System Split: Worlds Without Number and D&D Fifth Edition

It’s never been a better time to be a dungeon crawler. Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition and Pathfinder, two versions of the same underlying D&D ruleset, are bestsellers 1 and 2 in the RPG world, and have been for some time. Pathfinder is built for detail and breadth of options, while D&D’s Fifth Edition is built for accessibility and continuity with earlier versions and settings. They offer two versions of a fairly modern D&D experience, where GMs run story arc-based campaigns built around fighting monsters and exploring dungeons. Characters are treated like protagonists, and death is relatively rare. At the same time, we’ve seen a resurgence in “old-school” playstyles, usually represented within the D&D ecosystem by the OSR. Old-school games tend to have fewer rules, presenting challenges and decisions to the players rather than the characters. They tend to have weaker characters who aren’t treated like protagonists, and they need not be organized around a story.

There is a middle ground, though, and a new entrant in the middle ground has stormed into the DriveThruRPG sales charts. Worlds Without Number presents a dangerous old-school world, but uses rules innovations from later versions of D&D (and other role-playing games) to make the game more accessible and make the characters feel a bit more heroic. On top of all that, it provides tons of tools to help GMs run interesting game worlds with or without a driving story. Although many people will simply call Worlds Without Number an OSR game (and there are fair reasons for that), I think that it deserves to be examined against the current state of the art. That’s why this System Split pits Worlds Without Number against Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition.

Why These Games?

It goes without saying that Dungeons and Dragons is the most popular role-playing game in the world; this is true for Fifth Edition alone but is yet more true if you look at D&D as a broader ecosystem. Worlds Without Number is an interpretation of the broader D&D rules framework, but one that in my opinion aims a bit more directly at modern D&D than most other OSR games. The classic standard-bearers of the OSR tend to be either reinventions of old-school D&D (retroclones like OSE or Labyrinth Lord), intense distillations of D&D to allow for more freeform play (Whitehack and The Black Hack), or style-forward and often very weird games that use the rules philosophies espoused by the distillations to do something else entirely (Mork Borg, Troika, and Electric Bastionland all fall into this category). Worlds Without Number is a slightly different kind of game, an old-school expansion. While the mechanics of Worlds Without Number (and its predecessor Stars Without Number) are clearly couched in old-school D&D, the game is not intended to espouse or align to OSR play philosophies similar to those written about in the Principia Apocrypha or the foreword of Whitehack. Instead, Worlds Without Number takes old-school rules, expands them into something a typical 5e or Pathfinder player would find at least familiar, and then uses them to build out a rulebook for the specific purpose of sandbox gaming. The results maintain old-school lethality and removal from mathematical optimization as play, but still allow rules-forward, dice-forward play that is more modern than old-school.

In addition to shooting across the bow of Fifth Edition mechanically, Worlds Without Number has, in the short time since its release, shot across the bow of Fifth Edition in mindshare. As of this writing Worlds Without Number has taken the top-selling slot on DriveThruRPG away from the chart-topping Cyberpunk Red, and in two weeks has sold at least a thousand copies on the site, over and above the 4500+ Kickstarter backers which received their copies earlier this month. This of course doesn’t include the countless (literally, since free products don’t receive sales tiers on DriveThru) copies of the game’s free edition which have already been snapped up. While these aren’t Hasbro sales numbers by any means, Worlds Without Number will likely become one of the most successful old-school games on the market judging from both the success of its release and the success of its predecessor. This success is not the reason I wish to compare Worlds Without Number to Fifth Edition, but rather a strong reinforcement that I should: Worlds Without Number combines old-school rules, modern sensibilities, and a veritable ream of GMing and worldbuilding material into a package that has something for everyone. If there’s one best stepping stone from Fifth Edition to OSR or any other alternative playstyle Worlds Without Number is probably it, and this comparison will help to illustrate that.

Rules Comparison

Worlds Without Number and D&D Fifth Edition are both informed by the modern rules changes to D&D (i.e. those that happened in the year 2000 and since). The games both use ascending armor class, have skill lists which are separated from class abilities, see character race and character class as separate, non-integrated entities, and allow for the granular customization of characters through backgrounds, subclasses, and feats (I consider 5e feats and Foci from Worlds Without Number to be comparable at a high level). The games also, more broadly, use the same six stats, maintain rules for Saving Throws, and simulate advancement through gaining levels when a sufficient number of experience points have been earned. While these latter statements are broadly true about all versions of D&D, the former ones most certainly are not, and help illustrate that Worlds Without Number was designed as a modern game even if much of the numerical grounding of the game is aligned with earlier editions. It is worth noting here that while Kevin Crawford clearly has read modern editions of D&D, the execution of these elements in Worlds Without Number was not particularly intended to emulate 5e (or 4e, or 3e). The class choices in Worlds Without Number are similar to those in Stars Without Number, though psionics has been reverted to magic for this fantasy setting. Warriors are straight combatants, Mages are magic users, Experts are skill-based characters, and the multi-class Adventurers allow for more flexibility. Adventurer is a catchall for characters made up of two ‘partial’ classes, which allow for significant hybridization. The magic traditions, of which there are five, exist in both full and partial-only versions and when combined back with the other two classes can easily emulate clerics, druids, monks, sorcerers, warlocks, and many other D&D classes, all with fewer rules and arguably more customizability (though at the expense of differentiation).

Looking at the classes more closely, we can start to tease out the math differences and understand what makes Worlds Without Number ‘old school’ in terms of survivability. Like in every other version of D&D, Worlds Without Number characters have a number of starting hit points and gain more hit points each time they gain a level. In Fifth Edition, each class has a different Hit Die, and first level characters start with hit points equal to the highest face of their hit die plus their Constitution bonus. This means a wizard could start with 6 hit points while a barbarian could start with 14 or 15. In Worlds Without Number, the three classes calculate their hit points by rolling either 1d6-1 (Mage), 1d6 (Expert), or 1d6+2 (Warrior). An average level 10 Fighter in D&D will have 80 hit points (assuming a Constitution of 14 or 15). An average level 10 Warrior in Worlds Without Number will have 55…and in Worlds Without Number, 10 is the highest level. On the other hand, the longsword does the same 1d8 damage in both systems. It’s a bit academic at the higher levels, but at level 1, essentially all 5e Fighters can survive maximum damage from a longsword, while essentially no Warriors in Worlds Without Number can. You might have noticed that the hit point math for Worlds Without Number didn’t include a Constitution bonus, and there’s a reason for that. Both 5e and Worlds Without Number offer the choice of either randomly rolling stats or picking a standard array. In 5e, the standard array is 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. In Worlds Without Number, the standard array is 14, 12, 11, 10, 9, 7. The modifier math is also different: In 5e stats of 8-9 are -1, 10-11 are 0, 12-13 are +1, 14-15 are +2, 16-17 are +3, and 18 is +4. In Worlds Without Number, 4-7 are -1, 8-13 are 0, 14-17 are +1, and 18 is +2. This means that a Fighter in 5e would get a +2 Constitution modifier if they put their second-best stat value in Constitution, while the same character in Worlds Without Number making the same choice will get a zero.

Beyond numerical differentiation, Worlds Without Number has a couple mechanics which make it even easier to get hurt and die. First is Shock. Some melee weapons have a Shock rating, which consists of a value and an armor class; the longsword has one, which is 2/AC13. What this means is that if a character attacks with a longsword *and misses*, they still deal two damage to any opponent with an AC of 13 or lower. In addition to making many big weapons a bit nastier, Shock also makes shields notably more useful than they are in D&D 5e by allowing them to negate an instance of Shock each round, which could easily be the difference between life and death. The other mechanic of note here is System Strain. Each character has a System Strain max equal to their Constitution. Now, there is non-magical healing in Worlds Without Number, allowing a character with the Heal skill to help a companion regain 1d6 hit points. However, each time you do this the character takes a point of System Strain, and if they hit their max they can’t be healed again until they recover System Strain. So far, this is more permissive than 5e…until you get to the rules for resting. There are no short rests or long rests, only a full night’s rest. Each full night’s rest recovers one point of System Strain…and a number of hit points equal to the character’s level. Ouch.

While the core attribute and hit point math is simply rougher than the newer game, Worlds Without Number doesn’t continue this theme across other character abilities. The few class abilities which exist in the game are gained at character creation, and they give player characters a significant edge. Warriors gain extra damage and limited rerolls for missed attacks, Mages gain, well, magic, and Experts gain extra skill points and rerolls for non-combat checks. The more flavorful abilities tend to be found among the Foci, and starting characters gain one or two of these depending on their class. Magic also tends to be equivalent or better in Worlds Without Number to Fifth Edition; while high mages look most like a classic D&D wizard, the other options provide very different ways of approaching magic than just spells, which helps to offset the fact that the spell list in Worlds Without Number is quite a bit shorter than that of Fifth Edition. Overall, Worlds Without Number has no trouble letting characters feel special, but using more constrained “old-school” math means that a character can feel special and then still die fairly easily.

Worlds Without Number is a bit more built out than a typical retroclone, just like Stars Without Number was before it. From the player’s side, this gives an old-school experience while still providing rules-driven resolution that modern players are going to be comfortable with. From the GM’s side, though, Worlds Without Number and Fifth Edition couldn’t be more different. Comparing the first 100 pages to the Player’s Handbook takes some careful reading…but the next 200 pages blow the Dungeon Master’s Guide completely out of the water.

Key Product Differences

Kevin Crawford and Sine Nomine Publishing have a reputation built around designing games for sandboxes. As described in Worlds Without Number, a sandbox is a game where the characters have motivations and goals and the GM does not write a plot, instead presenting the world to the players who are then given free reign to go accomplish their goals however they see fit. It is this playstyle which serves as the rationalization for choosing an old-school rules framework: there is no greater wealth of pre-existing material out there than the pre-existing material for the TSR editions of D&D, and given the relatively large mental load of running a sandbox game, pre-existing material is your friend. This fact, though, takes up maybe four lines of explanation. The majority of the latter sections of the book are about how to write and run a sandbox, and I state without exaggeration that Worlds Without Number likely contains the best version of a Dungeon Master’s Guide extant within its pages. While I’ll try to compare 5e nonetheless, the results aren’t flattering.

The Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide contains about 15 pages on how to write an adventure, 7 on how to create an NPC, and 20 on the key adventure environments of dungeons and wildernesses. As the Dungeon Master’s Guide has 285 pages of non-appendix content, you may be wondering where most of it goes if some of the core elements of actually running a game get 10 pages there or 20 pages here. The answer is treasure. Treasure tables take up a staggering 100 pages in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, even though Fifth Edition is theoretically the one where treasure balance doesn’t matter. Worse, the treasure distribution still isn’t balanced, skewing the power level of a rules-as-written D&D game severely by the time you get to third level.

Let’s look at Worlds Without Number. Remember, Worlds Without Number is one book, and must do in 390 pages what D&D Fifth Edition does in 900. Worlds Without Number spends a similar page count on the overarching ideas behind running a sandbox game that the Dungeon Master’s Guide does on the notions of running a story arc. The discussion of dungeons and wilderness encounters are of similar length, with Worlds Without Number including more discussion of ideas that are further removed from the typical D&D playstyle of the last 20 years. Then, after the prose is done, Worlds Without Number goes a lot further. In addition to a discussion of dungeon ecology (gets maybe a paragraph in the Dungeon Master’s Guide) and specific advice on how to design and stock dungeon challenges (glossed over in the Dungeon Master’s Guide), Worlds Without Number brings out the tables and brings them hard. 72 entry table on types of ruins? Check. 72 entry table of dungeon rooms? Check. 10 different tables regarding dungeon inhabitants? Check. Framework driven tables for both encounters and rooms? You know it’s a check. If you look just at the prose Worlds Without Number is not all that more verbose than the Dungeon Master’s Guide of Fifth Edition, but it never stops at the prose and there are always tools and tables to help any GM of any skill level find inspiration or make exactly what they want.

It gets better. Worlds Without Number brings back rules which have withered from D&D. While the hex-based stocking and wilderness exploration section isn’t as long as the dungeon section, it’s still more than Fifth Edition’s anemic page or two of overland travel speeds and mathematically questionable foraging rules. There are domain rules in Worlds Without Number. There are crafting rules in Worlds Without Number. There are epic tier rules in Worlds Without Number, which were only excised from D&D in the Fifth Edition. The faction turn, one of the most elegant mechanics for creating a reactive world, is in Worlds Without Number (after its debut in Stars Without Number). And while the 40 pages dedicated to monsters was never going to hold a candle to the significantly longer and more detailed discussions in the Fifth Edition Monster Manual, those 40 pages both include monster creation rules with many detailed tables and 100 pre-generated monster stat blocks. That, as they say, does not suck.

Worlds Without Number is designed to give you everything you need to run the fantasy world you want. While there is one area, GM-side rules and procedures, where it is markedly superior to Fifth Edition, most of the other differences will be much more subjective. While many will appreciate the flexibility of some of the magic systems in Worlds Without Number and the mechanics for spell creation, many others will appreciate not doing that work and having the significantly longer and more detailed Fifth Edition spell list. The same can be said of the Monster Manual, with significantly more background and information on each monster than the Worlds Without Number section provides. While the classes and optional character frameworks in Worlds Without Number give a ton of flexibility, ‘Rogue’ is more evocative than ‘Expert’ and ‘Cleric’ is much more evocative than ‘Partial Healer/Partial Warrior’, to say nothing of the amount of writing spread across 12 classes rather than 4.

D&D does not sell as well as it does because of its rules; it sells well because it delivers on the promise of D&D as a setting and as an experience. And while ‘old-school’ and ‘new-school’ can be debated, the vast majority of D&D players have only been exposed to the D&D experience as marketed by Wizards of the Coast, not TSR. Worlds Without Number is likely the better choice for the daydreaming GM with a world and a twinkle in their eye, but Fifth Edition is going to deliver the experience most gamers now envision as “D&D” and do it more easily to boot.

Still, Worlds Without Number opens a door from Fifth Edition. It’s not as impenetrable as Whitehack and not as self-congratulatory as Dungeon Crawl Classics or Old-School Essentials. Its promise is in the title, Worlds Without Number, and it uses that promise to explain itself and its denser prose, yards of tables, and harsher rules. Even with those elements taking up as many pages as they do, it’s not that big a jump. Worlds Without Number both demonstrates the vast gulf between TSR D&D and Wizards D&D as well as shows what it looks like to bridge the gap. As the strong early sales have shown, striking a balance between the familiar and the new can be, if done well, a recipe for success.

Worlds Without Number is available on DriveThruRPG, in both Deluxe and Free editions.

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13 thoughts on “System Split: Worlds Without Number and D&D Fifth Edition”

  1. Exactly the type of analysis I was looking for. Coming from 5e and I heard all the great things about WWN, I was considering it. I’m not into OSR but it’s good to know what it’s all about.


  2. You skipped default settings in both, while 5e assumes a lot and delivers a little, WWN delivers a rich, deep, infinitely expandable multiverse. I was kind of bummed when I got to the setting section, but boy am I considering using this setting now!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t yet picked up World’s Without Number but was blown away by SWN, for similar reasons. Crawford is the first RPG designer I have come across who seems to build his books to explicitly show us how to run games using the resources in the book. After a decade of running D&D and Pathfinder games I was very much like “why didn’t anyone show me this before?”

    Liked by 1 person

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