A couple of years ago, I said many 5E discussions observed online made me feel like Dungeons & Dragons was becoming a cargo cult. This is never more evident than when considering how to play 5E in an old school way. Here at the beginning of 2022, I've seen nothing to dissuade me from that position. It's remarkable how popular 5th edition continues to be with the broader gaming world, and it's natural to want to try playing it in a way that recaptures the magic of earlier editions, too.
|We just need the right combination of rules!|
Here are some examples, culled from recent discussions I've observed, on what gamers say needs to happen to make 5E play like an old school game. First, you need random character generation; characters should be generated via a 3d6 roll in order for stats. Leveling needs to slow down. Healing needs to slow down - 5E's daily "long rests" should be changed to once per week. Another idea is to liberalize the use of the exhaustion rules - for instance apply a level of exhaustion each time a character drops to zero hit points in a combat. (None of the older editions had similar exhaustion rules, but I appreciate the thoughts).
Maybe it's about changing spell preparation - let's get rid of cantrips and return to strict 1E AD&D spell preparation. Wizards and Clerics need to strictly choose exactly what they're preparing instead of having flexible spell slots. (We should rename Wizards to Magic Users, as well). Or it's those missing 2d6 morale rolls for monsters that the BX system used, we must reinstate morale checks. 5E doesn't have permanent level drains or many save-or-die effects, which limits the instant death and permanent harm to players. Gotta put those back. Vampires drain two levels per successful attack!
Did you know there are no race/class limits in modern D&D? Halfings aren't limited to 6th level in fighter, and elves can rise to unlimited levels in magic users. Another commenter chimes in… 5E can never be old school until it embraces procedurally generated random content - random stocking, wandering monsters, all of it. Another says you must abandon milestone experience and embrace GP = XP and load up the dungeons with treasure. That is the way.
If we slow down level advancement and require training costs to level up, and spend the commensurate down-time, we will rediscover that old school feeling. We also need to make sure the player characters have plenty of retainers, hirelings, and henchmen - those stories from the olden days always had lots of sidekicks and torchbearers, 10-person parties going into the dungeon. Finally, we need to speed up 5E character generation - there is a direct correlation between the speed of character creation and how old school the game feels.
My understanding is there are several intrepid game designers who have collated some or all of these old school tropes into a set of rules you can apply to your 5E. I do wonder how that's working out for people who have tried them.
I hope my tone here has been mostly bemusement and not derision. I only mean to poke some gentle fun. Clearly I believe it's a worthy endeavor to play 5E in a way that captures the spirit of older editions, in fact it's been my project for several years. In my experience it's about how you run the game at the table and the style of adventure. You're not going to find any old school feeling hidden in a rule book. I'm about to start posting actual play reports to get caught up on Undermountain (Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage) and then we'll surely revisit this topic.
|Maybe we need to cosplay as 1st edition players?|
*With apologies to The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's still one of my favorite movies, after all these years, and I frequently ask my IT teams to consider whether they're delivering severed heads or gifts to their customers as CX becomes so important. Similarly Jack Skellington's hunt for that elusive Christmas spirit seemed an apt metaphor here.