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The D&D Fourth Edition Time Machine

Written by Nicholas - Published on November 18, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

I am an unabashed fan of fourth edition D&D, which I’m sure is no surprise to our readers.  But you may not know that I started off with second edition. Like most long time gamers, I still feel bangs for my first beloved system. If you’re like me than you occasionally long for the old school game. High fatality sessions, insanely trapped corridors and putting on magic items when you don’t know what they do. While we fantasize about the old editions, going back to actually play them can be frustrating and disappointing. Fortunately, 4e with some minor adjustments can replicate those good old days without losing its ease of play. I’ll teach you how to take your 4e game back to the old school.

Attitude Adjustment

Before we get into the mechanical bits, the most important thing to capture to achieve the old school feel is the right attitude. For starters, there’s the issue of balance. In 4e creating encounters within your party’s acceptable range is quite easy. You are expected to only have fights they can handle but will still provide at least some challenge. A level 15 party won’t be fighting a god, but also not a goblin scouting group. In 2e, balancing encounters was trickery and I always felt less necessary. Part of the challenge of combat then was to know when to retreat or attempt a different tactic.

On top of that, the PCs had to compete with the potential of traps, cursed items and a whole array of the great unknown. To me the great essence of 2e has to do with not knowing. The PC bumble around and no matter how skilled they are they don’t have the tools to divine everything. They may not know if the monster they face is beatable, they may not have a rogue to detect the trap, or they may not have the identify spells to see if a ring is cursed. The point is that to hit the old school attitude, you need to stop catering to your players abilities. Just because no one invested in thievery doesn’t mean the enemy didn’t lay traps. Just because they are level 4 doesn’t mean the dragon’s lair they are in houses a young dragon instead of an adult. They are a small part of an indifferent world.


One of the things that sticks out to me about old school D&D was the high fatality rate. It is one of the risks you take when you’re a level 1 wizard with 4 hp. Remarkably, you can achieve this effect in 4e with very little tinkering. If you want to run a more dangerous combat you don’t necessarily have to use higher level monsters. Adjusting the party composition can manage even better. Being down a party role can lead to the same uncontrolled combat as old D&D. I find that going defenderless is the best route. There was certainly fighters in old D&D, but they lacked any real power to keep enemies on them. Enemies could just as easily prey on the weaker casters and spread healing thin. Fill your defender gap with an extra striker to capture that fast but dangerous combat of old school D&D.

Traps may require more mechanical tinkering. The DM can ramp up the damage, use the elite versions or simply include more of them to wear down the party over time. Don’t overlook the more complex traps in the DMG2 that can turn whole rooms into trapped skill challenges for the party.


Don’t forgot to include some of the classics of the edition. Ear seekers, mimics, wights, piercers, flumphs and so on. Some of them still exist, others you may need to reskin or stat up yourself. The mere appearance of some of these monsters should send your more experienced players into storytelling mode. Don’t forget to think outside the box when reintroducing these monsters. I can easily imagine an encounter with a mimic being a skill challenge rather than an actual battle.

Also, despite some problems they cause, I love not knowing what a magic item does and the potential for cursed items. It would be a fairly easy switch to make identifying a magic item the job of a ritual. You can also reintroduced cursed item either as a static penalty or effect or perhaps using a modified version of the disease rules.

Do you pine for the days of THAC0 and lurkers? What do you do about it? Let us know in the comments.

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.



15 Responses to “The D&D Fourth Edition Time Machine”
  1. rmckee78 says:

    Don’t let your players roll for searching. Have them describe exactly where they are looking. Don’t let them roll for disarming traps unless they explain what it is they are doing to disarm the trap. You would be amazed at how quickly the whole attitude shifts at the table when you start doing this. It quickly rubs off.

    Another thing you can do is have them bring along torch bearers and pack carriers. Make them really easy to kill.

  2. Swordgleam says:

    Sounds like 1st edition as well. I like the idea of running a one-shot like that.

  3. newbiedm says:

    Funny you mention this, because I am planning on running a 2nd ed. game after we wrap up this 4th ed adventure we are on.

    We’ll take a break from 4th ed.and run a mini campaign set in the Forgotten Realms around the time of the Avatars trilogy. I’m excited, I started playing with 2e mostly, and I’ve already got the books and modules ready to go.

  4. Yax says:

    @rmckee78: I like your advice. Will do that in my games.

  5. @rmckee78 Good advice on the search roles. I like that feel. I long for some of that old school feel back in our games, so much so that I’ve bought Mutant Future and Labyrinth Lord! Gonna have fun with those.

  6. rmckee78 says:

    @Buccaneer: Make sure you let the wackiness loose with Mutant Future. The game has a great community too. I have been writing about my prep for my first Mutant Future campaign on my blog and people have been really helpful.

    Another thing you can do is to rely heavily on the random generation tables in the DMG. This can give your game more of that gonzo old school feel. 4E does not have as many random tables as the old school games but many of the items have the same names. With a little work an OSRIC (free .pdf) table could be converted to 4e easily.

    Let the roleplaying happen in the retelling. Don’t worry about having an epic story prepared ahead of time, let your players put everything in context when they recite their adventures.

    Give more XP for getting gold out of the dungeon than you do for killing the monsters. This will lead to the players being more clever about how they get the gold.

  7. Steve V says:

    That’s what I really like about 4th edition, it really gives that old school feel to the game with mechanics that work one heck of a lot better. Though there are still days when I pine away for 1st edition or even basic/Expert edition.

    I have been know, on occasion, to break out the Rules Cyclopedia and run a one shot or two. It’s a lot of fun and those who never played the earlier editions, get a real kick out of it. But then again., I have a really great game group I DM for.

  8. TGN says:

    The idea of a cursed item working like a disease is extremely interesting! I love the idea of risking one’s life because we need something to smack that vampire RIGHT NOW. It is worth exploring in my games.

  9. Yax says:

    DId I mention I miss THAC0? It was challenging enough that it made me feel good every time I figured out if I hit or not. Now things are too simple!

  10. Kolbold Minion says:

    To convey the “old school” feel, I useually make the game very heavy on mundane elements. For example, “the players will head out of the village of Barrelrock after a hearty breakfast of bacon, apples, and mead” as apposed to “the players leave the village after an extended rest”.

  11. Dra8er says:

    Hailing from the era of OD&D, what I miss most is that our gaming group could go a whole session without even lifting their weapons and still have an AMAZING Role Playing experience, the 4E shift to Roll Playing is stifling, but with some work a good DM can overcome anything.

    Great suggestions all!!!

  12. wlkeR says:

    I met a 4th Ed Flumph along with a bunch of his fellows in the Fool’s Grove, the adventure WotC published on 1st April 2009. That’s sure worth a try…


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