log in or register to remove this ad

 

D&D 5E How Old-School is 5th Edition? Can it even do Old-School?

Yora

Legend
I admittedly don't know very much about 5th edition. I only ran one campaign in 2020 that went for 19 games, which actually was both the best and the longest campaign I've ever run in my 20 years as GM. But I didn't exactly enjoy the mechanical aspects of running this system. But my players, who mostly were GMs themselves with a lot more experience with the system than me, said the things I disliked most about it don't have to be that way if you run the game differently. One of my main issues was that there's much too few encounters for players to try out the new toys they got for this level before they get more new toys at the next level, and that I felt pressured to artificially create situations where they can use all those shiny combat powers they got. And admittedly, simply reducing the amount of XP that characters get for encounters should help with that quite well. So now, a year later, I am considering giving the game another chance by tailoring it more to my gamemastering style.

Now all the way back since 5th edition came out, I remember there being discussions about how much old-school D&D influences are in 5th edition, and over all the years I've seen self-proclaimed old-school DMs say that they are quite happy with 5th edition, and that it does a decent job at working with their campaign styles. I even vaguely remembering some talk recently about whether 5th edition made old-school D&D obsolete. I don't know how those arguments went and if it was a rhetorical question (remember: "If any headline ends with a question mark, the answer is always no."), but apparently people considered that a topic at least debating.

But now sitting down again with the PHB and going over the rules for character abilities, I am really not seeing where that idea could come from. It's not quite as complex as 3rd edition was. But you still got these huge amounts of hit points, automatically healing all damage at a long rest, only a few encounters needed to level up. People talking about how every 1st level character is assumed to have at least an 18 in its main stat, but better a 20. Battlemasters with a full page of maneuvers in the PHB, and rogues being assumed to do sneak attack on all attacks. I don't know how to draw a line between what's old-school or not, but all of this really doesn't feel like it to me.

I think I could make this game work as something that is appealing to me, by creating my own custom XP award system to roughly double the time to level up, using the slow rest variant that requires a week of rest to regain spells, enforcing food and water mechanics, overhauling Encumbrance, hard-capping the game at 10th level, porting in the wandering monster mechanics and monster reaction rules from older games, and so on. But would that even still be running 5th edition or rather some custom homebrew abomination?

I guess this question is primarily directed at people who consider 5th edition to be a system that works reasonably well enough for a more old-school style campaign. What exactly is it about the mechanics that has a certain old-school ring to it, or makes it suitable to be used for such a purpose?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

DND_Reborn

Legend
Sure, I think 5E can get a bit of old-school feel. How much you want to change is up to you, but as you know some simple things are:

1. Limit PCs to 18 maximum ability scores, not 20s.

2. Make things like Smite and Sneak Attack declared before the attack is made. If the attack misses, the use is lost.

3. Make prepared spell casters actually prepare "per use" instead of "for any number of uses if you have slots".

4. Delay leveling as much as you want. Either change XP values, or don't bother with XP at all and just level PCs when players feel they are ready to move on.

5. Reducing healing and making the game more gritty using variant ideas in the DMG helps, too.

6. Reduce HP by capping HD around level 9, or by removing CON bonus to HP per level.

7. To counter #3, boost ACs if you want more of the old-school whiffing a lot. :) An option I used for a while which worked well instead of boosting AC was to have all attacks made with the "disadvantage mechanic", but not ACTUALLY "disadvantage, and make all saves with the "advantage mechanic", but not ACTUALLY advantage.

I am sure there is more but I need to eat, so I'll be back. :)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I guess this question is primarily directed at people who consider 5th edition to be a system that works reasonably well enough for a more old-school style campaign. What exactly is it about the mechanics that has a certain old-school ring to it, or makes it suitable to be used for such a purpose?

You may want to define what YOU mean when you say "old school", because that term means different things to different people.
 

I tend to concur that 5E can definitely be tweaked to work MORE old-school with some relatively simple house rules.

The game itself has a whole lot of PC powers and options, which inherently fights against Old School to some extent. In the TSR days, most PC power advancement came from spells and magic items. in 5E there are a bunch more abilities inherent to the characters, and fewer magic items are expected.

IME when folks talk about 5E supporting old school play, what they're often referring to is the relative mechanical simplicity compared to 3E and Pathfinder, the reliance on DM judgement calls, and the extensive use of the simple core mechanic- "D20 roll high, add ability and/or Proficiency mod, DM sets the DC" to resolve actions.

That being said, some simple tweaks to make it work more like an old school version include:

1. The Gritty Realism rules, ie: a Short Rest is overnight, a Long Rest takes a week.
2. Healer's Kit Dependency, ie: you can't just spend hit dice unless someone bandages you.
3. Slower level progression. Either use milestones or simply halve or quarter the xp given by monsters.
4. Morale rules for monsters.
 
Last edited:


payn

Legend
It's odd to me to be talking about old school and lots of abilities between levels. Combat was far less frequent in old school D&D and trying to spread levels out to encourage more of it doesn't seem very old school. I wouldnt say anything in particular about 5E design makes it good for old shcool. The thing I find useful about 5E is its pretty easy to ignore some of the less oldschool things about it. You can push 5E in a lot of directions and the base rules dont lock down play as much as other modern iterations have or do.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I'm not sure there is one "old school" style of games. I grew up in the old school era, but the games we played don't sound a whole lot like what a bunch of people describe. The game has pretty much always been what you made it, 5E supports the type of game I've pretty much always run fairly well.

There are a lot of optional rules and I've implemented some of the "gritty" rules, but not others such as lingering wounds for example because we never did that back in the day either. So without further definition it's kind of hard to answer the question.
 

5atbu

Explorer
If you want a grittier, harder game with slower progression, then look to the DMG and turn on all the options mentioned previously, plus the Morale rules.


That will give you what you want, as long as you are happy that a lot of progression will come from class progression not items collection.

You might decide that skill checks are not for you, or that you don't want Inspiration, or that the whole bonds, flaws stuff is irrelevant to you and your game.

Why 5e is good for that is that you will still be playing 5e, and your game will be quite understandable to another 5e player once you explain which options you have chosen from the DMG.

Another DM may deploy a different set of options, have a different flavour game, and yet still share the same core game mechanics as you.

5e is a very sound simple core that each table can modulate.

If, however, OSR means a retro clone of BECMI or AD&D 1e or 2e, then you may be better with such a retro clone.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
I admittedly don't know very much about 5th edition. I only ran one campaign in 2020 that went for 19 games, which actually was both the best and the longest campaign I've ever run in my 20 years as GM. But I didn't exactly enjoy the mechanical aspects of running this system. But my players, who mostly were GMs themselves with a lot more experience with the system than me, said the things I disliked most about it don't have to be that way if you run the game differently. One of my main issues was that there's much too few encounters for players to try out the new toys they got for this level before they get more new toys at the next level, and that I felt pressured to artificially create situations where they can use all those shiny combat powers they got. And admittedly, simply reducing the amount of XP that characters get for encounters should help with that quite well. So now, a year later, I am considering giving the game another chance by tailoring it more to my gamemastering style.
Note that the first few levels go by very quickly by design - 1st and 2nd level are kind of tutorial levels, meant to go by in about a session each (or, rather, after about 6 medium encounters). After that, progression slows down to about every 10-15 medium encounters (or about every other session if you follow the 6-8 encounter day guideline). So it’s possible your experience was colored by the fact that the early levels go by faster.
Now all the way back since 5th edition came out, I remember there being discussions about how much old-school D&D influences are in 5th edition, and over all the years I've seen self-proclaimed old-school DMs say that they are quite happy with 5th edition, and that it does a decent job at working with their campaign styles. I even vaguely remembering some talk recently about whether 5th edition made old-school D&D obsolete. I don't know how those arguments went and if it was a rhetorical question (remember: "If any headline ends with a question mark, the answer is always no."), but apparently people considered that a topic at least debating.
The main thing that I think people mean when they say 5e is old-school is a shift in design philosophy away from codifying everything to unify the experience between tables, and back towards DM empowerment and rulings over rules.
But now sitting down again with the PHB and going over the rules for character abilities, I am really not seeing where that idea could come from. It's not quite as complex as 3rd edition was. But you still got these huge amounts of hit points, automatically healing all damage at a long rest, only a few encounters needed to level up.
Yeah, if that’s what separates old school from new school to you, I don’t imagine 5e would feel very old school.
People talking about how every 1st level character is assumed to have at least an 18 in its main stat, but better a 20.
This one is not correct at all. It’s impossible to get above a 17 at first level with point buy or the standard array, and while it’s possible to get a starting 18 or 20 with rolled stats, it is definitely not the expectation. If you look closely at the math, starting with a 16 or 17 in your primary ability is the baseline assumption, though it’s definitely not essential.
Battlemasters with a full page of maneuvers in the PHB, and rogues being assumed to do sneak attack on all attacks. I don't know how to draw a line between what's old-school or not, but all of this really doesn't feel like it to me.
Battlemaster is one subclass of fighter. Players who want a simple fighter have other subclass options, like the Champion in the PHB and plenty of others in supplement books. As for rogues being assumed to get sneak attack every round (not every attack; that’s impossible since you can only sneak attack once per turn), that’s what’s needed for them to keep up with other classes in terms of average damage per round. I get the impression that everyone being able to keep up in average damage per round is not something you would care much about, in which case it’s not necessary for rogues to get sneak attack every round at all.
I think I could make this game work as something that is appealing to me, by creating my own custom XP award system to roughly double the time to level up, using the slow rest variant that requires a week of rest to regain spells, enforcing food and water mechanics,
Food and water mechanics already exist in 5e.
overhauling Encumbrance,
Have you looked at the variant encumbrance rules in the PHB?
hard-capping the game at 10th level,
Fair, most 5e campaigns end by around then anyway according to D&D Beyond data.
porting in the wandering monster mechanics and monster reaction rules from older games,
You know these exist in 5e, right?
and so on. But would that even still be running 5th edition or rather some custom homebrew abomination?
Seems like the main thing you’d be tweaking is XP and level progression, which is a pretty common thing to tweak. I think most 5e DMs don’t even use XP any more (sadly).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Then we'd be talking about something like how to make the game like I want it. What I am interested in is what other people mean when they see oldschool aspects in 5th edition.

Well, that's still a "define 'old school'" discussion, but sticking 5e between you and the answer as a filter.

It's odd to me to be talking about old school and lots of abilities between levels. Combat was far less frequent in old school D&D and trying to spread levels out to encourage more of it doesn't seem very old school.

I'm not sure there is one "old school" style of games.

I'm with Oofta here - what payn describes above is definitely not my experience with 1e, for example. We were in combats constantly.

Which makes "tell me what old school stuff you see in 5e" a weird approach, because if you talk to payn and me, you'll get completely different answers.
 


Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Supporter
People talking about how every 1st level character is assumed to have at least an 18 in its main stat, but better a 20.

This one really jumped out at me because in 5 years of playing 5E, I have never had a character who started out with an 18 or better in any ability score. Using the standard array or point buy rules, it's literally impossible to have an ability score higher than 17 at level 1.

Regarding the "battlemasters with a full page of maneuvers" thing...I mean, they have a full page to choose from at level 3. They only actually get to have three of them, though. Regarding "rogues getting sneak attack every round" the caveat is "potentially, if they can set up for it correctly."

I feel like you're cherry picking certain things in your post and considering them in a vacuum. Lower level characters have more hit points and more access to healing than in 1E or 2E, true. However, monsters also do more damage and are more accurate. For me, one of the things that really jumps out at me about 5E is that in a reasonable game where the DM doesn't shower the players with magic items, it's quite difficult to get a high Armor Class - and even if you do, you're getting hit anyway. A fighter with plate mail and a shield has an AC of 20. A goblin has a +4 to hit. So even with the best non-magical armor in the game, a goblin is gonna hit you with a 16 or better on a D20. And do 1d6+2 damage, and then disengage as a bonus action and move out of melee or hide. Meanwhile, a 1E goblin is only hitting an 1E AC 0 fighter by rolling a natural 20. It's 4x less likely to successfully hit the fighter than the 5E goblin is, and if it does hit it's doing less damage.

So, yes, 1st level 5E characters are stronger than 1st level 1E characters. But 5E characters are not facing 1E goblins. They're facing 5E goblins. They're designed for a game where fights are shorter and involve way less missing on attacks. And +1 plate mail? In most 5E campaigns, you're never finding it. Magic items are way rarer.

Magical healing isn't designed to keep pace with damage in 5E - it's just designed to prevent death. So if you limit or eliminate short rest and long rest healing, the characters likely aren't going to be able to deal with the amount of damage they're taking. Monster design in 5E assumes short and long rest healing exists, and increases monster damage output accordingly.

One other note about healing: one thing many players do not like about "old school" games is playing the cleric, because they are relegated to being healbots. Short rest and long rest healing is designed specifically to address that complaint, allowing clerics and other characters who CAN heal to have more fun and not reserve all their spell slots for healing. Take away short rest and long rest healing, and you force them right back into the healbot role.

Having said all that, I don't think anybody thinks 5E is like 1E or 2E because it's "gritty". I think they think hearkens back to 1E and 2E in the sense that philosophically it puts the DM in the driver's seat more than 3E or 4E did, by empowering the DM and putting the emphasis back on rulings instead of rules, and not trying to create rules to cover every possible situation but instead being comfortable with DM fiat.
 
Last edited:

Lidgar

Hero
In addition to all the above, adding level drain for certain undead and tougher magic resistance for some foes.

For example, drow were known to have insanely high AC and brutal MR in many 1e campaigns.

Oh, and don't forget to drop in some rules for attracting followers. I'd have those start at level 10, same level as when most classes are "titled" and have built a stronghold.
 



pming

Legend
Hiya!

Well, ask yourself this: How many things would it take to change 5e into a "1e/2e like game"? Now ask yourself a different question: "What about 5e do you consider a requirement for it to be considered 5e"? Now, the final boss question: "Would it be easier to just go the other way, and take the handful of things you like from 5e and use them in a 1e/2e game"?

If I had to pick the top couple of "5e feels"...: Adv/Disadv, Death Saves, Conditions, and massive HP pools.

It would be relatively trivial to just say "Ok, we're playing a 1e game, but using Adv/Disadv, Death Saves, Conditions and everyone and everything has max HP for their HD". It might still 'feel' like 1e...but it would definitely feel different. Play that, find out what's killing the 1e mood (if anything) then drop that. So if it's Max HP...gone. Back to 1e HP's. Rinse and repeat until you get a game you like.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

If you want to recreate the experiences I actually had in ye olden days - adversarial dming, lots of unnecessary rolls on random tables, and no sense of balance are all quite achievable with 5e's ruleset.

If you want to recreate the experience I had playing 1e with people who rejected 3e, then you need to build a megadungeon.

If you want the OSR version of old-school play... I'm told 5e does this okay, but frankly there's so many better options for such low prices that I wouldn't recommend trying to do it with 5e.
 

Here's one definition of old school

“The more of the following a campaign has, the more old school it is: high lethality, an open world, a lack of pre-written plot, an emphasis on creative problem solving, an exploration-centered reward system (usually XP for treasure), a disregard for "encounter balance", and the use of random tables to generate world elements that surprise both players and referees. Also, a strong do-it-yourself attitude and a willingness to share your work and use the creativity of others in your game.”

Here's another:

Rulings, not Rules
Player Skill, not Character Abilities
Heroic, not Superhero
Forget “Game Balance.”

5e:
High lethality, forget game balance: I don't think 5e is set up very well for these concerns. Death saves and abundant healing (via spells and rests) make it more difficult for characters to die without a bunch of optional rules. Even then PCs will have more ways to mitigate lethal situations. You can forget game balance to make things more dangerous, so I guess that's down to dm style, but it feels against the spirit of the game and the way it's typically played.

Player skill, not character abilities, emphasis on creative problem solving: this is hard because often times the best solution to a problem is on your character sheet, or at the very least involves leveraging existing rules. Cantrips, first level spells, and racial abilities take care of most of your food, water, and light needs; keeping track of those is a hallmark of classic play. Encumbrance limits are extremely generous. An osr game like knave emphasizes randomly selected mundane equipment in order to spur creative use of items; this is less important in 5e, especially past level 3 or so.

Further, 5e is very skill-check heavy. Rereading the dmg yesterday, I noticed how many optional rules or procedures boil down to making 1 or 2 ability checks. And there are ways to get advantage and bonuses to those skill checks. In a large enough party, you can secure enough die rolls to succeed at most things.

Rulings not rules: 5e was obviously influenced by Finch's primer here. There are still quite a lot of rules in 5e though? But it is easy enough to handwave most things for a more fluid game. In 5e games turning to the rules usually happens when looking up spell descriptions. But what 5e lacks that earlier editions have are procedures, for example for dungeon crawling.

An open world, exploration based xp: this is up to dm style, but seems less popular than playing structured adventures. In terms of xp, the main systems are either xp for combat (leading to combat as sport challenges) or milestone (for structured adventures), so not so much.

DIY attitude: honestly, alive and well! Yes, lots of people play wotc adventure paths, but they also produce loads of DM's guild content to fix...erm, expand those adventures.

You can use a bunch of optional and house rules to mitigate some of the above, but I'm not sure it's worth it. That being said, my house rules to make 5e to be old school would involve: unconscious at 0 hp, death at -10; finite cantrip usage; spend HD to recover hp on long rest (or other slow healing rule); no or less darkvision; slot based encumbrance.
 

Voadam

Legend
I guess this question is primarily directed at people who consider 5th edition to be a system that works reasonably well enough for a more old-school style campaign. What exactly is it about the mechanics that has a certain old-school ring to it, or makes it suitable to be used for such a purpose?
As a DM I feel I can run 5e the way I ran B1 In Search of the Unknown, 1e Greyhawk, and the way I ran 2e Ravenloft, with an emphasis on first person immersion and roleplay where skilled play or actual play takes precedence over character sheet mechanics.

The explicit guidelines that DMs can call for rolls, or not, to resolve things means that I can run more first person social interactions by the book RAW without using mechanics, and that if I do go with mechanics thanks to bounded accuracy and the proficiency system it won't be the feast or famine that could occur in 3e/d20 skill check rolls based on character build and system mastery.

I can do skilled play challenges and get the level of description and interaction that I want, not something driven by mechanics on the sheet.

5e has a lot of vagueness and ambiguity and options in how to run it RAW so it accommodates a lot of styles, including most things considered old school.

I like that it is not +X per level equipment driven to match expected combat numbers.

For mechanically simple fighters go with the mechanically strong and straightforward Champion subclass, not the battlemaster subclass.

I like milestone leveling up so that I set the pace.

I like that with bounded accuracy lower CR monsters can still be relevant in combat and sandboxing is more achievable without threats having to be from within a narrow CR band to work well.
 
Last edited:


Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top