Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Old-school roots of D&D 5E

Apparently its no coincidence people report their play experience of 5E D&D being very reminiscent of the 1981 B/X experience. According to a series of recent posts on lead designer Mike Mearl's Facebook page, the new edition saw its genesis in Moldvay's succinct (and my favorite) iteration of the game.

According to Mearls, "The Basic D&D mods answered the question in 2012 for me - what would I add to a very simple D&D ruleset to make myself happy?"

He goes on to give us a look at what his additions were, many of which will look familiar to those who participated in the earliest playtest versions of the new edition, "Here are the house rules I applied to the 1981 Basic D&D rules. Ran game, modded to get what I wanted."

He shares those initial rules with us here:

1981 House Rules

Ability Mods: We use the 3e/4e convention (+1 or -1 per 2 above/below 10)

Saving Throws: These are ability checks, DC determined by DM

Attacks: Ability check, plus a class based bonus
Fighter: +1 every odd level
Cleric/Thief: +1 at level 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18
Magic-User: No bonus

Thief Abilities: These work a bit differently.
Open Locks, Find or Remove Traps, Pick Pockets, Hide in Shadows are all things only thieves can do. Hide in shadows is literally that - hide in situations where other people can’t. The thief makes a check with a bonus equal to the % listed on page B8 divided by 5.
Move Silently, Climb Sheer Surfaces, Hear Noise are all things that anyone can try. The rogue has advantage when he tries any of them.

Advantage: Roll an extra d20, take the highest result. If you get advantage more than once, take an extra die.

Disadvantage: Roll an extra die, but take the lowest. If you have advantage, disadvantage zaps one die per instance of disadvantage.

Hit Points: Upgrade everyone by one die type, you get maximum hit points at level 1 + half your Constitution score.

Hit Dice: You can use your hit dice to heal. You get hit dice equal to your total HD, spend them when resting, each die gets a bonus equal to your Con modifier.

Dwarves: Increase class’s hit die by one size. Infravision 60 feet. Can use Find or Remove Traps in underground locations.

Elves: Can alternate between magic-user and any other class, have infravision 60 feet.

Halflings: Can Hide in Shadows as a thief, get a +2 bonus to AC, but use an HD one step smaller and can’t use two-handed weapons.

Humans: Gain a +1 bonus to any two stats, or +2 to one stat (maximum 18).

Weapons: d4, d6, d8, or d12, class access based on die size
Fighter: All
Cleric: d6, bludgeoning d8
Thief: d6

Magic-User: d4

It was funny to see the weapon damage by class house rule there at the bottom, as that's something that's been floating around the OSR for a while now (was that B/X Blackrazor's initially, I can't remember). I'll repeat my hope that some fan out there releases a home-made version of the D&D 5E Basic ruleset with all-Otus art. Good on Mearls for this insight, I can't think of a better heritage for a new edition!


  1. A return to Moldvay Basic with house rules sounds like a good general approach to fixing D&D. For my tastes, the execution still has some problems.

    How many pages are the 5E rules, if Mearls is just using a slightly house ruled Moldvay Basic?

    How does this advantage/ disadvantage system work? I recall reading something about rolling 2d20 and taking highest or lowest. Mearls is talking about getting two advantages or disadvantages in a row and that causes an effect. Is that over successive rounds for each character? That kind of tracking for a whole party and enemy opposition could get confusing, or book-keeping heavy.

    His treatment of Hit Points might make for a better game than D&D has offered in its other written editions. I used something like it to avoid constant PC deaths, even with careful player skill employed. Spending Hit Dice for healing is too gamiest for my tastes. If players can't visualize how some mechanic works in the real world, it wrecks immersion to just use these Dissociated Mechanics. There was a longish article at the Alexandrian about his take on that issue.

    Mearls mentions Humans getting a bonus to stats, which makes them more viable. Does this mean that non-human races are not arbitrarily limited in levels? I always hated that having your favorite Elf, meant they were consigned to mid-level mediocrity compared to humans. Why force people to play humans if they don't want to? A simpler method like just giving humans some social advantages in a world where they were the majority population, would work better, I think. Higher reaction rolls in bargaining and encounters in human cities or on the road, ability to rise in human political systems to top ranks of authority, etc. Not sure how other people handled it. Or, you could do something like Mearls is doing, and just give them some pluses to stats. Not sure what the justification would be, maybe "humans are bigger, so they get +1 to strength and constitution for their added mass."

    It also looks like he's using a modified race= class issue. I'm pretty sure Moldvay didn't intend to do that idea originally, but Gygax insisted he differentiate Basic from AD&D, as a defensive measure vs. Arneson's lawsuit against Gygax. That, just like OD&D, these were all radically different games, and AD&D clearly wasn't like Basic or OD&D, so no royalties or credit and recognition were in fact owed to Arneson.

    Seems that magic users that engage in combats should improve over time, just like everybody else, just at lower gains. Even the older versions of D&D allowed for that. This doesn't strike me as a very good house rule.

    How do you find this version compares with Moldvay Basic, and would you alter these rules in some way to suit your preferences?

    - Glyph

    1. The 5e implementation of Advantage is certainly better than the one described here... it seems like with this house rule you could have something like +5 d20s and -2 d20s, which end up giving you a net +3d20 Advatage. Way too fiddly (unless you are one of those dice pool lovers).

    2. Marty Walser,

      I'm not really familiar with how any advantage system works. What you are describing sounds like a d20 version of a dice pool. Adding up pluses on one d20 vs. minuses on the other d20 and coming up with a sum. Is that the idea, or is it something else? If that's what it is, then yeah, it's way too fiddly.


    3. In 5e, there is no pool. Either you have Advantage or you don't (which gives you 1 extra die). The way it is worded here is different.

      With Advantage, any level of Disadvantage cancels any level of Advantage for a net zero result.

      For instance, if there were two things creating Disadvantage (such as cover and "Blur" for instance), but you had 1 thing creating Advantage... then you just roll normally. Same thing in the other direction. 1 Disadvantageous condition cancels all Advantage.

      The free Basic PDF does a better job explaining. It's worth the read even if you're not going to run/play 5e.

  2. @ Al:

    I might have been the first in the OSR to blog the idea of class-based weapon damage (June 2009), but my idea was riffed from an old Dragon Mag article by Jon Sapienza ("Should They Have An Edge," Dragon #66).
    : )

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  3. Was there any rules difference between the Moldvay basic and the Mentzer basic set?

    1. @ Stephen:

      Yes, several.

      One I find that changes the tenor of the game considerably is Mentzer's division of XP based on division of treasure (the party member that walks out with more loot gets more XP, compared to Moldvay where total treasure XP is divided among all PCs regardless of the division of spoils).

      However, most rule differences are relatively minor.

    2. JB,

      I only ever owned Moldvay's Basic, and never saw the Mentzer version with XP awarded for whomever comes out with the most treasure. Seems like that would be a very divisive rule.

      Somewhere I read that a huge advantage of RPGs is that normal games/ sports have an innate competitive winner/loser divisiveness built into them. RPGs had the huge plus of being cooperative for all players and unifying them to common goals and comradeship. PCs ripping each other off, or killing each other, might be ok in one-shots for evil parties, but strikes me as a good way to end friendships and create unnecessary antagonisms. Not sure what the consensus is on issues like that for most players, though.


  4. I find that 5e is nothing like Basic D&D. For a start there's a billion or so character creation options (race+class+path+sub class+sub class options+spells+feats+stat bonusses = meta gaming hell) where character creation takes forever because players want to know everything before they start. I actually went back to basic, away from 5e, for this very reason. Creating a character above 1st level takes literally hours!

    Disassociative mechanics are a good point, too. I hadn' t realised that they were still there but Glyph is right.

    By the way, why not help me out with my kickstarter campaign? I'm trying to build a computer version of Labyrinth Lord. Here is the link:

    1. Character creation above 1st level takes hours? Seriously?

      Are you trying to min-max to the Nth degree? I can create higher level characters in 30 minutes are less.

      Stop meta-gaming and just pick a character concept. I want an 8th level Archer... Ok, buy my stats (or roll if that's what the DM decides), pick a couple archer related feats. Done.

      I could probably do it in 15 minutes. Some spell casters might take a little longer because of domains/etc (and spell selection), but it's not unreasonable.

      Stop metagaming. Just play.

  5. I like this look at a stripped down 5e that might have been. It inspired too many words in me for a comment so I posted here.

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