Why Did Everyone Oversell 5e’s Old School Appeal?

I don’t actually answer this question, but if someone wants to speculate below, go ahead!  I mean, it stood to benefit Wizards to try to bring in the OSR community and convince those folks to drop coin on yet another D&D edition, but I don’t really see why anyone else would make this claim.  What am I missing here?

Saturday was Free RPG day. The actual free RPG offerings were somewhat scant in terms of things that grabbed my interest. Or anyone else’s, for that matter, given just how much stuff was left unclaimed by days end despite the crowd. I ended up picking up a Dungeon Crawl Classics screen and something called Hellas. The former will probably be cut up and stuffed into my binders if my friend who actually has some DCC stuff doesn’t want it. The latter I grabbed because it looked pretty and had nice art, but I doubt I’ll play it.

There was some Pathfinder stuff, Shadowrun, a 3rd party 5e adventure for absurdly high level characters and a bunch of other stuff that didn’t really interest me.

Having just read PMS’s rather scathing assessment of Apocalypse World, I politely declined the opportunity to join a session of that, but I did get a chance to try out Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, which I’ll admit, I have been curious about.

My curiosity has been sated.

A lot of people have written about 5e has somehow brought OSR into the fold, there’s a lot there for fans of the oldschool and it’s going to bring everyone back together. I have no idea what those people are talking about. 5e is 3.5 with the 4e skill list and an incredibly wonky XP scale. It played exactly like 3/3.5 and nothing like 1eAD&D/B/X.

I was loaned a “guest” character (a 4th level Half-Orc fighter) and was joined by a thief, a ranger and a monk. The 3+ hour session consisted of 2 encounters on the way to some place in a shared Greyhawk(?) setting they had a few games in. The first was against a Stonemelder and the second was against a druid, his body guard and some mephits he summoned.

A few things I observed:
-Despite the DM’s remarks about the simplicity of low-level play, everyone had pretty substantial combat packages at level 4.
-5e is such a high HP game that combat is kind of cartoonish. At 37 HP, my orc was tougher than most B/X dragons. He survived a combination of being punched by a mephit, stepping on a stone rose, getting burned up by a wall of fire, parched, and even then, because of some feat, he was able to stand back up and bash the hell out of the evil druid with his warhammer. The druid, on the other hand, had several arrows and a javelin sticking out of him and got brained several times for full damage with the orc’s warhammer before finally going down; he had to have had somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 HP.
-The mechanics of the Thief’s combat package struck me as fiddly and annoying. Move attack move roll for hide and cover, move attack move roll for hide and cover. All the tedium of a cover-based shooter, but with dice!
-I don’t think I like the save vs. death mechanic. While I’m admittedly not a fan of death at 0, I think AD&D’s negative HP is a fair compromise. I almost think it was wrong that my orc was magically desiccate by an amount that should’ve put me at -17 and then, because of a feat, I was able to stand back up at 1HP, attack the druid, get an AoO when the druid ran away, and then stand back up after a potion is poured down my throat after I’m knocked down again and make my saves vs. death. If bad guys get the same opportunity, it would be a wonder if anyone could die in 5e.

The XP curve for low level characters seems to exist to shove characters to mid-level as quickly as possible; then again, 5e is not a GP for XP system. Not having played in an extended game, I can’t really assess how well or poorly this works out. The notion of characters having such high HP doesn’t sit well with me, especially when weapon damage is kept relatively close to the same except for crits. Quadrupling HP averages but only increasing weapon damage by about 50% results in some really long combats with some strangely resilient opponents. And very long encounters. I think the only time I’ve had encounters as long as these were the boss-fight against the corrupted elf and that absolutely nutso encounter at the zombie farm.

I can’t remember who said it about which edition (it was either 3.5 or 4), but someone had once joked about “Dungeons & Dragons: My Precious Encounter” in reference to how the later editions are so heavily focused on players using their combat packages as a means of encounter-related problem solving (of course with a note of snark in regards to the twee-ness of a lot of high powered systems). That was very much the impression I got of 5e. While there was some fun roleplaying stuff we did among ourselves, the game itself seems more of a case where a group of variously powered individuals are thrown against a puzzle in the form of an elaborate encounter drawn from the monster manual. Players must figure out how to use their powers effectively against the monster to solve the puzzle of beating it (the riddle of steel? Nah) before time(HP) runs out. It feels like a supers game dressed up as a heroic fantasy. It is maybe the right system for the wrong genre, but it doesn’t feel like the Dungeons & Dragons I enjoy.

This is not a criticism of the group or the guy running things. They were great, and I would enjoy playing with them again. Hell, I’d even play 5e with them again. I’m just saying that if the pacing and simplicity of Old School D&D are things about OSR that appeals to you, 5e isn’t what you’re looking for. If someone tells you that if you like Old School D&D you’ll love 5e, you don’t have to take my word for it; check it out for yourself and see why they’re wrong.

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12 responses to “Why Did Everyone Oversell 5e’s Old School Appeal?

    • It feels like they’re trying to force high level play at really low levels. It ends up with rounds, and combat in general, feeling like they last forever.

      The rules are so specific for situations that would be best played out with minis (like the thief constantly using his “free” action to hide behind terrain cover) that it’s shocking that it’s played by the types of groups that don’t use minis or even map! (I asked if anyone had a player map of the spire that we were going to, since they’d been there before, and everyone looked at me like I was crazy and wanted to peak at the module. I was instead given a general description of the layout and shown an illustration from the shiny new book.)

      Also, I learned that I hate talking as a free action in general. While an enemy is moving slowly and talking about possible terms of surrender, it means that I can’t follow behind him with my weapon drawn held above his head while he talks because it’s technically not my turn. But I think that’s more of a new-school D&D issue in general, as opposed to 5e. I’m of the belief that when an enemy stops performing immediately aggressive action and attempts to talk, combat is over. If talking doesn’t work out, everyone can roll for initiative again with one or more players getting a surprise round on something that ostensibly thought that talking was still going on.

      • Long combats are antithetical to old school play. The more that are avoided due arbitrary deadliness, the better. The ones that end almost immediately due to surprise or morale failure are even better. Combat is at least as much of a fail state as it is a fun state. It is not the point of the game. It’s a spice. Most new school rules sets “fix” D&D combat by eliminating arbitrary deadliness in favor of elaborate tactical exercises.

      • I know. 5e: two encounters on the way to a dungeon = 3.5 hours. My Holmes/Moldvay game: character creation, 2 dungeon forays, 2 combat & 1 RP encounter = 1.5 hours.

  1. Given that I was raised on 3e and spent a good deal of time in 4e, I called BS immediately on the “OSR-ness” of 5e. And that was before I did any real research on the subject. Now that I’ve actually seen a bit of both, 5e just looks like a dumbed-down version of 3e… and nothing more.

    Not that 3e couldn’t use some dumbing-down. Because it could. I mean it did.

    –Dither

    • The thing about 3e is that it was a REALLY GOOD system to implement in video games. That said, it was one of those systems whose complexity mean that it was better suited to video games than the tabletop. The rationale for the dislike of 3e dawned on me when I realized that without Char-Gen software, rolling up 3e characters felt like just too much work.

      I don’t have enough experience in 5e on either side of the table to really say whether or not it’s a substantial improvement over 3e, but it definitely provides a 3e experience.

  2. Well it does seem like a lot of OSR bloggers really fought to make a case that 5e is “old school” or “supports old school play” and I always felt that the lady doth protest too much. What motive might they have? For one thing if WOTC really accommodated old schoolers with 5e it makes the OSR look more influential and relevant. So I think it’s a lot of wishful thinking really. However I haven’t seriously played 5e since the playtest phase; still, I am pretty sure the “laser cleric” is still in the game. Sigh.
    I think there is also a desire to want the current version of D&D to still be “your” game, and maybe they are overlooking the 3e/4e leftovers and just zooming in on the familiar stuff.
    The good news though is that you could always house rule away the healing surges, er, hit dice or whatever they call it now.
    Been listening to the early episodes of “Nerd Poker” and the group is running 4e very old-school, though mainly because they don’t know all the rules. Still, it goes to show that what really makes a game old school is the players.
    But, massive amounts of HP, overly complex combat and action-parsing, PC death safeguard rules, and at-will spells/powers all seem pretty “new school” and don’t sound like an improvement to the game to me.

    • To me, I think that the CR-based encounter balancing and sliding XP values are a big part of why it’s antithetical to old-school to the point of possible incompatibility. With other systems I’ve played, a DM could eyeball the party’s strength and throw roughly an equal amount of hit dice against them without having to do a bunch of algebra to figure out how much XP the thing was going to net the party.

      The thing is, though, with 3e, if you stripped everything completely away, swapped out normal stat rolls for skills, got rid of feats, gave XP for gold and only gave out magic items judiciously, you’d have a system that was more or less compatible with other versions of D&D. 5e is so radically different in how the XP tables, proficiencies, and classes work, it’s not some switch you can flip and just run your old stuff with it.

      The only OSR bloggers who would have a stake in selling 5e to the OSR community are the consultants; if their input is seen as super relevant and 5e is OSR, yeah, then maybe they themselves might be super relevant. I don’t follow Zak S, so I have no idea what he’s added to the discussion, James Desborough doesn’t talk straight up D&D very often, and Urbanski has his own crusader reasons to throw his weight behind 5e, but others I’ve seen smack of a sort of uniquely gamer-esque sense of desperation: you’ve got the products that you want and play already, but your favorite franchise as a kid may finally be catering to you again! What? It’s not? Well, we can all pretend, right?

  3. Pingback: “The good news though is that you could always house rule away the healing surges.” | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  4. To answer the original question: effective marketing.

    WotC said that 5e would somehow involve or be compatible with all editions of D&D. That of course, was impossible, but people wanted to believe it and WotC launched D&D Classics to pile on the goodwill.

    By the time 5e came out, the OSR had little or nothing to gripe about anymore.

    “Oh, you don’t like 5e’s healing surges, high hit points, longish encounters then why don’t you play one of the previous editions we released on PDF.”

    Not an actual quote. But you get the idea.

    • I get why WotC would oversell it; what struck me as odd were those in the gaming community. Then again, a few of those posts I linked (particularly that one calling the OSR a strawman) were subject to their own shitstorms, apparently, with the likes of Erik Tenkar and Chris Gonnerman weighing in pretty heavy.

  5. Pingback: Blog Watch: Battlefield Wizards, Sabine Women, and Overselling 5e D&D | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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