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

Yora

Legend
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.
There is a huge space of possible games to play between those two ends. B/X out of the box and 5th edition out of the box are not our only options. There are vast numbers of things that you can like about either game and want to have in your campaign, without loving everything about either.

When you add more and more elements of one to the other, then at some point it might become reasonable to consider switching to the other one as the baseline and modifying that to your taste. But even between that hypothetical halfway point and 5th edition out of the box there's still a vast range of possibilities to run your campaign.

How would you port over warlocks, bards, and druids with all the land circles ,and exhaustion over to OSE? I think at that point it does become sensible to consider 5th edition as the baseline and tweaking that.
And that doesn't even go into the subject of player interest.
 

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AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
Ideas:

halve PC ability bonuses, then cap at 18. First +1 at 14, +2 at 18. Don’t cap monster bonuses though.

casters taking damage in the round before they cast disrupts the spell. You can decide if they lose the spell slot.

feats are optional, don’t allow them.

make a non-rest act of healing expend a hit die. Maybe add some harsh to it by saying such healing also adds 1 level of exhaustion per attempt.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen
casters taking damage in the round before they cast disrupts the spell. You can decide if they lose the spell slot.
Maybe combine this with spellcasting needing to be declared at the top of the round. If you also introduce a mechanic for coordinated party retreats from combat, you could also require this to be declared at the start of a round. (Both of these as in B/X).
 

There is a huge space of possible games to play between those two ends. B/X out of the box and 5th edition out of the box are not our only options. There are vast numbers of things that you can like about either game and want to have in your campaign, without loving everything about either.

When you add more and more elements of one to the other, then at some point it might become reasonable to consider switching to the other one as the baseline and modifying that to your taste. But even between that hypothetical halfway point and 5th edition out of the box there's still a vast range of possibilities to run your campaign.

How would you port over warlocks, bards, and druids with all the land circles ,and exhaustion over to OSE? I think at that point it does become sensible to consider 5th edition as the baseline and tweaking that.
And that doesn't even go into the subject of player interest.
A lot of elements that are codified with rules in modern games can simply be handled by a discussion with the DM to work something out. OSE and Basic Fantasy have a Druid class (as well as Bards), if you want your Druid to be specific to a certain Land, you can discuss with the DM to have a bonus spell or some special ability.

If you want a Warlock, that's just a Magic User. You can just roleplay that you get spells from a patron being instead (and you can hash it out with your DM if you patron has any strings attached).

You don't need laundry lists of options, you can just work out something that works for the both of you. That is more in line with old school... it is more of a DIY approach.

It depends on where you want to start. If you want an old school D&D experience, start with something that is as close as possible to that experience and build up from there. If you want 5E with a nod to old school do likewise starting with 5E.

You can get some old school feel out of 5E. I'd recommend doing the following..

1. Use only the classes from Basic PDF - Wizards cover any type of magic user, Fighters can cover Ranger/Barbarian/etc. Cleric also covers Paladin. Backgrounds can help with this. A ranger is just a Fighter with the Outlander or some Wilderness Background (if you want a ranger that casts spells, go Fighter with Outlander background and multi-class to Wizard)

2. Remove skills from the game. You just use ability checks. If you are doing something that your race, class, or background suggests you should be good at you get your Proficiency bonus. You no longer have a list of skills, instead you have a dialog that builds your character as you go.

3. Remove cantrips. Cantrips like Light, Spare the Dying, Mage Hand really damage the old school feel. Light should be a carefully managed resource, there should always be a real risk of death, and you generally should be getting up and close and taking risk when interacting with the environment.

4. Roll Hit points instead of taking the above average static values.

5. Use 1 week long rests and 8 hour short rests (gritty realism in DMG, I believe)

6. Get rid of death saves or reduce them to a single save.

7. Go through monsters and identify the ones that are nerfed with regards to special abilities. Many monsters have had the bite of their special abilities taken out of them making them less dangerous (ghouls are a great example).

My point is after doing this, you end up with something that isn't really 5E anymore.

I could go the other direction and start with Old School Essentials, add advantage/disadvantage ( making it based on player fictional positioning ONLY) and then handle any special abilities or elements not present in OSE by working with the player on a case by case basis.
 

without touching core mechanics

Lethality
Remove healing word and revivify.
Allow monster to lay attack on down PC more often.

Resting
Remove Leomund tiny hut.

Class
Remove any subclass that look too flashy for old school.

Reduce ability scores
Ex.:
Roll 6x3d6, arrange at will.
Point buy : 18 points.

Skills
There is variant for allowing Ability check proficiencies by class. P 263.
That may fit better.
 

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.
A 1st level 5e warlock has a spell slot that recharges on a short rest, 2 cantrips they can cast infinitely, and a special ability from their patron like the ability to communicate telepathically. After one or two sessions they will level up and 2 spell slots per short rest and two invocations.

A 1st level b/x magic user has one spell slot, a dagger, and d4 hit points. They need 2500 gold pieces to make it to level two, where they get a second spell slot and another d4 hit points.

My claim is that the former is going to feel, both as a game piece and as a character in fiction, as much more powerful and "high magic" than the latter. In terms of being old school, the 5e player will have more answers to solve challenges on their character sheet than the b/x player.
 

Yora

Legend
However, how essential to an oldschool play style are first to third level? Unless the campaign ends early, most players will have a 4th level character eventually. And I think at that point, a new 5th edition character doesn't necessarily look that impressive.
Some people really love playing first and second level with a hit point total where basically anything in the game could one-hit kill you. That's a thing. And one that doesn't translate to 5th edition. But it's only one of many elements that are found in the oldest editions. And not necessarily an essential one that the rest of the play style relies on.
 

AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
However, how essential to an oldschool play style are first to third level? Unless the campaign ends early, most players will have a 4th level character eventually. And I think at that point, a new 5th edition character doesn't necessarily look that impressive.
Some people really love playing first and second level with a hit point total where basically anything in the game could one-hit kill you. That's a thing. And one that doesn't translate to 5th edition. But it's only one of many elements that are found in the oldest editions. And not necessarily an essential one that the rest of the play style relies on.
I don’t think 1st-3rd play is essential. In my opinion, I think many want to play through those levels because they are opportunities to find magic items that are one of the essential ways older edition characters gained abilities and wealth than newer edition characters.
 

However, how essential to an oldschool play style are first to third level? Unless the campaign ends early, most players will have a 4th level character eventually. And I think at that point, a new 5th edition character doesn't necessarily look that impressive.
Some people really love playing first and second level with a hit point total where basically anything in the game could one-hit kill you. That's a thing. And one that doesn't translate to 5th edition. But it's only one of many elements that are found in the oldest editions. And not necessarily an essential one that the rest of the play style relies on.
That's an interesting question. There is definitely a strand in OSR game design that really prefers those levels, and especially the mudane problems that come with them (tracking resources, slow healing, need to creatively use mundane equipment, problem of how to get treasure out of the dungeon, etc). There's also the preference that levels don't give you that many more abilities and hit points, and that they take longer to acquire. That preference is maybe more an OSR-specific thing, as BECMI obviously went up to 36.
 

GreyLord

Legend
Well, I played BECMI D&D with some 5e players this christmas vacation. I sent several of them off crying and really upset.

The old school style of play that went with pre-WotC TSR didn't really work with their expectations. Combats were NOT balanced, and other expectations from 5e didn't actually work for them. Had several party wipes.

You can play 5e with the type of style (free wheeling, loose, adaptable) as old school D&D, but it became very apparant with the New School players I had that old school gaming where the old school harshness comes in is NOT something many of the newer players deal with easily or well.

If you never were a harsh campaign driver though, it probably could run similarly.
However, how essential to an oldschool play style are first to third level? Unless the campaign ends early, most players will have a 4th level character eventually. And I think at that point, a new 5th edition character doesn't necessarily look that impressive.
Some people really love playing first and second level with a hit point total where basically anything in the game could one-hit kill you. That's a thing. And one that doesn't translate to 5th edition. But it's only one of many elements that are found in the oldest editions. And not necessarily an essential one that the rest of the play style relies on.

While one party wipe was with a low level party, the other was with a group around 7th and 8th level. Old School D&D can be a pretty harsh taskmaster if you run a brutal campaign.

Not everyone ran campaigns like that though (and though I ran one like that this weekend, I don't always run one like that either).

Story campaigns that didn't have harsh combat possibilities (if they engaged in combat) or troublesome situations during it, but instead focused on character growth and storylines were something that's been around since people started playing RPGs. That type of play I think could go very well with Old School and 5e, but as I found this weekend, players who started with 5e, or at least many of them, don't seem to take very well to the Old School, you can die at any time if you aren't careful, type gameplay.
 

S'mon

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?
My Faerun Adventures sandbox campaign feels very old school to me. The thing about 5e is that it really is designed to be modular - feats and multiclassing are optional rules in the PHB. In the DMG, training to level and 1 week long rests are also optional rules. For some reason a lot of GMs seem afraid of picking the options that will give them the game they want. So IMC no feats or multiclassing (the Paths give a lot of that already, eg Eldritch Knight is a F/MU), training to level, 1 week long rests. I use the XP system as-is, which in a sandbox with mostly low level monsters results in slow advancement. I have a lot of magic treasure, especially weapons. While I use the standard Point Buy rules, I could have gone truly old school with 3d6-in-order PCs, and indeed might do that in the future (optionally rerolling if total is under 70, a tip I got from my current Basic Fantasy RPG GM).
 

S'mon

Legend
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.

Personally I don't think Sneak Attack is a big deal, but I know one GM who banned sneak attack shooting into melee. I don't recommend nerfing classes though. Better to curate the allowed paths - eg most Fighters are Champions, but Elves may become Eldritch Knights. Maybe Clerics' domain is determined by their race (Human > Life, Dwarf > Forge). You could make all Wizards Invokers if you wanted. All Rogues are Thieves, or maybe some are Assassins for a 1e AD&D feel. Etc etc.
 

S'mon

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

That sounds like 4e. By default 5e Point Buy PCs tend to start with a 16 in their main stat, but the game is fully playable if they start with a 14.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
People talking about how every 1st level character is assumed to have at least an 18 in its main stat, but better a 20.
IME, a PC's main ability score has a distribution of:

20 - 5%
19 - 5%
18 - 10%
17 - 20%
16 - 30%
15 - 20%
14 - 10%

I can't recall ever seeing a PC whose main stat was 13 or lower in 5E... I'm sure it has happened, but not IME.
 

S'mon

Legend
I haven't changed XP awards at all and it has taken my group 21 months (and 29 four-hour sessions) to get to 6th level. 🤷‍♂️
You can definitely have slow advancement in 5e while sticking to RAW. Just use mostly low level monsters and be stingy with bonus XP. My Faerun game has gone 1-7 in 17 months, about 50-60 sessions I think.
 

S'mon

Legend
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.

This is largely how I run it, except new PCs are brought in at half the highest PC level. That's currently 7th, so new characters start at 4th.
 

Yora

Legend
You can definitely have slow advancement in 5e while sticking to RAW. Just use mostly low level monsters and be stingy with bonus XP. My Faerun game has gone 1-7 in 17 months, about 50-60 sessions I think.
I've been putting together a list of monsters that would appear in my homebrew campaign setting, and it's pretty much all CR 5 and lower. Excluding dragons, there are only three creatures between CR 6 and CR 10, and nothing above that.
I'm getting all kinds of great ideas for adventures in which things like lamias or wraiths are the big bad boss monsters terrorizing a whole region. Spending a long campaign entirely on the lowest 5 level does sound really attractive in that context.
 

S'mon

Legend
I've been putting together a list of monsters that would appear in my homebrew campaign setting, and it's pretty much all CR 5 and lower. Excluding dragons, there are only three creatures between CR 6 and CR 10, and nothing above that.
I'm getting all kinds of great ideas for adventures in which things like lamias or wraiths are the big bad boss monsters terrorizing a whole region. Spending a long campaign entirely on the lowest 5 level does sound really attractive in that context.

It worked really well for me! 5e is great how eg 20 goblins can be a dire threat to 4th level PCs. 'Bounded accuracy' is brilliant for using low-challenge monsters = slow advancement, without needing to alter the XP chart or awards. I generally saw I think about 4-5 sessions to reach 2nd level, 4-5 to 3rd, 5-8 to 4th, and slower after that. Amazingly the initial level 1 PC group did not lose anyone at 1st level, though they lost their two NPC sidekicks to goblins led by an imp. Of that group, the one PC who was lost (captured & turned into an aberrant monster) reached 5th level Monk first.
 

IME, a PC's main ability score has a distribution of:

20 - 5%
19 - 5%
18 - 10%
17 - 20%
16 - 30%
15 - 20%
14 - 10%

I can't recall ever seeing a PC whose main stat was 13 or lower in 5E... I'm sure it has happened, but not IME.
With point buy, unless you put your biggest number in another stat, I don't think you can start with a main stat below 14. So it would have to come from rolling, not being generous with the rolls, and sticking with the low rolls (rather than just suiciding early for a re-roll).

I'm sure it's happened at least once, but it's obvious why it isn't common.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
With point buy, unless you put your biggest number in another stat, I don't think you can start with a main stat below 14. So it would have to come from rolling, not being generous with the rolls, and sticking with the low rolls (rather than just suiciding early for a re-roll).
Sure.

I'm sure it's happened at least once, but it's obvious why it isn't common.
I've thought about it more and I am tempted to say it might have happened once. I seem to recall one player using point-buy and balancing it out (three 13's and three 12's), and then making a human and using both +1's in the 12's, and choosing a feat to gain a +1 in the last 12. So, it was literally all 13's in the end. But IIRC he never played the PC and might have made it just as a build experiment as I seem to think he wanted to take feats to eventually get +1s more for all six and have all 14's...
 

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