Old School, New School: Thoughts on Adjusting D&D

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for a very long time. Not for as long as some out there, but for most of my life. I’m not entirely sure which year I began, it’s been so long. It’s somewhere in the range of 1982 to 1984, however. Which means I’ve been playing for over 32 years now – three-quarters of my life! And there’s still a significant part of the history of D&D that I wasn’t present for. I wasn’t there for its most early days, when every group played the game differently because the rules were so vague people had to make things up! My interpretations of the original game are just that: my interpretations. But the original form of the game is something I’ve been fascinated by for a very long time.

The original D&D draws inspiration from a number of sources. When I look at it, there are three that are paramount. They are the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien. Burroughs and Howard give us a huge influence as to the form of the adventures – the inventive dungeons and wildernesses full of monsters, traps and tricks. But Tolkien gives us the races and monsters of the game. Not all the monsters – they came from everywhere – but the elves, dwarves, halflings, wights, wraiths, ents (treants) and the like? Those are Tolkien. And because the character races are Tolkien, that has a huge influence on the perception of the game.

One of the fascinating things about D&D is that it isn’t static. Of all the RPGs, it has changed the most as the years have gone by. It isn’t limited by its initial conception. It can handle a very wide variety of sources. As things become popular, D&D can embrace them. D&D has become its own thing over the years, a living mythology, drawing elements of popular and classical mythology to enrich itself. Over the years, it’s changed the way its handles various situations. In this article, I’m going to touch on a few items about which I’ve recently seen some animated discussions. Let’s have a look at how D&D used to handle the situation, how it handles it now, and how you could adjust the current game to be more like the old.

Death and Zero Hit Points

In the original D&D, when you reached zero hit points, you were dead. There was none of this “you’re dying until your friends can save you”. No, it was: “0 hp? Roll up a new character.” Higher-level characters were more likely to get raised from the dead – for long-term characters, death has always been avoidable, though perhaps not forever. But low-level characters were vulnerable.

It’s not like creating new characters was hard in those days: the DM rolled 3d6 in order for your ability scores, you rolled 3d6 times 10 for your starting gold, and your abilities (few that they were) were set by your choice of race and class. Ten minutes to create a character? If you were slow at choosing your equipment, sure!

An optional rule was introduced into AD&D which was – quite possibly – promptly misinterpreted. I always played it as “if you’re at 0 to -9 hit points, you’re dying. You lose 1 hp per round until you reach -10 hit points and die”. This was the official rule in AD&D 2E. However, the wording of the AD&D rule is more interesting. It implies that you die immediately if you are reduced to negative hit points, but if you are reduced to 0 hp exactly, you are unconscious and dying but can still be saved. (The option is given that you don’t immediately die if you’re reduced to -3 to 0 hit points). So, AD&D gave a very small window where you could survive. Personally, I prefer the modern versions where death isn’t instantaneous.

However, one aspect of modern D&D does irritate me: the way you can be knocked unconscious, healed 1 hit points, then bound back into the fight. Healing in original D&D tended to happen after the fights due to the possibility of disruption during the fight and the limited efficacy of healing spells. Is there a way to make being reduced to 0 hit points more significant in 5E?

The way AD&D handled it proves a pointer to how we could handle it today. A character reduced to 0 hit points and then healed was unable to do anything except move slowly – not fight, cast spells or anything – until they’d had a minimum of a week’s bed rest! The only way around this was if they were the recipient of the 6th level cleric spell, heal – unlikely for most parties. I used this rule in a 3-year AD&D campaign I ran before 5E came out, with one modification: you could act normally if you were magically healed to full hit points. With clerical healing being much more limited in AD&D than in 5E, that worked well.

So here’s a couple of potential house rules you could use in 5E to make dropping to 0 hit points significant, without disrupting the flow of the game too much:

  • When a character is reduced to 0 hit points, they can’t take actions or bonus actions until they complete a short or long rest.
  • This restriction is lifted if they are healed to full hit points.
  • Alternatively, a character can’t spend Hit Dice for short rests until they’ve completed a week of long rests.

Wights, Wraiths and Level Drain

As I write this, there’s a discussion on the 5E Facebook group about how unfair the old Level Drain rule was for wights and wraiths. It’s worth understanding the context of that rule.

The thing about level drain is that it comes from Gary Gygax converting the Barrow Wight and the Nazgûl from the Lord of the Rings into D&D terms. And in the original edition, there were very few knobs to twiddle with. Monsters had AC, Hit Dice, Hit Points and a movement speed – they didn’t even have damage codes! All of them did d6 damage. So how do you show the power of the life-draining Wights and Wraiths? You had them actually reduce hit dice of the creature (which also then affects the attack bonus and saving throws of the affected creature).

It’s worth nothing that in the original presentation there was no way of getting those lost levels back. It took until the first supplement for a spell, Restoration, to be added. It required a 14th-level cleric (almost unheard of), restored one level, and required the cleric to rest 2-20 days after casting it. Yeah, level drain wasn’t trivial.

The result of this is that wights and wraiths are monsters to be feared – which is consistent with their presentation in Tolkien. (Only one character ever kills a wight or wraith; the rest can only be temporarily driven off).

This might seem unfair, but in fact you weren’t meant to fight them – or at least, not often. They’re designed for a play style where players would recognise the dangerous threat they were and avoid them. With adventures being constructed in a sandbox format rather than with a tight plot-line, this works very well. Smart players prosper, foolish ones die (or at least their characters are reduced in levels so they can learn to be more cautious next time).

However, the moment people start designing adventures which say “you must fight these wights to proceed” then level drain becomes a problematic mechanic. It’s fine when it tests your players, but not when it becomes something they can’t avoid and just a source of frustration. I like level drain, but only when used in the original context.

The 5E version of Level Drain is actually pretty scary. It has been noted that a character could be reduced to a maximum of 5 hit points, and then suffer a blow for 10 damage and die immediately! If you’d like to make wights and wraiths even scarier, you could try these house rules:

  • There is no saving throw against the loss of maximum hit points; it is automatic when you are struck.
  • You do not recover those hit points until you receive a restoration spell; a rest isn’t enough.
  • Alternatively, a month’s rest will restore the hit points.

I expect that changing these mechanics (and alerting your players to that fact) will make them far more cautious around wights and wraiths! However, please don’t use these rules and expect them to fight them…

Making Magic Items Mysterious

I’m not sure that magic items have ever been that mysterious in D&D. Not from the first time a player picked up the rulebooks and starting paging through the descriptions. (Yes, this annoyed Tim Kask, but it’s hard to keep secrets forever). Honestly, the best way of making a magic item mysterious was to create your own. The player would just have to discover what it did themselves.

This worked a lot better when you couldn’t take a short rest and learn everything about an item, of course…

In fact, the original Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t even have an identify spell. That’s something that was introduced to the game in AD&D. Even then, the spell wasn’t that reliable at low levels. It certainly didn’t tell you everything about the item (and likely didn’t tell you how to activate it in any case). Instead, you needed to consult sages, do research, and experiment with items to determine their full powers.

However, I admit that I quite understand the reasoning for not making items mysterious; and one of the chief ones is to reduce the load on the DM as to things they need to remember. Keeping it hidden from the player that they’re wearing +1 plate mail armour doesn’t really add that much interest to the game, and remembering that it is +3 against lycanthropes is a conditional bonus that is easily forgotten.

It’s probably more worthwhile keeping selective things mysterious. In my 5E home game, I use these rules:

  • A short or long rest can’t be used to identify an item
  • An identify spell will identify the significant powers of an item – at least the ones I want you to learn easily
  • Magic items tend to have quirks from the DMG
  • Some magic items have hidden powers and forms of activation

Oh, and permanent magic items are also rather rare… One of my players is wearing a magic ring that he’s owned for over 6 months, and he still doesn’t know what it does…

There’s a lot of other little house rules you can use to change the feel of the game, but that’s enough for one article. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover, please let me know!

6 comments

  1. Jeff

    some good comments! I agree that sometimes healing is just too easy in 3E, 4E and now 5E. Back in “old school” days, Raise Dead was something most campaigns didn’t have access to as PCs until maybe the very end of a long campaign when they reached level 9. If you needed raising before that, you had to find a sympathetic high level NPC and go on a quest for them in order to get the raising. However, with 3E, it was still something PCs got at level 9, but now campaigns were designed to go to level 20, instead of level 10. So, instead of 95% of the way through a campaign, you’re not even halfway into the campaign. 4E made it even easier (level 8 in a 30 level campaign!), and not much has changed with 5E.

    I think even before AD&D came out, my old games had something like 0 to -9 was dying, but not quite dead. And, all it took was somebody reaching you to stop the bleeding in order to survive. I think it was similar with AD&D/2e. While 3E was similar, you had to actually make a Heal check to stop the bleeding, and 4E had the 3 death saves and you’re out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. RVP

    Hello,
    I am looking for some help for some old school PNP 1st ed. style play.
    I am looking for any info on how Bracers of Defence might effect Base AC in regards to Weapon type vs Armor type. I play in a campaign that is centered around the “Players Option” series, which might be considered 2.5 edition,(with heavy emphasis on !st edition). Specifically, I want some info on whether a character wearing Bracers AC4 with no armor still has a base AC of 10 in regards to weapon type.
    Any help or opinions would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks.

    Like

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