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

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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:

(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.
And just to be clear, I’m good with power fantasy escapism and the like. It seems things have shifted and it’s all taken on a different character in the last decade or so. Wild novel-length backstories for fresh-faced characters with zero XP, wanting to start with more and more power, and character death being rarer and rarer…or somehow the possibility of character death ever happening at all as a topic that’s open for discussion. Like what’s the draw of that? You’re just awesome. That’s it. No challenges. No setbacks. No risks.
 

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Smackpixi

Adventurer
5e mechanics are old school friendly, there’s a lot of do whatever the hell you want to it, and the system is durable in that it doesn’t break adding or subtracting from it. But the player mechanics are not, players inflate in power rapidly to levels that don’t fit with your ideas, delaying advancement just bores players, and doesn’t fix your preferences really, you’d have to go through the spell lists and class abilities and strip out a bunch to keep advancement a thing but not let players become superheros.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
And just to be clear, I’m good with power fantasy escapism and the like.
Of course, everyone has their own tastes. While I am not keen to completely return to old-school rules, there are elements of it I like and miss when playing 5E. Which, of course, is why I try so many house-rules and such, to make it the experience I want to play.

It seems things have shifted and it’s all taken on a different character in the last decade or so. Wild novel-length backstories for fresh-faced characters with zero XP, wanting to start with more and more power, and character death being rarer and rarer…or somehow the possibility of character death ever happening at all as a topic that’s open for discussion.
Yeah, that has been the trend as I understand it. I am all for a detailed backstory, even in old-school, and staring with 0 XP, etc. but for me, death should always be on the table. Otherwise...

Like what’s the draw of that? You’re just awesome. That’s it. No challenges. No setbacks. No risks.
And, for myself anyway, sometimes I would add... "No fun."

So, my quest continues for the ideal blend of 5E and house-rules that strikes a prefect balance for me. 🤷‍♂️
 

Yora

Legend
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.

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.
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. 🤷‍♂️
I talked about this with some other people, and I think the simple tweak to reduce XP for encounters by half and more, and using the variant rule to have one short rest per night and long rests as a week off in a secure town or stronghold should go quite a long way to improve things in this regard.

Casting create or destroy water as a 1st level spell produces enough water for 5 characters even in hot environments. That's one 1st level spell per day to completely negate the water needs of an average party. But if you have to cross a desert for a whole week, and don't regain spells until you reach the safety of the other side, that starts to seriously bite into a druids spells total for the desert crossing. A 3rd level druid would have to use all spell slots to provide water for five people for eight days. Characters won't likely die from dehydration in the desert if they don't bring water, but that threat would hover over them any time they get into a fight and the druid is consider using a spell to help with the immediate threat.

Cure wounds looks similar. It becomes a considerably greater investment any time you use it, if you have to ration your spells for a whole week or even two.

Of course it wouldn't emulate BECMI, but those two tweaks alone should result in a significant change in pace and tone, and they are about the most common variant rules I've ever seen discussed or mentioned.

As others mentioned, the exploration mechanics in 5th edition can barely be called a system. But I think in that case, you can pretty much plug in the old BECMI system as it is without even having to do much in the way of modifications. Use wandering monster checks and tables, use reaction rolls, apply the Morale mechanic. And I guess make the return of a treasure to a town a milestone that awards XP.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
And just to be clear, I’m good with power fantasy escapism and the like. It seems things have shifted and it’s all taken on a different character in the last decade or so. Wild novel-length backstories for fresh-faced characters with zero XP, wanting to start with more and more power, and character death being rarer and rarer…or somehow the possibility of character death ever happening at all as a topic that’s open for discussion. Like what’s the draw of that? You’re just awesome. That’s it. No challenges. No setbacks. No risks.

I wouldn't want to play in a game where characters couldn't die, but it's quite a leap to say that lack of character death = no challenges, setbacks, or risks.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
I talked about this with some other people, and I think the simple tweak to reduce XP for encounters by half and more, and using the variant rule to have one short rest per night and long rests as a week off in a secure town or stronghold should go quite a long way to improve things in this regard.
Yep, all those definitely help!

Casting create or destroy water as a 1st level spell produces enough water for 5 characters even in hot environments. That's one 1st level spell per day to completely negate the water needs of an average party. But if you have to cross a desert for a whole week, and don't regain spells until you reach the safety of the other side, that starts to seriously bite into a druids spells total for the desert crossing. A 3rd level druid would have to use all spell slots to provide water for five people for eight days. Characters won't likely die from dehydration in the desert if they don't bring water, but that threat would hover over them any time they get into a fight and the druid is consider using a spell to help with the immediate threat.
An often overlooked aspect of such spells is you need open containers to put them in. Create or Destroy Water creates 10 gallons, which is 80 pounds of water! Given that a waterskin only holds 4 lbs. of water, you would need 20 waterskins and the ability to carry 80 lbs. of water to really benefit in the long run.

The 30 gallons created by Create Food and Water is even more to transport!

Granted, not a hard obstacle to over come, but a lot of players today don't want to worry about such mundane things as basic survival in a fantasy game. 🤷‍♂️

Cure wounds looks similar. It becomes a considerably greater investment any time you use it, if you have to ration your spells for a whole week or even two.

Of course it wouldn't emulate BECMI, but those two tweaks alone should result in a significant change in pace and tone, and they are about the most common variant rules I've ever seen discussed or mentioned.

As others mentioned, the exploration mechanics in 5th edition can barely be called a system. But I think in that case, you can pretty much plug in the old BECMI system as it is without even having to do much in the way of modifications. Use wandering monster checks and tables, use reaction rolls, apply the Morale mechanic. And I guess make the return of a treasure to a town a milestone that awards XP.
Agree completely. With maybe a dozen changes you can make 5E into something more like old-school.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Like what’s the draw of that? You’re just awesome. That’s it. No challenges. No setbacks. No risks.
Just because you start at Level 1 doing a lot of awesome stuff doesn't mean there are more awesome creatures out there ready to kick the living crap out of you. ;) The challenge is always there, unless your DM doesn't want to or doesn't know how to do it.

But speaking personally... I don't see Level 1 in 5E as being "awesome", I see it merely as actually being who you are. If you are a wizard... you actually get to use magic at Level 1 the entire day, rather than one Magic Missile and then spent the rest of the afternoon walking around as a weak-assed crossbowman. To me, a Level 1 wizard isn't "awesome", but they also aren't a "magic-user in name only" that an AD&D Magic-User is (in my opinion.)
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
To be perfectly honest, my biggest gripe with 5E is the hit point bloat in PCs and creatures alike, and of course to compensate you have greater damage potential, and the escalator climb continues...

But even a few simple changes and it goes away, add making hitting harder (so you only hit 35% of the time instead of 65%, which IMO is ridiculous!), and even more old-school feel. :)
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
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.

Except for quick character creation, my 5E games have all of this, though I don't quite understand the need for specific "rules" for exploration.
 

Myrdin Potter

Adventurer
I run one weekly game where most of the players are ones I played 1e with 40 years ago. The rules are 5e, but the feeling is like back then.

I find the key is the XP system tilted towards killing monsters in 3e, not getting treasure. But the 5e rules make it clear that the intent is overcoming the encounter, not killing things (killing the monsters is the most straightforward way to overcome the encounter).

Until about 5th level in 5e, TPK is very easy. The very first encounter with goblins in the first 5e starter kit is easy to TPK with - the goblins skirmish and a few decent rolls and they win. That encounter is also theatre of the mind.

So I find it easy to run an old school game via 5e. Or I can just use Swords and Wizardry or AD&D if it is the actual rules themselves that I think I need.
 

I talked about this with some other people, and I think the simple tweak to reduce XP for encounters by half and more, and using the variant rule to have one short rest per night and long rests as a week off in a secure town or stronghold should go quite a long way to improve things in this regard.

Casting create or destroy water as a 1st level spell produces enough water for 5 characters even in hot environments. That's one 1st level spell per day to completely negate the water needs of an average party. But if you have to cross a desert for a whole week, and don't regain spells until you reach the safety of the other side, that starts to seriously bite into a druids spells total for the desert crossing. A 3rd level druid would have to use all spell slots to provide water for five people for eight days. Characters won't likely die from dehydration in the desert if they don't bring water, but that threat would hover over them any time they get into a fight and the druid is consider using a spell to help with the immediate threat.

Cure wounds looks similar. It becomes a considerably greater investment any time you use it, if you have to ration your spells for a whole week or even two.

Of course it wouldn't emulate BECMI, but those two tweaks alone should result in a significant change in pace and tone, and they are about the most common variant rules I've ever seen discussed or mentioned.

As others mentioned, the exploration mechanics in 5th edition can barely be called a system. But I think in that case, you can pretty much plug in the old BECMI system as it is without even having to do much in the way of modifications. Use wandering monster checks and tables, use reaction rolls, apply the Morale mechanic. And I guess make the return of a treasure to a town a milestone that awards XP.
In the one 5e game that I'm in, I'm playing a water genasi. They get create water 1/day as a racial ability at third level. The desert crossing scenario is still possible, and still a challenge, but there are little things like that everywhere in the game that can surprise you, and you have to plan your challenges accordingly. In a way, it requires you to take world building seriously: what does a desert crossing look like in a high magic world? Unfortunately, the game doesn't really answer this question aside from "6-8 level appropriate combats per day to drain resources." As a player, often the answer, or at least a good part of the answer, to any challenge is on your character sheet. That's still fun; it allows people to easily chip in to address a challenge. But it's not really the open-ended back and forth that characterize OSR play.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
what does a desert crossing look like in a high magic world?
(bold added)

I see that as the biggest point from one group to the next. How "high magic" is your world? The "typical" (if such a thing exists...) D&D world?

Also, the desert example, even if you can create water and somehow store enough, it still evaporates some if it is a "hot" desert. Also, in such climates the amount of water needed can be much higher than in cooler climates.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
(bold added)

I see that as the biggest point from one group to the next. How "high magic" is your world? The "typical" (if such a thing exists...) D&D world?
The default is determined by the game itself. Even a PHB-only game is already high magic. To make a D&D game less than high magic requires limiting what’s available from the books. You’d have to remove most or all casting classes to get close to a low magic setting.
 


Smackpixi

Adventurer
Sometimes I wonder if the dislike for power escalation of players is a lack of creativity by the DM. Like, maybe some DMs want to keep sending the same orcs at their players, and get mad if the fighter has an insta death longsword. I mean, let’s give Conan the insta death sword, and then attack him with rubberpeople who bounce off all slashing attacks with no damage but are knocked 10 feet away, Conan can now still instakill but needs to corner them so they can’t bounce. it’s weird, and complicated, but interesting.

In that context, seems boring and lame to want to deny players power so you can just hit them again with the same ole goblins, in the same ole cave.
 

guachi

Adventurer
Yes, 5e can feel old-school. Though it does depend on what characteristics you feel are important. I've run several campaigns that used nothing but old 1e AD&D and D&D modules, nothing published after 1989. It required some house rules but nothing too crazy.

Only one of the players had actually played "Old School" D&D but he thought my campaign was a good simulacrum.

This from @Mannahnin is basically what I did.

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.
 
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payn

Legend
Sometimes I wonder if the dislike for power escalation of players is a lack of creativity by the DM. Like, maybe some DMs want to keep sending the same orcs at their players, and get mad if the fighter has an insta death longsword. I mean, let’s give Conan the insta death sword, and then attack him with rubberpeople who bounce off all slashing attacks with no damage but are knocked 10 feet away, Conan can now still instakill but needs to corner them so they can’t bounce. it’s weird, and complicated, but interesting.

In that context, seems boring and lame to want to deny players power so you can just hit them again with the same ole goblins, in the same ole cave.
For some folks, the adventure is more interesting than the combats. The story, the exploration, the challenge of the entire adventure is what folks are after. Not just killing stuff all day every day.
 

Sometimes I wonder if the dislike for power escalation of players is a lack of creativity by the DM. Like, maybe some DMs want to keep sending the same orcs at their players, and get mad if the fighter has an insta death longsword. I mean, let’s give Conan the insta death sword, and then attack him with rubberpeople who bounce off all slashing attacks with no damage but are knocked 10 feet away, Conan can now still instakill but needs to corner them so they can’t bounce. it’s weird, and complicated, but interesting.

In that context, seems boring and lame to want to deny players power so you can just hit them again with the same ole goblins, in the same ole cave.
Well, we don't live in a world with magic. So sure, lack of creativity, but what the PCs can do just with their basic abilities can surprise you as a dm. Early editions have an implied magic level that is low, so PCs work somewhat within the bounds of reality similar to what we know ("hero, not superhero). 5e provides lots more options for players to circumvent challenges, but not a lot of built in options for DMs to provide challenges given the higher magic and higher power levels. And I don't mean just combat challenges; for example, there are several 5e abilities and rules that make navigating an environment easier and more reliant on character ability, rather than being a challenge for the players. (neither style is wrong, btw).
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen
Right. It DOES require more creativity to design interesting challenges for high level characters than for low level ones. Characters who have various magical movement options, scrying and magical information gathering, etc., can ignore or easily negate some challenges which would have been insurmountable at low level.

This is part of why reviewers like Bryce Lynch have commented on how rare and cool high level adventures which actually do this are, rather than cheating by cancelling out player abilities ("teleport doesn't work in this dungeon", etc.). Similar phenomenon to how writing a comic book story for Superman is challenging- because stuff that challenges lesser mortals is trivial to him, so you have to be more creative and present problems his powers don't automatically negate.
 

Smackpixi

Adventurer
I don’t disagree with Payn or Malmuria, Im Just wondering about an attitude of this much magical weird, but not that much. Why is there a line?
 

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