Hot on the heels of my last 5e post, there have been a few questions around how to convert the Old School Modules. This has especially focused around the question of monsters.
In short, I’ve been simply substituting creatures from 5e into the module as needed. This works fine, at least at low-level, and makes life easy for the Dungeon Master.
As far as I’m concerned, the main issue for the pressured Dungeon Master is just that: how can you save time?
Although a word bandied around a lot these days, “classic” in the context of D&D modules means those ones remembered from the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s with affection.
For me, it’s stuff like Modules B1 and B2 (which I’ve spoken about before).
I’ve been digging them out and using them for my three D&D5e groups currently playing for three good reasons:
- They are fun and easy to run.
- They are fun and easy to convert (or, as I prefer to call it, “re-imagine”).
- They encapsulate the Old School style quite well… being Old School, and all.
When you pull one out (or download and open it), it’s pretty raw stuff – old maps, crammed text, lots to read and digest. That said, once you start to use an old module, it’s actually a really nice fit for 5e.
Here’s a three-step guide to getting started…
Step One: Read and Digest
Grab the module, the map, and a hot beverage. Sit down with it. Read it through.
Absorb the way it’s written and presented. Turn off the critical faculties as much as you can – especially if you never actually played this stuff – and digest it.
For me, the charm is being transported back to simpler times. It’s that insight (that there were times when gaming was simpler) that got me back to D&D… and, consequently, led me back to D&D5e.
As a Dungeon Master with a full-time job and many commitments, the charm of D&D has always been the relative ease with which you can prep a game. Some see this as a bad thing. I don’t. Easy fun is still fun.
The old modules encapsulate the idea that a good game can be had with a simple premise, one or two simple locations, a decent dungeon map, and the Monster Manual.
Step Two: Re-Imagine
When I converted both B1 and B2 to D&D5e, I did some conceptual “work” to fit them into my own setting of Mykovnia. This took about 5 minutes a piece, so it’s not exactly hard “work”. That said, it was necessary.
Module B1, for example, presents a lone abandoned tower where treasure hunters go to find… well, treasure. For me, it was easy to put it way out east on my map and re-write the back story to present two NPCs that better fit my world. In truth, those NPCs are very similar to the originals… but not identical.
As I re-wrote the module for my own play, I was able to draw on this back story to tweak what goes on inside. Thus, Rashn’s Tower is faithful to Mike Carr’s original module but also a product of my own gaming preferences.
Similarly, with Module B2, I grabbed the Keep itself and made it my player’s home-base (the “Ice Keep“). I took the Caves of Chaos and ran with it pretty much as-is. I dumped the lizardmen because they didn’t seem to fit my arctic theme. Easy.
Step Three: Substitute
I took the time to re-type the module text room-by-room with these two modules. This is, obviously, not necessary: with more recent work (done under higher pressure), I’ve just substituted creatures, NPCs, and treasures; the rest of the details got used as-is.
The theme, however, is this: you can usually get away with straight substitutions.
Example, B1’s Kitchen as re-imagined in Rashn’s Tower:
2. KITCHEN. The food preparation area for the complex is a very long room with a variety of details. At the southwest corner of the room are two cooking pits, each large enough to cook an animal as large as a deer. One of the pits is slightly larger than the other, but both are about 3 feet in depth. The pits are full of ash and charred remains of cooking fuel. A chimney leads upward, but its small size prevents further investigation.
Long tables line each wall, and there are scattered containers on them, some upturned, with spilled contents mouldering on the table top. There are spoiled pieces of food all around, and the smell in the room is very uninviting. One chunk of mouldy cheese is particularly noxious, as a fuzzy green growth covers its entirety.
Hanging from above are a variety of utensils, and some other of these are scattered about on the floor of the room. These are nothing more than pots and pans of various sizes, although there is a large cast iron kettle suspended from the ceiling by a thick chain. The kettle is empty.
Monster: An Ochre Jelly lurks on the ceiling, braced above the door at the western end of the kitchen.
Treasure & Location: None.
I’ve played this scene with three groups now. It works fine. The Ochre Jelly is what is there in the original… and it converts nicely. Yes, the Level-1 heroes generally do best to leg it out of there.
In fact, across both Modules, I only had to re-work maybe a half-dozen encounters. The rest were simple substitutions. I think that says a lot for the design and feel of D&D5e: how it encapsulates and transfers the appropriate challenge from older resources. Even with one eye on the XP value of encounters, in play the challenges are generally appropriate.
Where re-working has been desirable (not necessary, but just easier), it tends to be for “boss” type humanoid leaders, wizards-types, or the odd creature that isn’t in the new Monster Manual.
Honestly, grabbing the wonderfully handy “Fifth Edition Foes” from Frog God Games has made life even easier: it has many of the missing monsters. But, when that fails, the stuff in the Dungeon Master’s Guide on creating NPCs and monsters (pages 273-283) works just fine.
What Conversion Has Achieved
For me, converting old modules has given me an advantage in my prep as a Dungeon Master:
- It gives me well-designed and “old school” feeling adventures that most players have never played (or forgotten about).
- It has saved me time in the long-run.
- It has put me in touch with my gaming roots, helping me to shed the over-complexity of my past.
When I started, I barely had a group that would meet and play: they were not enjoying my offerings. Now, I am Dungeon Master for three groups. What the players tell me is that my “new” adventures (which actually aren’t) are more fun than my own stuff from before. Humbling, but true.
I still have very little prep time, but I am Dungeon Master for three groups because I can re-use the adventures I prep and run them (in slightly different styles and media) with each group. This saves me time in the long-run. It’s also a lot of fun to see how differing players tackle the same challenges… and it gives me insight into how well my conversions work. So far, so good.
Finally, and best of all for me, it has got me back to the roots of it all: dungeon adventuring with good people. I am really losing my penchant for “realism” and “complexity” in the face of good fun times. When you’ve run three groups through the first level or so of the Caves of Chaos, you soon realise how much fun even Basic D&D can be.
Right now, D&D works for me. I hope you’ll find it works for you too.