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Why the old-school style works well for 5e

I’ve written about why D&D over other RPGs, where I argued for D&D as whole, not for 5e specifically.

But yesterday, someone on an OSR forum wrote:

5e is designed around the core gameplay loop being a linear string of combat encounters.

I disagree with this. I think playing 5e that way does not work very well and is not fun. When the DM serves up an encounter tailor-made to the party they are going to be responsible for the outcome of that encounter. It’s meaningless to make a character with specific abilities since the opposition can be tailor-made to exactly counter those abilities.

People are saying two things here:

  1. OSR games work a lot better for OSR style gameplay than 5e does.
  2. A linear string of encounters works better for 5e than an OSR style gameplay setup does for 5e.

While I’m not particularly eager to argue against the first statement (especially not on an OSR forum), I strongly disagree with the second statement.

Running 5e in a non-linear, location-exploration based way (i.e. OSR inspired) works a lot better. It’s fun trying to put a character together and see if that character has what it takes to take on the world. People mention mage hand as a problematic spell. But that mage hand comes at the expense of other abilities. I use the idea of no paper after seeing rock. I place the dungeons without knowing anything about the party make up that are going to visit there. A character taking a chance that mage hand will end up being useful might get rewarded for that decision—they might or they mightn’t, depending on what’s in the locations they decide to go to—and the reward is genuine, they really did make a clever choice that ended up being appropriate. Just like selecting good gear in B/X, like a ten foot pole or similar. I never go “Oh, OK, they have mage hand, I’d better put in stuff that rewards the mage hand player so they get to feel clever”, nor do I go “Oh, OK, they have mage hand, I’d better only put in stuff that completely invalidates mage hand and makes it useless”. I stick with what was in the location before they made the characters. And it’s not like OSR games don’t have powerful spells.

If someone quotes Patrick Stuart here with “The answer is not on your character sheet”, sure. It’s good module design to create situations that the players engage with in other ways. I love that. (And that’s another reason to play 5e in an OSR style as opposed to play 5e in a more linear style.) But on the other hand, there are OSR games where the character sheet plays a huge role. Knave comes to mind with the inventory based gameplay.

Yes, 5e is a more combat-focused game than the typical OSR game and characters are a lot more super heroic. They die a lot less. I’m running Arden Vul in 5e and we’ve only had ten character deaths so far. And fights are a lot “flashier” than many OSR games’ “combat as war” aesthetic. That’s a strength of OSR’s style (and it’s also a strength of 5e’s style—it’s a reason for both types of games to exist).

Yes, the characters are “drowning in resources” through things like the light cantrip, goodberry spell etc. 5e was designed to be all things to all people—that’s its greatest strength, since it means you can find tons of compatible monsters & modules, but it’s also its greatest weakness, since it makes it hard to find a group that plays it exactly the way you wanna play it. A D&D-hating friend of mine (he hates 5e and he hates OSR) is always saying “you can’t defend D&D, not honestly, since you’re playing with a ton of houserules”. True. The old “you can just houserule it away” is a very poor excuse for a game. There’s no “just” houserule it; making houserules is effort and design work. I spend more time polishing houserules than any other part of the prep. (But I would for an OSR game, too. And I like it; rules design is my favorite part of RPGs.) I’ve houseruled all lowlevel spells (including cantrips) that give light & food to require material components. So if they want to use the Light spell they need to carry fireflies or moss, making the spells part of the logistics game. (It’s then a li’l bit strange to see OSR modules like Arden Vul jam continual flame everywhere and give them magic torches that last three times longer etc, or something like Date of Expiration that’s lit throughout. Not saying those aren’t awesome modules, they’re great.) We use as many rules from B/X, 1e, 2e (including domain stuff) that we do from 5e.

Part of 5e’s success is because it brought back the more open-ended gameplay styles of the OSR from the dusty desert of the stiff old linear adventure paths.

Also, bounded accuracy is good for sandbox play.