Friday, May 20, 2016

Holmes Basic D&D Rulebook Part 5 - Cowards Deserve XP, Too

PART 5 OF 12

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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.


  1. Stopping advancement at third level isn't such a crazy idea; there are variants of D&D3 that stop advancement at sixth level, to make the game a bit more stable and dangerous, and less superhero-spreadsheet.

    1. That sounds fun. I know from experience that low-level characters in D&D 3.5 are already capable of some pretty impressive stuff. It's amazing what you can do with first-level spells.
      I will admit to enjoying the "medieval superheroes" style of D&D as well, but I've really been wanting to play something a bit grittier lately...and in the OSR, thankfully, there's plenty of "grit" that's also really imaginative. I've been thinking about getting Into the Odd and The Black Hack at some point and giving them a spin. Not to mention OD&D, which really fascinates me even though I've barely begun reading the rules.
      Stopping at sixth level instead of third actually sounds like a cool idea for Holmes Basic, too. I think Meepo's Holmes Companion goes to level 9, which also sounds good.

  2. Things from the top of my head:

    Is it okay to say you're over-thinking thievery and XP? OD&D was a game built on the shoulders of a wargame. In a lot of ways, it was played as a wargame. The idea of a Thief in the party, well, a Thief should pilfer a bit here and there, it adds color, if gives characters/players something to talk about and built relationships on -- but just grabbing all the loot and leaving the rest of the team to die... it doesn't make for a fun, on-going game. You'd never let that character play again, and maybe not the player! Hence DM fiat to say "no XP for you!". If the DM gave out XP (read: encouragement) for that behavior, your game could break down very fast and you have no game anymore. Then again, it's fiat; if your game thrives on backstabbing each other, then YES you get that XP!

    The idea that people set out to be heroes is something that built up through the years of the game's existence, particularly through the 90s and into the 2000s, from where I sit. It's not that it's a bad idea, but it's not the *only* idea. Your reading of a lot of this is from that perspective, it seems. Whereas I believe in the earliest days it was more a perspective of looking down on little figures going through their paces, deciding what they might do, and finding out how it turns out by DM ruling and some die rolling (see how that's wargamey?). Not the "my character is the HERO of this STORY" perspective that is more common today. It wasn't seen as a story until people had done it and started looking back at it and could see a sort of kind of narrative, and then started setting out to make a story *happen* in their next game... Putting together random events into a narrative is something humans do, for better or worse, so you can understand how RPGs have evolved as they have.

    Skill checks are not one attempt per roll, just as an attack is not a sword swing. If you're trying to pick a lock, the check is just to tell us "did that work, or not?". Not, "it didn't? I try again (roll), I try again (roll)..." etc. My own leaning is if you fail the roll, you can succeed (generally) if you want to put in the time to make it happen. And of course the beauty of a rule set like this is that it is very flexible and you won't break anything by changing how something works. But given that it wasn't uncommon for a DM to run what was basically an *endless* dungeon, leaving that lock til you leveled up was probably not a bad way to do it; "Hey guys, let's go back and try that lock again, I just had an idea...".

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      I understand that this was a new type of game that developed from a very different type of game. That doesn't make it immune to criticism or impossible to improve upon. If a rule or recommendation in the book seems to be going against the general spirit of the game, I don't think it's "over-thinking" to discuss my problems with that. If the game designers really didn't want to encourage conflict within the party, they probably shouldn't have named a class the "Thief" and written in its description that it's a class of untrustworthy assholes. It's not like the "Thief with a Heart of Gold" isn't a character archetype or anything, and the whole PARTY is really just a gang of thieves in most cases, regardless of their classes, so the presentation of the thief as being a special class of jerks is kind of silly. I felt that it would be dishonest of me to withhold my opinion on this matter while purporting to go over the whole book.

      Besides, I wasn't just talking about the Thief class in my argument, and neither was Holmes in the specific passage that I didn't like. Any player of any class could grab the loot and run while their party-mates died.

      Also, this bit you wrote is incorrect: "You'd never let that character play again, and maybe not the player!" Yes, I probably would let both that character and that player play again. Before even beginning the campaign, my players and I would discuss whether or not we are okay with inter-PC conflict and betrayal. If we decide not to allow it and then someone tries to steal from or backstab the party, we would stop the game for a moment and discuss the situation as rational human beings and friends. If we decide ahead of time that betrayal is on the table, then there would be no reason to dock anyone's XP. Just because you might not like such a campaign does not mean that everyone shares your preferences regarding what is or is not a "fun, on-going game." And you clearly seem to agree that such preferences can differ, so I am not sure why you feel so confident that I would kick out a player or even just a character for such reasons.

      Your assertion that I am "reading a lot of this from that perspective [that the game is designed to promote heroism]" is also clearly untrue, in my opinion. I am arguing the exact opposite: I think that old-school D&D usually does not specifically encourage or even discuss heroism, yet a few passages in Holmes Basic seem to buck this trend and recommend punishments for unheroic or counter-alignment behavior in the form of XP penalties. I discussed this a bit in Part 3 of this series of posts, as well. My assertion that "Cowards Deserve XP, Too" is about as old-school as it gets, if the OSR has been teaching me correctly. Ironically, I may be out-murderhobo-ing Holmes here. Believe me, I am not advocating heroic play as the only way to play, although it is one of several ways that I enjoy.

      Also, I understand the reasoning and abstraction behind the way Holmes Basic handles skill checks. I just don't like it. I don't greatly dislike it, either. It's a sensible way to run the game, but not my preference. Besides, I think the passage about Drego the Thief I cited from Holmes Basic demonstrates that even in the most straightforward D&D rulebooks written in that era, the rules could be surprisingly ambiguous, at least in my opinion. It's something I find to be worth talking about.

  3. Well, we both said a lot, and it's late, but I'll try to reply to some of it for now...

    I guess a big thing is when I used the word "you" I meant "a person". This may have gotten us off on the wrong foot. As I go on to say, if the group is okay with massive deception within the party, so be it. But if not, the GM has an out to discourage it.

    I guess the thing is, there are *degrees* of backstabbing and deception. Any party member withholds a bit of treasure... fine. But if someone is just being a jerk by *constantly* mucking around, it could easily drain the fun out of it. Like a joke told too often, it's not fun anymore. I don't find a dichotomy in the idea of 'encouraging untrustworthyness', but saying it can go too far. Many probably wouldn't mind sharing a piece of cake, and might not mind giving out the larger slice, but who wants to turn around and find that just-made cake gone time and time again?

    I know I don't, because I love cake.

    I strongly suspect that the XP system is simply there for advancement to change up the game a bit, not as any strong simulation of anything. As in a wargame campaign (IME), if you gained objectives, you then had resources to work with in the next battle. It would be interesting to dig up wargames played by Gygax, Arneson, et al, and see in which ways those rules compare to the early D&D rules.

    I am sorry if anything I said made you cross. That was certainly far from my intention.

    1. Oh no, you have nothing to apologize for. Likewise, I'm sorry if I came across as mean or anything. I enjoy these kinds of discussions. I think you make plenty of great points. I just wanted to clarify my position.
      I think you're absolutely right to look at early D&D through something of a wargaming lens. And as I think you've implied, a literary or movie-like approach to the "narrative" or "story" of the game is certainly not a necessary component of D&D, nor does it seem to be the original intention of the designers to focus on creating such narratives. I'm glad you've shared your thoughts.

    2. "I don't find a dichotomy in the idea of 'encouraging untrustworthyness', but saying it can go too far." Agreed. In our current campaign that Justin is running, there is a situation where, if my character were played completely honestly, I'd kill that damned plant/baby thing. As a player, I won't do it because I know there might be some hard feelings in the group. A little bit of suspicion among the players of the group can be a healthy thing, and can lead to some really funny circumstances. Too much, though, and it can really ruin the game. (Unless, of course, there is an explicit understanding among the players beforehand that the game is going to go that way.)

    3. As far as personal preferences go, I basically agree...but that's why I've tried to talk with our group members and hash out what would count as going "too far" in this particular campaign. (It's entirely possible I have failed in this regard and not had a clear enough conversation, but everyone seems to be on the same page, so I've lucked out.) But I don't think the line between acceptable conflict between PCs and "going too far" needs to be the same in every group or campaign, and I also don't think that an XP penalty is generally the best, most effective, or most mature way to handle "going too far." Pausing the game and discussing things, and in a worst case scenario, kicking someone out of the group, is how I would probably do it.
      However, I really do appreciate the consideration shown between my players (like in the situation Rob mentioned above), and to be honest, I don't personally even LIKE conflict between party members in D&D, except perhaps in the most hilarious of circumstances. I don't feel that I can project that preference onto the whole of D&D, however. Some groups thrive on things I don't care for. If everyone agrees on playing some kind of D&D/Paranoia mashup ahead of time, I don't see the problem.

  4. As far as skill rolls, yes, it was common practice to say that a failed roll cannot be rerolled until you gain another level. Then you come back with more experience for another chance. In practice, no one ever came back. You found some other way to crack that chest open, or you left it behind. There was one version of the rules that let you "take a 20", meaning that if you were prepared to take the requisite time (some multiple of the normal time required), you could skip the roll altogether, and just pretend you rolled a 20. And you could also take less time (some fraction of the required time), and roll at a penalty.

    1. I know D&D 3.5 had "take 10" or something like that. Of course, that meant that you couldn't auto-succeed on really hard tasks even if you take a bunch of time.

      A common saying in the OSR is that you shouldn't make a player roll to accomplish something unless it would be interesting if they failed. If failure wouldn't lead to anything fun, dangerous, interesting, etc. there's no point in putting failure on the table as a possibility (as far as skill checks and such are concerned).

      Also, I now understand that the one-try-per-level thing was standard back then (although I didn't know about that before) - I just don't like it, just like I don't like demihuman level caps, alignment-based XP penalties, strength limits for female fighters in AD&D, rolling a skill check to see if you can spot/hear something (or at least something obvious), complicated weapon-vs-AC charts, or complicated initiative systems. Unlike those other things, I don't greatly dislike the one-try-per-level system, either - I'm mostly neutral toward it, only slightly leaning toward "dislike." I think it's a perfectly fine way to do things, based on your preferences. As for me, I'd rather give the players the opportunity to decide whether or not a lock or chest is worth risking random encounters or wasting resources over. I think it's an interesting tactical decision. Others might find it boring, and thus prefer the old way. I certainly see the value in doing it the way Holmes Basic did.

    2. Maybe it was the "take 10" I was thinking of, then. It's been a while since I've looked. I do agree with the "don't roll unless the results are interesting" philosophy. That kind of gets lost in D&D's profusion of tables and charts. they definitely like to use that as filler to bulk out the rule books. 2nd edition had an Encyclopedia Magica that was published in 4 volumes. It listed every magic item eer published in any TSR publication during the first 20 years of D&D. Put the four volumes together and it was a mind numbing 1,666 pages! The index alone was 30 pages. It also includes a 29 page long series of tables you can use to randomly generate a treasure find that included every item in the book. Why? Because this is D&D and we LOVE random tables! (Bellieve it or not, there are rule systems that are even worse than D&D, when it comes to rolling against random tables! (Anyone remember Rolemaster?))It's very difficult for new/young DMs to come to the realization that the sourcebooks cannot be taken as a bible, out of which every rule and options must be followed to the letter. Rather, they need to be treated like a buffet: Take what you want, and leave the rest behind, creating your House Rules. Having said that, it is fun to read about your progression through this book, and see the conclusions you make regarding it. A lot of the stuff you are pointing out as things you don't like, is stuff that we just ignored when we played.

    3. Wow. The rabbit hole gets deeper. Thanks for the interesting details.