Thursday, December 2, 2010

Between the Cracks

By now, I probably don't need to mention that my introduction to the hobby came by way of the Dungeons & Dragons basic set edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes. That "Blue Book" has probably influenced me more than other RPG product I've ever owned, shaping my sense of what both D&D and roleplaying games are. Since I started this blog, I've met a lot of other gamers like myself, which is comforting. For the longest time, it seemed as if my friends and I were the only gamers who ever started with the Blue Book, everyone else seemingly having started with either the LBBs or one of the later, mass market editions of the game (or straight into AD&D).

The Blue Book exists in a weird place historically. Consequently, there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Perhaps the biggest one is that it was written as an introduction to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I've seen that suggestion made in quite a few places, often by people who ought to know better. To be fair, it's a position I myself believed for a long time, mostly because there are sections in the Blue Book that strongly imply this relationship. Moreover, the Blue Book only covers levels 1-3 and there were no follow-up products to it, so what exactly is the "upgrade path" after one is done with Holmes? For most people I knew, my friends and I included, it was AD&D.

But it was AD&D only because that was how TSR chose to market the game. It's clear that Holmes himself thought of the Blue Book as a revision of OD&D. Those references to AD&D in the text were, for the most part, later additions made by someone at TSR, even when their addition made the text more muddled and unclear. The LBBs and supplements were still being printed by TSR into the early 1980s, but they weren't stocked in most of the places where I purchased RPG products back in the day. So, the odds that most readers of Holmes would have looked to the LBBs as their next logical purchase were slim. I know I soon bought both the AD&D Monster Manual and Players Handbook as supplements to my Holmes game, because they were both readily available, while OD&D was not.

A close examination of Holmes's text quickly reveals that, despite the mentions of the then-largely unwritten AD&D -- only the Monster Manual was available, I believe -- it really does have more in common with the LBBs than not. There are some obvious deviations, but a great many of them are in fact Holmes's own inventions rather than "previews" of AD&D. Furthermore, Holmes draws heavily on the exact words found in the LBBs (and Greyhawk), though sometimes simplified for the purposes of clarity and concision. The Blue Book is deeply rooted in OD&D; to call it an introduction to AD&D is a distortion, even if it's a forgivable one.

Though most strongly connected to OD&D, it's not identical to it. The basic set also predates AD&D, even if it includes, thanks to TSR, a few nods toward that incipient ruleset. And then there are Holmes's own little idiosyncratic additions, like Dexterity-based initiative and a magic missile that requires a roll to hit. The Blue Book is the product of a strange alchemy, a composite edition that I increasingly think ought to be viewed as on its own merits rather than either as a simplification of OD&D or an introduction to AD&D. I mean, both those approaches have merit (the OD&D connection moreso than the AD&D), but neither really does the Blue Book justice.

In thinking about this lately, I've started to realize that my attachment to the Blue Book probably explains a lot about my place within the larger D&D community. I feel a lot of kinship with the OD&D folks, but I'm not one of them. I also appreciate the virtues of AD&D, but I've never been able to get on board with it fully, even back in the days when I was supposedly playing "AD&D." I have admiration for Moldvay, but I've never really played it. Anything after that is the "kid's stuff" I wouldn't touch then and have even less time for now. So, like the Blue Book itself, I sometimes feel like I occupy this weird space between the cracks in the history of Dungeons & Dragons. At least I know I'm not alone.


  1. I like to think I have the (embarrassingly) archetypal experience of the Blue Book:

    My family bought the game in '79 or '80. My mother--yes--was the Dungeon Master. I played Merlin IX, a magic-user with magic missile and one hit point. We entered Quasqueton and were approached by a group of kobolds. I fired my magic missle... and missed.

    A kobold, no doubt looking as surprised as poor Merlin, hit him over the head with a club and... well, that was it.

    I eventually moved on to Advanced, but to this day my "image" of D&D is the picture in the blue book of a wizard casting web on an orc.

    In 2009, I started playing again, this time B/X, and have been loving it ever since. My character--now a fourth level M-U and a badass--keeps trying to get the party to go back to Quasqueton. We still haven't found that kobold, but when we do...

  2. I started with the Blue Book, which is why I found AD&D confusing. It was marketed like it was supposed to be a follow-up, but the rules were incompatible (not too much, but enough) in so many ways.

    However, my reaction to this shift is that -- even though I started on the Blue Book -- I have absolutely no attachment to it. In fact, while it is unfair to the Blue Book (this is really a problem with D&D in general at the time), I still associate that type of game with "arbitrary look-up tables". When Dragon magazine published the "wandering damage table" in one of its April fools issues, it helped me realize what was bothering me with the system.

    This is why I gravitated to the more mathematically-oriented rules systems later in life. I realize these are not for everyone, and that the badly designed ones are really complex. But ultimately, that is the effect the Blue Book days had on me -- I dislike any game that requires me to have a screen with tables on it to perform basic functions.

  3. I began playing D&D with the Blue Book...sort of. The first D&D stuff I got to look at was the Monster Manual, which older brothers of my friends had, so that was my introduction to what D&D was. Those same older brothers told me I should buy the Holmes basic set to see if I liked D&D, and then later I could get AD&D books if I liked the game. So I was primed to see the Blue Book as a first step to AD&D, and I certainly did. I got the Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide within a year of getting the Blue Book. Unlike James, I could have gotten the LBBs instead; they were right there on the hobby shop shelf next to the Holmes Basic set I bought (along with Chainmail, the supplements, and Swords & Spells). I never gave that a thought, though; I assumed that the LBBs had been superseded by AD&D. My roleplaying experience would have been a lot different if I had bought the LBBS instead...

    The really funny thing is that I actually played other systems more than D&D or AD&D at first. My best friend and I both bought other RPGs soon after I bought the Blue Book; he bought Tunnels and Trolls (which we played a lot) and I bought (God help me) The Complete Warlock (which we hardly ever played then, but which intrigues me now). We also had a complete set of TFT between us; he had Melee and Advanced Melee, and I had Wizard and Advanced Wizard, so I bought Into The Labyrinth. I sometimes think I have the weirdest RPG experience ever.

  4. This is my inner-Historian coming out, but where would you put Holmes in the D&D line of editions? Assuming that the LBB set is the first edition of D&D (as opposed to AD&D), would you say Holmes is D&D 1E revised, or a D&D second edition?

    Yeah, pedantic of me, but the taxonomy is interesting. (Well, to me. :) )

  5. I'm surprised you wrote this without once mentioning your Cover to Cover. One of my favourite features from the blog over the past year.

  6. My experience was much like yours, James. We started playing with my friend Bob's Holmes D&D set and then I bought the same set as soon as I could afford it. As this was (I think) 1978, I don't think the AD&D books were availible yet (or maybe they were not availible to us). We soon had a copy of 'Greyhawk' and (I think) some of the other 'Little Brown Books' and we played sort of a hybrid game for a few months... then the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual became availible and we just used those instead, finally adding the DMG later when it became availible. I don't recall differences in the rules bothering us much... most of the players hadn't read the books anyway and I realize now that most of the things we did (rolling a straight-up d6 for intiative) was stuff that my friend Bob taught us on day one... he had played the game with another group and 'how you played' seemed, at least in our group, more of a function of osmosis rather than the letter of the rules.
    I was shocked when I finally sat down to reread tattered copies of the Holmes rule book and 'Men & Magic' etc., years ago --- DEX based intiative and all weapons do d6? We had swords doing d8, maces doing d6 and daggers doing d4 from the start as I recall... which must have been something we picked up from someone else.

  7. There are tons of references in Holmes to AD&D, few of which, as you say, make much sense. OTOH, in reality Holmes is an odd kind of bridge between the LBB/Chainmail and B/X, and I wonder why you didn't mention that connection in your post.

    The similarities between the LBB and BX are many, but there are several things that B/X clearly got from Holmes, such as the 10 second combat round.

  8. As someone who had only the Holmes set to learn D&D from (and not any previously-experienced players), I now see a lot of continuity to it, the "glue" between OD&D and AD&D.

    I had no reason to disbelieve the Holmes text when it said "Players who desire to go beyond the basic game are directed to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books" in many places. And in fact, I was able to read the Holmes text very closely and not even know what was meant by "the original work published in 1974" for many years afterward.

  9. So for me -- Holmes is the "joint compound" between OD&D & AD&D, from which B/X squirted out the side.

  10. Funny...When I started it was with AD&D in '77, and for that Christmas my mother purchased the Holmes version for me. So I played one version w/ one set of friends and AD&D w/ another.

    But to be perfectly honest, I never 'really' noticed the difference. I was 13 and reading all of the rules was not something I was even remotely interested in, so the differences, if even noticed, were hand-waved.

    As a few have already mentioned, it wasn't until many years later that I sat down and read the books and noticed that indeed there was a difference. Imagine my surprise. What the heck had I been playing? I carried the AD&D PHB around w/ me as a sort of badge of sorts...At that time playing the game was cool. My real learning though was by word-of-mouth.

  11. The Blue Book is a palimpsest. Because of its incomplete editing, it still contains the different stages of its own history.

    It was originally intended as a reformatting of the LBB rules intended to make it easier for beginners to learn. The resequencing and editing, rather than changing rules, was the core of the thing, making it a new edition of the text but not the rules.

    Early on, with his focus on beginners, Holmes shifted focus slightly to only being an introduction to the LBBs, not a complete restatement of them. I don't yet know whether this was his idea or the result of interacting with Gary Gygax after he approached them. He may have felt ambivalent on this point and been pursuaded by Gary to keep it introductory only.

    Holmes was definitely writing in the style of the LBBs which emphasized the do-it-yourself nature of this hobby. Therefore, he felt free to add rules from his own campaign to what he originally thought of as his own edit of the rules. Gary restrained him from including rules for witches or a spell-point system for magic-users, but things like the magic missile requiring a to-hit roll slipped in.

    When Holmes started work on his project in the early 1970s, there was no AD&D other than some bright ideas in Gary's head and possibly some notes. Gary later argued that AD&D came first, at least in its conception, but based on my reading so far I think it's more likely that the Holmes project began before Gary got serious about AD&D specifically, and may even have been the stimulus that convinced him to do his own re-edit of the OD&D rules to create the AD&D edition.

    At any rate, after Gary and the rest of the TSR guys got serious about AD&D, they decided to repurpose Holmes's work by making it an introduction to AD&D. They did this mainly by slipping in some additional text to point the reader on to AD&D.

  12. James and Dave and I have been combing through the Holmes text very carefully for a while now, and in most places it's clear hardly any work went into this repurposing. In some places the new AD&D text actively contradicts Holmes's own words elsewhere. In others the new slipped in text is innocuous unless you compare it to the rest of the document, and then you realize it is completely independent.

    Here's an example.

    Under Additional Character Classes, the terms "sub-classes" and "race" appear as formal game terms with the meaning they have in AD&D. "Sub-classes" appears nowhere else in the Blue Book. "Race" is only used one other time in the Blue Book as color language describing troglodytes, never as a formal term. The equivalent formal term the rest of the Blue Book uses is "nonhuman characters"; this is precisely how Men & Magic terms them as well. This whole first paragraph of this section was obviously just spliced in and bears no relation to the rest of the book. It may not even have been written by Holmes.

    By contrast, the second paragraph is pure Holmes, which is to say it is an edited version of the original text from Men & Monsters.

    Note, too, the difference in tone. The second paragraph, paraphrasing Men & Magic and amplifying it (since this is very close to the heart of Holmes's approach to the game), pushes the do-it-yourself hobbyist mentality of anything goes. The first paragraph, echoing AD&D, emphasizes going to TSR for the official choices available to you. This fits the sea change in TSR's approach to the game from OD&D to AD&D.

    The paragraphs only appear to flow naturally when you don't think too clearly about what they mean. Once you do, and if you compare them to related text in OD&D and AD&D, you realize the first paragraph had to be written right at the end (after much of the Players Handbook had been written) and inserted along with all those capitalized, bold, and italicized references to ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. It's advertising and repurposing, not remotely a part of the rest of the document.

    The more you study the text, the more obvious the seams are. The AD&D stuff was all inserted late in the game to market the game differently than how it was originally intended, and other than these grafts the text itself clearly shows throughout its original design to be a restatement of the LBBs.

    This is why James and I and others argue that the Holmes document is far more an OD&D work than an AD&D one.

    Generationally, though, it belongs to the same expansive age for D&D that produced the OD&D supplements, the early Strategic Review and Dragon articles (where the five-alignment system Holmes uses was introduced), and some of the classic Judges Guild work like City State, Wilderlands, and Tegel Manor (all of which use the five-alignment system as well). During this D&D generation, the hobbyist, do-it-yourself focus was still alive and well, and everyone was exploring and experimenting with the game.

    By this accounting, that would make AD&D the third generation, not the second - (1) creation with the LBBs; (2) innovation with extensions and edits; (3) standardization with AD&D.

  13. May 25, 1977: Star Wars premieres. I am 9, and see it early, because my dad's friend worked on the special effects.
    July 26, 1977: My big brother receives the Blue Book for his birthday.
    December 1977: Monster Manual published.
    Game Over. I win.

  14. Note: Magic Missile in oD&D *does* require a "to hit" roll. :) (See here:

    Fascinating article, James. :)

  15. I started with the Holmes rules as well, and to my 13-year-old self, it was obviously meant as an intro to AD&D--it even said so! It's still my favorite ruleset, although I haven't played a pure Holmes game in decades.

  16. Note: Magic Missile in oD&D *does* require a "to hit" roll. :)

    If there were evidence to support this interpretation of the rules beyond Mr Kask's say-so, I might be willing to believe it.

  17. Looking at page 22 of Supplement 1, Greyhawk, there's no mention of a to-hit role for Magic Missile.

    Interesting tangent: Right below that is an entry for something called "Direct Magic," formatted like a spell and giving a range and duration, but no explanation. Nor is it in the Level 1 spell list on pp.19-20. Is this the remnant of a spell that was in an earlier draft, then incompletely removed?

  18. Well, since it's under discussion, here's what Greyhawk has to say about Magic Missile:

    Magic Missile: This is a conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage (2-7 points) to any creature it strikes. For every five levels the magic-user has attained he may add an additional two missiles when employing this spell, so a 6th level magic-user may cast three magic missiles at his target, an 11th level magic-user casts five, and so on. Range 15".

    I guess it all hinges on what "equivalent to a magic arrow" means. You have to roll to hit with a magic arrow. Also, "to any creature it strikes" can be interpreted to mean it may or may not strike a creature. It does not say it automatically hits its target. Compare the text in Players Handbook:

    "Use of the magic missile spell creates one or more magical missiles which dart forth from the magic-user's fingertip and unerringly strike their target."

    Clearly Gary felt it should automatically hit and also felt the Greyhawk text was ambiguous or he wouldn't have modified it. I'd say Holmes's interpretation was a reasonable reading of Greyhawk but not the one Gary preferred, and may have convinced Gary to reword it for Players Handbook.

  19. Oddly enough, my very first experience with D&D was with the LBBs, but then I completely skipped over the Holmes set and went to Moldvay.

    I didn't really get it with the LBBs. I had a friend who had bought them, and he tried to run a game for me, but I quite honestly wasn't really interested, and he didn't know what he was doing anyway.

    For the guy with the question about editions, above, didn't The Dragon and TSR refer to the BD&D line by edition number too, considering OD&D as the "first edition" and Holmes as "second edition?" Or am I misremembering that?

  20. James, Mike Mentzer pointed out this interesting reference on page 20 of the Monster Manual (it's in the text for Yeenoghu which starts on the previous page):

    "Yeenoghu is able to use any of the following magical powers... magic missile (3/day, 6 missiles/cast) each doing 2-8 points of damage and having a +2 to hit..."

  21. My intro to RPG's was Holmes. A friend of mine invited a couple of us over to check out "this cool new game by older brother plays". After that I was hooked. We ended up playing a wierd hybrid of Holmes/Cook with the AD&D Monster Manual, then we moved on to AD&D.

    FWIW, and despite the slight intitial awkwardness, I found this interview with Tim Kask to be interesting regarding the genesis of Holmes and AD&D:

  22. "Yeenoghu is able to use any of the following magical powers... magic missile (3/day, 6 missiles/cast) each doing 2-8 points of damage and having a +2 to hit..."

    Now, that's a compelling piece of information! Strange that don't ever recall seeing it before. Thank you.

  23. James wrote:
    "A close examination of Holmes's text quickly reveals that, despite the mentions of the then-largely unwritten AD&D -- only the Monster Manual was available, I believe".

    The Holmes set was first advertised in July 1977 in Dragon #9, and the Acaeum lists the MM first print as Dec 1977. IO above mentions getting those products in those exact months (lucky him!), so it seems they were generally available by those dates. Holmes wouldn't have had access to any completed AD&D books (although a draft is always possible). The fourth revised Holmes printing of 1978 (2nd edition) contains new monster entries - troglodyte et al - that seem to have been imported in edited form from the Monster Manual.

  24. Is it necromancy if you comment on an old blog post? Well, never mind. I certainly agree with your assessment of Holmes being "between the cracks", although I've only been aware of it for a few months. But it's a crack I have an urge to expand - hence my venture into retro-cloning the blue book, and plans to expand it beyond 3rd level. Oh, sorry, please allow me to introduce myself - I'm the Blueholme guy, and I like to think I'm a man of taste.