The Player Experience: OSR vs 5e

The Player Experience in 5E vs OSR, a Brief Comparison

(Skip to next session if you want the bullet points)

In Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, player characters are heroes. From the very beginning, 5e PCs are well beyond the capabilities of the average populace. 

They have above average ability scores, they get a full hit die + CON HP, Spellcasters start with several spells to choose from with multiple castings per day and cantrips they can use at-will. Martial classes start with benefits that put them significantly ahead of 1HD creatures, such as Fighting Styles, Second Wind, Martial Arts, etc. This also says nothing of the many skill proficiencies and expertise. This gap only increases as the game goes on.

By contrast, games in the OSR tend to be far less charitable to starting characters. For a basis of comparison, we'll focus on Old School Essentials, as it's a direct retro-clone of one of the most foundational editions in the OSR, Moldvay B/X D&D from 1981.  What do we get as level1 characters in B/X?  Your ability scores are typically average, and do not increase with play.  Typically, you have a THAC0 of 19 instead of 20, you have slightly improved Saving Throws, you have slightly more HP, you MAY have one spell per day, you may know some extra languages, and you may have some survival skills applicable to dungeon delving. Demihumans typically have better Saving Throws and a few notable features, but they suffer serious caps on leveling.  Clerics don't even start with any spells in B/X, though admittedly most OSR games circumvent this by reworking the spell distribution.

The difference is further compounded by the fact that spellcasting is far less forgiving, requiring you to memorize spells before you cast them, making you lose the spell if you dedicate your round to casting and you're hit by an attack, and forcing spellcasters to stay immobile while they cast.

While the 5e PC continues getting new features, gains ability score increases, attacks more frequently, and slings spells so often that magic weapons are hardly a necessity, the B/X PC gets better saving throws, better THAC0, higher spell levels (with lower caps than 5e), and more HP.  That's about all, aside from the fact that at level9, the B/X PC typically receives followers and/or a stronghold of some kind.

The B/X player has less magic based solutions to their problems, but what kind of mundane mechanics are in place?

Well, the Fighter doesn't really get anything of note outside of access to all weapons and armor.  The Cleric's Turn Undead ability is an invaluable asset that grows in power with them, but is limited in its efficiency based on the Cleric's level.  Several classes get particular abilities tied to a "2 in 6" chance.  For instance, Dwarves have a 2-in-6 chance to detect irregularities in construction, including sloping passages, sliding walls, or new construction.  That's only 33%, and it doesn't increase.

The only class that constantly improves with their skills, as you might've guessed, is the Thief.  Many of the Thief's skills are exclusive, and a Master Thief becomes an incredible asset at higher levels.  The odds for success in unlocking chests or finding/disabling traps in B/X are actually incredibly low at low levels, around 10-15%.  Conversely, in 5e D&D, you don't even need to be a Rogue to get a d20+5 to 9 on a Thieves Tools roll.  With the typical DC being about 16 at early levels, that's a 45-65% chance for success in 5e at early levels, and unlike in B/X, you don't have to worry about not being able to try a lock again until your next level up if you fail the first time.

I bring in all this math to demonstrate a point.  B/X play, and OSR play by extension, is rarely about relying on the features that the book gives you.  It's rarely about relying on magic.  It's rarely about counting on success with your die rolls.  It's much more often about being descriptive, using the environment and your inventory in creative ways, and circumventing the die roll.  It's about giving the DM an opportunity to make a ruling rather than relying on a strict interpretation of the rules.

Because of this, OSR games are typically the easiest games to learn how to play but the most difficult games to learn how to play well.  They often challenge the player rather than the character sheet. They expect you to plan for failure while hoping for success. They ask you to carefully consider how to make use of every little thing that you have, and leave plenty of room for interpretation so that the game doesn't get bogged down in adjudication.

The Breakdown, in Bullet Points

(Technically in numerals, but who's counting?)

If you're a 5e player and you're interested in getting into OSR gaming, generally speaking, here is what you should expect:

  1. Expect to roll new characters frequently and develop their concept through play.  Backstories are rarely used to great effect.  Most time is spent focusing on what happens at the table.
  2. Expect to keep careful track of equipment, supplies, and weight.  Properly preparing for adventures and getting the delayed gratification of making clever use of your supplies tends to be a strong focus.
  3. Expect to be very specific about what your character is doing.  Where exactly is your character looking?  What exactly do you prod with the butt of your spear?  Who all is holding torches?
  4. Expect to pay NPCs to assist you.  Hirelings, retainers, and beasts of burden are a fantastic safeguard against over-encumbrance, a lack of free hands, or being desperately surrounded.
  5. Expect to avoid combat.  Combat is usually deadly in OSR games, especially since many of them pronounce your PC dead if they fall lower than zero hit points.  Playing factions against each other, using stealth or manipulation to bypass fights, luring enemies into ambushes, fleeing.. all of these things are viable tactics that can and will be used in OSR games.
  6. Expect to spend a great deal of time in the wilderness and in the dungeon.  This is where OSR play flourishes most, though OSR play in no way precludes social encounters or city adventures.  It just so happens that the games are typically played in the wild and dangerous parts of the world.
  7. Expect to have a role in the party on the player level.  Every party typically needs a Mapper, a Treasurer, and larger parties might need a Caller.

A few things you should NOT expect that you may be used to:

  1. DO NOT EXPECT for your character to be important in relation to the world of the game.
  2. DO NOT EXPECT to be able to solve most of your problems through features and die rolls.
  3. DO NOT EXPECT to win all or even most fights.
  4. DO NOT EXPECT to have complications handwaved, though sometimes they may be.
  5. DO NOT EXPECT to have mechanical character customization.
  6. DO NOT EXPECT to experience a well planned plot.
  7. DO NOT EXPECT the DM to have mercy.
Upon reading this list, I think it's fair to say that there are several 5e players who are going to do the SpongeBob.

That's no big.  The OSR isn't made to cater to all tastes, and that's all right.  But I have a strong suspicion that there are many people out there who, like me, found themselves falling out of love with Fifth Edition D&D after a few years of play.  The OSR is happy to make room for anyone who's willing to climb aboard.  If you're down for some deadly, down in the muck adventuring, we've got a seat with your name on it.


  1. This is pretty good analysis. I'd also add that one of the biggest differences -- and I'm not sure if this is universal or if there are exceptions -- is that there is a shift in where the player agency is. In many modern games, the agency is in how you "build" your character -- backstory, feats, level dipping, how you assign attribute scores, magical item progressions, etc. In contrast, OSR games tend to either remove this stuff entirely or determine it randomly. You can't theory craft the ultimate 10th level DCC warrior build. That warrior also is not going to turn down a magical sword because it does cold damage but the character is optimized for dealing fire damage or whatever.

    That said, high level OSR characters are certainly very unique-- they get that way through play rather than through planning. And more agency is shifted toward play -- you can attempt anything you can think of, and, indeed, if you aren't trying to be creative, the game is often stacked against you.

    That shift in agency runs parallel to another one, the often discussed sandbox vs adventure path approach.

    The other tendency I've noticed is that osr games (and the kind of non-osr games that osr people tend to enjoy) are usually fiction first, rather than mechanics first. The classic example I think about is the grease spell. In 4e, grease is a power that causes a target to save or fall prone (or maybe it was an attack roll against reflex, can't recall / don't care). The fact that it conjured grease was just "flavor text." So if you wanted to squeeze through a narrow passage, or lubricate an old machine, or create a fire trap, or whatever else, grease obviously wouldn't help you (and the very idea that it might be helpful is going to earn you a derisive "dude, that's just flavor text."). In 4e, the spell could be reskinned to anything else, or no flavor at all--what it fundamentally *is* is a power that can impose the "prone" condition, nothing more or less.

    In an osr game, the grease spell conjures grease. It certainly could make it easier to slip, and if the game designer provides a guideline for that in the description, then great! But the spell could be used for anything that grease might help you achieve. And unlike 4e grease, it isn't going to cause a flying creature that passes over it to gain the "prone" condition, bc that doesn't make a damn bit of sense.

    All that said, I love modern games. I enjoy the character building mini game, and as a GM/referee, every character comes with tons of plot hooks and ideas built into it. And I love to reskin powers and abilities, keeping the mechanical stuff but changing the flavor.

    I just also love the fiction-first approach, and when in conflict, I prefer it to the mechanics first approach. I also like the idea that your characters become whoever they become through questing and stuff happening during the game. And I like creative approaches to problems and I like problems that demand creative approaches.

    I'm not sure if a game exists, or even could exist, that simultaneously flatters all of those preferences. Right now I alternate between running Pathfinder 2e and DCC, which are polar opposites in a lot of the above respects (although I'm finding several interesting affinities). I've never actually run it, but ACKS with the heroic characters supplement seems to be in the ballpark -- bx goodness with some modern character building ideas.

    1. ACKS is the only d&d-like that I’ve been excited to read through each of the classes, along with the system generally having the best of new and old school components.

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