Bringing back that old school style

You know what the biggest difference is between Fourth Edition D&D and previous versions? Layout. The D&D Essentials line goes a large way toward proving this – it’s a re-presentation of the same rules we’ve seen before in 4e (barring a few tweaks and improvements along the way), but in a much improved package. Same rules, different design. That’s all.

The question though is whether it has gone far enough, and that’s entirely down to personal taste. I know players who loved the original 4e Core Rules layout whereas others couldn’t stand it. The PHB could have certainly done with more fluff between the covers, but the fact they managed to fit 30 whole levels for eight classes and the same number of races is quite an achievement. That’s the entire scope of the game from 1st level to immortality, and everything in between. No mean feat in 320 pages.

Adding in more fluff would have meant something had to be cut in return. Again, D&D Essentials shows that by effectively splitting the classes and races into two books – one for the traditional D&D mob, and the other for the rest. By focusing on less, there’s more room to give us more. It’s a trade-off. In contrast the PHB tried to give us the whole shebang all at once, and it’s unsurprising that many gamers were overwhelmed and put off by the presentation.

I would have preferred they gave us the same 8 races and classes, but just the first 20 class levels. This would have given plenty of room for additional fluff, more rituals, more Paragon classes, etc – and meant we could look forward to a full-on Epic Level Player’s Handbook that solidly did justice to high level play. That’s still something that is weak in 4e. I feel that 4e is crying out for a darned good players’ guide covering the road to immortality.


How rules are presented has a massive impact on the feel of the game. With Fourth Edition the designers made a conscious effort to present the rules in a manner that is clear, consistent and unambiguous. Regardless of class, special abilities are presented in an identical manner – the Powers block. That’s a double-edged sword as it means that while they achieved their goal, making each class look the same, meant players feel they were the same. They’re not, as anyone who has actually sat down and played it will testify.

If layout has such a large effect on the game, what if we made Fourth Edition look even more old school. The 4e Red Box went a long way by… well, putting it in a Red Box, but maintained the overall 4e style internally by using pretty much the same layout we’re familiar with. What if we change that, and present the game in a style that unashamedly goes right back to the early days of D&D.

Previously, I’ve showed how a 4e Young Black Dragon would look with a Classic D&D make-over. This time around let’s take a look at a handful of Fourth Edition Kobolds, fresh from the first Monster Manual. I have lifted the Kobold monster description from the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (praiseitsholyname), but everything else is full-on Fourth Edition, just with a different lick of paint.

Just to show it could be done, there’s a single-line statblock entry for the Minion and Skirmisher too. Single-line statblocks are perfect for inclusion in adventure text where brevity is required. They’re not suitable for more important foes (so, no single-line for the Wyrmpriest!), but good for those speedbump encounters along the way. For example, a cave mouth could be described something like this:

Cave mouth: Sandy floor shows many clawed tracks. Hiding inside (Perception DC 19) behind rocky outcroppings are 8 Kobold Minions (Spd 6 init +3, AC15 F11 R13 W11, hp 1, Javelin +5 10/20 4, AL E, XP 25ea) and 3 Skirmishers (Spd 6 init +5, AC15 F11 R14 W13, hp 27, Spear +6 1d8+special, AL E, XP 100ea).

That’s an entire encounter in less space than a standard 4e statblock. Take that, two-page encounter design!

Old school? Oh yes. But so very Fourth Edition too.

Several things are omitted from these statblocks. One is a monster’s Perception skill. For simplicity, I prefer this to be a level-appropriate DC for the players to check their Stealth against. That beats checking passive Perception (or rolling active Perception, if they’re on the lookout) for each monster, and has much the same effect. Likewise, the only stat listed is INT. This shows the overall intelligence of the foe – and I love that Minions are smarter than Skirmishers. Guess they have to be with only 1 hit point to spare. The other stats rarely come into play anyhow, and it gives the DM freedom to individualize the monsters however they wish. If you want a particularly wise, dextrous, ugly (or beautiful!) kobold, it’s just a description away, no number juggling required. Heck, if you want this particular Kobold Minion to have the brains of Einstein (with a hairstyle to match), make it so. It’s your game, after all.

Any attack against AC (which is most monster attacks) only show the to-hit bonus (eg, +5). Attacks against Fort, Ref or Will are suffixed with F, R or W respectively. Likewise, at-will attacks have no suffix whereas per-encounter and daily attacks are suffixed /enc or /day (eg, +6F/enc means +6 vs Fort, once per encounter).


Thse small, evil doglike humanoids usually live underground in clans of 10 to 60 members. They have scaly, rust brown skin and no hair. The have well developed darkvision and prefer to attack by ambush. Kobolds hate gnomes and will attack them on sight.

All Kobolds can shift 1 square as a minor action and gain a +2 to defences against traps.

Terrain: Cavern, Hill, Mountain, Wood.


Kobold Minion
Armor Class: 15
Level: 1 Minion (1 hp)
Speed: 6, +3 initiative
Attacks: Javelin +5 range 10/20
Damage: Javelin 4
Saves: Fortitude 11, Reflex 13, Will 11
Skills: Stealth +4, Thievery +4
Intelligence: 9
Alignment: Evil
XP Value: 25

Monster Type: Small natural humanoid (reptile)

Kobold Minion: Spd 6 init +3, AC15 F11 R13 W11, hp 1, Javelin +5 10/20 4, AL E, XP 25


Kobold Skirmisher
Armor Class: 15
Level: 1 Skirmisher (27 hp)
Speed: 6, +5 initiative
Attacks: Spear +6
Damage: Spear 1d8 plus see below
Saves: Fortitude 11, Reflex 14, Will 13
Skills: Acrobatics +7, Stealth +9, Thievery +9
Intelligence: 6
Alignment: Evil
XP Value: 100

Monster Type: Small natural humanoid (reptile)

A Kobold Skirmisher deals an extra 1d6 damage against any opponent it has combat advantage against, and a +1 to attack rolls per kobold ally adjacent to a target.

Kobold Skirmisher: Spd 6 init +5, AC15 F11 R14 W13, hp 27, Spear +6 1d8+special, AL E, XP 100


Kobold Wyrmpriest
Armor Class: 17
Level: 3 Artillery Leader (36 hp)
Speed: 6, +4 initiative
Attacks: Spear +7, Energy Orb +6R range 10 or Dragon Breath +6F/enc close blast 3
Damage: Spear 1d8, Energy Orb 1d10+3, Dragon Breath 1d10+3 (miss half), plus see below
Saves: Fortitude 13, Reflex 15, Will 15
Skills: Stealth +10, Thievery +10
Intelligence: 9
Alignment: Evil
XP Value: 150

Monster Type: Small natural humanoid (reptile)

The damage type for a Kobold Wyrmpriest’s Energy Orb and Dragon Breath depend upon the type of dragon served. A Kobold Wyrmpriest can incite religious fervour in all allies within 10 squares once per encounter. This grants the allies 5 temporary hit points and allows them to shift 1 square.

(c) Wizards of the Coast, of course.

11 Comments on “Bringing back that old school style”

  1. The biggest difference is presentation? You seem to be looking at superficial details and confusing that with an entire theory of design and belief in what a game should consist of and be about. Not to be difficult or cause trouble, but I could not disagree with your post more, and believe you’ve missed the point entirely. The very core assumptions of what an RPG is and how gameplay should proceed are different between these editions, and that is a pretty dang big difference if you ask me. Reading 4E advice on actually running the game is like looking at an alien language to me… I don’t see how it can be the same game as older editions at all.

    However, I am with you in thinking the 4E game would have been nice if it was cut down into smaller sections. I myself have wondered from the beginning of 4E why they didn’t make a book for *each* tier of play, so those who never got beyond lvl 10 could just buy the books for the Heroic tier, getting 100% content they could use, and leave it at that.

    I guess I’ve answered my own question though, haven’t I? WotC would rather you buy ALL books, not just those of one tier. Too bad, because I personally feel that 2/3rds of any 4E book is wasted material (my group is too casual to ever get past Heroic tier), so I can’t justify buying ANY additional books beyond the absolute core rulebooks, and have not done so. It’s simply not worth the expense.

    1. @Jack Colby:Yes, the rules (and all the design behind them, assumptions on how an encounter is supposed to be) are completely different amongst 4E, 3.5 and older editions. However, the feel of the game is pretty much determined by visual presentation. Also, the same design choices and philosophy you mention were responsible for new presentations of old rules, as Greywulf showed in this post with monster statblocks.
      They labeled fighters’ powers as “Exploits” and wizards’ as “Spells”; however, many people saw them just as powers and claimed that “all classes are the same”. If they put Wizard spells in a separate chapter, and Fighter abilities in a different power box, people wouldn’t say that – this is how presentation matters.

      @Greywulf:I like 4E monsters (the way all abilities are listed in their proper places and not in a different chapter of a different book, for example), but I liked the shortness you achieved. Particularly, ommiting “obvious” information like “vs AC” or “at-will” is a good idea in my opinion.
      About the books, the single biggest problem with the 4E core books (well, and with almost all supplements too) is the lack of descriptive text. If the matter was space, move back the magic items to the DMG (shortest core book). But now that you said about “taking the Epic Levels away”, the book hardly presents any Epic Destinies; maybe they deserved their own book too.

      1. Agreed.

        While putting this post together I compared the monster description text between that in the Classic D&D Rules Cyclopedia and the 4e Monster Manual. In terms of wordcount, there’s not a lot between them – the Rules Cyclopedia is a beautiful thing of brevity, after all – but what changed was what those words conveyed.

        In the RC, a monster’s text primarily described the beast – their appearance, where they’re likely to be found, alliances, hatred of gnomes, etc. In the 4e MM, it covered how they fought.

        That’s a huge presentational difference, and another mis-step which skewed the impression that 4e D&D is nothing more than a combat-heavy boardgame.

        Maybe more fluff text isn’t the answer so much as good, role-playing hook text. Just a thought :D

    2. I feel that the problem with the 4e PHB was that it gave us too much of the game, all at once. If they’d split it, as you say, into three books covering Heroic, Paragon and Epic tiers they would probably have sold more books, not less.

      Everyone who currently has a copy of the 4e PHB would have no doubt bought the Heroic Player’s Handbook, so any sales of the Paragon and Epic Player’s Handbook would have been a Good Thing for WoTC’s profit line.

      Also, with more space to breathe, the books would have more fluff content, meaning all those decriers of the game for that reason would be more likely to jump on board as well. It’s a win all round.

      I suggested the compromise of 1st-20th in the PHB with Epic play separately as this would have kept it in line with Third Edition expectations. In some people’s eyes, Wizards can do no right so if they’re released a PHB covering only 10 levels, they just wouldn’t have been satisfied. give them 20 with a promise of 10 more Epic levels, and that’s one more pointless moan against the game shot down.

      I do feel that the core principles and essence of 4e D&D are much the same as they always have been – adventurers exploring the underground, defeating monsters for fame, glory and honour. What changed was the presentation, and that badly skewed perception of what the game is all about. That’s something they have had to work hard over the last two years (with varying degrees of success) to overcome.

  2. You could do a one-page dungeon using this stat format and it would be neat! Now if NPC statblocks and power selections can be similarly reduced, we’d be in business!

    This is seriously good stuff G.

  3. I personally still play 1e AD&D or OSRIC over 4e. I enjoy the old school simplicity and feel of the game. My group played 4e for awhile but got tired of the complicated stat blocks and bland adventures, that seemed to be nothing more than going from one set piece encounter to another and waiting for out Icons to recharge before we could attack or heal again (oh sorry that was WoW or was it?).
    Anyhow we decided to just go back into the retro-clones and play OSRIC in the world of Greyhawk, so far its been allot more fun than 4e ever was, and far better than 3.5 or Pathfinder which we tried as well. Pretty pictures and full color books doesn’t mean a game is good, just expensive.

  4. Well one thing I enjoy allot to with the retro-clones like OSRIC is the unlimited levels, I never really liked level caps be it 20 or level 30, they seem contrived. I recall and still have my character from when I was playing in a 5 year AD&D 1e campaign, he was a Human Fighter (his only class mind you) who reached level 36, I retired him and then said he died of old age as the King of his own conquered nation in Greyhawk. If he were in 3.5 or 4e, he would have been put out to pasture at levels 20 or 30, which I would not of liked at all.

  5. Why did they remove all of the info on what the monster look (such as male and female, how much they weigh, and how tall they are), where it is found, and other stuff which the previous edition’s monster manual have? I really miss all that stuff. From looking at the 4th edition monster manuals it looks like all they care about is putting in stuff related to what the monster abilities and stats are. I also do not like how they handled the angels in 4th edition. I want my angels to fight on the side of good. Why did they change the up the alignment system for 4.5 to 4th edition?

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