Recently, I’ve been talking about using D&D 5E for an “old school” campaign style.
- D&D 5E – Old School XP and Treasure
- D&D 5E – Old School and Skills
- A good explanation of this type of campaign can be found in Matt Finch’s Quick Primer on Old School Gaming.
An important part of D&D—in every edition—has been the management of character resources. These include not just supplies (like rations, torches, pitons, rope, etc.), but also hit points, spells, and special abilities. D&D 5E is no different in this regard, though the specifics between each edition tend to change here and there.
D&D 5E is exactly like previous editions when it comes to management of supplies. The characters start off with some initial equipment and money, and are required to purchase any further supplies from local merchants, or steal them from monsters. The PHB has a good selection of weapons, armor, adventuring equipment, tools, and services the characters can purchase.
At first glance, the management of your character’s hit points seems like a major departure from old school gaming. There are a few reasons for this:
- First level characters automatically start with maximum hit points.
- For each subsequent level, the player can choose to either roll the appropriate hit die, or take a set number that is just slightly more than 50% of the total hit die.
- A character has a number of hit dice equal to their level. During a short rest (a rest of at least an hour), the character can “spend” those hit dice to regain hit points equal to the number rolled. So, for example, a 2nd-level fighter has 2d10. During a short rest, the fighter can roll 1d10 or 2d10 and regain that many hit points. However, once spent, those hit dice are not available again until the character takes a long rest.
- During a long rest (a rest of at least 8 hours), the character regains all lost hit points. In addition, the character regains half their level of hit dice.
In old school campaigns, dungeons were very dangerous. Low-level characters tended to have few hit points, and likely had mediocre armor (and thus AC) until they acquired enough gold to afford to better armor. This meant that every combat was potentially fatal. Since the acquisition of treasure was the best way to get more powerful, the best strategy was to go into a dungeon, explore a few rooms, gather what they could, and then get back out. Wasting time in a dungeon led to the DM checking for wandering monsters, and wandering monsters were bad because they were high risk (likely combat), with little gain (wandering monsters tended not to carry much treasure). So there was a time pressure on the characters if the players wanted to maximize the gain in comparison to the risk involved.
Hit points and AC played a major role in this. A 1st-level fighter in AD&D might have only 5 hit points total. A single attack by an orc with a longsword could inflict 1d8 damage, thus leading to the fighter’s death from the first attack they faced.
However, appearances can be deceiving. A very common houserule in early D&D campaigns was to give 1st-level characters maximum hit points in order to increase their survivability. This wasn’t universal, of course, and there were certainly players who started off their D&D campaigns playing with characters who only had 1 or 2 hit points. But starting with maximum hit points isn’t a massive departure from how many AD&D campaigns were played.
The addition of healing during a short rest by “spending” hit dice certainly improves the survivability of characters over their old school counterparts. However, in order to use these hit dice, the characters must first rest for an entire hour. If the DM is running a dungeon in old school style, then wandering monsters are going to remain a threat. Certainly, if characters stop in a location and rest for an hour, then the DM should check for wandering monsters. And it’s up to the DM to determine when during that hour the encounter appears (which could certainly mean it interrupts the short rest, and prevents the spending of hit dice).
Now, I’m not advocating the DM acts like a jerk and always deliberately messes with the party’s attempts to take a short rest. But if the DM is checking for wandering monsters every 10 turns (1 hour), then unless the party stops and rests immediately after the last wandering monster check, the time increment for the next check will come up at some point during the party’s short rest. If the roll does not indicate a wandering monster, then completing the short rest won’t be an issue. But if the check does indicate a wandering monster shows up, then it’ll most likely occur before the characters have a chance to regain hit points.
My main point here is that the addition of hit dice and short rests doesn’t really have that much of an impact on playing the game in an old school style. The truth of the old school style is that the dice are neutral arbiters of random elements in the campaign, and the players are expected to manage their resources based on what is happening and what could happen while they are in a dungeon.
Of course, the players may choose to have their characters retreat out of the dungeon and take a short rest back at their camp. At low levels, this might allow them a couple of extra forays into the dungeon before they have to retreat for a long rest to regain spells, hit dice, hit points, etc. But this doesn’t really change the feel of an old school campaign. It’s a small increase in resilience, but the same challenges are still there.
The long rest, however, can have a larger impact on dungeon exploration. It was common in AD&D for low-level parties to retreat back to the nearest settlement once they were low on hit points and clerical healing spells, and they might spend a few days (or more) resting up before returning to the dungeon. If the dungeon was the lair of sentient monsters (like goblinoids or orcs), then any losses inflicted on the monsters could potentially be replaced in the time the party spent away from the dungeon. Further, it provided the monsters time to reorganize, potentially set new traps, and otherwise prepare for the party’s return.
If the party can retreat to their base camp, rest 8 hours, and then head right back into the dungeon, then doesn’t this pretty much prevent the above preparations from monsters?
Actually, it doesn’t. Remember, if the DM is running the world as if it was a real place, then the entire world operates under the paradigm that bands of adventurers can regain their “strength” after about 8 hours of rest. Sentient monsters will know this, and so will react accordingly.
In worlds based on old school rules, monsters could stay in their dungeons because they knew that they would likely have a few days to recover and prepare. But with the way the world operates under the 5E rules, sentient monsters know that adventurers become a threat again much faster. This means a couple of things:
- Monsters that can plan and prepare are going to do it as quickly as possible, expecting a rapid return of the invaders to their dungeon.
- Monsters are more likely to send patrols outside of the dungeon to harass and drive away adventurers that attempt to camp for a long rest in the vicinity of the dungeon.
The ultimate result is going to be the same as in earlier versions of AD&D—characters are either going to have to retreat back to the nearest settlement to get their long rest, or they are going to need to find a safe location far enough away from the dungeon to let them have an uninterrupted long rest, at least when dealing with a dungeon that is the lair of “intelligent” monsters.
None of this requires new rules. It simply requires the DM to think about the logical consequences on how the existing rules of the game impact how monsters react in a world where those rules govern character abilities.
In early editions of D&D, low-level spellcasters—especially arcane magic-users—were fragile and of limited use before needing to rest. They had very low hit points, of course. But more important, a 1st-level magic-user had a single spell they could cast, and then they had to sleep and re-memorize their spell for the next day.
In D&D 5E, spellcasters have cantrips. These are simple spells that can be cast over and over with no limit. It means that, if the spellcaster remains in a safe location within the marching order, they can remain a viable contributor to the party’s success throughout the adventuring day.
Obviously, this is a major power boost to the party, correct?
Well, that depends on how you look at it. A common exploit of low-level magic-users in AD&D was to take their initial weapon proficiency in dart. A character could throw 3 darts a round, and inflict 1d3 damage on each. This meant a magic-user had the potential to inflict an average of 4-5 points of damage per round (anywhere from 0 to 9). This wasn’t much different from a fighter with a longsword (1d8 damage), though the magic-user still had to roll to hit.
Compare that to the cantrips available to a wizard character in 5E.
- Acid splash—inflicts 1d6 acid damage on either one or two creatures, but each creature gets a Dex save to avoid entirely.
- Chill touch—inflicts 1d8 necrotic damage, but the wizard has to make a ranged attack roll.
- Fire bolt—inflicts 1d10 fire damage, but the wizard has to make a ranged attack roll.
- Poison spray—inflicts 1d12 poison damage, but the targeted creature gets a Con save to avoid all damage, and the range is only 10 feet.
- Ray of frost—inflicts 1d8 damage, but the wizard has to make a ranged attack roll.
- Shocking grasp—inflicts 1d8 damage, but the wizard has to make a melee attack roll, and the range is touch.
I’m not seeing a huge difference in effect here. All of these require either an attack roll, or the creature gets a saving throw to avoid all damage (or the range is so short the wizard is putting themselves at much greater risk to inflict the damage).
The biggest difference is in cost and carrying capacity—an AD&D magic-user had to buy and carry all those darts, while a 5E wizard doesn’t have to worry about any of that.
But none of the above spells are going to fundamentally change anything about the key elements of old school play.
Many of the character classes have special abilities, like the barbarian’s rage, the cleric’s channel divinity, the (battlemaster) fighter’s superiority dice, etc. Some of these refresh on a long rest, like the spellcasters’ ability to cast spells, though some actually refresh on a short rest as well. I’ve discussed the short rests and long rests above under hit points, so I’m not going to repeat myself here. I’ll just say that none of these abilities have a major impact on old school play.
Resource management was a big element of old school play, and D&D 5E certainly maintains the necessity of managing character resources in an intelligent and strategic manner. Some of the individual decisions may be different, and character capabilities overall are not exactly the same, but these have very minor impact at best on the feel of old school play when the dice hit the table.
Next week, I’m going to talk about sandbox play and the (shudder) dreaded topic of encounter balance.