Friday, December 23, 2011

Holmes D&D readthrough, with modern eyes

Just some random thoughts on Holmes D&D.

This is the first time I ever sat down and read it all though way through. My uncle had a copy of 3rd edition (December 1979) Holmes D&D that I inherited, but we never played it, so that'll explain why I never read it through. Plus my uncle really like to underline stuff a lot and seemingly randomly, which drives me nuts. I wouldn't buy used textbooks for that reason, and for the reasons so well articulated by Mr. Thornton Mellon.

It's clearly got a lot going for it as a game, and I can see why a lot of people like it. But there is a lot of "what the-?" moments in there for me. Some are just strange sentences. Some are just odd rules, or inconsistent ones. Others are lessons for rules designers, IMO, for things to do or not to do. Even more are things that make me wonder what it's like to run it without access to the AD&D books it was meant to lead you to. There is a lot of criticism in this post, and I expect it'll really anger some people. But like I said it's not really my intention. I'm criticizing as a way to learn and understand; I'm doing it to Holmes because I can approach it "fresh" since I never read it through or played it (that I can remember, anyway). And it's a good example of a re-take of an older, opaque work (the white box) that is being made more clear. But some things seem missing, so the book feels incomplete to me.

So Zenopus, please don't kill me. Holmes fans, don't flame me. I'm just reflecting on a lot of weirdness I found that - I hope - will lead me to write better books. If I missed some explanation
within Holmes for something I think is missing or stated badly, let me know!

Random weirdness

"At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. [SNIP] Thus, an expedition might include, in additional to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halfling-ish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese samurai fighting man." (pg 7) - Er, what? There are no rules for this, which wasn't helpful when I was nine and not much more helpful now that I'm decades older. Nevermind that's the first and last mention in the book of either samurai or centaurs. I know the OSR ideal is rulings not rules, but this is a bit much - there are no real guidelines for doing this. Even the unhelpful section in the DMG was more useful, even if admonitory instead of encouraging (which this is). Even a line like "Such characters would start at 1 hit die and progress as fighting men (or as magic-users if they use magical spells), but otherwise have normal stats for their kind" would have been awesome. Yeah, maybe I'm undermining my case here with a ruling, but this is a beginner's set, and I think it's fair to ask that if you tell me I can run a monster PC you give me at least a starting point like that. It's done for encounters, treasure, magical item distribution, adventures-to-leveling time, etc. but not there, where there is this tempting throwaway.

Also, "his or her" is nice, but it's followed by "him" and "his or her" doesn't come up again.

The AD&D rules, it says, have rules for two magic-user subtypes - illusionists and witches. Witches never made it into AD&D, not officially anyway. Always fun to find artifacts of a discussing-a-future-product situation like this.

There are only 5 alignments - Lawful (Good or Evil), Neutral, and Chaotic (Good or Evil). Alignment languages show up here, too. But the book later has at least one neutral (evil) creature, the displacer beast.

All characters use the same hit tables, and weapons retain the white box D&D rule of doing d6 damage, no variation for type.

High charisma doesn't have any game effects. In one or two places it's noted that it could help, but it doesn't help mechanically. Charisma 3 or 18 or anything in between, you get the same reactions from NPCs and monsters. Huh. Wordcount is spent on this stat but it's use is vague at best. Oddly characters of a higher level than the PCs cannot be hired, but if you run into them in the dungeon and roll high on the reaction table, they might volunteer to join you!

"When a character is killed, the lead figure (if used) representing his body is removed from the table, unless it is eaten by the monsters or carried off by his comrades to be returned to his family." - Does anyone else parse that to mean if the lead figure is eaten by monsters or carried off?

Encumbrance - I'm not sure, but it looks like only treasure weighs anything. And everyone can carry 60 pounds of treasure encumbered. In any case, weapons and armor do not have any listed weight.

There is no armor cost or weight anywhere that I can find. Armor Class is easy - check the hit location tables - but not anything to buy. This makes me wonder if the book was really intended to work on its own, or if they expected you to have the white box or AD&D books and use this to figure out how they work.

Sleep has a duration of 4-16 turns, but the next sentence says creatures sleep for 2-8 turns. Probably errata more than weirdness, to be fair, but it struck me as a glaringly obvious error when I read it, so it made me look at the spell description to see if there was more that explained the difference. Nope.

Audible Glamour says it takes a fourth level wizard to make the sound of a lion's roar, but a second level magic-user can make the sound of a giant snake slithering. Except that AG is a 2nd level spell, and a 2nd level magic-user doesn't get second level spells. Aargh!

The Strength spell increases a fighter's strength by 2-8, a thief by 1-6, a cleric by 1-4. But the strength stat doesn't do anything in Holmes D&D except increase XP for fighters if it's at a certain level or above. I suppose a third level wizard could help his buddy get +10% XP with this spell. Heh.

Wizard Lock can be bypassed with Knock "without breaking the wizard spell." So it stays magically locked if you let it swing shut? Interesting. I kind of like that.

Cure Light Wounds works on hobbits. Missed a reference during the Tolkien purge? Barrow wights get mentioned later, as do Nazgul, so perhaps this was before TSR got dinged for copyright issues.

There is a whole list of 3rd level spells, but no rules for them - "They are listed above to give some idea of the range of magical possibilities." You need the AD&D Players Handbook here for sure.

Flaming oil gets a whole section (Fire, p. 19). Some oddness here - "To hit with such a missile [a thrown flask] assume that a base score of 11 or better is required." Then it comes with a pile of bonuses and penalties for dexterity, size of the target in feet, and if it is stationary or moving. Then oddly it says "Treat the oil flask missile as a handhurled axe." From later listing it's clear that's for range but why not just give it a table entry? It does seem that flasks of oil are not dependent on level for their to hit chances, regardless of if you are a Normal Man or 1st-3rd level character, the two listings on the to hit table.

Huh, you need to roll Dexterity for all monsters so you can determining initiative. Monsters don't come with a default dexterity. The combat example on p. 21 has the DM rolling during the fight, since you don't roll initiative until melee has started. You can shoot bows and spells off at range without determining initiative. It seems like something you'd ideally want to do when you rolled their HP, just to save time in play (for the same reasons you'd roll HP ahead of time).

There are a lot of monsters you could never take down with unlimited 1st to 3rd level characters. Storm giants, purple worms, djinni, etc. Advice on lowering them down via injury, magical accidents, youth, etc. is given, but they see out of place. I expect that's why they ended up in the Expert Set when Moldvay had his shot at an intro book for D&D.

This book could have been paired with that copy of B2 The Keep on the Borderlands that I have that has different magic items in it and lacks notes about revisers. But I also have an early copy of B1 In Search of the Unknown that seems to go with his (and is sadly beaten up and incomplete, just like that copy of B2.)

Random Coolness

"Monsters killed or overcome by magic or wits are worth experience points . . . " (p. 11) - Nice! Victory doesn't need to mean butchery.

Magic-users can write scrolls of their own spells for a (fairly minimal) cost. Very nice! If that rule was in any other version of D&D or in 1st edition AD&D, I never noticed. I was too awed by the incredible amount of odd stuff you needed to write a scroll that Gygax listed in the DMG.

You can parry, instead of attacking on your next turn (p. 21). I thought that was a first in AD&D 2nd edition, but here it is in Holmes! Cool, and simple.

"Melee [. . .] must be imagined as if were occurring in slow motion so that the effects of each blow can be worked out. [. . . ] the hand-to-hand battles must be fought out one at a time and then the result imagined as if all were going on simultaneously." (p. 18) - Yeah, that's a very good explanation, and I wish I could implant the understanding of this concept into people's heads when they first start gaming. Combat in RPGs is dice-before-description - you roll the dice and then determine if you hit, if the opponent stopped it (system depending), where you landed your blow, how hard of a shot it was, and how the injury affected the guy. Only after all that rolling do you know what you just did. Then you can describe it. Other actions? Describe what you are doing first, because it's much more likely to succeed or fail based on your description. This difference is non-obvious at first.

The sample dungeon (p. 39) cross-section has a domed city in it. Yeah, that's what I'm talking about!

"Once the game begins, try to keep the action moving at a dramatic pace." - Yes, yes, yes. All my game table ideas are centered on making the game run faster and smoother.

"Many gamesters start with a trip across country to get to the entrance to the dungeon - a trip apt to be punctuated with attacks by brigands or wandering monsters or marked by strange and unusual encounters. The party then enters the underworld, tries to capture the maximum treasure with the minimal risk and escape alive." (p. 41) - Other than the "maximum vs. minimal" bit that drives my ESL-teaching heart crazy, this is a very apt description of my Dungeon Fantasy game. Dangerous trip, and then exploration with intent to loot, rather than extermination or exploration for the sake of exploration. It's not like these guys are trying to find the Northwest Passage or something; they want to find the best looting grounds! Space Vikings eat your hearts out, these are Dungeon Vikings! Valhalla I am coming!

Random Design notes:

"The experience points for the kill are multiplied by a fraction: monster level/character's level." (p. 11) - Also nice, since it forces characters to hunt more powerful creatures, and not just play Kurgan and hunt down the weak guys. AD&D had a similar rule. An example would have helped, though - if a 2nd level Fighting Man and a 3rd level Thief and a 1st level Magic-User kill 3 x 1 hd monsters (30 xp), what's the divide like? The downside to this kind of rule is also that you need to really track a running total of what was killed, so you can divide it down. "Okay Bob, your guy is 3rd level, and he killed 3 orcs at 30 xp total divided by 1/3 so it's 10 xp, that 2 hd green slime so that's 20 x 2/3 equals 13 or 14 points . . . " etc. No word on what 1+1 HD divided by 3 gets you. I think that's why we never used this in actual play with the AD&D version. And if you simplify it by "top level guy" then first level guys really never benefit from their 2nd level buddy - all the XP for the "easy" monsters is halved!

You are surprised on a 1-2 on a d6, and then if you roll a 6 after being surprised you "may" drop whatever you are holding. Generally I think it's bad to change the "bad" numbers. Pick one - roll low (Surprised on a 1-2 on a d6, then roll again and drop what you are holding if you get a 1) or high (surprised on a 5-6, drop stuff on a 6). Wandering Monsters do this to - they appear on a 6 on a d6, and then you check for surprise (roll low) and dropping stuff if surprised (roll high).

"If the archer is firing at long range his dice roll for a hit is one higher than the score for hits with any other weapon, and is read off the table under the opponent's armor class. At medium range the archer uses the score as shown, and at close range he adds 1." (p. 20) - That's a very, very long way to say "+1 to hit at Short Range (the actual range band name on the table), -1 at Long Range." My uncle (presumably) felt the same way and markered up the tables with +1, 0, and -1 next to the range names. Lesson learned: Don't spell out bonuses if you can put them on the table with a label. Also there is some oddness - thrown axes, spears, and daggers have no medium range, so they always have either a +1 or -1 to hit.

Light weapons get two attacks a round, heavy weapons one every other round. But damage is the same for all, which means there is a huge disincentive to use anything but a dagger. If you create an imbalance, it's best to address it in some way - if two-handed weapons do more damage or get a to hit bonus, maybe it's worth it. But strictly by the book it's a bad idea to use anything but a dagger (two attacks, and all weapons do 1d6).

Using letters instead of numbers on a map (p. 42) is probably not a good idea; it's fine for a very small spot but for larger locations you're just screwing yourself.

Finally

You want to run a thief? You utter bastard.

Holmes D&D lets you know that you are one, for certain.

"Thieves are not truly good and are usually referred to as neutral or evil, so that other members of an expedition should never completely trust them and they are quite as likely to steal from their own party as from the Dungeon Master's monsters." (pg 6)

"Neutral characters, such as all thieves . . . " (pg 8) So no chaotic evil marauding thieves? Contradictory and confusing. It makes me think a good approach would have been to say that neutral thieves are profit-oriented treasure hunters or helpful burglars like Bilbo (who is probably Lawful, really, even with all the hiding in shadows and moving silently and climbing he does). Then you say chaotic types are untrustworthy bastards. I mean, a neutral thief should be more trustworthy than a chaotic anything else, right? But by the book . . . he's not.

"If for some reason, one character gets more of the loot, such as a thief stealing gems from the saddle bags on the way home, then he should get the additional experience points." (p. 11) - Okay, okay, you don't like thieves. They aren't team players. Geez, I get it. No wonder some OSR folks hate them, the books tell you how horrible they are. Rules lawyers can point to the rulebook to say, hey, I'm supposed to be stealing your stuff, guys!

Overall: Interesting stuff. I really need to find a readable copy of the original B1, and a better copy of this book. It's a fun and quick read, but again, I wonder how people made out if this is all they owned and tried to run it. The explanations of how the game worlds seem clear now, but then again, I'm thirty years older than I was when I first started playing, and even Moldvay really confused me. The weird not-OD&D not-AD&D not-Basic D&D vibe about this makes it really unique and interesting.

(Quick edit later: I forgot to include the pictures of my mangled, underlined, colored-in Holmes D&D set)


13 comments:

  1. This is the game I started playing. Just me and my dad at first and I DMed because he didn't want to bother learning the rules. I played it out a lot by myself, running it like a little tactical wargame using little dungeons of my own design before I ran my dad through the Keep on the Borderlands. Even then I really didn't understand most of the rules, but I was only 10 at the time. Going back and rereading it now I am shocked I ever started playing D&D, I was really determined to play that cool looking game I saw advertised in Boys Life. Eventually I figured things out, through a combination of getting the AD&D books, and the Expert set and eventually meeting and playing with other people that were playing D&D. The first year was rough though.

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  2. I love reading posts like this, so thanks for writing it up!

    Personally, I like Holmes because it still feels like it was written for adults. By the time the basic series reaches its Mentzer incarnation, the intended audience has clearly changed.

    Audible Glamour says it takes a fourth level wizard to make the sound of a lion's roar, but a second level magic-user can make the sound of a giant snake slithering. Except that AG is a 2nd level spell, and a 2nd level magic-user doesn't get second level spells.

    A first-level magic-user can cast spells of any level if they are written on scrolls.

    There are a lot of monsters you could never take down with unlimited 1st to 3rd level characters. Storm giants, purple worms, djinni, etc. Advice on lowering them down via injury, magical accidents, youth, etc. is given, but they see out of place. I expect that's why they ended up in the Expert Set when Moldvay had his shot at an intro book for D&D.

    I don't think this should be read as a mistake or even as bad design. One of the major problems with later games, in my opinion, is the assumption that PCs should be able to kill everything. And I don't even mean this as a comment about balance; that is, some people assume that if a red dragon is too hard, that just means that you are not high enough level.

    The point, I think, is that some monsters are just obstacles to be avoided or tricked, not fought. Level-draining undead, for example, are a bad bet to confront at any level. They are there to be avoided, not killed. Realizing this was one of my major OSR ah-hah! moments.

    Wizard Lock can be bypassed with Knock "without breaking the wizard spell." So it stays magically locked if you let it swing shut? Interesting. I kind of like that.

    I believe this is maintained in Moldvay, which I was just reading, and probably later editions too.

    Magic-users can write scrolls of their own spells for a (fairly minimal) cost. Very nice! If that rule was in any other version of D&D or in 1st edition AD&D, I never noticed.

    I'm not sure about AD&D, but I think this rule is also present in later editions of B/X.

    Light weapons get two attacks a round, heavy weapons one every other round. But damage is the same for all, which means there is a huge disincentive to use anything but a dagger.

    Yeah, that seems clearly broken. I really don't like rules that give you two options but make one of them obviously better mechanically. Many of the variable damage weapons in AD&D are also like that, if you avoid all the fiddly bits like speed factors and weapon vs. AC (which pretty much everyone did, as far as I can tell).

    I just recently found an unmarked copy of B1 in a game store for $3. :-)

    It's true the cover was separated along the spine, but other than that it was it good shape.

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  3. The Basic/Enhanced Set I knew was Moldvay, judging by some quick image searches; I don't know Holmes. From that, and from AD&D, I got my initial impressions of role-playing: that the rules would take you just so far, then drop you off a cliff, with no guidance at all about what to do next. It sounds as though this is taking a similarly raw approach.

    Alignment languages are one of those things I think we always ignored, because they didn't seem to add to the game. It's more in-genre for the two dodgy PCs to sneak off and plot together than for them to be able to chat away with the rest of the party not knowing what they're saying.

    Interesting that the thief gets more of a strength boost than the cleric - by AD&D, I think it's fair to say that clerics were the #2 fighters, and thieves were down there with magic-users.

    AD&D combat to me is rather more abstract - "in this round, I did a bunch of damage to him, and he did a little bit to me". I think the one-minute melee round there is expressly noted as containing multiple passes and opportunities to hit, which are abstracted away. Here it sounds as though it's "one die roll per blow" - is there a real-time duration given for a melee round?

    Brendan: The main weapon balancing mechanic I remember from AD&D1 was the way it was very rare to get a magical two-handed sword. :-)

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  4. Wah. There's very little here that makes me regret having Moldvay Basic instead.

    Two things I think are interesting:

    His/her: It looks like Moldvay basic went out of its way to reach out to the female demographic. It not only has freaky hawt pre-goth weirdo sorceress babe on the front, but it has both a boy and a girl thinking up what kind of character they want to play-- with the girl's character showing up again in the class line-up!

    Domed City: I think Moldvay's sample dungeon was largely overlooked and forgotten by gamers... possibly because it was so severly upstaged by the always-included B2. People wax poetic about Black Dougal, but no one cares about the fate of the Rodemus family! The side-view of the dungeon is clearly only three levels deep at the most... and thanks to the dimensions given for the Haunted Keep, you can tell that it is not very big at all. The Holmes side-view, though, is clearly an epic mega-dungeon. If that domed city is at all to scale, then the entire place has to be huge!

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  5. So Zenopus, please don't kill me

    You....DIE!

    :)

    I always appreciate a serious look at the rulebook. It bring to my attention things I've never noticed before - like that sole reference to "his or her".

    One thing to keep in mind is that Holmes edited the rulebook from OD&D, so in some cases the "weirdness" he was working with came from there.

    A few quick notes:

    a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese samurai fighting man." (pg 7) - Er, what? There are no rules for this, which wasn't helpful when I was nine and not much more helpful now that I'm decades older.

    The original D&D rules actually had "Balrog" here, so in that regard Holmes made it easier for DMs.

    There is no armor cost or weight anywhere that I can find.
    The price of armor is listed with the other equipment on page 7

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  6. Wow, no flames! Hurrah!

    @William Dowie: Yeah, I get the same impression with some of the early books. How did anyone know what to do? Thanks for sharing the story.

    @Brendan: Thanks, and you're welcome.

    Re AG - I didn't think about scrolls. I guess the implication, then, is that scrolls are cast with the reader's level. But the very early B2 out there has a scroll with a "6-die fireball spell on it" so I'm not sure that's the intent. Could be, though.

    As for the monsters, yeah, I get that too. But so, so many of them are way too tough for 3rd level guys. Not just a few are. And they don't show up on random charts, so usage isn't clear. The "level drain undead are to flee from bit" is a really thought-provoking idea.

    And I'm envious of your lucky find. Then again, I have a big collection garnered from purchases I never tossed and gathering up other people's collections, while so many gamers have little from the old days.

    @rogerbw: Rounds in Holmes are 10 seconds. I think AD&D was the first "1 minute round" couple with 6-second segments.

    And yeah, getting a magic two-handed sword by the random charts wasn't so easy. Lucky for my players I tended to hand out gear intended for them, so they could double-specialize in broadsword and expect to find a cool one eventually.

    @jeffro: You're right about gender in Moldvay, and in some early D&D ads. Girls play too! Which they did, although the ratio was very boy-heavy in my area.

    The Rodemus? No one cares. Poor bastards.

    I think that domed city isn't to scale. But it sure as hell tells you dungeons are big, and that really, really cool stuff can be down there. And that if you have a few miles of rope you can climb right down to the cool stuff. :)

    @Zenopus:

    You....DIE!

    Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Oh wait, Holmes doesn't have Power Word: Kill. Safe!

    :)

    Are you are right, there is the armor buried away after "Small Boat."

    You are right about the OD&D balrog mention, too. This is easier on DMs but man, it really could have used a sentence like the one I suggested. Same with AD&D, instead of a whole Gygaxian pronouncement on high telling DMs what to do. Just say, okay, you're a weak one and here is a guideline to doing it.

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  7. The point about certain magic weapons being harder to find on the standard tables is a good one. It's another reason to stick by the tables when possible, as it contributes to the utility of certain weapons. I've never much liked tailoring the treasure found to the needs of specific characters, as long as there is a decent variety so that nobody is left out.

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  8. I always did a mix of tailoring and random. If I didn't tailor, my player in High School who had a battle-axe wielding ranger/druid would have never gotten such a nice axe, since the tables didn't really allow for that then. But it is at least worth looking to see if that is the case. I would want to tell the player, though. If they want a bidenhander-using Germanic merc PC and there is pretty much no chance of a magic two handed sword, they should know those odds when they start.

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  9. This was my introduction to D&D and it still occupies a special place in my heart. Domed city, I love ya.

    When we started playing Holmes in '77, we assigned weapon damages as follows: daggers 1d4, two-handed weapons 2d6, everything else 1d6. We ignored the "every other round" rule for two-handed weapons, because not being able to use a shield or carry a torch/lantern seemed enough of a penalty.

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  10. @Doug - That sounds like a good rule.

    I think the most amazing thing to me when I look back at these systems is not that they were so popular, but that anyone figured them out at all. Including myself (with help). Yet we all did, and here I am 30 years on playing games where folks plumb the depths of dungeons and kill things with swords and take their stuff. Amazing legacy, eh?

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  11. Very nice analysis! I love B/X for its clarity and utter lack of errata (I tried to compile an errata sheet once, but I couldn't find any). With Holmes, it's all about the weirdness. :)

    That's what attracted me to Holmes after first reading through it a month or so ago, to the extent that I just have to do a retro clone, now.

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  12. Very nice analysis! I loved B/X since my first exposure in '82 for its clarity and utter lack of errata (I tried to compile an errata sheet once, but I couldn't find any). With Holmes, on the other hand, it's all about the weirdness!

    I first read Holmes about a month ago, and it's my new favourite edition of D&D, to the extent that Blueholme the retro clone should be out before Christmas ... :)

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  13. Oops, sorry about the double post, I thought the first one had gone down the intertubes ...

    Re: encumbrance, I really like the (possibly unintended) effect that there are really only three states of being in Holmes:

    1) Unarmoured, free and unencumbered;
    2) Armoured up, OR loaded up; and
    3) Armoured up, and weighed down with loot.

    No matter how detailed your encumbrance charts get (and I remember the 80s when we noted down the weight of individual rounds for our may different guns in Aftermath!), it still comes down to that. You may have to slap down the occasional munchkin player who wants to carry 10 spare swords wherever he goes, but common sense and those three rules serve me perfectly well these days.

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