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Under the Hood: OldSchooling 5e: Falling Damage, and Magic

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5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons (5e)  is often called a “throwback” to older versions of D&D. I tend to agree, but there have been many subtle and not-so-subtle changes over the years that have made it just a little hard to completely accept this claim.
Some folks want to play those “old school” games, but, bottom line, those old school rules were often crude, especially by today’s standards. In addition, people want to play the “new shiny”, and 5e, if nothing else, is new and shiny. So let’s talk about some changes we could make to 5e that would make gameplay more resemble old school play, or at least the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D, but I’ll often just call them “old”) rules.

An Appetizer: Falling Damage and the 10’ pit.
Both old and new rules give the same falling damage: 1d6 for each 10 feet fallen. So falling damage is already the same as old rules, no changes needed! Yay!
See, hit points weren’t nearly as generous under the old rules, and nor were character ability scores. A wizard (called “magic-user” in AD&D) only used 4 sided dice for hit points, instead of the d6 in 5e. In addition, a Constitution bonus of +1 required a score of 15, as opposed to the Constitution 12 of 5e…not only did you need a higher score, you also had to roll for it (“3d6” were the official rules, but most players used something more akin to “4d6, drop the lowest”…a 15 is still not easy to get this way). Finally, in 5e, you start with maximum hit points at first level…in AD&D, you had to roll.
So, in AD&D, an above average magic-user started the game with 4 hit points. If you’re rolling a d6 for a 10’ drop, this means your typical first level wizard had a 50% chance of being dropped to 0 whenever he fell into a basic pit.
In 5e, a wizard starts with 6 hit points, and it’s pretty trivial to get a constitution bonus of at least +1 (I doubt there’s a single player in the country with a wizard and a Constitution of less than 1!) So, a first level wizard in 5e has a 0% chance of being dropped to 0 while falling into the same pit as before.
50% and 0% are not even close.
Using a D6 for falling damage in 5e, then, is not at all the same. For more of an old school feel, consider using a d12 for each 10’ of damage, so that now a basic pit at least has a decent chance of seriously injuring a low level character, instead of being a scratch that character can laugh about while recovering in a short rest (he’ll probably joke about how “old school play wasn’t so tough”, too).
Incidentally, in old school play, fighter type characters got a bigger hit point bonus for high Constitution than other classes. This wasn’t a simple random decision; with their larger hit die (a d10), a +2 bonus wasn’t as much for a fighter, relative to what it would do to a wizard’s hit points. By “unifying” the bonuses, the fighter rather got cheated (something of a trend in all later editions of D&D past the 2nd).
Even something as simple as falling into a 10’ pit requires some thought to understand what old school play was about. Let’s now take a closer look at old school play, especially at the lower levels.

Old School Magic, To Start:
Typical old school adventure: A bunch of young adventurers are just starting out. The fighter’s armor of splint and shield gives good protection: an orc has about a 25% chance of hitting him, a lowly kobold more like 15%. There is a cleric in the party, able to cast three spells a day (almost certainly “cure light wounds”). The wizard gets but one spell, and the wizard was lucky, as his master taught him sleep…awesome for annihilating a horde of weak monsters. Had he been unlucky, the wizard might have only learned magic missile—great for finishing off a wounded but heavily armored orc, but more useful at higher levels. That’s the spell the wizard prepared, but his spellbook contains a few other spells, all of questionable worth, like light and erase.
Watching the heroes walk into the cave, there’s no real indication that they’re any different than a motley band from the real world—there are no outward displays of magic (and even the non-humans are close enough to human looking that they wouldn’t draw a second glance at a costume party). Even in battle, it’s mostly about mundane weapons being inserted into “monsters”, which might be strange looking, but not much different than simply creatures from the real world, with lots of make-up.
To give some idea of how rare and unusual “everyday” magic was in old school play, consider about the only “permanent” first level spell there was in AD&D: find familiar. This spell would let you summon perhaps a toad, which you could use as a pet and gain small benefit from…and anyone looking at that toad could easily just confuse it as a pet. You might get something else, even better, but I’ll address this important difference in old school play, namely randomness in magic, later.
This is, of course, very different from 5e play, where even having a human in the party is not a given, and every combat is a fireworks display of spells and sorcerous power…adventurers in 5e and many modern games probably should wear sunglasses just to prevent their corneas from being burned out by all the spellfire. Let’s talk about what we can do about the magic, to make it “old school”.
No version of fantasy pseudo-medieval Europe has an internet. Just because some wizard in some city 50 miles away knows an awesome spell, it doesn’t mean every wizard everywhere has access to that spell. Thus, in old school play, when you rolled up a wizard, you didn’t have to flip through the entire spell list to figure what are the absolute bestest most amazing things to get, and then chose spells that work in every possible situation you could want when you play. Instead, your spells were basically random, at least initially (and to some extent, even as you play), and you have to actually think a bit about how to use your limited tools to do what you’d like (gust of wind to disrupt an enemy spell is unheard of in modern play, but that’s the kind of thing you did in old school…).
The spells of 5e are laid out in column by class, so it’s a simple matter just roll percentile dice randomly and see what comes up. Yes, players probably won’t stand for not having the bestest, most powerful wizard or whatever, but old school play really was more about figuring what you could do in the dungeon, as opposed to what you could do on your character sheet. Granted, some players will instead simply complain about how lame their characters are, in which case they should have picked different characters. Not everyone is cut out to be a wizard, after all.
You don’t need every class in a party…in old play, it was perfectly acceptable to have two characters of the same class in a party, and, in fact, “one” was roughly the maximum number of wizards in the party in any event. This further made wizards unique in old school play: they were rare, and the spells one wizard had could easily be completely different than another wizard.
Clerics have access to all spells, in both old and new rules, but they also have a fairly small spell list (12 spells at most per level in the old rules). This brings up the next difference between old and new play.
The AD&D spell lists are much, much, smaller than in 5e. In new play, there’s basically a spell for everything, every possible issue an adventurer might have, there’s a trivial spell that solves it, no problem at all. When you toss in the “you get any spell you want” of new play into that mix, spellcasters are ridiculously useful…and often carbon copies of each other. The best possible spells are usually pretty easy choices, after all.
In old school play, wizards spent time trying to acquire new spells, instead of simply having the bestest, most useful, spell handed to them. They also, after a certain level, started to research their own spells…with magic item creation not much of a factor in 5e, paying and spending time on spell research is definitely something worthwhile to have in old school play.
Cantrips are of course very problematic—infinite, re-useable magic that can do anything is just not compatible with the fantasy pseudo-medieval Europe of old school play. Again, cantrips should be given randomly, and their use should be somewhat restricted. Every time the player uses a cantrip, an additional d20 is rolled: on a 1 or 2, the character can’t cast any more cantrips until after a long rest. This puts cantrips back where they’re supposed to be: weak, unreliable, somewhat pathetic magic, instead of “go to” spam spells (yes, this could screw the Warlock, which instead gets his cantrips back after a short rest like he does everything else…please note, these are just suggestions I’m making here to give 5e more of an old school feel).
This random approach to cantrip use and spell acquisition represents another old school approach, but this takes some explanation.
It was also possible, in old school play, that a wizard might not even be able to learn a spell, such as magic missile, or whatever. While possible, it wasn’t much of an issue—one wizard’s magic missile wasn’t identical to another’s, so if the wizard that previously couldn’t learn magic missile found a new scroll of magic missile, he might learn it from that…and he could always just research it.
The idea of “magic missile isn’t the same as magic missile” leads to an important different approach to magic between old and new school play. I’ll address that first next time, and then touch on ever more changes to 5e to make it have a better feel as an old school game.

Next up! How 5e can be GURPS! :)

5e is 5e, for better or worse. We can throw all the marketing language around, but nothing about 5e makes it "old school" - there are just far too many opposing assumptions baked into the rules - again, for better or worse.

People who enjoy it should enjoy it for what it is and whatever it does for them. Anyone who wants an "old school" experience has a bazillion free clones to choose from and the Troll Lords print new "not editions" of C&C ever 42 minutes.

BTW, I've heard Gygax claimed 1e falling damage was a typo. Somebody can hunt down the discussion on Dragonsfoot or wherever. My understanding was falling was supposed to be 1D6 for 10ft, 2D6 for 20, 4D6 for 30, 8D6 for 40 etc.  It's odd 5e would not recognize the Falling Damage vs. HP issue. Even 4e had 1D10 per 10 feet.

As for magic, any teen or young adult who bought 4e or 5e comes from a video game background where magic users cast magic with every action. The concept of limited magic is foreign to modern fantasy fan culture. WotC has to sell to the modern fanbase so they tailor products to their customers. No surprise, but it cheapens magic from something...magical into just a mundane tool.

Things that are limited are special.


--- Quote from: Spinachcat;810236 ---Next up! How 5e can be GURPS! :)

BTW, I've heard Gygax claimed 1e falling damage was a typo. Somebody can hunt down the discussion on Dragonsfoot or wherever. My understanding was falling was supposed to be 1D6 for 10ft, 2D6 for 20, 4D6 for 30, 8D6 for 40 etc.  It's odd 5e would not recognize the Falling Damage vs. HP issue. Even 4e had 1D10 per 10 feet.

--- End quote ---

Close.  Gary said that it should be 1d6 per 10 feet fallen, so a 30 foot fall would be 1d6+2d6+3d6=6d6.

The above author got so much about 1e wrong, it would take a week to correct it.

mAcular Chaotic:
I would be interested in hearing what was wrong, since I took it all at face value.


--- Quote from: JRR;812201 ---Close.  Gary said that it should be 1d6 per 10 feet fallen, so a 30 foot fall would be 1d6+2d6+3d6=6d6.
--- End quote ---
Well no wonder there was confusion. The description and the example contradict each other.

[*]1d6 per 10 feet fallen is Nd6 damage for a fall of Nx10 feet which is 3d6 damage for a 30 foot fall.
[*]Damage of 1d6+2d6+3d6 might be written as Sum(i=1, N) x d6 damage for a fall of Nx10 feet.


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