Sunday, January 16, 2022

That Ineffable Quality of Old School Gaming

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.


  1. After contemplating the question long enough you can start to reverse it- what should you take from 5e and bring back to your favorite TSR-era version?

    I had an epiphany a few months ago. Over 20 years ago I started writing house rules for AD&D. Then I started writing house rules for 3e. Then 5e. Then ACKS. Now it occurs to me- am I really saving any time here versus writing my own D&D clone from scratch? I suppose it's easier to tell your players "let's play ACKS- here are the books" versus "let's play this chimera of D&D, here are all my word docs"

    But in the grand scheme of things you can just spend a few months making a nice D&D pdf that includes your favorite variation of each rule from any edition from Basic all the way up to 5e and the latest retroclones. And then you're finally mentally free. You never have to care what WotC releases ever again, you can just upload your own pdf to drivethrurpg and tell your players they're playing your personal game. Anyway that's what I'm doing now. I've got 30 pages written so far in 9 point font and I'm maybe 1/3 of the way there in terms of documenting everything. It seems ridiculous but if you think about it in terms of decades spent DMing it's a huge timesaver. I would recommend that every long term DM does this.

    Right now my heartbreaker chimera is roughly 30% B/X, 25% AD&D, 10% ACKS, 10% 3e, 5% 5e, 20% sui generis

    1. this, but it's always the "sui generis" bits that get to me. like, I'll think to myself, wouldn't it be nice to have rigorous social currencies of bonds and strings, ported in from games like Monsterhearts and Dungeon Bitches? so the game's about mucking around in a dungeon, but also about growing closer with your squadmates as you muck around in a dungeon. So then I need to figure out how to integrate that with the framework of everything else going on. But then I see elaborate flowchart-based combat from games like Spellbound Kingdoms and Exalted, and wouldn't it be nice to have some of that instead of the old roll-to-hit, roll-to-hit? but then shouldn't that interface with the social mechanics in some way? and wouldn't it be JUST SWELL to steal random-chit-based initiative from Troika, isn't that always fun? but then every attack has to be a contested roll... and before I know it I'm deeply emotionally invested in a chimera of a concept that's not only simply unplayable but unimaginably so, and the skeleton of D&D rules buried at the heart of it all does nothing to support any of it :(

  2. It's a good question, what would I port backwards from 5E to earlier editions? Mechanically I like advantage/disadvantage and bounded accuracy, both are good concepts. That might be it! Skills and feats in 5E are fine but calibrated for a much higher power system. The biggest thing would be to import the legions of 5E fans to the delights of earlier editions, but scrabbling for coin in the dark with high chance of death isn't the most popular form of play style.

    1. " scrabbling for coin in the dark with high chance of death isn't the most popular form of play style."

      I find it easy enough to get players for this :) - certainly if a game is 5e D&D from the player perspective, you should have no trouble recruiting, whatever the campaign tone. Recruiting for an OSR or old edition is a bit harder, but doable if online or in a larger city.

  3. I like 5e - at least as much as I love old school & OSR D&D - and yes one thing I like about 5e is its driftability to different play styles. So I have 1 week long rests, and 2d6 morale checks, and sometimes random chargen (not tried 3d6-in-order in 5e yet, though), And I certainly have a lot of procedurally generated content. Works great for me. It's not the same as playing 1e or BFRPG or whatever, and that's fine.

  4. The culture of 5th Edition is far too different and ultimately incompatible. If you asked this during the early years of 5E, I might agree. The mainstream culture and general zeitgeist has directed it for far too long. It's about silly stories you can tell on reddit or imitating actors. A full on 5e-inspired retroclone would be more in order, detached from the rhetoric and general flashiness of the 5E fandom. I wish success for your attempt. I know I've mused on ideas for making a modern inspired game that contains proper old school properties.