Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Holmes Rules: The Half-Orc

[sorry for the delay in getting this one might imagine, it gets busier 'round these parts the closer we get to the holiday proper. This represents the last of my "Holmes Rules" index of posts will go up tomorrow or Friday (depending on free time) for folks' convenience]

"What'd you say about
my mother?"
Half-Orcs -- are nearly as tall as humans, but tend to have a hunched, stooped posture and bowed legs. Their features are heavy and there is a definite "orc-ness" to them that makes others uncomfortable (-1 to reaction rolls). A half-orc character receives a +1 to both strength and constitution and a -2 to charisma; these adjustments may not take the character out of the normal 3-18 range. Half-orcs have the equivalent of infravision, and suffer no ill effects in sunlight (though they do not love it). Due to their human ancestry, half-orcs enjoy a good choice of classes in which to progress, including fighters (and the ranger subclass), clerics, as well as both thieves and assassins. Not all half-orcs are churlish and ill-mannered; player characters should generally be assumed to have been raised by humans and thus exhibit the full spectrum of human personality.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Holmes Rules: The Half-Elf

"You making fun of
my beard, or my ears?"
Half-Elves -- are nearly as tall as humans, and exhibit the same human range of skin color, but are slighter in build. Like elves, they have infravision and an increased ability to spot secret doors, and usually speak both Elvish and Common speech, in addition to any languages due to intelligence. Their mixed ancestry makes them natural diplomats and they are generally charming and well-liked by all who meet them (+1 to reaction rolls). While they cannot mix fighting and magic as elves, they have a good range of classes in which they may progress, being barred only from the paladin, illusionist, assassin, and monk subclasses. Despite their name, half-elves may have as little as 25% ancestry (from either side) and still possess the attributes of a "half-elf."

[the long awaited Holmesian half-elf. I've only got a couple more of these pre-scheduled posts...then I'll have to start writing again. If I can (holidays, ya' know?)]

Monday, November 23, 2015

Holmes Rules: The Bard

Bards -- some thieves of a less larcenous bent have found the life of a traveling minstrel more to their taste; the coin still spends (and is less dangerous to come by), and the open road satisfies their wanderlust. A thief must have a score of 9 or better in both charisma and intelligence to become a bard.

Bards can wear chain in addition to leather armor and unlike other thieves they roll 6-sided dice for hit points. Bards do not have the same skills as a normal thief, and gain no advantage for attacking from behind; however, they do have the same ability to read languages and magic scrolls as a thief (upon reaching 4th level). Their main talent is their music, and any creature that hears a bard's music has a chance of being mesmerized as indicated by the charm percentage on the table below. A successful roll indicates creatures must stand rapt, doing nothing but listen until the bard finishes playing or the creature is attacked. Members of the bard's party need not be affected, and individuals with hit dice or levels in excess of the bard receive a saving throw to resist. A bard may attempt to plant a suggestion in the minds of mesmerized creatures ("go to sleep," "follow me," "show us your treasure," etc.), but the target automatically receives a save to resist. A bard may attempt to use her charm a number of times per day equal to her level of experience.

Trippin' tunes.
The range of the bard's music is 60 feet, and it will automatically counteract the song effects of harpies and similar "sound attacks;" likewise, it will still the noise of shriekers. In most towns, a bard can earn D6 gold per day by busking in the street. In their travels, bards pick up all sorts of rumors, legends, and stories, and has a chance indicated by their lore percentage of knowing useful information about any locale, person, or object (like magic items) encountered. Bards also learn extra languages in addition to those known due to the character's intelligence. A bard may use any magic item available to thieves.

Lore Master
Master Bard

[EDIT: I have to say I am (again) very pleased with how this one turned out, especially with regard the class abilities. I don't think bards really need spells (aside from the magic of their music), though that might come as a disappointment to folks who've been playing bards since their 2nd and 3rd edition incarnations. I know that when I played my AD&D bard (waaaaaay back in the day), I almost never resorted to using its druid spells. One thing about going through the weird "fighter-thief" progression first: you learned how to adventure withOUT magic. By the time my character became a bard, I continued to use my fighting and thief skills (supplemented by my musical ability), and the druid-shtick was a serious afterthought. With this simplification (Doug Schwegman's original write-up in SR also had spells), I think it focuses the character, making it more in line with its "parent class," the thief. I even like the 12 level limit...but I'm finding it really difficult to make that work with my 1,000,000xp limit. I might need to expand it to thirteen]

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Big Twelve

You know, I almost forgot to mention a thunk I had.

Holmes (as adapted by me) has a total of four classes and seven subclasses. For the record, they look like this:


Obviously, basic symmetry demands an additional subclass to go under the Thief heading. 

I am very seriously considering an adaptation of the bard for the gig, though it will be a lot simpler (i.e. "Holmesian") than what you've seen in the past. I found a copy of The Strategic Review in which a suggested bard first appeared (penned by Doug Schwegman, February 1976). It is the clear precursor to Gygax's appendix class in the AD&D PHB and is a "hodgepodge" of Norse skald, Celtic bard, and southern European minstrel (the author describes it as such). Unlike the PHB version, there is no "class switching" involved in the class's actually looks quite a bit like the version I cobbled together for my B/X Companion and (later) developed for The Complete B/X Adventurer.

Anyway, as I said way back in my post on thieves and assassins, I think the bard is an easy subclass fit under the thief (despite being its own class in AD&D), and...well, if I'm going to do a half-orc, I might as well round out the class list to twelve.

Hey...six races (human, elf, dwarf, halfling, half-elf, half-orc) and twelve classes. There's some nice symmetry there, too. I'll take it as a (positive) sign.
: )

Saturday, November 21, 2015


And then I look at half-elves and I what the hell am I going to do with them?

As I mentioned way back when, I wanted to do a Holmesian write-up for half-elves the same way I did for the various subclasses mentioned in his Basic text. Unfortunately, while I can understand why such a player race might exist (and it provides interesting role-playing possibilities in elf-human relation scenarios), mechanically, it's kind of...meh.

At least, when you consider it in light of my decisions on demihuman classes, level limits, and the absence of multi-classing. I mean, here's what a half-elf gives you:

Infravision (as an elf)
Extra languages (as an elf)
Secret door spotting (as an elf)

Aaaaannd...that's it.

Now, in a game of OD&D or AD&D, there's some incentive to play a half-elf. Additional class options not available to elves (including the cleric, ranger, and druid). Additional multi-classing opportunities (which I'm not using). Higher levels to be gained in some classes...well, really only fighter and assassin (+1 level each). If one uses the optional bard class in 1E AD&D you also have a great incentive to be a half-elf (my long-running AD&D character was a half-elf bard).

I'll probably end up going "off-book" again when it comes to this hybrid species. Considering my current race-class restrictions:
  • All elves are combo fighter/mages (no, there are no "elven thieves")
  • Dwarves may be either fighters or thieves
  • Halflings may be either fighters or thieves
  • No demihuman may belong to a subclass
...the best mechanical incentive I can probably include is the loosening of class restrictions for half-elf characters. However (as usual), it has to make sense within the setting of the campaign.

Furthermore, if I decide to include half-orcs (a strong temptation) I need to apply some consistency to how a semi-human hybrid functions. If the half-elf's human nature gives him the ability to participate in human-restricted classes, the same should be true of half-orcs, right? But while the original PHB rules provided a bit of parity (similar levels and classes) there were some inconsistencies (cleric for both, yes; druid, no...and no ranger or magic-user options for the half-orc).

ALSO, I really dislike the idea of giving a character the ability to be a subclass but not the class. For example, I'm tempted to allow half-orc witches (that "earthy magic" thing) but half-orc magic-users? I guess I'm stereotyping the fantasy subhuman here, but I don't see half-orcs scribing scrolls like a Holmesian mage.

Less viable than a half-elf
What to do, what to do. Thing is, do hybrids get "the best" of both species? Should they? The typical Old School D&D response would be "no" to both these questions, but I'm not sure that's right. Certainly humans of mixed race have a tendency to be healthier (less chance of genetic duplication and defect). But we're talking about mixed species, here, not races within the same species. A mule is a good example: combining a horse with a donkey gives you an animal that is:

"more patient, sure-footed, hardy, and long-lived than horses, and...less obstinate, faster, and more intelligent than donkeys."

However, that's not to say they're as fast as a horse, nor as tough and easy to care for as a donkey. They aren't and they aren't. But what they are is their own thing...their own hybrid species.

Tolkien half-orcs were taller than (normally squat) orcs...which could simply mean they had better posture...and no fear of sunlight. Tolkien half-elves were required to choose whether to live as elves or humans, though those who chose humanity were still blessed with abnormally long lifespans (well, abnormal compared to a normal human). In Tolkien, half-orcs were inherently "bad" and half-elves inherently "good," unlike humans who might go over to either side...and until 3rd edition D&D, I never did see a half-orc of good alignment (probably because they were so often multi-class assassins, with an evil alignment restriction).

*sigh* Have I ever mentioned how little I like infravision?

All right, I'm going to have to chew on this for a bit...I'll try to get something written up tomorrow (either for one or both). Later.

[EDIT: while I did "write up something tomorrow" this post was written several days ago, as was its subsequent follow-up. I have half a dozen posts scheduled to roll out on the blog in anticipation of my writing restrictions while traveling. However, I am still looking for comments and feedback on these thoughts.]

Friday, November 20, 2015

One Million

Let's talk level limits. A common enough gripe of old school play style, generally with regard to demihumans...which is going to be the subject of this post.

[and, frankly, if you're going to gripe about assassins only going to level 15 or druids to level 14, I can't help you. Though, I suppose Gygax increased druids to 23 with the UA...because we need druids turning into fire elementals and stuff? Some stuff I just don't get...]

Holmes (my new "foundation" for all games D&D) has no level limits, of course. This is because the text of Holmes Basic only provides rules for characters up to 3rd level...and even the stingiest edition of Dungeons & Dragons (the Little Brown Books) allows the lowly hobbit to achieve 4th level. However, as I plan my Ten Year Campaign, I know that (as with multi-classing and which classes deminhumans can become) I'm going to need to make some hard decisions as to maximum levels

I might be in the minority with regard to level limits, but I like them. And it has nothing to do with game balance, or throwing human characters a bone, or modeling human ambition as their "advantage" over demihumans. me, level limits make sense based on the limitations inherent in the demihumans.

Take the halfling (hobbit) as an example. Originally, their maximum potential of fighter was 4th level. That's "hero level," four times greater than a 1st level fighter, but pretty small potatoes compared to the ranks of high level humans. But look at their limitations: limitations of upbringing, of temperament, of training (in hobbit communities). Limitations with regard to armor that can be worn and weapons that can be wielded. If I have a small frame, poor reach, bad leverage (in hand-to-hand) and an inability to wield (and thus practice) most of the large weapons available, how am I ever going to reach the potential in training for battle as a human?

Look at elves. If we consider them these stereotypical, daisy-eating vegetarians with a deep respect for life...and thus lacking a killer instinct...coupled with a love of frivolous star-gazing, woodland frolicking, and wine-drinking (the Tolkien model), PLUS a slight frame, shorter reach, less leverage, and the capacity to bruise like a peach...well, you can understand how they might be limited as well.

And the same holds true for dwarves, okay? Don't tell me these are the roughest, toughest warriors in the realm, whose "favored class" is fighter. Fighting in tunnels, hatred of goblins, doesn't provide you with comprehensive fighting skills. You can't even ride a damn horse (not that you have stables underground anyway). Your fighting education is lacking, my beardy little friends. You can still be PROUD warriors, but that doesn't make you SKILLED warriors.

Here's my take: adventuring classes are human scale. Yes, I've decided that (at least for a couple demihumans) race will not equal class, and whether due to their interaction with humans, or adventurous nature, multiple classes will be open to non-humans. However, being "human scale," only humans are able to express the full potential of the class. Even if we're talking about a world setting analogous to Tolkien's Middle Earth (where you have a history of elves like Fingolfin and Glorfindel taking down balrogs single-handedly), this isn't about elves being "diminished in the current age." It's about humans expressing the full potential of the adventuring class (though the class may have been pioneered by this "elder race"). Those heroes of an ancient age may have been hot stuff, but humans in the current setting can be even better.

Yet even for humans, there's a limit to what can be learned...a finite amount of skill that can be acquired. For my Holmes setting, the hard limit is about 14 for the four main classes (fighter, magic-user, cleric, thief), with lesser levels for subclasses. For all classes (and subclasses), hit dice stop accumulating at level 9, and only bonus HPs are gained thereafter; skills and spell acquisition cease at 14, and while saves continue to improve, combat skills stop at level 13 for fighters. This is the limits of the class, mind've learned all you can learn by the time you hit a certain level, and the only thing there is to gain is a little bump to HPs and (possibly) to saves. There's just a limit to what is possible for the adventurer.

But while characters can measure their power by their level, they measure their success...and what they've learned/ experience points. And here, I've decided to simply install a hard cap on how much XP can be accumulated: one million points. Once you've hit that number, you can retire or continue on, but you aren't earning anything, no matter how many monsters you kill and no matter how much treasure you accumulate. One million is, for my purposes, the limit of what adventuring can gain you. 

Well, actually 1,100,000 for individuals with a 10% bonus for their prime requisite. But a million for everyone else...including demihumans, to whom I don't really want to give a prime requisite bonus (let that be the "human advantage").

Elves, as I wrote earlier, simply add the XP required for fighters and magic-users together to determine how much XP they need to accumulate to advance. With a million XP cap, that gives them a maximum potential of 10th level (at 810,000xp). Even earning a million doesn't get them to the next level.

Dwarves and halflings only have the options of the fighter and thief classes (and remember, there's no "multi-classing" round these parts). For dwarves, their normal maximum training is one-half the human potential (call it 7th level), but even after reaching it, they can continue to earn XP (up to a million)...however, each level requires double the normal XP to acquire (giving them an absolute maximum of 11th). For halfling fighters, their base potential is only one-third that of humans (4th level), and continued progression requires triple the normal XP (absolute max of 9th level). For thieves, this would be reversed (dwarves at one-third/triple and halflings at one-half/double). 

This method allows the demihumans to keep earning XP along with their human counterparts, just at a much slower rate of return and (one might presume) with a higher rate of "burnout" or urge to retire...there are some awful long stretches of "no gain" as the non-humans work and work and work to try to match their taller comrades. But...well, it's a bit like the real world: I would have never been an NFL linebacker, no matter how hard I tried, because I'm just not big enough. Nor would I have ever been a genius physicist...I wasn't gifted with that type of intellect. Demihumans have inherent limitations based on their individual species and culture. At least in my game world.

But there's still bragging rights for getting a million points.
; )

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Not a fan.

Oh, I've had plenty of multi-class characters in my time. Most recently I played a gnome illusionist-assassin in a buddy's Labyrinth Lord game (using the Advanced Edition Companion, natch). Way back in my AD&D days, my longest running character was a 1st edition bard, about which I'm sure I've blogged at one time or another. When I played D20, I believe every single character I used was some sort of "multi-class" character...let's see, I had a wood elf ranger-barbarian, a human barbarian-fighter, a halfling monk-ninja, a dwarf fighter-rogue-duelist, and a half-elf ranger-bard-assassin. Most of these (including the dwarf and wood elf) were started at 1st level and "worked up;" others (the half-elf) were created as high level characters (using the DMG3 guidelines) to fit campaign specs.

[lot of fluff and nonsense for little gain. A lot of appeal to a a player's desire for customization and micro-managing, with the game itself suffering (all of these campaigns fell apart as the DMs got tired of tracking all the various PC capabilities while creating/juggling adequate/balanced challenges). Sometimes it got pretty ugly. These were not games with a lot of players. These were not DMs that had little experience, but individuals who'd been playing since the 80s]

I should also mention that I ran 3E games, and had similar breakdowns, not because I was incapable, but because the players kept screwing their shit up. I'd double-check their builds and point out errors and they'd throw up their hands and walk out.

[on a related note, I can see why D20 commands such devotion that people jumped to Pathfinder when WotC cancelled the line. If you put in the time and energy to make the system "hum," and you enjoy character customization, I'm not sure you could find a better game. At least not one that still uses class-level as a major system feature]

Whatever. I'm not a fan. For me, it doesn't make a whole helluva' lot o sense: it is damnably hard to work at two careers at a time, let alone three, especially ones with completely different skill sets. I can get behind elves being both magic-users and fighters due to their thousand year lifespan, their strangely fey brain, or their "inherently magical nature." For one particular species of demihuman: sure, it's okay. For everyone else? No. You learn one trade, and you become skilled in it, or you die.

I really don't want fighter-thieves or cleric-rangers or fighter-magic-user-thieves running around the game. It's messy, sure, but I just don't find it sensical. If a halfling can do it, why can't a human? Which appears to be the question the D20 developers asked themselves when designing the game. However, I would have come up with a different answer: you're right, they can't.

Oh, boo-hoo, I'm so anti-fun. First you spit on dragon born and tieflings and now you're taking away our ability to multi-task. JB, you Big Jerk, you. Yes, I'm a big who's decided it's time to say:

"Enough fence-sitting. Pick a damn class."

If you don't like it, retire the character and pick a new class. This is one of the luxuries of playing a fantasy game: unlike real life, you're not really stuck with the choices you've made in life. Sure, I could go back to school to study international business or computer science or creative writing...but making that kind of life transition is pretty tough. And in my (fantasy) game world, it ain't an option. We're talking about an adventuring career, right? Professional football players take fewer hits, and they're retired by 30.  Maybe some individuals will "dabble" in other classes -- picking up the ability to use a sword, or read a magic scroll -- but wholesale learning of multiple class features? Switching to a new set of class skills? No and no.

Elves are elves are elves, and their combo of magic and fighting gets to stay. Everyone else? Figure out what you want to be. 'Cause that's all you're going to get.