a domain spell, each cleric gains an additional spell per day at each level.
- Druid: Wildshape: A character knows one wildshape form per rank in knowledge nature. This must be decided when the rank is taken, or when wildshape is gained.
- You gain proficiency in all weapons, armors, and shields. Even exotic.
- You can spend a day training, at which point you can change any weapon focus or weapon specific feats to a new weapon.
- You gain a fighter bonus feat at every level.
- You gain a full base attack bonus as per the barbarian class.
- Your unarmed damage starts at 2d6 and increases from there.
- Your smite evil is per encounter
- Your remove disease is per day.
- Your spells are charisma based.
- Ranger: Everyone should just play the pathfinder ranger
- You are required to pick a school of magic like you were a wizard. You can only select spells from this school.
- You are required to pick a bloodline from pathfinder. You gain all of its abilities at the indicated levels. If the spells are of another school, you can still cast them, even if a prohibited school.
- You gain eschew materials at level 1 as a free bonus feat.
- You do not gain a familiar.
- You are required to pick one school of magic for spell selection. You can learn those spells, or universal spells only. You gain spells known and per day as though you were a focused specialist variant wizard.
- You may find and scribe cross school scrolls.
- Factotum: Not allowed.
- Good fort save
- Curse 1+Cha mod/day
- Curse is swift action
- Curse is not used if they make the save
- Can cast in light/medium and with light shield of buckler.
- Swift Casting: Level 6: Can cast one spell per day as a swift action, so long as original casting time is a standard action or faster. Extra use at 8, 11, 14, 18.
- Ninja: Just gets sneak attack
- Truenamer: Not Allowed.
- New Feat: Sorcerers, or wizards can gain a familiar as normal with a feat.
- Cantrips: This is a good change pathfinder made. It lets people do more at low levels and has basically no impact at higher levels. Low levels are the only place in 3e you might have an argument that casters aren’t OP, or fun.
- Cleric: The raw cleric class is generic, unfun, and powerful. This adds a level of choice and specificity to the class and reduces power for an enormously powerful class. I often add a removal of heavy armor prof to the class as well.
- Druid: Druids are a lot in 3e. Wildshape is the easiest and biggest problem to solve. Asking players to pick a couple shapes known reigns its power way in. They are still full casters and have an awesome companion, but this is already a big change up as it is. I often remove animal companions from this class as well.
- Fighter: This doesn’t really power them up much. It does open up options, and really you’re still pushing people to pick something else past 3rd level.
- Monk: This should help the monk do at least one thing well.
- Paladin: Paladins get cool stuff, they can just never use it. Now they can use it. They are also less MAD (multi-attribute dependent), which is a huge reason casters rule and martials drool. (Casters being SAD, Single-xxx).
- Ranger: The ranger isn’t as bad off as folks may think. It’s not amazing, but it’s also not a joke. The pathfinder one is a raw power up, but basically the same. So, use that one.
- Sorcerer: Again, a big problem with casters is the “I can cast any spell” problem. Forcing them onto smaller lists eliminates a lot of their problems. The bloodlines in PF are a great idea, and the familiar isn’t thematic. Swapping the two makes sorcerers stand out from wizards.
- Wizards: See above, limiting spells known.
- Factotum: the class doesn’t work. Thematically it’s not a workable concept. Just skip it.
- Hexblade: these fixes were posted by the designer on the WoTC forums back in the day (IIRC). Its just a raw power up, but the class is rough and needs it. Its probably still not getting picked.
- Ninja: Just give them sneak attack, not sudden strike.
- Truenamer: This is a cool concept, but mechanically doesn’t work. You’d have to do a total rebuild, and I think my Binder is close. It’s not finished though.