A couple months ago I played the Fifth Edition Funnel (by Ten Red Crows Press, available at https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/186076/Fifth-Edition-Funnel, pay what you want), first as a player and then as a DM, and I liked it. I started thinking about what exactly I liked about it, which lead me to researching OSR games - and now I’m pretty much a convert, prepping for my first OSR campaign. So if you’re looking for a gateway drug to get yourself or someone you know from 5e into old school gaming, I can recommend using these rules.
The rules of the FunnelFifth Edition Funnel is a "death funnel" style mini-supplement that uses the familiar rules of 5e, but strips the system down to bare essentials. Each player has multiple characters, who are “0th level” commoners - they have no class, no skill or weapon proficiencies, have a base HP of 4, and get no death saving throws. In other words, almost any hit is lethal to them, hence the multiple characters per player. Stats are rolled 3d6 in order - however, as a fun addition, each character has a bond with one other character that increases one stat by +1. This introduces a bit of cooperative storytelling and lets players flesh out the characters before sending them to the slaughter. Another great addition is a random medieval profession that substitutes for skills, and gives each PC some mundane items, which may be useful to a clever player.
Side notes: We did not use the included adventure, nor have I read it, so I cannot give that my endorsal. But if you're interested, Bryce Lynch at tenfootpole.org found it unappealing. In our self-made funnels, our death rate was lower than the stated expectation of 50-75%, so I would recommend no more than two characters per player. I also don’t like the race table in the Funnel, which uses all the 5e PHB core races, so I replaced it with my own.
The benefits of the Funnel
- Easier introduction for people new to RPGs. No class features means faster character creation (particularly together with randomization), obviously, but also far less stuff to explain to newcomers upfront, and less of an information overload on the character sheet.
- Faster play. Just roll a d20 + ability modifier for everything. As with character creation: there's no skill bonuses or class features to consider, so the game doesn't get bogged down in rules minutiae and option paralysis. Instead of figuring out the intricacies of action economy, the players were Doing Stuff, and that's what I cared about the most.
- Character death is fun! When I found my character in a desperate situation of impending death, that was the most fun and memorable part of the session! Players can get a sort of horror-film enjoyment of seeing their characters in terrible predicaments. The lethality of the funnel can get them out of the “my precious character” mindset and the “nothing bad can happen to me so why not do dumb shit all the time” mindset, and into the "losing is fun" mindset.
I don’t remember who said it first, but: “a scared player is a thinking player”. Player inattention can be a problem, but when they realize their character’s life is on the line, you can be sure everyone perks up and starts thinking of ways to survive, even running away (or using those mundane items from their profession). This doesn’t happen as much in plot-based games where players get used to expecting that the DM can’t TPK them because that would end the story.
Generally speaking, the most exciting outcome of any adventure/encounter is “they just barely made it”, like what happens in the movies. And fudging rolls can help deliver that knife's-edge balance. But if there’s no variance and every encounter is “people got knocked out but nobody died and we eked out a victory”, or if players catch on to the DM’s fudging, then it becomes boring. To some extent, I think 5e’s mechanics create a prevalence of this kind of constant, hollow tension (and I plan to talk about those mechanics in detail in a later blog).
Where this experiment led meThinking and talking about this with people, I became aware at some point that all the things I had found appealing - fast setup, newbie-friendliness, rules getting out of the way of interaction (call it a lack of bloat, or a shift from tactical to strategic focus, or whatever), and lethality developing tension and player cleverness - were a big thing in Old-School Revival (OSR) games, that is, the pre-WotC editions of D&D and their retroclones. I found myself going from browsing these games, to buying and reading one, to finally making the decision to change systems for my planned next campaign.
I know that the mentioned phenomena arising in old-school play is an oft-repeated point, from Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming (a document that's apparently 10 years old, my gods...) to author interviews and daily comments on the forums/reddits and so on, and I'm probably not adding anything original there. But I guess I just had to experience it myself to have that epiphany. All it took was playing a one-shot death funnel.
Is there any reason to use Fifth Edition Funnel instead of a Dungeon Crawl Classics funnel or even an actual old system? Probably not, but it’s one way to get a foot in the door for 5e players, as only the character creation rules are overwritten, everything else being familiar. It tricks them into thinking they're not learning a new system, while in fact teaching them an entirely new style of gaming.