Can 4e Be Old-School D&D?

My most recent design project for Wizards of the Coast has left me thinking a lot about old-school D&D.  I have been reminiscing about my early days of playing, when my Jr. High school friends and I could play first-edition AD&D for 72 hours straight without having to worry about jobs or families or responsibilities any more onerous than a paper route and little league baseball games.

The adventures and campaigns we played were home-brewed by necessity, because the only published adventures we had access to were very short and very light on details, but they gave us just enough to let our imaginations run wild through horrific tombs, around keeps on borderlands, and into certain lost caverns. What happened between those adventures, and often during those adventures, was always open to interpretation, alteration, and complete reconstitution by whichever one of us was DMing at the time.

But What is Old-School? And What is New-School?

Of course, “old-school” has become one of those ubiquitous terms that loses any semblance of meaning the more it gets used. So let me define a little more clearly what I mean when I use the term “old-school,” especially in relation to the way I see the game being played in more recent years. Since third-edition D&D was introduced, I have not really played in a true long-term, home-brewed campaign. Almost everything I have consumed (and most  everything I have created) has been published content in one form or another. And a great deal of that content has been meant to for use in an organized-play setting.

That means DMs using the content are expected to run the games with at least some semblance of continuity, with an established plot and flow detailing where the adventure is supposed to begin and end. In other words, both the players and the DM have to agree to a contract that is unwritten but understood in organized-play campaigns: the party cannot go anywhere and do anything it wants, and the DM must keep the adventure-as-written somewhere in front of the players, even if some detours are taken along the way. Similarly, the adventure designers understand their implicit contract with these people: the writers must make an effort to be as thorough and clear as possible about how to DM the adventure.

While this type of gaming is not for everyone, it has certainly proved to be quite popular since the concept was introduced. And as much as I have given my time and energy to this sort of gaming, and gained much from it, part of me is a little sad to think that many DMs and players might never know the other type of gaming, where the word on the page is just a guide instead of a script—or where there is no page at all!

I think about an adventure like Gygax’s classic The Village of Hommlet. It starts out famously as the characters stroll into the village looking for adventure, probably finding themselves in the Inn of the Welcome Wench. Then there is the trek to the moathouse to battle the now-infamous Lareth the Beautiful and his forces. So much of the game, however, happens outside the pages.  How the PCs interact with the NPCs in Hommlet has to be improvised by the DM.  How much information about the temple’s past is revealed is up to the DM. How to keep the PCs from stealing that 1300 gp service set from the farmhouse is definitely the job of the DM!

For my money, the most interesting and important part of that adventure was the afterthought: an assassin comes to Hommlet to take out the PCs for messing up the plans of the Temple at the moathouse.  This is the awesome stuff that makes a campaign memorable, yet when and how this assassination attempt is made is completely up to the DM.  If that slight mention of a plot continuation is made in a published adventure today, how many DMs take the time to add it?  There are no stat blocks, maps, or tactics supplied: how many DMs have the skill to make that happen in a cool and intriguing way.

Where There’s a Rule (or Lack Thereof), There’s a Way

I’ve loved every version of D&D I’ve ever played, and I have played ‘em all. Looking at the evolution of the rules over the years, and at the evolution of the way the game is delivered and discussed and consumed by the players, I have to say with all seriousness that the earliest version of D&D rules, game-mechanically speaking, were not good.

Yet, in a strangely paradoxical way, that was the best thing that could have happened to the game at that point in its development. Remember, there was no Internet to discuss or argue over rules. There were no instant errata updates. Unclear, wacky, or incredibly unbalanced rules were resolved in one place: at the individual tables. And even though this meant there were enough house rules to make the game look very different from one group to the next, that was fine.

In fact, it was more than fine. It gave each player and each DM the opportunity—if not the responsibility—to think about the game a little more deeply. Just like adventures had to be created and modified on the fly to make the game fun for everyone, so the rules often had to be adjudicated or created on the fly for that same reason.

As the editions of the game progressed through the years, I daresay that the rules became—game-mechanically speaking—better and better. And also more voluminous. And also more nit-picky and prone to rules-lawyering.  Of course, some of that was a result of the advancements in technology and communication. But the more you try to make something as clear and resistant to alternative interpretation as possible, the more interpretation and the less clarity you will have.

With the push to create better mechanics to support the game, there was a similar push to create adventures that were easier to run for DMs who didn’t have the time to prepare their own stuff. That means adventures had to be more balanced, more clear, and more easily run—sometimes without any preparation at all. This is great in the way that microwave meals are good: they can be convenient and tasty and even just as good as some homemade dishes, but the downside is that people can rely on them so much that they forget how to cook, and how much fun cooking can be.

So, I return to my original question: can 4e rules support an old-school D&D campaign?  I think the answer is a resounding yes.  The rules are more entrenched, and the way the rules are consumed and the way players can communicate globally leads to a more homogeneous experience. And this might be what the market wants. DMs might want to just take the same material in the same format and run it in the same way, and that’s OK.  Fun games can be played that way. But I hope there are DMs out there willing and able to create their own stuff, or to take published content and make it their own, and show their players that not every game has to look the same, even when it is the same adventure.


  1. I think a large part of what was featured in ‘old school’ adventures was also a sense of exploration and investigation, plus more dynamicism. Not only did you have situations like the assassination attempt, but the mere existence of random encounters made the dungeons feel more alive then.

    I don’t think that the game per se has dropped a lot of the exploration aspect of D&D but the adventure formats have, but this has been discussed quite a bit lately and WotC seems to be responding if Baelard’s Legacy is any indication.

    I want more of that.

    One thought that ran through my mind when I read Mike Mearls’ post about the best adventures of all time was that Ravenloft, despite being _by far_ the best adventure ever written, just wouldn’t get written now.

    There’s something wrong with that.

  2. Right now I am running a 4E sandbox in its truest form. It is hexed based; the players explore the region one hex at a time mapping the wilderness as they go. There are encounters to be had in each hex; villages, dungeons, NPCs, etc. There are random encounters for each hex. Where the players go and what they do is completely up to them. Will they run into an encounter far below or far above their level? I don’t know and I don’t care; they get what they get. What happens is a direct result of their actions, not mine (beyond the initial outlay).
    Now I’ll be honest and state that the encounters, dungeons, etc are not home brewed; I simply don’t have the time for that anymore. I use published encounters and insert them where I feel they will fit the overall feel of the area. It keeps the world design manageable.
    So far it has gone really smoothly and has been a lot of fun.

  3. A lot of the classic feel comes from nostalgia. It is hard to get nostalgia in the now! 😉

    At the same time, there are truly classical elements. The role of traps in encounters and how they played out is classic. The aspect of exploration, where many rooms are traversed before a true combat, or where you camp in the dungeon, slowly exploring it. The presence of many empty spaces, often just due to not being fleshed out, was a big part of the classic feel. The DM was forced to fill them.

    Because the rules were also vague, I think all DMs accepted the mantle of running the game in all aspects. They adjudicated and they improvised at all times. The humor in the Gamers movie, with the thief setting up a ballista or somesuch to sneak attack/backstab someone in a tavern… that’s the kind of stuff that was discussed in the olden days, along with why things were in yards/inches, why you moved at different rates outdoors, and what ultravision might do.

    In today’s game we have moved the DM away from being the most knowledgeable. Chances are that the DM knows less about a PC than the player and has less validity in adjudicating something about that PC. Because of this, the DM changes in role to one of enabler. It causes DMs to think they must run things as written (this has been proven by D&D Encounters and was somewhat enforced before by LG and similar campaigns). DMs lose the idea that they can improvise and then also the skill set.

    Similarly, players step away from this as well. It was really interesting playing with Frequent Beef and seeing him constantly ask “can I…”. Very few players do that. They just confine themselves to their character sheet.

    So, for me, I turn to adventure design. The classic feel is rekindled when you emulate your favorite moments. What if a part of the dungeon is huge and the PCs will explore it and camp in it? What if the rooms have traps the way ToEE or Desert of Desolation used them? What if there are three prisoners and one is secretly a doppleganger and you have complete freedom (and no setup) for how that will play out? What if the chest has, inside of it, the following: “The PC’s greatest fear.”

    Yeah, we can get that classic feel. But we have to work for it. These are different times, and that’s a good thing. When we go classic we get the best of both worlds.

  4. I agree Shawn – old school D&D is definitely possible in 4E, it just takes a little bit more effort to add those old school nuances to adventure design. Sadly, the two old school nuances I miss most are houserule type stuff, like “weird character alterations” and creating my own magic items. Remember a module called Castle Amber, where characters could wake up with strange new features – like wings? Loved that! Or making up that new nifty magic item, never found before in any book? Well, sure, you can still do those things, but it’s hard to make those alterations to a character sheet given the current state of Character Builder. Even in Old CB, houseruled stuff was never truly integrated. True, you can add those things on to a character sheet after the fact, but I wish house ruling easier to do in this current edition – to me, that kinda stuff feels like old school more than anything else.

  5. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Arcane: Your point about adventure format is spot on. And it is a conundrum I have tried to wrap my brain around since 3e came out. The complaints ring out that this or that adventure is a railroad, so you try to create something that works as a sandbox, and then the complaints are that the adventure is not complete or doesn’t provide enough direction. I sometimes see the 4e format was very space-intensive, allowing for fewer good ideas to be presented in too many more pages. But I fear what a switch over to something that looks like some of the old-school adventures will bring out in critics: “they are making us do all the work,” etc. And yes, Ravenloft was awesome. And I hope you are wrong in that something like it could never be done now. 🙂

    @callin: Thanks for commenting. This is exactly the kind of thing I am hoping to hear about. So in your campaign, you are providing the over-arching plot, but you are using published material to fill the details of what the characters encounter? What sort of published stuff are you using?

  6. I think that it would behoove WotC to accept that there is a spectrum of DM experience. A lot of their customers are the older gamers, but a lot of the product is definitely skewed towards the newer audience. This isn’t necessarily bad, and I can even understand leaning published adventures that get put in stores towards the more inexperienced crowd.

    But DDI is a great method of distributing the more esoteric material. They should use that platform to try to get the magic back, and I think they’re slowing going that direction. Which is good, because to be honest, I was starting to slide away from D&D myself, but seeing the direction that WotC is going makes me want to stick it out. (ie oldstyle feel of some of the Essentials classes).

    I’m planning on doing a 4e conversion of Rahasia soon just to see how it can be done.

  7. Thanks so much for posting this – it’s something I feel very passionately about. I know I’m a radical, but I made a resolution about ten years ago to never run a campaign or adventure that was written by someone else. I read them, I follow updates, and blogs, and look everywhere I can for DMing advice, but I never run another person’s material. Creating, writing, designing, and running the game are the parts I love. Yeah, playing is fun, but it never quite satisfies me.

    In short, I’ve found that what you’ve written, Shawn, is absolutely true – you can still keep all the amazingly impulsive, open-ended, tailor-made elements of the old days within the structure of 4E. My players over the years have enjoyed the “old-school” style, especially when it’s accompanied by the wonderfully streamlined mechanics of newer editions. I do have a large set of houserules, but it all creates an environment that I hope marries the best elements of every D&D edition.

    Thanks again!

  8. Totally interesting read, though it is telling… My impression of Old School D&D was that is was more Module-by-the-Numbers and it took me a moment to realize you were using the same data to come to the opposite conclusion. The catch being: Your experience, which you kindly dive into. (I’m shamefully New School, painfully so)
    Honestly though, I always thought the Step by Step Adventure style was just a D&D style…my experience playing Vampire & Shadowrun, where even the Modules were more maps & stories that characters were just thrown into without question shades my views on stuff like this. (You actually address this above, mostly by talking about how D&D is making it easier to not HAVE to make your own adventure). So semantics aside (because I know, it’s the obvious trap):

    Hell yes. Call it whatever you want, I’m a huge fan of this direction/style. I’m a bit like DarkPlane…I run my own stuff & I’ve only run two modules ever and one of them was the April Fool’s day Special. The loose guideline we have is: “When a player asks you something, try to say Yes.”
    “Can I break the bad guy’s nose?” ……Yes. (Bad Guy starts talking with nasal nose pinch)
    “Is there a chandelier or light fixture hanging over the bar?” ……Yes? (Cinematic knife throw-shattering distraction created)
    “Can I take the Farmer with me & teach him to be a Wizard so he can protect his family?” ….Hell yes.
    The questions get harder when they’re cheatery but when it’s about a detail you haven’t thought of, there’s something fun to shifting the world a bit & seeing where people go. This is also why I have issues with Tiles sometimes…there’s often an assumption that if it’s not on the map it’s not there. Riddle me this: In those lairs/inns/guild halls, where’s the bathroom?
    Rambling as always.

    PS: On the topic of what I take from pre-made material…weirdly I often steal from the unexplored stories found in the fluff. Check out the Pyromancer article in Dragon…there’s an awesome story there that exists only as a framework for a School of Magic but it’s both detailed & vague enough we’re comfortable using it. I don’t know why but we are loathe to use any character other players would have met. You know, because when you read online how a D&D party met & killed Drizzt there’s a little sad sigh there. I don’t know..we keep a respect other’s works enough to not use them? If that makes sense?

  9. The Dungeon Delve sourcebook, to me, is that perfect balance of old school and new school. You have 3 ready-to-play key encounters, and a story framework with some suggested ideas for embellishment and story branching. Sounds like Hommlet to me!

    Dungeon Delve offers room for DMs’ imaginations to run wild as far as how to integrate the adventure into their home brew worlds, plus a night’s worth of tactical encounters already statted up for you.

    Dungeon Delve inspires and helps all DMs and playgroups, new or veteran, able to prep or not able to prep much at all.

    It *is* both old school and new school. Outstanding product!

  10. While this may not be the most lengthy response, I did want to answer your question.

    I have played 3.0, 3.5 and 4e DnD and never once in my 10 some odd years of gaming have I ever ran a published adventure. I have only played home brew games. (Other than Encounters only VERY recently)

    I think 4e supports homebrew the best because of its easy drag and drop monsters and encounters. I think changing things via the “reskin” has never been easier.

  11. @matthew: I couldn’t agree more about 4E being the easiest for homebrew. I think the trouble is that DMs have less and less time to prepare, or they’ve come to expect the pre-packaged convenience that modules have fostered for the last 10 years.

  12. @shawn Yes, on the overarching setting. Basically the setting is one of a new continent and the players have been tasked with exploring this new land. It is mostly in ruins as an empire of Naga/YaunTi fought a great war with Primordials here and the land is slowly ocming back. So, desire to explore, coupled with ancient ruins makes for a lot that can happen. (I should really post the articles I have for the world-building I did for this.)
    As for what encounters I use…everything. Alot of Chaos Scar, because the levels were just right for the beginning parts of the setting, some Goodman Games, Dungeon Delves, parts of official modules I’ve picked through, some free stuff I’ve found online. It all comes down to not using a published adventures setting or background but rather about simply using the encounters and being able to tweek them for your own use.
    In part with this I have a chart of conversion for reskinning. If a published module uses Orcs (or other fodder monsters), I use the exact same stats but simply call them Zain-Kin (the ape-men that can be found in the area). If it uses “higher” monsters, such as humans or other monster with more sublty than orcs, I again use the same stats as printed, but they are now Yaun-Ti. The beauty of 4E is we are not locked into only using monsters at a narrow range of level or ability, ie there is nothing that says a Yaun-Ti can not have a wide range of powers-this makes for simple and easy reskinning.

    @Neuroglyph While I agree with you that the inability for the CB to accept custom information is a serious drawback I don’t think it needs to stop “weird character alterations”. I have done exactly such a thing in one of my 4E games. It just requires the players to physically transfer over the new ability, which they honestly dont mind since it makes them feel special. However, I do print out the ability on a special sheet for the players and the sheet stays with them, other than noting they have the power the real info is on that other sheet which they look at whenever they need to. Here is a link to an article I wrote up about some of these powers.

  13. Shawn Merwin says:

    @alphastream: I certainly cannot discount nostalgia, but I am also keenly aware of the difference in the way the games played, the materials we used, and the way we used the material we had. Those points you bring up are certainly all part of the equation, and the idea that the evolution of the rules has moved the DM away from being the most knowledgeable is I think very close to true. Rather than the most knowledgeable, I would say the DM was the most knowledgeable about the world but not necessarily the rules. However, the DM was certainly the most powerful player in the game. While I think that can still be true depending on the group, in some cases the DM can become the least powerful player in the game — when he does know less about the rules, and when he feels handcuffed by the adventure he is running.

    @Neuroglyph: I ran Castle Amber is a part of a D&D/Top Secret crossover game, where my players’ TS agents find a machine that could move them between dimensions. It was pretty wild, but it definitely makes me remember that adventure differently. And your point on character alteration is well taken. It is harder to make those changes to characters — either positively or negative. And it is true that the technology adds to the problem, but I think the mindset of the players, as fostered by the rules, is different as well. Old-school meant that while the players got to play their characters, those characters were still part of the DM’s world, subject to the DM’s game decisions. I think players now, both because of the way the rules work and the way games have evolved, are much more resistant to have them altered in any way. Even taking away a magic item or changing the way one works can (in the player’s mind) destroy some carefully planned rules synergy.

  14. But I don’t want to go back. Is that ok too?
    I don’t want to stab EVERY SINGLE 5′ SQUARE with a pole to make sure there isn’t a trap.
    And STILL setting off the trap anyway.
    I don’t want to worry about being stabbed in the night by my closest friend, EVERY SINGLE TIME WE SLEEP.
    I don’t want to worry about how many grams of food I’m carrying, both so I’m not Overburdened and so I don’t starve.
    I want to slay Dragons and explore Dungeons. And not worry about the details.

    Not to blow-up your post, I’ve actually been trying to get my players to think a bit more out of the box, which is back to Old School, I feel. As a previous poster said, just because there isn’t a chandelier drawn on the tile doesn’t mean there isn’t one there.

  15. Of course You can play 4E with an old school feel and ideal, I am sure many GMs do it without even meaning to.
    That’s not the question, in my book.
    The question is if 4e is a good ruleset option for that type of game, not if it can be done. I can dungeon with the ruleset from Traveller (and did once, on a bet). Doesn’t mean it was a good option, or even optimal for that type of game.

    Shoehorning a ruleset into a game style normally means there was a better option.

  16. I disagree, LordVreeg. I haven’t been a fan of WotC’s 3E or 4E published adventures, but I would put up Thunderspire Labyrinth as an example of an adventure with an old school feel. It has many “open spaces” where the DM can expand, freedom of choice for players, interesting traps and rooms, etc. If we slapped an Erol Otus cover on it we would think it was published in the 80s.

    I run a 4E Dark Sun home campaign where there are many classic elements. I regularly give the PCs non-standard benefits and rewards. They all use the character builder but still do fine with figuring out how to add these benefits and how to incorporate my house rules (custom half-giant racial feat for example).

    What I will say is that the game as packaged points us away from that type of old school feel. It suggests 5 monsters on a specific XP budget range, a fairly simple room, and moving from one encounter to the next. But there are no actual shackles. You can do whatever you want and the 4E components work just fine with a high RP, sandbox, custom home rules, and/or open-ended campaign. It isn’t a square peg in a round hole at all. It is just about figuring out how to use the fantastic pieces. I actually find 4E much more flexible than any previous edition in terms of what I can write (and it is certainly faster for me to create adventures than ever before).

  17. I would argue that communication is really the solution to creating a game that has an “old school” feel to it. If you know what you like as a player, it behooves you to communicate that to your Dungeon Master. I’ve been guilty of this as recently as just a few years ago, but DMs have a habit of building what they see as the perfect campaign or perfect adventure without soliciting any input from players about what they might like. I think the mark of a good DM is a dialogue with the players that starts before the first game session. There will always be room for the DM to insert his ideas and themes into a game because he or she controls the vertical and the horizontal, but if you let the players establish the framework and then sprinkle your ideas and themes into that, they’ll feel more engaged and experience the game in a manner that truly excites them.

    I think we have to accept that published material from WotC will follow a certain standard, even if it feels “new school”, because they have to design for the broadest audience possible. The advantage of this, however, is that it’s entirely compatible with older styles, as indicated by the clever uses that callin and Alphastream have called out. And hey, it’s better than having far less or no published material to draw upon at all, wouldn’t you agree?

  18. Madfox11 says:

    Of course, if you are not a big fan of exploration those old school adventures tend look boring and break your suspension of disbelief 😉 While large maps of a single keep, like Ravenloft, are cool to look at, or even to use on the side when quickly describing scenery, I always disliked those adventures because the DM had us draw out the maps square by square and for me exploring the next empty room broken up by a 5 minute fight with 5 zombies became boring real quick. Of course, an experienced DM could add the elements to downplay exploring and increase story, but when you need to spend as much time modifying an adventure as writing one of your own, buying an adventure looses its additional value.

  19. Wow, I must be on the fringe here; as the DM in my 4e game, I’m the only one with the books and the DDI subscription. I guess my players are pretty casual (and neophytes to the 4e system) so I’m the one with all the rules knowledge and player character knowledge and world knowledge. My world is all homebrewed and I use a goodly amount of custom magic items and such. They mix just fine with the CB sheets (special items get printed out on index cards). So far so good. My players don’t care about old-school vs new-school crap, they just want to take part in a fun adventure. I run the game with a lot of old-school sensibilities I guess. I also tend to run things with just a bare-bones outline and some notes. I let the players surprise me, and I surprise them, and it’s worked pretty well so far!

  20. Shawn Merwin says:

    @DarkPlane: Thanks for sharing your experiences. I am glad to hear that you and a lot of people out there are able to used the newer rules but still getting what you want out of them.

    @Jared: Thank you too for sharing so much great stuff. And I know exactly what you mean about taking fluff and using those ideas as a basis for adventures. My favorite part of White Plume Mountain wasn’t the adventure itself, but the map that talked about all the points of interest around the mountain, including Dragotha’s lair.

    @Kilsek: Thanks for bringing up Dungeon Delve, because it was a great project to work on, and it is a perfect example of a product that is either loved or maligned, depending on the viewpoint of the consumer. Many people use it as you did: providing them with some pre-made encounters to use, as long as they are willing to do the work of porting those encounters into a fun campaign with an appropriate backstory. But I heard complaints that “these are just encounters, and I could do this myself.” So part of my reason for writing the column was to see what DMs would get more out of–a books with lots of fully detailed encounters but no overall campaign/adventure plot; or a supplement that gave more of a campaign overview with a great deal of details on the overall adventure/campaign, but less of those two-page encounter spreads with all the tactics, terrain features, and such.

  21. @Alphastream,
    As I said, you certainly Can use 4e in an old school sense.
    My point was that it was not the best suited for it.

    From a very top-down viewpoint, OD&D and 1e were written with the class balance based on ‘exploration’, with an expanding eye towards balancing the game in the ‘campaign’ ideal, as AD&D became the focus. And if that is where the classes are balanced, that is what the game is supposed to be focused on.
    The fighter was supposed to be the most active and most useful in combat. Once the thief came along, he was supposed to be the most useful in stealth, scouting, and traps (and later, in town). Clerics were decent combatants, but were written to counter the undead and to heal, allowing longer trips into an adventure. And the original mage spells show that the Mage was a problem-solving jack of all trades, able to ‘Comprehend Languages’, “Detect Magic’, creating ‘Light’, ‘Push’, ‘Spider Climb’, etc. You can see how judicious use of these may help an expedition, but not really combat.
    So for me, the #1 way to create an ‘Old School’ feel involves a ruleset, any ruleset, that balances the game either on the axis of exploration. Games that were too combat heavy were called, ‘Hack and Slash’.
    I also need to point out that I agree with Shawn in that a lot of the sub-games and rules were poorly designed, especially in light of how they interacted.

    4e is balanced in combat. This is well documented.
    So the focus of the game is best suited to combat-oriented game. You can do other things, but if the differences between the classes are balanced in combat, that is going to create a different feel.

    Or so I see it. I am sure we are all having fun in our games.

  22. Madfox11 says:

    @LordVreeg: Erm… the magic-user spell list of oD&D and 1E contained many a combat spell. In fact, until 3E came along, the combat spells tended to be more popular to be prepared than the exploration spells. I really do not see what you are seeing in regards to class balance and the supposed focus of oD&D/1E on exploration as opposed to combat. Besides, the idea that those early games were somehow less combat oriented are a bit laughable 😉

  23. @Madfox11,
    Yes and no. The makeup of combat spells was about 50%. And yes, in almost every game, the combat spells were prepared at a huge positive ratio. No doubting that! Hell, as a GM, I used to play off that, making sure that other spells and talents would be needed, to condition my spellcasting PCs to not go too heavy into combat spells.
    But you make my point for me when you look at the ratio of spells that were really combat spells vs non. The fact that there were any spells that were non-combat oriented, let alone a large percentage of them, directly proves that the caster classes had other foci than combat. More, say, than a class called the ‘Fighting Man’ or ‘Fighter’, perhaps.

    And there certainly were games that were very combat focused. If a large number of gamers were not dissatisfied with the lack of balance in combat, the newer rulesets would not have been created. It is exactly because of that point you make, that there were a lot of games that were heavily combat focussed games, that the rules needed to be changed…becasue they were balanced in a different dimension.

    But I wouldn’t call it laughable; I’d call it obvious to many.

  24. Ever since 4e dropped, I’ve found it strange that this question even needed to be -asked-. Your post sums up a lot of why I’ve had this confusion. I’ve -never- used a premade adventure in my own games, so 4e has always represented a melding of the “old school” style of DMing I grew up with in the 2e days with what I consider to be superior rules. When I say superior, I am admittedly putting them above certain qualities that I think some folks consider to be oldschool; like how a wizard used to fall down dead if a dart struck him in the thigh.

    But between incentivizing skill challenges and giving them a consistent xp value, increasing player survivability and resilience to lengthen the “work day,” and given players of all power sources interesting things to do, I feel that 4e is just finally catching up to the kinds of campaigns I was eagerly writing when I was 10…but finding too lethal or beyond the abilities of the characters we had access to back then.

    I still love 2e, and 3.x. But, for the moment, what we’ve got is the best I’ve ever seen at telling the kinds of stories that drew me to the hobby in the first place.

  25. @Seth: Amen.

    Not that I don’t have squirmy subjects with 4E. I think skills are a little oversimplified, but overall the system supports the story-/roleplay-heavy campaign I run. You just have to take the masses and masses of combat options with a grain of salt. I think the guys at WotC would be the first to say that the system serves you. Combat happens to work better with a little more complexity, and skills happen to work well in a simpler form. That doesn’t force us to focus our game that way.

    I’ve wondered for some time whether or not the focus on combat exists because there are so many new players who come from MMO or other circles, and they haven’t been fortunate enough to play with the older generation, or to play in other systems. I think we who played 1st and 2nd and 3rd edition have a responsibility to pass on our knowledge and experience to those who may not realize the potential fun that can be had outside of combat. If there’s any failing in 4E, it’s the adventure designer’s oversight of how much potential there is for action outside of combat.

  26. This column would not bear the title it does if 4E did not have an “anti-old school” effect on how we play. But, the question is what really causes that effect and what can be done about it (if, indeed, anything should). Discounting nostalgia (an underrated force!), there are effects. I agree with Lord Vreeg that the elimination of non-combat spells (morphing into utilities for all classes and also to rituals) does change the exploration portion. The reality is that a utility spell based around non-combat exploration will not get picked. And rituals are a rule component that most find lacking.

    But, a lot of it is around approach. 4E threw at us this concept of a little descriptive text and then THE ROOM. That was the encounter. And then there was THE NEXT ROOM. This leaves no space for exploration and focuses on the combat components.

    I was struck by Mike Mearls’ piece that appeared Monday night… how evocative that was in the sense of exploration. Which path do you choose? Isn’t that classic D&D? Even in 3E, the RPGA adventures had to focus on one path to avoid too much work. An adventure like Forbidden Choice was remembered for actually offering a choice of paths. What Mike wrote is all choice, all exploration, and all rules-independent. So, while I do see how 4E lends itself to less of a classic feel, a lot of it is in approach. And, it offers a lot that was missing and lacking. In combining the two you can end up with a really fantastic game.

  27. Shilling says:

    In agreement with others, I have to say I believe there is more to ‘Old-school’ play than simply sandbox campaign design. The exploration vs combat ratio is close to the nub of it.; in which case 4E is much harder to steer towards old-school play than this article infers. Not impossible, but harder.

    I noted the other day a box in Dungeon Masters Guide 2, that suggested penalties for players going against their self-stated character motivations. All the penalties were combat related. I think this says a lot about the design mindset prevalent during the writing of 4E material.

  28. @Shilling: What makes it hard? Is it possible that DMs see lots of combat mechanics in the rulebooks and refuse to think outside the box they’re given? I personally never have any difficulty running exploration in my 4E campaign, so I have a hard time understanding this perspective. The worst roadblock I ever come up against is deciding if I should use a skill check or an ability check.

  29. Shawn Merwin says:

    Wow, all, thanks for taking the time to comment. I want to be clear that I wasn’t passing judgment on any one rules set, and I certainly wasn’t trying to revisit any edition war threads. I really was curious about how people were using 4e content (rules and adventures), and if people were finding it easier, harder, or no different from running the types of campaigns that they were running with earlier D&D rules. I tried to be as up-front as possible by admitting that most of my experience–and therefore my opinions–were skewed because most of my 1e and 2e D&D experiences were with completely homebrewed campaigns and adventures that at most borrowed from published material, and my experiences with 3e and 4e so far were skewed in the opposite direction, since most of the content I created and consumed were with adventures that were much more detailed and with campaigns that were organized-play focused.

    I had no doubt that someone COULD make an old-school, exploration-based, imagination-driven campaign using 4e rules. I just wondered if it was easy or hard to do so. I’d had people tell me both in casual conversation. Those who said it was harder cited the combat-focus of the rules as the stumbling block, and I could understand that, especially based on the amount of house-ruling my groups had to do in 1e and 2e to make the game what we wanted it to be. If the rules don’t work well, you are used to making changes anyway. (It is amusing how many of the concepts we strove for in our house rules mimicked changes incorporated into 3e and 4e. Anyway, thanks to everyone for contributing to the discussion. Lots to think about, which is why I write the column in the first place!

  30. Shilling says:

    @Darkplane DM: True, it’s much down to the creativity of the DM and what the players themselves want to do. There is a much bigger topic though, that of ludo-narrative dissonance (a rather stuffy term borrowed from an almost identical concept discussed in video game circles – I HIGHLY recommend that you read about Soren Johnson’s talk “Theme is Not Meaning”.) In RPG circles it’s the “do rules matter?” debate.

    To use a sailing metaphor… If the wind is behind you, you travel much faster and more easily. If not you can always tack into the wind – which is an invaluable skill to be sure.

  31. I’ve been a new dm for nearly a year now, and I have yet to run a published 4e adventure. My party keeps coming back. So I would have to agree: yes, 4e is oldschool.

  32. Madfox11 says:

    Mmmm… currently reading WG4 as part of a research project for a 4E adventure, and the funny thing is that if I would be running that adventure, it would almost as if I had written my own adventure. It is so bare bone, and vague with weird unrelated details that you need to add 80% of the content anyway… (of course, it also reminds me of some of the things I love about 4E in regards to gotcha-abilities and guessing what your DM is thinking encounters, but in all fairness, that has likely nothing to do with what people call the old-feel.)

  33. Monty Hedstrom says:

    Good points everyone! I’ve been thinking about this topic alot recently. I’m an old D&D player myself. I started playing in around 79-80. I’ve played every edition of the game and many other games besides…

    I think you can definately get that “old-school” feeling with 4E but you have to interject it yourself. You guys have hit upon alot of the reasons for why things are different (game design, different players and their expectations). Sometimes I think the move over the years to more systemized rules is good and bad. I go back and forth on the topic. And the marketplace agrees…the success of Savage Worlds points I think to a great number of people wanting simple rules so they can get down to playing.

    It would help, I think, if WOTC would try in their adventures to be more creative and imaginative. I really don’t think a string of combat encounters makes an adventure. Encounters and a map are the beginnings, the starting framework of a good game, not all their is. I’m not sure that everyone playing these days knows that. WOTC’s adventures don’t do a good job of inidcating there is more.

    For instance, if you are in the generation that grew up with computer RPGs and you have never played a paper and dice game before would you know that game mechanics are only part of the RPG experience? Would you just play the rules and not know to add RP?

    Another thing that hurts D&D now, for me, is the business model. And that is, churn out book after book, supplement after supplement to get the audience’s money with little regard to said products actually improving gameplay experience at the table.

    Sorry if that’s a little bit of a rant….feeling my age today I guess.

  34. My year and half long campaign was entirely homebrew; I only used the monster stats as published (and even those I bent, or used as inspiration to create my own flavors). I found the system completely flexible to use as a design example instead of pure must-be-this-way. Had a few table rules from the outset and we all ran with it for a great time.

  35. I have to say, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. In fact, I am currently trying to run an “Old School Feel” Temple of Elemental Evil with two different 4th edition groups. To me, the biggest challenge has been changing players expectations. Players who only learned on 3rd or 4th edition have a completely different mindset then players of earlier editions. In some cases thats good, (like PinkRose said, I dont want exploration to take hours and hours because the group has to inspect every 5′ stretch of the hallway like CSI investigators), but in other cases bad. I give out random magic items, and some players are just used to giving the DM a wish list and being rewarded with the items that they want. Some players will not run, no matter how bad things look, because it “has” to be a balanced encounter. Tell that to the gnolls, boys… And they about had a fit the first time I interruped a short rest with a wandering monster. But as it goes along, I think they are having fun, exploring new ways to view their gaming.

  36. Death Metal Nightmare says:

    i just started playing d20 systems more (SWSE and 4e) and have to say im really unimpressed with the lack of verbal/imagination thats lacking in the game setup.

    the games are broken up into too many segments of “encounters, non-encounters, rests, skill challenges” and so on… the segmented feel makes it feel redundant when you get into one of those sequences. “here we go again with the board game portion… here comes my at-will powers. roll a skill.”

    in old school D&D and AD&D you were mostly just verbalizing, reacting, asking tons of questions to CREATE a scaffolding for everyone to share – and then rolling a dice. with 4e i feel like im missing a lot of that scaffolding – especially during encounters.

    i totally agree that 4e could be played similar to 1e in the sense i mentioned above but it would take a well written adventure by the DM and a mindset of the players to play that way, mixing the “feel” of both editions. so far im working on a SWSE module that will try to bridge the gap.

    it just seems like a ton of your imaginative options are limited in the newer games based on the supplied modules. whats in the encounter rooms? not much. how creative can you get “tactics” wise that isnt just about MINIATURE tactics?

    like i said, its all about creating that imaginative scaffolding of whats “there” so you can create ideas and react to encounters in fun ways. just laying out tiles and minis and bashing on dudes gets boring after about 10 minutes – and most of the encounters take WAY too long. our last session was about two encounters and it took us 6 hours. minimal role playing was between them and hardly any scaffolding was developed.

    i also enjoy old school D&D because everything wasnt hyper/super-fantastic. it was more mundane so you could immerse yourself into the character and then augment it with occasional fantastic abilities. everything now is hyper-fantastic to keep up with Video Game induced imagery/imagination.

  37. Madfox11 says:

    @Death Metal Nightmare: You do realize that that has nothing to do with how the game is run? The distinctions are handy when designing and preparing adventures, but no DM should ever slavishly follow the structure of an adventure whose primarily goal is readability. Besides, if you as a DM get too stuck in the asking question mode, you risk ending up in the cotcha mode where you don’t spot that green slime on the ceiling because you forgot mentioning it, and soon you have players searching every 5 foot of a dungeon and spending hours on a deadend (reference to a Knights of the Dinner Table comic).

    As for long fights, two in six hours is likely inexperience, people who are overthinking stuff or playing with 6+ players. I just did 2 fights in three hours, including questioning of two corpses, exploring Moil and a lot of goofing around. You might want to reexamine how that campaign is run, because while in 4E fights can last long (although rarely longer than in 3E), 9 out of 10 times it has to do with encounter design or the players and DMs taking too much time. This is a whole other discussion though, and probably something for a blog post 😉

  38. I agree with Shawn. Old school D&D is what I started gaming back in the day. First-second edition was so fun, and when there was no rule we would just make one. I like 3rd edition but my crew and I change so many things we started our own RPG publishing company. Our first few books are supplements for 3rd edition. Adding in Critical hit charts and failure charts. Hardcore rules for armor with deflection absorption, hit points, and varying damage from weapon type. If your a fan of D20 but long for old school gaming fun. You should try out our Hardcore Rules volume 1- 2. They are cheep and easily fit in to any game. You can find it on RPG Now just look up Action Games or our website
    We still use and love the old adventure models. But years later looking back we remember how bad things were. Maps missing, not enough info, wrong page numbering, but it was the best.

  39. Of course you can play “old school” with 4e. You can also browse the web with an Apple IIGS, you can use a silicon graphics Indigo as your primary gaming box, go muddin’ in a Honda Civic, write your 25 page doctoral thesis by hand on construction paper and a whole bevy of other “Well, yes you can but…” things.

    That doesn’t make them the best platform for what you’re striving to do, and that doesn’t mean that you’ll have an easy time of it. 4e is so alien to 1e – and yes, Virginia, it is – that I can’t fathom how or why you’d cope with it. Where’s the threat of the terrible Golem in S4 for 4e? Characters can healing-surge away it’s fearsome “must-be-healed-by-a-17th-level-cleric” damage in the wink of an eye. Oh, but you say the DM has final authority and can say not? 4e not only discourages DM fiat, it directly instructs the DM not to do things that are contrary to the players wishes. What sense of accomplishment is there in finding the Lanthorn of Daoud in that same module when, per the 4e rules, the characters give the DM a shopping list of magic items they (again, by the rules) must be allowed to have. How is any of that a challenge?

    No. 4e has 4e type challenges and mechanics built in to it, and good for 4e. Saying “let’s play Tomb of Horrors” when nothing is really a threat is a huge disappointment for players and DM. Old school styles of play are for old school styles of game. Let 4e be 4e.

  40. I’ve been mudding in a Honda Civic. Good times!

    You can absolutely devise a golem that inflicts damage that cannot be easily healed (see the aura of the Oblivion Wraith and adjust as desired). You can also create monsters that are not normally vulnerable and that require actions (or role-playing) to turn that vulnerability off.

    The idea that 4E is not a threat… take a look at what Save Versus Death is doing. I suspect that is plenty lethal… and you can adjust back and forth to achieve what you like.

    I certainly feel that 4E has its own feel. Every edition does. But all styles of gaming are not just achievable… they can be done really well by someone with expertise.

  41. @Alphastream: AMEN!

    I would only add that all styles of gaming are achievable not only by those with expertise, but by those who TRY. Just try. Please. I’ve never had a moment of trouble bringing what I enjoy about other editions and systems into 4E, mostly without changing any mechanics. Remember that a large portion of what the DMG says is advice. No one’s looking over your shoulder forcing you to use wishlists.

  42. “I would only add that all styles of gaming are achievable not only by those with expertise, but by those who TRY. Just try. Please.”


    Try to make 4e “old school”? Why? Why would I? I’ve got stacks of 1e AD&D books here I use on a weekly basis. Why would I spend the time trying to make 4e something it isn’t when I have something that is?

    I could put the same request to you: play xyz 4e adventure with AD&D.

    Note these aren’t qualitative statements about AD&D or 4e. They’re separate, independent games which do different things differently. Yes, yes they’re both RPGs. They both use the D&D trademark. They are not the same game.

  43. @DungeonDelver: I think the goal is possibly to marry the best of both systems to improve enjoyment of the game. If you want your game to be the best, you have to find the best in everything, then incorporate it.

    I’m not speaking in terms of mechanics, I’m talking about style and flavor. The categorizations leveled at 4E are mostly referring to elements of the game that are completely up to the DM. They’re style choices, not hard and fast mechanics.

    Reread Shawn’s article above. He and I are talking about the viability of running a long-term non-combat-focused homebrew campaign that you write from scratch. That’s what he means by “old-school.” There’s no law that says a campaign like that belongs only to 1st Edition. The arguments against incorporating this play style are all vague and non-specific. These things aren’t locked into the mechanics of the game. People say it’s “hard” or “awkward” to work roleplay encounters and exploration into 4E, but they never mentioned why it’s hard. I think it’s hard because they’re too focused on pre-packaged adventures that inherently lack these elements.


  1. […] to talk about, but we especially enjoyed Shawn Merwin’s contribution this week on whether 4e can be Old School D&D.  Would you want it to be? Can it be? Is old school D&D really what you remember it to be, or […]

  2. […] posted an interesting article on whether 4e can be old-school D&D or not.  Check out ‘Can 4e Be Old-School D&D?‘. Share this:FacebookTwitterDiggEmailPrint This entry was posted in 4th Edition, News. […]