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

DND_Reborn

Legend
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.
The DMG even acknowledges the game can be low or high, but neither are the standard (which is in between) by the table for Starting Equipment on page 38.

So, I don't consider the default high magic as you suggest. I know the default certainly isn't low magic! It is determined by the DM/table and how the world is presented to the players.

I would add that it is also determined by the tiers IMO for most groups. Most games never make it to tier 3, let along tier 4, so casters don't really have to be limited to make your world "low magic".

5E can certainly be high magic IF you are engaged in the higher levels at some point, give out tons of magic items, narrate your world is high magic because it is super common (streets lit by continual flame spells in any significant established community), etc.

I very much consider my game low magic, mostly because magic is rare. Casters are rare, you don't have a priest in every town to raise dead (as EGG suggested at one point IIRC...), and finding magic items, especially permanent ones are a true treasure!
 

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The DMG even acknowledges the game can be low or high, but neither are the standard (which is in between) by the table for Starting Equipment on page 38.

So, I don't consider the default high magic as you suggest. I know the default certainly isn't low magic! It is determined by the DM/table and how the world is presented to the players.

I would add that it is also determined by the tiers IMO for most groups. Most games never make it to tier 3, let along tier 4, so casters don't really have to be limited to make your world "low magic".

5E can certainly be high magic IF you are engaged in the higher levels at some point, give out tons of magic items, narrate your world is high magic because it is super common (streets lit by continual flame spells in any significant established community), etc.

I very much consider my game low magic, mostly because magic is rare. Casters are rare, you don't have a priest in every town to raise dead (as EGG suggested at one point IIRC...), and finding magic items, especially permanent ones are a true treasure!
This is a case of people meaning different things by the same phrase. Overgeeked has opined, IIRC, that the PCs simply having infinite-use cantrips is indicative of the world/campaign being what he considers High Magic.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
This is a case of people meaning different things by the same phrase. Overgeeked has opined, IIRC, that the PCs simply having infinite-use cantrips is indicative of the world/campaign being what he considers High Magic.
You could very well be correct. I know phrases such as "high magic" have different meanings to different people, I was just pointing out that (as far as the game is designed), it doesn't consider itself "high magic."

FWIW @overgeeked and I are pretty much in agreement as I see it.
 
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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?
There isn't a line with respect to what makes a fun game, either high or low magic can work. It's more about the style of play. The idea is that fewer character abilities makes it so that the player has to, via their character and the DM's description, explore the environment to try to solve a challenge. A common example are secret doors: do you tell the GM exactly how and where you are searching for a potential secret doors ("I reach into the back of the fireplace to see if there are any levers or buttons") or can it be handled by a passive perception score? Some people want their game to include some element of the former.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
When talking about the height of magic, it’s necessary to ask, relative to what? I believe that the chart in the DMG is meant to be relative to the average D&D campaign, so obviously the default would be right in the middle. But if we’re rating it compared to general fantasy fiction, I think D&D would fall on the high side. Certainly you can find higher, but I think lower is more typical.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
When talking about the height of magic, it’s necessary to ask, relative to what? I believe that the chart in the DMG is meant to be relative to the average D&D campaign, so obviously the default would be right in the middle. But if we’re rating it compared to general fantasy fiction, I think D&D would fall on the high side. Certainly you can find higher, but I think lower is more typical.
Which is why I also mention the idea of relative to tiers of play and the narrative of the world Either way, what is "high magic" is subjective.

As to other fantasy games, I couldn't really say, D&D is pretty much the only fantasy game I've played. For other fiction, most of the fiction I've read is D&D-based, with only a couple exceptions--some less magical, some more.
 

Smackpixi

Explorer
There isn't a line with respect to what makes a fun game, either high or low magic can work. It's more about the style of play.

Again, don’t disagree. But I feel like it’s always a scaling situation, player abilities vs Monster and Room abilities. Scale up the player, scale up the room. I do think in sandbox style games, if you prepopulate everything it’s much harder to have a room, dungeon, area, whatever that just scares PCs off rather than kills them all on sight, but is everything prepopulated old school? I don’t that’s it’s signature. I think the signature of old school is more or less mechanics. More, PCs walk into weird room, solve it with wit rather than ability card.

So, I think 5e allows that. Does it matter if players can jump 5ft or 50ft? You just adjust the room.

Absolutly though players rapidly scale in power and that makes providing a sensible enemy that doesn’t also scale problematic. And it’s weird. Frankly, no advancement makes adventures make more sense…I kinda do this by running more episodic game.
 

payn

Legend
There isn't a line with respect to what makes a fun game, either high or low magic can work. It's more about the style of play. The idea is that fewer character abilities makes it so that the player has to, via their character and the DM's description, explore the environment to try to solve a challenge. A common example are secret doors: do you tell the GM exactly how and where you are searching for a potential secret doors ("I reach into the back of the fireplace to see if there are any levers or buttons") or can it be handled by a passive perception score? Some people want their game to include some element of the former.
Also, the idea that GMs that want characters to have fewer abilities are lazy can be flipped around. Maybe GMs want players to solve problems interacting with the fiction and setting, not just their character sheet.
 

Yora

Legend
There's also a huge difference between the setting and the PCs.
Taking a peak over at fiction, Elric and Kane are the protagonists of their stories and sorcerers in worlds where sorcerers don't seem to be a common thing. And more than that, they appear to be among the most powerful sorcerers in their world. (Kane almost certainly is the top dog.)

That can be an interesting campaign framework as well. You could have the PCs be among the Top 100 most powerful warriors and sorcerers in the entire world, members of a very exclusive group that is able to fight demons and has equally many adventures fighting with each other. And whether you have that at 10th level, 15th, or 20th, you can still have a world where there are only a few dozen spellcasters in total, which would be very low magic as the setting is concerned.
Or on the other end you can have something like Eberron where magic is most commonly 1st and 2nd level spells, but there's a lot of them around and they are just everywhere. With rather limited magic power, you still have a world that is full of it.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
There isn't a line with respect to what makes a fun game, either high or low magic can work. It's more about the style of play. The idea is that fewer character abilities makes it so that the player has to, via their character and the DM's description, explore the environment to try to solve a challenge. A common example are secret doors: do you tell the GM exactly how and where you are searching for a potential secret doors ("I reach into the back of the fireplace to see if there are any levers or buttons") or can it be handled by a passive perception score? Some people want their game to include some element of the former.

That seems to be covered in the DMG under Running the Game > The Role of the Dice. But it's pretty much always been an option that you could go one way or another for a lot of these things, it's largely group dependent in my experience. It has very little to do with the edition of the game.
 

Smackpixi

Explorer
Also, the idea that GMs that want characters to have fewer abilities are lazy can be flipped around. Maybe GMs want players to solve problems interacting with the fiction and setting, not just their character sheet.
Again, players have whatever abilities, great or small, you should always put an obstacle that challenges those abilities in front of them. Weaker players just means weaker obstacles. everyone gets two hills, one they can cross, one they probably can’t but maybe if only….

isn’t that what we all do as dms, present that? Power of players is irrelevant.
 

payn

Legend
Again, players have whatever abilities, great or small, you should always put an obstacle that challenges those abilities in front of them. Weaker players just means weaker obstacles. everyone gets two hills, one they can cross, one they probably can’t but maybe if only….

isn’t that what we all do as dms, present that? Power of players is irrelevant.
Power of players is certainly not irrelevant. Having rubber people exist to challenge an instadeath weapon may seem interesting to some, but to others its not.
 


Yora

Legend
I feel that this is going down the path of whether you want to play with dice and mechanics, or to play with a fictional world.
It's not really an old-school thing, as the earliest D&D games were designed with clear mechanical structures and procedures to produce a 15-minute-gameplay-loop in a dungeon environment. But the idea that encounters are chalenges that have to be solved with game mechanics and dice rolls is something that became very prominent in 3rd and 4th edition.
I feel that this approach to playing the game and preparing adventures is one of the main things that originally motivated people to look back at how the games handled things in the past.

If there's any one thing I would consider central to the old-school ideal, it would be to not look at obstacles in the characters' path as game-mechanical problems, but to return to a mindset of thinking of the PCs as characters in an unfolding story first. Ideally, an approach to overcoming an obstacle should either not require any rolls at all, because it is obvious what will happen, or come down to a single roll that takes into consideration all the deliberations and planning of the players.

I believe skill checks have come up several times in the discussion about things that people often complain need better mechanics. I think the way by which the GM calls for skill checks can have quite an impact on how the game as a whole feels. First of all, skill checks should always be called by the GM, never announced by the players. Too often an obstacle devolves into "I want to roll X so you will tell me the solution".
"Is there a trap?" "How do we get the door open?" "Where is the item we're looking for?" "Is the guy lying to us?" These are things that could be played as scenes. Or you could skip them with a die roll. Now, the characters all have skills and the players customized their charaters to have various different skill modifiers, so we of course don't want to throw them out completely. But you can always call for a skill check after a player has explained a plan to deal with an obstacle, and you want to check if the character has the skill and luck to actually pull it off in that moment. What you don't want to have is skill checks being made without any plan or interaction with the obstacle or environment. Or as it has been put before, "you can not roll dice to avoid playing the game".
Insist that the players are being specific about what they do. "I search the room" is not specific. Neither is "I use my engineering skill to see if I can bypass the mechanism".
"I search the desk drawers" is a lot more specific. That's when you can call for a Search check to see if the character spots something that appears noteworthy in all the junk. In a room that has only a desk with drawers and nothing else, that doesn't make any meaningful difference. But in larger rooms with a lot more stuff in them, it does. Especially when there is time pressure and a chance of being discovered (wandering monster checks!) for every container you search. A player could study a mechanism with a skill check to find a way to disable it, and on a successful roll you can tell the players that the character spotted something that could be expoited, like a rusty gear that already has a crack in it. But the players still need to come up with some kind of plan on how they want to break that gear to disable the mechanism.
 

There's also a huge difference between the setting and the PCs.
Taking a peak over at fiction, Elric and Kane are the protagonists of their stories and sorcerers in worlds where sorcerers don't seem to be a common thing. And more than that, they appear to be among the most powerful sorcerers in their world. (Kane almost certainly is the top dog.)

That can be an interesting campaign framework as well. You could have the PCs be among the Top 100 most powerful warriors and sorcerers in the entire world, members of a very exclusive group that is able to fight demons and has equally many adventures fighting with each other. And whether you have that at 10th level, 15th, or 20th, you can still have a world where there are only a few dozen spellcasters in total, which would be very low magic as the setting is concerned.
Or on the other end you can have something like Eberron where magic is most commonly 1st and 2nd level spells, but there's a lot of them around and they are just everywhere. With rather limited magic power, you still have a world that is full of it.
The example I thought of was Wheel of Time: in the books at least, an entire continent with millions of people will have hundreds of magic-users, and only a few of them are really powerful.

But the really powerful ones are "destroy an entire city with magic alone" powerful. And they are, not incidentally, the main characters, for the most part. So it's not low magic the way Lord of the Rings is low magic, but it's also not high magic the way Eberron is high magic.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
What house rules do you use to achieve that? The default rules goe directly against those things.
Let's see. . .

overgeeked said:
Weak starting characters.

"Weak" is relative. When the PCs in both my groups were 1st and 2nd level they struggled against things like giant spiders and centipedes, stirges, bandits, an imp (as the big bad they also had a ritual way to defeat), skeletons and so on. People fell to dying status requiring death saves many times and in several cases only luck and/or quick thinking saved their lives.

Conclusion: No house rule needed.

Zero to hero.
See above. "Zero" and "hero" are both relative. When the PCs in my current group first arrived in the lands where they now are established adventurers with fans and haters, they had to earn their reputation with heroic acts and risk themselves to gain resources and save people heroically. They have recently bought an old hunting lodge to convert and are working their way up from local to regional influence. Part of this is also because they more powerful as they've leveled, but putting that power to work effectively required in-game navigation of the political and social milieu.

Conclusion: No house rule needed.

Easy character death.
You may be on to something with this one, since this is the first campaign I have ever run that got this far without a couple of PC deaths. That said, the risk of death feels real - partially because I roll in the open, and partially because I have opponents (when applicable) act intelligently.

In one of my groups we are are trying out a variation on the long-term injury option, but that is less about "easy character death" and more about lasting consequences of being very hurt but avoiding death.

Conclusion: No house rules needed, but a long-term injury or other critical hit chart house rule could help.

Quick character creation.

As I mentioned, you are right, it is not quick. In fact, I make it take longer by running stat drafts.

Exploration.
As I suggested in a previous post, I don't really understand the need for "rules" for this. Maybe I just don't know what it means. To me exploration means, discovering and mapping/learning unknown regions - which happens all the time. It might be a specific dungeon or cave system, it might be a river delta on the frontier rules by lizardfolk. It might be a mountain. I describe. The players consider the landscape or setting and then have their characters act, choosing to go this way or that, setting up ropes for a climb, or using an ensorcelled animal to fly up and survey unknown places. . . And so on. . . Sometimes there are random encounters which helps cement what there is to be found in an area.

Conclusion: No house rule needed.

Variety of game play.
Every single thing you mentioned has been a part of my game. I have homebrewed some domain powers that will go along with their new HQ but they wanted the "domain" before they knew that having a place to live gained them anything but just a place to put their stuff - so I would not say that is a house rule that facilitates it. They are also deeply involved in town politics and helped create alliances with other peoples.

Conclusion: No house rule needed.

Unexpected and weird.
From a hollow world form of the "underdark" where the core of the planet is a red sun to magic mushroom pushing drug cult that used those mushrooms to weaken people's wills so that their boss can dominate them, and discovering the mushrooms are grown in troglodyte dung to a romantic troll who sings Chris Isaac and hates his two-headed uncle(s) to goblins and hobgoblins being the male and female examples (respectively) of the same species to the local form of government being a GASP! republic (everyone knows kings are better! ;)) . . .there had been weird shiz in this my games and there is more weird shiz to come.

Conclusion: Absolutely no house rule needed.


Now, that is not to mean we have absolutely no house rules. I've grandfathered how ready and delay work from 3E and I have replaced DM granted inspiration with a Hero Point system that allows +1d6 to certain rolls (does not stack with bardic inspiration). And of course, the aforementioned lingering injuries thing. However, none of them are necessarily aimed at an old school feel.
 

"Weak" is relative. When the PCs in both my groups were 1st and 2nd level they struggled against things like giant spiders and centipedes, stirges, bandits, an imp (as the big bad they also had a ritual way to defeat), skeletons and so on. People fell to dying status requiring death saves many times and in several cases only luck and/or quick thinking saved their lives.

Conclusion: No house rule needed.
Weak and hero/superhero are relative, but I think the point of comparison would be, say, 5e characters vs b/x characters. A 5e warlock with eldritch blast certainly feels more reliable than a b/x magic user with one spell. And I think the b/x character is supposed to be roughly similar to the average population. Is that true of a 1st level 5e character? If so then that suggests a world, that, if not high magic, one where magic is pervasive.


As I suggested in a previous post, I don't really understand the need for "rules" for this. Maybe I just don't know what it means. To me exploration means, discovering and mapping/learning unknown regions - which happens all the time. It might be a specific dungeon or cave system, it might be a river delta on the frontier rules by lizardfolk. It might be a mountain. I describe. The players consider the landscape or setting and then have their characters act, choosing to go this way or that, setting up ropes for a climb, or using an ensorcelled animal to fly up and survey unknown places. . . And so on. . . Sometimes there are random encounters which helps cement what there is to be found in an area.
The usual example is xp for gold instead of xp for combat. Though I feel that rpg designers in general overestimate the effect that xp has on actual gameplay, there is something to be said for using xp as motivation for the player and maybe also the character. 5e characters still explore the world. The idea is that xp-for-gold produces a different style of gameplay, one where the rewards of venturing further or lingering in the dungeon are weighed against the risks. Whereas in 5e, a random encounter is the reward in the sense that it is more xp (though not the reward in the sense that it's not related to the 'story').


Of course, all of these things have to do with the feel of the game, and there are many variables in play, not least being the particular dynamics of a given group. But in my experience playing 5e it produces a different feel than playing osr games.
 

That seems to be covered in the DMG under Running the Game > The Role of the Dice. But it's pretty much always been an option that you could go one way or another for a lot of these things, it's largely group dependent in my experience. It has very little to do with the edition of the game.
The design of the game does affect how these things play out. In b/x you have to spend a turn searching and have a 1 in 6 chance. That time is a risk, weighed against a dangerous random encounter or running out of light. Whereas in 5e even a 1st level character could easily have a +5 in perception, and that's before possible expertise or guidance. They probably have someone with a light cantrip for light, and random encounters will be level-appropriate. House rules and dm style can help nudge the game toward something more old school, but it takes a certain amount of intentionality and experience, and even then probably breaks down after level 5.
 

With games like Basic Fantasy and Old School Essentials available, there's no need to try to change 5E to be more old school. These games are cheap/free, easily accessible for anyone with experience with 5E, easy to teach for completely new players, well supported with tons of adventures and supplements and are just fantastic games.

I've tried to adapt 5E to old school style play and it really doesn't work too well, especially after level 5 or so. The power level of PCs is way too steep and monsters have way too many hit points. The prevalence of PC powers and abilities discourage the old school approach of using imagination and player based challenges and solutions. 5E lacks any real procedures for dungeon exploration and wilderness exploration.

I've gotten it close but it requires tons of house rules to get it there. To the point where it really stops becoming 5E and ends up being something else. I would recommend getting one of those two games and just running with them.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Weak and hero/superhero are relative, but I think the point of comparison would be, say, 5e characters vs b/x characters. A 5e warlock with eldritch blast certainly feels more reliable than a b/x magic user with one spell. And I think the b/x character is supposed to be roughly similar to the average population. Is that true of a 1st level 5e character? If so then that suggests a world, that, if not high magic, one where magic is pervasive.
That seems like a weird and twisted bit of logic. If the 5E warlock is supposed to be "average population", then by that standard the B/X magic-user should be too.

Even the 1E DMG points out the fact that player characters are not average individuals and atypical from the "common man", right in the section on bell curves, stats and the like.
 

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