Last night I was asked to step up and run a game, as our regular GM is off sick. To keep things simple, I decided to run D&D5e (the usual game) but to do it Old School. Picking up the “Barrowmaze Complete” book off my shelf (a mega-dungeon for Labyrinth Lord), I set about prepping to run a game in under an hour. Easy.
This was an opportunity to put some past posts into action: we tested out my “Level-0” start-up rules from last month, and we also integrated the surviving 5e House Rules that I’ve been using successfully for several months now.
Here’s how the mash-up looks, and some thoughts on how it played. For those who want the simple verdict: my players loved it, commenting most on how cool it was to run the “Level-0” characters.
Here again are the (slightly tweaked) rules for starting D&D with Level-0 characters, designed to feel like Level-1 back in the day. We wrote the characters up onto file cards, nice and easy.
For 5e, Level 0 characters have no class and no skills. That’s not to suggest they are all plebeians, just that there are no Fighters or Wizards at Level 0:
- Get them to roll their Attributes, and assign the bonuses.
- If a player wants to choose a Race, apply the Attribute bonus and note their other traits (not that many will be useful yet). Remember: Humans add +1 to all Attributes.
- Roll 1d6 + Constitution bonus for Hit Points.
- Get them to roll a Background from a simple list (d12, ignoring the Noble) – you can note the feature and skills (not that they mean much), but be sure to give them the equipment and some cash.
- We rolled a Personality Trait, the Ideal, Bond, and Flaw – but that’s optional: it takes time but does offer roleplaying suggestions.
- Let them spend their cash (10gp or 15gp, usually) – allow simple weapons, light armour, shields, and general equipment.
This feels much more Old School, not least because these Level-0 characters can die very easily. In play, we had three out of six characters unconscious and needing to be carried out at the end. If you want to be truly gritty, don’t apply the Death Save rules to Level-0. We did, and it massively improved their survival chances… but my guys did like that these poor fools could be saved.
My guys rolled up two each, taking about 10 minutes for each player… so, as they arrived in staggered timing, my guys took 30 minutes to get ready but, if you did it in one sitting, it’s 10 minutes.
I set the players a 100 XP target for levelling-up to Level-1. That worked well, and we had time at the end of the evening to assign the Class before they left. A few pointers:
- The new Level-1 character substitutes their Hit Points for the Level-1 value (max die type + CON modifier). They also get the new Hit Die type.
- Don’t give them the equipment or cash – keep them poor and spending the loot they got from the first adventure.
- Apply all the usual Level-1 benefits, most notable of which will be choosing some Skill Proficiencies and applying the +2 Proficiency Bonus: my guys REALLY value this bonus now!
5e House Rules
Here are the three (amended) and tested House Rules we use to more closely emulate the Old School experience, plus add in some extra fun.
Long Rests Don’t Auto-Heal!
This is the “Slow Natural Healing” rule from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 267.
The long rest is still an 8-hour period of extended downtime, as described in the Player’s Handbook on page 186. Characters don’t, however, automatically regain all lost hit points at the end of a long rest. Instead, the hero can spend Hit Dice to heal at the end of a long rest, just like they can during a short rest.
Each character still regains spent Hit Dice (up to a number of dice equal to half their total Hit Dice) at the end of the long rest. If it seems appropriate, the DM can allow this to happen BEFORE they are spent for healing… but it’s really up to the DM to decide.
Sometimes, the DM might be generous and award you a full Hit Point recovery after a long rest – for example, after staying in a completely safe and comfy inn instead of resting on the road – but it’s totally at the DM’s discretion. We’ve found that pestering the DM tends to make this less likely, however.
Shields Shall Be Splintered!
With thanks to J. Brian Murphy
Shields work. They are (along with the helmet) among the poor warrior’s most trusted items. In this setting, however, shields act as a form of ablative armour. Shields still add +2 to your Armour Class, as per the main rules. In addition, any time that you take damage, you can opt to say that your shield bore the brunt of the blow. The shield then shatters, and must be discarded, but you don’t take any damage from that strike. This works against any damage caused by an attack roll, including spells.
If you have an enchanted shield (such as a +1 or +2 shield), every time you use the shield to absorb damage in this manner, it loses one of its plusses (or other magical effects). Once reduced to +0, it becomes a mundane shield and will splinter the next time it bears the brunt of a blow as described above. You know, some adventurers whisper that some very talented armourers can repair magical shields… but whether it’s true or not is up to the DM.
Crits Break Armour!
Armour is great! It also gets battered and, from time to time, breaks. Your AC works just as described in the Player’s Handbook, meaning that armour usually makes you harder to hit, but there is an additional rule. Every time you take damage from a critical hit (usually a natural 20 on the attack roll), your Armour Class is reduced by 1. The armour has been damaged. If the armour’s base value is reduced to 10, then the armour is ruined and must be discarded. Thus, for example, a heroine wearing a chain shirt (13 + Dex modifier) can suffer three critical hits before her armour is ruined. She still gets to add her Dexterity modifier to her AC, but the armour is of no further use.
Armour that is not ruined can be repaired – the DM will decide what the cost of such armoury services might be in the local community – if you can find a suitably trained armourer. Sometimes the costs are very high.
This rule affects magic armour, such as from a Mage Armour spell, too. Magical armour (such as +1 suits of armour) is never broken by crits, and cannot be reduced below an AC equal to 10 + the bonus of the armour. Thus, for example, +1 Leather cannot be reduced below AC 11.
Reflections From Actual Play
This was a fun experiment that worked well for the style of play we enjoy – it’s kind of Old School mixed with some modern story elements.
If you want just the Old School, then you’d make some further changes:
- Don’t roll Background traits like Personality, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw.
- Drop the Death Saves to either one roll only, or no rolls.
- Consider rolling 3d6 for Attributes: that’ll really feel harsh.
My players liked the Level-0 quick-start and funnel-like play. Two of the players actually levelled-up both of their surviving characters, while another selected his favourite of the two. Affection for these characters arose from the in-play actions; that was what felt so good.
The treasure meant something because the heroes were poor. They spent out on returning to the village, buying armour and decent adventuring kit. That felt like a genuine reward for their play and effort.
As GM, it felt good to really place the characters in peril that was dangerous without too much worry about a death or two. This was liberating! The greatest of perils they faced actually came from a Random Encounter Table. Top!
Overall, this worked well and provided a good start to what might be an ongoing campaign without too much prep for me as GM. Being uncertain on continued chair-time, I found that I was able to present a different start to a game (advertising the pleasures of the Old School) while still using a game they all already bought in to. No need to convince them to come try a retroclone because 5e adapts so well.
Hope you find this useful! Game on!