As mentioned previously, I’ve started running the newest edition of D&D for my son and his friends, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how the game hangs together. Game play is smooth and fun, and the kids are having a great time.
My favorite edition has always been the original AD&D rules. There is just something that about that game that has always inspired my imagination. And while some of my longest campaigns were during the AD&D 2E days, I always eventually came back to the first edition of AD&D.
I’ve actually got an AD&D 2E campaign going now with some of long-time friends, but I regularly wish I had pushed for the game to be 1E instead (or even OSRIC, a fantastic retroclone of AD&D that is an amazing AD&D reference for use at the table). There are a few too many things about 2nd edition that bug me and I prefer the 1st edition way of doing it.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, D&D 5th edition is a fine game. But there are basic assumptions embedded in the rules that I wish were different. And I was thinking about this recently and came to realize that most of what I would change in 5th edition would make it play more like an “old school” game.
And I also realized that these aren’t really large changes at all.
What is Old School?
If you’re not sure what I’m referring to when I talk about old school gaming, there is an excellent Quick Primer for Old School Gaming written by Matt Finch, who is also responsible for an excellent retroclone of the original D&D game called Swords & Wizardry. I recommend checking out the Quick Primer, as it only takes about 10 minutes to read and really helps explain some of the core differences between old school games and their modern counterparts.
There are two questions here that come up when I talk about using 5E in a more “old school” campaign style.
1) What are you hoping to achieve?
One of the things I loved most about early campaigns was the sandbox approach to the game. The DM would put together a setting (or use a published one), and there was potential adventure everywhere. It was up to the players to decide where they wanted their characters to go, and how they wanted those characters to engage with all the different adventure hooks the DM would sprinkle into the campaign.
While some of the official 5E published adventures are great (e.g. Princes of the Apocalypse, Tomb of Annihilation), they are epic adventures that span a very large range of levels. These are big stories that are designed to dominate most of the campaign.
But sometimes, I want to run a game where the brand-new PCs are a rag-tag group who are looking to get ahead in the world, and best way to do that is to gather together and delve into dungeons hoping to strike it rich without dying at the claws of some denizen of the deep. Adventures are self-contained, and the players explore the world as much as they delve for treasure.
2) Why don’t you just use an earlier edition?
This is a good question, and one that I considered carefully before starting to explore this topic. Wizards of the Coast has made the older editions available again as PDFs and (in some cases) as print-on-demand books through DriveThruRPG. You can get a POD version in premium hardcover color of the AD&D 1E Player’s Handbook for $34.99, plus delivery. Isn’t it better to use a system designed with this kind of campaign in mind?
Yes, and generally that would be my approach. Like I said above, AD&D is my favorite version of the D&D game, so I would naturally gravitate toward that edition. But as I outlined in a previous post about 5E, there are good reasons to switch to this edition as well (not the least being that it is the current edition and one that most new players will pick up first).
And so I’ve been taking a look at 5E to see if trying to play an “old school” campaign will end up fighting against the system, or if it’s just a matter of approach.
I already made a full post about character advancement in D&D 5E. In that post, I touched on the fact that earlier (pre-3E) editions of D&D didn’t give out very many experience points (XP) for defeating monsters. In fact, the primary way to gain XP was through the acquisition of treasure (1 gold piece = 1 XP).
In this XP-for-gold method, the characters were required to get the treasure, remove it from the dungeon, and return it to “civilization,” which basically meant the local town or settlement where they stayed when they were not exploring dungeons. The value of magic items was also included in that calculation if sold off—if kept, only 1/10th of the value of the magic item was gained as XP.
This different method of XP acquisition resulted in a different style of play. In these earlier games, combat with monsters was something to be avoided, if possible. If the players could figure out a way to trick, cheat, steal, or otherwise get the treasure out of a dungeon without resorting to fights, then they tended to be far more successful than players who had their characters charge in and attack everything in sight. Combat was dangerous, and there was little reward for defeating monsters directly. The Reaction Rolls of monsters was a vital element of the game, as not all encounters needed to become an immediate battle.
And the high risk for little reward of combat meant that players tended to avoid straight-up fights. Instead, it was better to plan ambushes, tricks and traps for monsters they couldn’t trick or sneak their way past. Stacking all advantages meant a higher chance of survival for the characters.
So is it possible to replace the XP-for-slain-monsters system, or even the milestone system, for an XP-for-treasure system?
I’ve come to feel that it is actually fairly easy to do so. All this method actually requires is keeping track of the number of gp (or equivalent value) of treasure the PCs recover and using that number instead of the monster XP values. Now, AD&D did also give some XP for defeating monsters, so I suggest awarding one-tenth the listed 5E XP values for monsters defeated in the game.
“But wait,” I hear you saying, “5E doesn’t give out the same amount of treasure as previous editions! Won’t the characters take forever to gain levels?”
This brings us to a discussion of…
The treasure tables in 5E help DMs come up with appropriate treasure amounts for the risks and challenges the characters are expected to face. So let’s look at a typical treasure breakdown.
The 5E DMG has this to say about treasure distribution in the game:
“Over the course of a typical campaign, a party finds treasure hoards amounting to seven rolls on the Challenge 0-4 table, eighteen rolls on the Challenge 5-10 table, twelve rolls on the Challenge 11-16 table, and eight rolls on the Challenge 17+ table.“
So how much XP would seven rolls on the Challenge 0-4 table actually provide a party of characters? Taking the average numbers for each hoard, rolling randomly for gems/art objects and for magic items, and taking one-tenth the gp value as XP for magic items, I ended up with a total of only 2,372 (474 XP for each member of a five-member party). That’s not even enough to reach 3rd level.
If we award full value for each magic item, that bumps it up to 904 XP each, which is enough for each character to achieve 3rd level. But there is still a 1,796 XP deficit, which is unlikely to be made up by the monsters if we only award one-tenth XP for killing or defeating them, and even adding in the individual treasure from monsters still won’t get us there. With this method, we’re still likely to need another 4-5 treasure hoards to achieve 4th level.
But is this a real problem? Adding a few more treasure hoards will provide the characters will more money, and a probably a couple more magic items.
The bigger question is what are the characters going to spend all that money on, anyway?
Well, in AD&D, the number of gp (and thus XP) a thief character—the class with the lowest XP requirements at early levels—would need to earn to reach 4th level is 5,001. Even if a quarter of that came from monster XP (which is being generous), the thief would end up with 3,750 gp, still more than the 2,700 a 5E character of any class would need.
Of course, in AD&D, there was a significant drain on the character’s resources in the form of training. In fact, taking the above thief character example, and assuming that the thief player always received a rating of Excellent in their play (according to the 1E DMG), then the character would have had to spend at least 1,500 gp on training to achieve 2nd level, 250 gp more than they needed for the necessary XP!
The 5E DMG has training costs listed on page 131. Personally, I feel that these are too low for an old school game. In fact, by the book, to learn a new language or tool proficiency costs 250 gp and takes 250 days! While I think an equivalent time period is too long to gain a new level, the costs don’t seem too onerous to me. I have multiplied the base training rates for gaining a level by 20 in an old school campaign. Here is the updated table with my suggested values:
|Level Attained||Training Time||Training Cost|
|2nd-4th||10 days||400 gp|
|5th-10th||20 days||800 gp|
|11th-16th||30 days||1,200 gp|
|17th-20th||40 days||1,600 gp|
And, of course, there are other drains on the characters’ monetary resources. The downtime activities available in both the PHB and the DMG provide additional options. Of particular note in the DMG is the section on building a stronghold. This was an important part of campaign play in the earliest editions, and it’s something that fell out of use later on. It’s good to see this back in the DMG as an option for characters to achieve.
As far as earning XP goes, switching to an XP-for-gp model does not require too much of a change to the existing 5E rules. Here are the key elements:
- Each 1 gp of treasure acquired and brought back to “civilization” earns the party 1 XP.
- Characters earn one-tenth the listed amount of XP for killing or otherwise defeating monsters.
- Magic items give their full gp value in XP to the party, regardless of which character takes the item in question.
- Costs for training are 20 times the amount listed on page 131 of the DMG (see table above).
- All XP earned by all characters in the party are combined and split evenly.
Next week, I’ll talk more about using 5E for old school play and touch on some additional elements.
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