Game Spotlights

January 3, 2022

Andrew B.

Adapting Older D&D to Modern Rules

Dungeon Scrawling is a column about rules, mechanics, and other RPG advice from Noble Knight Games’ self-proclaimed RPG Tsar.

As an RPG enthusiast, I’m a big fan of older, out-of-print versions of D&D. Sure, I love 5E, and I’m grateful for all the new fans it has brought into the RPG hobby. However, there have been hundreds and hundreds of products published for Dungeons & Dragons over the decades. While the rules might not be exactly the same between editions, these older books still offer a lot of value for the current player. So lets look at adapting older D&D modules and adventures to current editions. It’s not as hard as you might think, and opens a whole new world of content to play with.

Beyond Conversion

When we talk about adapting older D&D versions for modern use, we often really mean mechanical conversion of game statistics. In AD&D, for example, Armor Class begins at 10, and goes down as it improves. Conversion would require the DM to adapt this to a modern ascending Armor Class.

But this article isn’t about conversion. Instead, we’re looking at a different but related approach: adaptation.

Adaptation

6 dice resting on a notebook with random notes sort of related to RPGs
The main tools you need for RPG prep: dice and paper

Even though the rules vary between editions, most of the genre tropes of D&D do not. Which version of D&D is about a group of heroes who battle weird monsters for treasure and experience? The answer, of course, is all of them. While the mechanics might change, tropes like elves, dwarves, hobgoblins, Drow, mind flayers, fireballs, and magic missiles are common across the D&D experience.

The simplest way of adapting older D&D products (or other systems) for use in your current game, is to take all of the non-game elements like the plot, monsters, and the maps, and strip out the mechanics. Then, simply apply the existing rules for your version of choice and you’ve got the beginnings of a campaign. For example, in my experience, creating plot and other so-called fluff elements is often the hardest part of DM prep. Why not let the hundreds of professional designers and authors who’ve come before do the heavy lifting for you?

An Example: Adapting the Nentir Vale

A campaign map and the 4E DMG
Here’s the hand-drawn campaign map and the DMG

In this Found Your Sheet article, we highlight a really neat hand-drawn D&D campaign map we found in a trade. The map comes directly from the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guide (p. 206). I’m really interested in using this map because I like the hand-drawn style, but also because it’s from Fourth Edition. 4E is arguably the most divisive version of D&D, and I want to show how, even if you don’t like a particular ruleset, you can still make use of it in your 5E (or other edition) game. Also, 4E books are not (as of this writing) very expensive. You can probably pick up a 4E DMG from Noble Knight Games for a reasonable price right here.

So how do we do it? Let’s take a look at what the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guide tells us about this map. By the way, I can’t use exact text here for copyright reasons, so I’m going to be writing in general terms. If you want to do this exercise yourself, follow along in a physical DMG. The region covered in this map is called the Nentir Vale, and it’s part of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. The 4E DMG details most of the locations mentioned on the map, but it only gives a very brief overview of each. For this example, I’ll choose a feature from the map that interests me. How about the Temple of Yellow Skulls?

A zoomed in portion of a hand-drawn map. Shows a region called the Ogrefist Hills
The Ogrefist Hills from a hand-drawn map of the Nentir Vale

First off, what a cool name: Temple of Yellow Skulls. It’s very creepy, with pulp-adventure vibes all over it. But what is the Temple of Yellow Skulls? Again, the 4E DMG gives us a brief paragraph, which I won’t post verbatim here (see page 208 of the 4E DMG if you’re following along). Instead, let me summarize what the text says about the Temple:

  • It’s a ruined evil shrine in a region called the Ogrefist Hills.
  • According to legend, a rakshasa prince trapped demonic spirits within several gold-plated human skulls. The skulls are hidden somewhere within the ruins.
  • There’s a dungeon underneath the shrine and a passage into the Underdark.

…And that’s it. There’s nothing particularly unique to 4E in that description, and we can pretty much just use 5E rules as written to adapt it. As I mentioned, I can’t use the text as written in this example. For my home campaign, I’d just copy what it says in the book. But, for demonstration purposes, let’s rewrite it.

Temple of Yellow Skulls

An orange and blue temple with still water covering the floor.
Cool temple image courtesy of pixabay.com

Hidden deep in the desolate terrain of the Ogrefist Hills, the Temple of Yellow Skulls is a crumbling stone ruin to a now-forgotten god. According to local legend, centuries ago a Rakshasa prince named Thaz Tai’mon bound the spirits of several powerful demons within a trio of gold-plated, human skulls. These skulls, each an item of potent evil, rest somewhere in the dungeons beneath the ruins. Rumor has it that the temple dungeons run deep into the earth, perhaps touching the Underdark itself, and there’s no telling what dangerous creatures might roam its ruined halls.

That’s a pretty good start to get our imaginations going. It also gives us a list of the sorts of details we might need to flesh out. We might eventually need stats for a Rakshasa prince. It would be good to decide how those gold-plated skulls work. Additionally, we’ll definitely want a map of the dungeon, with possible links to the Underdark. I’ll save most of that work for another time, but lets see if we can get the basic region down in a little more detail.

The Wilderness

Before players can even reach the dungeon, they’ll have to do some adventuring in the wilderness around it, in the Ogrefist Hills. As a side note, a lot has been written over the years about the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It’s very likely that some of sourcebook, novel, or video game has already covered the Nentir Vale. The good news is that we don’t have to worry about any of that. Sure, we could utilize those many resources, but we can just as easily make this up ourselves. It’s your campaign, after all, and you can do with it as you please. That’s the beauty of RPGs. Let’s get to it.

Select Some Monsters

To keep things simple, we start with the monsters. It might be nice to know what sorts of creatures live in the Ogrefist Hills. By selecting the monsters that live there, hopefully we’ll get some ideas about some of the region’s other aspects. If nothing else, monsters are often a great source of ideas for adventures.

But which monsters to select? The 5E DMG includes groups of creatures sorted by terrain type, which is a good place to start. On page 304 (5E DMG), there is a list of Hill Monsters. Let’s grab a few of those and populate our version of the Ogrefist Hills. I start by choosing a few lower CR creatures, just to determine what our players might encounter in their basic wanderings. How about: eagle, stirge, bandit, worg, and half-ogre? And, since it’s the Ogrefist Hills, probably ogre as well.

That’s a good start, but now I’d like some more challenging (but rarer) creatures. Since we established that there is a tunnel to the Underdark beneath the Temple of Yellow Skulls, let’s pick a couple subterranean creatures that might wander up to the surface. From the same section of the 5E DMG I select: drider, ettin, and drow mage. That gives the following monsters:

 

 Monster CR
 Eagle 0
 Stirge 1/8
 Bandit 1/8
 Worg 1/2
 Half-ogre 1
 Ogre 2
 Ettin 4
 Drider 6
 Drow mage 7
 Creatures of the Ogrefist Hills

Finish the Descriptions

Now that we have our list of monsters, as well as the brief description of the Ogrefist Hills from the 4E DMG, we can write our homebrew description. The idea is to use the work we’ve already done to inspire us. Here’s what I’ve done with the above:

Ogrefist Hills

This 25-mile stretch of hill land supports only patchy vegetation and gnarled, twisted shrubs. Few animals besides rodents, wolves, worgs, and the occasional eagle make their home here, as well as monsters like ogres (the region’s namesake) and the rare ettin. By far the most common hazard, however, are the stirges, which roost in the branches of the yellow thornbushes that grow along the baseline of the hills. Bandits, too, are a frequent danger, as the many caves that dot the region make for excellent hideouts. Finally, Drow conducting missions from the Underdark sometimes wander up from the Underdark, often accompanied by their drider servants.

That takes into account most of the monsters from our encounter list. Since we’ve mentioned bandits, it would also be useful to detail one a bandit gang. Giving the group a name and a motivation should go a long way toward helping us build adventure ideas for this campaign. I’m going to call them the Hill Snakes, which I just invented off the top of my head. I also want to use a half-ogre, since we put one on the creature list. Let’s make him the leader of our bandit gang. I’d like to give him a name as well, something both villainous and odious. How about… Scrum?

The Hill Snakes

A notorious gang of thieves led by a half-ogre named Scrum Irontooth. The Hill Snakes make their money by raiding caravans along the King’s Road (some two days ride away). Following a successful robbery, the group flees to one of several fortified hideouts in the Ogrefist Hills, where they lay low until their next attack. According to rumor, Scrum is sitting on a small fortune in gold and jewels, all secreted away in several well-hidden caches throughout the hilly region.

Tying Things Together

We have a great start so far. With very little effort, by adapting older D&D content, we’ve got a location (the Ogrefist Hills), a low-level campaign idea (battling the Hill Snakes bandit gang), and a hidden dungeon (the Temple of Yellow Skulls). We also have an item capable of driving later plots (the Yellow Skulls). Before we wrap up, we probably need stats for the skulls, especially if we’re going to build adventures around them later. While we could take a bunch of time and customize each skull, the far easier route is to choose existing magic items and reskin them. Something like this:

The Yellow Skulls of Thaz Tai’mon

Wondrous item, legendary

The rakshasa prince, Thaz Thai’mon, bound demonic spirits into these three gold-plated human skulls. Each skull holds the souls of no fewer than 6 dark spirits and functions as follows:

Unus: This skull is marked with a rune meaning “one”. It functions exactly like a Talisman of Ultimate Evil.

Duo: Marked with a rune meaning “two,” this skull functions as a wand of fear, except it has a maximum of 6 charges, and regains 1d6 + 2 expended charges each night at dusk.

Umbra: While you hold this skull aloft, you can use an action to speak its command word and summon a shadow demon. For purposes of level, duration, and other limitations, treat this effect as the spell conjure elemental, except it can only summon a shadow demon. The skull cannot be used this way again until the next dawn. Furthermore, each time you use the item, the shadow demon makes a DC 20 Charisma saving throw, rolling at disadvantage. If it succeeds, the demon breaks free and attacks the summoner. If this occurs, the skull shatters and no longer functions.

Conclusion

And…we’re done! Well, as done as we need to be for demonstration purposes. If I was to actually run this, I’d need some maps for the temple, stats for Scrum, and maybe a few interesting encounters to pepper throughout the region. However, what we have here is a great starting point.

For purposes of this article, we’ve used a single location from the 4E Dungeon Masters Guide, added rules we found in the core 5E books, and made a mini campaign. All with no real conversion required. Furthermore, I wrote it up with very little effort in a single sitting. Looking at the map, there are several more locations we could give the same treatment, giving us a very robust campaign with minimal work, all thanks to a book from a version of D&D that I don’t even play. Adapting older D&D to the current edition, or any edition, is as easy as that.

Parting Links

Here are a few more out-of-print D&D books that might serve as useful sources of fluff, regardless of what D&D you prefer:

AD&D Vikings Campaign Sourcebook
All of the books in the historic sourcebook line feature a distinctive green cover

The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (3E): A great source of general information about the Realms as it existed prior to the Spellplague and 4E. Easy enough to ignore the 3E stats and just mine for ideas on running the Forgotten Realms.

Dungeon Master’s Guide (1E AD&D): Packed with a surprising amount of inspirational and generally useful info, no matter what version of D&D you play.

AD&D Campaign Sourcebooks (2E AD&D): While written for Second Edition AD&D, these sourcebooks are great sources of information. Options include Vikings, Rome, Celts, and others. Use them to run pseudo-historical campaigns in your edition of choice, or just mine them for ideas.