Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Holmes Basic

As I've mentioned on many occasions, I began playing D&D in late 1979 with the Basic Set edited by J. Eric Holmes rather than either OD&D, like some of my older contemporaries, or Moldvay, like most of my younger contemporaries. The Holmes Basic Set was published in 1977 and is kind of a strange bird, being at once a revision and representation of OD&D for the mass market, an introduction to the then-unpublished AD&D game, and a unique game in its own right.

While I never played a "pure" Holmes game -- I used a weird mix of Holmes plus AD&D plus house rules/variants I picked up from my friend Mike's metalhead brother -- I still have a lot of fondness for this particular version of D&D. Some of that is simple nostalgia, but some of it is because, having recently reread this 48-page book -- shorter even than Moldvay -- it comes across as the last gasp of pre-fad D&D. That is, it's clearly a product written for people already involved in the wargames/early RPG hobby rather than a true mass market product in the way that Moldvay's revision is. This should come as no surprise, since Holmes was heavily involved in the early fanzine communities that helped propel D&D to the heights of success it would later enjoy. This version of the game is clearer and better written than the little brown books, but I guess what I'm saying is that, despite that, it feels much more continuous with the LBBs than does even AD&D, never mind Moldvay or Mentzer.

I think that continuity is often discounted much too readily by people who don't share or even understand its attraction. One of the things that's drawn me back so powerfully to OD&D and its spin-offs is that continuity. I'm not a first generation gamer; I didn't play OD&D and I wasn't a wargamer. But I knew a lot of people who were and who were involved, sometimes heavily, in the fan communities that sprang up at the dawn of the hobby. They'll always be my spiritual "big brothers," who initiated me into this pastime and showed me the ropes of how to be a referee. I'm forever grateful to them for that and games like the Holmes edition still speak to me of that period just before I got involved in gaming. Even if I didn't prefer the style of play these games espouse -- though I do -- I feel an obligation to honor those who came before and laid the foundation for the nearly 30 years of fun I've had playing D&D.

Holmes Basic is far from perfect, either as an introductory game or as a vehicle for keeping alive the spirit of OD&D. Nevertheless, I find it a good first attempt at a "Basic OD&D" and can't help but think that the retro-clone we're currently missing is something more in line with Holmes, a kind of half-step between the Wild West of OD&D and the mass marketization of Moldvay. There's a big part of me that thinks such a halfstep might, in fact, be the perfect intro RPG, one that marries the "imagine the hell out of it" philosophy of the old days with the better graphic design and presentation of contemporary game publishing. I find myself thinking about such things a lot these days, so perhaps it's another project to add to my pile.

(And for those who are interested, there's an excellent collection of house rules and rules extensions to Holmes Basic available here. With these, that 48-page booklet becomes a game capable of sustaining your campaign till 9th level. How cool is that?)


  1. I know what you mean about continuity and feeling the influence of an era that came before. I got into RPGs right around the 1e/2e crossover, so even though I never played 1e, I had a lot of back issues of Dragon magazine from the 1e days, and I knew a lot of people who had all the 1e hardbacks. The "flavor" of 1e was thus always part of my gaming, I think, in much the same way that you were able to absorb the "feel" of the LBBs even though you never experienced it first hand. Funny how that can happen.

  2. Ironically, I'm using the Holmes rulebook as one of my references for the Vox Draconis rules. Go figure.

    I've always hated the cover art on it, though. =/

  3. Yeah, Holmes was my intro rule set and it sparked my imagination like no other D&D version after. The rules weren't 'dumbed down' for kids to easily understand, which made it that much more intriguing. I actually liked the way the Moldvay B/X versions were presented but I couldn't get past how it seemed to be written for kids. That was always a turn-off. I never really clicked with 1e as I felt, even at a young age, it was just too heavy and I've always gone back to the Holmes version.

  4. Holmes was my starting point as well - picked up the LBBs to go on because the PHB wasn't out yet - this fixes my age as a gamer precisely. Holmes first print didn't have B1 or chits, it had dice, a monster & treasure assortment, and dungeon geomorphs - sweet stuff.

    I wanted to say though that the other thing that made Holmes so fantastic was the Tower of Zenopus dungeon in back. This is a really excellent intro dungeon, it's got it all. Running that out of the box for my 4th grade friends one afternoon set me on this path for life.

  5. The Tower of Zenopus is a terrific intro dungeon. That thing sparked endless ideas in my head as a young man than almost any dungeon that's come since.

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