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

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
What I am interested in is what other people mean when they see old school aspects in 5th edition.
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?
To keep this from turning into an edition war, I think you're asking for suggestions, not to be convinced 5E is better/worse than AD&D.

First, the baseline of what "old school" means for me: (1) coming up with crazy stuff that wasn't covered by the rules and (2) bragging rights if you could get a character to survive to higher levels because it was lethal (lots of instant kill, level drain, low hit points, etc.) Characters didn't start out as some might see 5E: superheroes with super stats who don't die easily, heal overnight, and ignore realistic facets of the game like hunger and encumbrance.

Second, what does 5E offer that feels "old school" for when I begin tailoring my rules?

  • The most important Rule continues to be that the rules are guidelines.
  • Exhaustion, including for not eating/drinking.
  • Optional encumbrance rule. If you take that and tweak it to a slot-based system, it works really really well and realistically with little math involved. Attached as PDF.
  • Undead drain. If you take away the saving throw, life drain undead become really scary without the hatred your players have for old-school level drains.
  • Low level monsters remain a very viable threat (thanks to Bounded Accuracy)

Third, what should I tweak?

Well, @DND_Reborn got a good start. Consider:
  • Slow down advancement. Triple the XP requirements or use milestones (e.g. there's 3 threats to the PC's barony, and once they clear a threat and complete a side quest, they get +1 level).
  • Vitality system, treat HP for PCs as an abstract, not real damage. You're running out of luck, getting tired, etc. I use a homebrew system where at 0hp, real damage accrues until lethal and is very hard to heal. This solves the healing overnight issue and matches the "second wind" nature of hit points. The fighter isn't regenerating. He's shedding that feeling of tired. But a character at 0hp took real damage to their body, and they might die with the next hit. Even if they don't, it'll take some time or powerful magic to restore.
  • Modify monsters as above for undead drain. Feel free to bring back golem immunity. If you like magic resistance, go for it. Nothing says you can't, just make sure you share and discuss with your players why you're doing what you're doing. I personally think many monsters are boring, and there's been a LOT of work done on these forums to give all monsters a special ability or two to spice up combat. I also have buffed up outerplanar creatures, given them more spells, and for the really nasty ones like a demon lord, ranked their immunities (e.g. Orcus might have immune normal weapons, resistant to magical ones of less than +3, immune to spells 3rd level and lower unless he wants to be affected).
  • Role, not roll, play. Don't use skills unless the outcome is purely uncertain. Consider capping success (e.g. only a proficient character can succeed on a DC20 or higher check).
  • Traps, only rogues. Anyone with a kit can disable a trap now. You could say "any trap DC15 or higher can only be disabled by a rogue" and/or "only magical traps can be spotted/disabled by a rogue." That's what they're trained for.
  • Facing rules. Rogues suck in combat unless they can sneak attack, but you could rule if you use minis that they must attack from the rear 90 degrees to get it. Personally, I wouldn't. Rogues suck without it.
  • Limit cantrips. They're designed to allow casters to always contribute, but an archer can run out of arrows and a caster cannot run out of cantrips. So, perhaps limit it to # per day = casting modifier, let them renew this after a Short Rest.
  • Cap ability scores. D&D already caps it at 20, but if you feel that's too much, cap at 18. This will weaken casters as martial characters can get magical weapons to offset the numbers, but casters don't have much to make their spells harder to save against.
  • Survival. Enforce the rules, player honesty on tracking their rations because that's way too much of a hassle for the DM to do it. I'd bump food requirements to 4 pounds per medium, 2 per small, for realism. Makes carrying rations difficult and understanding why pack animals, hirelings, wagons, etc. were a major part of adventuring. Remove the starvation loophole (where a high CON character can by the rules eat only once a week). After low levels, I would use sparingly because running survival (I ran Dark Sun 5E and a wilderness campaign recently) is a mini-game, and it gets old to do it repeatedly, like running the same dungeon over and over.
  • Cap HP advancement for PCs. It'll make for a more lethal game if you do it, but at 9th level AD&D stopped adding dice. Add your CON modifier, minimum 1? Less hit points means PCs might be more creative in avoiding death, so as always make sure your players are cool and understand there's a purpose to make the game more fun this way.
  • Magic items. Make them even cooler (e.g. legacy weapons from 3rd edition or perhaps all items are sentient in your world in some way), but hand out permanent items like weapons, wands, staves sparingly because thanks to the math, they're a big deal now. Old school handed out a lot of magic because it lacked bounded accuracy.
 

Attachments

  • 5E_Slot_Encumbrance_v1.1.pdf
    652 KB · Views: 47

log in or register to remove this ad

Li Shenron

Legend
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.
I think you are not wrong... 5e is IMO the most modern version of D&D and not just because it's the most recent, but because it seems to allow as many playstyles it can also from the past, in some case even at the same time.

But it's not "old school" as a whole. Rather, it is supposed to allow an old school playstyle if the group chooses to do so. It doesn't completely succeed probably, but it fares better than the previous editions.

With "old school" at least I usually think of the following, and what you can do in 5e:

  • simple but long dungeon adventures -> up to the DM
  • easy to die at all levels -> NOT with core 5e but perhaps can be achieved with DMG variants
  • save-or-die spells, traps and monster attacks -> NO CHANCE without heavy house rules
  • exploration based on descriptions rather than dice rolls -> YES but requires a strong DM to enforce rule 0
  • slow level advancement -> YES by using variant level-up rules (e.g milestones, or just slash XP)
  • few special abilities per characters -> partially, by proper character building, but cannot be decreased too much
  • true Vancian casters -> NO
  • strong racial roles restrictions (e.g. races as classes, multiclassing based on race) -> NO but something could be agreed about severely limiting race/class combinations
 

Stormonu

Legend
My reaction is similar to @Burnside. 5E strongly reminds me of how my 2E games went - though those memories are now over 30 years old. I never really liked 1E much myself - I was happy to move to 2E as quickly as I could as the rules for 1E were a tangle.

There are times I'm not sure which version is actually deadlier - I've seen 5E combats will kill PCs as quickly as back in 1E days, and just as unexpectedly for the players without them necessarily being careless.
 


I remember reading once on here, in regards to the Goodman Game's Temple of Elemental Evil module, if you wanted to avoid have your PCs overleveling/busting the door in constantly in it, then it was a good idea to swap out all of the 5E Leveling UP thresholds with the 2E Thief exp table. It's smaller compared to most of the xp tables in 2E, but still helps reign in a bit of the 5E approach in regards to leveling.

So you can always look at each of the classes that way and swap in the respective leveling charts for their respective classes.
 


Composer99

Adventurer
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.

Isn't "get[ing] completely different answers" from different people kind of the point, though, from such an open-ended enquiry?
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
To me, the salient features of old-school play are (1) randomly generated and mechanically simple characters; (2) an open world or sandbox, and an XP system that encourages exploring it (preferably something concrete and diegetic, like XP = GP); (3) a campaign structure where enough time passes between active game sessions that real time can roughly keep pace with game time; (4) a need for characters to spend substantial downtime between adventures (because of healing, training, research, or tending to an estate or dominion), so as to intentionally create "gaps" where some characters are unavailable for adventuring during some sessions; (5) the understanding that said gaps are to be filled with newly-created 1st level characters, such that each player will eventually have a "stable" of PCs (of different levels) to choose from; and, perhaps most important of all, (6) that each adventure be player-driven rather than plot-driven (In that it's always the players who decide what their characters are going to do at the beginning of each adventure when they strike out from their home base).

5e is a poor match for the first point; could be made to fit the second, third, fourth, and sixth with a bit of tweaking; but generally doesn't admit to the possibility of point five — because everything about 5e and its attendant play-culture is centered on the concept of players playing their singular OC.
 
Last edited:

Oofta

Legend
To me, the salient features of old-school play are randomly generated and mechanically simple characters; an open world or sandbox, and an XP system that encourages exploring it (preferably something concrete and diegetic, like XP = GP); a campaign structure where enough time passes between active game sessions that real time can roughly keep pace with game time; a need for characters to spend substantial downtime between adventures (because of healing, training, research, or tending to an estate or dominion), so as to intentionally create "gaps" where some characters are unavailable for adventuring during some sessions; and the understanding that said gaps are to be filled with newly-created 1st level characters, such that each player will eventually have a "stable" of PCs (of different levels) to choose from; and, perhaps most important of all, that each adventure be player-driven rather than plot-driven (In that it's always the players who decide what their characters are going to do at the beginning of each adventure when they strike out from their home base).

Different people have different experiences, but I don't see any difference in old school games versus new games in the rules. Maybe with XP=GP, but the "modern" equivalent is to use milestones instead. My games have months pass between adventures, downtime activities are detailed in the books (although there could be more or different rules) and all of my campaigns are very player driven. We don't have a stable of characters to choose from, but then again I've never been in a game that had that.

Which doesn't make anything you said not "old school" just that people's experiences are so varied that without picking a specific subset of styles it's difficult to comment much.
 

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?
Breaking up the order, because this question matters first. The mechanics of 5E have nothing to do with old-school play; they're largely taken from the best ideas of 3E and 4E. The reason why 5E is considered old school is the fact that unlike those editions, the role of the DM has been made more relevant. 3E tried to have a rule for everything, which bogged the game down in minutia. 4E was built on certain assumptions for the role of the DM, which made it hard to break free from those assumptions (at least without causing things to crash). 5E keeps the overall rules simple, relying on the judgement of the DM to resolve them, which is largely what happened back in OD&D, BECMI, and AD&D. This is what makes 5E "old-school."

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?
Here's a big "secret" of 5E: it's meant to be customized. The initial goal was for there to be various modules for DMs to choose from, but that got reduced down to the simple variant rules scattered across the core rule books. The concept is still there, however, as with 5E's solid chassis you can do a LOT with it using 3PP or houserules. Hell, the entire purpose of DMGuild is for people to share the equivalent of homebrew.

While there's a lot of options in the DMG you could consider, I'm not always a big fan of the official versions. The only one from your list I'd suggest you consider is Encumbrance. It works pretty well, forcing characters to either put some nominal value into Str, carry next to nothing, or suffer significant penalties. I'd just allow dwarves to ignore the first penalty, since they lose out on their racial benefit for wearing armor.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
The specific details in the OP aren't my experience but besides that it doesn't touch on what I like about how 5e has returned to an older style of play.

In 3e interaction interaction with the world became a matter of 'hitting buttons'. Instead of describing what your character was doing the player would say "I use X skill".

5e has reversed that. The game is much more in the DM's hands now and the players are back to interacting with the world and using their imagination to solve problems rather than just the powers written on their sheet.

To me that is what changed to return D&D to an 'old school' way of play. Not the healing 1-2 HP per day of rest which is just not something I find useful or desirable.
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
For me and my definition of old school, no it really really doesn't. Not it the slightest. It seems designed to explicitly be the opposite of what I like about old-school D&D. For me, old-school D&D is a few things that are closely related. Some more necessary than others, but they're all in there.

Weak starting characters. 5E takes the opposite approach. Quite powerful starting characters is the default. High stats, lots of hit points, many skills, lots of powers to pick form, and lots of combat ability for everyone. All casters have infinite cantrips that are as good as or better than most weapons in the game. Various cantrips and 1st-level spells are so good they're broken and these are seen as the default. With the prevalence of optimization, whatever lists of "good - better - best" abilities, feats, skills, spells, maneuvers, etc are widely dispersed and these are seen as the only smart or viable choice.

Zero to hero. 5E takes the opposite approach. Characters start very powerful compared to older editions and their power increases rather drastically from there. In 5E, characters start as heroes become superheroes, demigods, and gods.

Easy character death. 5E takes the opposite approach. There's a wild amount of healing in the game, even from 1st level. Once your hit points are gone you have to take up to 3 more hits or fail three 50% saves before dying...and if even a single hit point is healed...you start that 3-step cycle all over again. So the default healing style in 5E accounts for that and is less than affectionately known as "pop-up healing". So while character death does occasionally happen, it's quite rare in my experience. Even when a bad guy would single out and focus down a specific character healing is so plentiful and overpowered that characters might as well be immortal. Then there's the superhero regeneration of hit points with an 8-hour rest.

Quick character creation. If characters are going to be easily killed off, then character creation should be quick and easy...5E takes the opposite approach. You can streamline character creation up to a point, but even then you're not to the point of old-school D&D speed of character creation. This is also a player base thing. Times have changed and most players don't seem that interested in disposable characters. Rather personalized epics focused on their characters and how cool they are.

Exploration. The TSR editions of D&D had a lot of focus on exploration which WotC trashed. In 5E exploration is a joke. What is there is toothless to the point of wasting page count to related the "rules" to the player and DM. There are so many skip buttons from class and subclass abilities and spells that obviate what minimal challenge there is in exploration in 5E that you either need to house rule the hell out of the relevant systems to make it worth engaging with or you just skip it entirely.

Variety of game play. Dungeons, wilderness exploration, town and city politics, domain management, regional powers, eventually gaining great power and potentially becoming a god. I liked that the default assumption of what you'd be doing in the game changed as you leveled. This is mostly from the Basic line but there was some support for some of these in AD&D. That variety has been collapsed down to almost nothing. The only thing that changes as you level is the names of the monsters you kill.

Unexpected and weird. Though I didn't play 2E, I absolutely love the settings. Al-Qadim, Dark Sun, and Spelljammer are three of my top four. Mystara / Known World is another. I love the weird and unexpected of the OSR. Not the childish edgy for edgy's sake stuff. But the honestly bizarre. I really miss that about old-school D&D. It simply doesn't exist in 5E. DM's can convert stuff and there's some really good 3PP stuff that scratches a similar itch, but the default 5E is bland as bland can be.
 
Last edited:

DND_Reborn

Legend
I really like @overgeeked's summary. I think it is pretty spot on!

One thing I would like to add, which might or might not have already been expressed, and is related to this point:
Times have changed and most players don't seem that interested in disposable characters. Rather personalize epics focused on their characters and how cool they are.
(bold added)

IME, old-school games were about THE ADVENTURE, not the PCs. Now, 5E seems (IMO) to revolve too much around the characters, what stuff they can get, etc., in other words, "how cool they are." Because advancement was (generally) slower in than in 5E, when you finally did level it was great, but often you might have just gotten more hit points and little, if anything, else. In 5E, PCs are virtually guaranteed to get something cool each and every level. It seems to shift the focus to leveling up the PC instead of enjoying the adventure. 🤷‍♂️

That's just my take on it.

EDIT: Something I thought of that I would like to add, but PLEASE don't take this as an invite to an edition war or anything, just an observation:

In AD&D, the PHB was a scant 128 pages. The DMG was 239 pages. And if you want to include Unearthed Arcana, you add roughly 72 pages of player content, and 56 pages of DM material. So, total is 200 pages for players and 295 for DMs. About a 40/60 split almost. The DM has about 50% more content.

By comparison, for 5E, the PHB is 317 pages and the DMG is 320 (much of which is really fluff IMO...). Adding XGtE, and players get another 101 pages and the DM 91. So, over all its about 418 pages for players and 411 for DMs. Roughly even.

Just something to consider. Draw your own (if any) conclusions.
 
Last edited:


In AD&D, the PHB was a scant 128 pages. The DMG was 239 pages. And if you want to include Unearthed Arcana, you add roughly 72 pages of player content, and 56 pages of DM material. So, total is 200 pages for players and 295 for DMs. About a 40/60 split almost. The DM has about 50% more content.
Granted, this is partially because of the tiny font size in those books
 

Voadam

Legend
EDIT: Something I thought of that I would like to add, but PLEASE don't take this as an invite to an edition war or anything, just an observation:

In AD&D, the PHB was a scant 128 pages. The DMG was 239 pages. And if you want to include Unearthed Arcana, you add roughly 72 pages of player content, and 56 pages of DM material. So, total is 200 pages for players and 295 for DMs. About a 40/60 split almost. The DM has about 50% more content.

By comparison, for 5E, the PHB is 317 pages and the DMG is 320 (much of which is really fluff IMO...). Adding XGtE, and players get another 101 pages and the DM 91. So, over all its about 418 pages for players and 411 for DMs. Roughly even.

Just something to consider. Draw your own (if any) conclusions.

That's 1e AD&D.

The PDF I have of the Revised AD&D 2e PH is 322 pages. Without adding Tome of Magic, the Four Wizard Spell Encyclopedias, the three Priest Spell Encyclopedias or any of the various Complete Handbooks or Player's Options Books.

The Revised AD&D 2e DMG PDF is 258 pages. Then there are the Tome of Artifacts, Magic Item Encyclopedias, and such.
 




Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top