D&D 5e Homebrewing or, It Was The OSR What Bewitched Me

As much as I have enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition (and I have – I’ve literally just started a new campaign after the conclusion to Lost Mine of Phandelver), I have found myself increasingly trying to tinker with it.

This tinkering has not been with the view to add new mechanics, other than adopting the Adventures in Middle-Earth roll-able table for journeys, because quite frankly, there is so much to keep in one’s head even when keeping to the standard rules. My games online so far have limited players to using Player Handbook-only rules for character creation in an endeavour to learn those before plunging into the rest of the official material (to say nothing of the plethora of homebrew content available on the assorted digital platforms). However, even that has proved to much to keep in one’s brain at the game table.
One aspect of D&D 5e that I have found problematic is the magic system.
I am not the most widely-read of fantasy enthusiasts and so admittedly am limited in my appreciation of the scope of the genre, but I have always wanted magic in games to be, well, magical. Something that people only vaguely understand, and use at their peril. Playing with magic is like playing with matches – simple enough to get strike one and wave it around, but you’re standing in a petrol station.
It’s summed up nicely by one of my favourite quotes from the inestimable Terry Pratchett:
“Not doing any magic at all was the chief task of wizards – not ‘not doing magic’ because they couldn’t do magic, but not doing magic when they could and didn’t. Any ignorant fool can fail to turn someone else into a frog. You have to be clever to refrain from doing it when you know how easy it is. There were places in the world commemorating those times when wizards hadn’t been quite as clever as that, and on many of them the grass would never grow again.” —– Going Postal
5e magic, on the other hand, is basically technology by another name, and safe technology at that.
Perhaps my impression of it is coloured by the damage-focused nature of the various magic users in my campaign but D&D, with its apparent focus on hacking a way through one’s obstacles, living or otherwise, will lead to players prioritising attack spells. Some are these spells are nothing more than a slightly fancier crossbow with no ammo requirement, others are essentially different types of grenade.
Perhaps I am doing 5e an injustice, but this is how my game has developed from going through the starter set, and broadly seemed to be the experience in the online game I joined as a player.
I searched online for alternative magic systems, but the general consensus seemed to be that to mess with the magic system was to break the game and render it pointless. Why bother playing D&D if you don’t like the magic, they said.
It had not been my intent to veer away from 5e since I was fairly comfortable with the other mechanics, but having been given a nudge towards alternate games I tentatively began looking for alternatives to Dungeons & Dragons.

My initial search brought me to Ben Milton’s Questing Beast Youtube channel which I had playing in the background as I wrestled with learning to draw tokens for my ongoing Lost Mine campaign. Curiosity led me to relinquish a couple of quid for Milton’s own game system, Knave: seven pages of pared down D&D-esque RPG rules including character creation, equipment and spell lists.
I was hooked.
It has a simple level-less magic system with one-sentence effects, which trusts the GM and player to be able to come to some agreement if there is any uncertainty about how the spell might affect a particular situation. A refreshing approach after wading through some of 5e’s attempts to close off loopholes – a design choice I can understand, but I feel a daunting amount of text is dedicated to what amounts to ‘a bright light only dazzles you if you can see it’.
Not only did the system interest me, but the design decisions behind it (notes of which Ben had also managed to fit into the seven pages) stemming from the OSR community (OSR representing different things to different people, but with most agreeing on at least the name standing for Old School Renaissance / Revival). The OSR (at least to me) seemed to be a large collection of blogs with different variations on the same ethos – that an RPG system should give a general structure of a game to enable the GM should be able to make simple judgment calls for any situations arising that stray from the basic format. Rulings, not rules.
And every one of those blogs seems to have their own ruleset – mostly variations of one or another older D&D edition, but each with its own set of modifications to make the game the author’s own. Some are zanier in tone than others, others more low fantasy, but all seem keen to produce a simple, playable collection of rules, and to help each other do the same. I have been part of one of the OSR discord channels for a short while, and the various different sections are constantly buzzing with ideas and discussions on how to approach various design obstacles and challenges.
They are, on the whole, a good sight more affordable than RPG’s biggest name, if the creator charges at all. My wallet aches occasionally when I have my Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual piled up next to my PC before a Roll20 session.
It may be that OSR’s underdog status is the subconscious attraction, now that Dungeons & Dragons has largely entered the cultural mainstream. Whatever the case, I feel that draw now to tinker about with an adaptation of an old D&D edition, geared so that it is broadly compatible with other OSR games and settings (because, my word, are there some good OSR settings out there), tailoring in fixes to everything that is wrong with everyone else’s version. Just as a new campaign gets underway. Just as the Christmas freneticism begins in earnest…
No matter! Let’s spend a lot of time on a ruleset nobody is ever going to read, let alone use!
Huzzah!
Incidentally, we shall see whether 5e is unrecognisable with alternate magic – the new campaign has done away with the normal spell list and brought in both Maze Rats and Knave’s magic systems.

4 thoughts on “D&D 5e Homebrewing or, It Was The OSR What Bewitched Me

  1. Great post!I've never played any edition of \”official\” D&D after the original AD&D, and I've never been tempted either – in large part because of the points you raise about magic. My preference, by and large, is to keep magic out of the PCs' hands altogether – except in the form of unpredictable or even treacherous magical items.Also, as with the earliest version of AD&D, it all just seems a bit … complicated. I loved RuneQuest as a child; it was complicated too, but in a systematic, logical way. All the incarnations of (A)D&D since the early 80s seem to have an awful lot of moving parts: magic, innumerable character classes and endless, not terribly inspiring, gods and \”lore\”. The bare-bones stuff that the OSR games draw on leaves much more room for the imagination.Maze Rats was inspired by Into the Odd, which is a brilliantly streamlined RPG (the rules fit into a single page) and well worth picking up. Whitehack (print only) is a very elegant take on the first iteration of D&D, and The Black Hack is great too – especially the new edition. If you don't know those three, they're all brimming with great ideas. I ran both The Black Hack and Whitehack this weekend, and both were a blast.

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  2. Thanks!I don't know the full history of the older D&D versions, and have to admit I've not actually read any of the 'official' ones other than 5e (just lots of adaptations), so I don't know the process that brought Wizards of the Coast to their present rendition, but I can't believe they went with this magic system because it's easily accessible to newcomers. Every magic-based class is basically a different mechanical way to make the process of using magic more complicated.To my shame, I haven't read Into the Odd considering that the author runs the aforementioned Discord channel, but both it and Whitehack are on my Christmas list. I'm absolutely besotted with The Black Hack's second edition and its GM advice. Now I've just got to find people willing to play it with me… I've brought usage dice into our 5e campaign and am pondering how to get away with using its wonderfully condense stat blocks.What games did you run with the Black/Whitehacks? Have you used their random generators in practice?My current dream system is a streamlined mix of The Black Hack and Knave. Possibly with a hint of Beyond The Wall thrown in.

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  3. I ran a fairly simple dungeon bash: the PCs were seeking a magical duel at the behest of a wizard – with an intro pinched from Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld. I've just blogged about it here: https://hobgoblinry.blogspot.com/2018/11/down-in-dungeon-with-whitehack-and.htmlOddly enough, when we were playing in a pub on Friday night, someone asked whether we were playing Pathfinder or 4th edition. I explained it was The Black Hack, which she hadn't heard of; she was astonished by how simple the character sheets were. It struck me that the later editions of D&D have added a huge amount of complexity; the original D&D character sheets would have fitted on an index card.Yes, the DM section of The Black Hack 2nd is wonderful. I use the usage dice with Whitehack now.

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  4. Was that one of those in your group who was surprised, or did a stranger wander on over to ask? My only experience of playing in a pub was receiving some very dubious glances from the other patrons!

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