Thursday, May 5, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 1 - Let's Dig In!

PART 1 OF 12

Thanks to the Internet hunting skills of my wife, I managed to snag a copy of the "Blue Book" Basic D&D rules by Dr. J. Eric Holmes for a very good price recently. Just glancing through it, I think I'm already in love. Physically, it reminds me of a strategy guide for an old NES RPG like Final Fantasy or Wizardry, with the added benefit of being useful without electricity, so right off the bat it hits me in the nostalgic chamber of my heart even though it came out before I was born. The writing is straightforward, the game looks fun, and I can't wait to check it out in more detail. So let's do exactly that.

Keep in mind that my only experiences with Basic D&D come secondhand, like playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess (a kinda/sorta retroclone of B/X, among other things), reading blogs, playing and reading adventures that are compatible with Basic D&D, and reading the few pre-Wizards of the Coast D&D books I've managed to get my hands on so far, which have usually been meant for either AD&D or OD&D.

Also please keep in mind that I'm writing these posts more-or-less as I read the book, so I may have to go back and correct some things.

Starting with the cover, we've got that classic piece of art with the wizard and the warrior confronting the dragon in its lair. It's blue on my copy of the rules, but I've seen the color version online, which I think was on the cover of the boxed set. This picture really captures the most basic aspects of the game: you've got the two most archetypal D&D classes, the magic-user and the fighting man, both human like Gygax supposedly intended, getting ready to kill a dragon in a dungeon and take its stuff. It's pure. Elemental. I like how the dragon manages to look a little silly or cartoony yet menacing and inhuman, even a bit alien, at the same time. The wings look like they're maybe placed a bit too low and forward, and like they're too small to support the creature. Maybe it flies with magical assistance, or maybe the wings are vestigial, since the dragon lives underground. The devil-like tail is a nice touch, the scales look appropriately armor-like, and the face has a really distinctive structure, with weird eyebrow ridges and little cheek-growths that could be whiskers or polyps. Best of all, the monster is sitting on an absolutely obscene amount of treasure. That's got to be enough to pull these two murderhobos dashing heroes out of the Level 1-3 grind covered by this very rulebook.

Also, I see that the magic-user is preparing to cast a spell one-handed while holding a torch in the other. Granted, he seems to be casting from a wand, but still, different versions of D&D and different retroclones, OSR games, and fantasy games in general seem to often have different rules for whether or not you can cast one-handed or only two-handed, with or without items in your hands, etc. I'm curious to see how Holmes Basic handles the physical act of casting spells.

We've got another freakin' sweet image on the copyright page. A magic-user and two fighting men are trying to hold off a horde least twenty orcs, if I'm counting correctly. Two of them look to be dead already. I love the abstract look of the dungeon and the detail of the little gargoyle statue on a pole. I hope that magic-user's spell isn't the only light source they've got, or they're screwed. Should have brought some hirelings.

The preface strikes me as a little cheeky: "This work is far more detailed and more easily understood than were the original booklets nonetheless," it states, perhaps throwing some shade at the OD&D booklets Holmes was tasked with cleaning up. Don't get me wrong, I love Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, but yeah, it's hard for a rookie like me to get into those little brown books. Not that I don't want to try, because OD&D sounds awesome from what I've heard from OSR people, but it's certainly intimidating.

The preface mentions some other D&D books. It is described as being based on "the original work published in 1974 and three supplementary booklets," and looking at the list of D&D products on the back cover, I see that Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes is not listed as Supplement IV, but independent of the first three Supplements under the "Collector's Editions" section. Strange. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is also mentioned in the preface as the natural point of progression when players want to go beyond what's in the Basic book, which would presumably happen after the PCs hit Level 3 considering these rules don't go any higher than that.

Anyway, the book also includes the "FOREWORD FROM THE ORIGINAL EDITION" which gives some cool history of the game's origins and is always a good read. Speaking of throwing shade, I love how Gygax outright states that you won't like this game if you lack imagination.

The actual introduction to the Basic book itself uses a wonderful phrase: "for adults 12 years and up." That says so much. You need to be mature to play well, but kids are often more mature than we give them credit for. The intro also makes it clear what the basic building blocks of the game are: explore, overcome dangers, kill things, take their stuff, get more powerful, and use that power to survive going deeper and deeper underground each adventure in order to overcome greater challenges and obtain greater rewards.

The "HOW TO USE THIS BOOK" section says at least two players are required, one to be the Dungeon Master and one to go adventuring. Oddly enough, the cover says the game is for three or more players.

The book stresses multiple times that very little is needed to actually play the game. Just the rules, paper, pencils, dice, and optionally a table with a map and/or miniatures. I remember this was a selling point for the game even when I first got into it as a kid (3E/3.5, if you're wondering). The book hilariously tries to sell the reader miniatures while downplaying the importance of miniatures at the same time. "While only paper and pencil need be used, it is possible for the characters of each player to be represented by miniature lead figures which can be purchased inexpensively from hobby stores or directly from TSR Hobbies." Gotta make bank!

Characters do the usual routine at creation: roll 3d6 for each ability score, then pick a class. Strength and Wisdom seem to lack any mechanical use outside of being the prime requisites for fighting men and clerics, respectively, with high scores granting XP bonuses and low scores inflicting XP penalties.

Intelligence is the prime requisite for magic-users, but it also allows one bonus language per point over 10, and it also affects a magic-users number of spells known per level and the chances of already knowing any desired spell at character creation. (I want to look at this in more detail later.)

Dexterity is the prime requisite for thieves, but it also seems to be directly used as a static initiative number in combat, so in any situation when you need to know who acts first, it's always the person with the highest dexterity. On top of that, a Dex of 13 and up gives you a +1 to hit with missiles, and an 8 or less gives you a -1. Talk about a "god-stat!"

Constitution also looks important, since it affects one's HP per HD. Supposedly it "will influence how a character can withstand being paralyzed or killed and raised from the dead, etc." but I have yet to find more details in the book about that.

Finally, there's Charisma, which looks like another important one. You need at least 13 CHA to hire more than 5 followers, and with less than 13 even those five are said to have "luke-warm" loyalty. Charisma is mentioned in the "NON-PLAYER CHARACTERS" section regarding PCs who try to convince monsters to join forces with them, but my interpretation of this section is that it's just referring to the cap of 5 followers for non-suave individuals, so it looks like the DM is supposed to adjudicate whether or not such attempts work based on how good of an offer is being made.

The most interesting detail about charisma is this: "Also a female with high charisma will not be eaten by a dragon but kept captive. A charismatic male defeated by a witch will not be turned into a frog but kept enchanted as her lover, and so forth." I take this to imply two main things. First, when there is no specific rule covering a given situation, the DM should feel free to adjudicate things non-mechanically (i.e. without rolling the dice or following a set-in-stone rule) by eyeballing a character's ability scores and determining from that what they can or cannot do. Second, monsters have motivations and aren't just stacks of HP making claw attacks, so the DM should sometimes have them treat PCs differently if they have high or low scores in relevant abilities, or have them seek to sometimes fight for reasons other than food or self-defense, like the taking of captives. Presumably, a DM could easily house-rule that someone reduced to 0 HP is either killed or knocked out, at the choosing of the attacker, or something like that. Also, I love the idea of some poor monster becoming absolutely smitten with an adventurer and just following them around being a pest. A smart player could turn that to their advantage.

I might as well quickly mention the way sex is treated in this book. It's "fighting men" and not "fighters," but the book specifically mentions that characters can be either male or female, so presumably female fighters are "fighting women." The examples of charisma-based captivity above mention different monsters as being lustful toward men and women, but the general idea is the same for both. And guess what: there appears to be absolutely no mechanical difference between female and male characters, thankfully.

One more note on ability scores: the rules for swapping scores at character creation are pretty interesting, and for all I know they are unique to this version of the game. Swapping is actually determined by class:

  • Fighting men, halflings, and dwarves can increase their STR by 1 point for every 2 points of INT or every 3 points of WIS they decrease.
  • Clerics can increase their WIS by 1 for every 3 STR or every 2 INT they drop.
  • Magic-Users can increase their INT by 1 for every 3 STR or 2 WIS they drop.
  • Thieves can increase their DEX by 1 for every 2 INT and every 1 WIS they drop.
  • No mention is made of Elves being able to adjust their ability scores.
  • No ability score can be reduced below 9 using any of the above rules.
This is the first time I've ever seen this approach. I've heard of allowing players one swap, allowing players to swap whatever they want, various point-buy systems, and even just outright letting players choose their scores at will, but I've never heard of a point-for-point exchange rate this specific. It doesn't exactly solve all my complaints about how D&D handles ability scores, but it is a fresh and flavorful approach for me, and it seems fair, maybe even generous, given the general "hardcore" reputation of old-school D&D. This system seems designed to let players choose whatever class they want (within some loose restraints) no matter what ability scores they roll.

The book has a note about "HOPELESS CHARACTERS" who roll really bad stats. If the DM chooses to allow it, such a character can be discarded and the player can roll up another one, but the book does encourage players to not totally discount the possibility of a character with low ability scores being successful. This note also uses the odd phrase "the universe of chance." I don't think I've ever heard that idiom before. Why "the universe?" Why not "Lady Luck" or "the gods of Fate" or "pure chance?"

I think that's enough for now. Next time, I'll start with character classes.


  1. Oh man, this is a blast from the past. This book was my gateway drug. I never imagined when I picked it up that it would pretty much occupy my life for the next twenty years. (And to which I have recently come back, after a 20 year sabbatical.) (Holy crap! I started playing D&D nearly 40 years ago ...) This book got me started on D&D. And after this, I went on to so many more RPGs that I can't even begin to remember all their names.

    I only hazily remember a lot of this book. It was, as you would imagine, very basic. It's very beauty, though, is that pure simplicity. It provides the very minimal rules that you need to play, and nothing more. You provide everything else. You know how a DM provides the basic description of a situation, then sits back and says "What do you want to do?" Well, that's what this book does, but with the entire game. It provides the basic outline of a game, including a little starter dungeon, and then leaves you with the question "What do you want to do?" Back then, we didn't have the wide variety of supplemental material that you can get today, nor the Internet to share all the player-created material. We only had ourselves, and the one or two modules that we could get our hands on. We must have played B2 - Keep on the Borderlands a few million times. We spent days and days covering endless sheets of graph paper with complex dungeons that we would share with our friends, and then toss a few characters at. I spent so many, many sessions DMing adventures with this book...

    I agree that there was a lot of the rules that you were supposed to just make up on the spot. This was before AD&D, and the multiple rulebooks full of charts, tables, and random generators. If something happened, you couldn't run to a table to find out what happened. You made a judgment call and that's what happened. In a way, all those tables in the AD&D expansion books were both a blessing and a curse. Sure, they gave you some ideas of how to handle things, but they also stifled creativity some. You didn't have to use your imagination to figure out what happens, you just rolled some dice and whatever the table said is what happened. Even if it didn't make sense, or didn't fit the plot.

    Regarding your comment about spell casting (holding a torch and casting a spell), this was before the elaborate magic rules. You got a spell list, and some general guidelines. Detailed spell descriptions, components (verbal, somatic, *and* material), casting times, didn't really come into play until the AD&D Player's Handbook. IIRC, even the LotFP magic system is more detailed than the original D&D rules.

    Anyway... next time we get together, I'd like to take a glance through this book, if you don't mind. I think the last time I saw it was before you were born! :p

    1. Oh man, you can read it as much as you want. It's a beautiful little book. I honestly like the lack of complications that AD&D would later introduce. I think if I ran AD&D, I would only have the most basic rules be a "given," and then add in more complicated things as desired instead of assuming everything in the book should apply to the campaign. That's what I do with LotFP stuff: I find random stuff in different books I like and chuck it in if I think it fits. If you look at something like the Dungeon Master's Guide as a book of options and ideas instead of necessities, I bet it works a lot better. I've read a lot of opinions online from seasoned AD&D players that seem to agree.
      Thanks for sharing the cool memories! I really need to get that Basic D&D adventure pack (including Keep on the Borderlands) off of DriveThruRPG, but it's like $50 for everything, and I don't want to buy it piecemeal because knowing me I'll end up buying it all eventually anyway and spending even more.

  2. If you like minimalist rule sets, i should send you the rule set for Minimus. It's four pages, including the introductory adventure! When i got it, it was donation-ware, but they charge $3 for it now.

  3. I enjoyed reading this! Keep up the series.

  4. *brain explodes with many things to clarify*

    One: "Fighting Man" was a term used often enough in the fiction that inspired D&D to be ported over and used for the class.

    Excellent idea - to react to the book while reading it for the first time. Looking forward to more in the series...

    1. Thank you.
      I don't have a problem with "Fighting Man," per se, but it does amuse me, both because I'm used to the term "Fighter" and because I think it's kind of silly to differentiate between a man who's good at killing things with an axe and a woman who's good at killing things with an axe. I think the actor/actress divide or the policeman/policewoman thing are kind of silly in a similar way. It certainly fits the source fiction, though, and it's not like I think it's offensive or anything. I mean, a Fighting Man is exactly that: a man who fights.
      I'm just happy to know people are enjoying these posts so far. The Holmes Basic rulebook is really good! It's a shame it's not available for purchase as a PDF at this time.

  5. I don't think I've ever read anything about Holmes Basic that wasn't written by someone who grew up with it, until now! Really enjoying your fresh perspective on it. Keep it up, I'll definitely be reading. Thanks for this series!

    1. Thank you very much! I'm glad you're enjoying it.