Old-School 5E D&D Adventures

In my last post, I laid out a way of playing 5E, using just the options in the core books (with one added house rule) that would better approximate old-school D&D than the way 5E is typically run. And while some would be quick to recommend a different system or hack of 5E that better matches old-school play, my intent was to propose a version of 5E that hesitant 5E players would be more likely to adopt since all the rules come straight from the 5E core books.

If you’re going to play that way, what adventures should you run? I would argue against the official WotC 5E adventure paths. They emphasize overarching narratives rather than dungeon exploration (although they feature dungeons in the adventures).

Fifth Edition Fantasy (FEF)

The 5E adventures released by Goodman Games offer solid, self-contained adventures that focus on old-school exploration and feel more akin to classic TSR-era modules. 

I have run three of the adventures in different 5E campaigns: The Fey Sisters Fate, Beneath the Keep, and The Cave of the Unknown, the latter two integrated with OAR #1: Into the Unknown. I have read several others including Glitterdoom, War-Lock, and The Pillars of Pelagia.

All are solid adventures featuring dungeon crawls (e.g., Beneath the Keep, Glitterdoom, The Pillars of Pelagia, and The Cave of the Unknown) and wilderness exploration (e.g., The Fey Sisters Fate and War-Lock). War-Lock includes a hex map of a desert/badlands biome, providing a mini-campaign setting that can be dropped in an existing campaign fairly well.

The FEF line is written by veteran adventure writers from Goodman Games DCC line, including Chris Doyle (Goodman Games’ head 5E product developer) and Michael Curtis among others. Both have an extensive knowledge of TSR-era modules which helps to root their adventure scenarios in an old-school design approach to 5E.

The modules offer new monsters, spells, and magic items and are of comparable length to TSR-era modules, typically running 20-30 pages. Although the covers aren’t detachable, PDF copies of the modules are offered with the print versions allowing DMs to print off a separate map for game play. The only complaint I have, and it’s a mild one, is that the art is not very compelling. It doesn’t grab you like the TSR-era modules do or even like the DCC modules do. There is too much of a sameness that makes the art somewhat bland. I assume the art direction for these modules was shooting for a strong consistency in look, but I’m not sure why 5E modules should be devoid of the variety and flavor of art that graces the DCC modules from the same publisher.

Original Adventures Reincarnated (OAR)

If you go to DM’s Guild, you can find many of the TSR-era modules for B/X or AD&D adapted to 5E, but generally not in a very satisfactory way. In some cases, the adaptations are simply recommendations for different monsters to stock in the dungeons. The OAR line from Goodman Games, under license from Wizards of the Coast, is more comprehensive in approach. These popular books include high-quality reproductions of the original modules that they’re based on, as well as a full 5E conversion. Despite the extensive 5E material, these books seem to be quite popular with the grognards and the OSR crowd.

My experience is limited to OAR 1: Into the Borderlands, the combined B1: Into the Unknown and B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. Given that these are adaptations of TSR-era modules, they offer the best old-school dungeon experience to 5E players. What makes them stand out from the adaptations you can find on DM’s Guild is that besides getting copies of the original modules, the 5E conversion includes new material, both in terms of monsters that haven’t been converted to 5E yet and in terms of expanded locations to be explored.

I have two complaints about the OAR series and one of them only applies to conversions of low-level modules like OAR 1. First, due to the licensing agreement with WotC, the OAR books do not include PDF copies of the material (probably because this would impinge on DM’s Guild PDF sales of the original modules). So, if you want to use the updated maps or any of the illustrations, you’ll need to scan them. Second, low-level module conversions like OAR 1 suffer from the speed of leveling at low levels in 5E. PCs will be 3rd level in no time in 5E. That constrains the danger and peril in these dungeons.

Folio

The Folio adventures by Art of the Genre offer old-school dungeons linked together in the classic mega-module style from TSR (e.g., Scourge of the Slave Lords). The first series, The Roslof Keep Campaign, harkens back to B2: The Keep on the Borderlands and is named in honor of Jim Roslof and his art contributions to early D&D. They were released both as individual modules (with separate covers!) and combined into an orange-spined hardcover.

The series provides setting information that can be added to an existing world or used and expanded on with additional Folio modules (all set in Scott Taylor’s Nameless Realms setting). Full descriptions of key NPC’s are included to help flesh out the setting material. Classic blue maps are included along with digitally-rendered 3D isometric maps. The 2D maps are easier to use in terms of positioning and general location of rooms, but I do find the 3D maps help to give perspective on depth and space.

Although the modules are all interlinked, they are less narratively driven than WotC’s 5E adventure paths. The Roslof Keep Campaign is essentially a mega-dungeon, the PCs progressing deeper into the dungeon underneath the keep as they advance in levels. There is an interesting meta-game element that drives the mythic underworld type dungeon of the first Folio series of adventures.

While I haven’t run The Roslof Keep Campaign, my biggest concern is that the adventures include both AD&D and 5E stat blocks and mechanics. I get the impression that given Scott Taylor’s interest in old-school D&D, these modules were really written for AD&D with a 5E conversion added. I’m doubtful how well these adventures will run for 5E (for instance, as mentioned above with regards to OAR 1: Into the Borderlands, 5E level progression is considerably quicker than AD&D even with an XP for gold system). The 5E stat blocks are also written in the old-school AD&D or B/X style and is lacking ability score statistics that are needed for saving throws in 5E (although I think this is easily improvised with Five Torches Deep-style strong, weak, and base modifiers).

Conclusion

If you’re wanting to try to play 5E in a style that better approximates old-school play, the adventures I’d recommend primarily would be the FEF modules from Goodman Games. They are relatively short adventures (from 1-3 sessions assuming 4-hour sessions) that will give you the opportunity to see if you like this style of play. If you want to expand into a full campaign, they shouldn’t be too hard to integrate in either something like OAR 1 or The Complete Roslof Campaign. Both Beneath the Keep and Into the Unknown, while able to be adapted to any campaign, were written as expansions to OAR 1.

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A Bridge Between 5E and the OSR

Recently Erik Tenkar discussed the potential for the OSR to grow if it could only attract a subset of 5E players. Last year, Yum DM wrote about how to make 5E more OSR and while his suggestions are good, I think an approach that relies on fewer house rules might be more attractive to 5E players who are open to different ways of playing, but who would balk at heavy rules alterations as well as 5E + OSR systems like Five Torches Deep or Into the Unknown or other 5E hacks like 5E Hardcore Mode.*

I think 5E has enough options built into the core books (PHB and DMG) that you can approximate something closer to an OSR game than the way 5E is played by default all by using or not using optional rules already present in the core books.

Again, the point is not to disparage any of the 5E hacks that exist or to discourage house rules, but I assume that players who are willing to play something like Five Torches Deep or use 5E Hardcore Mode, for instance, are well on their way to playing a true OSR system.

So, here is what I’d propose to the receptive yet resistant 5E player/DM:

Only core 5E books allowed in the campaign (i.e., PHB, MM, & DMG only).

Character Generation: 

  • Race – No uncommon races. 

The PHB lists uncommon races in a sidebar and points out that they don’t exist in every world of D&D (see p. 33 in the PHB).

  • Class – all are available. No changes. 

While some classes are less OSR than others, there is no clear or easy demarcation for excluding classes by optional rules already in place in the PHB. Obviously, specific campaign milieus may provide the impetus for excluding classes, but I’m assuming more of a vanilla D&D campaign with this post.

  • Ability Scores – rolling dice is more OSR than using the standard array.

4d6, drop the lowest, and apply numbers to abilities as desired following the procedure of the PHB

  • Alignment – no changes
  • Background – choose one. Do not take equipment, skill, or tool proficiencies.
  • Buy Equipment – Roll for starting gp and purchase equipment.

Rolling for starting gp and buying equipment provides for more variety in character development than choosing starting equipment. Imagine a character with a noble background but who has little starting money. There is an interesting story there (produced by a random factor).

  • Trinket – Roll on the Trinkets table (pp. 160-161 in the PHB).

Rolling on random tables is OSR. These randomly generated personal items may provide for interesting emergent story opportunities later in game. (And one of the trinkets hearkens back to a classic B/X D&D module—do you know which one?). 

  • No (Optional) Feats or Multiclassing

Feats encourage a focus on what options are on the character sheet. While you can’t get away from this entirely in 5E since classes come with features at most levels, feats would only add to it. 

Multiclassing in 5E results in character optimization and PC’s who can do everything.

  • Background Proficiency (see p. 264 in the DMG)

Skill and tool proficiencies are based on background and will need to be negotiated between player and DM. The benefit of this option is to encourage emergent storytelling/immersive play and less of a reliance on the character sheet during play.

Healing and Rest:

  • Healer’s Kit Dependency

This option makes healing during a short-rest a little more costly.

  • Slow Natural Healing

The absolute worst rule in 5E is a long rest providing full HP. Even using HD to heal after a long rest will be much quicker healing than any OSR game, but it makes healing slower than the default rules and may require expenditure of limited resources like healing spells or healing potions.

Combat:

  • Side Initiative (see p. 270 in the DMG)

Many old-school editions of D&D and OSR systems use side initiative. Side initiative will speed up combat over individual initiative. 

  • Morale (see p. 273 in the DMG)

While 5E’s optional morale rules leave much to be desired, it’s better than monsters always fighting until death and provides some procedure for determining when monsters may flee or surrender. Unfortunately a Wisdom saving throw means that the DM will need to use their discretion when determining whether a monster would ever flee or surrender. For example, undead and constructs don’t flee or surrender and must be destroyed. Cornered beasts fight ferociously.

  • Adjudicating Areas of Effect (i.e., Running Theater of the Mind — see pp. 249-250 in the DMG)

While using miniatures on a grid can be fun, it makes combat much more tactical and a focus of the game. To speed up play, run more combat encounters theater of the mind. And to make 5E feel more like an old-school game that focuses on exploration, run all combat encounters theater of the mind. One of the hindrances to running combat theater of the mind is how to adjudicate areas of effect. This section of the DMG gives good guidelines.

  • Level of Exhaustion at 0 HP and Every Failed Death Save

This recommendation is an added house rule and while I’ve tried to avoid any added rule not without some precedent in the core books, this is a popular house rule and will add consequences to dropping to 0 hp. 

Time: 

  • Tracking time

Dungeon exploration is a key feature of old-school gameplay. 5E lacks well codified procedures for dungeon exploration, but the section on Time on p. 181 in the PHB gives this guideline:

“In a dungeon environment, the adventurers’ movement happens on a scale of minutes. It takes them about a minute to creep down a long hallway, another minute to check for traps on the door at the end of the hall, and a good ten minutes to search the chamber beyond for anything interesting or valuable (emphasis added).

This 10-minute segment is a good rule of thumb for tracking dungeon exploration. Dump trying to track individual minutes and abstract to 10 minute segments (including combat regardless of how many rounds it takes). Tracking time is important because it eats up resources (like torches) and is important in knowing when to roll for wandering monsters.

  • Wandering Monsters (Random Encounters see pp. 85-87 in the DMG)

Check for wandering monsters once per half-hour in dungeons. Wilderness random encounters occur less frequently   Wandering monsters may also prevent PCs from taking a short-rest.

  • Downtime: Training to Gain Levels (see p. 131 in the DMG)

Training adds greater verisimilitude to the game and requires spending gold as well as time to level. PCs won’t be able to level up mid-dungeon for instance, unless they return to a home base and take the time to level.

Next:

In the next post, I’ll make some recommendations for old-school dungeon modules for 5E.

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