Saturday, July 3, 2010

Holmes Nostalgia

One of the funny things about the Holmes-edited D&D rulebook is that expressing a strong preference for it is as likely to get elicit a cry of "Nostalgia!" from AD&D partisans as it is from devotees of more recent editions of the game. I can only assume that this viewpoint has something to do with the belief that Holmes is nothing more than an introduction to AD&D and that seeing it as a unique game in its own right is somehow mistaken.

It's certainly true that the text of the Holmes rulebook frequently directs readers "who desire to to go beyond the basic game" to AD&D, but, as Holmes's preface also makes clear, this version of the rules is strongly based "upon the original work published in 1974 and three supplementary booklets," but re-written with the aim of "introducing the reader to the concepts of fantasy role playing and the basic play of this game." A close reading of Holmes quickly reveals that the game is deeply rooted in OD&D, deviating from it only in a few places, only some of which have any connections to the then-far-from-finished AD&D. I haven't done a formal survey, but I'd guess that most of its deviations (such as its interpretation of magic missile and DEX-based Initiative to cite but two examples) are purely Holmes's invention (or that of others in the gaming circles in which he moved at the time). Taken together, this gives Holmes a unique flavor of its own, one that was compelling enough that I was forever hooked on D&D.

Another thing about Holmes that can't be underestimated is the way that it presented itself. Though basic in its scope, it didn't talk down to its assumed readers, whom the box cover proclaimed to be "adults." Much as I love Moldvay, its presentation is less sophisticated to my eyes and, more specifically, less hobbyist, by which I mean that there are fewer rules lacunae for referees to adjudicate according to their own lights. This difference in tone matters and, especially nowadays, I find myself drawn more and more to Holmes, which occupies a nice middle ground between the glorious mess of OD&D and the glorious fastidiousness of AD&D. It really does have its own unique voice and feel and it's a pity that, even in this time of the old school renaissance, its virtues are not more widely recognized.

30 comments:

  1. It's the rules set that I most refer to. I've been reading the Holmes blue book since Late '80/Early '81, and, like yourself, I'm still finding little gems. It shaped the way I gamed then, and still I feel its impact today. Thirty years now . . . I'd qualify that as a lasting impression. ;)

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  2. I'm with Lord Ghul. I staretd with it at the same time and it certainly shaped the way I game even today. Call it nostalgia if you will, but it had a unique and addictive flavor. Though I now play AD&D, I still have a few hold-overs from Holmes, including Magic Missile damage of 2-7 and even meaningless things like the order of character stats on every character sheet I've ever made.

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  3. James, you might want to take a look at my dragonsfoot thread entitled "Holmes Basic D&D as a complete game":

    http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=27128

    Incidentally, the particulars of the Holmes rulebook are almost entirely derived from the 1974 rules and from the GREYHAWK supplement:

    http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=holmes&action=display&thread=2237

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  4. I never moved on to Moldvay (for many of the same reasons that you mentioned above) or even a full version of AD&D. I love me some Holmes. If fact, I have a number of Holmes rules in my current S&W campaign.

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  5. fastidiousness and AD&D are not often associated...

    I love the Holmes edition, so much so that I tracked down and bought his book on fantasy roleplaying and enjoyed it thoroughly. I think the quality of his writing is some of the most professional to be found in TSR’s early period.

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  6. Love Holmes. Love the "Web" illustration in particular -- that's probably the most iconic, what-D&D-means-picture of all time in my head.

    The biggest divergence that Holmes introduced from OD&D/AD&D was the unified table for Elf experience (and by corollary, race-as-class). Obviously maintained throughout the later Moldvay/Mentzer "basic" line.

    Almost alone this makes it, sadly, unplayable for me now. (Also: No variant weapon damage; Sup-I style d8-based Hit Dice.)

    Maybe I should just consider expunging/tweaking that part of it and seeing if it's more palatable.

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  7. @Thomas Denmark:

    I have that book - bought it when it was new. One of my prized possessions in my gamer library. :)

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  8. I think some folks dismiss it because they consider AD&D the definitive edition.

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  9. You can't advance beyond third level in the Holmes edition without using another edition (or a whole lot of homebrew) to finish it. That seems like a pretty good reason to label it as an introduction.

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  10. Well, much as I might protest otherwise, playing any game from the early 80s now that I'm in my mid-30s feels like a reach for "nostalgia."

    However, even though I have never played it, I consider Holmes Basic to be its own self-contained edition, certainly worthy of critique and analysis in and of itself.

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  11. I got the Holmes "Basic" box in 1978 or 1979 or so and we played a great many dungeon crawl type adventures using the rules. We added booklets like "Greyhawk" and "Men & Magic" to expand the game beyond level 3 and used a Judges Guild screen for combat (and, as I recall, at one point we simply extrapolated many values from the existing tables. When we got the hardcovers, we used those... but we never did AD&D initiative "correctly."
    I don't recall the various contradictions causing us any problems; I only think that it is post internet that I even became aware of the myriad little tweaks and changes from edition to edition.
    I do remember when TSR began issuing the 'new' basic set with the Erol Otus cover --- although I liked the art, we had moved on to AD&D at that point.
    The best part of Holmes is that it wasn't well written by the standard of today's rule books. We actually had to figure out how to play... which I think was a large part of the fun.

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  12. is my favorite single D&D book

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  13. Holmes was my introduction to the hobby in '81 and still holds the same magic for me now that it did then.

    Given the incredible volume of units sold in those crucial years between OD&D and the publication of the DMG, a period when D&D truly became a phenomenon, Holmes had an impact that has since been vastly underestimated and certainly under-appreciated.

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  14. A close reading of Holmes quickly reveals that the game is deeply rooted in OD&D, deviating from it only in a few places,

    I'll go further than that James. I'd argue Holmes is the single strongest artifact we have of actual play from the OD&D precisely because it attempts to take the glorious mess that is the originals and create a cohesive, explainable whole.

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  15. I was going to ask what's particularly good about Holmes, but in thinking about the question I'm finding a lot of the answers - I think it comes very close to being a perfect edition for "OD&D but not bare bones 3LB" play. I'd be curious to find out if Holmes fans actually like the way initiative is handled (you would technically have to roll Dexterity scores for every monster; I think if the system were a bit more coherent each entry would have a Dex score).

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  16. Wayne, you've solved a mystery that's been bugging me since I started playing D&D again in earnest! When I started doing stat blocks for my megadungeon, I always put Dexterity as the first stat and could not for the life of me remember why I did it - now I know it was a Holmesian leftover form ancient times!

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  17. Wayne wrote: I'd be curious to find out if Holmes fans actually like the way initiative is handled (you would technically have to roll Dexterity scores for every monster; I think if the system were a bit more coherent each entry would have a Dex score).

    I honestly don't know. The Holmes book was the first D&D product I owned... but I actually learned to play from someone else (who owned a copy before I did). Years later, when I finally took the book out and looked at it again, I was astounded at how many things we "did wrong." For example, I have no recollection of doing initiative in any way other than "Both sides roll a dice and the higher one goes first." In addition, Holmes specifies that all weapons do 1d6, but I recall using a d8 for swords, a d6 for maces and arrows, a d4 for daggers from day one. It was the way my friend taught me to play, and, as a result, it ended up being the way I taught others to play.

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  18. Geoffrey,

    I've seen and enjoyed both those threads before, but thanks for pointing them out again for those who might not have.

    I myself have no interest in a cap to advancement at Level 3, but I think it's an interesting experiment to consider.

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  19. fastidiousness and AD&D are not often associated...

    I meant that AD&D is often very persnickety in places, but perhaps I should have chosen a better word.

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  20. The biggest divergence that Holmes introduced from OD&D/AD&D was the unified table for Elf experience (and by corollary, race-as-class).

    Did he? No version of Holmes that I've ever seen includes it. Instead, mine says only that "Elves progress in two areas -- fighting man and magic-user. They use a six-sided die for hits." I always took that to mean they were a multi-class character, dividing XP between the two classes. Am I missing something?

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  21. I think some folks dismiss it because they consider AD&D the definitive edition.

    I think there's a lot of truth to this.

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  22. You can't advance beyond third level in the Holmes edition without using another edition (or a whole lot of homebrew) to finish it. That seems like a pretty good reason to label it as an introduction.

    True enough, although I knew plenty of people who just swiped the XP tables and spell lists from AD&D or Expert and kept on playing what was essentially a Holmes game.

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  23. I'd argue Holmes is the single strongest artifact we have of actual play from the OD&D precisely because it attempts to take the glorious mess that is the originals and create a cohesive, explainable whole.

    No disagreement here. :)

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  24. I always put Dexterity as the first stat and could not for the life of me remember why I did it - now I know it was a Holmesian leftover form ancient times!

    Heh, I do the same thing! I hadn't even realized that till now.

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  25. I got my start with the black box set of Basic D&D, which was far and away from the Holmes or Moldvay. However, it has colored all of my further experiences. I have just finished reading Castle Amber, and while I know that I may be betraying the group, I'll be updating it to 3.0 for my kids to get a start with. Such wonderful strange and unique things that are missing from almost everything AD&D.

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  26. "Did he? No version of Holmes that I've ever seen includes it. Instead, mine says only that "Elves progress in two areas -- fighting man and magic-user. They use a six-sided die for hits." I always took that to mean they were a multi-class character, dividing XP between the two classes. Am I missing something?"

    Holy smoke, I'm off my game at the moment! Mea culpa.

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  27. Ahh Delta, sarcasm so early in the morning (here at least) is hard on an empty stomach, I should've had some breakfast first.

    James is right, there is no "unified table for Elf experience" in Holmes. The fact is, just as in OD&D, Holmes is unclear enough in the elf description to have people debating it 33 years later, even die-hard Holmes fans don't agree on the interpretation.

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  28. My brother was given the Holmes edition of D&D for a birthday present and that was our start in roleplaying. The set came with 'The Keep on the Borderlands' and we weren't really sure which book was the rules -- that edition of the KotB had a lot of introductory 'how to run an adventure' material. So my brother gave it to me to read while he read the rule book, so I sort of knew some of the adventure when it came to actually playing.

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  29. The Holmes box set had one other interesting quirk when I first got it - it came with chits instead of dice. My first few D&D games we had to pass around Dixie cups with the chits instead of having any dice to roll (aside from some comandeered d6's). My best friend still says that if you haven't played D&D with chits you haven't really played.

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  30. My first D&D purchase was the Holmes set. Unfortunately, I had no other example of play and didn't have any idea how the game was supposed to run. The aforementioned chits confused me so much that I gave up on the whole mess. I ended up taking the game back to the store and spending my hard earned $10 elsewhere. It wasn't until about four months later that I got to actually play Moldvay basic with my cousin that I finally understood how to play. I soon purchased my own copies of Moldvay, Cook, and all the AD&D books to create my own mishmash. Unfortunately, my experience with the Holmes set left a bitter taste in my mouth that persisted until just last year when I learned that Holmes was basically OD&D basic.

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