Monday, July 12, 2010

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part III)

Dr. Holmes has a short section discussing "hopeless characters," in which he suggests that, at the DM's discretion, a character who is "below average" might be "declared unsuitable for dangerous adventures and left at home." I find the section interesting, because I don't recall anything similar to it being included in the LBBs or Supplements. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but this suggests to me that, by the time the Blue Book appeared, there was already a strong sense in some quarters of the hobby that PCs should be "above average," an opinion echoed in Gygax's PHB. Intriguingly, Holmes concludes this section with what I consider sage advice on the subject:
There is enough chance in the dungeon encounters, however, that sometimes a character like this will survive and advance to a position of power and importance.
That single sentence encapsulate a lot of what I consider to be the essence of old school gaming. Ability scores are not destiny, especially in the LBBs and Holmes, where their mechanical effect is negligible. Moreover, D&D is a game of chance, which means that, even an above average character might well suffer a bad roll that brings him to a bad end, while a supposedly "hopeless" character not only survives but prospers. Some of my fondest early gaming memories are of characters with thoroughly mediocre ability scores who outlived their better endowed peers to become pillars of the campaign.

Holmes suggests that players be allowed no more than two characters at a time in the campaign and notes that most DMs allow only one per player. OD&D's inheritance rules, complete with the 10% tax, are mentioned, along with the possibility that a player might simply choose to retire "wealthy and covered in glory" before his luck runs out and he is slain in the dungeon. In discussing character death, removing the miniature figure that represents him from the table is explicitly mentioned, suggesting again that miniatures, while not necessary, were treated as a commonplace aspect of the game. Attention is drawn to raising the dead through magic, in which it's stated that "A seventh level cleric can raise the dead, if you can find one!" This implies that 7th level is a noteworthy and rare achievement and that the campaign should not include many such characters.

The Blue Book assumes that the player characters will hire NPCs to join them in their dungeon delving, although, as with most things in Holmes, the decision to allow or disallow this possibility rests with the referee. That said, there are rules for recruiting hirelings, albeit of a very loose sort. Unlike OD&D, where there are explicit game mechanics associated with Charisma, Holmes is more "free form" and relying on the good judgment and creativity of the Dungeon Master.

Holmes differs from OD&D in adopting a fivefold alignment system (Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Neutral, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Evil), which first appeared in Strategic Review #6 (February 1976). Neutrality is equated not with balance here but with self-interest, with thieves being offered as prime examples of the alignment. Alignment change is noted as a possibility, but one that brings with it the loss of experience points as a penalty. Alignment languages are present in Holmes, as they are in OD&D. Learning other languages is a function of Intelligence and the formula for determining the exact number of languages a character can learn is identical to that in the LBBs.

14 comments:

  1. This implies that 7th level is a noteworthy and rare achievement and that the campaign should not include many such characters.

    That echoes my own preference, which is for low-level games. Even though AD&D went to (IIRC) 20th level, in my game world 9-12 were the elite levels and beyond that existed only in legend. Tastes differ of course, but I think our best adventures came in those mid-ranges from 4-7 or 5-9.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Interesting that they dropped the five alignment model in later editions of Basic, and maybe even more interesting that they effectively returned to it for 4th Edition.

    The neutral dichotomy of balance vs self-interest is, I think, mostly due to that alignment meaning very different things based on the axis it is on,

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Anthony: "I think our best adventures came in those mid-ranges from 4-7 or 5-9."

    In retrospect I totally agree... those are "the good ol' days" of most of my previous campaigns.

    A couple points of interst in this post to me:

    The idea of hopeless characters this early does indeed forshadow later versions where "uber" stats seemed to rule the day.

    I can appreciate the concept that PCs should be extrordinary but there's more than one way to define extrordinary.

    And then the Neutrality issue is interesting... my impression from the 1e days was always that the game intended for true Neutral to stand for balance and self preservation was associated with either Lawful Neutral or Chaotic Neutral

    ReplyDelete
  4. James, I like how you are highlighting the differences in Holmes. Clearly, Holmes let his considerable experience in the earliest days of D&D influence his edit of the game.

    For me, Holmes & the Monster Manual 1 and the early adventures make for some of the best old-school gaming.

    I'm really enjoying your close look at Holmes.

    ReplyDelete
  5. While my favorite alignment system is the original three, I do have a soft spot in my heart for the five-alignment graph.

    It forces players to take a stand: LG, CG, CE, or LE! Stand for something!

    Or fit yourself into that tiny little area of neutrality.

    But don't come whining to me with your ever-annoying "Chaotic Neutral".


    Verification word: fladicun -- a flabby, former republican who has lost the faith.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I never cared much for True Neutral characters as "balanced" types that switch between good/evil or law/chaos based on some sort of internal moral code. Seemed like Chaotic alignments would pretty well cover that base already (it's not like chaotics break EVERY law all the time, just the ones that get in their way). The same seemed to be the case with "balanced" true neutrals.

    Also, did anyone ever make use of alignment languages or really see the point/history behind them? Other specific languages like "Thieves' Cant" made sense to me as something a guild would pass around to all members that joined regardless of location, but the idea that all "Lawful" or "Chaotic Good" characters would have some secret language that cut across nations and races just didn't make sense.

    Alignments weren't something your character learned, but instead were a part of their personality, so I never quite understood the "alignment language".

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Alignments weren't something your character learned, but instead were a part of their personality, so I never quite understood the "alignment language"."

    They never made much sense to us, either, except as "church" tongues, so we did away with them.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've used Alignment languages as the ancient, primal language of the Gods, imbued within every creature at the moment of its creation. Admittedly, it never really came up in play.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I do think that alignment languages make sense in a 3-point system, but not any more than that.

    It sort of feels right to me to have opposing cultures on one axis, each with their own "lingua franca". Ex. #1: Tolkien's "Black Speech" ("created by Sauron as an artificial language to be the sole language of all the servants of Mordor, thereby replacing the many different varieties of Orkish...") Ex. #2: English and Russian in the Cold War era, etc.

    But as soon as you go to 5 or more alignment points, I agree that the basic rule becomes untenable.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great points... alignment languages felt contrived to me. I can't remember ever using them.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The 4-9 sweet spot is mechanical, as that was generally the original level range and those levels were the ones where the capabilities of the player present the most challenge given the world. WotC notced this and it is a big part of whay 4e came out like it did.

    ReplyDelete
  12. IIRC the Palladium RPG had "selfish" as an alignment. Of course, raised on AD&D I had no idea this was borrowed from Holmes.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I hate to be one of those guys who says, "Yeah, we never used that silly stuff back in the day," but, when it comes to alignment languages, I'm one of those guys. As Delta says, I think it's more workable when there are only three alignments -- and I'm contemplating doing this in my Dwimmermount campaign -- but I came into D&D with Holmes and five alignments, so this never made much sense to me.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The 4-9 sweet spot is mechanical, as that was generally the original level range and those levels were the ones where the capabilities of the player present the most challenge given the world. WotC notced this and it is a big part of whay 4e came out like it did.

    While I think it's true that D&D has a level range where characters are particularly enjoyable to play as dungeon delvers, I see the desire to extend that range indefinitely as the result of a misreading of the game's natural progressing -- kind of like wanting to forever extend adolescence.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.