How To Surprisingly Turn D&D 5e Into An Old School OSR Game

D&D as old school OSR game

This is a bit of an on-going experiment, but I decided to strip Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition down to its core to see how close I could replicate the earlier editions of the game. 

Or, in other words, make it more like an old school D&D or OSR (Old School Renaissance) game. 

And surprisingly, it works pretty well. 

Some rules – both optional and core – need to be ignored, and a couple of custom house rules (which are optional) added, but it was surprising to me how easy it was. 

Which is a possible strength of 5e. 

Did you know I have released a new D&D zine? You can get the first issue already for free!

The Goal 

The goal of this exercise is to create a playable D&D system that has old school sensibilities and feel – OSR – but with the ease of play from 5th edition. 

Thought Process

Before I begin however, I want to let you know how I laid this out and of a couple of assumptions. 

First up, the maximum level you are going to reach is 10 – this replicates the older editions of D&D where you didn’t get much higher in level than that (and after all, most campaigns don’t go past level 10 any way). 

This also means that characters don’t reach the lofty “super-hero” status of those higher tiers.

Which is a good thing.

As mentioned above, there are two types of changes I am going to look at: 

  1. Rules to ignore or just leave as is; and 
  2. Custom rules you may want to add

Number one is pretty easy: you simply ignore the rule or leave it as is. 

The second is a little trickier (although still doable) and will require some custom rule changes (also known as house rules). 

Let’s jump in and start hacking.

Abilities

There is no need to change these at all. 

It’s all about how you generate them. 

Old schoolers will tell you to roll 3D6 straight down the line. But you can allow players to roll how you want or just use point buy. 

When I ran this experiment and created a party of characters myself, I used the 4D6, dropped the lowest, straight down the line and then decided what character I would create based on the results. 

It was fun rolling with no preconceived notion of what I wanted, but I don’t think most players think like this. They always seem to have an idea of what they want to play before rolling the dice for abilities. 

If you want to keep it old school, roll 3D6 and see what you get (and let me know in the comments below). 

Races

You need to cut a few races from being playable. Players will have the following options: 

  • Human
  • Halfling
  • Dwarf
  • Elf
  • Half-Orc
  • Half-Elf
  • Gnome

That’s it. No “fancies”. 

That’s doing it old school. Well, not really old school, but old school enough. 

What you are left with however, are all the traits races get. This isn’t a huge deal as most are fairly innocuous, but some, like gaining spells at certain levels may cause issues (say, if you are running a sword & sorcery style game).

Change as needed.

Mixing Up Races

Having said all that, you could easily restrict other races or add more in – just make sure it all fits with your style and campaign world.

Classes

Just like races you will need to ignore some classes from the 5e PHB. 

Your players can choose from the following: 

  • Cleric
  • Druid
  • Fighter
  • Paladin
  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Wizard

And maybe: 

  • Bard
  • Barbarian
  • Monk

Depending on your tastes and campaign you can add in the last three. The monk and bard were in the AD&D PHB so you can justify their inclusion. Barbarian was also in the original Unearthed Arcana book, so you can include them as well. 

This does mean however, no sorcerer and definitely no warlock. 

Just like races, classes suffer from the ever-increasing power creep that is 5e.

The good news is, you are limited to level 10 which does away with the most super-hero of the powers, but some may still cause issues for you.

One example that springs to mind is the Tempest Cleric’s Wrath of the Storm trait at 6th level. This allows the cleric to hit a creature that attacked it with 2D8 damage as a retributive strike.

A tad OP at 1st level and not very old school. But see below for a solution.

Mixing Up Classes

Just like races, do what feels right for your campaign world.

Is magic dark and scary? Then maybe just have Warlocks.

Archetypes

Archetypes also get the boot. 

Well, at least having a choice. 

There is one archetype available for each class – and that becomes the class. 

They are: 

  • Cleric – Life Domain
  • Druid – Circle of Life
  • Fighter – Champion
  • Paladin – Oath of Devotion
  • Ranger – Beast Master
  • Rogue – Thief
  • Wizard – choose a specialty or use my mage school 

And you need to remember you are not your archetype (or domain, or oath, or whatever) – the archetype becomes the class. 

So, you are not a champion, you are a fighter. The traits a champion gets is what the fighter gets. 

Mixing Up Archetypes

You could, as DM, choose different archetypes that better suit your campaign world, but the idea is to have just one archetype per class, which becomes the class. 

An example of this is if, in your world, priests and clerics are the knowledge-keepers of the world, then you could substitute Life domain for Knowledge domain. 

Alignment

You should bring alignment back into focus but it’s not that important as most of the rules around alignment have been stripped out of D&D in 5th edition. 

However, you could still use alignment as a roleplaying tool. 

You could bring alignment back in by tinkering with some spells and having a greater focus on alignment by having some classes restricted by the alignment they can be (paladin and cleric, I am looking at you). 

Feats

No feats allowed. None. 

Skills

Not that there is really a skill system in D&D 5e, but what there is is not allowed. Ignore. 

Backgrounds

No backgrounds either. 

Instead, roll on the following table (or similar) to see what your character did before becoming an adventurer. 

phb 2nd profession table

This table is from the 2nd edition PHB and has a good range of professions, but feel free to use whatever table you like. 

This will determine what you can add your proficiency bonus to. 

For example, if you were a sailor and you need to pilot a ship the DM should allow you to add your proficiency bonus to any pilot checks you make. Or Dex checks to stay on your feet in rough weather. Or when tying a knot. 

Saving Throws

I am staying with 5e rules here. It seems to go along with the old school aesthetic of using abilities to determine success and it is an easy system. 

You get two abilities where you can add your proficiency bonus as per your chosen class. 

Combat

This is where it starts to become a little more merky. 

Flanking and opportunity attacks go. 

Death saves go as well. 

Or, if you want to keep death saves, you could just have one death save – nothing says on the edge of your seat like roll a single D20 to see if you will survive or not.

If you want to do it old school, when you drop to 0 hit points you become unconscious. You start dying once you hit -1 or more. And once you reach -10 you have died. 

Any additional damage you take will simply add to this negative total until you reach -10. 

Once you reach -1 you also start to lose 1 hit point per round from blood loss. 

Until someone heals you. 

For example, if you are a fighter with 5 hit points and you take 8 hit points of damage you would be at -3 hit points, unconscious, and bleeding out. 

At the start of your next turn, you would be at -4 and so on, until you received medical attention or you reach -10 and die. 

Side Note: A good house rule to help character survival (and which makes sense) is instead of dying at -10, you die at negative your Constitution score. 

So, if your Constitution score was 12 you would die once your hit points reach -12 (instead of -10). All the rest is the same. 

Hit Points

Oh, and you have to roll your hit points at first level. No exceptions. 

Resting and Healing

This is a difficult one. 

So many traits and spellcasting are based on the short and long rest rules, not to mention healing. 

For natural healing, you can simply say you recover 1 hit point per long rest (or day), 2 with complete bed rest, and 3 if you have someone with knowledge of healing or herbalism looking after you. 

It’s slow, but that’s old school for you. 

Short rests for healing are ignored. 

I think you may need to keep short and long rests for recharging of spells and traits, but again, that could be changed, but it gets messy really fast. 

There are also some optional rules in the 5e DMG which allows you to change the durations of short and long rests. 

Spellcasting

Cantrips are gone.

Ignore the column on the class stat block that shows how many cantrips a character gets.  

If a character wants to take a cantrip they can take it as a first level spell. 

I also find it necessary to tone down damage that spells do. 

D&D 5th edition spells are uber powerful compared to old school spells – even the same spell – and so this is needed to keep the old school feel. 

This will be purely based on campaign theme and taste, but I would suggest reducing the dice type by one for some damaging spells. 

So, a D10 becomes a D8, a D6 becomes a D4. 

Not all, mind you. Magic Missile is fine at D4, but I would rule you get one missile per two levels of the caster (like in the old school days), so a 3rd level wizard would get two missiles. Three missiles at 5th, and so on. 

Fireball, on the other hand, would be reduced to D6s. 

The other way to go is to simply make ALL damage dice for spells and traits a D6 (except Magic Missile). 

So, Fireball is a D6, as is Call Lightning. Hellish Rebuke is similarly 2D6. 

Multiple Damage Dice

Spells that cause multiple dice for damage, like Fireball, will now do x number of dice based on the caster level. 

This means that if the wizard who casts fireball was 5th level, they would roll 5D6 for damage (remember we are reducing the die type by one). Once they reach 6th level, they will cause 6D6, and so on. 

This will top out at 10D6 as this is the highest level achievable. 

One Save Spells

Spells, like Hold Person, no longer allow multiple saves. 

One save is allowed when the spell is first cast and that’s it. If you fail, you are held (or whatever other fate awaits you), until someone can counter it, the spellcaster dies or is knocked unconscious, or the spell duration expires. 

Levelling

You level much slower. I would look at around ten 3-4 hour sessions per level, but the exact way you hand out XP is up to you (gold, monsters, overcoming encounters, per session played, story points, whatever). 

If you really want to go old school you could have different charts for each class, but I am not sure this level of complexity is required (pun intended). 

Level 10 is the max you can reach. 

After this you retire your character from adventuring. Although they can live on in campaign lore! 

Henchmen & Hirelings

You need to encourage your PCs to hire these suckers. 

They are a fundamental part of the old school gaming experience. And will add a lot of roleplay potential, as well as a way to get new characters into the game easily. 

Monsters

These can stay pretty much how they are. 

I would maybe suggest lowering hit points of most creatures as these are way too high in 5th edition. 

There are two ways you can do this:

  1. Just ignore the constitution modifier for the monsters in the 5th edition Monster Manual (this is the “+xx” number next to the number of dice your roll in the monster stat block).
  2. Use the Hit Points from the 3rd edition Monster Manual , if you have access to it) – this is what I usually do.

Other Rule Change Suggestions

Movement should be adjusted by armour type worn. 

This was a pretty big thing with earlier editions all the way through to 3rd edition (and maybe 4th? Not sure on that one). 

An easy rule would be that if you wear heavy armour, your speed is reduced by 5ft. 

For example, if you were a human in heavy armour, your speed would be 25ft. If you were a halfling in heavy armour, your speed would be 20ft. 

Issues That Still Exist

There are still some issues with this “OSR” 5th edition. 

As I see it these are: 

Damage output, especially at higher levels. 

Even while reducing spell damage as above, certain traits can still give a lot of damage and this is something you probably want to look at. 

Conversely, the hit point of many of the monsters is too high as well. 

This is all part of the “bounded accuracy” foundation that 5e has and it isn’t easily removed from the game. Although you can do it. 

What You Are Left With

You may be thinking at this point, what am I left with?

Well, you are left with a framework you can now mold into a game system that at it’s core is fairly easy to run, yet has an “old school” feel.

You can leave it as is and let the characters develop as the campaign marches on, or you can start using it to create your own system.

The latter is something I am working on.

Over to You

What are your thoughts? 

Is this playable? 

I see it as a good foundation to build on, how about you? 

17 Replies to “How To Surprisingly Turn D&D 5e Into An Old School OSR Game”

  1. This is excellent food for thought. I’ve been trying to mold an old school game into something suitable to introduce my son into RPGs with.
    My idea though is to actually do it the other way: go with an old school rules set and tack on some 5E bits that work especially well. The ability to use old and new OSR adventures (in addition to my own content) is something I’m aiming for.
    I want the old school flavor minus unnecessary rules while streamlining rules wherever possible.
    I think the 2E table is a great idea and maybe expand the results into professions that grant some perks.

    1. Hey Roger

      Thanks for your feedback. And yeah, you can easily do it the other way. I guess my thought with this was to see how well 5e would strip down to the bare essentials so you could then add in parts or change it as you like.

    1. I didn’t realise that, Kirk. Thanks for the heads up about it. I came into D&D mainly when AD&D came out so I am not so familiar with the older editions.

      1. As did 2e by name (combat & tactics), as far as nerf spell damage and nerf monster hp, I simply give martial characters some extra damage, its easier, some of this is legit too much book work ie changing spells to be level based, running my 5e campaign through wilderlands of high fantasy is enough conversion on my end, I steal some rules from grit & glory, making dying more common & painful, but I played 2e with kits and skills so skills and subclasses are aok by me I realize that’s not everyone’s old school, as well some monsters wight, cockatrice for example, permanent effects none of this 24 hour nonsense.

        1. Thanks, Judge. I am liking the sound of what you have done. I love being able to pull bits and pieces from various editions – it really makes the game your own.

          Russ

  2. Thanks for addressing this! I’ve been unimpressed with the few 5e games I have played. It never brought back that fun and nostalgia that I felt back in the day. I always felt overwhelmed by the amount of options/classes/races and the endless combinations.

    I’ll admit that I’m new to your blog but you’ve captured my interest. I would just like make a few suggestions/critiques in regards to your suggestions. Please understand that I don’t mean to criticize and don’t take this the wrong way. I believe there’s a 100 ways you can adjust the system and it’s pretty much all subjective anyway. So here are my comments :

    Races: I would say “No uncommon races” (see page 33 of PHB). This was a suggestion by Nolabert that I really like. It’s clean and suits my needs.

    Classes: I would outlaw Bards and Monks. In regards to magic-users, I don’t really care if they are Sorcerer, Warlock or Wizard. To me it’s just changing four quarters for a dollar. The only difference I see is “flavor”.

    Backgrounds: I would also say goodbye to the mechanics of it but I would also go with minimal Background. 1 phrase or two. The real character building happens in-game. Not during character creation.

    Rest and Healing: I would definitely nerf it but based on the DMG suggestions.

    Spellcasting: I love the idea of making all Cantrips level 1 spells. Bravo!

    And finally, my biggest comment: Why do this?

    To me, all of these adjustments mean more work. Especially when having to adjust Monsters. My preference would be to simply use an OSR system instead (my favorites are Dungeon Crawl Classics and Old School Essentials).

    But the big advantage is to attract the 80% (if not more) of RPG players that only play 5e. From past experience, every time I want to set-up an OSR game I had trouble attracting players. This “adjustment” to of 5e to an OSR feel is the perfect transition.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    1. Hey Judge
      Thanks for the tanking the time to leave this comment. And I would probably agree with what you have said. There are many ways to skin a cat as they say. 🙂

  3. This is an excellent article that really helps me in creating my “flattened” 5e system I use for solo and playing with my son. I am trying to speed play and also nerf power creep and HP for PCs and monsters. Thanks for the tips and inspiration.

    1. Hey Ryan

      No problem. Happy you found it useful. Also, happy to see you are solo playing. Have you read my article on how I soloRPG?

      Russ

  4. CHARACTER CREATION
    I agree no feats, no skills, no multiclassing, levels 1-10 only.
    However, players will complain if you remove so many classes and races. A better solution is to keep everything but make humans more attractive so that players will naturally aspire to be simply human.

    The way I do it is everyone rolls 3d6 in order of their stats and only humans may swap one score with another. Rolls of 1 become 2 to avoid very low stats. This gives the same average (12) as point buy with the option of slightly lower or higher stats (6-18).

    I agree with slower leveling, but 10 sessions per level is extreme. I want to get PCs fast to lvl 3 so they can take a hit and get a subclass. From there on I want slower leveling. I do it like this:

    “You advance to a new level after playing a number of sessions equal to your current level. After 1 session you advance to level 2, after 2 more sessions to level 3 etc.” From level 5 advancement is getting slower and slower and practically freezes around lvl 8-10.

    MAGIC
    You can rein in magic without altering spell damage or removing cantrips. Just have spellcasters make a spell attack anytime they cast a cantrip or spell, DC 10 + spell level. If the spell requires a spell attack, the result is used both to see if the spell is successfully cast and to hit a target.

    On a success, the spell is cast and the spell slot is spent. On a failure, the spell fails and the spell slot is expended. On a roll of 20, the spell is cast without expending a spell slot. On a roll of 1, I have some funky tables, nothing really deadly though:

    – The mage is reduced or enlarged, turns invisible, levitates, glows with light…
    – Mephits (arcane), blights (druid, ranger) or an imp (cleric, paladin) are summoned and attack you.
    – Divine test of faith (penalty on spell attacks until you make a considerable donation), test of flesh (you are poisoned and must endure the illness), test of humility (you must act as if the other characters or creatures were your superiors)…
    – You cannot turn undead, divine smite or wild shape.

    Clerics and paladins must be lawful or good. Druids and rangers must be chaotic or neutral. They lose their divine powers if they deviate from that alignment.

    COMBAT
    The problem with combat isn’t opportunity attacks, the problem is that PCs cannot die. Slower healing isn’t the solution; all it does is make PCs rely even more on magical healing.

    I’ve taken peace with short rests, triple death saves and the lack of instant kills. How? You can always disturb a short rest with a random encounter, pointing out that resting in a hostile environment is unfit. Or set a time limit to accomplish the quest (if you rest, the villain escapes or the hostage is killed).

    The only thing I feel very strong about is that dropping to 0 hp must have a lasting conesquence that cannot be undone by magic! PCs can restore hp, restore drained abilities, restore from poison and curses… but nothing can undo disadvantage or exhaustion. And while 1 level of exhaustion is negligeable, 2+ levels do hurt and 6 levels equals death.

    Whenever a character drops to 0 hit points, they take 1d6 levels of exhaustion (or 1d4 +1 if you feel generous) or have disadvantage to attacks, checks and saves of one ability, determined randomly. You recover from disadvantage after ten days of rest or if someone provides medical aid and makes a DC 15 check once every 24 hours. After 10 successes, you recover.

    To speed up combat, don’t use initiative, just have each side roll 1d12 each round, no modifiers. In case of a tie, the DM goes first. And don’t use a grid or distance. Just rule if something is near (within melee range or within 1 move action) or far (within range of ranged/spell attacks or within dash range). Two distances, that’s all you need: near vs far. Adjucate area effects.

    To further speed up combat, cut in halve monster hit points. I don’t use monster XP since advancement is decided by # of sessions played. Even at half hit points, monsters retain all their offensive power. Instead of taking hits/misses round after round, I prefer to up the challenge by pinning down PCs with low level minions, meanwhile blasting PCs with spellcasters, peperring them with bowmen behind half or full cover, focusing all enemy attacks on the weakest PC (the mage or a wounded PC), ambushing PCs etc.

    SUMMARY
    * 0 hp = long lasting consequence that cannot be undone with magic (exhaustion or disadvantage)
    * No feats, no skills, no multiclassing, levels 1-10, progressive level advancement.
    * Make a spell attack for each cantrip/spell cast.
    * Divine spellcasters must play to their alignment or lose their divine powers.
    * Roll stats in order, 3d6, count 1 as 2, humans may swap one score with another score.
    * Gridless combat, distance adjucated by ‘near’ and ‘far’, side initiative.

    1. Hey Matt

      Thanks for the comment. So really good ideas in there. Just goes to show you there are many ways to do this, which is a great thing!

      Russ

  5. Thanks.

    Despite all these sound suggestions, I keep going back to basic dnd 1st edition or one of the many revivals.

    The reason is: dnd 5e has a huge problem with lack of versimilitude. Every character has tons of superpowers, massive amounts of hit points, cannot die, and if they die they quickly come back at no cost … This is not only silly, it breaks suspension and is plain boring!

    There used to be a time when all you got by levelling up was better to hit bonus, more hit points that you sorely needed and better saves. No funky abilities or power combos. Spellcasters got more spells and thieves got better at skills. And that was it.

    In basic dnd you don’t have every rule written in detail. A class or race description is just 1 page long. And that is a good thing, because it leaves space for your imagination. It inspires creativity. Players come up with all sort of ideas that drive the game forward. They cannot withstand many head on confrontations and have to be clever and cautious because of that. They are no heroes, they are survivors, desperate people trying their luck and betting their lives to get ahead.

    The more rules, options and superpowers you add, the less special the game becomes.

    Less is definitely more in a game of imagination.

    1. I agree. Older editions are a completely different game and, I think, a better one. 5e has so many issues with it I really don’t know where to begin. I did this as a sort of thought experiment but it seems to have hit a cord. Five Torches Deep is another good 5e conversion, using very basic mechanics of 5e but has OSR sensibilities.

  6. I think any edition needs some tweaking to support the DM’s vision/campaign (after all, a DM does all the work to run the game). Either way is fine and I do like 5TD but you will find more resistance houseruling a modern game like 5th ed dnd.

    Old/basic editions lend themselves more to tweaking because a) few players are familiar with it, and b) the rules aren’t very interconnected so there is less risk of unbalancing the game by making changes.

  7. I was mostly with you until you said level 10 max. That’s not Old School AT ALL. Old School is pretty much unlimited levels except due to Race or Ability Scores.
    So you are giving players all the pain of levelling in Old School but none of the reward / payoff of Old School when we finally did level back then . Without the payoff / reward this is just unpleasant grinding – a modern thing.

    1. I think both high levels and lower levels were present in old school games (as they are today), but levels were kept fairly low more often than not (as Tim Kask notes in this video: https://youtu.be/X9vECzikqpY), which is where I was coming from as I wholely agree with what he says in that video.

      Also, I am not sure I follow/agree with you on “unpleasant grinding” – What is the “pain” in old school levelling? (Also, watch above video).

      And if you really don’t like leveling like I mentioned, just change it. 🙂

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