Old-School v. Modern Approach #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Edition wars are an unfortunate reality of our community. They’re silly. Why should anyone care what someone else is playing or how? I haven’t been pondering that question, but my revisiting of 1e has made me think of the source of this tension. In other words, I’ve been contemplating how the play styles differ. Not everyone plays a particular edition the same way, but looking at my own anecdotal experiences and hearing people prattle on about how much better their way is than others, I have an answer to that question. The answer is important because I plan to run 1e as written. This is a rather silly notion considering how vaguely some rules are written and that some rules are so ridiculous that they won’t be used, but that’s the point. Any modern player playing at my 1e table deserves to know what to expect, and their instincts are likely based on modern notions of game play.


As a general matter, I first want to revisit time in 1e, because it drives every consideration I’m going to discuss. Draconian timekeeping (q.v.) is designed to keep the game from slowing to a crawl.

You may ask why time is so important . . . . It is a necessary penalty imposed upon characters for certain activities. Beyond that, it also gives players yet another interesting set of choices and consequences. The latter tends to bring more true-to-life quality to the game, as some characters will use precious time to the utmost advantage, some will treat it lightly, and some will be constantly wasting it to their complete detriment. Time is yet another facet which helps to separate the superior player from the lesser ones.

1e DMG, p. 38

As arrogant as that last part sounds, Lord Gygax makes a good point. I’m all for immersion, and applying the right bits of logic to the calculus of consequences helps players immerse themselves in the game. If players want to check every square inch of a wall for a secret door, that’s fine, but it takes a lot of time, and they’re inviting multiple encounters with wandering monsters, just like they would if the situation were real. Given a choice between finding the door and almost assuredly being TPKd, I suggest players let the whole door thing go.

But let’s now look at the difference in playing style that are driven by the rules as written.

Being Too Thorough is Suicidal; Stay Focused on the Mission

In any given adventure, not every monster must be killed, not every secret door must be located, and not every magic item must be found. Modern players have the expectation that they’re not going to miss anything, which seems to come from an arrogant notion that their low-level characters can save the world. They shouldn’t expect to be capable of that. Even high-level characters don’t save the world by killing every last orc on the planet. They stop the world-ending ritual or diffuse the apocalyptic relic. Players of all levels should focus on their characters’ mission. If their job is to find the noble’s missing child, then they should be laser-focused on that. Once they find the child, or determine the child’s final fate (that got dark quickly), they should return back to home base, collect their reward, and rest up. Sure, there’ll be some leftover creatures, but that’s a fight for another day (and perhaps even for someone else).

This (as well as everything that follows) is enforced by way of the draconian tracking of time. 1e threatens players with wandering monsters, most of whom don’t hold any useful information, and even fewer carrying any treasure. With the limited resources 1e characters have, they’re unlikely to survive if they dawdle. Besides, the noble isn’t paying them to find every secret door. Sometimes that will be necessary, but in most cases it isn’t. 1e will still give focused players plenty of opportunity to decapitate bad guys. If the players bring unnecessary encounters upon themselves, their characters’ survival rates will quickly drop to 0%.

In the first column, fourth full paragraph of page 109 of the 1e PHB, there’s a great paragraph on this topic. It starts, “Avoid unnecessary encounters.”

Cats Aren’t the Only Ones Killed by Curiosity

If the characters find a magic item, they’ll not likely be able to use it until after the adventure. Sometimes wizards may be able to deduce the effects of a potion by sampling a small drop, but sometimes they won’t learn what they think they learned, especially if the potion has multiple effects. It’d be great if the sword the party just found were magical, but not if that magic is a curse. Sometimes it’s best to leave the testing for later when time isn’t a factor. That means that most items won’t be safe to use until after the adventure. But hey, feel free to tell me to shove it and grab that Sword -2, Cursed (1e DMG, page 166). Damn the consequences!

Not Everything is About Offense and Defense

Sometimes I wonder why anyone would play a wizard in 1e. The spell progression is terrible, and in 1e, utility spells are absolutely critical. I strongly suggest that every caster tries to gain the following spells if they’re on their spell list: Detect Magic, Dispel Magic, Identify, Neutralize Poison, Remove Curse, and Wizard Lock. During a trip through an adventuring site, players will inevitably need a means to stash safely what they’ve found along the way, hoping it isn’t stolen while the players continue their mission. Wizard Lock may prove invaluable in that regard. If a single character has been poisoned in an otherwise trivial encounter, that poison will continue to damage the character until dead. Identify allows using an important magic item during the adventure in which it was found. In other words, modern players need to consider seriously giving up Magic Missile, et al. to start their adventuring, or at least limit how often they choose to memorize it. It would seem that the more spellcasters, the better, but the same thing could be said about fighters and thieves for other reasons. There are always tough choices to make.

Some Things Are Abstracted

Even if I were a poet, I doubt I could express in words how much I like this. There have been too many arguments or unexpressed frustration (often lost on the socially-unaware DM) around too many tables. DMs insist that the players didn’t say what they needed to say to indicate they were looking for traps. Players insist that the DM’s description was unfairly vague or incomplete. Many complain that it’s the person on the other side of the screen that’s to blame. Some of that goes away in 1e through the use of dice in ways modern players don’t experience.

For example, to determine if a party is surprised in 1e, roll a d6 (1e DMG, pps. 102-03). Whether or not the character was dozing off at that particular moment, or whether the character’s sword was on hand, etc. are sometimes determined by a die roll, regardless of whether the DM explained it ahead of time. To determine the distance at which an encounter starts, roll an Xd6 depending on the environment (1e DMG, pp. 49, 62). To find a secret door, roll a d6 (1e DMG, p. 97). Sure, characters can, for example, increase their odds of surprising a group of goblins by walking at one inch per hour, but that takes time. Players should expect taps on the shoulders from trolls that’s snuck up from behind them.


A few weeks ago, I complained about 1e’s obsession with the inch. Everything is in inches, requiring players to translate inches into feet or yards depending on whether they’re outdoors. However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I like it. Movement and attack ranges are measure in inches. Indoors, 1 inch equals 10 feet, but outdoors 1 inch equals 10 yards (30 feet). That seems unnecessary at first, but I can’t easily brush aside the distinction. Missile weapons and spells have ranges expressed in inches, which means they have different ranges indoors and outdoors, and that makes sense. When outdoors, the wide open areas should open lanes for casting and missile weapon attacks against enemies. Indoors, the walls, fixtures, and furniture can block attacks that are even a fraction of a degree off from their intended direction. Decreasing the size of an “inch” indoors accounts for that.

This takes away yet another opportunity for tension. If a player states that they should have a greater range outdoors because they’re in a desert, the DM can end the discussion with little resistance by pointing out the rules account for that, already having tripled the range for the player’s arrow attack. Of course, there’s always flexibility — a DM may treat a dense jungle as “indoors” for these purposes — but the less opportunity for tension, the better. Besides, I’m already accustomed to translating inches to the appropriate units, at least while reading (we’ll see about playing).

I’d be interested in any other aspects of the game you think would require an adjustment for modern players. Many of you have been thinking about this longer than I have.

Time is money. Don’t waste it.

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc

Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)


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