Monday, 25 November 2019

Comparison: Five Torches Deep vs Into the Unknown

It's time for the.... Battle of the 05R games! Into the Unknown squares up against Five Torches Deep and we take a look at how these two games differ and what they have in common.

Introductory remarks:

As I summarised in the review post on 5TD, If Into the Unknown is a 5e adaptation that seeks to emulate the "non-advanced" B/X style of play, then 5TD is the 5e equivalent of S&W Whitebox, an even lighter retroclone than the famously brief B/X.

This difference is evident in word count. Into the Unknown clocks in at 133,000 words (B/X had 113,000). Significantly less than the 'Advanced' version of 5e it compares itself to (the 5e PHB & DMG together clock in at 410,000 words, add in the Monster Manual and it probably comes to around 600,000 words). 
Meanwhile 5TD has a mere 18,000 words (whitebox, for comparison, has 33,000).

So what do you get for the difference here? The most obvious are number of monsters and spells. 5TD has a one page spread with six monsters. ItU has a dedicated book of 64 digest-sized pages. ItU has a dedicated 54 page digest-sized spellbook. 5TD gets the job done in 4 pages. Monsters in particular is something you'd probably need 3rd party supplements for when running 5TD. Since both use gold for xp and morale, and ItU's monster book has both morale scores and treasure types for all monsters, the ItU monster book seems like a good fit for this.

Overall, 5TD seeks to be the slimmest possible version of an OSRed 5e geared towards wilderness exploration and dungeon crawl (limiting itself to 48 in letter format pages was a design goal for 5TD). Although this makes it somewhat inaccessible to those who are not already familiar with both 5e and OSR-style gaming and demands use of 3rd party material, it nonetheless succeeds at putting a body of rules ready for the table play in very accessible format and layout in just 48 pages.

In contrast, ItU seeks 'merely' to be a significantly lighter OSRed version of 5e geared towards wilderness exploration and dungeon crawl, but one that is still a full-fledged standalone game that should give game tables the same tools to run a campaign as B/X originally did (for comparison, my design goal was to keep book 1 at 50 digest sized pages or less. It came to 52 in the end as it would have been too much compromise to reach that goal).
So ItU has a more thorough treatment of what old school play is and how to run games and campaigns accordingly. Same as B/X it has rules sections on how to make a dungeon (and run a dungeon) and settlement (and running urban phases of play) and, oddly enough, is the only game I know of that has comprehensive chapters on how to design and run a hexcrawl. Despite the popularity of hexcrawls in the OSR-sphere, there aren't actually many rulesets that tell you how to do it.


5TD shares the same design vision as I went for with ItU in regard to layout: That the text should be optimised for easy scanning and use at the table. ItU splits the rules into 5 digest sized booklets, to help avoid too much fighting over who is using what book at the table. 5TD doesn't need that, as it is comparable in size to each of the booklets (except book 2).

In terms of the layout and design overall, I think %TD succeeds better at this. Its paragraphs are less cramped than I ended up having in Into the Unknown, easier to scan.
Below are some examples of roughly equivalent sections in first Into the Unknown and 5TD (note that ItU is digest sized and 5TD letter sized):

Introducing the core mechanic in ItU

Overview of combat actions in ItU

The Core Mechanic in 5TD - note the generous sidebar with example

Some basic mechanics in 5TD

Rule stuff:

This will be a dense overview of differences, but I hope it give you a detailed impression of how the two games approach their common task in different ways.

The Commonalities:

Both games are based on 5e and simplify the 5e chassis a great deal to achieve an old school style of play.

Both games  shave down the number of classes to a basic four and both implement a class choice to pay token homage to the variety of classes found in 'advanced' 5e (fx. Itu has a Class Feature choice at 1st level that let Magic-users choose between Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock, 5TD has an archetype choice at 3rd level that give Mages similarly named options).

Both games have ditched feats and the skills system in favour of an even looser and more broadly defined 'proficiency area/check' system.

Both games are explicitly designed to support wilderness and dungeon exploration and what they add of rules to the game are all geared towards this aim. Neither game shies away from using more modern mechanics to achieve this goal (for example, in tracking encumbrance.

Both have rules for henchmen.

Both games are geared towards procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. So they both have reaction rolls, morale rolls and so forth (more about some of these procedures below).

Both games have level progression tables closer to old school numbers (5TD approximating the Wizard xp progression, ItU based on the Thief progression table) and use gold=xp for awarding XP.
Both limit the available levels to 10 and 9 respectively.

The Differences:

5TD (incidentally, following white box on this) has race distinct from class and offers the classic three demi-humans.
ItU, following B/X, has race-as-class as an optional rule and offers the classic three demi-humans as class options.

ItU has full compatibility with 5e as a design goal. Thus the classes are designed to be fully balanced against characters designed with the 5e PHB and vice versa and basically the game uses similar math.
5TD departs from this to have classes be significantly lower powered than their 5e counterparts and more similar in this way to TSR-era D&D and ditches backgrounds. It also flattens the overall maths of the game even more than 5e.

Likewise for compatibility purposes, a lot of rules in ItU are taken straight from 5e, with the main difference to 5e being terser presentation and clarity of when to use the rules (fx. exhaustion, hiding, light & vision, traps, conditions and the combat rules).

In contrast, 5TD has its own simpler rules for traps, stealth, light and exhaustion.

In what is perhaps the biggest departure from 5e, 5TD radically simplifies the combat system. Gone are bonus actions, or having a suite of standardised actions to take, along with rules opportunity attacks, two-weapon fighting, unarmed combat, cover, being prone, creature size, initiative rolls, underwater/flying/mounted combat. In its place, we get a simpler range definition (close, ranged, far) and a declaration that if one side is wildly superior in combat, no rolls are needed. Less than 2 letter-sized pages all in all.

In contrast, ItU follows 5e but focuses on condensing and clarifying all the combat rules to a mere 12 digest sized pages with clearer layout and organisation for use at the table.
Its new contributions are on the GM side - A new framework for encouraging and adjucating improvised moves in combat and distinct rules for retreats (both orderly and not) and chases and a 2 page discussion on how GMs can make combats more exciting.

ItU retains and condenses the 5e rules for breaking items, poisons, traps. 5TD has its own corruption mechanic for dealing with poison, disease etc and has a very basic handwaving mechanic for traps.

5TD has a simple "gold captured = xp" mechanic (I read 'captured' here as returned to safe camp, as 5TD also has a mechanic for returning to safe camp).
ItU only awards XP for gold spent on non-enhancing stuff (so no XP for gold spent on new armor and such) and takes the 5e Downtime framework and expands it into a "how to spend your gold between sessions" framework.

Following B/X, ItU has a stronger focus on time-tracking in the dungeon and wilderness than 5TD. It departs from B/X with a modern take on time-tracking, by rolling resource-management and procedural encounter generation into the same mechanic and applying the same time-advancing mechanic to all phases of play (dungeon, wilderness & downtime), basically making wilderness and downtime more explicitly turn-based the same way dungeon exploration is in B/X.

On the other hand, 5TD puts more focus on the resource management aspect of the game, introducing new modern mechanics for supply and load, with rules for foraging, equipment damage, repair and crafting tying into this.

ItU adapts and expands the basic overland travel pace system of 5e into a fullblown hexcrawling system, tied into its time-tracking mechanic. 5TD uses its own basic overland travel system, with its own time-tracking system and a nice mechanic for returning to safe camp.

I mentioned both rules favour procedural generation of content and outcomes in play. Since 5e has very little of this, it is perhaps not surprising that the two games manner of implementing this differ.

Both have Morale - ItU morale lifted straight from B/X and its main contribution here is adding in morale scores to all creatures in the monster book.
5TD has a simple and elegant morale calculator based on wis mod+proficiency bonus+HD against a d20 roll.
Both have reaction rolls. ItU uses a modernised version of B/X reaction rolls, whilst 5TD has its own d20 mechanic.
On a personal note, I would never use a d20 for morale and reaction rolls as I'd want a bell curve for this to make it less swingy.

5TD has an excellent 4 page spread for creating new monsters on the fly and a sample of six pre-generated monsters.
Meanwhile ItU has 5 pages dedicated to procedural generation of new magic items and another five pages of pre-generated items.

Finally, ItU comes with 10 extra pages on how to make new tables, make rulings and houserule your game to suit your needs.

The last point I want to discuss is spellcasting. ItU simplies 5e spellcasting system a little bit and shortens the spell list somewhat (but not overly so) to a more manageable number, but its main contribution is making spell descriptions a lot shorter and terser, as opposed to the overly detailed boardgamey spell descriptions of 5e.

5TD, in its secondmost radical departure from 5e, has one page for arcane spells and another for divine spells. Five spells per spell level, each get two lines of description and that's it. The more I look at this, the more I like it. This is a proper open-ended magic system (the open-endedness is balanced against a spell failure mechanic).

Because let's face it - 5e spells are boring as fuck. They've solved the linear-fighter-quadratic-wizard problem by making spellcasting a wholly utilitarian boardgamely-constricted affair. That is to say, taking all the magic out of it.
Spellcasters in TSR era D&D had limited and more difficult opportunities for casting spells, but where the casting of spell could radically alter a given situation. In 5e, spells are easier to cast and can be used far more frequently. In contrast, spells are weighted more in the direction of influencing situations as opposed to radically altering them. This to me takes most of the flavour out of spellcasting in 5e.
And ItU more or less follows suit on this (I chose to do so in full knowledge of my own dissatisfaction with the system). Which is why I like that 5TD have gone towards a much more open-ended system that demands creativity from spellcasters. I'd also offer up Wonder & Wickedness as an alternative level-less spell system that I think could work well. In the future, I'd love to make an alternative spellbook for ItU (or several) that offers an OSR take on spellcasting for 5e, even moreso than what TSR D&D managed, which still has plenty of bland utilitarian spells (deliver us from Spider Climb and Magic Missile).

Final Impressions:

Although both systems get mentioned as candidates for those seeking lighter OSR versions of 5e, it should be clear from this comparison that their design goals and ways of implementing a fundamentally similar vision are quite different in scope and execution. Recommendation? Get both and take what you like from them. :)


  1. Thank you for the comparison review, it was very interesting, and certainly your take on 5TP matches mine.

  2. Dude. Okay, first, you wrote an entire hack of 5e, with many improvements. You're not afraid to house rule; most of your innovations in ItU are solid to great, and a few are brilliant. I love tactical dicing so much.

    But I feel like complaining about utilitarian spells is missing the point a little? They're utilitarian partially because they're a skeleton to put your own spin on, either as a custom effect for the particular version a PC learns or on the fly per casting.

    -Target's fingers and toes turn into tarantula legs. They have to take their shoes off to use the spell.
    -Target grows four more legs, which are spider legs. Can't use on someone wearing armor or it busts the armor. Might need to get naked.
    -A swarm of spiders bubbles up from every nook or crack in the surroundings, picks you up, and carries you up walls and across ceilings by dangling you from webs. They'll probably only bite you a few times. Save vs. a mild poison.
    -The spirit of spiderkind possesses you to grant the ability to climb like its brethren. For [amount of time] you have an intense craving for bugs, and can only gain sustenance from eating them. Unless you can find and hunt giant insects or gain access to an unusually rich source of insects some other way, you can only get food from foraging and foraging for a meal takes twice as long.

    That was maybe 2 minutes to come up with the first three and as I wrote I came up with the fourth, took maybe 10 minutes in all.

    Magic missile is a little tougher but not much. I'm sleep deprived though so I'm only throwing out replace it with the same auto damage but it's from causing a live... whatever to appear in their stomach and thrash around a bit while it dies in their stomach acid.

    Though, man, their digestion's going to be bad later, which is probably a save vs poison or something, so that's maybe too powerful a MM replacement. Maybe more of a Bestow Curse option.

    1. Love the creativity! my complaint about 5e spells is that they are so narrowly and specifically defined that they discourage and resist this kind of open-ended interpretations of spells.

      It is in fact the opportunity for such creativity that I like about the extremely sparse nature of spells in 5TD.

      Glad you liked the game overall.

      Basically, I have a lot of love for the simple fighter and am always looking for ways to make it enjoyable without adding complexity to the class (battlemaster, I'm looking at you). Tactical Dicing was one of those things that made me go 'yes, fighters will have fun with this' (so was Mighty Deeds).

  3. The DCC approach is also a good one to make magic interesting. In one of my games, the party wizard will mess with probably cursed items and the like with no problem, but he's terrified of casting detect magic because the last time he did, he caused a several years long drought. Gotta love mercurial magic.

  4. Great review. Thank you for being unbiased in your evaluation of both of these systems, even though you are the author of one. I own both of these systems and agree almost 100% with your review of them both.