Sunday, September 12, 2021

The New School, the Old School, and 5th Edition D&D

This was easily the funniest picture I found for "Edition Wars"
People have short memories.

Actually, that's only part of it. People also need tribalism, and tribalism needs enemies. Also, lots of people are new to the hobby, so maybe they genuinely don't know.

I frequent a lot of OSR spaces online, and while it's far from a consensus, one of the most pervasive sentiments among this community is that 5E D&D is the devil. It's representative of all things we old schoolers hate in gaming, and is the ultimate metric to contrast one's own game against if you want to appeal to this crowd. At this point, "5E" has literally become shorthand for "new school" in, seemingly, most old schoolers' vocabularies.

Which is funny, because I was there when 5E came out in 2014, and at the time it was being called "old school." It was a "return to form" for the franchise. "The legacy edition." A victory for the OSR, who had finally conquered the mainstream. It pulled back many of the trends of 3rd and 4th edition D&D and abandoned the way of the new school in favor of trends that had been started by the grognards years before. It openly embraced many of the specific Zen moments from Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. Zak S, who got credited in the book as a consultant, went parading around GenCon with his entourage wearing shirts saying "Zak S saved D&D."

Don't believe me? Behold, some archaeology:

"D&D 5E is the Old School-iest D&D Since Old School D&D"
  1. D&D 5e Does "Old School" Better Than Many OSR Games A post that goes into this argument in depth and with great insight
  2. What to Expect From the Forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition "In some ways, this new edition of D&D is an attempted reboot, a gamble to win back many of the fans turned off by the jarring gear-changing of 4th Edition’s rules, or even the 3rd. Even now, the D&D fan base is a mixed bag of the eager, the wary, and the still-simmering. The use of iconic Greyhawk monsters on these covers is at least a nod to the Old Guard of the D&D community."
  3. Differences between 5th Edition D&D and Pathfinder? "Use 5E ... If you're looking to play an old-school-style D&D game but don't actually want to deal with old-school mechanical stuff like class-based To-Hit look-up tables and want the 'official' D&D version for such a game, as opposed to one of the 3rd party retroclones [and] if you like AD&D 2nd edition and are interested in trying out something similar but new."
  4. When an Old School mind learns how to play D&D 5th edition "So, I hope my review has helped in some fashion, and I also hope that like me and Murph, you’ll give 5th Edition a try.  It doesn’t seem the ‘evil and unneeded money grab of doom’ that most older folks felt 4th Edition was, and it isn’t WoW with dice.  Instead it seems a more natural evolution from 1E forward, and for that, I once again tip my hat to Wizards of the Coast."
  5. D&D 5e: Backward Compatibility and Combat Math Yes, there was a point in time when it wasn't uncommon for OSR folks to run their TSR adventures using 5E. You can find tons of resources of people talking about, say, using Lamentations of the Flame Princess monsters in 5E. Whether or not this worked as well as people felt/hoped it would, the point is that a lot of people really did feel like it would.
  6. Rule Zero Over The Years "The 5e playtest, when it was called “D&D Next,” had some very retro things to say about the interaction of DM and rules. ... This sweeps aside a lot of the underlying play assumptions of later 3.5e/4e and brings back a lot of B/X and 2e concepts."
  7. Is the OSR Dead? "OSR-style games currently capture over 9 percent of the RPG market according to ENWorld's Hot Role-playing Games. If you consider the Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons to be part of that movement, it's nearly 70 percent of the entire RPG market. The OSR has gone mainstream. If the OSR stands for Old School Renaissance, it seems the Renaissance is over: D&D, in all of its previous editions, is now how most of us play our role-playing games."
  8. Mike Mearls did an AMA on Reddit back in 2014 where he talked about the influence of the OSR on 5E quite a bit, so this was at least the official view of 5E's own developers.
I've met some people whose heads would explode if they saw this forum post from 2015.

In fact, many people even back then derided 5E for being too old school. I remember people calling it a "nostalgia grab" and that it was "playing it safe" by regressing to an older philosophy of gaming.

The first system I learned and got into was 4E D&D, then 1E Pathfinder, then Star Wars Saga Edition, and then 5E D&D. And while those first few system transitions were pretty rough, switching to 5E D&D was the easiest fucking choice I've ever made in my life. It addressed every single problem I had with running Pathfinder.

Here are some common qualities of 5E that people point to as being emblematic of the old school:
  1. Rulings, not rules.
    This is one of those Matt Finch "Zen moments" that got quoted directly about a million times by the developers during the playtest of 5E, and is still considered one of the core traits that defines 5E.
  2. Less focus on character creation. There isn't as much min-maxing and designing "builds" in 5E. It started with fewer classes than most new school games have and has only added one since then. In contrast, 3E D&D eventually acquired 84 base classes, and more than 700 prestige classes. Meanwhile in 5E, feats and multiclassing are even demoted to "optional" rules!
  3. Less tactical combat. 3E and 4E had stuff like flanking and grid-based combat and a million things that could provoke an opportunity attack and a very specific and unforgiving action economy. In 5E, you're more encouraged to just think of whatever cool thing you want to do like you're choreographing a fight scene in a movie. This breaks down a bit in the higher levels when magic gets more intense and there's lots of counterspelling going on, but it remains the most popular way to play 5E combat.
    • Matt Finch's OSR primer also emphasizes having strong "abstract combat-fu," basically meaning that you should encourage "rulings over rules" in the moment-to-moment of combat. Be creative with your attacks and don't always do the straightforward "I roll to hit" and all that. Most people I know play 5E this way, and a particularly fond piece of 5E literature for me on the subject comes from the Wayfinder's Guide to Eberron, pictured here.
  4. More resource management (sort of). Not in the same way as most OSR games now aim for (e.g. encumbrance rules and a focus on items and consumables), but it's still fundamentally a game about pacing yourself throughout the adventuring day and trying not to overextend yourself. 4E had powers modeled after World of Warcraft actions with cooldowns on them, but 5E shifted focus onto managing HP throughout the day and using short rests to catch your breath.
  5. Modularity. 5E is a lot more DIY friendly than most other new school games. Of course, this has always been supported since the OGL was released with 3E, but the 5E DMG (and later, Xanathar's Guide to Everything) strongly emphasize the idea of changing the rules to 5E. Drop stuff, add stuff, tweak stuff, make a new race, make a new background, make a new class, make a new procedure, etc. I think the 5E DMG gets a bad rap. It could definitely be better, but it's chock-full of top shelf stuff, especially the amount of love it gives to optional rules and content.
I suspect that many of those in the OSR who casually refer to 5E as shorthand for "new school" are actually aware of everything I've just said, but they're lazy and an inaccurate-but-commonly-recognized shorthand is convenient. But I've never given into this. There are many reasons to not like 5E or not want to play it, but whenever someone in the old school scene refers to it as "maximum crunch" or "obsessed with character creation" or "fixated on balance," it's hilariously revealing just how much they live in a bubble. I pray for your sake you never encounter a rulebook for Fantasy Craft or Exalted or Eclipse Phase.

I also frequent some 5E spaces on the internet, such as the r/dndnext subreddit. You know what they talk about there? Every single day it's just bitching and moaning about how simple and streamlined and unbalanced and loose 5E is. How they wish it were more like Pathfinder or 4E D&D. Many of them wish the action economy were more restricted and complicated and inconvenient, somehow.

Of course, this is also all very misleading. I don't actually think that 5E is an OSR game. At least as often, it's been called the "Goldilocks edition," which I find to be a much more accurate title. For every supposed old school trait it has, it definitely has a strong new school trait.

I mentioned Matt Finch's OSR primer a few times. Well, in the time since 5E came out, a new OSR primer was written by an assembly of prominent thinkers in this space who thought it needed replaced with newer, better wisdom. The Principia Apocrypha contains a lot of advice for old school gaming that neither complements nor clashes with 5E in most regards, and is more about how the DM runs a ruleset than about the rules themselves. But it does open with a definition of the OSR given by Ben Milton, phrased thusly:
The more of the following a campaign has, the more old school it is: high lethality, an open world, a lack of pre-written plot, an emphasis on creative problem solving, an exploration-centered reward system (usually XP for treasure), a disregard for "encounter balance", and the use of random tables to generate world elements that surprise both players and referees. Also, a strong do-it-yourself attitude and a willingness to share your work and use the creativity of others in your game.
And that definitely does seem pretty antithetical to 5E's innate game design, or at least the design of many of its adventure modules. I wonder if this is indicative of a general backlash to 5E specifically. Like the definition of OSR changed in response to 5E's popularity, with old schoolers needing to stop focusing on their favorite stuff that 5E got right and start focusing on new complaints that they can still levy at "modern D&D." That said, I also think Ben hits the nail on the head. Those things are crucial to old school design, and I can speak from experience in saying that it's really hard to twist 5E into achieving those things to my satisfaction.

At this point I should probably attempt the damn-fool task of defining these things

I sincerely cannot estimate just how many blog posts, forum threads, Discord conversations, YouTube videos, and essays I've consumed which attempt to define "old school" and "new school" in RPGs. Normally, if I were going to write this sort of thing then I'd follow my usual method of intensive research for a few days or weeks and compile all the major (and many minor) examples of this task having been attempted. But I really don't feel like that's worth the effort, especially since I'm sure that most of my audience has also already been through this conversation a million times before. So I'll try to summarize stuff and politely ask that people don't be too nitpicky about it:

Trends of old school design (starting by plundering the stuff I already wrote/copied in this article up to this point):
  1. Simple or few rules
  2. Rulings over rules
  3. Player skill over character skill
  4. Related, creative problem solving, AKA "cunning over crunch"
  5. Heroic, not superheroic
  6. Forget "game balance"
  7. Referee impartiality
  8. High lethality and/or general grittiness of violence
  9. Specific mechanics and design choices that got largely abandoned at some point (e.g. race-as-class, old fashioned saving throws, THAC0 or attack matrices, etc.) but don't otherwise necessarily support the other bits of design philosophy in this list
  10. "Combat as war," which is kind of just a way of saying that, to the extent that there is combat in your game, it's mostly a question of leveraging resources and assets in the world around you such that you can avoid or minimize the worst consequences of violence for yourself. A common way of phrasing it is that, "OSR combat involves tactical decision-making preceding the battle."
  11. Emphasis on player agency (often achieved through open-world games, sandbox challenges, and a lack of pre-written anything on the part of the referee)
  12. Game procedures (e.g. a dungeoncrawl procedure, a wilderness hexcrawl procedure, a warfare procedure, etc.)
  13. Players can "lose" and "win" in some sense.
Trends of new school design (mostly focusing on specifically mainstream games like modern D&D, CoC, WoD, etc. instead of indie games made in the last 20 years):
  1. Detailed, internally-consistent rules, often geared towards rewarding "system mastery" rather than "common sense" thinking
  2. Related, a universal task resolution system (i.e. a "core mechanic")
  3. Emphasis on character creation as itself a pillar of play, plus lots of ongoing rewards and customization as you level up
  4. Character skill over player skill
  5. Superheroism and low lethality
  6. "Combat as Sport," i.e. Tactical combat. A common way of phrasing it is that, "new school combat involves tactical decision-making during the battle."
  7. Related, curated combat experiences "balanced" to be thrilling, but not overwhelmingly threatening, to any party, however unprepared. To put it another way, you should never expect a combat situation where "running away" is truly necessary.
  8. Specific mechanics and design choices that were introduced or highly popularized in the last 20 or so years (e.g. feats, prestige classes, "social combat" systems, "stress" instead of normal HP, etc.)
  9. "The game is a story, the DM is a storyteller" which can mean a fuckload of things but I'm gunna take a big leap of faith and assume you know what I'm talking about. A lot more linear adventures, for one thing.
  10. More direct toying with the 4th wall, e.g. meta currencies, collaborative storytelling (in some games), narrative mechanics and narrative currencies, "playing as your PC's screenwriter rather than your PC," etc.
  11. The only person who can lose is the DM, who can fail to provide the right experience. For example, PC deaths are often blamed on the DM for allowing such a situation to happen at all, especially TPKs.
Notice that 5E D&D matches many traits on both of these lists but neither of them completely.

A few additional things to note here:
  1. Definitions are flexible. Nothing is truly binary, and even calling this a "spectrum" is still too strict. We really just call something "old school" when we (subjectively) feel that it has enough of the qualities we associate with the old school, and likewise for the new school. Most games don't fit 100% of the traits on either list, and even the ones that do are rarely run that way by GMs.
  2. Lots of these can be picked apart further, as evidenced by the many games which defy these categories. I tried to avoid mentioning any details about the nature of crunch, because not all crunch is the same.
  3. Almost all of this centers around D&D and its derivatives (don't forget games like Mutants & Masterminds exist!) and does a spectacular job ignoring all the other thousands and thousands of RPGs that exist. For example, 3E D&D didn't actually invent the idea of a d20-based core mechanic, and 5E D&D didn't actually invent advantage/disadvantage. Each of those had precedent in other games going back decades. Feat-like systems, narrativist games, a universal task resolution system, etc. have a long history. Many of the new school traits were originally championed by GURPS, which came out in 1985. Likewise, the vast majority of games that would be considered OSR have been created in the last 20 years, possibly even just the last 10 years.
So, you know, to a certain extent it's all bullshit. But I know I haven't lost you yet.

Here's the part where I triple the number of arguments that break out in response to this post

I made a shitty graph. This is a rough chart of how old school vs. new school each edition of D&D has been, following the criteria described above. Have fun fighting over this thing:

Like I said before, it's not actually a spectrum. But if it were, I think we could credibly argue that it would look a lot like this. And I also firmly believe that 5E D&D is pretty much right in the middle, perfectly described as "moderate crunch." Of course, it would appear as though nobody on Earth would ever actually be satisfied with a "Goldilocks edition" of the game, since people fight about why 5E should be more OSR or more Pathfinder-ish. However, I think this is actually just two vocal minorities. There's a reason 5E D&D is the most popular thing in the entire goddamn universe.

Part of it's brand recognition, but all previous editions had that too. Part of it's the internet and the rise of nerd culture, but those were in the equation since at least 3E. Part of it was the luck of getting free advertising through Stranger Things and Critical Roll, but the explosion of 5E D&D's popularity solidly predates those two things. I really think we need to credit most of 5E's popularity to it achieving a balance of gaming philosophies that legitimately appeals to most gamers, and those of us who skew more heavily to one side or the other just have to accept that our preferences are kinda weird. It's not actually as though OSR could become the mainstream if only we did better as a community to build our reputation and spread the good word and all that. It's just not as naturally appealing as the Goldilocks philosophy, nor is... whatever the hell those Pathfinder players are up to.

Matt Colville once made a tweet essentially asking what 5E D&D is good at, because the answer isn't really obvious. I think this is because its design isn't really an outlier in any direction, so it can't be held up as a really good example of some specific playstyle. But that's what it's good at. It can appeal to lots of playstyles and is very flexible. I think a lot of people forget that most gaming tables are comprised of players with varying preferences. I may be an OSR-leaning player, but that doesn't mean the rest of my party is. One of them really likes GURPS and World of Darkness, one of them likes Lancer, one of them does play-by-post social RP, one of them just spends hours every weekend making new 5E characters just for the pure joy of it, and so on. We need a game that can address all of our preferences.

I also mentioned earlier that tribalism is playing into misconceptions present here. RPGs are a relatively small hobby compared to other forms of entertainment. In a sense, all RPGs are "indie." But even within our little bubble, we still managed to construct the "mainstream, commercial, trend-setting, powerhouse" villain in WotC and D&D. And everyone else in the hobby needs to define themselves against that character we've constructed, because it makes them sound more legit. Most of the games that get labeled Indie, DIY, "Artpunk," and so on should really be considered part of at least 4 or 5 different design philosophies. But instead, they all choose to lump themselves into the camp that is basically just defined as "not D&D" because that, by itself, has perceived value.

And I'm sorry y'all, but 5E D&D just doesn't actually fit the picture of our desired villain very well. Once upon a time we could bitch and moan about 4E, but then the developers listened to community feedback and made a game that should and does please most players instead. You still may not like 5E, and you probably have very good reasons for that, but it's not the pinnacle of new school design it's often made out to be by people who just want a strawman to contrast their game against. And, incidentally, if any new schoolers are reading this post, then the same argument goes for why 5E is not actually old school.

I am on record as saying that D&D 5E might be my favorite RPG, and I think anyone reading my blog would know that I've played a lot of RPGs. Even the one I'm currently making has very little in common with 5E, so the fact that I still think so highly of it says something.



  1. Hi! You make some good points, especially the recollection that 5e was regarded initially as a victory for the OSR. People do have short memories, especially when surrounded by tight like-thinking cliques.

    I'd add to that my usual refrain, that he OSR players claim an "old school" style of play that was only one part of the reality in the old days. Your list of "old-school" features consists of items that were strictly optional and a matter of taste in the times that OSR people claim as formative. We had lots of other ways to play back then. Also, to mess with your chart, there is this thing that I wrote:

    The bigger question to me is why fantasy gamers form sects, declaring some games and their players and designers to be their enemies? Seems pretty foolish to me, and in that I agree with you. I guess we can credit it to male hobbyist identity formation. Reviews regularly skewer games and modules that the reviewers never even tried, just to win level-ups in the eyes of their buddies. Players today bully each other just non-gamers used to bully the kids who played RPGs. Used to be that gamers were all on the same team.

    Take care and have fun!

    1. You're so very right! I honestly don't believe that D&D has been truly "OSR" since before AD&D, so it's really a terrible name. People say silly things about how it was in the 70s and 80s like, "we never cared about story back then" or "we weren't interested in combat back then" and so on, which is ridiculous.

      I'm going to give your post a thorough read.

    2. Thanks!

      If you read Jon Peterson's Book _The Elusive Shift_, it should document for you and for anybody you discuss it with how variable RPGs and play styles were from the outset. I recommend it, anyway.

      The variety of needs that players want to fulfill has existed from the beginning of the hobby, because people are still the same now as they were then. "Old School" versus "Modern" is a spurious dichotomy. I can tell from your post you have been thinking about that, and I appreciate it.

    3. I have a vague feeling we have already had this discussion... I agree that "old-school gaming" is a poor term. However, when the phenomenon emerged, it was used amongst D&D players to refer to one specific style of play. Nobody (sane) argued it was the only way people played back in the day, only that it has fell out of favour (and in fact was generally deemed stupid and childish) and was "misunderstood". People criticised the style without knowing what it was really about, and the official rules (3.0 and 3.5) removed much of the mechanical support for it (without the procedural framework, learning how to adjudicate random encounters was much tougher).

  2. It's almost uncanny how similar our experiences in the playground of ttrpgs have been. I started with 4e, moved to PF, then SWSE, and now onto 5e — with heavy modifications, house rules, etc.

    As you say, _that's_ what 5e does well. It bends without breaking. Its core is remarkably supple, able to gather all kinds of narrative structures and mechanical situations neatly under an umbrella of unified resolution mechanics and bounded upper limits. It accepts plug-ins with ease. I hacked and hacked at PF1e and it was exhausting and hard and unrewarding. With 5e, I get my hands on Ultraviolet Grasslands or Neverland or Into the Odd and I'm able to port things back and forth with relatively low effort.

    You should send this article to Ben Milton for his newsletter, the Glatisant. Issue #20 is coming up and it collates RPG scene stuff; your graphic would be a thought-provoking addition.

    1. I usually post my OSR-related stuff in his Discord server and every now and then he decides to put it in the Glatisant, but I never got the sense that he really "accepts submissions." But hopefully he finds this one worth sharing!

      I would say that our two experiences are MOSTLY pretty normal... except for that Star Wars stage. I wonder if there's an underlying reason for that. Personally, I was just getting hype for the Force Awakens at the time.

    2. Coming from the glatisant, that comment aged well. No idea how Ben chooses the blog posts, but I'm glad I read this one.

  3. I've been slowly compiling my personal ideal version of D&D as a homebrew project, bashing together pieces from different editions and variants.

    I started with a B/X base and thought I'd mostly be using 1980's era rules but as I compared the different ways of doing things across editions, I found again and again that I prefer the 5e version.

    I don't love the 5e presentation, or the way their classes / level advancement works but almost everything else is really good for me.

  4. I've been enjoying your blog though I have to admit I was a little surprised initially that 5E was your system of choice. I guess 5E is less crunchy than 3E (or 4E) but it's still larded down with skill systems and a pretty convoluted character creation process. I think you get all the crunch you really need from a B/X style engine (AS&SH, OSE, or LotFP are good options that are being produced currently and you can support a small business too). I guess it's a matter of perspective but if you can't roll up a character in like 15 minutes it doesn't feel all that "old school" to me.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think I would call 5E ONE of my systems of choice, if that makes sense. It's almost certainly the least old school, too. And I think it's quite telling that I am the only player in my party who has kept the same PC from level 1 to our current level of 18, so you can guess how much I like character creation as well.

  5. IMHO using numbered bullets for listing the trends of old/new school design is misleading as it implies a certain ranking (importance, commonality, or both?). Just a small quibble.

    I think it's more useful to contrast the play cultures of 5E and "what we call old school D&D" than the systems (albeit the systems do make a difference). And it's not like everyone who played AD&D played the same way, but when the OSR came to be (in the mid-2000s), it was focussing on a particular style of play that was generally looked down upon (sometimes even in the 80s!) and was almost completely ignored commercially (save for perhaps by Necromancer Games).

    1. "More useful" toward what purpose?

      I found the article quite interesting.

  6. I could be wrong but I always understood combat as we and combat as sport to be about encounter balance. Combat as sport meant players expect to survive and if they don’t the DM screwed up. Combat as war meant no such expectation, better be ready to retreat if necessary.

    That difference is huge in play and could be something that changed peoples impressions of 5e as more and more adventures came out.

    1. What you've described is the very next point I listed immediately after "Combat as Sport." I'm sure it would be fair to say that they're actually the same thing, but I separated it into its own point because I believe it's worth making the distinction of "tactical combat" as it's own design goal and playstyle, with or without balance. More fiction-first combat that's highly deadly and mostly focused on cunningly using your environment or trickery is a very different headspace than combat where you're considering positioning mechanics, facing, opportunity attacks, targeting saving throws, distributing buff effects, choosing the right "moves" or "combos," etc.

  7. I remember when Magic the Gathering first came out. Most D & D players thought it was the devil and would be the ruination of D D. Both are still around and healthy!

  8. While I agree with much of the individual points you touch upon in the article, and agree with the strengths and weaknesses you identify in the 5E game, I don't agree entirely with the start of the article. Comparing the reactions from when 5E came out first to the reactions now that is. The reason reactions have shifted so much is in my opinion not so much because people don't remember; but more because 5E has changed so much that it's no longer the same game.

    I'm firmly into OSR, but I will still touch 5E if my players really want to, however any 5E game of mine is going to be core rulebook only or perhaps CRB + some homebrew gritty hacks. Running 2014 CRB 5E is to me a completely different beast than running the 2021 "all WotC and Critical Role printed player options allowed" 5E that seems to be the de facto default in any public 5E space I ever frequent. So yeah, I do complain about 5E, and I complain about it loudly, but my complaints are less about its core design, and more about the bloated sideshow it became and also about how through the years it has fostered certain (to me unwanted) traits in the mainstream player community.

    Now I'm going to back to my hacked together B/X game with added advantage/disadvantage rules because yes I like 5E mechanics.