Showing posts sorted by relevance for query holmes basic. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query holmes basic. Sort by date Show all posts

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Basic Set at 40

Gamers of a Certain Age all know about their first Basic Set.  For some, it was light maroon with a red book.  For many it was a red box with red books.  But some of us had a different experience.  The box was blue(ish) and had a dragon on the cover, the book was blue and it changed gaming forever.

On July 22, 1977 the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set was shown at Origins Game Fair and it changed the face of RPGs.  Prior to this people learned to play from others that had been playing.  The John Eric Holmes edited Basic Set gave brand new players with no prior experience in either RPGs (which really meant D&D) or in wargames.  It gave us the Moldvay Basic set and the  Frank Mentzer Basic set. But more importantly, it opened the world of D&D to others.

Dr. Holmes took on the massive task of collecting what was then OD&D, edited it and reorganized it into a game that made sense to new players.  There is some debate as to whether this was designed as a stand alone game line (which it would become) or as an introduction to Advanced D&D (which it reads like).

A lot of blogs will talk about the history of the Holmes Basic Edition. A great post can be found over at +Wayne Rossi's Semper Initiativus Unum, Basic D&D at 40  and pretty much the entire Zenopus Archive blog by +Zach H.

My experiences with Holmes though are a little different.

My gaming began in 1979, before the Moldvay set, but after Holmes.  I had read the Monster Manual and I had a copy, badly xeroxed, of the Holmes Basic set.   Like many, my "first" D&D was a combination of Basic and Advanced. Still today that is the same experience I look for in D&D.

I will be honest, it took me a while to get the game down.  With Holmes D&D I always felt like there was something I was missing. I only learned later of the "Little Brown Books" and how "Basic" actually came about.  I also did not have a full copy.

I would later get my hands on a copy of Holmes to read in full.  It was an eye opening experience to be sure. I had been playing Moldvay Basic for a while and moving over to AD&D proper.  Holmes felt like a Rosetta Stone to me.  A product that could crossover between these two games.
When I got a hold of a copy of my own much later I would use it for 1st level characters with my adventure of choice, B1 In Search of the Unknown, before moving over to AD&D.

I became a fan of J. Eric Holmes work and even stumbled on vague references for a Witch class!

I had found some alternate evolution of D&D, one where Basic lead to Advanced and not to Expert. Where you played a magic-user in one and a wizard, illusionist or witch in the other.
It should come as no surprise then that my own witch class is heavily influenced by my time playing using the Holmes and Moldvay rule sets.

Re-reading my Holmes set over the weekend made me think about how much fun a box set really is.  The next time I start up an AD&D game, I'll be starting with Holmes.

I also feel the need to mention that along with Holmes the Traveller "Little Black Books" also celebrated 40 years.

Safe journeys to you Free Trader Beowulf. Hope you found help.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Enduring Appeal of Holmes Basic & B1

Last week I talked a bit about Holmes Basic in regards to another game TSR put out in 1977, Warlocks & Warriors.  This led to a few more discussions online and some more reflection on my part.  It got me thinking about how much gamers of a certain age keep going back to Holmes.

I mean I get it, really.  There is a simplicity with Holmes that has appeal. This is not the strange mix that is OD&D or the complex rules for everything as AD&D.  It sits neatly in the middle and has a rule book that might be one of the clearest that 70s D&D has to offer.  It paved the way for Moldvay and Mentzer Basics, but it stands pretty well on it's own.

Holmes Basic and the Monster Manual

Once upon a time in the years between the Bicentennial and the dawn of the 80s was a time when the only Star Wars was "Star Wars" and home computers were just getting started there was D&D variant that I personally think a lot of people played.

For me that year was 1979.  The D&D was Holmes Basic and the Advanced D&D Monster Manual.  I, like many others, didn't care that "D&D" and "AD&D" were supposed to be different games. In fact I don't think I even knew until I got my Expert Set much later.  I mean yeah there were articles in Dragon about it, but I never saw those till much, much later.  Even then I don't think I cared.

But none of that mattered really.  Holmes Basic was likely set up as the gateway to AD&D and not really it's own line yet.  As has been discussed by others, most notably Zenopus Archives ("The Monster Manual is a Holmes Supplement." go read it), that the Monster Manual draws on Holmes for quite a lot of detail.  In particular it uses the "5" point alignment system of Holmes rather than the "9" point one of AD&D.  For example there are no Neutral Good, Neutral Evil, Lawful Neutral, or Chaotic Neutral monsters in it.  Those all don't appear until the adventures (GDQ series for example) and the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II.

It also doesn't hurt that there are artistic similarities between these two books, not just their respective covers.

This was the central core of what was "D&D" for me.  

Looking over at the publication dates of various publications from TSR prior to 1982 you see there is a world's worth of playing here. Again, h/t to Zenopus Archives for this. Even prior to 1980 is full of great material.

Holmes Basic, the Monster Manual, and Eldritch Witchery give me so much potential. 

Warlocks & Warriors & Witches

Something dawned on me while reading some of the replies to my Warlocks & Warrior post.  What if the eponymous Warlock and Warrior were none other than Zelligar the Unknown and Rogahn the Fearless from adventure B1 In Search of the Unknown respectively.  It fits with the covers to be sure.

So if the Warlock is Zelligar and the Warrior is Rogahn, who is the Princess?  Well, if you spend any time here at all then you know who she is. She is Marissia (yes I am sticking with the wrong spelling). 

In my running of B1 Marissia is the daughter of Zelligar and one of the first witches in my games.  While there is a Melissa described in the adventure, I was really set on the name Marissia. 

From Melissa's room (key XXIV Mistress' Chamber) 

Melissa's room
From Roghan's room (key XXV Roghan's Chamber)

Melissa text from module B1

Melissa/Marissia, again I was 10.

So how about this.  "Warlocks & Warriors" is a game played in my D&D worlds that is an homage to the time when the King offered the famed adventures Zelligar and Rogahn the hand of his beautiful young daughter to whoever rescues her first.  It doesn't matter who won because the daughter Marissia was having none of that. She decides to go with the much older Zelligar who adopts her as his own daughter and trains her to be a witch. She then also becomes the lover of Rogahn.  Sometime later the former allies Zelligar and Rogahn turn on each other.  That is the cover of the W&W game and why "Melissa/Marissia" is looking on in cool detachment. Their falling out with each other is what leads to their stronghold, the Caverns of Quasqueton, to lie in ruins.  Again, turning to Zenopus Archives, there is a good place to put B1 on the W&W wilderness map. 

This slight revision still fits with my original idea that Marissia/Melissa is Zelligar's daughter and Rogahn's lover.  While in 1977 having a blonde on your cover was no great stretch, she does have a similarity to all the versions of Marissia I have done or thought of over the years.

It works since "Milissa Wilcox" premiered on Scooby-Doo with a Leviathan Cross in 1978. The ghost had green hair, but the person behind it was blonde. That episode and Scooby-Doo, The Phantom of the Country Music Hall would have certainly been on my mind in 1979.  This is the strange alchemy that fueled my earliest D&D adventures and is still called a "Scooby-Doo Adventure" by my wife.

Yeah, a load of coincidence, and my former Advanced Regression Prof is likely shaking his head at me now.  But it works for this. 

The point is there is a lot packed into all of Holmes' Basic set and I know we didn't know what treasure we had back then.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: Mazes & Perils (2012), Part 2

A while back I wrote a review for Mazes & Perils, a 2012 Holmes-Basic Retro-clone from Vincent Florio.

The 3rd printing/edition is now out (or rather it has been out for a bit) and I promised then I would re-review it.

This new version is cleaned up considerably and it does look like it has been rewritten.  It is still free and the idea here (I think) is to provide a means to play "D&D Basic" or provide a common ruleset to allow people to create Basic compatible works.  As a goal, that is a pretty solid one really.  At 61 pages it is also really tight.  It is also free.

I do want to address some of the issues that plagued the previous editions, but only as a means to talk about the improvements on this edition.
Like I said, the text has largely been rewritten.  It now reads less like someone with a copy of Holmes Basic on their lap, but instead someone that played Holmes Basic for years and scribbled what they could from memory.    The game now goes to 12th level, which is a good place to go to be honest.  Yes, it is only 3 more levels than the previous version, but those are three levels that really make a difference in terms of end game play.  Have a look of Adventurer Conquer King to see the same logic at work.

There are only the four basic classes (Cleric, Fighting Man, Magic-User, Thief) and the four basic races (Human, Elf, Dwarf Halfling).

I want to restate the things I did like about the previous versions.  Obviously the name of the game is a nod to John Eric Holmes' book "The Maze of Peril" and I can respect that. If you are going to do a Holmes' homage or pastiche then that is a perfect name really.  Clearly the author has done his research.

Others have complained about the art.  I rather like it to be honest.  The cover is very cool and the interior is no worse than what you would have seen in Holmes.  In fact I was under the impression that the art was exactly what the author wanted.  "Good" or "Bad" is subjective. To me it is perfect for this book.

What does this book do? OR What is it good for?
Well if you do want a simple game to give you the feel of D&D Basic, then it works well.
If you want an EASY book to create your own "Basic Era" products then it is also a good choice.
If you want a game with lots of options, then maybe Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, ACKS or even D&D Basic/Expert will work better.

This newer version is cleaned up and certainly an improvement over the previous versions.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Character Creation Challenge: Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Edition

Monday of the first week of the year and it is back to the day job for me.  Thankfully I planned an easy (for me) one today.  To continue with the editions of Dungeons & Dragons we are now up to Basic D&D. 

Basic D&D Boxed set

The Game: Basic Dungeons & Dragons 

I have told the tale here many times on how I began with Holmes Basic, but the first D&D I ever owned was the Moldvay Basic Set.  I played Basic D&D, just "D&D" to me then,  but soon I and everyone else, were mixing it liberally with bits of AD&D.  Sometimes I think of the days when a Blue or Red D&D Basic book was used side by side with the AD&D Monster Manual and modules.

Spend any time here and you will know of my love for Basic D&D. So there is little more I can say here.

The Character: Áine nic Elatha

The witch class I am pairing with this is the one from Dragon Magazine #43 and using the guidelines set out by Tom Moldvay on what a witch should be. 

Dragon Magazine #43 was published in November 1980; the high point of Holmes Basic, the start of AD&D popularity, and one year before Moldvay Basic was released.  The class is overtly designed for AD&D, but as I mentioned we used Basic and Advanced interchangeably.  I suppose if I am being true to Basic I should drop the bonus spells per Intelligence the witch gains.

Given the time and this tantalizing promise, I can justify making it for a bastardized Basic/Advanced D&D.

The witch from Holmes

Áine daughter of Elatha is a human magic-user (Basic after all).  She is "the path not taken" for me.  My first "witch-like" character was Luna, a cleric that worshipped an unnamed moon goddess. While she would later morph into something else, I soon created other witch type characters, Áine is what that character could have been if I had chosen Magic-user rather than Cleric.

Áine nic Elatha
1st level Human Witch

STR: 10
INT: 17
WIS: 12
DEX: 11
CON: 12
CHA: 11

AC: 9
HP: 3

1st (1+3):  Change Self, Cure Wounds, Light, Sleep

Dagger, backpack, iron rations, water, holy water, darts (3), 50' rope, staff.

Holmes & Moldvay Basic sets

If you are doing this challenge as well please feel free to post on the Facebook group, I'd Rather Be Killing Monsters.

Also, this month's RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by Plastic Polyhedra. They are doing Characters, Stories, and Worlds, so that fits right in with everything we are posting this month!

Do check them out!

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review: Blueholme Journeymanne and Prentice Rules

It's been a year of Basic-era games for me and I want to talk about one of my newest favorites today.

Earlier this week I talked about the new D&D 5 Essentials Kit, I wanted to have another look at my own roots, the D&D Holmes Basic Set.  The Holmes set is one of the few versions of the D&D games you can't get from DriveThruRPG.  You can, however, get the Blueholme game from Michael Thomas and Dreamscape Design.

Blueholme comes in two different versions, the introductory Prentice Rules, and the full Journeymanne Rules. I will cover both here.  In this case, I am reviewing both the print books from Lulu and the PDF versions from DriveThruRPG.

Blueholme Journeymanne Rules
118 pages, full-color covers, b/w interiors. $9.99.

Blueholme is a retro-clone / what-if of the first Basic Set edited by John Eric Holmes.  Sometimes called "Blue Box Basic" or "Blue Book Basic".   At 118 pages it is a complete game.  If that sounds light, then you are right!  Blueholme is a "rules" light old-school game much in the same way that Holmes was.  Don't let it's light-weight dissuade you.  This is a feature, not a bug.
On the surface, the Blueholme Journeymanne Rules (BJR) looks like any other retro-clone in the OSR.  Once you dig into it you will see the differences are from the source materials.

Foreward.  We start with a foreward (not forward) from Chris Holmes, the son of John Eric Holmes and the reason why there was a Holmes Basic set to begin with.  It gives these rules a bit of gravitas if you ask me.

Part 1: Introduction covers what you should expect to see in this book and the general tone of the book. Like everything else it is short, sweet and to the point.

Part 2: Characters deals with character creation.  All game developers should have a look at these first two pages to see how the economy of words pays off.  In the first two pages, we cover all the steps in creation.  Rolling stats (3d6 in order), choosing a species (I prefer this over "race"), class, and everything else.  The six ability scores are covered and what they do.  SURPRISE they do much less here than in other OSR games.  Essentially these are the means to get a bonus when leveling.  Eg. Strength provides no bonuses in combat. Constitution does aid in hp it points, Intelligence still helps in learning languages. But that is about it really.  Only Dexterity helps to hit and then only + or - 1. Dexterity is central to combat, but more on that later.
For species, there is nothing specific listed outside of humans.  For anything else have a look in the Monster section and pick something! Want an elf, dwarf or orc? Go ahead! Goblin? Yes! Dragon? sure, work it out with your GM. Black Pudding? it out with your GM.
It is very much the way the original D&D and Holmes D&D games worked.
Classes are the basic four; Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, and Thief.  Fighters do not get more attacks as they level up, but can cause more damage.  There are rules on Combination Classes or what we also call Multiclassing.  If your base creature type has more HD then there is a table of adjustments.
Alignment is broken down to just five, Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, True Neutral, Chaotic Evil and Lawful Evil.
Coin and Equipment is next. Note that all weapons do 1d6 points of damage per hit as per the OD&D and Holmes BD&D rules.

Part 3: Spells covers all the spells that can be cast by Clerics (1 to 7 spell level) and Magic-Users (1 to 9 spell levels). These are not huge lists and some spells are different than other books representations of them.  Make sure you read before you assume a spell does what you think it does.

Part 4: Adventures covers just that, what the characters do and where they do it. This section is very reminiscent of the similar sections in both Holmes and Moldvay Basic.  The breadth of the information is wide, but the depth is low since it depends on the Game Master to make calls on what is happening in certain situations.

Part 5: Encounters would be called Combat in other books, but the name change fits.  We start with lots of tables of monster encounters at various levels and various locales. Combat, damage, and healing are also covered.  The initiative is determined by Dexterity score. If there is a tie then a 1d6 is rolled with highest going first. AC is descending with an AC of 9 meaning unarmored.
We get tables of attack matrices and saving throws too.

Part 6: Creatures deals with all the creatures you can encounter as friend or foes.  There are plenty here and brevity is the key.  For example, Demon gets a single entry and some tables to determine what it looks like. You can also choose your character specifies from these entries.  All the usual suspects are here. I in particular like the "pumpkin-headed" bugbear; a nod to the OD&D rules. There are a lot of Lovecraftian monsters here as well. They are the ones credited for creating the vast "Underground" where the adventurers find their fortunes. There are also plenty of "Appendix N" style creatures like intelligent apes and monsters out of Pellucidar and of course dragons and dinosaurs and undead.

Part 7: Treasure has both individual and hoard types with plenty of magic, and cursed items.

Part 8: Campaigns is a guide for Game Masters.
We end with a character sheet and a solid index.
The PDF is bookmarked, but the Table of Contents and Index are not hyperlinked (minor thing really).

The book is well laid out and easy to read. The art is all new and works fantastic with the book. Solid old-school feel to it., if slightly better than what we actually had back then.  It reminded me more of Moldvay era art than Holmes, but that is fine really.

Blueholme Prentice Rules
63 pages, mono-color covers, b/w interiors. Pay What You Want.

The Blueholme Prentice Rules came out first as a preview of the Journeymanne rules.
These rules cover the basic rules as the Journeymanne rules, save only to level 3.  In this respect it is actually closer to the Holmes set than the maine (manne?) rules.

In character creation, the choices of Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling are given. The same basic four classes of Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, and Thief are here.

From here the Prentice rules parallel the Journeymanne rules, there is just less of them.  This is a truly Basic set of rules with everything to get you started for the price of dice.

The Prentice Rules has the same cover art, albeit in a monochrome format (not unlike Holmes) and features Public Domain art inside from Henry J. Ford. Now personally I LOVE the art. These old images from old fairy tales really sets the mood for me and gives this game a different feel.

Bluehlome Prentice Rules are a perfect solution for someone wanting to get into an Old School game and does not know where to start or what to do, and maybe not spend a lot of money upfront.  For a PWYW PDF and print copies under $6, it has replaced Basic Fantasy as my OSR game of choice to hand out to people I want to introduce to old-school play.

Additionally, there are some full-color character sheets and an introductory adventure.

Blueholme is a great addition to the vast and growing library of OSR games.  It might be one of my favorites, to be honest.

You can find Dreamscape Design on the web at:

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review: D&D Expert Set

December of 1979 was the time I was first introduced to Dungeon & Dragons via the Holmes Basic edition and the AD&D Monster Manual.  It was 1980 though that I got my hands on the Moldvay Basic Set and my love affair with B/X D&D.  But that is only the first half of the story.  The second half, the X of  B/X, was the Cook/Marsh Expert Set. 

D&D Expert Set
I am not exactly sure when I got the D&D Expert set.  I do know it was sometime after I had the Basic Set.  I know this because I have very distinct memories of going through the Expert book and just marveling at everything inside.  Just everything from the classes to all the new monsters.  The Moldvay Basic Set was the high mark for me at the time for what an RPG should be.  The Expert set lived up to that set and then blew me away.  That is getting ahead of my narrative.

For this review, I am going to look at the original boxed set, the mini boxed set from Twenty First Century Games S.r.i., and the newer PDF from DriveThruRPG.

On the heels of the Basic Set edited by Tom Moldvay, we have the first Expert Set edited by David "Zeb" Cook with Steve Marsh.  So we often call this the Cook/Marsh Expert set to distinguish it from the Frank Mentzer Expert Set.   This Moldvay/Cook/Marsh set of rules is often called B/X to separate it from the Mentzer BECMI versions.

The Expert Set came in a boxed set featuring cover art by Erol Otus. The art includes the art from the Basic Set; a wizard scries the female wizard and male warrior fighting the dragon.   It remains one of my favorite pieces of gaming art ever.  In fact, it is the current background for my phone.   Included in the boxed set was one of the greatest sandbox adventures ever, X1 Ilse of Dread and a set of 6 polyhedral dice; d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 and a crayon. Note the PDF does not include dice (obviously).

The Expert book features the same cover art on a predominantly blue cover. The book is 64 pages of black & white art.  The cover is full cover and the interior covers are blue ink and feature the table of contents (front) and index (back).  The art features some of the Big Names of 1980s D&D art. Jeff Dee,  Wade Hampton, David S. LaForce,  Erol Otus, James Roslof, and Bill Willingham.  Some so iconic that they STILL define certain elements of the game for me.  Jeff Dee's halflingsDavid LaForce's giants, and Bill Willingham's vampire are to this very day the first thing I think of when any of these creatures are mentioned.

While we were promised "new classes" both in the Holmes Basic book and later by Gygax himself in the pages of Dragon magazine, we stick with same seven classes; four human (Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, Thief) and three demi-human (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling).  While I had not really thought about the new classes when I got my Expert set, I was a little disappointed that halflings and dwarves didn't get more than they did.  BUT if that was the case I soon got over it since there was SO much more for the Cleric and Magic-users.

Part 1: Introduction. This book begins with some tables from the Basic game. Also we get some guidelines on how this book should be used and what to do if you have an earlier (Holmes edition) of D&D Basic.  Here we also note that the page numbers are X# compared to the B# number.  The idea here was for you to be able to cut up your Basic and Expert books and put them together in a three-ring binder.  Eventually, I did do this, but not with my actual books, but rather with the printouts from the DriveThru PDFs.

Part 2: Player Character Information. This deals with all the classes.  I thought, at the time, that the organization of this section was a vast improvement over the same section in the Basic Book.  Where Basic D&D went from 1st to 3rd level, this book continues on to 14th level for human classes and various levels for the demi-human classes.   Additionally, thief abilities extend to 14th level as does Clerical turning Undead and new, more powerful spells; 5th level for clerics and 6th level for Magic-users.  That was unheard of levels of magic for me.

Part 3: Spells. This section got about 90% of my attention back then.  New detail is given on Reversed spells for both Clerical and Magic-user/Elf spells.  Eight pages of new spells including the amazing Disintegrate spell, which was one of the spells outlawed in many of my local game groups back then.

Part 4: The Adventure.  Not only does this section open up the world of adventuring to the entire wilderness and beyond the dungeon, it gives us some of my favorite Erol Otus art ever. The Alchemist on page X21 defined what an alchemist needed to look like for me.

Part 5: The Encounter covers combat and includes morale, saving throws, and variable weapon damage. This also has all the necessary combat tables.

Part 6: Monsters. Ah. Now here are the pages of my memories!  I have mentioned before how much I love the Monster Manual for AD&D and how it was my monster tome for my time playing Holmes Basic.  But this.  This one was part of my new favorite rules and that made all the difference to me. The mundane rubbed elbows (or knees, or whatever) with the magical and the malevolent.  To this day there are still monsters here that I have not seen the likes of elsewhere. Well yes, I have, but you have to dig for some of them.  But let's be honest, when was the last time you pulled a Devil Swine out on your players? Some versions of monsters here I still prefer over their AD&D Monster Manual counterparts. Giants and Vampires as I have mentioned.

Part 7: Treasure follows.  While D&D lacked the infamous vorpal sword (for now), it made up for it by having better rules in my mind for Intelligent swords.

Part 8: Dungeon Master Information, is what it says on the tin.  We get rules for making ability "saving throws" and spell magic item creation rules.   What I had the most fun with were the castle and stronghold cost rules.  This chapter is chock full of goodness.  Handling players, NPCs, even the first bit of what was known as the "Known World" which later became Mystara.  To this day seeing the "haunted keep" fills me with ideas.

Part 9: Special Adventures this section covers waterborne adventures. 

This book is so full of great stuff and even though we were promised a "Companion" edition that would go to 36th level (unheard of!) there were still plenty of adventures to be had.
Let's be honest, 14 levels is a lot of levels even by today's standards.

The PDF of the Expert book includes the Ilse of Dread AND the Gateway to Adventure catalog.   All that for $4.99? That is a steal really.

The Twenty First Century Games S.r.i., mini boxed set is about 1/8 the size of the normal boxed set.  It came complete with a box, an Expert rule-book and mini copy of Ilse of Dread.  Twenty years ago it looked great! Today the font must have shrunk some because I find it really hard to read!

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

In Search of the Unknown / Keep on the Borderlands as the 1979 Campaign

I have been going over old notes for the past few months, re-reading some monsters I created back in the day, and wondering which ones might be good for the Basic Bestiary.  One, in particular, jumped back out at me, the Schreckengeist, which lead down a rabbit hole of notes I had collected on the adventure B1 In Search of the Unknown

The 1979 Campaign

This got me thinking about an entire campaign, or even mini-campaign, that includes B1 but also B2 Keep on the Borderlands.  These two adventures are designed to work with each other.  To do a campaign though I would need a slightly larger (but not much larger) sandbox/hex crawl.

A while back Eric Fabiaschi posted an idea on using Judges Guild 'Wilderlands of High Fantasy' & Gary Gygax's B2 'Keep on the Borderlands' As Old School Campaign.  There are links to a discussion on the Piazza and a map for "The Borderlands" for the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. Additionally, Zenopus Archives (home to all things Holmes) talked about the Warlocks & Warriors wilderness map as a hex crawl.

These have a lot of merits, to be honest, and that along with my ideas of a "1979 Campaign" have morphed into something "new" and interesting. 

Looking back over my post The Enduring Appeal of Holmes Basic & B1 I can't help but think there is something here worth exploring.  

The 1979 Campaign

The idea behind this is a campaign, likely only using Holmes Basic (so levels 1 to 3), the AD&D Monster Manual, and B1 In Search of the Unknown to create a hex crawl style adventure campaign.  At least that is the start. Over time the characters (strictly Holmes Basic ones) would move on and out to the Keep and the Caves of Chaos.

D&D 1979

The idea is to be 100% old school, though I am free to grab newer materials that expand on these areas the core will be D&D circa '79.

I suppose I could be accused of trying to chase some sort of high or feeling from my youth. And that would...not be entirely wrong. But in truth, there is no way I can recapture the feeling of 1979 any easier than I can recapture the feeling of yesterday's lunch. What I can do is try to set up something that helps me recall how it all was.

This would obviously be some sort of limited-run experiment. Holmes tops out at 3rd level.  

My current debate with myself is whether or not to include module T1 The Village of Hommlet.

There are plenty of good reasons to add it.

  1. It was released in 1979 (August 16–19, 1979 at Gen Con XII)
  2. It is a great introductory module for first-level characters.
  3. It was written by Gary so there is a certain veneer of authenticity about it.

The only reason I would not use it is because it is so deeply tied to the Temple of Elemental Evil notion. It is the starting point of the TAGDQ series for AD&D.  All the other adventures I am considering are pure Basic D&D.  While I am considering other adventures, they all tie into the B1/B2 areas of exploration.  T1 is a little different.

The Adventures

Supplemental Adventure Material

I could take all of this and put into my three-ring binder format. Hell. There is even enough room for Holmes basic in this!

If, and that is a big IF, it goes well I would even consider moving on and up. Either via Blueholme rules or take the B/X - OSE route.  In truth though I would rather keep this one light and tight as it were. Levels 1 to 3 with the goal of exploring the local wilderness (hex crawl style) and clearing out the local caves.

I also can't help but think of my Traveller Envy and the three board games I have covered here also released in 1979; Wizard's QuestMagic Realm, and Demons.  While my original goal was to mine these for ideas for my War of the Witch Queens, there is no reason why I can't also use them here.  

Wizard Quest has the players explore a wilderness area until they have collected enough treasure. In Demons the players are searching for treasure with the aid of various demons while avoiding local authorities. In Magic Realm...well I have not been able to play that one.  BUT I could incorporate the background as the past for this area. A bunch of wizards had a mighty battle here and the land is full of strange creatures and even stranger treasure.  All these wizards bringing in their bound creatures would also explain why the Caves are so full of them and so much magical treasure around. Maybe even Zelligar is the last of these great wizards.  It would also allow me to bring in weaker demons and devils from the monster manual. Though not too strong, these are only 1st to 3rd level characters.

It certainly would get me into the mood for all things 1979. Plus what is more 1979/early 80s for me than Traveller Envy? 

If I was really clever I'd collect the names of characters from people playing in 1979 and have them be some of the "named NPCs" for the background.

How about it? Were you playing in 1979? If so drop your character's name and class below!

Notes / References

Monday, March 22, 2021

Monstrous Mondays: Detailing a "Universal" Stat-block

It is a Monstrous Monday, but since I am going to be spending all of April dedicated to monsters I wanted to take this one to discuss something I am working on and working out for April.   That is what form should my stat block take?

If you have followed my Monstrous Mondays over the years you may have seen the evolution of my monster stat blocks.  There have been variances depending on which system I am favoring at that time, but I had not settled on one until the last year or so.  After working with it for a while I am now looking to make some minor tweaks to it. 

But before I do that I want to do some baselines and see what has been used in the past and by other OSR designers.  Keep in mind that each stat block represented below was designed with that system in mind, I am not making any claims for cross-system use in these blocks, but I do hope to find something like that for my own.

Since I am going to be comparing several versions of the D&D game and various clones, I am going to need to pick a monster that is present in each one.   

I can think of no better creature than the humble orc.

Actually, I have other reasons for that as well.  Among the reasons, they are the archetypical D&D/Fantasy monster.  Goblins would have worked too.

Hang on, this is going to be a long one.

Basic Stat Blocks

Let's look at the various stat blocks among what I call Basic Era Compatible games.  I am not going to put up images of the entire entry.

Original Edition

Like much of OD&D it is simple enough IF you know where to go digging for all the data.  But this one leaves some details to be desired.  The emphasis on what sort of things orcs do in a wargame are nice.

Holmes Basic 

Here we get to what can be considered the first of the true stat blocks. We can get the basic information we need at a glance. Movement, HD, AC, Treasure, Alignment, Attacks, and damage.  There is more, but for now, let's consider this the absolute minimum. 

Moldvay Basic B/X

Here the stat block expands to take on features from the new Basic game. Largely they are the same. A slight change in AC and Move is different.  We now also have a No. Appearing category and Morale. Also, there is more description here. Moldvay is not assuming that readers already know what an orc is. 

Mentzer Basic / BECMI

As expected this one is very much like Moldvay.  We do have variance in Morale now based on leaders and Treasure Type is divided into individuals and hordes. The most useful though, and this is the influence from later in AD&D, we get a line for XP value.  It's a straight number as opposed to a variable one based on hp (like in AD&D's later books).

Rules Cyclopedia/ RC

The Rules Cyclopedia follows the same evolution from Holmes as we see in Moldvay to Mentzer.  For the number appearing, we get the actual dice mechanic, not the range, and there is an added line of Monster Type.  Now all of these are largely compatible with the others and you can see how each one is describing the same creature.  Also, all the blocks are very much the same.

Let's make things a little more Advanced.

Advanced Stat Blocks

Essentially this includes AD&D 1st Ed and AD&D 2nd, but I am going to include Editions 3 to 5 for completeness sake. I want to map some of the later editions' additions.

First Edition AD&D

Now here are few more changes.  To get the right feel for the evolution here we need to go back to Holmes Basic.  What is new?  Well we get Frequency, Move is now map-based, Treasure Types lair and individuals, special attacks and defenses (even when they are nil), Magic Resistance (in a percentage), Intelligence (not a score, but a nominal rank), Size, and Psionic ability.  

A few notes.  Orcs switch over from Holmes Chaotic Evil to Lawful Evil. The art makes their pig-like features more prominent.  These are largely the same creatures from Holmes and even other Basic games, but differences are beginning to creep in.   Everything from the Basic stat block is here except for Morale (not used) and Save As (there is a chart).

Second Edition AD&D

OK.  AD&D 2nd Ed was the king of robust monster write-ups.  I loved the one full page per monster format even though I admit there was often a lot of fluff added.  This stat block adds a lot more information.  We are still talking about the same creature and the Holmes stat block is still visible here.  Morale is back, though based on a d20 rather than d12/2d6. Still Lawful Evil.  This block includes the Orog or half-orc/half-ogre creature.  Do we know more about the orc than before? A little.  A lot more in the descriptions.

While later AD&D 1 blocks included calculations, AD&D 2 made them standard from the start.

I want to take the next editions of D&D largely as a whole even though the compatibility between the newer editions (of the last 20 years) is less than the editions that came before them.

Post-2000 D&D: 3rd, 4th, and 5th Editions

Third Edition D&D

Third edition had a noble goal. Monsters should be built just like characters. It was good. Yes, it made creating high-level monsters more difficult but it all held together mechanically.  3e also introduced some new ideas in a stat block that I believe are worth looking into.

Things are grouped together well. Something that Pathfinder would later improve on.  On our orc here we see a few things. AC is broken down into what is worn, what is natural, and what is due to dexterity.  What is the orc's dex?  Well that, and all their average abilities are listed here. Nice touch. Same with the saves.  Alignment gets a shift. Not just that the orc here is back to Chaotic Evil (ala Holmes) but also there is the qualifier Often.  Orcs by the way shifted to Chaotic because Barbarians can't be of Lawful alignment and that was their "Prefered" class.  Though by looking at the level and advancement an orc can start out in any class and move up.  So again this one harkens back to Holmes in terms of monsters as characters.  

As we move through the editions the more verbose the stat block gets.  In some ways this good and expected as the complexity of the game increased and more rules to cover more of the things DMs run into are needed.  The downside is how much of that information is needed in combat?  3e added skills and feats, so we need to know those.  Knowing the typical strength of an Orc is 17 is nice.  But we are a long way from the seven lines in Holmes.

The biggest addition here though is the notion of CR or Challenge Rating. This gave DMs an idea of how tough the monster was when setting them against an average party.  A CR 1/2 is easy for a party of 1st level characters.  It was also how XP is calculated. A CR 1/2 orc is worth 150 xp by itself to a party of 1st level characters. But to a party of 8th level characters it is only worth 100xp. To 9th level characters it is worth 0 XP unless there are a lot of them.  I liked this sliding scale and it made sense given the combat abilities of higher-level D&D 3 characters.

Fourth Edition D&D

Building monsters like characters is a great idea on paper, but in practice, we get some very, very complicated monsters at a high level.  Quick. How many feats does an Adult Gold Dragon have?  4e attempted to fix that issue some. 

Where previous editions (2nd is the best example here) gave us additional lines for different types of orcs or gave us the tools to advance them (3rd edition), 4th edition gave us different stat blocks that could get more detailed as needed. 

Monsters are built less like characters, but still use some of the same principles.  The stat blocks are tighter than 1st through 3rd, but you need a lot more of them.  For example, in the 4e Monster Manual, there are seven orc stat blocks to cover the different sorts of orcs.  

Like 2nd Ed, the stat blocks and monster descriptions are "modular."  That is that the entry for most monsters are limited to one full page.  In fact all of D&D 4 is like that. One could conceivably make D&D 4 so modular it is an à la carte D&D.  I could assemble my own monster book with entries from the three monster manuals plus any adventure or other source book.  As a game designer, it is appealing.

What is new here though?  Well, 4e introduces the idea of "unaligned" alignment.  It's like "True Neutral" but more of a "you do you and I'll do me and we will be fine" and less of "the balance must be preserved."  There is also a line for languages known which is a good addition in my mind.  Though I notice that orcs no longer speak "orc."  Well. Actually, they do, "orc" is just a corrupt form of "Giant" here, which in turn is a debased form of Primordial.

Fifth Edition D&D

In its goal to be all things to everyone 5th edition tries to strike a balance.  The stat blocks are robust enough to give you all the information you need, but significantly different versions of the monsters are separated off.

I can't help but think that D&D5 was looking over the shoulder of Pathfinder when organizing their blocks.  Basic combat "Defense" is at the top. What do I need to hit and how often do I need to hit it? Size and type appear right under the name as they have since 3e and a little bit of the Rules Cyclopedia. We get their typical abilities.  We get skill listings that are not just +0. Senses, Languages (oh look! "Orc" is back!) AND a combo CR and XP.  While not listed above, 5e retains the "unaligned" alignment.

Hitpoints are more important than HD here.  All their attacks and saves are already calculated and listed.  They do follow the same rules as do characters, but not slavishly so like 3e.  The war chief has a Gruumsh's Fury ability that you won't find in a character write-up.  I mean yeah they are similar to barbarians, but not exactly. 

Like 1st ed and 3rd ed these monster entries span pages.  While this messes with my sense of design, it does mean that we don't 300 pages where 250 pages will suffice. The unneeded padding and white space is gone.   

Judging solely by this it looks like Orcs are back to being a threat to 1st levels.  The 4e orc could mow through first-level characters.

That is the evolution of the D&D monster stat block over the first 40 years of D&D.  They say hindsight is 20/20 so what have the retro-clone designers done?

Retro Clones of the OSR

Here are a couple of stat blocks.

Starting with OSRIC it does exactly as we would expect.  It lays material out much like AD&D 1st ed with the knowledge that Level/XP will be useful in the block.  Orcs come out to an average of 15 XP this way; same as 1st and 2nd ed.  Movement is now done in terms relative to the creature, not map movement.  For various reasons, there is no treasure type listed.  Treasure is spelled out in the description. This does give the DM more flexibility.  

Labyrinth Lord comes very, close to OSRIC, but is more Basic in its presentation. The same information is given.  LL gets past the Treasure Type and goes with Horde Class, but there are translations out there.  Again when talking about hindsight; the XP value is included. Morale is back.

Basic Fantasy covers similar ground, but its 3rd Ed DNA shows through in AC. The block also leaves room for expansion as see here with N. Appearing.

I am posting more of the Old-School Essentials block to make a point here about design.  Gavin Norman at Necrotic Gnome took the idea of modularity and really went with it.  I can't say for certain he played D&D 4, but there are some ideas here that really call back to it.  OSE gives us the most compact basic stat block so far.  Like 5e all the defense and attack information is upfront.  Brief description.  Saves are detailed, morale is back and detailed. There are even XP values.  The text of the monster is bullet-pointed.  It is a model of efficiency really. We know nothing about languages or climate these creatures favor, but that is fine. It is mimicking the detail of the source game; Moldvay Basic.

Dark Dungeons, a Rules Cyclopedia clone, uses long columns for their monster entries, usually three to a page and filling a page.  So similar modularity as 4e and OSE.  In fact the stat blocks could be used with OSE with no issues. No surprise given the relationship of their spiritual ancestors; RC to Dark Dungeons and Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert to OSE.   Morale is presented a bit differently, but average hp is included along with the XP values.  Saves are listed out.  There is a habitat now included along with Type. 

Moving out to other games that don't specifically try to emulate any game in particular but the "D&D experience in general.

Adventurer, Conquerer, King System (ACKS) is largely based on Basic-era D&D and Moldvay Basic in particular, though it has some house rules.  Move is back to Basic (as was LL and OSE).  Percent in lair is lifted from AD&D style games.  The text descriptions match the world ACKS works in.  Notably these orcs seem to be a little harder to hit.

If ACKS is Basic moving towards Advanced, then Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperboria (AS&SH) is Advanced presented like Basic.   Again we see similar entries.  Saves are a single number (more on that in a bit), morale is present (like Basic) and XP (still 10) are listed.  Like ACKS, the orcs of AS&SH fit their world a little differently than a generic D&D world.   Here they are offspring of humans and dæmons. This also uses the 1st and 2nd ed (and really Basic) means of displaying variants; via a table.  3e leaves you to recalculate everything and 4e and 5e have separate sub-entries.

Moving out to even more different games.

Swords & Wizardry shares DNA with OSRIC but has become its own thing. While many will claim it emulates OD&D it is a really slimed-down version of AD&D to Basic-era levels. The stat block is more basic in its organization and content.  Alignment is a simple three-axis (like Basic), the move is "map relative" like AD&D and Challenge Level is from AD&D.  XP values are also AD&D derived.

The big thing that you should notice here is the advent of the single saving throw number.  AS&SH does this too, but S&W did it first.  It does simplify things to a large degree.  It does have a very simple layout.  The massive monster books for S&W; Monstrosities (544 pages) and Tomes of Horrors Complete (688 pages) are huge books. Both books expand the monster entries to fill a complete page in the same manner as 2nd Ed or 4th Ed.

There are a few more. Castles & Crusades and Adventures Dark & Deep are two more that also take our Orc to different places, but are still close enough to be familiar. 

Looking at all of these, knowing that each is needed for their own specific game, I need to figure out what is necessary for my own stat block, or even what is needed for a good "universal" stat block.  One that can be read and used for any "old school" version of *D&D or clone.  I also want to learn from what has come after that as well.

What seems to be central are HD, hp, AC, attacks.   Saves, XP, Treasure can all be derived.  Alignment can be figured out.  I am hoping to figure that all out during April.   In the meantime, lets use my obsessive-compulsive nature to have some fun with monsters!