Thursday, February 16, 2012

Top Ten Cool Things About Holmesian D&D

In case you haven't heard, J. Eric Holmes would have been 82 years old today.  Thanks to Zenopus Archives for the birthday alert; and in response for his request for anecdotes, I prepared this little top 10 list of my favorite Holmes-isms:

10. The Original Adult Fantasy Role Playing Game--Yes, this was the tagline from the cover of the book.

9.  Wisdom--"is the prime requisite for clerics."  That's the extent of it.  No mumbo jumbo about judgement or senses or guile or connection to a deity.  If you're not a cleric you can lower your wisdom score to raise your other abilities.  Nice. 

8.  Alignment Graph--In a classic example of how a picture is worth a thousand words, this little graph made alignment selection a snap.  No need to understand the merits of law vs chaos--decades later, folks are still debating that to no avail--just pick your favorite critter from the diagram and be done with it.  If TSR had ever produced pre-printed character sheets specifically for Holmesian D&D, they might as well have replaced the word "Alignment" with "Chaotic Good."  

7.  Dagger (in boot)--From the Encumbrance section on page 9 you will learn that the primary function of boots was to carry your dagger.  Secondarily they offered some protection for your feet. 

6.  Harpy Breasts--Before the days of the internet, pre-pubescent kids didn't have a lot of options when it came to getting illicit glimpses of naked boobs.  For that, DCS's Harpy illustration was a thing of wonder.  Plus, the fighters are all wearing backpacks; a nice bit of realism for your adult fantasy game. 

5.  Stone Mountain--This bad-ass dungeon cross section is one of the iconic images of D&D.   Though uncredited, it's stylistically closest, I think, to the work of Tom Wham who, for comparison, also drew the Gnolls on page 27 and had a few entries in the Monster Manual. 

4.  "They may have other powers, do additional damage, etc."--The tone of the whole affair is "here are some cool rules, but they're not set in stone; you're allowed to monkey with stuff."  Once you moved on to AD&D, there was a definite sense that these were the Rules that Moses brought down from the mountain; diverge from them at your own peril. 

3.  The Parry--Parrying was such an important element of swashbuckling sword fights that it always struck me as unfortunate that parrying got the brush off in AD&D.

2.  G--Gloomy--Letter-coded dungeon rooms have their limitations--like, say, if you have more than 26 encounter areas in your dungeon--but I like that the letters could also carry meaning that numbers are not as well equipped to handle.  E meant empty, C was for corridor, RT was Rat Tunnels.

1.  Undisputed Sample Dungeon Champion of the Universe--It's got a magic sundial, a trick statue, loads of sarcophagi, 3 goblins holed up in a room the size of a high school gymnasium, rat tunnels, catacombs, an underground river, a sea cave full of pirates, a damsel in distress who's probably tougher than your party, and, to top it all off, an evil Thaumaturge with a mutinous pet gorilla.  How awesome is that?!


  1. I just picked up my first-ever copy of the Holmes Bluebook the other day at the FLGS for a mere $10! It's kind of beat up, but complete and intact. It's an amazing little glimpse of what life was like just prior to the First Coming of AD&D.

  2. Nice list of Holmsean goodness. I'd also add the examples of melee. Bruno the Battler and Mogo the Mighty were true heroes to my ten year old brain. Reading how Bruno took down his goblin was a rush that I still remember.

    My six year old son plays with me now, and his character is, you guessed it, Bruno the Battler.

  3. Yes! Bruno and Mogo, they should have made the list.

  4. Regarding parrying, I always picture the round as a series of parries and attacks taking place over the course of one minute.

    I also give combat classed (martially trained) pc's and monsters a bonus if they decide to forego their attack to parry. Usually this is in order to withdraw or retreat from an engagement. I like this much better than the multiple "free" hits that most systems call for.

  5. ^"I always picture the round as a series of parries and attacks taking place over the course of one minute." which raises yet another Holmesean goodie: the 10 second melee round! I may have to do another top 10 list soon.

    I like your forego attack for parry option; how does the mechanism work? In my ideal world, it would be an active roll (roll 15 or higher and you successfully parry the orcs blade) rather than a passive defense bonus (since you're parrying, the orc is -3 to hit you). But I really haven't given it much thought yet.

  6. 10 seconds! Lol. I never knew that. I usually give a minus three on the to hit roll for parrying. That way it sort of scales on its own. If you are using a 15 or better roll to parry it opens up a whole new can of worms. For example, why should it be equally difficult to parry a kobold and a red dragon.

    The reson I love this game though is because it is infinitely flexible!

  7. @Rufus: "why should it be equally difficult to parry a kobold and a red dragon"

    I agree, I wouldn't want it to be a "save versus being stabbed" type of thing.

    I haven't thought this through at all yet, but since I'm thinking about it now, a "rolled" parry would have to somehow treat the attacker's Attack level (HD for monsters, Level for fighters) like AC. In order to parry you'd roll "to hit" where the AC is equal to 10 - Attackers HD or whatever. Roll to parry before the attacker attacks, if you succeed, the attacker doesn't even bother rolling to hit.

    Also not sure how I feel about parrying a red dragon's teeth...

  8. Holmes is the version of D&D that I remain endlessly fascinated by on some weird, primal level, and yet have never played (or owned a copy of). One of the great peculiarities of the game is that, while it remains (I believe) the earliest (quasi-) complete statement of D&D as its own game, and contains much of OD&D simply re-edited, little details like the parry rule and the ability score adjustment rules demonstrate that it clearly is a product of Holmes' own game table and, in a way, is a homebrew system all its own. I really want to play a BTB-Holmes campaign someday, but until then, thanks for posts like yours!

  9. You were right on in #5! Tom Wham recently mentioned on FB that he drew the Stone Mountain dungeon.

  10. Wow! I'm impressed not just with my own rightness--not a common occurrence around here--but that you tracked down this 2-year-old post to tell me. Thanks ZA.

  11. As soon as I heard the news, I was off searching "Tom Wham" plus "Stone Mountain". Your post is the first and only relevant hit in Google! A No-Prize for you. :)

  12. my technique for PARRYING
    A player may elect to have a character parry an opponent’s blow. He must announce that he is going to do so before the opponent strikes. This parry subtracts 3 from one declared opponent’s die roll. The parrying character rolls d12 (instead of d20) to hit for his current attack.
    . ..
    In melee, if an attacker rolls a natural ‘1’, a single misfortune will befall him. At the DMs discretion (d4?), attacker EITHER drops his parrying weapon (reflex save avoids), his shield is shattered , he forfeits his next attack OR he is fatigued (d6 of non-lethal damage).

  13. I like your d12 to hit approach; I might have to poach that.

  14. I played a version of Bruno the Battler in another system recently, and in his backstory he had a fear of spiders after what happened to his bestest warrior ally Mogo the Mighty...