D&D 5E – Old School and Encounter Balance

Recently, I’ve been talking about using D&D 5E for an “old school” campaign style.

Sandbox Gaming

One of the reasons I’ve been thinking so much about old school play lately is that I really want to run a full sandbox game.

If you’re not familiar with the term, I’m going to quote Ben Robbins from his ars lundi blog, who inspired a lot of gamers with his posts about his West Marches Campaign.

“There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.”


“The game was set in a frontier region on the edge of civilization (the eponymous West Marches). There’s a convenient fortified town that marked the farthest outpost of civilization and law, but beyond that is sketchy wilderness. All the PCs are would-be adventurers based in this town…The whole territory is (by necessity) very detailed. The landscape is broken up into a variety of regions (Frog Marshes, Cradle Wood, Pike Hollow, etc.) each with its own particular tone, ecology and hazards. There are dungeons, ruins, and caves all over the place, some big and many small. Some are known landmarks (everbody knows where the Sunken Fort is), some are rumored but their exact location is unknown (the Hall of Kings is said to be somewhere in Cradle Wood) and others are completely unknown and only discovered by exploring (search the spider-infested woods and you find the Spider Mound nest).”

But most important is the following:

“PCs get to explore anywhere they want, the only rule being that going back east is off-limits — there are no adventures in the civilized lands, just peaceful retirement.”

Now, none of this absolutely forbids the use of pre-published adventure modules in the campaign. But the key element is that the players decide where their characters are going to go, what rumors inspire them to investigate further, what job offers they want to accept, and which direction they want to explore.

So if the DM has an adventure that he feels is interesting and would like to run, then he or she drops it into an appropriate area on the campaign map and feeds the characters the hooks (rumors, job offer, requests for aid, etc.). They players may or may not show any interest. If they decide to go in another direction, then the DM doesn’t move the adventure over to where the PCs are headed, because that’s not how the real world works.

What this means is that the DM needs—at the very least—a campaign map with major terrain features on it, and a bunch of potential adventure locations (which might be settlements, ruins, dungeons, monster lairs, or interesting geographical features). The DM then sprinkles a few adventure possibilities in the town where they start, and the game begins.

I have to admit, I’ve never run a fully sandbox game before (often referred to as a hexcrawl for the fact that most large overland maps tend to use hex grids instead of square grids). And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I’m really interested in starting a brand new campaign at first level and exploring the possibilities in such a campaign.

Now, early editions of D&D were certainly well-suited to such a campaign. But I’ve been exploring how the current edition of D&D, fifth edition, would work when combined with old school play. And so the idea of combining the general precepts of old school play with a pure sandbox campaign has grabbed me and won’t let go.

Encounter Balance

Since one of the core elements of a sandbox/hexcrawl is that the world exists independent of the player characters, it means that not everything will be balanced against the current level of the characters at the time they encounter it.

Ben Robbins had this to say about the West Marches campaign:

“The environment is dangerous. Very dangerous…PCs have to work together or they are going to get creamed. They also have to think and pick their battles — since they can go anywhere, there is nothing stopping them from strolling into areas that will wipe them out. If they just strap on their swords and charge everything they see they are going to be rolling up new characters. Players learn to observe their environment and adapt — when they find owlbear tracks in the woods they give the area a wide berth (at least until they gain a few levels). When they stumble into the lair of a terrifying hydra they retreat and round up a huge posse to hunt it down. The PCs are weak but central: they are small fish in a dangerous world that they have to explore with caution, but because they are the only adventurers they never play second fiddle. Overshadowed by looming peaks and foreboding forests yes. Overshadowed by other characters, no.”

In Ben’s campaign, he set up his map into specific areas (a particular set of woods, a mountain, a swamp, an old battlefield, etc.) and then gave each area a particular “level” of challenge. Areas nearest the character’s home base were generally of low level, and the challenge increased as the characters proceeded farther away from “civilization.” This maintained a certain level of verisimilitude in the game, as the players were on the edge of a settled empire, so areas closest to it would be the least dangerous.

It also had a bit of a balancing effect, as the players’ first-level characters would likely explore closest to their home base, and then branch out farther as they gained in level.

However, Ben also put individual locations within those areas that might be more dangerous than the surrounding area would indicate. A crypt with a bunch of wights inside could be in the middle of the goblin-infested forest. As long as the wights were trapped inside the sealed crypt, the surrounding forest was only as dangerous as the goblins. But the characters could find the crypt and decide to break into it…

One of the keys to making this work is that the DM provides some clues to the players that they are entering a more dangerous area. The tracks of an owlbear are mentioned above. The entrance to the wight-filled crypt might have (cryptic) warnings on the outside. If the players are paying attention, they should have an idea that they are about to enter a more dangerous area, and then they are making an informed decision if they choose to do so. Or perhaps they aren’t paying attention and rush their way into an area without scouting it out or otherwise trying to find out some information about it. And then, when they encounter monsters that are too tough for them to beat, they can learn how important it is to run away when you’re outmatched.

What this all amounts to is this: the campaign world map is designed as if it is a real place with real adventure locations on it. Some of those locations will be somewhat dangerous, and some will be downright deadly. It will be up to the players to determine how much of a challenge they want to face, based on the information they can determine about the world through exploring, scouting, and otherwise seeking knowledge. But the campaign world never throws “level-appropriate” challenges at the characters. The decision as to what encounters to face is ultimately on the players’ side, not the DM’s side.

5E and Challenge Ratings

So how does the use of the D&D 5E rules support or prevent such an approach to a campaign. Well, 5E has a couple of tools in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual that helps DMs judge the lethality of a particular monster or set of monsters.

In the Monster Manual, all monsters have a Challenge Rating. The MM defines the Challenge thusly:

“A monster’s challenge rating tells you how great a threat the monster is. An appropriately equipped and well-rested party of four adventurers should be able to defeat a monster that has a challenge rating equal to its level without suffering any deaths.”

This is a nice tool. It tells me that I probably shouldn’t place the lair of an ancient red dragon in the region next to the character’s home base, as that is going to be far too difficult a challenge for low-level characters (and the in-world explanation is that the empire from which the characters hail would probably have already sent in soldiers to deal with a powerful red dragon right on their doorstep).

The second tool is in the DMG and shows the DM how to combine multiple monsters into encounters, and figure out how dangerous those encounters will be to the party of characters.

Again, this is a great tool that provides good information to the DM.

Now, at this point I have to point out that some people look at the information under “Creating a Combat Encounter” in the DMG and think that they are somehow required to always abide by the charts and advice in this section. But that is silly—no one from Wizards of the Coast cares in the slightest whether or not you use the information in the DMG to develop the encounters in your campaign. It’s there for two reasons:

  1. Advice for those who have never played the game before and are looking to balance the challenge to the party of player characters.
  2. Information for DMs so that they fully understand how challenging a particular of monsters will be to a party of a certain level.

But just because that information is there, doesn’t make it a rule that a DM is required to slavishly obey.

Personally, I prefer to have more information than less. If I’m creating a sandbox campaign, I want to have a rough idea of how challenging the various encounters I build and drop onto the map are going to be in actual play. This way, I can ensure that I’m not throwing truly deadly challenges into an area when I’ve intended the area to only be mildly challenging…and vice versa.

These tools are just like the pile of actual tools I have in my toolbox at home. Just because I own about fifty different tools doesn’t mean I have to use them all whenever I need to do some work on my home. Sometimes, I just need a screwdriver. Sometimes I just need a hammer. And sometimes (on a big project), I need most of the tools in the toolbox and I’m glad that I already have them.

The Challenge Ratings in the MM and the tables in the DMG are like that. I can use them when I want them, and they stay in storage when I don’t need them.

The Sandbox Campaign

So how does this all tie together?

For this sandbox campaign, my plan is to develop a campaign map, just like Ben Robbins did for the West Marches Campaign. I will have a series of regions on the map, most likely divided by appropriate terrain features, and will populate them with potential adventure locations. Those regions nearest to the characters’ home base will tend to be less dangerous (with individual locations perhaps being far more dangerous than the surrounding area might indicate), and regions farther away will be more dangerous.

Further, I will develop rumors, legends, and other clues that observant players will be able to pick up on in order to gain a better understanding of the different regions and what kinds of things they might find as they go exploring in a particular direction.

I will use the tools in the MM and the DMG to make sure I understand how challenging particular areas are. But it will still be up to the PCs to decide if (and when) they approach those areas and face those challenges.

And then the campaign will be ready to start.


While the phrase “balanced encounters” gives many gamers—especially old school gamers—the willies, it is important to keep in mind that the tools in the 5E MM and DMG are there to provide information to the DM, not to put a straightjacket on them. A sandbox/hexcrawl campaign is just as viable in 5E as it is in previous editions of the game.

D&D 5E – Old School and Resource Management

Recently, I’ve been talking about using D&D 5E for an “old school” campaign style.

Resource Management

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.

Hit Points

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:

  1. First level characters automatically start with maximum hit points.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Special Abilities

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.

D&D 5E – Old School and Skills

Last week, I talked about using the D&D fifth edition rules to run an “old school” campaign. If you’re not sure what I mean by old school, I recommend Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

This week, I’m going to talk about the difference between player skill and character skill, and discuss the skills that are available to characters in D&D 5E

Player Skill vs. Character Skill

If you’ve read the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (and if you haven’t, I do recommend you read it), you’ll see that Matt discusses the difference between player skill and character skill.

Character skill is represented by the numbers on the character sheet. It includes the character’s attack bonus, proficiency bonus, saving throws, skills, and special abilities. All of these numbers represent aspects of the character in the fictional game world.

Player skill, on the other hand, is represented by the actual person playing the game. Player skill is represented by the player’s previous experience (e.g. knowing what certain monsters are even if the character has never encountered them before) and the knowledge that this is a game and the fictional world is just that—fiction.

I also want to take a moment to talk about immersion, which essentially is the idea that you can get so into the mindset of your character that you forget you’re playing a game. Immersion occurs on a spectrum, and most players of RPGs strive for a certain level of immersion, though everyone has their own preference as to where they sit on that spectrum. Some want total immersion, and some only want the occasional visceral thrill, many want somewhere in between, and no particular amount of immersion is “better” or “worse” than any other.

The key element of immersion is that you don’t want the rules of the game to constantly pull you out of the experience of playing your character, just like when you’re watching an action movie you don’t want to see the wires attached to the stunt people.

Now, all interactions with the rules of an RPG have some negative effect on immersion. If you’re playing D&D, no matter how much you try to immerse yourself in the character’s experience, as soon as you pick up the dice to determine something (e.g. an attack roll), you’re reminded that this is just a game that you’re playing.

However, some game systems have a larger impact on immersion than others, and different elements of the game rules will have different impacts.

The use of player skill over character skill has an impact on immersion, of course. As mentioned in the Quick Primer…

“Also: these games aren’t simulations of what a dwarf raised in a particular society, and having a particular level of intelligence, would do when faced with certain challenges. Old-style play is about keeping your character alive and making him into a legend. The player’s skill is the character’s guardian angel – call it the character’s luck or intuition, or whatever makes sense to you, but don’t hold back on your skill as a player just because the character has a low intelligence. Role-playing is part of the game, but it’s not a suicide pact with your character.”

A key element of old school play is that the player is expected to use his or her own intelligence to figure out how the character will survive—and thrive—in a dangerous environment like a dungeon. If the player figures out the solution to a puzzle, but the character only has an Intelligence of 7, then should the player not propose the solution to the rest of the party? Old school play says “of course they should!”

Skills in D&D 5E

I’m actually fairly happy with the ways skills work in the current edition. First of all, their use is optional because they are built off the idea of ability checks, which is something that has been around in D&D for a long time. So you could entirely ignore the actual skills and just use ability checks for anything that might come up in the game where you need a random roll to see if the character succeeds.

But using the skills as they existing in 5E can still be done in a way that is not incompatible with old school play. It’s not the skills themselves that create the difference, it’s in how the situation is approached.

For example, 5E has a Perception skill, and the description in the PHB reads:

“Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses. For example, you might try to hear a conversation through a closed door, eavesdrop under an open window, or hear monsters moving stealthily in the forest. Or you might try to spot things that are obscured or easy to miss, whether they are orcs lying in ambush on a road, thugs hiding in the shadows of an alley, or candlelight under a closed secret door.”

There is nothing there that states the player must be given a chance to roll against the skill whenever they are in the general vicinity of the thing to be detected. That’s a typical way that modern editions of D&D are played, but it’s not the only way, or the right way for all groups and campaigns.

Let’s talk about the ability to find secret doors (or compartments). As seen in the Quick Primer on Old School Gaming, the finding of a secret compartment behind the moose head was a purely narrative interaction. The player described what the character was doing, and the DM used those descriptions to determine if the character found the secret compartment or not.

Back in AD&D, here’s what the DMG had to say about finding secret doors:

Checking requires a very thorough examination of the possible secret door area. You may use either of two methods to allow discovery of the mechanism which operates the portal:
1. You may designate probability by a linear curve, typically with a d6. Thus, a secret door is discovered 1 in 6 by any non-elf, 2 in 6 by elven or half-elven characters, each character being allowed to roll each turn in checking a 10′ X 10′ area. This also allows you to have some secret doors more difficult to discover, the linear curve being a d8 or d10.
2. You may have the discovery of the existence of the secret door enable player characters to attempt to operate it by actual manipulation, i.e. the players concerned give instructions as to how they will have their characters attempt to make it function: “Turn the wall sconce.”, “Slide it left.”, “Press the small protrusion, and see if it pivots.”, “Pull the chain.”

You’ll note that even back in AD&D, the DM could allow characters to find a secret door purely with a die roll. However, my personal method generally combines a bit from both options, in order to avoid a) relying entirely on rolls to determine success or failure, and b) ending up in a situation in which a great deal of time is wasted by the players because they can’t quite figure out the “puzzle” and the end result is just a ton of pixel-bitching.

So finding a secret door in my game works like this: The players describe what their characters are doing. If, through roleplaying and description, they figure out there is probably a secret door in a particular area, then I usually give them a Perception roll to confirm it. Success means that they now know there is definitely something there, and a good roll will generally give them a clue as to how to open/access it.

But I do not let characters walk into a room, have the players state “my character is searching the room,” and just give them a Perception roll to find everything. They have to put in the effort to describe what is actually happening in the fictional world. The skills are just there to confirm, to provide hints, and as a fallback if they get stuck in a situation that grinds the game to a halt.

Replacing Table Rolls

Many old school games used random rolls—often on tables—to determine outcomes. The skill list on the character sheet provides a similar way to adjudicate situations in play.

Reaction Rolls

One key element of old school gaming was the reaction table. When exploring a dungeon and encountering a monster (or group of monsters), the reaction table often saved the lives of the characters by giving them a chance to parley rather than immediately leaping into battle.

In 5E, the DMG talks about this in the Resolving Interactions section on page 244. It suggests that creatures encountered by the PCs start off as friendly, indifferent, or hostile. Then the characters’ interaction with the creature may give them a chance to improve the creature’s disposition toward them, and even ask for something from the creature.

This is actually very similar to how old school games work, though the actual mechanics are slightly different. But it’s more about how the rules are used, than the actual rules themselves.

For example, in a recent game I’m running, the characters were delving into a dungeon with a bunch of goblins. The local hobgoblin chief was recruiting evil humanoids for a raid on a local town, and it just so happens that two of the characters are half-orcs (brothers), and they take the lead in the marching order.

So the characters came to the entrance to a room, and the goblins within looked up and saw a pair of half-orcs standing in the doorway. I figured the goblins would be indifferent—they had no reason to be hostile to what they saw as likely recruits, but they also weren’t going to be friendly to strangers in their lair. So they simply asked “Who are you?” to the half-orcs.

One half-orc player, knowing that his character spoke fluent goblin, thought quickly and stated “We’re here to join the horde.”

Now there were a couple of options I had here. First, I could have had the goblin make a Perception check to notice the dwarven priest of Moradin (a dwarven good of good) standing behind the half-orcs, which would have brought down the ruse right away. The second option was for me to give the player of the half-orc a chance to roll his Deception check to see if he successfully fooled the goblin. Since I generally let players roll the dice to determine the success of their characters, the half-orc (who didn’t have a good Deception skill at all), rolled his skill and got a very high roll on the d20. So the goblins believed his story.

(At least, they believed his story until they directed him to talk to the hobgoblin chief in the next cave over, and the player blurted out “I think we killed that guy already.” So it turned into a battle anyway—and was my favorite moment of the entire session.)

Now if this had played out in AD&D, it would have gone in much the same way. The main difference is that, when the half-orc lied to the goblin, I would have rolled percentile dice on the reaction table, adding the character’s loyalty adjustment from his Charisma to the roll, and this would have determined how the goblin reacted to the half-orc.

Ultimately, there’s no real difference in how the situation would have played out between these two editions.


The use of characters skills—in itself—doesn’t prevent old school play. The key is in how the DM calls for skill rolls. The old school approach simply follows these precepts:

  1. Character actions are described by the players, and must explain what the characters are actually doing to achieve their objectives (e.g. searching a particular area to find a secret door).
  2. The DM uses the narrative to determine if the character has a chance of succeeding. (For example, searching only the walls for a secret door when there is a trapdoor under a rug on the floor won’t give the character a chance to find it.)
  3. If the situation can be resolved quickly in a narrative fashion, the use of a skill doesn’t need to occur.
  4. If the DM determines that the character’s abilities should play a part in the situation, then he or she can call for a skill roll. This should generally be used to a) confirm something that the character has discovered through roleplay, b) give a clue to the player to help them succeed at the task or solve the puzzle/mystery, or c) prevent the game from grinding to a halt by giving the character a last-ditch way out of a situation.
  5. Note that failure of a character should always be possible. The DM always should try to avoid situations in which the discovery of a secret door or something similar is the only way for the adventure to proceed. But a secret door that hides treasure, or a shortcut, or some other advantage that is not essential to the adventure shouldn’t automatically be found. It’s okay if the characters simply don’t find everything in a dungeon because they didn’t look in the right places.

Next week, I’ll continue discussion of using 5E for old school play when I talk about the resource management aspect of the game.

D&D 5E – Old School XP and Treasure

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.

But Why?

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.

Character Advancement

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:

  1. Each 1 gp of treasure acquired and brought back to “civilization” earns the party 1 XP.
  2. Characters earn one-tenth the listed amount of XP for killing or otherwise defeating monsters.
  3. Magic items give their full gp value in XP to the party, regardless of which character takes the item in question.
  4. Costs for training are 20 times the amount listed on page 131 of the DMG (see table above).
  5. 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.

Feng Shui Action-Espionage Archetypes – Final

Last week I posted the archetypes for my Feng Shui RPG action-espionage campaign. However, there were a number of references in the Awesoming Up! section for each archetype that includes Schticks that don’t appear in the Feng Shui core rulebook.

This week, I’ve updated the PDF download to include these additional Schticks, as well as updating the archetypes with additional options for Awesoming Up!

And lastly, I’ve added the basic rules for using Reputation (which also appears on the archetypes).

I hope you enjoy.

Feng Shui Character Archetypes Completed

Over the last two weeks, I’ve previewed the new archetypes that I’ve created for Feng Shui for the action-espionage game that I’m going to be running.

I’ve now completed the write-ups, added some pictures, and put all the archetypes into a downloadable PDF that you can download from here (or from the Free RPG Materials page).

I’ve made both male and female versions of each archetype, except for the Hacker and Wheel Artist, as I used an image for each of those that could work for either a male or female character.

Awesoming Up

There is still one last thing that I need to do, and I ran out of time this week. In the Awesoming Up section for each archetype, I list some new core schticks. I’m going to write those up this week and add them to the PDF download for next Sunday.

So these archetypes are ready for play right now, but you’ll have to wait until next week to add any new core schticks to them.

What Do You Think?

So take a look and let me know what you think of these. Any suggestions on how to improve them? Anything that is unclear or might be too overpowered or underpowered in a game? Let me know in the comments.

Note: All pictures are royalty-free images downloaded from pixabay.com.

Feng Shui © 1996, 1999, 2011, 2015 Robin D. Laws, published under license by
Trident Inc., d/b/a Atlas Games. Feng Shui is a trademark of Robin D. Laws, used under license. Use of these copyrights and trademarks is done here without permission, and does not constitute a challenge to their ownership.

Feng Shui Character Archetypes

Last week, I talked about using the Feng Shui Second Edition RPG from Atlas Games for my action-espionage campaign. I’m continuing to move ahead with this plan, but I’m developing some new archetypes that are appropriate for this kind of game.

I previewed the Face, Hacker, and Intruder archetypes last week, so this week I’m going to preview the Snoop, Soldier, Squad Leader and Wheel Artist.


The snoop is an electronic surveillance specialist.




The soldier is purely about combat. I had considered just renaming the Ex-Special Forces archetype from the Feng Shui rulebook, but I wanted to customize it a bit and make him a bit better at taking down mooks as well. So he’s basically a strange mixture of the Ex-Special Forces and Killer archetypes.


Squad Leader

The squad leader is actually based on the Pointman class from the Spycraft RPG, in case there is any confusion. I decided to rename it because I’ve never really thought Pointman was a good name—it gives the idea of a lone stealthy scout ahead of the main group. The Pointman class, however, was a team leader, designed to help the other members succeed better at their own actions, and to fill in any skill gaps in the team.

So here is the Squad Leader.


Wheel Artist

The wheel artist is, obviously, about vehicles. However, this character is not just about cars—the A Ride is a Ride schtick means this character doesn’t suffer from unfamiliar vehicle penalties. So if someone takes this archetype for his or her character, then there will be all kinds of cool vehicles to operate, including cars and other wheeled or tracked vehicles, helicopters and jets, various watercraft, etc.



As mentioned last week, I’m working on developing these as full archetypes, so I’m doing up the archetype write-ups and so forth, and will then make these available as a PDF download.

I hope others find these useful in their own games as well.