I no longer get grief on OSR sites when I mention that I play 4e, but I do get comments about how challenging it must be to try to run 4e in an old school manner. It actually isn’t that hard, provided you are prepared to let go the 4e sacred cow of balancing everything – which is part of what you are going for in you want to play old-school anyway.
To illustrate how easy it is, I want to talk about how my newest campaign got started. I was planning on hanging out with a buddy, and we were trying to decide what to do, and D&D was suggested, but no one had anything prepped. So I asked if he had ever been through Hommlet. And he said he hadn’t, and had never read it, but he was game to give it a try. I told him there was likely to be a high mortality rate and he was okay with that.
So I told him to go though his computer and pull up any first level characters he had on his hard drive. And while he was doing that I opened up Maptools and started setting up maps (we play on a VTT even when we are sitting in the same room). I already had the village map ready because I had used it for a homebrew campaign. Ditto for the moathouse, but I needed the dungeon. I found an image file of the dungeon, dropped it in Maptools, and quickly set up the vision blocking layer, then started picking tokens for potential allies and enemies. We would have been playing in 30 minutes if I hadn’t had some other stuff come up that I had to deal with. But we were playing that afternoon.
I ran it straight out of the paper module, converting creatures as I went. I have pretty much perfected my method of converting 1e monsters to 4e and was able to pick monsters on the fly. This worked for me because I also have the Temple of Elemental Evil, which includes Hommlet, and it has the XP value for all of the monsters – my conversion table depends on knowing the 1e XP of a creature. FYI, a 0-level man-at-arms is the equivalent of a 3rd level standard monster, unless he has less than 4 hp, in which case he is a 2nd level standard.
So when the party made it to the moathouse (I’m writing this for people who are probably familiar with the module; if you aren’t , try to keep up), which I wasn’t expecting that first session, I was able to find melee and ranged bandits, giant frogs, rats, a spider and a snake, all of appropriate level. The frogs were a particular bonus, since as I started running them I remembered that I had built them to mimic the powers of 1e frogs.
The party insisted on not inviting any of the many potential allies (my buddy has PTSD from a previous DM with whom trusting such allies would inevitably have led to betrayal). The frogs taught him better, as one swallowed the Invoker and he died before anyone could rescue him, or he could rescue himself.
They returned to the village, picked up a 5th level monk and a 4th level knight as allies (because not everybody in the party needs to be the same level, I promise), and returned to the moathouse. They cleared out the snake and the bandits, and were ambushed by the tick when I had to call it an evening.
The point is, I ran that on the fly, converting from one edition to a very different edition as the need arose. There is no magic to the edition you choose when running an old-school game, you just have to be willing to let go of the edition’s baggage.
We’ve played three sessions now, and I was right, there has been a high mortality rate. As I am running it, it is probably harder than the original module at 1st level, because (I think I have mentioned in a previous post) 1st level in 1e is about the equivalent of 2nd level in 4e. So the starting 4e characters are about halfway between (1e) 0-level and 1st level characters. The appropriate 4e level range for the modules is probably 2-5 (as opposed to 1-3 using the 1e rules). I might let replacement characters start at second level.
So far, there are four dead and five captured, with the captured on the verge of escaping (the gnolls reported the captured to the New Master, who kept all the party’s gear to himself, thereby pissing off the gnolls even more than they were already pissed off, at which point they abandoned their posts as jail guards).
Fortunately my buddy enjoys character creation. And I don’t mind if, following the death of Hogar the cleric, his cousin Blogar, also a cleric and with identical stats, shows up to join the party. As long as Blogar starts at 1st (2nd?) level.