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Gaming Guide: Monsters


The undead move silently. Think about this when listening at doors, etc.

There are many monsters that suffer penalties when fighting in full daylight, including orcs and goblins. Hobgoblins, however, do not suffer penalties in daylight.

Many spells that affect the mind, such as charm or sleep, do not affect undead. Poison doesn’t, either.

You can communicate, at least at some level, with many different types of monsters. This can avoid deadly and costly combat and may lead you in beneficial directions you may not have expected.

Poison is most often deadly on a failed saving throw. Never engage monsters that have poison attacks at melee (hand-to-hand) range unless you have no other choice.

Monsters, especially those that operate in groups like orcs, goblins, kobolds and hobgoblins, will use tactics, strategy, and lessons learned to improve the effectiveness of their defenses and methods of attack.

Thoughts on D&D Play Mechanics

Dungeons & Dragons

I’ve been a D&D Dungeon Master since 1980. In that time, my play style and table rules have evolved. Here are my thoughts on some of the more contentious ones.

Initiative (side, individual, roll every round)

Rules for how to handle initiative have evolved since the first editions of D&D back in the 1970s. The Basic rules (Moldvay) stated that each side in a combat encounter rolled for initiative and that order held for the rest of the combat.

Some folks roll initiative for each monster and each character, holding that order throughout the encounter.

Yet another variation is to re-roll for initiative, either for each side or for each individual, every round.

This presents four variations, and there are situations where each makes the most sense. I don’t subscribe to the idea that one variation is so superior to the other three that it must be used at all times and at all tables.

Just like every rule in the books, whichever edition you choose to play, the group can choose which they like best.

My previous preference was to use individual initiative so that the strengths and weaknesses of each monster or character can play a part. I kept that order throughout the combat. I’m now a fan of side initiative as it keeps things simpler and goes faster.


Historically I have never used morale checks in my games as a DM, nor have any of the DM’s I’ve played under. On rare occasions, the DM would make a judgement call and say something like, “The rest of the kobolds, after seeing the majority of their group slaughtered before their eyes, drop their weapons and surrender, throwing themselves at the party’s mercy.”

After reading over old-school rules, specifically the Basic and 1st edition AD&D rules, I think that checking for morale makes a lot of sense based on the typical morale scores of monsters as specified in the various texts, and at prescribed moments in the combat such as when a group of monsters lose their leader or more than half of their number have been slain.


As with morale, I have never used encumbrance rules when DMing in the past. It’s one of those things that makes a lot of sense from a plausibility and realism standpoint, but I’ve felt that tracking encumbrance is a tedious pain in the arse.

I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll use it at my table.


Historically, I have ruled that a character becomes unconscious at 0 hit points, and loses 1 hit point her round until they receive healing (not just first aid as specified in 5th edition rules), and dies if they reach -10. Of course, if a player has a few hit points above zero and receives damage that takes them below -10 all at once, they’re dead.

5th edition, in my opinion, makes it far too easy to stay alive. The concept of death saves feels a bit gratuitous in favor of keeping characters kicking. I don’t subscribe to that model nor have I ever used it when DMing 5th edition games.

Conversely, the original Basic rules specified that when a character reaches 0 hit points, they’re dead. Period. I’m okay with that as long as the table is okay with it. It makes players more cautious in their actions, and I think that serves the game. I think it gives more emotional weight to the stakes.

One additional note I have about death is that when resurrected, a character loses 1 point from their Constitution score, and cannot be resurrected any more times than their original CON score.

Critical Hits and Misses

I have always ruled that a natural 1 on a d20 attack roll meant automatic failure regardless of bonuses. Along with that natural 1, I’ve typically specified that something awkward or unfortunate occurred, such as tripping or dropping their weapon. I have also ruled that a natural 20 on an attack roll always hits and does double damage; this is calculated by rolling the damage dice twice, adding them up, and then adding any bonuses to that sum.

I haven’t always handled natural 1’s or monster attack rolls in the same manner, however. They were an automatic miss but didn’t have any deleterious effect. Natural 20s were automatic hits and did double damage, of course.

Some tables I’ve played at, however, didn’t consider natural 1s or natural 20s as anything special. They were a result from a d20 roll just like any other.

On further reflection, I think a solid table rule should be that if the player characters suffer negative effects on natural 1’s and get double damage on natural 20’s, monsters and NPCs should, too.

Identifying magic items

Thinking back to all the games I’ve DM’d in the past, I realize that I have been a bit too generous to players when they discovered magic items. I’d simply say something like, “The chest contains 500 electrum pieces, 800 silver pieces, a +1 dagger, and a Wand of Fireballs.”

As previously stated about encumbrance, I never worried about how the party could carry their loot, either.

I never made the characters go through hoops to identify the magic items or their properties, unless the weapon was cursed, at which point I’d inform them that what they thought was a +1 sword was actually a -1 Backstabber. Oops.

After careful thought, I have changed my ways. Potions must be sipped to get hints about their purpose. Other magic items or weapons must be used to determine their purpose and function, otherwise the players must hire expert help at high cost to get the skinny on what that wand really does.

I’m also of the mind that the player would have no way of knowing how many charges a Wand of Fireballs has until it runs out. I’d keep track in my own notes.

Fudging rolls

I have fudged many rolls as a DM, especially in recent years. Because I have historically been a “story” dungeon master, focusing on a great story that fit a cohesive theme, bad dice rolls could detour a party in a direction I didn’t want them to go.

This DMing style is also called “railroading” and I’ve since given that up to being an almost 100% sandbox-type dungeon master. This has enabled me to make other changes, too, specifically allowing the fates of the dice rolls to fall where they may.

There are still rolls I don’t let the party see, such as Hearing Noise or Move Silently checks, but I no longer fudge rolls.

Player activity reflects character activity

One of the new rules my groups and I have agreed to implement is the mandate that if a group of players are arguing loudly about something, their characters are, too. Wandering monsters become much more likely to show up under those conditions. (I’ll often warn the players that their real-world argument will soon bleed into the game if they don’t resolve it and move on.)

Also in recent years I have banned the consultation of Monster Manuals during game play. I may look up a monster’s stat as part of my DM duties, but the players don’t get to.

Consulting the Player’s Handbook during play is a bit different, though. Spell casters need to be able to have full understanding of their spells to make good choices for their characters, but having the PHB handy during play can lead to min-maxing (making choices to optimize rolls, stats, and results that don’t necessarily coincide with sound role-playing).

So, I have come up with the table rule that if the player wants to consult a book during play (other than the Monster Manual), their character is setting down their pack or Bag of Holding, rummaging around inside to find it, and spending time thumbing through pages to find what they’re looking for. This wastes the party’s time and obviously can’t be done while on the move or during combat, else there will be consequences in-game.

Monster reaction rolls

As with morale, I never used monster reaction rolls until recently. I like letting the dice make some more decisions for me as I’ve already got enough on my plate. Letting the dice decide a monster’s reaction at the start of an encounter also lends itself to the sandbox style of play. The dice can take the party in whole new directions and rolling for monster reactions is one way that can happen. I even let the party see the dice roll.

I also use reaction rolls for NPC encounters, too, although I still role-play NPCs as I think a good DM should.

Tracking resources

Like encumbrance, tracking rations, water, rest, and consumables like torches, lantern oil and arrows is a realistic thing to do but is a bit of a pain. There are many DMs on YouTube and social media who have shared their methods and tools (checklists, basically) to make tracking these consumable resources easier.

On the one hand, tracking consumables seems like a tedious mechanic. But, I have found — and my players have, too — that this adds to the atmosphere and even the strategy of the game’s role-playing aspects (up to a point). If the party wants to explore deeper in the dungeon but won’t have enough torches to see their way back to the surface, they must leave now and return another day better prepared. The same goes for healing and spell availability, so tracking consumables like torches and food isn’t really any different if you think about it.

An additional tip is to assign these tracking duties to an honorable and honest player in the party. Delegate it for the win.

Disclosing monster stats

I’ve disclosed monster hit points and armor class in the past, but no more. Now, “the manticore isn’t even bloodied” when it’s above 50% of it’s hit points, and “the beast has blood on its limbs and is showing signs of fatigue” when it gets down to around 25% of remaining damage. When it’s nearly dead, I’ll say something like, “The manticore has many visible wounds, is breathing hard, and seems to be close to death.”

A monster’s armor class is never disclosed but the party can often do the math to glean the target number after several hits or misses in their attack rolls.

Sometimes a successful hit according to the d20 still doesn’t hit or doesn’t do the full damage due to the monster having some kind of immunity or resistance. The party figures this out over time, but unless they are already familiar with the monster’s characteristics, it’s not immediately obvious.

This brings up another point about monsters. I used to say, “You walk into the room and see a manticore…” Now, I describe the way the monster looks and let the party figure out what it is. Unless it’s a group of orcs or kobolds, something everyone already knows and could easily identify; in that case I just say, “You see a group of around a dozen orcs staring at you from across the room.”

Sandbox: Multiple players

I’ve really come to enjoy the sandbox style of DMing. I’ve always been a story-driven “railroad” kind of DM in the past and it’s still my nature to design campaigns in the story-centric way. I’ll leave it to you to research on your own the difference between sandbox and railroad styles of D&D gaming.

[NOTE: I prefer the term “story-driven” play style over “railroad”; I’m using the latter term here as it seems to be the currently fashionable way of describing that campaign style.]

One aspect of traditional sandbox D&D games that fascinates me is the idea of one or two DMs running a campaign with a collection of up to 50 different players participating — yes, 50! A play session is scheduled and the players that show up get to play, regardless of the make-up of the party from previous sessions.

The DM must keep track of what happens in their sandbox milieu, which monsters are slain and treasure recovered, etc. The players go about their business and if today’s group happens to wander into a dungeon that was cleared out by another group of players the week before, they find bodies of slain monsters (or characters!) being eaten by rats and opened chests devoid of treasure.

I think this method of play has a lot of advantages but it puts a bit of a burden on the DM (or DM’s) to accurately and thoroughly track what transpires during each session.

Railroading: aka The Story-Driven Campaign Style

As mentioned previously, I’ve historically been a railroad or ‘story-driven’ DM. I would create detailed settings with elaborate notes about what is were, what’s happening behind the scenes, and carefully choreographed encounters designed to ensure my plot unfolds like a brilliantly written story.

This has been fun and well-appreciated throughout my DM career, but one particular event in a particular campaign a few years ago made me realize the potential pitfalls with running a railroad campaign.

I had things carefully and thoughtfully planned out, but the party made a choice — with full knowledge of the consequences — that completely derailed the campaign’s planned trajectory. It ended the entire campaign halfway through and some players even left the game entirely.

I was not only frustrated, I was furious. This took place roughly halfway through a rather long and thoroughly planned campaign, which meant that 50% of my hard work just got flushed down the drain — and the party did it by choice, knowing this would be the result.

They didn’t do this specifically in rebellion to my play style. They explained their rationale, and it had nothing to do with whether it was a sandbox or railroad type of campaign.

Ultimately, they wanted to maintain their sense of agency even though it ended the campaign’s plot. I’ve since learned to value player agency far more than I ever used to.

But, if this had been a sandbox style game, it wouldn’t have mattered. The party’s choice would have been handled just like any other and play would have continued, just in a new and equally valid direction.

When this happened, I had never heard of the sandbox style of game play. I’ve since grown to love and embrace sandboxed games and, thinking back, recognize just how powerful and useful it would have been in that situation.

I still could have had my “grand plan” in place, ready for the players to discover. But it would have been designed in a way where that discovery wasn’t a requirement. It was simply there, ready to be found. I have also learned I don’t need to prepare things to nearly the same degree of detail as before.

I have calculated that in my story-style DMing days, I spent an average of 15-20 hours of preparation for every hour of actual game play. I loved every minute of it, but that’s not sustainable. Sandboxing still allows me an adequate amount of creative time to come up with settings and the beasts and traps and tricks and other fun things that inhabit it — something I enjoy doing — but I spend less than half the amount of time doing it. And the players are having a great time with all the sense of agency they could ever want.

Gaming Guide: Great Players

Fantasy adventurers

Making choices and engaging in behavior that is counter to your character’s alignment can have serious consequences, especially for certain classes like clerics, druids, and paladins.

You can give advice or your opinion to other players, but every player has the right to make their own decisions.

People and Role-playing Games

Adventuring party in corridor
Adventuring party in corridor

I have been running D&D games at my local library since October of last year (2023). Since that time various players have come and gone. Most have only played a few times prior to joining the group, or they played a fair bit but long ago.

Of those players that have participated once or twice and then left the group, all but one did so without giving a reason why. The one player who gave a reason stated they felt the old-school rules we were following made it far too likely for their character to die. Based on that feedback and the input of the players that stayed, we adjusted our table rules to address it (with a death save based on CON score).

As a Dungeon Master, if I were running a story-driven game, it would be very frustrating to have players come and go like that. Not knowing what the party makeup would be from one session to the next would wreak havoc on my planned campaign. Considering I’m using a more sandbox style approach, where the players decide what they want to do and where they want to go, it’s been a lot easier to handle the shifting party.

Throughout this process, it has been interesting to see the different dynamics and motivations for each player. Some joined the group because they’d dabbled in 5th edition but wanted to give old-school play a try. Others had played 5e and found it lacking for various reasons. Others have only played 1980s or even 1970s rules and never tried the latest editions.

Dungeon Masters are there to serve the players, not the other way around.

Each player has their own motivation of why they show up to a game, and each player has their own play style and preferred reason to stay. For example, some really like role-playing their character and get a lot of enjoyment when interacting with NPCs in town. They’ll get into character and delve into the nuance of negotiating with a jewelry merchant, the innkeeper, or Captain of the Guard.

Other players like the tactical strategy of planning a raid on an orc lair and leave their interaction with a vendor back at town to single sentences. “Do you want to buy this battle axe I took from a dead orc chieftain or not?”

There is a bit of advice on YouTube that DMs should cover the bases and ensure every game session has something to suit the diverse motivations and desires of all possible player types. I don’t think this is bad advice but I do feel it’s difficult to accomplish in each session. Rather, I prefer to have one session devoted to the tactical combat and strategy, while another is focused more on the role-playing aspects of the game.

As an author, I’ve learned the value of capturing my reader’s attention and holding it fast with intense action, then giving them a breather chapter where not much happens — or nothing dangerous, anyway. Filmmakers have learned this maxim decades ago. Like most pop songs, there’s a particular pattern and rhythm that people unconsciously expect. I think a D&D campaign can follow an ideal rhythm, too.

Ultimately, though, a good Dungeon Master isn’t a songwriter or artist or author, where their work is an expression of themselves and their audience can either like it or not. Instead, I think a Dungeon Master is a facilitator. They learn the desires of the players at their table and dynamically create an experience that suits them best.

The DM may tailor their game in a particular way for the players around their table, but as players come and go what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Flexibility and the ability to read the room is an important soft skill for the DM as they strive to make the experience as fun as possible. They are there to serve the players, not the other way around.

Death and the CON Save

Bring out your dead!

The party I run uses Old-School Essentials Advanced Fantasy rules, modified slightly to adhere more toward AD&D/1e rules rather than Basic/Expert/BECMI rules. Having said that, we started off following the “death is at 0 hit points” rule but the players quickly came to the conclusion that this made death for 1st level characters too likely.

So we engineered a solution that lies somewhere between death at -10 (AD&D) and death at 0 (BECMI). We call it a “CON save.


Characters who reach 0 hit points are unconscious and cannot be revived until they receive healing, such as a full and uninterrupted night’s sleep (8 hours) or magical healing such as from a Cure Light Wounds spell or healing potion.

A full night’s uninterrupted sleep will bring the character to 1 hit point and they will regain consciousness.

Magical healing will restore hit points according to the rules based on the type of magic used.

CON Save

If a character is between -1 and -9 hit points, they are not only unconscious but are also in shock and have a high likelihood of eminent death. If a character reaches -10 or lower hit points for any reason or for any duration, they die.

The player must roll a Constitution check for their character. To do so, they subtract their negative hit points from their CON score and roll d20. If they roll equal to or less than their modified CON score, their character goes up to 0 hit points and are unconscious (see “Unconsciousness’ rule above).

If they roll above their modified CON score, the character is dead.

For example: Farkle the Fighter (1st level) has a CON of 18 (born lucky). He is struck by the tail of a dragon (maybe not so lucky) and slammed into a wall, taking him to -4 hit points. This means his modified CON Save score is 14 (18 minus 4). He rolls a d20 and must get 14 or lower to survive. Anything above that and he dies.

He rolls a 13, which means he is now at 0 hit points and unconscious (lucky after all), and if he can get healing from the rest of the party, he’ll survive (with an interesting story to tell; “Don’t go into the light!”)

NOTE: It may be mathematically impossible for characters with some low CON scores to make a CON Save. For example, a character with a CON of 6 cannot survive being brought to -6 or lower hit points; at -5 hit points, they must roll a 1 on a d20 to survive.

A comparison Between 5e D&D and OSR

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.


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).


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.)


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).


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.

Gaming Guide: Combat

Here is some advice and guidance to D&D players and Dungeon Masters for more effective, efficient and enjoyable combat.

Not all combat must end in the destruction of your foe in order to gain experience points. Especially for low-level characters with few hit points, combat is very risky and even the smallest monster can kill you.

Consider other ways around a confrontation, including parley, stealth, and bribes. If combat ensues and you decide to flee, remember that many monsters will halt pursuit for shiny things, a few coins dropped on the ground, or food. If you find a clever way to end combat or avoid it altogether, you may be awarded partial or full experience points by the DM as if you had killed the monster(s) outright.

In combat, positioning and movement matters. Don’t just think about the location of your own character.

Think about how your position impacts the effectiveness and limitations of the rest of your party.

Use terrain and obstacles to your advantage, especially during ranged combat.

Pick up used arrows after a combat. You may need them later.

Spell casters must remain still and be able to speak in order to cast their spells.

When the party encounters a monster, it is possible for both sides to be surprised. If only one side is surprised, the other side gets a free round to act before initiative is rolled.

Pay attention to the order of combat and think ahead. Be ready when it’s your turn to act to make the overall encounter smooth and efficient.

The enemy of your enemy may be your friend. Sometimes you can motivate intelligent (or hungry, etc.) monsters to attack each other instead of attacking you.

Gaming Guide: Experience & Treasure

Dividing treasure

In a typical old-school adventure, roughly 75% of your character’s earned experience points will come from the acquisition of treasure, not from killing monsters (5e and newer editions have a completely different ratio). If you can find a way to obtain the dragon’s horde without actually fighting the dragon, you’ll go far in this world. NOTE: Magical treasure like wands, rings, and magical weapons and armor don’t earn you experience points because their value is in their use. If you sell these items, however, you will probably earn experience points as if they were treasure (coins, gems, jewelry, etc.)

Treasure doesn’t matter or count toward experience if you don’t get it back to town or a safe place.

Jewelry, gems and magic items are worth more and weigh less than coins.

Every 10 coins weigh one pound regardless of metal type (copper, silver, gold, etc.)

Death is usually final. It’s better to pick your battles, conserve your resources (especially hit points) or run away to fight again another day. However, sometimes bold action is what’s called for. Smart players consider the circumstances and know what gives them the best odds to accomplish their goals while surviving the experience. (Dead characters don’t earn experience points.)

Gaming Guide: Exploration & Smart Adventuring

Adventuring party

You will very rarely find what is hidden if you don’t tell the DM that you are searching for it.

If the DM says you don’t find a trap or secret door, that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a trap or secret door there.

Draw a map as you explore a dungeon. It doesn’t have to be specifically accurate, but must be able to lead you back out to the surface to safety.

Over-arguing about things in the dungeon draws the attention of wandering monsters. Wandering monsters sap your resources (hit points, spells, arrows, etc.) and rarely have any treasure.

Being able to creatively and constructively solve problems with efficient solutions is the greatest skill a player can have, and is far more valuable than anything carried or specified on a character sheet.

The DM often drops hints about things of value, but not everything they say is significant or a clue.

Explore and investigate your surroundings. Put things in context with other bits of information to discern what is important.

The character with the highest charisma score should conduct all negotiations with NPCs on the party’s behalf.

Most henchman won’t consider going on an adventure-for-hire with you until you buy them a drink.

Some difficult physical tasks that require great strength, such as opening a stuck door or lifting a porcullis, can only be accomplished through the combined effort of two (or more) characters.

Mirrors require a light source to work, and infravision does not apply. In fact, it is not possible to read in the dark or discern colors using infravision alone.

A torch or other heat source will prevent infravision from working when near that heat source.

If you are using a torch or lantern, any creature with infravision will likely see you long before you see them.

You naturally heal 1d3 hit points for every full day of rest (not just 8 hours of sleep).

You can become lost (and not realize it) when traveling outdoors unless you are following a known road or trail, or following a skilled guide.

Any character can search for room traps, like covered pits, etc., but only thieves can search for treasure traps. The DM rolls for success, not the player (just because the DM says no trap is found doesn’t mean there isn’t still a trap present).