AD&D Players Handbook

The Dungeons & Dragons old-school renaissance (OSR) has gotten a lot of steam in the past few years, almost to the point of it being a fashion statement. And lets not forget the huge impact 5th edition had making the D&D hobby popular again, in some was bringing it back from the dead (D&D was never dead but it definitely had a long lull in popularity).

5e Players Handbook
5e Players Handbook

The hit Netflix show, Stranger Things, helped bring D&D back into the popular lexicon. When celebrities came out of the nerd closet to reveal they were huge fans of the game, D&D became the cool word on the street.

Fifth edition (5e) brought in a lot of money for Wizards of the Coast, and its parent company Hasbro. Many people brand new to the game got their first exposure to the game around a table, both in person and virtual, playing fifth edition rules.

The old grognards busted out their nostalgic rule books from the early 80’s and even the late 70s and boldly declared on social media and YouTube, “I’ve loved this game since before it was cool.”

Almost as a rebellion against the new kids’ game, the old rules saw a resurgence. New companies producing modern printings of those old rules like Old-School Essentials and OSRIC got traction and attention. You could get your hand on the ancient way of playing without having to pay several hundred dollars for a dog-eared and battered Players Handbook or Dungeon Masters Guide circa 1980.

Regardless of the version of rules you play, it’s still D&D. But that comparison is a bit like saying lasagne and sushi are both food. It’s a true statement but the differences really matter to the experience you have.

Now that both current and old-school versions of the D&D game are available, which do you choose? If you’ve played both, or ran both old and new versions of D&D as a Dungeon Master, you’ve already formed a preference. For those who have only played 5e but keep hearing about this “old-school renaissance” that people on social media keep talking about, how do you figure out which edition is more fun to play?

What if you’ve been playing AD&D since 1980 and have never sat at a 5e table?

Best vs Most Fun to Play

Like comparing vanilla ice cream to chocolate, it’s best not to discern which is best. Instead, which do you enjoy the most? It’s a subjective comparison and will be unique to every individual.

AD&D Players Handbook
AD&D (OSR) Players Handbook

Comparing editions or rules-sets of Dungeons & Dragons is the same way. There are functional differences but deciding which to play is a subjective opinion determined by the individual. What’s vanilla to you may be chocolate to someone else.

Instead of analyzing data and making an algebraic determination of which is best between old-school rules and the 5e set, we’re going to describe the functional differences and let that guide you to a personal and subjective opinion of which seems more fun to play.

For the sake of this article, we’re going to use 5e to refer to the current set of rules being produced by Wizards of the Coast (WotC), and OSR to refer to the collective set of rules produced by TSR, the original creators of D&D.

There was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) or as many people refer to it as 1e for first edition (which isn’t technically correct; it wasn’t the first but was preceded by Original Dungeons & Dragons). There was Basic/Expert; and there was BECMI, which was a collection of Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal rules.

In this article, we’re going to focus on the collection of AD&D since that’s the closest analog to today’s official 5e rules set.

Key Differences

There are some big differences between OSR and 5e, and some subtle ones. Perhaps the most obvious difference to anyone playing both is character creation and the range of class and race options.

Classes and Races

In the Basic rules, you could choose between cleric, fighter, magic user and thief. All were human. You could also play a dwarf, elf or halfling. These were races but they were also their own class (“race-as-class” as it was called). You weren’t a dwarf fighter, you were just a dwarf, for instance.

5e Character Sheet
5e Character sheet

In AD&D, there was no race-as-class. You chose your race (human, elf, dwarf, halfling, half-elf, gnome and half-orc), and your class (cleric, druid, fighter, ranger, paladin, magic user, illusionist, thief, assassin or monk). Some races were limited to which class they could be, or the maximum level they could attain.

In 5e, there is also no race-as-class, but the variety of races and classes is expanded. There are humans, of course, as well as dwarves, elves, halflings, dragonborn, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs and tieflings.

Available 5e classes are barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue (thief renamed), sorcerer, warlock and wizard.

The limitations that determine which class each race can choose from were lifted in 5e; each race can be any class.

Experience

One of the most impactful and noticeable differences between OSR and 5e is experience and character advancement.

In OSR, a fighter must gain 2,000 experience points to go from 1st to 2nd level. In 5e, that same fighter need only gain 300 XP to reach 2nd level.

This means a 1st level OSR fighter would have to kill 400 goblins (at 5 XP each) to go up a level, while a 1st level fighter playing 5e rules would only have to kill 6 goblins (50 XP each).

For players used to 5e rules that play an OSR game, this slow advancement can feel almost insurmountable. But, OSR games grant experience for treasure gained. In fact, on average, 75% of an OSR character’s experience points come from treasure gained (1 XP for each 1 gold piece value of treasure). It still takes longer to advance in levels in OSR compared to 5e, but it’s not as slow as many players new to OSR think.

Another difference, and one that simplified things for 5e players, is that all character classes use the same experience/level advancement table. Regardless of class, all 5e characters need 300 XP to go from 1st to 2nd level. In OSR, however, each class has its own experience/level advancement table. For instance, OSR fighters need 2,000 XP to reach 2nd level, magic users need 2,500 but thieves only need 1,250.

Abilities, Modifiers and Saving Throws

In all editions of D&D, characters still have the same basic ability scores of strength, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom, constitution and charisma. These values range from a low of 3 to a high of 18. But the way those abilities are used is rather difference between OSR and 5e.

AD&D Character Sheet
AD&D Character Sheet

A quick glance at a typical OSR character sheet tells you that these abilities have very few bonuses or modifiers to character activities. Strength gives a plus or minus to the character’s damage done in melee combat, and Dexterity modifies the ability to hit in ranged attacks and to armor class. But that’s it.

A 5e character sheet has many modifiers that stem from the six basic abilities. Modifiers play such a big role in how a 5e character is played that your modifier are often referred to more than the score from which it is derived.

For instance, your 5e character’s Dexterity modifier determines your ability to roll Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth checks. Your Intelligence modifier determines your ability to roll an Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature or Religion check.

Saving throws are completely different in OSR and 5e. In OSR, they are Death/poison, Wands, Paralysis/petrification, Breath weapons, and Spells/rods/staves.

5e saving throws are based on the same six abilities of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma (5e lists these in a different order than in OSR).

Checks

Everything in 5e is a check of one thing or another. “Roll a perception check,” is perhaps one of the most common things a DM will say to their players around a 5th edition game table.

All checks in 5e are a roll of a d20 against some target value called a DC, or difficulty class. This is where all those character ability modifiers come into play. The DM determines the target value the character must meet or exceed, the character rolls a d20 and adds (or subtracts) their modifier from their roll, and success or failure is determined.

In OSR, there are a few checks that take place, like looking for traps or listening at doors, but these tend to use d6 or percentile (d100) dice, and are often unique to the particular character class. For instance, Thieves roll to see if they are able to unlock a locked chest using their thieves tools, but other classes are not allowed to even try.

Further, in OSR, it is up to the players to declare that their character is searching for traps. In 5e, many of these activities are passively determined by the DM (or the player) rolling a “passive perception” check. They roll a d20 and the dice determines if they spot something whether they declared they were searching for it or not.

In this way, 5e focuses more on the numbers and stats of your character sheet whereas OSR relies more on the player making choices and the DM adjudicating the results based on the circumstances.

(Rolling d20 to determine results is far more common in 5e than it is in OSR games.)

Monsters

Combat and fighting monsters is something common to all editions of Dungeons and Dragons. The monsters are presented in the Monster Manual, and stats follow the same relatively similar format. Experience is granted to characters for defeating monsters, whether that be through death in combat, subduel, or some other definition.

However, 5e took a step toward making the classification of monster difficulty easier compared to OSR. Every monster has a CR, or challenge rating. The higher the CR, the more difficult the monster is to overcome.

The character never actually rolls against the monster’s CR, however. The CR for a monster is a guide the DM uses to determine relative difficulty when planning an encounter. A monster’s CR also determines the experience points awarded to the party when that monster is overcome.

As stated previously, monsters in 5e grant more experience points when overcome than they did in OSR. For instance, defeating a 5e goblin awards 50 XP while defeating that same goblin in OSR only awards 5 XP.

Some monsters are dramatically more difficult between editions. Comparing dragons of the same age, they are a bit easier to kill in 5e games than they are in OSR, yet vampires are more challenging in 5e.

Another interest difference between monsters of the different editions is that otherwise weak creatures like giant spiders can kill a character of any level if that character fails their poison saving throw. In 5e, poison often just makes the character noxious but they can still fight (with some minor penalties).

Because OSR grants experience for treasure gained, it is not uncommon for experienced OSR players to focus more on circumventing monsters in favor of getting their treasure rather than fighting them head-on. This is an example of how the edition of D&D you play will influence how you play the game.

Finally, the standard Monster Manual for 5e has a lot more monsters than the original OSR Monster Manual (AD&D).

Death

When it comes to handling character death, there is a small difference between the Basic/Expert rules of the early 1980s and its contemporary AD&D rules. In B/X, a character dies when they reach 0 hit points, period. Done.

In AD&D, the character falls unconscious at 0 hits points, and loses one addition hit point (into negative territory) each round. Receiving first aid brings them back from the bring. If they reach -10, they’re dead.

5e makes it easier to stay alive. When the character reaches 0 hit points, they fall unconscious and must start rolling Death Saving Throws. These are a series of 50/50 chance rolls using a d20, one per round. If they roll a 10 or higher, they get a +1. If they roll a 9 or lower, they get a -1. If they accumulate +3, they are alive (“stable”) but unconscious and no longer need to make Death Saving Throws. If they get to -3, they are dead.

[Rolling a natural 20 counts as +2 instead of +1. Rolling a natural 1 counts as -2 instead of -1.]

While a character is in 0 hit point territory, another member of the party can provide first aid. They would roll a “Medicine check” (based on their Wisdom modifier), and if successful, the dying character would become stabilized and no longer has to roll Death Saving Throws (unless the unconscious character receives more damage during the combat).

Many players who switch from OSR to 5e remark at how easy it is for their characters to stay alive. Conversely, many players who switch from 5e to OSR note how easy it seems for their character to die.

Bigger Picture

There are many subjective opinions about the differences between OSR and 5e, and all of them are valid. Like vanilla vs chocolate, it’s a matter of personal preference. Some broad observations can still be drawn that provide objective-level insight to help the player curious about playing a different edition.

It has been observed by many that 5e feels more like you are playing super heroes in a fantasy setting. The abilities and capabilities of 5e characters starts impressive and rapidly goes up from there.

Conversely, OSR has a bit more of a gritty feeling to it, like a farmer who happens to find a sword and a suit of leather armor — barely above his contemporaries in ability — goes forth in a hard-scrabble effort to eek out whatever treasure they can while having to play as smart as they can to stay alive.

Depending on your individual perspective and tastes, OSR might be the most fun you ever had or a nightmare. 5e might be a huge source of enjoyment or like going through a video game in god mode where everyone gets a prize at the end (i.e., no challenge).

5e, considering that it is the current edition being produced by the official owners of the D&D intellectual property, has the advantage of ubiquity. They have a huge variety of products to buy that are in current production.

If you want to play OSR rules, you either need to find the original rule books on the used market (sometimes at surprisingly high prices), or rely on a quality but relatively small group of vendors currently producing their own versions of the rules.

This brings up an important point about rules. Games and the rules for how to play them are not protected by copyrights or trademarks. The expression of those rules are.

For instance, nobody owns the rules to poker, but if you write a book about how to play the game, nobody can reproduce your book without your permission.

This is how companies competing with WotC can sell books with 5e rules in them. The rules are the same — how does a DC work, how difficult is a vampire to kill, what does a passive perception check do, etc. — but the expression of those rules must be unique to each publisher (i.e., they can’t plagiarize each other).

If you want to play 5e rules but don’t want to buy books or materials produced by Wizards of the Coast, there are quality 3rd party vendors that sell them.

The same goes for old-school edition rules. TSR no longer exists and WotC doesn’t sell old-school rule books, but there are quality 3rd party vendors that do.

There are people who enjoy playing both OSR and 5e rules D&D games. Some switch from one to the other (and back again) based on their mood or even the availability of other players or Dungeon Masters.

Some pick one and stick with it.

There is no right or wrong, just which is right for you. Being informed by guides like this one about the differences between editions can help you decide which to pursue.

The recommendation of this author is to try each (or any editions in between). Sometimes the most important differences between rules-sets can’t be coldly charted, but must be experienced to truly decide if the flavor and atmosphere of a particular edition provides the most enjoyment to you.