PART 5 OF 12
Most of the rules about EXPERIENCE POINTS AND EXPERIENCE LEVELS are typical of old-school D&D, so I'll just note a few things that popped out at me.
As I stated before, Holmes Basic only goes up to third level. Since this is intended to help beginners get into D&D, among other purposes, that's probably a good thing. It certainly keeps most of the tables and charts nice and compact. It's not like getting to third level isn't an achievement or anything. Wait until I get to the part of the book with the monsters!
PCs in Holmes Basic actually get less XP for killing/subduing monsters lower in level than them. In such cases, the book says to divide the monster's level by that of the character's level to see what fraction of the monster's XP value is actually gained. I'm not sure I like this idea. The XP requirements already increase for each level, so this feels like overkill to me. I don't know if other versions of D&D use this rule or not.
"The Dungeon Master should have the option of lowering the number of experience points gained under special circumstances. If one character sneaks out of the dungeon with all the treasure while the rest of the party is being eaten, he should gain some experience points but not necessarily all of them!" Um...I hate to be the "every man for himself" kind of guy here, but why? It says earlier on the same page (page 11 in my copy of the book) that a character who gets a bigger share of the loot by stealing some of it from the other PCs should get a proportionately larger share of the XP using the standard formula (1 GP = 1 XP). Earlier in the book, it said that Thieves shouldn't be completely trusted by the rest of the party. Obviously, conflict between PCs isn't off the table here, so why punish a player for profiting from the misfortune of the rest of the party? Is it because they didn't "earn" the treasure? Bullshit. These are murderhobos we're talking about here. They earned it in deception, quick thinking, and blood. Especially blood: theirs, their enemies', and even their "friends'."
I'm sorry, Dr. Holmes (or Mr. Gygax, and/or Mr. Arneson if this comes from OD&D or AD&D). I don't mean to be a dick. This just doesn't make sense to me. If you want to discourage backstabbing within the party, why allow uneven XP distribution at all (aside from prime requisite bonuses and such)? Why write untrustworthiness into a class description? And if the cowardice of the sneaky character in your example is the reason for the penalty, rather than the lack of cooperation or friendliness, why award all treasure pulled out of the dungeon with XP instead of just treasure obtained bravely? If a group of 20 fighting men, all at level 3 with maximum HP and equipped with plate mail and shields waltz into the first room of a tiny dungeon known to be inhabited by a single sickly goblin (with one HP and only a broken toothpick for self-defense) and bully the poor sucker into handing over his unlocked, untrapped treasure chest containing 100 gold coins he inherited from his Aunt Bertha, that's not very brave of those fighting men, is it? Yet unless I'm misinterpreting the rules, they'd still get 100 XP for those 100 coins. Unless the DM decides otherwise by fiat, which seems to be what the passage I quoted above suggests, but how does one make such ruling fair and consistent? And why should cowardly characters earn less XP than brave ones if they get the same treasure?
Maybe the idea is that XP represents lessons learned and wisdom gained through adventuring, and that grabbing the treasure and running like a coward doesn't impart any useful lessons or wisdom. If that's the intended thought process, I simply disagree. The experience of running away should help the player learn how best to flee, avoid conflict, dodge danger, etc. Since hit points are an abstract measurement of how hard it is to kill a given creature, it makes sense that learning how to dodge and run away and be clever and tricky could lead to more HP (via leveling up). Also, it seems to me that "leave your friends to die and you can make a tidy profit" is a pretty strong lesson, and perhaps a wise piece of advice in a world full of man-eating monsters. Unless the game is trying to push heroic, morally-upright behavior on the players, but most OSR sources seem to insist that old-school D&D is absolutely not about that.
Perhaps the idea is that XP merely represents experiences that increase one's capabilities in combat and/or class activities. But if so, why reward treasure with XP at all? Grabbing coins doesn't seem like the kind of activity that would automatically make you more badass. Yes, I know it's not about the coins themselves but rather the dangers overcome in order to get those coins, but come on, not every coin in every dungeon presents equal danger. And no, I don't think you should give different coins different XP values based on where or how you get them, since that would over-complicate things. Instead, I think you should stick closely to the GP=XP rule and avoid arbitrary DM fiat - just allow the abstract system to be abstract and imagine that the characters face enough danger and learn enough lessons in other aspects of their adventures to make up for the rare situations in which they get treasure easily enough to not "learn" from the hunt for it. And maybe design your dungeons with encounters, traps, and puzzles that reward cooperation and bravery while making it difficult for cowards to flee with all of the treasure. After all, if you track encumbrance, you're already incentivising cooperation - how is one wimp going to carry out more than a small portion of the treasure during a deadly and chaotic melee?
Sorry. I know I'm ranting again. I really do love this book, but sometimes it confuses me, just like any other version of D&D I've read...or any other tabletop RPG I've read at all, for that matter. My point is that I love the concept of getting XP for treasure, but if you're going to use that kind of system I don't think you should then penalize characters for being amoral, greedy scumbags. You know, outside of the natural consequences of being scumbags.
I guess I just feel like heroic PCs are more special and more enjoyable when they act heroically without any direct mechanical incentives for heroism. Sometimes being good is its own reward.
Of course, if you disagree with me on any of this, I'd be interested in discussing the matter in the comments. I could be overlooking something.
I like how the chart showing the minimum XP, hit dice, and spells of each level of each class includes Thief abilities under the "spells" column. I know this is probably just to save space, but I like the idea of Thief skills as a set of spells with theoretically "unlimited" uses but a small list of spells and percentage-based chances of casting failures. Mechanically speaking, that is. Not necessarily in terms of the "fluff," although the latter is also amusing. "He climbed that sheer cliff face so quickly it was like magic!"
What the "Spells" column actually lists for Thieves are the letters A, B, and C, which correspond to lines on the chart titled EXPLANATION OF THIEF'S ABILITIES on the next page. As usual, a Thief's class abilities increase their chances of success with each level. I really like the charts in this book, because I am, predictably, a nerd, and proud of it.
If I'm not mistaken, many old-school D&D-type games will allow Thieves to try certain class-based tasks like opening a lock over and over again until they succeed, with the time spent acting as the cost, since spending time means spending resources like torches and risking random encounters. Holmes Basic takes a different approach: a Thief only gets one try per lock. In the given example, Drego the first-level Thief fails to pick a lock, and Holmes writes "no matter how long he works on the lock there is only a 15% chance that an inexperienced thief can get it open." Does this mean that Drego could come back and try again after he gains a level, since he is no longer so inexperienced? Also, does this one-try rule apply to, say, picking pockets or hearing noises?
The Holmes Basic Approach to Failing to Open a Lock
Pros: Everyone else at the table doesn't have to sit there bored and annoyed while the Thief's player tries the same action over and over again. Play is sped up. Some locks appear "in-universe" to be more complicated or difficult than others without needing to worry about establishing a Difficulty Class ahead of time or on the spot like in D&D 3.5. People who like to gamble can play Thieves and get more opportunities in which a single, high-stakes roll determines success or failure.
Cons: The DM doesn't get the grim satisfaction of watching the party waste resources and encounter monsters over a single stupid lock. Thieves look like either complete idiots or impatient jackasses more often: "I tried once and failed. Might as well give up forever." People who like to minimize the gambling in their class abilities may be even more put off by the Thief class than in similar games.
Conclusion: I don't lean toward the Holmes approach, but I can see the appeal. I'd be more okay with only allowing one attempt per day (or other unit of time), but one attempt ever, or even one attempt per level, seems a bit harsh, and it frankly hurts my immersion a bit. Still, rolling skill checks over and over again can get boring, and abstraction often serves D&D well, so if you like the Holmes way of handling Thief skills, more power to you.
The Cleric's ability to "turn undead" seems pretty standard in execution. The book mentions that higher-level Clerics than those covered by Holmes Basic can "dispel" undead, but that's beyond what a level 1 to 3 Cleric can do.
There's a section explaining the USE OF THE WORD LEVEL. It's a nice touch, and probably super helpful to beginners. This book is full of nice details like that, written in a style that is straightforward yet enjoyable. Maybe I've been a bit negative in this post, but please don't doubt that this book really is a great read. It makes me want to sit down and just start playing.
Countless people have commented on that special something, that je ne sais quoi that surrounds low-level play. I've even read suggestions that it could be fun to play a Holmes Basic campaign that caps the party's level at 3 and doesn't move on to OD&D or AD&D or B/X or anything else. I'm personally fond of mid- and high-level D&D, but I think the folks who prefer low-level play are really on to something, too. This book has me feeling it. Sometimes, three is all you need.
Next time: Wait, scrolls only cost how much to make?
EDIT: I wanted to link to THIS POST from Dungeon Fantastic because it's a good read that covered much of this same ground over four years ago. The comments are insightful, too.