01 June 2012

D&D Next: OId School? One Old Schooler's Thoughts

I've been discouraged lately by the amount of old school bloggers and forum users that I've seen proclaiming D&D Next to be an 'Old School' rpg, the mechanical equivalent of OD&D or Classic D&D.

I haven't the slightest idea why people are saying this. In terms of play style, rules are irrelevant. A proper old school oriented DM can easily use any incarnation of the rules, even 3.5e or 4e, tweak it a bit and run a game that feels just like the old game to those playing. Likewise, as Mike Mearls flat out stated he did on his D&D Next updates posts on WotC's site, you could take 1974 OD&D or 1980 Basic D&D and tweak it to play like 4e. The DM and players have more control of this than the rules do.

So the rules need to be examined on their own merit. Is the D&D Next rule set anything like the Classic D&D system?

Let's find out. I'm comparing things to the Mentzer edition Basic rulebook, but I'll proceed in the order things are presented in the D&D Playtest documents, so you can follow along:

How To Play Booklet (the 'player's handbook')
Basic Rules
Making a Check - Determining Success
Most of us know this mechanic as an ability check. D20 is thrown against a difficulty class (DC) set by the DM, modified by the PCs relevant ability score modifier.
Believe it or not, no such corresponding rule exists in the Basic D&D game! Many of us added a similar mechanic, usually a d20 roll equal to or less than the ability score, to succeed, but officially, this is not part of the game.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Since there's no rules in Classic D&D for checks, contests, or opposed checks, are obviously also not included.
Old School Mechanic? NO

D&D Next continues the 3e and 4e mechanic of D20 roll + bonuses to beat the opponents Armor Class. Classic D&D uses the "THAC0" system (whether the streamlined THAC0 mechanic itself, or the earlier charts based on the same idea, no matter). I'm not going to fry my brain with it here, but a detailed mathematical analysis of the two systems shows them to be identical except for the removal of subtraction and negative numbers. I'll give D&DN the benefit of doubt here.
Old School Mechanic? Neutral

Saving Throws
Saving Throws as D&D knew them are gone in this edition. What D&DN calls saving throws are simply situational ability checks. I assume the term was left in to appease older players, but the fact is, D&DN does not use saving throws.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Advantage & Disadvantage
If luck or circumstance is on your side, you roll twice and take the better result. If the fates are mocking you, you roll twice and take the worse result. In Classic D&D the only thing remotely close to this is simple bonuses or penalties applied to dice rolls to reflect circumstance.
Old School Mechanic? NO

Ability Scores
Generation of ability scores is not discussed in this draft of the rules, but we can assume that D&DN will at least include the '3d6 6 times in order' generation method that Classic D&D assumed, or any variant thereof that individual DMs and groups adopted over the years. Likewise, the specific 'subabilities' of AD&D 1e & 2e are still gone, as in 3e and 4e, with high or low ability scores just granting a simple plus or minus to skills and abilities they might relate to. This is pretty much how Classic D&D handled abilities.
Old School Mechanic? Yes

Damage & Dying
0 hit points or less is dying. A negative hit point total of your Con score plus your level caps this threshold, further negative than that and you die. In Classic D&D, 0 hp means dead. Keep in mind something here. This means that a 1st level Classic D&D magic user can take, at most, 7 hit points of damage, with an 18 Con score and the resulting modifier to HP. That same first level magic user (wizard) in D&DN can take 23 points of damage before death. 4 normal, then 19 negative. This is a huge change, not as trivial as it might seem at first glance.
Old School Mechanic? NO

This is a set of rules that summarizes and codifies the effects of various special attacks and damage on a character. Classic D&D lacks this defined presentation, but does include such damage effects as blindness, deafness, paralysis, etc, so it's not fair to call this a new school mechanic.
Old School Mechanic? Neutral

The electrum piece is back. It was gone in 3e, not sure about 4e. A very minor but fun old school nod. However, Platinum pieces are still worth 10 gp as in 3e, instead of 5 gp as in Classic D&D, making the coin system a wash, system wise.
Old School Mechanic? Neutral

Armor Class
Armor Class starts at 10 and rises as armor improves. In Classic D&D, AC descends from 10 as it improves. This is a math issue, kind of like attack rolls.
Old School Mechanic? Neutral

Weapon Categories
Weapons are broken down into Basic, Finesse, Martial, Heavy, Simple Missile and Complex Missile categories. This affects which ability score modifies the attack and damage rolls, defines who may use them, etc. Classic D&D lacks any such categorization and adjustments. Although AD&D did introduce weapon categories, speeds, and variable attack and damage vs different armor types, the implementation was much different.
Old School Mechanic? NO

At first glance, things seem alright, memorize the spell, cast it, forget it until you memorize it again. Sounds old school enough. But, read closer, there are now minor spells, which may be cast once per round, every round, all day long. An example minor spell? Magic Missile. This, in addition to the elevated level of daily spells available to casters (and the fact 1st level clerics can cast spells at all, is decidedly not old school in intent or impolementation.
Old School Mechanic? Not even in Gygax's worst nightmares.

That covers the How To Play/PHB playtest book. Tomorrow I'll cover the DM Guidelines, but I think you can see where this is going. D&D Next is old school? Doesn't look like it.


  1. I agree. I've been saying on my blog, that while the "advice" for running things seems very old school, the mechanics are on a whole just simplified variants of d20 (3E/4E).

    Now, as you say, that can easily be played Old School, but without all the advice pushing for OS style play, people likely wouldn't if just presented with the rules.

  2. I'm definitely not a fan of at-will spells. Weapon categories are intriguing, but it really sounds like a lot more complexity than it's worth. I absolutely loathe those death and dying rules. How many times do you need to hack a dying person with a sword before he's actually dead??

    Thanks for reaffirming my decision not to care about this latest corp-barf incarnation. Classic is definitely my game.

  3. Keep in mind that the playtest document is using various things that will be broken out as optional rules (now referred to as modules). The playtests is meant to try out various things, not to say "this is how it is going to be".

  4. I do realize that things will presumably change as the playtest rolls forward, however...

    I've seen things like the following quote, from one of the "closed" playtest participants who is now allowed to comment:


    "Disappointment was evident with all my players at this point, not to mention a bit of outrage over what appeared to be a capitulation to the old school gamers."

    "He quickly became the most vocal member of the teams’ growing angst, clearly frustrated with his character and baffled why anyone would want to play a game that had retro elements that didn’t seem fun to him at all."

    And this:


    "While indeed, the Public Playtest version of the rules are much better than v1.0 and v1.5 we had previously, I still have zero interest in playing a retro-clone of previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons"

    "I feel that writing D&DNext for the “old school” players is like making a mix tape for the girl (or guy) in high school that dumped you – it might be cathartic, or even nostalgic, but it rarely worked to get them back. In fact, it’s kind of a slap in the face of the people who enthusiastically adopted 4e. Remember, it’s the 4e players that showed brand loyalty, and who kept buying your products, as opposed to the other “fans” who went to Pathfinder or kept playing older editions."

    This tells me that the game was, 6 months ago, in the eyes of the 4e oriented playtesters, at least, more "old school" than it is now. While evolution is likely, I can't possibly see how things they have already 'playtested out' of the system will make it back in and the game will become more old school than it is (or is not) now.

    I hope the game succeeds and people like it, but it's not for me. Rather than speculating and guessing at the intent of the designers, I've taken a fairly objective look at the rules themselves, outlined above.

    That said, I'm not going to bother with the follow up on the other documents from the playtest bundle, nor do I plan much ongoing commentary as things develop (unless they shock me with some real old school edits). I'd rather get back to Classic D&D and being productive instead of encouraging my inner cynic.

  5. Completely agree with you about this most certainly not having much in common with the old-school game (I like the term, "Appendix N" gaming better), but I have to disagree with the assertion that, "In terms of play style, rules are irrelevant."


  6. I think you may have missed something regarding hit points...

    The max that an OD&D Magic User can have at 1st Level is 7HP (with a CON of 18 and max roll on a d4), and he's dead at 0hp (7 points of damage).

    The most HP that a D&DN Wizard can get is (if I'm reading the character sheet correctly), 22HP (max roll on a d4 PLUS the full 18 CON score), and they're dead at -19HP (that's *41* points of damage).

    In other words, it's much, much worse than you've stated.

  7. I just heard about Next. I've never played nor read any 4e material. After the 3-3.5 debacle, I am done with WotC. My main complaint? Can't you get it right? Specifically, when they went to 3.5, and I realized the numerous and glaring errors in the 3e books, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. But within just a few years they announced 4e, I realized that WotC/Hasbro is just after our money, and by creating another new incarnation of the game, they would get even more of it. I'm sick of these money grubbing corporations putting new artwork on a book, throwing together some new rules and calling it DnD. I've moved on to Pathfinder, which in my opinion is the closest compromise to everything I like about 3-3.5 and all the stuff I remember from the early versions I played as a kid. Not surprisingly, the masses seem to agree as PF has out sold DnD over the last 10 years...


Thanks for your comments!