Now we've got a little DM advice, an example of play, and the part of the book that people seem to hold in the highest regard, by my estimation: the beloved sample dungeon. For the time being, you can actually read along with this part at the Wizards of the Coast website.
The section titled DUNGEON MASTERING AS A FINE ART briefly describes the mapping process and suggests that the "geomorphic dungeon levels (available from TSR or your retailer)" could come in handy if you need help generating architectural ideas. Hey, game designers need to eat, too. The book also says that the Basic Set (the box that this book presumable came in, but which I unfortunately don't have) includes In Search of the Unknown, and that this module could be useful not only as something to play but as something to mine for ideas regarding your own dungeons. I've heard that this module and the next one, The Keep on the Borderlands, include additional rules that can be used with Holmes Basic and B/X. Between that and the fact that The Keep on the Borderland is considered a legendary adventure in its own right, I really want to check those out. Hm...I wonder if anyone has ever done a mash-up of The Keep on the Borderlands and The House on the Borderland...
By the way, check out this inspiring image from page 39.
(Image borrowed from HERE)
It reminds me fondly of Nupraptor's Retreat, and I wouldn't be surprised if this image was the inspiration for the Blood Omen designers to include such a location. Also, "THE PIT" and the "DOMED CITY" are great touches. I wonder what the scale must be for this dungeon. It must be huge if there's a city down there.
Next there's some typical but very helpful advice on stocking the dungeon. There's a lot of advice in here I emphatically agree with.
- Traps should be avoidable through smart play, and shouldn't be unavoidable exercises in instant-kill sadism.
- Dr. Holmes suggests that falling into a shallow pit should only have a one in three chance of doing damage, and should only do "1-6 hit points at most," but that such traps can still give the party some difficulty because they take up precious time.
- "Try to keep the dangers appropriate to the levels of the characters and the skill of your players. The possibility of 'death' must be very real, but the players must be able to win through with luck and courage, or they will lose interest in the game and not come back." Maybe don't run Tomb of Horrors for 10-year-old kids the very first time they play D&D unless you just want to make them hate the game. Also, totally consider running Tomb of Horrors if your players start getting bored because they think you can't challenge them anymore.
- If you're the DM, have fun giving your NPCs funny voices and verbal eccentricities. "When characters swear they call on the wrath of their appropriate dieties [sic], be it Zeus, Crom, Cthulhu or whatever." (I'm not 100% sure, but isn't this the first D&D book to ever directly reference H. P. Lovecraft?)
- If time runs out (in real life, not the game), you can just pick up where you left off last time instead of trying to come up with some excuse for the party to instantly and safely wind up at the surface every time a session is about to end deep in the dungeon.
Strangely, the book states "Both mapper and caller must be in the front rank of the party." I could see how it would be hard to map or give orders from the back of the group's formation, but I don't see the harm in letting someone in the middle do it, provided the group is sticking together and moving at exploration speed.
The example of play is a fun read. In short, the party finds a door in the dungeon leading to a room with four orcs (that they kill) and a treasure chest containing 1,000 gp (which the fighter kicks open for the party to loot), the group's Elf finds a secret passage (which the group uses to avoid a random encounter coming down the hall), the secret passage has a gelatinous cube, and the Dwarf finds what might be another secret passage inside the secret passage, which the group hopes will deliver them from a horrible, gelatinous death.
Some oddities: Nobody seems to check initiative (or dexterity) at the beginning of combat - the Fighting Man is just like "I got this, bro!" and cuts a motherfucker in half (with 4 damage, because it's an orc). The Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling are referred to only by race and not class, which basically confirms for me that Holmes Basic uses race-as-class in a de facto sense if nothing else. The caller tells someone to light at torch, which is weird because not everyone in the party has infravision and they seemed to be seeing just fine beforehand. At one point, the DM does that classic trick where they know there's nothing going on but they roll a die anyway just to keep the party guessing, which isn't odd so much as just amusing. Near the end of the example, the Dwarf finds a hollow spot in the floor, but the Elf seems to have to go back to that spot to actually try and find a trap door or other secret entrance - I'm guessing this is an example of the Dwarf's ability to find "slanting passages, traps, shifting wall and new construction about one-third of the time" as mentioned on page 6. Still, as far as examples of play in rule books go, this one is great. It gives a clear picture of what exploration is actually like in the game.
The book says that the trip to the dungeon is often included as a part of the adventure as well, with strange or hostile encounters punctuating the journey. Holmes Basic doesn't give any rules for wilderness play, but I guess it wouldn't be too hard for the DM to just run an encounter in a big field if they can't think of anything else.
Here's something that probably gives certain old-school gamers an aneurysm to this day: "The imaginary universe of Dungeons & Dragons obviously lies not too far from the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien's great Lord of the Rings trilogy." To be fair, Dr. Holmes also name-drops "Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Gardner F. Fox, classical mythology and any other source of inspiration the Dungeon Master wants to use." Still, I think it's funny that I keep reading things to the effect of "The Lord of the Rings and D&D are almost completely unrelated" and then I come across this passage. I feel like this sentiment comes up a lot on the internet, and while I sympathize (because Tolkien is indeed not the biggest influence on the game, and the game's design doesn't tend to reflect the kind of goals or activities that the heroes generally pursue in LotR so much as in, say, Conan), I still think it's a little silly to try and completely ignore the way Tolkien has influenced the game. It's doubly hilarious because after publishing this book TSR would go on to try and distance the game from Tolkien's work due to legal trouble. I'm sure the debate over exactly how influential Tolkien was on D&D will go on for a long time, and it's pretty interesting to read about. I don't know, maybe I'm making a straw man of some other D&D bloggers here, and if so I'm sorry, but I don't see the harm in poking a little fun at my fellow gamers.
The final paragraph before the sample dungeon contains the most important and liberating advice of all: the rules aren't written in stone. Feel free to change things. Have fun. Use your imagination. Make the game do what you want it to do. Play and experiment. Improvise.
As for the sample dungeon, it looks fun. I think it would be easy to use in most versions of D&D and related games, too. I don't think there's a whole lot that would require conversion. I should give this one a spin the next time I start a new campaign.
Some features of note:
- The background of the adventure involves the wizard Zenopus disappearing in a giant, unearthly green conflagration, leaving behind a haunted ruin in the middle of a small city. I like the detail about how "goblin figures could be seen dancing on the tower roof in the moonlight," which actually manages to make goblins seem a little spooky. Eventually the townsfolk knocked the tower down with a catapult, which is so practical it somehow becomes comical, like bulldozing the local Witch House because the neighbors are sick and tired of those damn shoggoths constantly eating their pets and trampling their hedges. The dungeon beneath the old tower is still intact, of course.
- "...the story tellers are always careful to point out that the reputed dungeons lie in close proximity to the foundations of the old, pre-human city..." Definitely a Lovecraft fan, then.
- The players meet at the Green Dragon Inn, because of course they do. You know what? It's part of the genre. Some things are cliches because they just work. Whatever. Let's just make with the looting and the pillaging and the getting eaten by rats already.
- There are several places in the adventure where a characters ability scores could affect the situation in non-standardized ways. High-constitution characters are knocked out by a sleeping gas trap for one less turn. Characters with less than 15 strength who fall in the river are automatically swept away while those with 15 or more strength will automatically be okay if they fall in. Finally, characters with less than 12 constitution have a 50% chance of taking 1d6 damage from being dragged between rooms by the river, while those with 12 or more will take no damage. These examples are interesting because they demonstrate some ways that ability scores can be made to matter during a game besides just adding flavor or influencing the small list of factors on pages 5-6. I don't care for some of the specific implementation here, though. Instead of having some characters automatically succeed or fail (or fail a set 50% of the time) based on whether or not they meet a very specific, static threshold, wouldn't it be better to give every character a chance at success, but have that chance be directly related to exactly how high their relevant ability scores are? Yep - I'm talking about ability score checks. You know, roll a d20 or 3d6, and if you roll your ability score or lower you succeed. I know a lot of old school gamers don't like them, but they strike me as being slightly fairer or less arbitrary than a lot of the exception-based design (which isn't inherently bad, of course) I've seen regarding ability scores in specific parts of specific pre-written adventures. Plus they allow a level of granularity that makes every point in an ability score potentially matter, which I like. And if you don't like that idea, saving throws could serve as another good method of consistent conflict resolution in unusual situations instead.
- There's a level 4 evil Magic-User NPC. I wonder if Dr. Holmes or someone else at TSR stuck him in to make the players get envious and bug their DM to pick up Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from their friendly neighborhood retailer. This NPC has a solid plan for when adventurers burst into the room: run through a secret door, casting Wizard Lock on it from the other side, and then wait upstairs with a wand of "petrifaction" to bushwhack anybody who manages to follow him.
- Some room descriptions seem to be written with the assumption that there will be some kind of natural lighting, with one room being described as gloomy and shadowy (with rats hiding in the shadows), and another is described as "completely dark, characters without lights or infravision will have to feel their way out," implying that this is not true of the whole dungeon. One room also explicitly contains phosphorescent fungi that negate the need to carry lights in the room, but I don't believe this fungi is stated to be anywhere else in the dungeon.
- There are two swords and one dagger that are +1 magic weapons in this dungeon, and the swords at least look pretty easy to find. The evil Magic-User owns some cool magic swag, too. It's seems kind of generous to give a party the opportunity to get this kind of gear on their first adventure, but maybe I've just been reading too many Lamentations of the Flame Princess books.
- The pirates in the dungeon have a hostage, Lemunda the Lovely, a level 2 Fighting Woman whose family would family would appreciate her safe return. If the players rescue her, I bet she could be useful for the rest of the adventure, too.
- There's an octopus in the sea cave that looks ridiculously deadly, which is awesome.
- The "endless" rat tunnels are a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Dwarves and Halflings can navigate it unhindered, though, and if they're willing to fight big rats in small quarters, there's some random treasure. It's a neat detail.
- I love the puzzle involving the sundial that activates a mystic, question-answering mask, but exactly how extensive is this mask's knowledge? Is it omniscient, or does it just know some things about the dungeon, or what? I guess the DM should give that question some thought before running the adventure and decide on the matter ahead of time. Or they could just bullshit something. That's fun, too.
- There are two rooms in a small tower (three if you count the roof) that aren't actually on the map, but it's not a problem because each floor of the tower is just a single room. It's not confusing, but it struck me as unusual to leave it unmapped.
- There's an evil Magic-User with a wand of "petrifaction," three unidentified NPCs that have been turned to stone, the potential for one or more party members to be turned to stone, and a single scroll that turns a statue back into a living person. Decisions, decisions...
- The book suggests adding deeper levels to the dungeon so the players can explore the place "where Zenopus met his doom." This whole wizard-disappears-in-a-massive-green-fire thing makes for a cool plot hook. I bet the "Other magic-users [who] have moved into the town" would pay good money for detailed, accurate information about what happened all those years ago, and the status of whatever Zenopus was working on. The city officials would be keen on that information, too.
After the sample dungeon, there's a section explaining how to use D&D's funky dice, a cool little bio for Dr. J. Eric Holmes, an ad for Gen Con, two pages of reference tables repeated from throughout the book for quick and easy access...and that's it. Holmes Basic sure packs a lot into 48 pages, doesn't it? I wish more RPG books could be this concise. So many rule books are either boring, intimidating, or just hard to reference quickly during a game, yet this volume showed us how it was done back at the dawn of the hobby.
All that's left is for me to talk a little bit more about the artwork and other things that strike my fancy, then share my final thoughts, opinions, and ideas for the time being.
Next time: Odds & Ends