Dungeons & Dragons 5E: A Variants and Options Checklist from the Dungeon Master’s Guide

The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes nearly a score of specific mechanics and options that it calls out as Optional or Variant rules. All of these are simple, effective ways to manipulate the core mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition to achieve a different “feel” for your campaign of choice, whether it be…

  • …changing up the deadliness of encounters
  • …adding horror and madness to the D&D milieu
  • …expanding the social and morale rules regarding henchmen, hirelings, retainers, and opponents
  • …expanding the tactical nature of miniatures and battle map play

Presented here is a checklist of all the options and variants.

Dungeon Master's Guide

I…have…aaaaaaa…HAT!

The Checklist

Here’s a PDF version of the checklist! Print, manipulate, and do whatever else your heart desires!

Below is the unformatted text (aside from some bullets). Use this for even easier manipulation in your document or layout program of choice, or just as a reference whenever you’re online and want a webpage to flip to.

Variants & Options Checklist

Shadowfell Despair (DMG 52)

Psychic Dissonance (DMG 59)

Planar Effects (DMG 59-67):

  • Blessed Beneficence
  • Pervasive Goodwill
  • Overwhelming Joy
  • Hunter’s Paradise
  • Beast Transformation
  • Intense Yearning
  • Immortal Wrath
  • Power of the Mind
  • Mad Winds
  • Abyssal Corruption
  • Prison Plane
  • Vile Transformation
  • Cruel Hindrance
  • Pervasive Evil
  • Bloodlust
  • Law of Averages
  • Imposing Order
  • Planar Vitality

Loyalty, for NPC party members (DMG 93)

Mixing Potions (DMG 140)

Scroll Mishaps (DMG 140)

Wands That Don’t Recharge (DMG 141)

Automatic Success (DMG 239)

Only Players Award Inspiration (DMG 241)

Flanking (DMG 251)

Diagonals (DMG 252)

Facing (DMG 252)

Madness (DMG 258-260)

Slow Natural Healing (DMG 267)

Action Options (DMG 271):

  • Climb onto a Bigger Creature
  • Disarm
  • Mark
  • Overrun
  • Shove aside
  • Tumble

Morale (DMG 273)

Using It

So, why go to all the work of making a checklist? What can you use it for?

Campaign Setting Assumptions. As you sit down to prepare your campaign setting, you may either need some inspiration to start, or find that your writing takes you on a journey that works at cross purposes to one or more of the core D&D mechanics. Having the checklist handy can serve as list of possibilities that change how we think and feel about D&D, inspiring you to create a world that’s just a little bit different from published settings like Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance. Or it may save your bacon when you’re not sure how to handle a widespread psychoactive poison…oh yeah! The Madness rules!

Adventure & Session Prep. Ever get to a part of your adventure design where you come up with an awesome critter, trap, or set-piece encounter location and it just doesn’t jive easily with the Rules As Written? Or want to build a cursed treasure that the party will have a hell of a time trying to get rid of? The Variants & Options Checklist serves as an excellent reminder of what crunchy rules exist in D&D and how you can rethink them, reframe them, replace them entirely, or add on top of them to get something new to challenge or excite the players.

The Killing Season 3

I trot this out and tape it to my DM Screen every few sessions. I’m counting PC deaths, in case you didn’t get the hint.

Character Creation Guide. It’s one thing to tell players “it’s a pirate campaign,” but it’s a whole other ball of wax if you have a list that specifically tells them that certain Background options thematic to such a campaign are in play (recommended or even mandatory), as well as optional rules that might make the game more cinematic (Pirates of the Caribbean, 2003) or gritty (The Island, 1980). There’s a radical difference there, and a clear checklist of options will make it obvious which way your game is going.

Theme & Mood Flier. Attracting new players? Running your game for as a one-shot, a new game at your Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS), or at a convention? Having a list of the options and variants you plan to use is going to tell prospective players what kind of game you run, so they aren’t forced into a bunch of new assumptions they weren’t aware of, or that they may not enjoy. Not everybody loves minis & battlemat play, or horror/madness campaigns.

Expanding It

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of options and variants in other official D&D books, as well. The Player’s Handbook has optional and variant Backgrounds, there are plenty of additional Races and other rules in the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion, and so on. Use the checklist as a template to build your own, including those other options so that…

  • …Players can quickly reference what additional materials they can make use of during Character Creation.
  • …One-shot players at a convention or FLGS can decide whether the game you’re about to run is the right fit for them in terms of “feel.”
  • …You can keep a concise list of game mechanic assumptions that might inform the design of your campaign setting or adventure.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He's been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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