Friday, September 18, 2020

Interview: Chris Holmes

Today's interview was a real treat for me. Chris Holmes, son of Dr J. Eric Holmes, kindly agreed to answer my questions about his own experiences with roleplaying, as well as the life and works of his father, whose Basic Set was the very first RPG I ever owned. 

1.  How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

My favorite game as a kid was Clue; it was the only game I could beat my older brother at. It was also the closest thing to an RPG in America in the sixties.

Sometime in 1975 by brother Jeff told my Dad and I about a game his friends from the alternative high school were playing.  He thought we would like it even more than he did and he was right. He arranged for Dad and I to join a game run by two high schoolers. The rules they used were developed by Cal tech students and were called WarlockWarlock used a complicated combat system with percentile dice and a magic system with more spells than OD&D and spell points; it was all a bit overwhelming. We had enough fun that first confusing night that Dad wanted to buy his own set of the rules. The high schoolers directed him to Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica. There he bought the 3 brown books plus Greyhawk and Blackmoor, Chainmail and two copies of the Warlock rules and lots of dice and minis.  He was rather frustrated at his first attempts to learn the rules from the books, but eventually made his own hybrid of the two rule systems. He was well prepared to be a Dungeon Master because his bookshelves already contained most of “Appendix N” and he had already had his first success as a pulp writer. When, a couple of weeks later My friends and I entered his first dungeon we were about to have the most fun of my teenage years.

2.  Was your father an avid player of games generally or was it because of the fantasy component that he was interested in trying Warlock?

Dad was a good chess player; he had a beautiful set he bought in Japan on leave during the Korean War. He didn’t play many other games until he discovered D&D. After attending his first GenCon he got interested in wargames and other strategic, miniature, and even play by mail games. In the 70’s we played the Dungeon! board game and Cosmic Encounter. Later we played miniatures wargames with Romans vs. Picts and Vikings vs. Britons. He painted Aztec, Egyptian and Zulu Armies but I don’t think he ever played me with them. We also loved Snit’s Revenge and The Awful Green Things from Outer Space by Tom Wham.

3. On the matter of Appendix N, who were your father's favorite authors? He wrote a novel set in Pellucidar, so he was clearly a fan of Burroughs. Do you recall others whom he liked?

I believe his favorite was Lovecraft, but he didn’t talk about favorites very much. His collection was very similar to Gygax’s, I imagine. Dad had an almost complete set of Clark Ashton Smith stories published by Arkham House. He had a large collection of ghost stories and adventure stories as well as a lot of science fiction. He had a complete collection of Robert E Howard in paperback, most of Burroughs, Andre Norton, and many others. Another author he collected who didn’t make it on to Appendix N was William Hope Hodgson, a favorite of Lovecraft’s. He began collecting Weird Tales and other pulp magazines in high school. He also had a small collection of Big Little Books and a huge collection of mostly Marvel comic books.

4. What do you recall about that first dungeon adventure with your friends?

Dad had most of the visual aids he would use for dungeon mastering prepared for our first game. We all had minis and he had something to represent every monster we encountered. He drew the corridors around our figures in grease pencil on a clear sheet of acrylic. The dungeon was massive in scale; this was because it was home to a purple worm. We quickly learned to run away from some of our foes.  The adventure as I recall was very similar to the description in The Maze of Peril. The encounter with the weresharks was our second or third game; we could not have been more than second level. I still don’t know how we survived our encounter with those were creatures, but it was the most fun I have ever had playing a game.

5. Did any of the events or characters of Maze of Peril derive from your father's D&D campaign? Were Zereth or Boinger based on player characters?

Boinger and Zereth were my first characters. Boinger’s silly name came from his high Dexterity and Zereth’s dour personality grew out of his low Charisma. Both characters were refined by my father but I feel like I am their co-creator. Murry the mage was my friend Eric Frasier’s character.

6. You mentioned weresharks. You drew one of the early illustrations of this monster to accompany your father's description of them in Alarums & Excursions. What was the origin of this creature? 

Weresharks were Dad’s creation. They were based on Hawaiian folklore. The Polynesian shark man retains a shark mouth on his chest in the myth, which is not a detail my Dad kept. His monsters had arms and legs that allowed them to crawl upon the land and grab in addition to biting. He also gave them the immunity to conventional weapons.

7. At what point did your father decide to undertake the writing of a Basic Set for D&D? Was it on his own initiative or was he approached by TSR to do it?

It was fairly soon into his experience as a dungeon master that he mentioned his idea for a “Beginner’s Guide to Dungeon’s and Dragons." I’m not going to say what year, because I don’t trust myself with dates. I believe he wrote them a letter and I think Gygax called him back. They arranged over the phone that Dad would write the rules for free and he would receive TSR products for life as payment. I do remember talking with him about a Beginner’s Guide and agreeing it was a good idea, but I didn’t think there would be much market for it. As we know, I was wrong by over a million copies.

8. The Basic Set has a number of distinctive features, such as the ease with which magic-users can create scrolls and the use of the Dexterity score to determine initiative in combat. Were these rules your father used in his own games?

I don’t recall anyone using the scroll writing option, though I would certainly encourage it among first and second levelers playing Basic.

The Dexterity for initiative order was something  we used even before Dad wrote the Basic rules.  He may have adapted it from rules on spell casting initiative from either Original D&D or Warlock or thought it up on his own. I remember liking that rule as a teen because both Boinger and Zereth had the highest dexterities in our group. Nowadays, I have every one role a D6 for initiative and use Dexterity as a tie breaker. I do this to keep the players from feeling bitter about their low Dex. I don’t think it made it into the rules, but each round had magic, missiles, and melee in that order.

Speaking of Dad’s gaming style: he did use a 4-sided die for damage from daggers and missiles. I wish he had added that rule, but I think he was trying to be as faithful to the original rules as possible.  He also had a rule I liked where if your character was killed, they were given a dying blow.

9. After the Basic Set, did your father continue to write roleplaying game materials? Other than books like his 1981 Fantasy Role Playing Games or "Confessions of a Dungeon Master," he doesn't seem to have written anything more relating to the hobby. Is this correct or am I overlooking something?

I think “Confessions of a Dungeon Master,” the article he wrote for Psychology Today may have been as important as the Basic Set. It was not only a very early defense of the hobby at I time it was under attack, it also anticipated its acceptance as a beneficial activity.  

He did a chapter on the Cthulhu Mythos with Rob Kuntz for Deities & Demigods in 1980. He wrote four “Boinger and Zereth” stories for the Dragon magazine; three of which were published. He followed them with the novel, The Maze of Peril, which unfortunately did not find a major publisher. It came out in 1986 from Space and Time. He wrote a few more articles and letters all of which are chronicled in Tales of Peril in Zach Howard’s excellent bibliography. I think he approached Gary Gygax to write a forward to Maze of Peril and was ignored, though that may be a false memory. We were both bitter about the rejection of the story “Witch Doctor” by Dragon. He was also commissioned at this time to write a Conan novel by L. Sprague De Camp. That unpublished novel as well as a posthumous collaboration with John Coleman Burroughs were what occupied him till the end of his life. Since some of Dad's D&D fans are also fans of his pulp writing, I want to say it seems likely that Red Axe of Pellucidar and Danton Doring will be published. The fate of the Conan Story is less sunny.

10. Did your father continue to play D&D and other RPGs for the rest of his life? For that matter, do you still roleplay?

My father spent a few interesting years in the 80’s in Shiprock, New Mexico raising his daughter. He did not get a D&D group together again. Eventually, his son would be old enough to play Warhammer with him. I played a few games with Dad and my younger brother on my visits, like my superhero game and Call of Cthulhu. He continued to collect and paint miniatures for most of his life along with his other collecting hobbies.

I befriended a new group of players who played the Warlock rules for a while. We also invented a superhero game and a Road Warrior inspired game. When I lost touch with them, I briefly started a Call of Cthulhu campaign. Although I enjoy playing with my wife, I have yet to find a group of players, much less a DM that could replace my original group. I have come very close to my initial player joy at the North Texas RPG con. I love playing with both the new and the original members of the OSR and also talking to them on podcasts. Recently, I have been playing in a Zoom game with my childhood friend Eric Frasier. I run a Basic game currently with teens from the Boys and Girls Club.

NOTE: Tales of Peril: The Complete Boinger and Zereth Stories of John Eric Holmes is available from Black Blade Publishing. Instructions for ordering a copy are available here.


  1. "The Dexterity for initiative order was something we used even before Dad wrote the Basic rules."

    There are no initiative rules in the 1974 D&D boxed set, nor in the GREYHAWK supplement, nor in the BLACKMOOR supplement. I think using dexterity scores to determine the order in which creatures act is a good, common sense ruling.

    1. Chris is referring to the description of Dexterity in Vol 1, which says it will determine who gets off a spell or missile first, which is a rudimentary initiative system. Holmes included this in the description of Dexterity in Basic, and even added combat, and may be why he included the Dex-based initiative in Basic.

  2. I am saddened that someone who so obviously loved the game was not able to put together a group, and stopped playing.

    Was it due to lack of interest in the area? Did he become estranged from the game with the new edition? It is just, such a downer to know that he stopped playing D&D...

  3. I should also note that the Tales of Peril collection from Black Blade is simply amazing. I am not normally a fan of GameFic, finding most of it tedious, but Holmes' work is unabashedly and joyfully based in the play of the game, which makes it refreshing, as most GameFic almost seems ashamed of its origins (as though there were something to be ashamed of). It might help that Holmes was steeped in classical Sword & Sorcery rather than High Fantasy (Boinger and Zereth may have been hobbit and elf, but they would have been more at home in Hyboria than Middle-earth).

  4. Great interview! So happy to see the return of Grognardia!

  5. Great interview!! As with others, glad to see you back!

  6. Nice interview. Dig the rule of 1d4 damage for daggers and missile weapons in a Holmes game...helps with the "dagger dominance" that would threaten to take over a RAW game.

  7. Thanks for the very enjoyable interview. The Holmes Basic Set is my favorite no question.

  8. Holmes D&D, and more specifically the gaming attitude of Dr J. Eric Holmes himself, is what got me back into D&D after decades of exclusively playing percentile skill-system games. And, incidentally, is why I ended up writing BLUEHOLME™. His welcoming, open-to-anything approach and sheer joyous enthusiasm is still infectious today. And it's great to have Chris around to regale us with more details of those days.

    Welcome back, Grognardia!

  9. Good interview. The monsters of CoC can be found in Vol II No. 6. Its very well hidden and not mentioned on the cover or the index inside. Its the Sorcerers scroll article. Its also the flavor text used for the Deities and Demigods book.

  10. Missed your words. Welcome back. A voice of worth.

  11. Thank you all for your kind and interesting comments. James Mishler inspired me to contact my young brother who told me Dad ran he and his friend through Keep of the Borderlands; they also played Warhammer and Space Marines. So he did keep gaming.