Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Badass Holmes

This post goes out to all those sexy players of “Original Basic.”

Holmes D&D, or “Homes Basic,” or “Blue Book Basic,” whatever you want to call it…is the sole edition of Dungeons & Dragons I haven’t played. Well, except for “4E,” but as I’ve written before, I don’t really consider this an edition of D&D.

Holmes, despite its idiosyncrasies (five point alignment scheme) definitely qualifies as D&D in my book, and not just because it has “fantasy characters fighting fantasy monsters in a fantasy world” (which I don’t think is a proper definition of D&D anyway). And with all respect to those fighters out there, I think most Holmes edition adventurers will be doing what they can to AVOID combat if at all possible.

But we’ll get to that in a second. As I said, this is the one edition of “true” D&D I’ve never played. Heck, I’d never even seen a copy of it till I was able to buy TWO boxed sets from my local game shop last year (and cool beans I did, as I got first printing of B2: Keep on the Borderlands and a sepia cover copy of B1: In Search of the Unknown along with the books). I’ve read the rules a couple times, but as my gaming time is limited these days anyway, I prefer to stick to my beloved B/X when I game D&D. Still, I would LOVE to play (or run) a games of Holmes. Every time I skim the rules, it brings up a particular itch that I just keep wanting to scratch:

The need to be a badass.

That’s right…BAD ASS. Right on the cover of Homes it states, “the original ADULT fantasy RPG.” It might as well have the sub-caption, “Only Badasses Need Apply.” Because I am utterly convinced it takes Big, Brass Balls to play Holmes D&D.

Unless you’re some sort of masochist.

Let’s break it down with the basics:

Presumed Assumption #1: RPG designers know what they’re doing and designers do things for a reason.

Presumed Assumption #2: A game is a game, regardless of how it looks. There is no preconceived notion of how an RPG should appear.

Presumed Assumption#3: While there may be multiple editions of a game system, there are certain recognizable facets of a game that mark it as part of a family, even if it is its own edition.

[just go with me here for a couple minutes]

OKAY…so if you take these three presumptions to be facts, we can define Holmes as a pretty interesting animal.

Exhibit A: Holmes is D&D. Just having the name slapped on the front of the book doesn’t mean it’s D&D, but having those “recognizable facets” does. See my earlier nerd post: Holmes meets the criteria in every regard, and under presumption #3 we can say, “this IS D&D.”

Exhibit B: Holmes is its “own” edition. Holmes has rules that are different from every other edition of D&D. 5-tier alignment, certain combat systems (like initiative), functioning of particular magic effects, etc. If we see a game that doesn’t synchronize with any other game, and we agree with presumption #1, than we must acknowledge Holmes as its own edition…it is neither a precursor to AD&D, nor to the Cook/Marsh Expert set, though it states it is the former and is semi-adopted in the introduction to the latter. Holmes exists outside of the general space-time continuum of D&D, even though it is readily recognizable as D&D (see Exhibit A).

Exhibit C: Holmes the Badass Edition. If we operate under presumption #2 (practice non-attachment to how the game is “supposed” to look); Holmes is a self-contained game. After all, it is designed how it’s designed. It doesn’t go “with” anything (see Exhibit B). It is what it is.

And what is it? A world where your characters go from 1st level to 3rd…and yet the monsters range from goblins and kobolds up to purple worms and vampires. This is a brutal, brutal world…one where poison means instant death for an adventurer and one in which there is no cure for that poison. Fighters never reach “hero” status (per other editions, that would be a 4th level fighter, and Holmes fighters never get there), and magic-users never gain more than a (small) handful of spells. The only wizards with any power are NPCs…and they are probably of the ancient, stooped and wizened variety to have gained so much power.

Now I’m not the first blogger to suggest Holmes be treated as its own game…one crazy, gritty, nose-to-the-ground game that only goes to 3rd level. I’ve read other Holmes enthusiasts who suggested discarding any pre-conceived notions that Holmes players MUST graduate to AD&D or an Expert set or one of those home-made-internet-downloads-that-continue-Holmes. This is an Old Subject in the realm of Old School blogging.

But instead of looking at THAT particular glass as half-empty (“imagine a D&D campaign where your characters are always eating dirt”), I prefer to remember that adventurers in a D&D game are already a cut-above the Normal Man. Holmes adventurers ARE heroes, even if they aren’t capital-H “Heroes” or even superheroes…but they are heroes. The best kind of heroes. The badass kind.

What is a hero? Well, if I skip the historical definition (of the mythological, half-divine individual), the American Heritage Dictionary defines a hero as “any man noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose.”

In general, adventurers in D&D are not marked for their “nobility of purpose” (they are adventuring for money after all; i.e. trying to make a buck). So what exactly is a feat of courage? Well, the AHD defines “courage” as:

“the state of mind or spirit that allows one to face danger with self-possession, confidence, and resolution.”

If I’m an adventurer…whether 1st level or 3rd level…and I’m going up against a 6+ Hit Dice troll, you better believe it takes courage to even step in the room. Sure there’s trepidation and a jack-hammer heart beat, but that’s the game. At least, it’s the Holmes game.

Adventurers in D&D are a cut above the non-adventuring “normal” folk. But Holmes adventurers are certifiable. They had better be smart, tough, and have a large dose of good luck on their side…especially considering “ability bonus inflation” is non-present and magic items found aren’t going to give you much bonus. You better be both resourceful AND on top of your game if you’re going to face down a gorgon or basilisk with your Homes character!

Adventurers in Holmes are a cut above normal folk, NOT just by their class, but by their HEROIC SPIRIT: the confidence and resolve to face immanent, mortal danger every time they step into the cave entrance. No matter how great they grow in power (um…3rd level?) a strong blow from a giant will crush the stoutest fighter like…well like a giant crushing a mortal man. And you’re going to seek out THAT guy’s treasure horde? You better be prepared in every way possible…you’re going to need a healthy helping of brains to go with your Big Balls. If you survive to 3rd level, you should be expecting some pretty epic songs to be sung by the local bards…and even in your old age, you’ll probably be called upon (like Beowulf) to fight some massive (and certain-death-dealing foe).

How creative do you think PLAYERS have to be to survive Holmes Basic? Talk about serious mental boot camp: if you’re tired of getting your characters gaffled by bugbears and ogres (not to mention black puddings and purple worms), don’t you think you’re going to have to learn how to use every possible advantage? Unlike other editions of D&D, Holmes does NOT have raise dead as a readily available spell. Oh, so sorry…you only live once. Just like, say, Stormbringer?

[at least in Holmes you don’t have to worry about getting critted and killed in your first fight. Instead, you just have to worry about getting hit twice and killed!]

This IS gritty fantasy. This is fantasy with balls. This is an RPG that, if the players are COMMITTED to it, will force you to step up your game. And it’s one where retirement should be viewed as a welcome reward from an extremely dangerous lifestyle. Holmes dungeon delvers are coal miners. They should be coming out of those caves covered in dust and blood and cobwebs…and definitely ready to fire up a smoke and pour a drink on the ground for dead companions. Now THAT’s D&D without artificial sweeteners. I love it.

Welcome to Holmes Basic. Only the Truly Badass need apply. For those about to die: we salute you!
; )


  1. YES! Conquer, Withdraw, Surrender or Die !

  2. Holmes has rules that are different from every other edition of D&D... If we see a game that doesn’t synchronize with any other game, and we agree with presumption #1, than we must acknowledge Holmes as its own edition…it is neither a precursor to AD&D, nor to the Cook/Marsh Expert set, though it states it is the former and is semi-adopted in the introduction to the latter. Holmes exists outside of the general space-time continuum of D&D

    Holmes is an edited version of the 3LB's + the Greyhawk Supplement, and as much as possible uses the original words of those booklets. But yes, the wonderful Holmesisms give it a flavour all of its own. Great post.

  3. You summed up my love for Holmes fantastically. Holmes is the D&D I want to play. Screw balance. Dragons should never be just another encounter.

  4. I love the "Holmes is a complete game" train of thought. Excellent post as always.

  5. @ Everyone: thanks, folks! It's as easy to gush about the games I like as it is to rant about the ones I don't (I guess)...

    @ Pat: By the way, good to hear from you, man. Hope the day job isn't too tedious.
    ; )

  6. I'll raise a flagon to that. While I've never played Holmes, I have to say that like you, I yearn to. If you ever make it to Maryland, let me know. We'll get our game on.

  7. When your 1st level fighter slays a purple worm, after being swallowed by it, he's certainly a bass-ass.

  8. Reminds of Minotaurs & Mazes - a 'what if' retroclone/reimagining based on the idea that Gygax took inspiration from old Greek stories and Harryhausen films instead of Tolkien and Moorcock. Only six levels for PCs, and you have to fight a Colossus?? BAD ASSICUS!!

  9. I'm wondering if you've ever looked at BlueHolme? It's an update of Holmes that goes to the 20th level! I am planning on picking up a copy; looks very interesting!

    1. I have both the BlueHolme Prentice and Journeyman rules (the latter I believe is the one you’re referencing); they’re both pretty groovy, though I think I prefer the straight retro (prentice) rules to the latter. I’ve written about this somewhere on Ye Old Blog (I realize finding stuff in my archives can be a pretty daunting task).

      If you’re into Holmes, I heartily recommend checking out both BlueHolme books.
      : )

  10. I was indeed looking at the Journeyman rulebook (which I intend to pick up a printed copy of via Lulu). I didn't realize that it was different, aside from extending the levels up to Level 20. Can you comment on how they are different?

    1. The Prentice rules are a try-clone oh Holmes, more or less faithful to the original Basic set. Journeyman is a reimagining of how Holmes might have continued his rules out to level 20 using AD&D as a foundational text while retaining the differences found in Holmes (if I am remembering correctly).

  11. Well, I ordered print editions of both off Lulu last night so I'll go over them when I get them. Also ordered your BX Companion in print (I'm not a fan of reading PDFs online although I do it occasionally). Looking forward to it all!

    1. Right on (and thanks for the business)...I prefer hard copy to PDFs myself.
      : )