Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 1

I’ve recently talked about using the D&D 5E rules for old school play (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). As I mentioned last week, I’ve been really interested in putting together an old school sandbox (also known as a hexcrawl) campaign.

I’ve been a DM since I bought the original Tom Moldvay red box Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set back in 1981. And a big part of being a DM back in the day was designing your own setting that did what you wanted it to do.

So I’m going to develop my own lands for the PCs to explore (probably for some future campaign), and I figured it might be interesting to others, so I will blog about it here. And, who knows, it might eventually end up as something publishable, or at least downloadable here.

The Foundation

When looking at this project, I think it’s important to outline some of my core objectives in doing this. This will help to keep me on track and ensure that I don’t waste time focusing on things that might temporarily grab my interest, but won’t actually contribute anything useful to the project.

I’ve thought about this a bit, and here are my initial goals for this setting:

  1. Develop a setting for use in actual D&D play.
  2. Focus on multiple regions, each with a distinct feel and look.
  3. Each region should have a reason to explore it, aside from specific “adventure locations” that the characters may find. For example, there might be mining opportunities in certain regions, or characters might be hired to explore certain areas because the empire is considering expansion.
  4. Provide opportunities to place individual adventure locations scattered across the locations. These will be unique geographic features, dungeons, settlements, monster lairs, localized magical effects, and anything else I can come up with that will provide direct character interaction beyond just exploring.
  5. Ensure the regions have a “frontier” feel to them—the empire has never before settled or even explored in this direction in any official capacity.
  6. Keep the home base as a safe location for the characters. Ensure adventure is “out there” rather than inside the actual home settlement.

I expect that, as I go forward, I will likely add another objective or two, but I think this is a good start. It will help me develop the foundation of the setting at the very least and ensure that it is strong and consistent.

The Regions

The core elements of the campaign setting will be the regions to explore. As I mentioned, each region should have a distinct feel and look. It should have a “character” all its own, and the players should be able to tell when their player characters leave one region and enter another.

One of the easiest ways to do this is, of course, with the specific environment. The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a list of environments in which the monsters of the game are mostly commonly encountered. These environments are:

  • Arctic
  • Coastal
  • Desert
  • Forest
  • Grassland
  • Hill
  • Mountain
  • Swamp
  • Underdark
  • Underwater
  • Urban

At this early point in development of the campaign setting, I’m not entirely sure I’m going to include all of those environments. I want my setting to be realistic enough that the players can understand the world, and so it’s difficult to have all of those environments close enough together in a way that makes sense. Further, some environments, like forests, may show up multiple times in different directions.

The Scale

Which brings me to the scale of the setting. I want the players to have the opportunity to travel and explore, and this means that there needs to be a fairly large area in which to place each region. Plus, each region needs to have enough space to house multiple adventure locations without adventurers stumbling upon one location after another during each day of travel.

So the key is to determine how fast the party will be able to travel in a single day while exploring, and then determine how much travel it will take to reach the next region.

According to the 5E Player’s Handbook, the normal travel pace is 24 miles in a day (assuming a movement speed of 30 feet per round). However, different characters are going to have different movement rates (e.g. a wood elf has a speed of 45 feet, but a dwarf is only 25 feet), I plan to incorporate the variant encumbrance rules on page 176 of the PHB, and armor could also modify a character’s speed.

While some class abilities provide even faster movement as they go up in level, like a monk’s increased speed and even the gaining of a fly speed at 20th level, I’m going to use the base speed to determine the size of the regions in this setting. That way, as characters gain levels, they will find it easier to explore farther away from their home base.

So here are the possible movement rates and the per day travel maximums.

Movement Rate
Per Round Per Day
35 feet 27 miles
30 feet 24 miles
25 feet 21 miles
20 feet 18 miles
15 feet 15 miles
10 feet 12 miles
5 feet 9 miles

Unless the characters are hauling a ton of equipment (or treasure!), however, most the time the party—assuming they travel at the speed of the slowest member—will have a daily speed of either 21 miles (if the party has a dwarf or halfling) or 24 miles (if no dwarf or halfling is present).

It’s also important to keep in mind, though, that these travel times “assume relatively simple terrain: roads, open plains, or clear dungeon corridors.” Difficult terrain halves movement speed, and includes “dense forests, deep swamps, rubble-filled ruins, steep mountains, and ice-covered ground.” So a lot of the exploring that the characters will undertake will be done at a much slower pace.

Note: I’m based in Canada, and many of the visitors to my blog also live outside the United States (or Burma or Liberia). So why am I using such an arbitrary and outdated measurement system? In this case, it is purely because these are the distances used in the core rulebooks for D&D. It would be great if they switched over to the International System of Units (i.e. the metric system) like the rest of the world, but as of the current printing of the D&D books, they have not. So, in order to save myself a ton of work converting everything, I’m going to use imperial units in these posts.

Now, for mapping wilderness areas, a common recommendation is to use a 6-mile hex. There’s a great post on The Hydra’s Grotto from back in 2009 about the use the 6-mile hex, and I fully agree with his arguments. This means that a party will likely be able to cross 4 hexes—or 3.5 hexes if they have dwarves or halflings in the party—in a single day.

Obviously, some regions are going to be larger than others, and the size may vary quite a bit. I’m going to start with a rule of thumb that the largest regions will take about a week to cross. The smallest regions should be crossable in about a day. By planning this out by time, rather than distance, it will give me an idea of how large the region should be.

For example, a dense forest that takes a week to cross isn’t actually (24 miles x 7 days = ) 168 miles in width. Since dense forest means half-speed travel, it’s actually only (12 miles x 7 days = ) 84 miles in width. Still a great deal of area to explore, but it won’t need to be so large on the map due to the speed restrictions.

Conclusion

So that’s it for this week. I have the basic idea down for the campaign wilderness, and my objectives are set. Next time (not necessarily next week), I’m going to talk a bit about the various monsters that I might want to include in the setting.

D&D 5E – Old School and Megadungeons

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

Megadungeons

A key part of the early years of this hobby was the dungeon (it’s right in the name of the game). The very first D&D campaigns involved an individual creating a dungeon, and the players creating characters to explore it. In fact, dungeons were there long before hexcrawls became a thing.

Many of these dungeons were fairly large, facilitating long-term play. Players were expected to have their characters make multiple forays into these dungeons, exploring one section at a time and recovering what treasure they could, with retreats back to the local settlement for rest and recuperation in between the delves.

Dungeons could be of pretty much any size. Some were fairly small, designed to be explored and completed in a single playing session. Others had a few levels to them, providing a few weeks of play. Larger dungeons might be large enough to provide enough adventuring opportunity for the characters to gain multiple experience levels through the exploration (e.g. The Temple of Elemental Evil).

And then there were the megadungeons—dungeons that provided enough material to be the main focus of an entire campaign.

The History of Megadungeons

While megadungeons were definitely a thing among players of D&D in the early years, published examples are rare. Gary Gygax’s original dungeon under Greyhawk Castle was never fully published (and don’t even mention the 2E adventure Castle Greyhawk adventure put out by TSR after Gary was ousted).

So it wasn’t until the release of 2E that megadungeons really started getting published with any regularity. Aside from the terrible Castle Greyhawk, there was the revisited and much better Greyhawk Ruins, the Ruins of Undermountain boxed set (followed up a second boxed set and some additional sourcebooks and adventures, and the Night Below boxed set.

More recently, with the rise of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) movement, the development—and publishing—of newly-designed megadungeons has become a focus for some people within the RPG publishing industry. These include (but are not limited to):

In my own games, I’ve recently used Goodman Games’ Castle Whiterock for part of my current AD&D 2E campaign that I run for some friends. It was written for D&D 3.5, and I’ve converted it as the players have explored the various levels. It has some good ideas in it, but the editing is absolutely terrible, and there are far too many inconsistencies between the maps and the room descriptions. I’m very glad I picked up the PDF on sale for about $5 (since its current price is $59.99). After exploring a few levels, I’ve given up on it and started to use other resources for the lower levels (like the great Gates of Firestorm Peak). While the overall hook of Castle Whiterock is decent, it requires far too much work—in addition to the conversion to 2E—to make it playable.

A Campaign Dungeon

Spending most of a campaign in a single dungeon complex requires a particular style of play that is not for everyone. And it requires the dungeon to be interesting enough, and provide enough different types of challenges and interactions, that the players don’t just get bored.

The key to designing a campaign dungeon is that it needs to be more than a bunch of rooms and corridors with different monsters scattered around on each level, increasing in danger as you go deeper. You can do that, of course, but after a while it gets very stale.

A well-designed megadungeon is a setting unto itself. Some key elements of a good megadungeon are:

  • multiple regions, each with a different tone/feel
  • different factions
  • opportunities for exploration
  • opportunities for roleplaying interactions
  • multiple possible routes to and through various areas (including back the surface)
  • a good reason for the various monster/NPCs groups to coexist in the same megadungeon (even if some are at war with each other and others have a “leave them alone” stance)
  • a decent scattering of mysteries, puzzles, tricks, clever traps and other non-creature obstacles or interesting features
  • a fairly easy way for PCs to discover information about the megadungeon (key parts of its history, or the reason certain elements are the way they are) so that all of the background doesn’t only get seen by the DM

How About 5E Megadungeons?

At the time I write this, the only megadungeon I could find specifically for 5E that was available for purchase was Barrowmaze (and I noted the problems with the 5E conversion above). But does the lack of published products indicate that it is impossible to run a 5E campaign with a megadungeon?

No, but it does require some tweaking.

As I’ve been focusing on old-school play in this series of posts, I would continue this approach with a megadungeon. Specifically, my post on XP and Treasure outlines some of the issues with the current XP system and how it interacts with old school play. So I would recommend adjusting the XP awards as noted in that post when using a single enormous dungeon as the main focus of the campaign.

But the biggest challenge, of course, is that the lack of published megadungeons means you will have to do most of the work yourself. Personally, I think that’s one of the fun elements of being a DM, but of course YMMV. For those who love to tinker with the game when you’re not at the table playing, however, designing a megadungeon can be an amazingly enjoyable experience.

And with your own creation, you have the opportunity to tinker with the lower levels while the PCs are still exploring the ones above, adding new ideas, riffing off ideas the players discuss at the table, and keeping the dungeon as a living ecosystem that is constantly adjusting to changes in the environment (i.e. the intrusion by groups of adventurers).

Conclusion

A massive dungeon as the cornerstone to a campaign is not for every group. To be honest, as a DM I would struggle with running an entire campaign focused around a single dungeon without getting bored. But others find that a megadungeon represents the core of what they like most about the Dungeons & Dragons game.

Running a megadungeon in 5E will require some work, but it is definitely something that a DM can accomplish with very few changes to the core rules. As with many elements of old-school play, the key is in the approach to the game, not entirely in the rules themselves. A group willing to embrace such a campaign premise can have as much fun as the players who explored Gary Gygax’s original Castle Greyhawk dungeons.

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.

Conclusion

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…

Treasure

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.

Conclusion

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.