Review Using Old School Adventures in 5E - The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford

Sparky McDibben

Howdy y'all! Sparky McDibben here coming at you with a new (small) series on adventures we can use in our 5E games. I tend to prefer player-driven campaigns, where the world is reacting to the PCs choices, over adventure-path style modules*. One thing I tend to use is OSR products, simply because they're set up to produce that experience. So I wanted to go over how I use OSR-style products in a 5E game, because it was non-obvious to me when I started how I should proceed. I intend to use The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford for this, because it's one of the best darned modules ever produced by the OSR, and it's 19-page length makes it ideal as a starter adventure.

I will cover it in four parts:
  1. The Scenario (what is going on in this adventure)
  2. Mapping OSR Expectations to 5E play
  3. Running This Adventure
  4. Appendix - Mechanical Conversions
But first, I want to address the biggest split in new and old-school players. Frequently, I will see new school players confused when using old-school products. You will get questions like, "Where's the plot / story?" a lot (see Roll For Combat's interview with Kelsey Dionne, designer of Shadowdark, here, timestamp 1:24:00 for relevant commentary). The secret is that there is no plot, by which I mean there is really no expectation that the PCs will proceed through a three-act structure before achieving an heroic triumph. Instead, PCs are offered information in the form of various adventure hooks, all of which should tie into and feed on each other. PC goals and attitudes shift as they proceed through the adventure, leading them to plot their own course through the material.

Now, this is all great and I love it. However, if your players are not interested in making their own decisions (which does happen), or want you to provide them a balanced, power-scaled story they can play through, then this style of play is probably not going to work. Trust me, I speak from experience. So if this sounds cool, check with your group and make sure that's an experience you want, before you drop fat stacks of cash on OSR adventures. Of course, many such adventures are available pretty cheaply; Black Wyrm of Brandonsford is available on for only $4.99, which is about 26 cents per page.

Alright, y'all! I'm going to go engage the good folks of Higglisburg in single combat, to the death, with my trusty chainsaw Clown-Slayer!!! If thou hast not had thy fill of death, citizens, come to me, and I will give thee SURFEIT!!!!!!!!!

*If you prefer adventure paths, that's OK. That experience just isn't why I play RPGs.

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Sparky McDibben

The Scenario:
The sleepy river town of Brandonsford is in a bit of a pickle. See, a while back, a family of dwarves moved in nearby and started mining, only to find a massive treasure pile. One of the brothers went mad with greed, killed his relations, and for this abominable act, was turned into a dragon. At roughly the same time, the local goblins fell under the control of Hogboon, a thoroughly nasty fey, who is trying to use them to take control of the woods (and having a rough time of it).

The adventure spins these fairy-tale conflicts into a variety of side-plots, giving the players multiple tools for dealing with the dragon. There's an old witch in the woods who's not exactly evil but is too old to be much bothered with politeness, a man-eating giant, the tomb of a nearby dragonslayer (with a really good dungeon), trees that bleed wine, a leprachaun's gold, and much more.

I also have to emphasize that this adventure gets across a lot in a little bit of effort. Every word feels whittled, somehow, like it was carved from a much larger piece of text to have a solidity on the page. The NPCs are active; the nixies demand, the love-lorn alchemist pleads, the ghost-dwarf cajoles, etc. The descriptions are economical and evocative: "The beast moves like a fat alligator, dragging its bloated belly across the ground..." At no point does anyone ever, say, show up and ask if you want to race some weird frogs (looking at you, Strixhaven). These creatures demand your attention. The author also does the illustrations, reasonably well in my estimation; they help give a sense of color to the characters.

The entire adventure also demands that the players think about their actions. They could just go hacking away at the dragon, of course, but the scales on it are invulnerable (the adventure relays this to the PCs if they think to ask the lone survivor of the last dragon battle; only the scales are invulnerable, not the rest of it). You can drug the dragon, kill it, or lure it to the goblin's cave so it can fight them, and those are the just the obvious options.

The entire thing is so well done, it's very much worth your time to pick up.

But there are conventions that fall very much outside 5E play expectations. Certain 5E players will consider an invulnerable dragon to be in poor taste, and will probably accuse you of railroading. The idea that PCs can and will fail horribly is very much not expected in 5E. So let's dive into our next section: Mapping OSR Expectations to 5E Play!

Sparky McDibben

Alright, folks, time to map those expectations! So let's touch on a few that might be problematic:
  1. Characters Die Easily. This is not a problem in B/X and its derivatives because character creation is fast (like, 5 minutes and you're done). However, in 5E character creation can take hours, and players can get precious about their characters. You can deal with this in one of two ways. First, you address it in Session Zero, and lay the expectations that everyone should have a backup character ready because this adventure will be deadly. You should emphasize that players will need to think, gather information, and plan, and that combat is risky, not heroic. Secondly, you can take all the OSR monsters out and replace them with the closest 5E equivalent, adjusting for CR as necessary. This will tend to backfire, because if you planned for the PCs to take on the dragon at level 5 and they find it out in the forest (it's on the wandering monster list) at level 2, you're going to have a dead character or two on your hands. I personally prefer option 1.
  2. XP-For-Gold. This is largely not an issue except that 5E has quite inflated XP costs. You might need to let the PCs spend a gold for 2 or even 3 XP in order to keep pace, but ultimately that's a matter of scaling. XP-for-gold still works pretty well in 5E, from my experience.
  3. Lateral Thinking Is Required. This one might really trip up some players. OSR-style adventures require the PCs to come up with creative solutions to apparently intractable problems. That is, indeed, the entire fun of the game. But if you put a dragon in front of an optimizer and tell him that his tricked out sorlock with homebrew invocations can't just eldritch blast it to death, you're killing their fun (this is why Session Zeroes are necessary). I generally address this with a Session Zero conversation, and it tends to work fairly well.
  4. There Is No Plot. Some players really don't like exploring or finding stuff to meddle with; they want a story and they want it now. That doesn't make them wrong; it makes them not a good fit for this type of adventure. I typically handle this with a Session Zero conversation and with occasional prompting during the adventure when I see the players start to become passive. Usually a quick, "OK, y'all, what are you doing next?" is enough to get a player either thinking about what they do know, or what they do not know, and either is useful for getting the game moving again.
  5. Player Skill, Not Character Skill. OSR-style adventures generally don't have DCs for ability checks (although they will occasionally for saving throws). The idea is that the DM will describe the scene, the player will describe how they interact with it, and the DM, if uncertain of a result, will assign an X-in-6 chance of success, and roll a d6 to see what happens. This demands better descriptive skills from DMs, an understanding of what's actually going on and how you can relay that to the PCs, and then letting your players puzzle out what you're describing. See Matt Finch's excellent A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming for worked-out examples of this. This is, again, a note in Session Zero that will need to be updated throughout the game. Alternatively, you can just come up with DCs on your own and assign them to various situations. Even then, though, you'll need to be quick on your feet; a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check isn't the only way to open that stuck door. Players could use knock, thunderwave, grease, axes, and sledgehammers to get through that.
These are the five big departures from a 5E playstyle I generally see in the OSR. Some of them are pretty small, but some of them are substantial. I find the best way to try this as a DM is to practice with a single adventure to start, and then branch out into a full campaign. That way you can make sure your players actually like this style of play, and want to keep it up!

Alright, folks! Join me next time for part 3: Running This Adventure!

Sparky McDibben

OK, folks, Sparky has RETURNED!!! It was a long and unpleasant battle against the forces of Lawn Dree, but with might and perseverance, I conquered it!

Running This Adventure in 5e
So, when you port over Black Wyrm of Brandonsford, how do you do it? I'd probably start with a quick flowchart.


Yes, I know it's hideous, but that's sort of the point: it doesn't need to be pretty, it just needs to tell you where the connections are.
This isn't comprehensive; I've left off the dwarves' mine, the destroyed caravan, etc. Those have been left off because presumably the PC's will find them in the course of hunting the dragon, or in the course of looking for something else. Once you know most of the connections, you really just need to know what the PCs will want. If they're here for the book-standard hook of "1,000 gp if you kill the dragon," then they're going to want to immediately hunt the dragon. If that's the case, they need one piece of vital information - the dragon's scales are invulnerable. I recommend having the NPC with that information (George the Hunter) with the mayor to offer intelligence when the PCs take the job.

From there, there are two quests the PCs can try to resolve in town, one of which leads to Hogboon, and the other of which leads to the Witch. Another NPC points the PCs to the Giant's Hut. However the PCs are going about this, they need to have the information about the dragon up front, and as much other information as you can give them for the area (that the NPCs they talk to would know).

As to running a fight with the dragon, that's fairly simple. I'd grab the young green dragon statblock from the Monster Manual, and give it the traits described in the adventure. Notably, the scales are invulnerable, so regular attacks won't work unless you have magical weapons. The bite attack requires a DC 14 Con save, or it reduces the target's STR score by 1d6*. If the PCs don't have magical weapons, they can still make called shots at the eyes or mouth with disadvantage.

The book lists two broad ways the PCs can overcome the dragon - either by getting the magical dragon-slaying sword of Sir Brandon from the titular gentleman's tomb, or by drugging it with the treewine from the Faun's Grove and delivering the dragon to Hogboon. Hogboon will then turn the dragon on the village, and wipe it out (although he doesn't tell the PCs that).

It is notable that these are just the surface. Your players could bury it in a landslide (it still needs to breathe, so smothering the dragon kills it), drug it and then kill it by climbing into its mouth and stabbing it in the brain, piss it off and lead it to Hogboon so it wipes out the goblins, etc. You don't need to plan for every eventuality; you just need to know the NPCs, their abilities, and their desires. From there, it's all down to what the players bring to the table.

Alright, y'all! I'm off to do battle with shrubbery! But next time, we'll talk about converting OSR-style mechanics to 5E!

*Ingrid or the Witch can help you recover this ability score damage for 250 gp per point.

Sparky McDibben

Appendix: Mechanical Conversions

Alright, everybody. I'm dragging backside, but dammit, I'm here to finish this thing off. This post is going to be a little shorter, but that's OK because it's an appendix!

So there's typically a conversation that happens when a 5E DM looks at OSR-style statblocks and goes, "What the actual hell?" As an example, the statblock for the dragon in this adventure is this:


But where are the ability scores???

If you're a 5E DM, the first thought crossing your mind is "How do I run this?" The second thought is probably, "It's Armor Class is 1?" Well, after a good long bit of practice, I've got some decent rules of thumb for this.

AC: Take 20 minus the listed AC. So this dragon would be AC 19 (B/X used descending armor class, which means that a lower number is better)
Hit Points: Multiply by at least a factor of three (although that can go up to a factor of six, depending on how tough your party is). So the dragon has at least 96 hp.
Attack Bonus: Number of hit dice (so the dragon has an attack bonus of +8)
Attack Damage: Each slash separates an attack. Take each attack and add the HD as a damage modifier (so the dragon now does 1d6+8 / 1d6+8 / 1d8+8+venom or breath weapon).
Save: If it's something the creature is good at, use the number of HD as the modifier. If it's something the creature is bad at, halve the HD (rounding down).
Special Features: Typically you can run these as written. If it refers to a penalty for a called shot, just impose disadvantage. If something calls for a save due to an effect caused by the creature, the DC is just 8 + the creatures HD. If an ability does damage, but doesn't have a listed damage value, refer to a 5E spell that's pretty close in effect (in this case, probably cloudkill). Assume it discharges once per three rounds.

So for this dragon, we'd have AC 19, 96 hp, a +8 to attack, an estimated damage per round of 35.5 or (23 x 3)* = 69 damage for the breath weapon (140 hp of damage over three rounds, or about 47 hp of damage on an average round). Without accounting for the immunity to non-magical damage due to the invulnerable scales, that comes out to about a CR 10.

That's a hard fight, even for Tier 2 characters. This thing is hard to hit, hard to kill, and will likely take some characters with it when it goes. But, the catch is that you don't need to actually fight it. There are (as we've discussed) a bunch of ways to defeat this thing without fighting it. The other point is that if the PCs do their research, those 96 hit points are incredibly low, leading to a relatively short fight. And finally, I just think that monsters should punch above their weight. Enough with the frightened condition - make the actual monster scary.

Alright friends, I look forward to everyone telling me how wrong I am on the numbers here, but that's OK; it's how I learn. :D

In the meantime, I'm looking at Grim Hollow Player's Guide for my next review. I hope you all enjoy it!

*5d8 damage is about 23 poison damage if we're using cloudkill to model the poison breath, and then assuming it hits about three characters at a time (dealing a total of 23 x 3 = 69 damage).

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