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Usually these are planned adventure arcs. Here's a bad guy. Here's his evil forces. Here's a variety of deadly environments, ripe for heroic activity.
I don't have bad guys. I don't have expectations about what will happen when the game starts. I'm here to play a game to find out what happens. The core cycle of play for 5th edition doesn't match that style.
What changes do I make to my game so that I can play 5th edition in the classic style?
5th Edition to Classic/OSR style play
- Give 1/100th the experience for killing monsters. Give 1 experience per gold piece value of treasure collected.
This shifts the focus of play. Fights are dangerous and they only cost, they don't reward. It puts the focus back on outhinking your opponent to get the riches, without exposing yourself to the risk of a fight. Because your players aren't expecting to get experience by killing things, you're free to populate your world with liches, dragons, and other deadly creatures, because there's no unspoken expectation that players should fight creatures to advance.
I also recommend against using the milestone system, because this either presumes an outcome or distances player skill from advancement. They should advance comparable with their skill at securing treasure and power, commensurate with the risks they take. They should not advance simply by reaching numerical thresholds.
However, granting experience for surviving your first in-game month, witnessing a death, locating a new feature, exploring a new area, or other tasks that create a sense of adventure or exploration is encouraged, as long as these rewards are delineated ahead of the game and accessible to the players.
In general, keep rewards low, and look to advance one level every 3-5 adventures till reaching level 3, and then distribute treasure so that levels take between 4-6 adventures (weeks) to level. Obviously taking a lot of people along and being cautious will slow this rate. Taking risks and braving danger can shorten this.
This results in treasure hordes that maintain their value, even if they don't increase in size very much. It makes finding a piece of jewelry or a few hundred coins a rich find. If the treasure grow at a slow rate, it should compensate for the rapid advancement assumed by fifth edition play. See my Hack & Slash blog compendium II for an in depth look at treasure valuation and type.
- Change long rests to take a week and short rests to take 8 hours
In the 1st edition game I'm currently in, even with a Cleric, Druid, and Paladin healing through bed rest is relevant. Changing a long rest to a week and short rests to overnight makes play more threatening and decisions more meaningful. Characters are forced to spread their resources in a manner more like an older-style game.
This seriously adjusts the class balance. Melee classes and classes that don't rely on refreshing abilities (rogues, rangers, champions) are significantly more effective.
Cantrips are fine. Firebolt is fine. In earlier editions there was silliness with jarts. Wizards with crossbows abound. Allowing wizards to attack in combat is ok. Shooting flame wasn't common in classic style games, so purists will disagree. Better a bolt of fire than some weird-o flinging jarts into combat. (A jart is a weaponized dart—taking traits from a javelin. Javelin-dart: jart.)
- Eliminate Death Saves
They don't exist. You die when you reach 0 hit points. That takes it back to Original Dungeons and Dragons or Basic/Expert. There, your game is ridiculously deadly.
No classic style game that I'm a part of is actually that deadly. In my game, I use a critical hit table after opponents drop to zero hit points. Any hit taken at 0 hit points causes a serious long term wound or death. Another option, made popular by 1st edition, is any hit that drops you from a positive hit point total to a negative hit point total more than twice your level kills you instantly, otherwise you are bleeding out to -10/-Constitution total/-2xlevel. Take your pick.
- Give Inspiration Strictly for Creative Play
Classic style play is not about people talking to each other in character, necessarily. It's about the players facing challenges. The games are based around challenging the player, not their character sheet. So inspiration isn't about remembering to display your background accurately—classic gaming assumes background is what happened in play. What happened before the adventure is of minimal importance. Does the Dungeon Master talk in-character for all the monsters? Yeah. Can the characters if they want? Yeah. Is it the focus of play? no.
- Recalibrate Encumbrance & Light
Classic style games focus more on basic resource management.
Make the light spell 1st level. Make Continual Flame 3rd level. Make Produce Flame consume a 1st level spell slot if used 6 times.
Remove Darkvision from Elves, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, and Tieflings. This leaves Dwarves and Gnomes as the only races that can see in the dark.
You can carry a number of significant items equal to your Strength. A significant item would be a suit of light or medium armor, a weapon, a bundle 5 of torches, a potion, a vial of oil, a lantern, 200 coins, etc. A suit of heavy armor or a bulky item takes 2 slots. If you have more than 1/2 your slots filled, you are encumbered per the variant rules in the 5th edition Player’s Handbook on page 176. If you are wearing a suit of armor that grants disadvantage on Stealth (Dex) checks, you are encumbered. If you have more than 3/4 of your slots filled, you are heavily encumbered. Let common sense carry the day.
- Consider the Ability Check Proficiency variant rule on page 263 of the 5th edition Dungeons Masters Guide
It's really difficult to get players away from the idea of skill checks. Removing skills from the game is an optional way to move the je ne sais quoi of the game towards a more old school play style. This is certainly the option I would use with new players, to reduce choices required at player character creation.
- Remove individual initiative checks and always consider morale
Old school play is fast. Reasons you might have a dozen combats in the course of a session are two fold. Players generally take their actions in groups without worrying too much about which character goes first. Popular options include vegas style, where each side rolls a single die, and high roll goes first, or over/under, where for the first round some players move before the monster, and then the players and monsters alternate turns.
The second fold is there's no morale in the versions of Dungeons & Dragons that give the majority of experience from killing monsters. Institute morale to avoid combat slog. You can wholesale steal whatever system you find most useful, but a 2d6 roll against a target based on bravery is fine. If the die roll beats the numbers, the monster flee. Triggers for this roll are losing guys, or having a leader cut down (often providing little mini-missions in combat). Example targets are 11 for fanatic, 9 for brave, 7 for average, 5 for poor.
The Bell Curve is important to morale, because it makes enemy behavior predictable enough for the players to take advantage of it. It is possible to convert the appropriate % chances to a D20, but it appears arbitrary, (Why is this one 11+ and the next one 16+ on a d20?). But 2d6 for 9/7/5 (good/normal/bad) is straightforward and predictable.
- Finally, understand that unlike low level games that cap at the lord stage, 5th edition allows characters to consider growing in power far beyond the first 9 levels, making them powerful in a similar way that demigods are powerful.
Consider a limitation of level inflation, either by capping advancement and allowing players to purchase features like E6 or E8 systems, or by increasing the experience points required to advance beyond level 5 by some arbitrary value.
It seems like it is a great deal of work to do, and yet, it is not! It's just a few house rules that speed up play. The advantages are manifold. You have easier access to classic style adventures like Eyrie of the Dread Eye, Isle of Dread, and Keep on the Borderlands, now that the gameplay assumptions match what's happening at the table. You have compatibility with the system that's most frequently played.
You get to keep playing the exploratory, extemporaneous, player-driven, long term games you love.
Watch your players minds begin to turn, as they engage with the game by trying to figure out ways to turn it to their advantage.