Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Old School Pleasure

I believe I've mentioned on more than one occasion that my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons came in the form of the boxed edition released in 1977 and edited by Eric Holmes. This edition is sometimes called "Holmes Basic," although my copy of the rulebook doesn't use the term "Basic Rules" or anything of the sort. Instead, it's simply Dungeons & Dragons without qualification. My set included a monochrome cover version of module B1-In Search of the Unknown and included chits and a coupon for polyhedral dice from TSR when they became available.

The funny thing about the Holmes edition is that, while it was clearly intended to be an introduction to the forthcoming AD&D rules -- the Players Handbook would be released a year later -- it's not wholly compatible with them. Or rather, the Holmes edition has its own idiosyncrasies not found in either OD&D or in AD&D. Chief among is the use of the fivefold alignment system (Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Chaotic Evil, Lawful Evil) and the fact that, until the release of 4e, it was the only version of D&D where magic missile required an attack roll to hit.

When I first started playing in late 1979, we used the Holmes rules as our starting point, modified with the rules from the three AD&D rulebooks, since they were already out by the time I entered the hobby. When conflicts arose, I generally favored the AD&D tomes over Holmes, but Holmes had the advantage of being nice and short and generally clearer (to my young mind anyway), even if it wasn't written by the Dungeon Master himself.

One of the things I loved about Holmes -- and the thing that hooked me forever -- was the equipment list. And I mean loved. That list sealed my fate forever. You see, it was that list that helped everything fall into place for me. Without it, D&D might appear to be just a fairly complex board game, with characters and monsters just being different types of "pieces." Remember, too, that I had played Dungeon! and that brilliant game does just that -- makes a board game of dungeon delving.

Throw in an equipment list, though, and suddenly (for me at any rate) the essence of D&D is clear: this is a game about outfitting an imaginary expedition into a fantastic underworld filled with mythological beasts and legendary treasures. Why else would their be entries and costs for 50' rope, small boats, sacks of various sizes, iron spikes, and weeks' worth of rations? Take a moment to think about that. Weeks' worth of rations. This isn't some quick smash and grab operation, but rather a carefully planned foray into the unknown. It was like nothing else I'd ever seen or even imagined -- Lewis & Clark setting off into the ruins of Zothique by way of the Hammer horror films. What's not to love?

Over the years, I've met fewer and fewer people who love equipment lists -- indeed many loathe having to choose equipment for their characters. Me, I don't mind so much, although, to be fair, I tend to be the referee rather than a player nowadays. Many games don't even bother with them, preferring to treat necessary equipment as a background assumption rather than as an important part of play. D&D in all its editions seems to have (mostly) stayed true to this tradition, although 4e is the least true to its heritage, with fewer odd bits of "exploratory" equipment and magical food that takes up little space and can feed a grown person for 10 days.

To that I say, "Bah." That equipment list in Holmes fired my imagination in innumerable ways. All the 10' poles, lanterns, different types of mirrors, and the like made me ask questions, both as a player and as a referee. Why exactly was there a silver mirror as well as a steel one? For that matter, what difference did the material from which my cleric's cross was made make? And so on. Buying equipment, planning a dungeon expedition, thinking ahead not just to six hours from now but six days from now -- these are the essence of D&D for me. This is what grabbed me as a 10 year-old in the winter of 1979 and I would miss it if it were gone from my games.


  1. Oh man, this was the version I started with, too. I remember cutting up the chits and picking them out of a dixie cup because we didn't have dice. When the PHB finally came out a couple of my players were pissed because character classes had different hit dice (I think clerics had a d4 in Basic, and went to a d6 in the PHB). We did have a lot of fun rebuilding the characters.

    "Lewis & Clark setting off into the ruins of Zothique by way of the Hammer horror films. What's not to love?" - Genius!

  2. I am also a fan of the equipment list, for what sounds like a similar reason to yours. As a DM I always looked at all that gear and understood them as possible PC solutions to the problems I presented. In every game I run, I always get a kick out of my players when they get into MacGyver mode and come up with new and interesting ways to survive.

  3. Awesome post and dead on about equipment. I think gathering and planning equipment and supplies is part of what seperates RPGs from other games.
    I started with the Holmes rules, too, but I never read them until at least 1987 or so. I knew about D&D from the general mystique and the cartoon, but didn't have any friends then who played. I always read the TSR ads on the back on comics and wanted just a peak at one of the books or boxed sets! Imagine my surprise when I found a battered and faded Holmes boxed set at the bottom of a stack of board games in a cabinet at school. I was hooked!

  4. Hi, James!

    Sorry for deleting my own comment - my browser went crazy... My repeat:

    Two types of mirrors, silver and steel are strictly middle-ages devices. First was much more expensive but reflection in it was more clear - perfect gift for court lady. Second was for commoners or poorer social classes. It was basic and for all. In other cases, they used streams for "morning make-up". ;)

    My team using silver mirrors in dungeons when they want to see what is behind the corner. And, of course, it's for reflecting gaze attacks.

    Crosses - I think it's all about showing owners piety or wealthy. For clerics it may be sign of position in church hierarchy.
    Cheers from Europe!


  5. I started with this edition also, though the first printing that came with the Monsters & Treasure Assortment and the Dungeon Geomorphs, and it did have dice.

    I like equipment lists too. I think what started to turn people off though was the equipment lists growing out of control. With this equipment list (which if I recall is the same as the one in Men & Magic, perhaps with one or two differences), it takes but a couple minutes to choose equipment.

    Another factor that has made equipment lists less of interest is the fact that dungeon problem solving has gone out of style. In the old days, you needed 10' poles, iron spikes, etc. to make your way through the dungeon. You also had to figure out how to recover 10,000 coin treasures. You needed sacks and packs and mules and all that.


  6. You know, this is a great point. The fact that so many of the items on the list don’t have corresponding rules highlights the fact that many aspects of the game are left up to simple common-sense, imagination, and straight-forward rulings.

    As for the idiosyncrasies of the Holmes book, it shows that for Gygax, D&D wasn’t about specific rules.

    (If you haven’t, check out the article Holmes wrote for TD when the Moldvay set was released. He talks about some of the additional things he would’ve done differently but which Gary veto’d.)

  7. Whilst Dungeons & Dragons was not my introduction to roleplaying games, I distinctly remember the same feelings you describe (a mixture of confusion and excitement, I think)when looking at the equipment in list in the Red Box Mentzer version of BD&D.

    Expedition planning (or resource management) is definitely one of the most fun aspects of traditional adventure games. The last major campaign I ran involved a lot of logistics, and far from boring the players, it significantly contributed to their enjoyment of the adventure.

  8. I have, perhaps, dabbled a bit with equipment lists.

    Just a bit.

  9. I agree with both points of view. Some genres you just don't need an itemized equipment list for. But to me it is an integral part of D&D.

    I remember one time we got caught out by some undead creature that could only be harmed by silver or magic (a wraith, maybe?). At any rate, we were still fairly low level and didn't have any magic weapons on us, nor any silver weapons. So my friend, desperately scanning his equipment list, sees "Silver Belt Buckle" and proceeds to convince the DM that by wrapping his belt around his fist with the buckle facing outwards he's effectively created a set of silver brass knuckles. And, being a dwarf battlerager, he proceeded to beat the wraith back to where it came from.

    Without an equipment list, it's likely that scenario never would have played out. Equipment lists are great like that.

    Plus, without them I might never have known what a "piton" or "crampon" were.

  10. Dead on target, James. I started with Holmes, and I remember the exact place I was sitting in my friend Jamie's house as I outfitted a party for our first expedition into Quasqueton. But it wasn't the Holmes rulebook - it was the AD&D PHB - because I remember buying Wolfsbane and a silver mirror. Just another of those things where my memories of early D&D just don't jive with each other. If I had a PHB, it couldn't have been my first time playing B1. Bizarre.

  11. Oh, hey. Those items are on the list. I thought they were AD&D only. Okay, memory conflict resolved.

  12. Your assessment of the "Equipment List" is dead-on. That's one of my favorite parts. Just perusing the list trying to pick what is important is part of the "adventure."

    I remember one module I played had pre-made Adventure Packs (or some such). I was appalled.

    Anyway, great post.

    Eagerly awaiting Fight On! #2.

  13. I was just looking over the AD&D 1e equipment list, just curious if there was anything that I would really want to add to the OD&D equipment list. I really didn't see anything. There's a lot of additional detail in parts of the list with no real added value to play. In a few areas, I trust players to ask if they want to buy iron boxes, chests, or other containers. Same for random animals. Clothing, I'll just charge 1-2 gp if they want something specific, or more if they want something fancy.

    By keeping the list short, it will be easier for a player to start a character.


  14. Frank,

    Why would you want it to be easy for the player?

    Nothing is more awesome than the player running around, buying stuff, bewildered by the considerable array available, only to get out on the trail and find he has no boots.

    Well, I wouldn't enforce that; but I would enforce it if the whole party had forgotten to buy torches.

  15. Alexis: That actually reminds me a time I was going to run the Ruins of Undermountain. I say "was going to" because it never got past the first room, owing to the fact that although the party had made sure to buy a pack of war dogs, they had neglected to bring any light sources.

    I rolled a wandering monster check right away due to the barking of the hounds, got "Umber Hulk" as a result, and it was all over in one or two combat rounds full of screaming, howling, wild swings, then eerie silence...

  16. @sirlarkins Man, if that were shorter I'd .sig it. That's beautiful.

  17. Why make it easy on the players? Because taking 1-2 sessions to create and outfit characters is bordering on ridiculous. I want players to be able to whip up a character in 5-10 minutes, 15 tops.

    In later games with huge equipment lists, my experience was that 90% of it was never used. Partly because the game had shifted from problem solving to focusing on combat, and an occasional skill roll. But players would still agonize over what kind of boots to buy and all sorts of other crap.


  18. that's why I often start games in media res, or with the PCs escaping from a slave galley or something like that: let them play, earn their gear, and then, when they have money in their purses (and purses, for that matter) they can really enjoy going shopping. If they can find what they want.

    ...and that's why I've hardly ever run a classic dungeon.