Thursday, June 23, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 9 - My Love for You is Like an Orc

PART 9 OF 12

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

The monster section starts with the usual explanations and advice: Feel free to create or "borrow" monsters for the game, here's what the stats mean, you can use the Wandering Monster table as a guideline for making your dungeons fair and balanced to the party, don't give too much treasure for beating easy monsters, don't give too much treasure or else you'll make the game suck, don't give too little treasure or else you'll make the game suck, and by the way, you can pick up the MONSTER AND TREASURE ASSORTMENTS for a modest price from TSR. You know, the usual. Good advice, though. Except for that last part, because TSR is out of business and I'm sure the MONSTER AND TREASURE ASSORTMENTS would cost me an arm and a leg nowadays.

Three interesting things to note: First, monsters use a d8 for their HD, like (non-Halfling) Fighting Men, and they do variable damage with their attacks, unlike PCs. This kind of bothers me. I thought the point of making the vast majority of damage rolls, even with a dagger, 1d6 was that a normal human had 1 HD (1d6 HP), so one good blow from any decent weapon could kill a normal person. Fighters get d8 HP because they are slightly tougher or luckier than the average person, but monsters are generally several times tougher/luckier than average humans, so they get multiple HD to represent how many humans they are equivalent to in power. In fantasy fiction, you usually hear things like "The ogre had the strength of ten men," not "The ogre had the strength of thirteen and one-third men." It just doesn't sound as good. And why not give the hill giant's attack the deadliness of three men (3d6 damage, or 3-18) instead of the deadliness of two and two-thirds men (2d8, or 2-16)? Actually, I'm using maximum damage for my math instead of average damage, so let me try it that way...okay, that's 10.5 average damage for 3d6 vs. 9 for 2d8, so I think my point still stands. It's not a huge increase, and it keeps almost everything defined in terms of "whole numbers" of humans.

But you could argue that using variable damage for monster attacks and d8 HD for monster HP allows a level of mathematical nuance and granularity that is over my head, but helps make the game more balanced and fun. That's fine, but if you're going to do that, why not go whole hog and give PC attacks variable damage, too? I feel like the game would be better off either embracing non-variable damage and HD all around or going the AD&D route and differentiating weapons by damage. Maybe there's something I'm not understanding here. I'd love to hear some opinions on this from people more familiar with Holmes Basic or OD&D.

Oh yeah, I was listing things. Second, the book says that it should take about 6-12 adventures for a character to level up, not counting the occasional non-lucrative outing (which the book suggests will likely happen 10-20% of the time). I feel like that's probably fine for a weekly game, but if you can only play once a month or so that sounds like it might be slightly too high. This is probably something that should be tailored to the individual group's needs.

Third, the book gives some cool advice for scaling down the power of high-level monsters if you want low-level parties to be able to fight them effectively:

"If one wanted to use a chimera, for instance, in a campaign with low level characters, the creature could be scaled down. Maybe it ran into a high level magic-user and was partially shrunk by a magic spell, reducing its hit points. Or there might be a special magic sword, effective only against this chimera, hidden in the dungeon, and the adventurers given a hint or a legend that might lead them to it. In the interest of maintaining the balance of the game, however, a small or weak monster must not have a treasure anything like the hoard of a normal monster."

As I've said before, I do think the game is more fun if the party has a chance of encountering some creatures above the possibility of defeat in straight-up combat. I like to toss out occasional enemies that are way too weak to defeat the party, too, so that they can enjoy throwing around their weight a bit - although I'd be much less likely to do that in a more horror-oriented campaign in which the characters should almost always feel weak and nervous. But honestly, I love the advice Dr. Holmes gives for scaling down monsters here, and I think it's another important tool that should be available in the DM's toolbox. If you really want to use a particular monster but you also want the characters to have a possibility of victory and that particular monster is just too much for them as written, get creative! Come up with a way to change it. Use your imagination. That's what the game's really about.

So now I've come to the MONSTER LIST, which is in alphabetical order, or BANDIT TO ZOMBIE order. There's a little over twelve pages to the monster section, counting what I covered above, so I'm going to do what I did with the spell list and just briefly comment on each entry.

Bandit - The group size scales all the way up to 300, accompanied by a level 10 or 11 Magic-User and a 50% chance of a level 8 Cleric, plus ten level 4 Fighting Men and six level 5 or 6 Fighting Men. Why are they bandits? They should be ruling the kingdom!

Basilisk - You can turn its petrification powers against it by making it look in a mirror. Freakin' sweet.

Berserker - Holy shit, this description is metal: "They never retreat or surrender, will always fight to the death. / No prisoners." Dr. Holmes, I think I'm in love.

Black Pudding - It's the Blob. Super dangerous and eats through everything. I'd rather face a dragon. At least you can beg a dragon for mercy.

Blink Dogs - Lawful good dogs that teleport and hate displacer beasts. There's got to be a story here I don't know.

Bugbear - Big ol' goblins. Surprisingly sneaky.

Carrion Crawler - The Very Hungry Caterpillar, dungeon style. Freaks me out.

Chimera - We glued a goat, a lion, and a dragon together, and you'll never guess what happened next! Actually, you probably will. It fucking killed us. It has 9 HD and breathes fire, what do you expect?

Cockatrice - Tie one to the end of a stick and go all Nethack on your enemies. You'll be least until you fall into a pit trap and land on the thing.

Displacer Beast - "It attacks with the tentacles which have sharp horny edges." Must be popular at certain kinds of parties. Also, I love how weird this monster is. Isn't this a D&D original? If so, what a great contribution to fantasy, up there with the beholder and the gelatinous cube.

Djinni - Forget asking for wishes. This bastard can just turn into a whirlwind and insta-kill your ass if you've got 2 HD or less.

Doppleganger - Misspelled in the book. Sleep and Charm spells don't affect them, so put your party to sleep every night with magic to ensure a peaceful and intruder-free rest. What could go wrong?

Dragon - The titular titans themselves. Their rules are more complicated than all the other monsters, but I like that about them. It provides a lot of options for customization. Also, I like how there are special rules for subduing dragons, and how the breath attack of a dragon is directly proportional to its HD.

Dwarf - So an NPC Dwarf with 1 HD does 1-8 damage, but a level 1 Dwarf Fighting Man PC only does 1-6? What a rip-off.

Elf - The Elves are even worse than the Dwarves! 1+1 HD, 1-10 damage. I call foul.

Fire Beetle - If you steal their glands, they will glow for 1-6 days afterwards. Save a torch, kill a beetle. Actually, I wonder if you could tame one of these...

Gargoyle - "They can only be hit with magic weapons." My advice, avoid Gothic cathedrals at all costs. Join a nice, safe religion. You never see gargoyles at a Lutheran church, right?

Gelatinous Cube - Located at the intersection of goofy and horrifying. Immune to most spells, apparently.

Ghouls - What's so special about Elves that they get to be immune to ghoul paralysis? Also, this reminds me that I should reread Pickman's Model. I heard Dr. Holmes was a big Lovecraft fan.

Giant - Living catapults. I'm not kidding: Holmes Basic just straight-up uses the catapult rules from Chainmail. Also, cloud giants have a keen sense of smell, and storm giants can live underwater.

Giant Ant - A giant ant nest is guarded by 5-50 of them, and that's where all the treasure is. Sounds like the basis for a cool dungeon or adventure.

Giant Centipede - They have a "weak" poison (+4 to saving throws), but it's still an insta-kill poison.

Giant Rats - "Sumatran rats" that can cause "bacterial infestation" with a bite and a failed saving throw. It lasts 60 days, but only has a 25% chance of killing you, and Cure Disease can clear it right up...assuming there's a level 5 Cleric around and you have enough cold, hard cash. Miracles ain't cheap, you know.

Giant Tick - Now these bastards are packing a serious disease: it WILL kill your ass in 2-8 days without a Cure Disease spell, and there's no saving throw to avoid infection if you get bitten.

Gnoll - The book describes them as being "like hyena-men." Again, it sounds like they use the same kinds of weapons as adventurers yet do 2-8 damage. They are more or less described as lazy and poorly organized.

Gnome - "Gnomes are similar to dwarves, whom they resemble." Fun fact, the preferred weapon of the gnome is apparently the crossbow. Is there any basis for that in fairy tales?

Goblin - They don't like daylight or dwarves. They do 1-6 damage, so they should make good adventurers.

Gray Ooze - It's like a weaker version of the black pudding, but still very dangerous. Whereas the black pudding can only be killed by fire, the gray ooze is immune to fire and cold, and it can only be killed by "weapons and lightning." I hope your party is taking notes.

Green Slime - It's hard to tell, but I think it takes a full turn for green slime to kill you in Holmes Basic. Too bad there doesn't seem to be a saving throw, and only shitty medieval surgery or Cure Disease can stop it. Still, I generally pictured death by green slime as almost instant, so maybe this is actually kind of merciful.

Griffon - Loves the taste of horses and specifically cannot be brought within 360 feet of a horse without flipping out and trying to eat it.

Harpy - Make your saving throw or get Charmed into letting it eat you. Has an accompanying illustration that Wizards of the Coast would be too lame to use in a modern product.

Hell Hound - Its breath weapon scales with its HD, but it hits like a weapon instead of forcing a saving throw. Good at finding hidden and invisible things, presumably because of its sense of smell.

Hippogriff - Easy to confuse with the griffon. Doesn't like pegasi.

Hobgoblin - The goblin king fights like a hobgoblin, and the hobgoblin king and his bodyguards fight like ogres. Why stop there? The ogre king should fight like a storm giant, and the storm giant king should just straight-up be Cthulhu.

Horse - Horses won't go into dungeons, but mules will. Good ol' mules.

Hydra - The book notes that this version is more like a long-necked dinosaur than a snake. Easily scales up or down in terms of HD/number of heads. Gets one attack per head each turn, so it's super dangerous. Every six points of damage severs a head, so at least you can reduce its number of attacks over the course of a fight. Also, you don't have to cauterize the neck stumps to keep the heads from growing back, so that's nice.

Kobold - The description basically calls them shittier versions of goblins, but they get a +3 on most saving throws due to their resistance to magic, so I could see them being troublesome. The chieftain fights like a gnoll, because of course it does.

Lizard Man - Use spears and clubs, do 1-8 damage. I wonder if any players ever took a look at the rulebook and asked the DM if they could just play as a monster from then on. Here's some of the Holmes Writing Style I enjoy: "These aquatic monsters will capture men in order to take them to the tribal lair for a feast, with the man serves as the main course!" I wish more D&D monster descriptions actually sounded like the writers were excited about the topic.

Lycanthrope - Many people have already commented on the Polynesian Were-Shark. It sounds pretty cool to me. All lycanthropes are repelled by wolfsbane, not just werewolves. Wererats can summon rats like a vampire, and like to hang out in half-rat form. Wereboars and werebears are chaotic good for some reason.

Manticore - These things always fascinated me. The spikes are specified to be iron, which is nice and weird. They can shoot six spikes at a time, which can really ruin your day, let me tell you. "Their favorite prey is man."

Medusa - Their snakes are specified to be asps. They are "usually" female. Their eyes can petrify you and their snakes can poison you. You can pull the same mirror trick on it as you can with the basilisk.

Minotaur - "The minotaur is a bull-headed man (and all of us who have debated game rules are well acquainted with such)." Dr. Holmes just won his SECOND Quoted For Truth Award in two days! That's got to be at least the third one, overall.

Mummy - "Mummies are also members of the undead." Mummy rot slows down healing to one-tenth of the normal rate, and even Cure Disease will only raise that to half the normal rate. I wonder if that applies to magical healing, too.

Ochre Jelly - "It is, of course, ochre colored." Now you're just fucking with me. Another blob monster that will make your party members regret falling asleep in Dungeon Ecology 101.

Ogre - Apparently, they come in a whole rainbow of "disgusting colors." The stat line says they carry 1,000 extra gold pieces, but the description says they carry 100-600.

Orc - Engage in a lot of tribal warfare with each other. Sounds like a good chance for adventurers to divide and conquer. Sometimes hang out with ogres or even trolls. Don't like daylight, like goblins.

Owl Bear - It's a bear, except it's a bigger asshole.

Pegasi - Only serve lawful good characters. Stuck up pricks.

Pixie - Invisible nuisances that like to hang out with Elves and sing Kumbaya.

Purple Worm - 15 HD? Where's Paul Muad'Dib when you need him?

Rust Monster - The scariest monster in D&D. Probably constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Shadow - Can't be turned by Clerics, strangely, suggesting that it is some kind of unusual lifeform instead of another fancy ghost like the spectre, wight, and wraith. Create more shadows by draining the strength from people, giving that particular ability score another purpose in the game mechanics (resisting the shadow's reproductive cycle) besides just giving Fighting Men extra XP.

Shrieker - Living alarm systems.

Skeleton - Hey, they don't have that annoying "only weak to blunt weapons" thing I keep seeing everywhere.

Spectre - The book literally calls them "Nazgul" and name-drops Tolkien. Time to cast Summon Litigation Elemental. One of those level-draining jerks.

Spider - Come in three sizes: Large, Huge, and Giant. The huge ones don't actually spin webs. Maybe the different sizes also correspond to different species.

Stirge - Look like "feathered ant-eaters." Gets a +2 bonus to hit. Pricks.

Troglodyte - They're good at surprise attacks except when they're angry, since that screws with their "chameleon-like power." Smell bad when they're "aroused for battle." Mechanically, one of the more interesting humanoids.

Troll - "Thin and rubbery" monstrosities that won't stay dead. Surprisingly, only do 1d6 damage per attack.

Unicorn - "Only a pure maiden (in the strictest sense of the term) can subdue and ride them." Sex-negative dickheads, like in the fairy tales. Can use Dimension Door once per day with a rider in tow.

Vampire - "All vampires, regardless of religious background, are affected by the cross which is sovereign against them." Wait, and people thought this game was satanic? Also, if you reduce a vampire to 0 HP but don't defeat it with either sunlight, running water, or "a wooden stick," the motherfucker just turns to gas and escapes. Vampires have it too easy.

Wight - Another Tolkien name-drop. Another level-drainer, too. Magic weapons work extra well against them, adding their magical bonus to damage as well as the to-hit roll.

Wraith - Wights, but stronger. Not sure why this wasn't just rolled into the previous entry - maybe for the Turn Undead table. Magic arrows only do half damage to them, for some reason.

Yellow Mold - Another fairly passive dungeon hazard like green slime. Not as bad, but still nasty. I think I have some of this in my apartment.

Zombie - Not much different from skeletons. Both zombies and skeletons are notes as being controlled by an "evil magic-user or cleric." They only attack every other round because they're so slow. Probably the kind of monster that a first-level party can actually take in battle with some confidence. Then again, I could see them being dangerous in huge numbers, like Black Friday shoppers.

Okay, so I know I've made fun of a lot of stuff here, and I even linked to a song that straight-up contains the line "This game sucks," but honestly, the bestiary in Holmes Basic fucking rocks. I'm pleasantly surprised by how many intriguing details are crammed into such short monster entries. A lot of Monster Manual writers throughout the decades should have probably paid a little more attention to the Holmes Basic book. There's great variety for an introductory booklet, too. I do wonder if Dr. Holmes went a little overboard with the really powerful monsters, but the suggestions for scaling them down are pretty good, so I guess that's no big deal. This has got to be my favorite part of the book so far.

Next time: The real reason we go into these awful holes in the ground in the first place.


  1. Crazy D&D damage idea: not only do hit dice determine the monster's level and hit points, but also how much damage the monster can dish out. So a 12HD monster can do 12d8 worth of damage, in a single massive attack, in twelve smaller jabs, or anything in between.

    Slightly less crazy D&D damage idea: the monster does damage equal to its number of hit dice, so a 12HD monster does 12 damage with each attack.

    Slightly wonky but not too crazy D&D damage idea: the momster's number of hit dice determines which dice to roll for damage, so a 12HD monster rolls a d12 when it hits.

    The displacer beast is ripped off from the Coeurl in AE van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which makes its designation as product identity by WotC a little dubious.

    I think werebears are chaotic good because of Beorn from The Hobbit. No idea about the wereboar. Probably something Celtic.

    1. So crazy they just might work. I'm tempted to playtest at least one of those ideas at some point. High HD monsters would certainly be scarier.

      I've never even heard of The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which shows how easy it can be to steal ideas and not get in trouble for it, I guess. Unless you steal from Tolkien, I hear. I'm fine with TSR or WotC or whoever USING stuff like the displacer beast, but it's not okay to try and prevent other people who using it when it's not even their original idea in the first place.

      I'm constantly struck by how many little references I miss when reading this stuff. I wonder if anyone has ever asked Dr. Holmes about the wereboar.

  2. >>feel like that's probably fine for a weekly game, but if you can only once a month or so that sounds like it might be slightly too high. This is probably something that should be tailored to the individual group's needs.

    Nope. Disagree strongly.

    PCs are not entitled to levels. If you don't earn them, you don't get them. Period. "Too busy to play D&D" isn't an excuse.

    D&D is a fine game and it works at low level just fine. You don't need levels to have a good time.

    But you want them. So go get them. In game.

    I feel like I'm being a little harsh, but the risk / reward balance is a big deal. Rewarding PCs for doing nothing is bad D&D.

    1. What's so sacred about D&D that we shouldn't accept excuses?

      People aren't entitled to play D&D, either, but the nice thing to do when you and your friends want to play despite your busy schedules is to try and make it work, right? I think of it as a similar principle.

      Sure, if the players gain rewards that they don't feel like they've earned, the victory will feel hollow and won't be as fun. And you're right, low level D&D is really fun for a lot of people.

      But different groups enjoy different things, and those things can change over time. If the group isn't having as much fun as they would if they could level up, or even if they simply want to level up to try something different or whatever, and there's no way realistically that they'll ever reach a point when that can happen because really life is too busy, why not at least consider giving them what they want? After discussing it with them, of course.

      I get the appeal of playing a game with a difficult grind, I really do. But not everyone is into that all the time, and not everyone who wants to be into that has the time for it. People encourage you to tinker with every other aspect of the game, so why not XP? Why not base your game on what your players actually want? If it turns out they regret wanting it, you can just start over.

      I'm reminded of this blog post:
      Sometimes your players just don't want to deal. And sometimes it's like, too bad, there are consequences and complications to your actions, and life sucks and there's nothing but pain and frustration and yadda yadda. But sometimes, you have to cut people some slack. We're all here to have fun.

      Sure, PCs aren't entitled to levels. I'm not entitled to friends. Sometimes you have to give a little to keep people happy. Sometimes you need to be firm, too. It depends on the group, and what they find fun.

  3. Catching up on your series today, and certainly still enjoying it.

    As for "really powerful monsters", well, sometimes groups would be three kids in a basement and one of them had to be DM. But sometimes groups would be 8-12 adults, and they might each run two characters, so you'd need some true behemoth creatures for the mix. True story.

    1. How many adventurers does it take to screw in a light bulb? And by light bulb, I mean purple worm. :D

      I'm glad you're enjoying it! Thanks for all of your helpful comments over the course of this series.

      I really like the idea of low-level parties having to deal with one really powerful monster lurking in an otherwise "normal" dungeon. It's less of a monster and more of a force of nature or a mobile obstacle at that point. It reminds me of The God That Crawls. Imagine the dread you can inspire in your players when they realize the dungeon's black pudding is nearby. How are they going to deal with it this time?