Saturday, October 17, 2020

REVIEW: Tales of Peril

J. Eric Holmes has deservedly received a great deal of attention within the old school renaissance for his role as editor of the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. For many gamers of a certain age, myself included, that Basic Set was our introduction to both D&D and to the larger hobby of roleplaying. I feel I owe Dr Holmes a great debt, which is why I have regularly drawn attention to him and his large body of work (though not to the same extent as Zach Howard, whose excellent blog is a veritable shrine to all things Holmesian). 

In addition to roleplaying games, Holmes was a great fan of pulp fantasy, particularly the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact, he wrote an authorized continuation of the Pellucidar series, which was published just a year before the release of the Basic Set. A few years later, he would also pen a Buck Rogers novel from an outline by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. He was also contracted to write a Conan novel – Conan on the River of Doom – that unfortunately was never published. For our present purposes, though, it is Holmes's game-related fiction that's of most interest, since Black Blade Publishing has collected it all, along with many additional pieces of Holmesiana, in a single hardcover volume entitled Tales of Peril

Published in 2017, I have only now gotten around to reading it and I am very glad that I did. Capably edited by Allan T. Grohe Jr, Tales of Peril is subtitled "The Complete Boinger and Zereth Stories," after the two characters – a hobbit and an elf, respectively – who appear in most of them. As Chris Holmes recounted in my recent interview with him, the pair were his first D&D characters and the stories recount slightly fictionalized retellings of some of their adventures, the earliest of which appeared in Alarums & Excursions throughout 1976 and '77. Additional depictions of their exploits were published in the pages of Dragon, beginning in 1979. Eventually, Holmes wrote a short novel of Boinger and Zereth, which he called The Maze of Peril and that he hoped would be the first in a series of novels. That dream was never realized, making Maze the final appearance of this intrepid duo.

Until now, that is. Tales of Peril includes a "new" short story of Boinger and Zereth. I use scare quotes here because the story, while never published prior to its appearance in this volume, was written sometime after the publication of The Maze of Peril and represents a collaboration between Chris Holmes and his father. This story, "The Witch Doctor," is very much in the vein of the others that came before – a rambling fantasy romp that readers very much like a transcript of a fun D&D adventure played with a bunch of friends. To my mind, that's the real value of these collected stories: they're a written record of the fun, funny, and slightly incoherent "stories" that arose out of actual play in the early days of the hobby (and still do, if you're lucky). 

As I mentioned above, however, Tales of Peril, despite its subtitle, contains more than just Holmes's fiction. There is also the full text of the 1980 Psychology Today article, "Confessions of a Dungeon Master," in which Dr Holmes talks about his experiences refereeing the then-new game of Dungeons & Dragons. There are prefaces and an afterword by Chris Holmes, in which he talks about his father and provides context for the book's contents. Likewise, Eric Frasier, a childhood friend of Chris Holmes, reminisces about his time as Murray the Magic-User in Holmes's campaign. Reproductions of the character sheets for Boinger, Zereth, and Murray are likewise included, in addition to artwork by Chris Holmes, Ian Baggley, and Jim Roslof. Capping it all off is an extensive, annotated bibliography of Holmes's works, compiled by Zach Howard.

All in all, it's a terrific volume, especially if, like me, you started your journey into the hobby with the 1977 Basic Set. The fiction, both the short stories and The Maze of Peril, are charming evocations of the wild and woolly period in the history of D&D before the game had begun to solidify into the house style that would inform AD&D and, by extension, all subsequent editions of the game. The supplementary materials and anecdotes from Chris Holmes and Eric Frasier are just as valuable in this respect. They're valuable reminders of those days from the perspective of people who were there, rolling dice together, and enjoying the wide-open vistas of the imagination that this new form of entertainment was offering. I had a blast reading this book and I think others will too. 

1 comment:

  1. Agreed - "Tales of Peril" is a 5-star addition to any gamer's library.

    As a bit of a teaser - we might be seeing more of Dr. Holmes' unpublished works through ERB, Inc. in the not-to-distant future...