Trying to figure out which optional rules to play with? It can be overwhelming. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons comes jam packed with optional rules for customizing the game's mechanics to perfectly fit your group's playing style. AD&D is so flexible that every group I've ever played with has had a slightly different flavor of awesome and offered a fresh experience.
Here I've outlined the optional rules presented in the AD&D Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide that I absolutely love and always use, as well as the ones I typically omit, and most importantly, why. Additionally you can checkout the set of House Rules that I usually sprinkle in to keep things spicy.
- Rolling Character Stats
- Racial Level Restrictions
- Creating New Character Classes
- Horse Traits
- Spell Components
- Researching Extra Wizard Spells
- Individual Experience Awards
- Weapon Type vs. Armor
- Pole Arms, Shields, and Weapon Frontage
- Critical Hits & Critical Fumbles
- Specific Injuries
- Hovering On Death's Door
- Aerial Combat
- Artifacts And Relics
- Jogging And Running
- Terrain Effects On Movement
🎲🎲🎲🎲 Rolling Character Stats
Roll four six-siders for each ability score, dropping the lowest die for each roll, then assign the values to each ability score as desired.
Rolling stats for a new D&D character is a blast. This always fills me with a wonderful feeling of anticipation for the game to come. The Player's Handbook offers six different methods for rolling a character's ability scores. Growing up we always played with Method I. I'm not quite sure why, maybe because we thought it was hardcore, or maybe because we found that it made for weak and vulnerable first level characters, which makes for humorous role playing and a challenging experience.
With Method I players roll three six-sided dices for each ability score and assign them in the order rolled. That means you could have a three intelligence! As a matter of fact I played a character with three intelligence for over a year that was a lot of fun. It is unlikely this would have happened using other rolling methods. I've found Method I good for experienced players because they are less dependent on having a powerful character and are less concerned about creating the character of their dream. Rolling stats in order means you are probably going to play whatever class matches your highest ability score. If you get a high dexterity, for example, then you are probably going to play a thief. When I play with Method I each player gets only a single chance to roll their character. Whatever you roll are the stats you'll be playing with. It can be brutal as it usually results in average to low stats. This can give the players a negative attitude before the game has even begun. If the players can get past the numbers and onto role playing, however, Method I can make for some of the most memorable characters ever.
For campaigns with players new to AD&D I usually let them roll with Method V. We've always called this method "Yahtzee Style". In Method V players roll four six-siders for each stat, discarding the lowest die each time, then assign the rolls to whatever ability scores they want. This is a great method for players that have their hearts set on playing a specific character class as some AD&D classes have multiple ability score requirements, such as Rangers and Paladins. This rolling style usually makes for much more powerful characters, especially on first level, which can be a lot of fun for people new to the game. Less suffering and struggling—more goblin skull bashing. We call this "Power Gaming" and while it can be very fun, it can also get repetitive.
When using Method V I also let players re-roll their character as many times as they want until they are happy with their stats. With one catch. If they decide to re-roll their stats, they have to totally abandon their previous rolls. This prevents players from rolling a dozen characters, then choosing the most powerful one. With this rule I've found that as soon as someone has a single powerful stat, such as a seventeen or eighteen, they tend to hold on to it in fear of ending up with a less powerful character. However you will inevitably get that one person who will spend hours rolling and re-rolling their character until chance grants them ridiculously powerful stats.
👎 Racial Level Restrictions
The Racial Level Restrictions, Slow Advancement, and Exceeding Level Limits optional rules are bogus.
I have never played with Racial Level Restrictions, Slow Advancement, or the Exceeding Level Limits optional rules presented in Chapter Two: PC Races of the Dungeon Master's Guide. The DMG argues that the long life span of demihumans gives them the opportunity to reach levels of power greatly surpassing that of petty humans. In my experience this has never been a problem. Even getting to level nine in AD&D is a great feat of will (and may take playing the same game for years to achieve). I've never seen any unbalance of power between human characters and that of other races. To impose such a limitation on leveling up to all non-human characters would, in my opinion, go against the limitless bounds that makes the D&D experience so special. The only thing that is going to happen when a non-human character reaches their class level cap is that player getting frustrated and wanting to start a fresh character. They'll want a character that has the opportunity to grow and advance again. I always ignore this AD&D rule.
👎 Creating New Character Classes
Instead, use the core classes and extend them in a creative way.
While the Dungeon Master's Guide provides an awesome set of optional rules for creating new character classes, this is only good for really advanced players that are looking to truly customize the game. In my experience this process is more about a player feeling special than actually having a need to create something unique. If a player wants to play something specific such as a barbarian, ninja, or samurai, that doesn't require a new custom class. A samurai should simply play a fighter with a unique back-story, equipped with weapons and trained in abilities that are thematic of a samurai. A ninja should play a Thief with an emphasis on stealth and combat skills.
In these sorts of situations I've found that it is completely appropriate to bend the rules for players looking for some extra zing. The DM can allow a character special access to weapon or nonweapon proficiencies that may not typically be allowed by their class, or possibly grant them an ability or two from another class. A good example of this is a player who wants their wizard to wield a long sword. Just build it into that character's back story, maybe she grew up training in longsword fighting with her merchant father's body guard. Suddenly the exception has a reason and the character has some history. When making these sorts of exceptions, remember it is good to also impose an equivalent disadvantage. In the wizard example, maybe she looses access to one school of magic since she didn't have traditional wizard training. This balances the character and makes it more unique.
Weapon and nonweapon proficiencies make AD&D awesome.
The entirety of Chapter Five: Proficiencies in the Player's Handbook is optional. Don't pass up this gem! Personally I think the proficiency system in AD&D is critical. I find it is best to strike a balance between allowing the characters to attempt anything they can dream up, and encouraging each character be highly specialized in a few different skills. For example, if a character doesn't have the Weaponsmithing skill, don't prevent them from attempting to create a weapon. However, a character who possess the Weaponsmithing proficiency would have a much greater chance of creating a high quality or customized weapon. Similarly, not having the proficiency for a basic skill, such as Swimming, does not necessarily mean the character cannot swim. They just might not be able to swim up a raging river, carrying a donkey, while being pelted with stones.
I always play with both weapon and nonweapon proficiencies, but you may want to only play with nonweapon proficiencies, allowing characters to use any weapon appropriate to their class. I like the weapon proficiency system because it forces players to customize their characters and makes everyone a little bit more unique. It also limits what weapons a character can use without suffering an appropriate penalty. Each class receives a different penalty when using weapons they aren't proficient with. For example warriors are much more likely to be able to handle a weapon they are not familiar with, where a wizard would downright struggle. Limited weapon options can make the game fun and challenging, especially when equipment becomes scarce.
Chapter Five: Proficiencies provides two options for non-weapon skills. Secondary skills and nonweapon proficiencies. I much prefer the nonweapon proficiency system over the secondary skills system. Secondary skills are broad and generic and do not require specific ability checks. This makes character skills boring, serving more as a characteristic than a highly refined talent. The fact that your character will only ever receive one, two, or zero secondary skills for their entire adventuring career makes for a really static character (once a hunter, only a hunter). The nonweapon proficiency system on the other hand allows each character to start with a set of awesome abilities and be granted the opportunity to train in new abilities or refine their existing skills when leveling up. This system allows players to develop and evolve their characters over time, perfectly in line with the overall role playing experience.
Don't forget to allow the players to convert any additional languages granted by their intelligence score to proficiency slots. Characters always receive their native language for free, but based on their intelligence they may be able to gain extra languages. These slots can be converted to starting weapon or nonweapon proficiency slots. Example: A character with ten intelligence receives two extra language slots. If chosen they could learn one language (beyond their native language) and one additional (weapon or nonweapon) proficiency (provided the proficiency only costs one slot). Or they could learn no additional languages and get two extra proficiencies on first level (or one proficiency that costs two slots). Keep in mind that characters who speak many languages often have a strategic advantage while role playing. So spend your extra language slots wisely.
Finally, remember that nonweapon proficiencies can be supercharged by spending extra slots on them. So a warrior that took the Endurance proficiency, which typically costs two slots, could spend three points on it and receive a +1 bonus to their Constitution when making an endurance check. This is a great way for players who wants to have a character who is highly specialized in a single skill.
Exclude the Arquebus.
The Arquebus, a primitive musket, is listed as an optional weapon in the Player's Handbook. I don't play with the Arquebus because I feel it detracts from the cliché "high fantasy" world that I try to cultivate as a DM. However I did play an extremely fun high seas pirate world game once where we all felt this contraption fit right in. In another game I DMed an ingenuitive character who created a blunderbuss from scratch. Designing and manufacturing the contraption was a fun side quest and evolved the world by adding a weapon that didn't previously exist.
Prefer the Basic Encumbrance optional rule over Specific Encumbrance.
I usually play with the "Basic Encumbrance" optional rule. The "Specific Encumbrance" optional rule is more precise and complex. This can be great for dungeon crawling if the players wish to keep track of exact weight carried and calculate how it applies to their character's movement speed in combat and throughout dungeon maps. However, I find this usually bogs down role playing and detracts from the adventure. Specific Encumbrance makes the game world less fluid and emphasizes strict mechanics over the role-playing experience.
👍 Horse Traits
Yep. This rule can add a lot of fun.
The optional horse trait system in the Dungeon Master's Guide can be a good laugh. It gives each horse in the game a bit of character and adds detail to your unique world. Think about the Paladin who buys the strongest horse in the land, which will undoubtedly give her an advantage in mounted combat, but the dang horse keeps chewing fences and getting the honest Paladin in trouble with the locals!
👎 Spell Components
Spell components are a pain in the ass.
I believe I have only played with spell components once. I remember constantly hunting for places to find or buy components and being ever reluctant to cast my spells. I think spell components may be fun for a group that really wanted to put a handicap on spell casters. This could play nicely in a world where magic is rare or even considered non-existent by common folk. In most games however, spell components are an annoyance, a constant distraction from the main storyline, and an unnecessarily limitation on the player's options and creativity.
👍 Researching Extra Wizard Spells
This is a good opportunity for Wizard players to be creative.
The brief section on Researching Extra Wizard Spells in the Dungeon Master's Guide is a great addition to the game. It is another example of D&D being limitless. If a player wants to research and design a unique spell that braids beards, you should let them! D&D game play is designed to be customizable and encourages creativity. This small rule is what I love about D&D. Just because a spell doesn't exist in the rulebooks doesn't mean it should be excluded from the game. If the players can dream it up they should be able to at least attempt manifesting it.
👍 Individual Experience Awards
I find this optional rule to be essential for rewarding and encouraging players to role play and interact with the world.
I tend to be generous with giving out individual experience awards when I DM. I find this is a good way to recognize players that attempt to solve problems or take decisive actions, even if they fail. Individual experience awards are simply positive reinforcement at its finest. In addition to giving out combat and quest experience at the end of a session, it's fun to sprinkle in smaller rewards to one or more players at a time during game play. I give out individual XP rewards when a player has a good ideal, successfully overcomes an obstacle, solves a puzzle, or resolves a challenging situation. Individual experience awards are the perfect incentive to keep players engaged and excited for what's next.
The Training optional rule slows down game play. It is a chore instead of an activity.
The Training optional rule requires players to receive training before advancing to the next level. This removes the instant gratification of leveling up and adds an unnecessary mechanic to game play. Often players will not level up at the same time. Who wants to wait around for weeks while Dogna the fighter with three intelligence tries to train for level two? In my experience D&D plays smoother with this optional rule omitted. It is simply more fun for players to instantly level up and keep adventuring.
👎 Weapon Type vs. Armor
Only recommended for advanced players looking for extra complexity.
The Weapon Type vs. Armor Modifiers optional rule in Chapter Nine: Combat of the Player's Handbook will add both realism and complexity to any AD&D game. I have found this optional rule is best suited for advanced players who already know all the combat mechanics by heart and are looking to add another layer of strategy and complexity. Running this system for the DM will add quite a bit of extra overhead—making sure all the attack modifiers for both the characters, monsters, and NPCs are correctly applied and accounted for during combat. If you decide to play with this optional system I recommend that all or many of the players are familiar and experienced with the core combat rules.
Group Initiative is recommended over Individual Initiative, combined with the optional Weapon Speed modifiers.
With the vanilla initiative rules each side rolls a ten-sider (one of the player's rolls for the party, and the DM rolls for the enemy). The side with the lower roll goes first (or at the same time in the case of a tie). This means that either all the players or all the monsters attack first. There are three optional rules for initiative.
Group Initiative is where a single initiative roll is still shared for each side but a different modifier, based on the chosen action, is applied for each character or NPC. Individual Initiative is an optional rule where each player rolls their own initiative and the DM rolls a unique initiative for every monster and/or NPC. The Weapon Speed and Initiative optional rule can be combined with either the Group Initiative or Individual Individual systems and adds an excellent dynamic to combat. For example, it makes sense that tossing a throwing dagger would be much faster than readying and attacking with a lance. I find that the fast natural weapon speed of things like casting spells, grabbing something, or fleeing, adds a great element of strategy to combat. The Weapon Speed and Initiative optional rule adds a nice contrast to various actions. The natural speed of running away, compared to the speed of reloading a cross bow or readying a two-haded sword, will keep players thinking twice about choosing the most strategic action.
I usually play the Group Initiative and Weapon Speed optional rules with competent players as it makes combat order more dynamic without the need for the DM to roll dozens of initiatives each round (for example, the DM would have to roll twelve ten-siders for a combat against eight enemies where the players have four NPC followers). I've found this is a great system for taking combat beyond your basic hack n' slash back-and-forth without needing to keep track of too many numbers. With the Group Initiative and Weapon Speed optional rules combined the limited dynamic of one side attacks, then the other, is replaced with an interesting combat order; player and enemy turns are mixed and varying. The weapon speed modifiers also make players choose their weapon proficiencies more carefully, as a fast attack speed can give them a strategic advantage in combat. This system also lends itself to more immersive in-combat roll playing as a fast and clever action may be chosen over a slow weapon attack.
👎 Pole Arms, Shields, and Weapon Frontage
These rules add complexity that is rarely necessary.
If the players really feel the game will be enhanced by these optional pole arm and shield combat rules you can consider adding them. However they aren't in the Player's Handbook so your players will only know about them if they have been snooping around the Combat chapter in the Dungeon Master's Guide. I always omit these rules. Combat in AD&D has a nice balance of complexity already, so I put these rules in the same bucket as the Weapon Type vs. Armor rules. They aren't necessary for a great experience and ultimately just add more busy work to the combat system.
👍 Critical Hits & Critical Fumbles
I consider critical hits and fumbles in AD&D essential.
Some of the best moments I have ever enjoyed in D&D came down to that one critical hit (natural attack roll of twenty) or disastrous fumble (natural attack roll of one). These seem to always happen at the best times or the worst times. The players are about to be thrown overboard by a mutiny of pirates when Zorbag lands a perfect critical hit, knocking the pirate captain's peg leg clear off, sending him flying in to the drink, saving the day. Or a desperate swing by Urgzog ends up shattering his long sword against a stone wall, leaving him and the group hopelessly defenseless against the goblins.
I typically play with the critical hit option to roll double damage dice on a natural attack roll of twenty and a custom fumble table for natural attack rolls of one (available in my AD&D House Rules article). I'm less of a fan of the alternative critical hit rule, where on a natural roll of twenty, a second attack is granted, which could lead to a third attack (and so forth) for subsequent rolls of twenty.
Truly, it would be a mistake to omit the optional critical hit and critical failure rules from AD&D.
Parrying is a great optional combat action that should always be available to characters.
While parrying is presented as an optional rule in the Combat chapter, I see no reason why a DM wouldn't allow this. Parrying only adds complexity to combat if deliberately chosen as an action by one of the players. This is a great opportunity for players to exercise some role-playing during combat. Often players may need to capture an enemy without causing harm, defend a blow to an ally, or stall their possessed companion while a mind control spell wears off. Parrying is an asset to the AD&D combat system and it would be a mistake to omit this optional rule from game play.
👎 Specific Injuries
Specific injuries can be a powerful story driver, but should be used rarely, if at all.
I advise against proscribing specific injuries to player characters unless it is directly required to drive the quest and storyline. This doesn't mean you shouldn't describe and assign injury details to the game play (which can be a good tool for describing the world and encouraging role playing), but it does mean that it would be unnecessary for each combat to end with a barrage of injuries that imposed handicaps on the players. On the other hand, this rule may fit nicely in a world where magical healing is rare or nonexistent, as it would make the characters think twice about fearlessly charging into combat. But with magical healing at the ready, you'll find most injuries in D&D are short lasted anyway.
👍 Hovering On Death's Door
A great optional rule for less experienced players and players who would like to avoid constantly rolling new characters after death.
Death when a character's hit points reach zero is a bit harsh. Especially on first level. I've played a ton of AD&D with the default rule of death at zero. It is very hardcore and very unforgiving. As a DM I've found the Hovering on Death's Door optional rule makes AD&D game play (especially on level one) possible and fun. No one likes their character dying (especially after putting hours into character creation) and then having to start over (or beg the other players to find a cleric or necromancer to resurrect them). This optional rule replaces death at zero with unconscious at zero, followed by bleeding out one hit point per round until wounds are bandaged, and finally death at negative ten hit points. Hovering on Death's Door is a great rule for most parties. The fear and consequences of death are still present and yet it allows some leeway for things to play out after one or more of the characters have fallen in combat or become mortally wounded by other means. I highly recommend playing with death at negative ten for all but the most hardcore gamers seeking a truly challenging game. I can't tell you how many characters I've lost to death at zero. Ultimately it's not munch fun.
👎 Aerial Combat
Aerial Combat adds complexity that is rarely necessary.
If the need for aerial combat arises my recommendation is use your creativity and standard combat modifies to create an engaging and unique combat experience. The complexity explained in the Aerial Combat optional rules and tournament rules are pretty cool but in practice it takes quite a bit of work to get right. These may be good rules to incorporate into a high level campaign with experienced players looking for additional nitty-gritty mechanics to nerd-out on.
👍 Artifacts And Relics
Artifacts And Relics are an essential tool for DMs creating a unique storyline.
The Artifacts And Relics optional rules are a great set of guidelines for DMs to create objects of power to structure adventures around. I've created many custom artifacts and relics that were the main focus of an individual adventure, a series of adventures, or even an entire campaign. One example is the The Cursed Helmet Campaign I've written about on this site. This cursed artifact was essential to the overarching storyline—continually giving the characters purpose and direction.
👍 Jogging And Running
The Jogging And Running optional rule makes for great chases.
Player's will inevitably attempt to run faster and for extended periods of time. It seems limiting to tell the characters they can only move at a single pace based on their race's size. The jogging and running optional rule adds a nice system of chance to movement based on the strength and constitution of each character. When these situations arise this system can be a great fit at the cost of some quick number crunching and ability checks.
👍 Terrain Effects On Movement
This is a great way to make a more realistic world.
I really like the Terrain Effects On Movement optional rule in Chapter Fourteen: Time and Movement of the Dungeon Master's Guide because it is simple to impose on the characters and it makes for a challenging realistic world. Being caught in a snow storm is going to slow your movement. This is an awesome way to bring the game's world and environment to life.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is truly a limitless game. This is what I love about it the most. It can be shaped to accommodate unique characters and adapted to a wide variety of playing styles. If you read all this rambling, I commend you. Hopefully I gave you some valuable insight into what optional rules you'll be playing with and which ones you'll ditch. Comment about your favorite AD&D optional rules below.