Monday, February 25, 2019

Converting 5E to B/X

[this one is for Lord Gwydion]

Back in December, I wrote a post about introducing B/X (or older edition play in general) to new players. The thoughts I expressed were with an eye towards starting a new B/X campaign. One thing I hadn't considered at the time is that folks might be looking to convert an existing, late-edition campaign, not just their players, to a better (easier) rule system.

That's exactly what Mr. Laffey (Lord Gwyd) had in mind: converting his existing 5E game to Labyrinth Lord (a well-known retroclone of B/X). Only now, he's having some "second thoughts" on the matter.

Man. Where to start?

I've run many editions of D&D...six in all (I think) not counting retroclones. But I'm not sure I've ever converted campaigns between systems. Characters, sure...I converted my original (B/X) characters to AD&D, and I converted some "historic" AD&D characters to both BECMI and 3rd Edition to act as NPCs. Hell, I once ran a Marvel Superheroes campaign that converted a couple AD&D characters (that was pretty wild...) and I did have another group of characters that had a brief stint in Boot Hill (courtesy of the conversion rules in my old DMG and a plane-jumping artifact).

But I've never taken a long-running campaign and said, "hey, let's keep this thing going...just using a different, wildly dissimilar system." At least, not that I remember (it's possible I've forgotten something in the last 35 years). Usually, when we decided to run a new system, we'd create a new campaign to go with it; that was always part of the enticement of a new system, after all: exploring the bells and whistles. Seeing what kind of new characters we could make with the new, interesting system. If we were converting favorite characters, seeing just how they'd look, or how they might be modeled.

In those situations, however (converting existing characters), it was always a matter of converting forward, i.e. converting characters to a later, revised edition. And often (if not always) that meant converting to a game with MORE complications, more rules...not less.

'What do you mean, JB? BECMI isn't "more complex" than AD&D!' AD&D is plenty fiddly, but early 1E doesn't have nearly as many character options as RC/ least, not if you're using weapon mastery and "general skills" found in the Rules Cyclopedia and Gazeteers. Not if you're converting high level characters and fiddling with the "proto-prestige classes" found in Mentzer's Companion set. With regard to character customization, BECMI has a lot more to offer a player than straight, unmodified AD&D. Later AD&D books (the Dungeoneer and Wilderness Survival Guides, for example) offered their own no-weapon proficiencies, but AD&D weapon mastery never reached the level of granularity found in Mentzer. I saw 5th and 6th level BECMI characters sporting tremendous attack bonuses and special effects with their chosen weapons.

ANYway...converting backwards isn't something I've had much opportunity to do. None, really. And considering some of my characters (my 3rd edition duelist, my wild elf "fighter-barbarian" with his two-fisted hand axes of death), I can't see how I could get nearly the same "oomph" in a system that had less character customization. Not without adding whole swaths of house rules.

But if a player in an existing campaign is really married to the kewl powers that come with their customizable character, are they really going to be satisfied with stepping into a simpler game? I suppose it depends on the player but, man, I don't know.

Here are my thoughts: converting an existing campaign from 5E to B/X (or its equivalent) is a pretty easy step for a DM. Heck, most of the nuts-n-bolts of the system are a snap, yet you still have plenty of stuff that's recognizable from your 5E game, mainly because the bulk of 5E "content" (monsters, treasure, magic spells) has been converted directly from earlier editions. The only real problem is one of converting existing player characters (unless you have super-special-snowflake NPCs you want to convert), and that's all dependent on the attitude of the player. In my opinion, you've got four categories in this regard:

#1 Old School Enthusiast: this is the player who WANTS to play something like B/X or LL or OD&D, for whatever reason. This girl (or guy) is ready to saw off all the feats and skill checks and has no problem ditching their dragonborn warlock-battlemage-whatever for a "dwarf" or "thief." issues, just give 'em the closest equivalent.

#2 I Hate Old School: this is the person who has experience with older editions and is playing 5E precisely because she (or he) wants the stuff 5E has that B/X (or whatever) can't provide. You can't please all the people all the time. If you, the DM, really wants to convert your campaign/system, you're going to have to resign yourself to the loss of these folks.

#3 No Great Loss: this is a player who's so new to the game, that "starting over" isn't all that big a deal. Their character is first or second level, and there's no deep attachment that's been formed. So long as they have no deep-seated resentment or preexisting dislike, conversion to a simpler system should be fairly painless.

#4 Can I Keep My Feats?: lastly, you've got the player who's not dead-set against the conversion, but who has played for a while in the "new school" and gotten used to a certain level of effectiveness in granularity in their character and doesn't want to lose that. They're willing to play a different system; heck, they might be wanting to play a different system. But they also want assurances that the conversion won't cost them much...and they've got more than a little to lose.

It's only players of the fourth type that require much work on the part of the DM (always assuming you're willing to compromise your conversion tastes to retain those players). Here's how it goes down:

First, explain that the system isn't just changing for the's changing for the world/NPCs as well. A character's AC, hit points, or attack bonus might be reduced from what the player's used to, but so are the combat stats of the monsters.

Second, explain it's a slightly different type of game. Magic is somewhat scarcer (wizards don't just throw "lasers at will," for example). The challenges players face will be somewhat different and there will be a period of adjustment. DMs will need to be on their game (i.e work doubly hard), especially for the first few sessions as they "break in" the players to the new way of gaming. Done right, you can convert the player from a #4 to a #1. Done wrong, the player will end up a #2 looking for someone else's table.

Finally, the house rules. Create and implement only as much as you need to give the player the equivalent of what they had in their 5E existence. Don't go overboard, but don't skimp, and never worry about all the things they didn't have (i.e. abilities that would have been gained at higher levels in the original system). For example:

A) One of Dennis's players has a 5th level elven fighter-battlemaster-archer. Mechanically (which is all I give a shit about) elves are nothing fancy; everything here is modeled fine with the elf class of B/X. The crazy-ass fighter class is a little trickier: first an "elf" in B/X (or straight Labyrinth Lord) is a fighter/magic-user...which this character isn't. Second, the "archer" designation gives the character a +2 bonus to attack rolls with any ranged weapon (hello, Ultimate Hawkeye). Third, the "battle master" designation (gained at 3rd level) makes her a kind of zen master of combat...mostly color, but she gets four "superiority dice" that can be expended to use any one of three special "maneuvers" she knows. Maneuvers are basically just fighter spells: she knows three and learns more at higher levels; she can cast four per day and learns more at higher levels.

[these are kind of stupid, in my opinion. If a fighter knows how to "disarm and opponent" or "feint" or "lunge," why is she limited in the number of times per day she can perform the action. This is the kind of bullshit this is left over from 4th edition and its "at will/encounter/daily" video game garbage. Even 3E wasn't so stingy with feats]

A 5th level elf gets five spells per day. The easy fix here is ask the character to make a straight elf and give her spells the equivalent of her maneuvers. B/X elves can, of course, engage in spell research at any time, so it's not an issue of her "learning weird spells." Regarding the bow thing: allow her to keep the +2 attack bonus (as a zen archer or whatever) but require the use of her bow as a focus for her magic (i.e. she can't cast her "spells" without it). The player gets to keep her mechanical bonuses AND her special archery color/style, and the re-skin isn't too far astray. I would NOT give the character any type of magic item that mimics the ability of the 5E character, as such a thing can be passed on, picked up by another character, etc. and the whole magic archer deal is this character's thing. It only works for her (or a similar archer).

B) Another character in Dennis's campaign is a 5th level human "war priest," a concept that I love (I've played a "war priest" in B/X's called a cleric with a high strength). This cleric uses a flaming sword (a bonus of his war "domain").

Clerics in 5E are all screwed up, having carried over all sorts of bullshit from back in the Defenders of the Faith splatbook days. They are also packing serious spell power: a 5th level cleric in B/X has four spells compared to 13 in 5th edition (including access to such spells as animate dead, create food and water, and revivify...a lightweight raise dead). But they only get to turn undead once per day (?!) unless they want to "channel their divinity" into a +10 attack (war priests only).

Here's a situation where the DM and the player have to have a sit-down talk about personal expectations in comparison to the cosmology of the campaign world. What is it the player wants? What's the priority here and where is the compromise? I hear "war priest" and I think "player who wants to kick ass and throw a couple spells around (in support of kicking ass)."

Give the player this: you can use edged weapons (like your flaming sword), but you can't turn undead. That's the price you pay for following the god of war. Be honest: you weren't going to use your one "channel divinity" per day to turn undead were going to thump someone with it. Well, there's no spell equivalent of guided strike in B/X, but there is the 3rd level spell striking, which gives you an extra D6 damage (double damage for a cleric) for ten minutes (rather than a single attack)...and if you use Labyrinth Lord (instead of B/X), you can get that spell as a 5th level (as well as another 5-9 spells depending on your Wisdom score). And in LL, the number of striking spells you have access to will be much higher than the number of guided strikes in 5E. Just saying.

C) The final problem character is a tiefling sorcerer. Technically, he's a type #2 who preferred Pathfinder to 5E. For him, it's not about an accurate re-skin...he prefers a more complex system. But let's pretend (for the sake of this exercise) that he doesn't and it's really just about his character.

For me, rather than tweaking a spell list (as with example A) or a class (as with example B) I'd go ahead and create a whole new class...assuming I could stand to have such a species in my campaign. I'll make no bones about it: I'm not a fan of the tiefling. As a matter of fact, I'm not a fan of the sorcerer class either. So I'd create a single, unique class ("the tiefling sorcerer") that would be available for this single player. Oh, it wouldn't be that hard: sorcerers only use arcane (magic-user) spells after all. Fire resistance and some dumbshit magic...okay. Maybe a reaction penalty when dealing with lawful-types (because of the character's "infernal" origins). Give the character a couple more spells per day than a magic-user of the same level, but limit the total number known (duh). Apply 5E metamagic already learned in class specific fashion (with no new metamagic on the horizon). I would probably allow the character to use any weapon he'd already used (crossbows and such), but no more. I'd also probably drop hit dice to D4s and put 'em equivalent to magic-users. Probably.

This would be the only character of this type allowed into my "grandfathered in" to preserve continuity. If (when?) the character die "the final death" I wouldn't necessarily allow another one to be created: maybe the gateway to the infernal realm has been closed, maybe Satan (or his fantasy equivalent) has come calling for the (souls? life-force?) of all mortal infernals and they're only present as NPCs...whatever. It was a one-time, one-shot deal...unless, of course, I found the character to be sufficiently wonderful that I wanted to keep seeing them show up in my game world.

[I've done this in the past, just by the way: gave into a player's request for some nutty addition to the game. Had a player who wanted a (male) Drow magic-user/assassin with non-standard psionics, specifically pyrokinesis powers. Actually, come to think of it, he might have simply been a Drow assassin that masqueraded as a magic-user using his pyrokinetic abilities as a cover (i.e. pretending to cast spells). It wasn't a bad ride: we figured out a way to "level up" his abilities over time, and it wasn't a gross travesty considering the campaign at the time and the fact that the character was usually used in side (solo) adventures. But it was a one-shot deal that was never repeated. I don't even have any written rules or records of the character in my old files (as far as I know)]

Of course, there are inherent dangers here, though "accidentally allowing a game-breaking class" isn't really one of them (DMs have many ways to remove problematic characters...and players!). But D&D as a game is written in a particular's designed to function with a particular array of class options. And the main danger is: once you allow one unique character into your campaign world, you run the risk of MORE being requested, both by the player who originally craved such a character and other players at the table.

In my own games, this never became an issue. Usually only one of these "unique" characters would show up at a time, and no player ever ran more than one. The guy with the pyrokinetic? His other characters were a bog-standard magic-user and an elven thief (not even multiclassed), with a couple dips into other standards (an illusionist, for example). I played a 1E bard, so my character was already weird enough...I never felt the need to have a lizard man shaman or centaur mountebank or whatever. But I digress...the point is, you (the DM) can lay down rules and limits for this kind of thing, while still allowing PCs to have their "weirdness for a day." It just depends on how much work you're willing to do.

Fortunately, with a game like B/X (or Labyrinth Lord), most of the work is pretty easy.
; )


  1. You have done a good job breaking down these particular PC types and the kinds of players you find.

    Have you looked at 5e combat? It seems far more complex than basic combat.

    1. Haven't looked at it RECENTLY, but that doesn't seem to have been the issue for Lord Gwydion's campaign.

      Might be a subject for a separate post.
      ; )

  2. @Scott - interestingly, among my players, the ones that take the most advantage of the many options in 5E combat are mostly good with the switch. My son is OK, the Rogue player is OK. The sorcerer, who is most likely to quit, is a power player when it comes to character design, but is usually pretty straightforward in combat with this character.

    And it's actually interesting to me that despite all the potential complexity, 5E combat is really often just a hit point slog (with inflated hit point numbers). In a PbP game, I've got a Monk/Fighter who's supposed to be the tactical guy, but a lot of the time I analyze a situation and realize punching 3 times in a round is going to be more effective than trying to grapple/trip/disarm my opponent. Spells are the same. The utility/control spells can be useful, but often the damage dealers are optimal choices.

    @JB - Thanks for the analysis. I think you're right. My #2 type player, the sorcerer, is probably gone no matter what. For the other two, slight tweaking of the rules should suffice. And as you say, I'll grandfather in the current existing characters and refluff things as needed.

    Refluffing is something we already did for the Fairy Princess character. Mechanically she plays a Tiefling Warlock. Stylistically, she is, as mentioned, a fairy who has a pink sparkly eldritch blast and a rainbow aura when she hexes something. :D I could just convert her to a standard Magic User (with a custom spell or two) and let her continue to be a fairy princess.

  3. Nah, stick with 5E and keep all the players happy. Increase the difficulty of the monsters. 5E runs as smoothly as basic if not better.

    1. This is not entirely accurate, at least not in combat. Most 5e characters are going to have more options in any given combat round than a b/x character. Most also will have multiple options for bonus actions. I find that unless players develope particular "best practices" or "combos" that the options available to them in a round will slow down play in a way that doesn't happen in old-school d&d.

      Also, a lack of really nasty status conditions, and no default rules for Morale mean that encounters tend to be fought to the last bloody hit-point. And since monsters tend to have much more HP in 5e than basic (granted, most players also do more damage, though, not always by as much as HP is inflated) that last bloody HP is going to be a few rounds later as well.

  4. The cool things about encounters in older games are: talking (reaction roll table) and morale. They’re also the reasons undead are so scary in older games.