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Sunday 24 August 2014

A Brief Review of 5e D&D From an Old-School Perspective

So when I get sent all three main books, I may write a more detailed review of them all as a set.  But for now, I want to say a few words about the Player's Handbook.  Many people have written very good and detailed reviews from a general point of view, so what I wanted to emphasize is whether (and how) the PHB is useful from the point of view of an old-school gamer.

For the interest of disclosure I should point out, to the two gamers on the planet who haven't heard this already, that I was involved in the creation of D&D 5e as a paid Consultant.   That said, and while I certainly think that was one factor in playing a part in how old-school-compatible this game is, I don't think that as such the fact that I have my name in the credits affects the opinions I'm stating now; had things gone a different way and had the 5e rules not been really good for this sort of thing, I would not be speaking favorably of it now.

So first, it's clear that the PHB is not in and of itself an OSR game.  But it is certainly informed by a strong old-school feel.

I can say that on a personal level, 5e D&D was the first edition of D&D in 25 years that I've felt really excited about; and the first in about 15 that I've been at all interested in playing (neither 3.5 nor 4e did anything for me at all; though I quite liked the D20 system itself).  I can actually see myself running a campaign with this game, and that says quite a lot.

The first thing to be said from the OSR perspective is that the spirit of the game is very much one of "rulings, not rules".  Yes, it's a bit more complex than the simplest of OSR games, but there are certainly old-school RPGs that feature similar levels of complexity.  Consider, for example, the level of rules in AD&D 1e, or Adventures Dark and Deep.
There's also a lot of innovation to be sure, but there is innovation that works against old-school principles, and innovation that works with it.  I had pointed out "Dungeon Crawl Classics" and "Lamentations of the Flame Princess" as an example of two games that take two very different approaches to "innovation" in rules from the D&D standard, as exemplars of how to do Innovation 'right'. And there's certainly elements of innovation in 5e's rule-set that remind me of both those games.

The structure of the rules are extremely modular; whereas in certain other editions it was very hard to houserule without disrupting an intricate and delicate web of rules, exceptions, feats, or class abilities, in 5e it is much easier to houserule without difficulty.
Note how things like multiclassing and feats, two of the bugbears (pardon the pun) of recent editions, have in 5e been shunted off away from the main section of character creation, and explicitly presented as optional.

There are certainly some features that aren't very conducive to what people think of as OSR play.  One is obviously in the matter of healing.  Now, I don't think that every old-school game needs to be one where you heal 1hp/night; but at the same time, the notion that you heal ALL your hit-points overnight is likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth of even the most liberal of grognards.
But you can change it pretty easily. You could change it, all the way to 1hp/night if you really wanted to.  But a more intermediate solution could be to turn around the nature of recovery at night: instead of healing all your hit points, you heal your hit dice, and then decide how many you want to use in healing and when.  Want to be a little tougher? You heal half your hit dice.  It's very easy for you to make these kinds of changes in the game.

There's also the matter of how elements of the rules serve to inspire old-school houserules.  Backgrounds, which no doubt some new-schoolers feel is very much in keeping with their preferences, are something that can totally lend itself to a more old-school hack of 5e. You could easily remake D&D 5e backgrounds into a "0-level character" thing.
If you were running an OSR-style 5e campaign, you could start PCs at level 0, have them choose a background, get d4+con HP; and then after a suitably small amount of xp (30?) get to level 1, where they'd choose a class, and roll 1st level hit points instead of taking max.  Suddenly you've got a game that's looking an awful lot like DCC.

These are only a few examples; and judging by how many known old-schoolers are already talking about using 5e, and what they're doing with it, and what old-school settings and adventures they want to adapt to 5e, and adapt 5e to, it's pretty clear that this game has caught the imagination of gamers of all stripes.

And that's what really convinced me that this edition is going to be very special.  As much as everything else I mentioned has interested and motivated me, what blew me away was that as I was going through the book and thinking about possibilities, I started to think about what kind of setting I might make that would be really suited for 5e.  What I came up with was a setting that would really work with an old school type houseruling of 5e; so fine, that's to be expected. The surprising part was that the setting hinged on the Dragonborn as an absolutely central race of the setting.

Dragonborn!  A race that until now I associated with all the worst moves of the last few years of D&D. A race I could never imagine myself using, and suddenly I'm dreaming up a world where they're right in the middle of it.
That was when I knew: these rules have been able to bridge a divide. They've done something that will not only change how I view D&D but how I operate old-school play and old-school worlds.


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  1. 5e is great compred to 3.5 and 4e, but still seeing nothing that makes me want to change over from DCC or LotFP. There's very little 'Oh that's cool!' vs. all the 'I'd want to change that!'

  2. I've been running a 5e conversion of T1-4, introducing people to those modules and Greyhawk/Flanaess that have never played it. If they stick with it and things (levels, monsters) look good we'll try going through some or all of the AGDQ series. So far so good - and fun.

  3. You pretty much summed up my feeling about 5th Edition as well. I never expected to be so excited about D&D again, and it feels nice. I love the "Old School with modern streamlining" feel to it, and I love backgrounds as a nice evolution of Kits from 2nd Ed.
    Regarding using backgrounds-only 0-level characters, I had a very similar idea you might enjoy:

  4. After 31 years of playing different role-playing games, is it shocking to say that I don't care too much about RPG systems? In the past, haven't we all had great times with "poorly designed" systems? In my experience, it's ultimately the players, and not the system, that creates a good time.

    Sure, a good system facilitates the process of role-playing, but imagination, clever thinking, and even a touch of randomness, are the key ingredients that make the role-playing experience enjoyable. I feel like people who are perpetually searching for the ultimate system, must be missing the essentials that make role-playing a great hobby.

  5. Well, I don't think that's shocking to say; but I'm not entirely sure it's relevant. I'm saying that D&D 5e is a really awesome game, but not that it's the "ultimate system".

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