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.
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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.
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:
- Rules to ignore or just leave as is; and
- 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.
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).
It’s easy to come up with a character based on ability scores.
You need to cut a few races from being playable. Players will have the following options:
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.
Just like races you will need to ignore some classes from the 5e PHB.
Your players can choose from the following:
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 also get the boot.
Well, at least having a choice.
There is one archetype available for each class – and that becomes the class.
- 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.
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).
I have also written about how to use alignment as a world-building tool.
No feats allowed. None.
Not that there is really a skill system in D&D 5e, but what there is is not allowed. Ignore.
No backgrounds either.
Instead, roll on the following table (or similar) to see what your character did before becoming an adventurer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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).
- 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?
While You’re Here…
Since 2021 I have been publishing d12 Monthly, a monthly zine, which has a ton of articles for any edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
I will also be releasing some more products in the near future.