One Adventure per Campaign?

When I first starting playing D&D a million years ago (give or take), an actual campaign was something that just never happened. I was in sixth grade, and started with the Tom Moldvay red box Basic Set (published in 1981). It was the beginning of a lifelong love of roleplaying games.

But back then, those of us who “discovered” this game didn’t actually know anyone who had been playing it for any length of time. It was a brand new type of gaming for us, and we didn’t have any advice from anyone—we had to rely entirely on what was printed in the rulebooks themselves.

So we fell into a pattern: Someone would start a new campaign at first level and the rest of us would create characters. We’d play 2-3 times (always exploring a particular dungeon), and then it would fall apart. A month later, someone else would start a new campaign at first level and the whole thing would start all over again.

Sometimes, a few characters might make it to 2nd level, but even that was rare.

Forward to high school, and I start gaming with an entirely new set of people. By this time, my Basic/Expert game had been replaced with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and published adventure modules were the order of the day.

But it was even rarer for a “campaign” to be established. Instead, someone would purchase a cool-looking adventure (e.g. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), and the rest of us would create characters of a level appropriate for that adventure. We’d play it through (sometimes even making it all the way to the end), and then we’d take a break. And then someone else would run us through a different adventure, usually for a completely different level, which required us to create all-new characters.

Of course, there were some pretty big adventures (or adventure series over multiple modules), such as the famous T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil super-module, or the A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords series. But we never managed to play all the way through any of those really big ones, with the sole exception of I3-5 Desert of Desolation.

In fact, the first real campaign game I ever played that lasted for more than a couple of levels’ worth of play wasn’t with D&D at all—it was a RuneQuest game, taking place on Griffin Island. And the first one I ever ran that lasted a significant amount of time was the first edition of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG.

But, almost inevitably, I returned to D&D and, using the experience I had gained both as a player of RuneQuest and a GM of WFRP, I ran a lengthy D&D campaign (this time AD&D 2E).

Still, my campaigns generally involved a great many individual, unrelated adventures rather than a single campaign-specific thread. Even when I started my WFRP campaign with The Enemy Within series, I ended up departing from it when the players grabbed onto other adventure hooks that I always sprinkled into my games.

It wasn’t until Vampire: The Masquerade came out that I ran a campaign that focused on a single, ongoing plotline that managed to hold the players’ attention and interest throughout the entire game.

When Paizo took over publishing of the Dragon and Dungeon magazines, the Adventure Path for D&D was born. Originally the adventures were published in the pages of the magazine itself. Later on, when those magazines were pulled from Paizo and returned to being in-house publications, Paizo continued to publish adventure paths for D&D, and then for their own 3.5 copycat game, Pathfinder.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, an adventure path is a series of connected adventures with a core plotline that takes characters from 1st (or thereabouts) level and lasts through a complete campaign, ending anywhere from 13th level (e.g. Council of Thieves) to 20th level (e.g. Wrath of the Righteous).

With the current (5th) edition of D&D, Wizards of the Coast has adopted a similar approach to their adventures. Rather than publishing them as a series of 6 or so separate adventures, however, they tend to publish them as a single large adventure in one book (with a couple of exceptions), usually taking characters from 1st to 15th level.

With D&D 5E, campaigns are designed to be played and completed in less than a year. This reflects the reality that many groups find themselves unable to keep a campaign going for longer than that time—external pressures tend to cause the collapse of longer campaigns. So, with this shorter time frame in mind, it makes sense to concentrate on a singular plotline for the campaign.

This relates to my thoughts on the rate of advancement in D&D 5E, as explained in this post from February.

For someone coming from those early AD&D games, however, this is quite a shift in focus. I’m generally pretty happy with the official WotC-published adventures for D&D 5E. I think they’ve managed to produce some fun and interesting adventures—I’m running Out of the Abyss for my adult players, and Princes of the Apocalypse for my younger players—and I have no major complaints.

However, I do miss those older campaigns where the characters were entirely free to explore the world and wander into whatever adventure grabbed their interest. Smaller, self-contained adventures could be really fun, and it allowed a wide variety of experiences within a campaign. One adventure could be a grim and gritty dungeon crawl, followed by an urban investigation adventure, and then a wilderness exploration adventure.

It feels to me that the options were wider.

But, of course, with those wider options you also need longer campaigns, and more time to play them. For some groups, that’s not an issue. For many groups, however, they know they won’t have the time needed to run a long campaign with slow advancement.

Luckily, converting adventures from earlier editions is actually really easy to do in D&D 5E. In fact, in a couple of days I’m going to be introducing roleplaying games to a couple of people who have never tried them before. And I’ve adapted the adventure Mad God’s Key from Dungeon Magazine issue #114 (a D&D 3.5 adventure). I also adapted B2 Keep on the Borderlands as the beginning of my son’s current campaign.


Once again, I’m impressed at how flexible D&D 5E is when it comes to supporting various styles of play. It is very easy to take any of the Paizo Adventure Paths and convert them to D&D 5E. And many of the official WotC adventures, like Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, are fantastic.

On other hand, by slowing down the pace of advancement, it is very easy to use many smaller adventures to provide a more varied campaign experience, allowing the characters to wander around a world and get into whatever adventures they want.

What’s your campaign preference? One big adventure or many small, unrelated adventures? Tell us about it in the comments.

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.

Better Than I Expected

Dungeons & Dragons has been around a long time. I started playing it in 1982, with Tom Moldvay’s Basic Set red box and Dave Cook’s Expert Set blue box. Introduced to the game by some friends at school, I was instantly hooked (and obsessed) with D&D. Over the next year, I picked up the AD&D hardbacks and spent long hours reading the Gygaxian prose and trying to figure out all the many intricacies and contradictions presented in the texts.

I have purchased and played every edition of D&D since then, and even gone back and played a short game using the original D&D rules. And that continued all the way up until the current (5th) edition was released.

D&D 5th edition had a long and public playtest period. This did wonders for Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of the game, as it got a very large number of players heavily invested in the next edition long before it was available for sale. Online surveys were conducted regularly throughout the playtest, letting fans feel that they might have some say on how the edition would eventually be designed. It was great marketing, and it was wildly successful.

And it drove me away from the game.


Now, I feel that every edition brought something new to the table, and the overall D&D game was stronger for it. And the two editions that were the biggest departures from what came before was 3rd edition and 4th edition.

Third edition brought a somewhat more simulationist slant to the game—monsters, for example, were created using the exact same rules as player characters. It also heavily relied on tactical combat, requiring grids and miniatures for any combat more complicated than a couple of guards in front of a door. (Previously, miniatures were purely optional—even Gary Gygax didn’t use miniatures the vast majority of the time when running D&D.) And the character-building mini-game became a thing for the first time.

4th edition brought in across-the-board class balance. It codified a lot of additional races as primary options that had only been minor options in previous editions (e.g. dragonborn, tieflings, goliaths, etc.). It also relied heavily on tactical combat, and got rid of minor battles—if you were going to get into a fight at all, it wouldn’t just be with a couple of guards in front of a door anymore. It introduced possibly the best and easiest way to present monsters, as discreet stat blocks that contained all the information needed to run the creature, with no need to reference other rules (like spell descriptions) in the midst of a game.

But both of those games were released in the age of the internet. Third edition had a pretty large backlash from players of previous editions. On the Dragonsfoot forums, dedicated to earlier editions of D&D, the 3rd edition was referred to as TETSNBN (The Edition That Shall Not Be Named), and detractors across the web often complained that it was “dumbed-down” and designed “for the video game crowd.”

4th edition had the misfortune to be released after social media had become pervasive, and those who didn’t like the game had even better tools to amplify their own personal dislikes. Not surprisingly, I guess, many of those who had loved 3rd edition then attacked 4th using the same stupid complaints that they had faced about their own favorite game a few years earlier—that the edition was “dumbed-down” and designed “for the video game crowd.”

I’ve made it no secret that I think edition wars are stupid, pointless, and ultimately harmful to our hobby as a whole. Our hobby is small enough that I cannot even fathom the mindset of those who need to separate us into ever smaller groups, such “true roleplayers,” “dirty storygamers,” “munchkins and min-maxers,” and other similar bullshit.

It amazes me that people can’t just enjoy the hobby without constantly trying to tell others that they are playing games wrong. There is such a sense of entitlement to these people, as if they feel every game, every company, and every roleplayer should cater to their personal likes and desires.

The need to tear down the current edition of a game (whether it was AD&D 2E, or D&D 3E, or D&D 4E) just because it made some changes a person doesn’t like is moronic and needs to die in a fire.

And I feel it’s even worse when a company engages those people, amplifies their ridiculous ideas, and caters to them.

Paizo Publishing did just that during the 4E era, which ultimately gave rise to their own Pathfinder game. Their willingness to encourage feelings of betrayal by WotC in gamers—as dumb as that idea really is—actually helped them define their initial core market for Pathfinder, and they enjoyed great success with it.

But I felt that when the WotC developers of 5th edition also engaged in edition warring, against an edition that some of them had previously worked on and designed material for, the hypocrisy was too much for me. The fact that they engaged some online “personalities” (i.e. people who scream their opinions the loudest) who are known for their divisive, narrow, and silly views on what makes a roleplaying game made the situation even worse.

I watched the development of 5E—I’m still a D&D gamer, after all—but I found that their marketing of the new game was insulting to those who actually enjoyed the previous edition. They parroted back the words of the loudest complainers, rather than addressing the specific, and real, issues with the 4E rules.

Ultimately, it appeared that D&D 5E was heading back in the directly of the second edition of A&D, and trying to pretend that all of 4E was some kind of mistake, despite some great innovations and additions to the game that had been introduced in that set of rules.

And so, I gave the playtest version of the game a few tries, but I came to the conclusion that this edition wouldn’t do anything that AD&D didn’t already do. And so there was no real value in me investing in and learning a new set of rules when I was already highly familiar with a set of rules that would produce the same outcome at the table.

And I certainly didn’t feel like giving WotC any of my money.

So when I launched a D&D campaign with my son and his friends last year, it was the first edition of AD&D that we played.

But 5E is the current edition. It’s the edition that is in game stores and on Amazon. It’s the edition that is getting promoted in marketing by WotC. And, inevitably, other kids at my son’s school started playing it. And so he joined a new 5E campaign, and started asking me questions about it (as I’m the RPG expert in my house). And then one of my son’s friends got the D&D 5E Starter Set box and the Player’s Handbook for Christmas, and asked me if I would help him learn the game.

So I downloaded the basic rules and read them through, and then I grabbed an old 3E adventure, The Sunless Citadel—I had no idea it had been reprinted as a converted 5E adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal—and I showed them how to create characters and ran them through part of the adventure.

And despite my earlier experience with the playtest rules, it was actually good.

I found the rules were quite simple, and we didn’t run into any edge cases in our session, so I ended up running the game without ever needing to actually check the rulebook (other than using the 5E monster stats). Now, I’ve been gaming for a lot of years, and I’m familiar with a large number of different systems, so I have an advantage in that I can pick up a new RPG and get playing faster than someone without that level of experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the game provided an enjoyable play experience, and the whole thing hung together really well.

In fact, it’s far better than I expected considering the mess that was that public playtest, the dumb statements by some of the developers, the poorly-designed surveys, etc.

And so, I picked up the three core rulebooks from Amazon, and I’ve run the game a couple more times now. And I have to admit that the end result is a decent game that does provide that feeling of earlier editions. And the rules are simple enough that the learning curve was pretty much non-existent.

I have to acknowledge, though, that this has been a bit of a moral conflict for me. I believe in voting with your wallet. And so I was conflicted over WotC’s handling of the switch between editions—I didn’t want to reward their ridiculous behavior during the playtest and early promotion of the game. Paizo’s participation in and encouragement of edition wars is one of the first reasons why I don’t give them any money—their ongoing behavior in various other ways has only reinforced that decision (but that’s a separate discussion).

Ultimately, though, I feel that I’m in a position to encourage and coach new roleplayers. And the big game, the one that everyone is currently playing, and the one that is available in all gaming stores, is D&D 5E. I can certainly introduce them to other games, and I most definitely will at some point, but I feel this is the best way to get them into the hobby and cement their love of roleplaying games.

There will be time to show them all kinds of other games from other companies. I can’t wait to show them some great sword & sorcery action with Khepera Publishing’s Atlantis, the Second Age. Or troup-style play with Atlas Games’ Ars Magica. Or introduce them to urban fantasy with Onyx Path Publishing’s Mage: The Ascension (my favorite of the World of Darkness games). Or horror investigative gaming with Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu or Pelgrane Press’ Night’s Black Agents. Or science fiction gaming with Far Future Enterprise’s Classic Traveller or Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars.

But for now it’s D&D. And I’m happy that the game is fun, easy to play, and provides an experience that they just can’t get from video games. And I’m also happy that I get to help introduce a new generation of gamers to my favorite hobby.