Is 5e Old School and Have I Been Playing it “Wrong”?

Last week, I posted the real cause of the 15-minute adventuring day. I was somewhat unprepared for the response!

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


Thousands of people read the post and many commented. One comment that came up again and again in the ensuring conversations was that many readers considered 5e to have an Old School vibe. This surprised me. On a recent break from my Borderland of Adventure campaign we played over six months of 5e and I never once picked up an Old School feel.

(And, if you are interested, here I discuss what Old School means to me).

This leads me to wonder if we’d played 5e “wrong.”

Now, of course, the feel of the game could be down to the GM, the module or even the gaming group. Whatever the reason, it annoys me that I may have missed (for me) a vital facet of 5e play.

As you probably know (or have guessed by now) I’m a huge fan of Old School play. Coupled with this, I’ve recently been considering Raging Swan Press’s stance on publishing 5e products. To date, we’ve published almost exclusively Pathfinder compatible products (many with an Old School feel) and if we were to start publishing 5e material I’d want to maintain the same style. It thus seems to be a rather good idea to understand what aspects of 5e people consider Old School.

So—do you think 5e has an Old School vibe? If so, why? (And, of course, if you disagree let me know why as well.) Please leave a comment below, and help me understand 5e better!


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

10 thoughts on “Is 5e Old School and Have I Been Playing it “Wrong”?”

  1. I don’t think D&D 5e really has that much of an old school vibe. Playing as written and as seems to be intended by the design (at least from reading the DMG), 5e seems far more like a lighter version of of 3.x and 4e with a light sprinkling of TSR D&D flavor. However, unlike previous editions of WOTC D&D, 5e relatively easy to adapt to play with an old school feel. While I have no interest in running a 5e campaign, I would be willing to play in one ran in a strong old school style.

  2. No assumed wealth per level.
    No big “six”.
    Fewer caster spell slots.
    Fighter not at least two tiers after wizards.
    Less focus on buffing.
    ” Natural” language vs. 4e keyword language.
    Monsters can have abilities PCs can never process, i.e. monsters not built as PCs.
    Rulings, not rules.
    Less focus on PC skill, more focus on player skills.
    Low level can be useful vs high level characters.

    Where 5e is less old school:
    Basically no instant death.
    No energy drain.
    No monsters immune to damage, i.e. less puzzle monsters.
    At will abilities for casters.
    Spell less healing that doesn’t take forever.
    No obscure subset of rules, i.e. uniform dice resolution.
    Thieves doesn’t suck.

  3. I think that the advancement rate is a bit of a hang-up, tied to how XP is given. The idea of rewarding good “role-playing” is idealistic more than realistic. In Basic D&D, advancement seems to take longer, but an XP point for every gold piece made this very controllable for the DM. In low-fantasy, slow-advancement settings, this is not a problem; i.e. less loot, less XP. Most veterans who want an old school feel seem to be at odds with the buffed, filthy rich and powerful, level -hopping PCs of the newer iterations of the game. I found it difficult in Pathfinder for this reason. Low fantasy play meant changing rules, and changing rules is a path to hell.
    5e presents a simplistic approach to the game, as do most iterations when they are first released. I had one of the first copies of Pathfinder and loved needing only one book. However, now pathfinder is a monster on level with D&D3+.

    Here is my recommendation to try. For old school, play old school. Reward money for loot; these are adventurers, after all, and wealth/power was their cause back in the day. D&D was created during the post-war era, and the ideals of capitalism were (probably not intentionally) intrinsic to the game. Don’t reward for role-playing. It is problematic. Some players want to be numbers, some poems. The game needs both, and both will excel no matter what type they are. If you are using 5e, use the XP tables from 1e; and reward for loot, kills, and later monies earned from your manor.

    I play LegendQuest, from Board Enterprises, because it solves all of my dilemmas with PFRPG/D&D3.0-5. I like, role-play-heavy, low fantasy campaigns. However, my experience with both PFRPG/D&D1-5e has taught me that XP is the domain and problem of the DM/GM. Use that power to create the style of game you want. XP is a powerful weapon in guiding the style of you game.

    What has changed from 1e to 5e? Really? Not much when you boil it down. The evolution of war game to sub-LARP characterizes the last 30 years of the game. One need not be beholden to this. Use your imaginations, and don’t let the rules fool you; YOU are in charge as the DM/GM.

  4. 5E most definitely has an old school vibe. It streamlines everything and fixes the monumental complications that 3rd on created. It moves the game back to theater of the mind and reinforces the use of imagination. The DM is also very firmly reasserted in his role in the game instead of being a casual observer who keeps track of spreadsheets worth of data.

    Best thing since AD&D.

  5. Hello. I’ve been playing D&D since 1977, if I recall correctly. It was at debate camp (you don’t get more geeky than that) and we had no dice so we cut chits out of paper and fpdrew them from a cup. A few of is tried making dice from paper. All the way from the white box set, PHB only, and the super cool dragon on the cover intro set, until Secon Editoon started, D&D had a feel. It was a bit of a Christmas Present effect. You never knew quite what the rules were, did not care, but every time you played ere was some new facet to unwrap. There were modules, sure, and you could buy Judges Guild or other third party stuff, but 70% easily was home grown. Miniatures? Sure! Crude lumps of brightly painted lead that really did not do much as there were no battle maps. We still moved them around with glee,
    Second really killed that. It wasn’t Forgotten Realms fault, per se, but everything was spelled out for you. The masters had been around for ten plus years and were just more of the same. There were some gems: Ravenloft, Dark Suns, and the original 12 Dragonlance mods. But really, it was pretty much same old same old.
    Then 3/3.5 came around. Everything was customizable. You had no idea what you would face at any time. It was all new, all over again. Wizards felt, well, wizard-ish, fighters fighter-ish, etc. and Living Greyhawk. Wow. Lightning in a bottle. All these home grown campaigns to explore, but still a shared play experience. Magic items were cool. Treasure was cool. Fireball was cool. You really could not memorize the whole thing. You couldn’t go online and really relearn all the mods or monsters. Eberron came out with lots of promise.
    We then came to the dark years. 4th. It was not a fun game one game system. It was all new, but it was not D&D. All the classes felt the same with renamed goofy powers. I know folks who liked it. It just was not the same. You could not convert your characters or campaigns and have the same play experience. All the minis were now “official”. It was as if a giant corporation came in and said “how can we make a product to cross sell to other areas of gaming” without worrying if it was actually fun. Hmmm….
    But recently I tried 5th. It was… Different. Wizards were kind of wizard-y. Fighters seemed to be kind of fighter-y. The old rules seemed to be there, just with some fancier duds to wear. I have no idea what any of the monsters do. Where I am on the map is less important than it is to say what my character wants to do. I can use a D12 for something. D12s are cool. All first edition players knew that… Yes, it’s a bit weird with short and long rests, but so what. My friend’s fighter feels different from my sorcerer. The cleric in the party is useful… as a cleric! It has that Christmas present effect. Each time I play there is a new thing to discover, not everything feels super set in stone. I noticed the people playing want to tell stories with their characters, and feel that they can. Sure, weapon speed is missing. Sure, AC -10 is long gone. But… I kind of DO want that next level. And I guess looking forward to the next game is as old school as you can get.

  6. I initially thought you considered 3rd and pathfinder as old school. I realize after reading your previous post on “old school” that you do not think this. That is really important to what I feel is old school. There was a time back when AD&D was all we played. Slowly, we heard inklings of some black magic whereby you could gain feats that allowed you to do all manner of things outside your base class experience. In this light I consider 3rd and Pathfinder to be new age. Mechanic heavy. Highly mechanically customizable characters. Crazy paths and magic items all themselves offering yet more mechanics.

    3rd was the death of the old school to me because it represented a different mentality. Something more complex in action and wonderfully dynamic. 4th edition was the extreme next step of mechanical overdrive. It WAS mechanics incarnate. Granted, those mechanics gave the opportunity to be crazy things from the get go like vampires and dragonborn.

    As you said in your previous post, play mats became useful in the 3rd+ scene. However, I disagree with you that you needed them or that they enhanced the experience. I am a big advocate of the ‘theatre of mind’ school of play. It can be fun to suspend the play field into the imagination.

    The biggest reason I feel that 3rd is not old school is the ‘game-y-ness’ that came with its mechanics. There is power behind some crazy class/race/feat combo that rolls out tons of damage – I get that. Rules interact in weird ways sometimes which leads to strange niche cases that people like to take advantage of. And there is nothing wrong with that. It attracted a certain kind of gamer. But that power is an illusion. It is a role playing game; not a competative video game. If I had someone ‘overpowered’ in my game, I simply treated them as exactly effective as any other player. The numbers are all on my side of the screen after all. My goal is for everyone to have fun.

    What I find old school about 5th edition is its tendency to uncomplicate mechanics. There is a strong focus on who and what a character is — not how they do it. Just look at the stats. Stats matter now more than ever not for power, but, for the fact 20 is the cap (except in a few small instances of theme like the barbarian). The characters feel like living breathing causal agents.

    Granted, classes are still largely defined. The balance however lets each player interact with the game system in a way that makes them feel like the class they are. They are not simply stat blocks with inter-reacting mechanics that dish out the most damage.

    Also, the wording on all the rules of 5th are very specific so that RAW and RAI debates are mostly gone. In this sense it becomes a ‘purer’ distilled version of ‘roleplaying’ — not just gaming. You can roleplay with 3rd and 4th. But players were incentivized to wade into the onslaught of mechanics. You could be crap at roleplaying in 3rd but work acrobatics with the mechanics and be a lean mean killing machine.

    Old school is the need to interact with the story world in order to do anything. There used to be a derived stat called ‘bend bars/lifts gates’! Charisma made people flock to you naturally. getting that 18/00 strength was a HUGE deal. That kind of stuff is neat and satisfying to me and I feel 5th is a return to that sensibility.

  7. The only thing old school about the 5th edition is the fact the handbooks are only available in printed format (the basic PDF is great). Joking aside I think old school verses new school is more about the adventure style than the version of rule system (although 3.5 did get somewhat unwieldy)

    The classic old school style adventures that people hold up tended to be more sandbox like. You drop the players in and let them explore. Plots tended to be excuses to push the players into certain parts of the box but they could always go off in different direction if desired.

    New school style adventures tend to be more theme parks with a fixed path (the plot) between the tactical encounters (the rides). Going off the path is discouraged. As long as you follow the path its generally smooth for both player and GM.

    Both styles are fine in themselves but I think the sandbox style is ultimately more rewarding for both player and GM as it promotes much more exploration and social interaction, two of the three pillars of the adventure RPG experience.

    But back to the 5th edition. I’ve been impressed with what I have read. It has a little of the feel of the old BECMI boxes in places. The mechanics look more straightforward than 3.5 (I never played 4). The adventures that I’ve seen look more new school but there is plenty of old school content out there that could easily be adapted and I’ve noticed that some companies have already started doing that.

  8. Hey Creighton, first of all thank you for Raging Swan and secondly all your products really help with making any rpg feel old school.

    As for 5th edition and it’s feel, I Love how it caters to every type of player with out feeling like they have to work at making a character or changing how they want to play. For instance, I have a veteran gamer of 30 years in my group, a Pathfinder DM of 3 years, and 3 that are new to it. They all love it, and have had no problems adjusting to it. The 30 year d&d vet likes how it for its simplicity and open rules. His idea on its old school feel is that the game caters to his joy of role playing and creating a truly unique character. Thus being able to play the character he wants with out all the number crunch and micromanagement.

    My pathfinder GM player, he’s learning to be old school. He loves the fact that he can micromanage and not having to worry about pushing his micromanagement onto other players to help in combat or other areas, if that makes sense. He has really loves the less RAW push and more open play feel, the whole I can try anything.

    My three new guys, well two guys and one girl. They love how simple it is, how they can jump in in a matter of minutes. Yet they don’t feel overwhelmed by not knowing the rules or that they have a ton of numbers they have to manage and understand how they relate to the rules. They semester to feel free to to take their character were ever they like, without feeling forced to micromanage or have to read the whole PHB.

    As for me, it is the closest to old school feel than most rpg’s I’ve played since 1st. The reason is its just simple as a DM to go full blown sandbox adlib and not feel the game slow down a bit. Add in what you want from any other rpg. For instance in my world of HHarshmor, I’m running a Treasure hunt from 2nd, followed by your Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands, adding in my own flare of stuff and then Finnish off with Madness at Gardmore Abbey. Since it has the old school touch, not only can I convert these easily but I can tie them all in with very little effort thus leaving room for color and flavor. Other things such as something you mentioned before is the easy and small Stat blocks of 1st and 2nd edition. I really see this with 5th and that they can be easily manipulated weather it’s planed or on the fly with out fear of breaking the game. As a DM, as a whole it just feels right, and that to me is what old school is. That it just feels like an rpg should, feels right.

    Thanks again Creighton and the Raging Swan Team. God Bless

  9. Hi Creighton,
    Yes it definitely feels ‘old school’ to me and the group that I DM for. I agree that ‘old school’ is as much about how you play and DM as it is about the rule set, but to me the rules have to be able to facilitate that style. With 4th I could never get that atmosphere and play style…the rules seemed like baggage.
    With 5th the rules feel light and free flowing, centring the game back on the adventure, and enabling a focus on the character.

    This is the closest I’ve felt to my old 1st ed. days… and I am able to easily run 1st ed. and basic D&D modules easily.

  10. Very much so. If you look into the DMG you are given many mechanical options to tweak the game even more Old School, if you so choose.

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