Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Can 5E Play Like an Old School Game?

Answer:  It can get most of the way there, but is the juice worth the squeeze?

I prefer to run site-based adventures like hex crawls and dungeons, and let the story of the game emerge organically from player choice.  The referee provides enough information or opportunities to get information that the players can boldly plan their own adventures.  You also need an experience system that's transparent, and a way of telegraphing danger and relative risk-reward so the players can make smart (or at least informed) choices.

This play style I just described is what pulled me back to 1st edition AD&D and away from 4E or even Pathfinder.  Along the way I discovered the OSR and games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Now I've spent the past year throwing myself exuberantly into 5E.

Since running the campaign Tomb of Annihilation for 25+ sessions now, I'm wondering whether the issue with 5E and the old school is more about the types of adventures being delivered, versus how much "system matters".  Tomb is very much an old school style campaign - a sprawling hex crawl filled with adventure sites and mini dungeons, followed by a ruined jungle city, a Yuan-Ti dungeon lair, and a multi-level high level dungeon.  It's certainly proof positive that an old school site-based adventure works under New D&D.

That all being said, there are some issues with 5E that curtail it's ability to be an apples to apples replacement for an OSR game; there are pinch points where system does matter.  Here are my observations:

As a whole, 5E "seems" less lethal.  It's no joke that 1E Magic Users can be killed by a house cat and a good roll.  Healing is freely available through short rests, total healing happens each long rest, and several classes have healing capabilities within combat.  Furthermore, many Save or Die monster effects have been softened.

That all being said, I've had a fair amount of deaths in Tomb of Annihilation, and we haven't gotten to the hard part yet.  Plus, it seems like the referee can either toughen the monsters, or apply a simple house rule like "gain a level of exhaustion each time a character drops to zero hit points" to make the 5E hit point Yo-Yo more challenging

Combat Duration
Combats in 5E are typically long and intricate.  Hit points are inflated, which reduces some variance.  Monsters stick around long enough to use their cool tricks because they have more hit points... but they do stick around, extending battles.  We play 3 hours per week, and usually only get in 1-2 real combat per game, maybe a third if it's a wandering monster or simple challenge.  Adventurer's League is a little better, with 4 hour sessions.

Combat duration is probably the biggest hurdle to wanting to run a 5E-style megadungeon or large dungeon.  I'd love to hear observations from readers who have tried running one.  For instance, has anyone run the Dungeon of the Mad Mage?  Please drop a comment how it's going.  At 2-3 combats per game session, it seems like it would take forever to explore large dungeon levels - or the ideal 5E dungeon level should be smaller?  Potentially a GP=XP rule would give players reasons to avoid fights.

Resource Management
I've seen a lot of comments that 5E undermines resource management.  It's true that many classes have light cantrips (obviating the need for torches).  It's unlikely that torches and lanterns will be the party's primary light if you don't house rule anything.  For out Tomb of Annihilation campaign, managing food, water, insect repellent, and weight, was a huge issue for the first few character levels.  The players were constantly hiring porters to help haul stuff (and then struggled to keep them alive in the monster-filled jungles of Chult).  As the players leveled up, some of the resource issues lifted - for instance, when the cleric gained the ability to Create Water, life became a little simpler as left over spell slots each day got converted into fresh water.

My experience was there's enough resource management in 5E, and it starts to fall away naturally after it's served it's purpose.  Referees just need to use the rules that exist.  Note:  encumbrance is technically an "optional" rule, so I guess there's that.

Gold for XP
5E should've had formal rules for GP = XP.  Not only does it directly support site-based exploration play, it naturally creates resource management challenges (hauling treasure back to town).  After my lost post, I now think it's not too hard to house rule the XP approach and  keep the existing XP tables intact.  I'd make domain ownership part of any such campaign as there needs to be some meaningful things to do with character wealth.

Player Skill or Character Skill
Isn't there a meme where a little girl asks "why not both?"

The Darkvision Problem
I've complained about how many non-human mutant races are in the game.  It is the Mos Eisley Cantina level of weirdness out there, friends.  But it's easy enough to create a human-centric campaign world and establish campaign reasons why there aren't a lot of screwball mutants running around.

I'm a little more chill about Darkvision once I learned (by reading the rules) that it only lets the user see a gray-scale and dim version of the world (which gives disadvantage on finding all the things adventurers care about, like secrets and traps).  I haven't had a party yet rely on Darkvision for exploration once I pointed out how the rules work.

Anyway, those are the "problems" I've seen with 5E.  After talking through them, it seems they're mostly easy to resolve other than the length of combat.  That particular topic warrants further discussion - there are variables like the pace of leveling, the XP system, how many encounters should players deal with before leveling, how big should a dungeon level be, how much ground should a party cover in an evening, that kind of stuff.  All important questions for home-brewing adventures , building dungeons, and running games.  I'm sure smarter people than me have trod this ground.  I'll see what I can find.


  1. Still sounds like it's not worth the trouble of tweaking it... if it's an 'old school' experience you're after. Like, even if you get it to play that way, there's not the plethora of content supporting that style... vs. what's available for B/X, OSE, LotFP, etc.

  2. You're not wrong. Before I fully commit to tilting windmills (ie, creating new adventures in 5E) I'm going to have a talk with the players. "Just how much do you love those Tiefling Dark Pact Warlocks and Goliath Totem Path Barbarians..."

  3. Wouldn’t you just require fivefold XP to advance then go GP=XP? That would add it but keep the advancement rate mostly the same.

  4. The initiative system could get overhauled. Simple 1d6 group initiative changes the pace and flow of combat dramatically, the first thing 5e players that have come over to play Labyrinth Lord say is "wow combat moves so fast!!" Of course their are other reasons but we can eliminate "ok guys, hold up your initiative numbers, where's dave? What was your number again? Lemme write it down" sort of garbage.

  5. Love Whitebox, B/X, AD&D my goto games. I run 5e, though it was a compromise because running old school D&D was frowned on aka won't sell. I run it loose goosey, and focus on Old school styles highlighted in the Principal Apocrypha. I don't find initiative or combat slow at all, but it can be drawn out. Though when I think of how many rounds of old school combat we slothed through at times roll hit , roll miss, roll miss roll hit... its not bad. I think a lot is about how the GM views/utilizes the hp economy ...regardless of edition.
    So while it's 5e with character gen, and combat&magic it's forget the roll tell me how then we will see if there is a roll at all. Old school play works best with many player manipulatives, freedom of choice, evocative environments that are manipulatives, and a good dose of resource management and urgency.

    I enjoy the blog have for a long time.

  6. There is a DMG option to make short rests a day and long rests a week that adds a lot of old school feel.

  7. I run a few tweaks on similar lines.

    Long Rests are only had in a town, in a comfortable bed. If you're napping on a bedroll in an arctic tundra of fetid jungles, scanning the perimeter of your camp-fires glow for monsters, you're only getting a short rest. This helps space out the nova combats and brings more attrition. Players who are counting their healing surges and spell-slots quickly start avoiding needless combat where they can.

    I run a majority-human campaign too as an aesthetic preference. Darkvision is still much better than Light, though, and there are so many ways to get it. I like your interpretation of the rules and would probably cut the distance of darkvision as well.

    I find the lethality of 5e about right for me: characters do occasionally die due to idiotic decisions or bad luck, but you're not losing characters every other week. In 4(ish) years of running 5e, I've had about 20% of characters die, generally one every three - six months or so.

  8. A note of worth on resource management is also the ease at which characters start each combat (or challenge) at almost full power. 5e was designed with the premise of multiple (combat) encounters, as shown in DMG (The Adventuring Day, pg 84). Six to eight medium to hard encounters were supposedly enough for the party to deplete its resources and call it a day, with two short rests in-between. Coupled with long combat duration, this design proved flawed for those parties who relied on few combat encounters, due to either interaction-heavy adventures or time constraints. As a game session would include one to three combat encounters, players were ensured to have most of their characters' abilities available. Typical random encounters (on the basis of one per day) were also rendered obsolete, as they failed to tax the party's powers, for long rests would allow the characters to regain them.

  9. "Why not both?" Why not indeed?! Skills in RPG's are an interesting animal. I don't think 5e gets it exactly right, but I don't think anyone has gotten it exactly right yet. The closest I've seen is Savage Worlds, but them's fighting words and that's not my intention. But yes: skill rolls have a place. Finding that place is a worthy design challenge.


    Check this out. It's a pretty good Old School overhaul of 5e.