11 March 2023

Into the Unknown vs 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons

I learned about the Into the Unknown fantasy role-playing game last summer at the RPG Pub. Intrigued, I ordered it from DrivethruRPG (both PDF and print versions). When it arrived, I looked through it, liked what I saw, and considered converting my current World of Greyhawk campaign over to it. I did not do so at the time because a few of the changes looked like they would be a bit too much. Specifically, ItU adhered to a few elements from the “Basic” and “Expert” versions of old school D&D that did not seem to mesh well with the Greyhawk setting (e.g., three alignments, races-as-classes).


But when WotC threatened to pull the OGL a couple of months ago, I decided to make the shift away from “official” 5e D&D. Given the compatibility of ItU with 5e, it was easy to keep the things that I wanted from 5e for the sake of the setting (e.g., nine alignments, the distinction between races and classes) and continuity (the ‘sub-classes’ already selected by the players for their characters). Hence what we’re playing now is a kind of ItU-5e hybrid, with a few house rules mixed in.


I encourage others who like elements of 5e D&D but who also like old school D&D to check out Into the Unknown. There is a summary of the main differences between the 5e D&D rules and ItU provided on page 52 (Book 1) of the latter. I’ve reproduced and edited it below, along with some of my own notes (in a different font) to indicate some of the changes I’ve made for my campaign.


·    No race choice – These have been converted into their own optional classes.

o   I’ve kept the race-class distinction. But I’ve also kept the ‘racial classes’ as special classes for non-human characters of the appropriate race, renaming them ‘Dwarven Defender’, ‘Elven Mystic’, and ‘Halfling Wanderer’. I’m especially impressed by what ItU did for the ‘Elven’ spell list, mixing certain druid and magic-user spells into something that feels more ‘fey’ in nature overall than standard D&D.


·    No Sub-classes – To have fewer sub-systems.

o   We will be keeping those sub-classes (abjurer, battle master, etc.) that already have been used (see my forthcoming house rules post for more information).


·    Fewer classes – For similar reasons as above, ItU restricts itself to the original four core classes and relies on a new mechanic:

o   Class Features – A mechanical choice at 1st level that defines your class. It replaces sub-class and wide range of classes and feats, though it strives to be mechanically simpler.

o   Through the ‘class features’ mechanic, ItU divides priests into ‘cleric’ and ‘druids’ (with different spell lists), and also allows for quite different kinds of rogues and magic-users.


·    No Feats – To reduce decision points during character creation, to have fewer different mechanics in play and to augment the maxim that “anyone can try anything”.

o   We weren’t using feats already. (I so hate feats…)


·    No Skills – Replaced by “Proficiency Areas” to give fewer decision points in character creation and emphasize proficiency as meaningful aspects of characters.


·    Only goes to 10th level – most games never go beyond 9th level. ItU is focused on where 95% of the gameplay lies and supports the kind of play seen at those levels. The Companion rules, to be released later, will cover high level play.  


·    Simpler & fewer backgrounds – To keep decision points manageable, ItU has a smaller selection. It is simpler, yet allows flexibility to cover all bases.

o   ItU’s backgrounds are quite nice. When combined with the classes, it is possible to construct a wide range of different kinds of characters, but without all the “fiddliness” of standard 5e.


·    No Multi-classing – A simple multiclassing system will be found in the Companion.


·    Condensed weapons list – ItU folds many different weapons into basically being the same weapon mechanically, with differences between weapons being mechanically distinct.


·    Gold for XP – To give players incentives other than killing things on the way to completing an adventurer goal, ItU relies on Gold-for-XP as the main source of XP.

o   I’ve been using the “milestone” system for XP in my Greyhawk campaign and will continue to do so. That said, I’m quite impressed with the experience system presented in ItU. I’d certainly consider using it in a future campaign.


·    No spellcasting focus or trivial spell components – Detracts from simplicity.


·    Simpler encumbrance system – ItU tracks encumbrance in Stones and Items carried, rather than tracking pounds of many items.


·    Different overland travel system – ItU focuses on hex-based overland travel to focus more on the element of exploration and uses a simple unified track to manage encumbrance, weather, terrain, etc.

o   I quite like the travel system presented in ItU. It provides a simple but engaging mechanic for handling overland travel.


·    Reaction rolls – ItU’s default assumption is that initial encounter reactions have an element of unpredictability and that not all enemies necessarily want to fight you.

o   This is something I quite like in earlier versions of A/D&D, and I’m glad that ItU has a simple system for it.


·    Morale – All creatures have a morale score, reflecting that not all creatures will necessarily want to fight to the death.

o   I had developed an ad hoc morale system for my 5e game already, but I like ItU’s system better and have been happy to switch over to it.


·    Henchmen – ItU assumes the party may want to hire henchmen to help keep them alive and has basic rules to address this.


·    Harsher Healing rules – Hit dice for healing is a sparser resource.

o   PCs recovering all their hit points after long rests is one of the things that strikes me as the most ‘cartoonish’ about 5e. In ItU, PCs have to spend hit dice to recover hit points even after a long rest (although they gain ‘advantage’ in doing so if they spend their hit dice immediately after they rest).


·    Shorter Short Rests – These usually take only 10 minutes, but the GM may decide that different circumstances change the time required for long and shorts rests.


·    Proficient Saving Throws - All PCs add their proficiency bonus to any saving throw.


·    Simpler reach rules – Rather than having to track exact distance between opponents, battle map style, reach weapons simply provoke opportunity attacks when opponents move within 5 feet of you.


·    More coverage of improvised attacks – Since everyone can try anything, ItU has more focus on stunts and improvised attacks. It also encourages fighters to get creative by giving them proficiency with any improvised attack.


·    Time Tracking – ItU has a strong focus on time tracking to keep pacing in the game.

o   ItU’s simple but helpful time tracking system will be familiar to anyone who’s played B/X D&D or AD&D.


·    Full Compatibility – The changes made in ItU are balanced towards retaining full compatibility to 5e, so that a 5e character easily can join a game table playing ItU with no conversion needed and vice versa.

o   Anything that we’ve been using so far (e.g., spells, magic items, etc.) that are not in the ItU rules were simply be ported over to ItU.


One difference between 5e and ItU strangely not mentioned in the summary is that ItU uses only three alignments (Chaotic, Neutral, and Lawful). Obviously, it’s easy enough to stick with the standard nine alignments (which we’ve done in our campaign).


As I mentioned above, I’ve added a few house rules to ItU. I’ll post them here in the very near future.




  1. Would like to see your ItU house rules. I'm always interested in how other Grogs tinker with the game systems they use.

    1. Thanks for your interest Gwarh! I'll post them in the very near future (either this weekend or next week).


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).