Thursday, November 5, 2015

Holmes: Line-By-Line

[happy birthday to my wife, by the way]

I have never yet played the Basic edition of D&D penned by Eric Holmes, though I hope to rectify that at some point. I've even gone so far as to join a Holmes group  on G+ to get ideas and thoughts and general conversation/buzz about this edition of everyone's favorite fantasy adventure game.

Yesterday, Mike Hill asked the group how many people were actually using Holmes as their ruleset of choice and which particular house rules they used to make the game run. Which got me to thinking: if I really am going to run Holmes (as I'd like to), how would I tweak the rules for playability, considering the flaws and imperfections ingrained in that particular edition?

[the thing I'm currently working on, scaled to match Holmes, is altogether different, being an overhaul and rewrite of the D&D system itself. This post is about keeping Holmes as something recognizably "D&D" and "Holmesian," if you get my drift]

(for Holmes)
Personally, there really isn't much about Holmes I would change (to the chagrin of some players, I'm sure)...Holmes sidesteps many of the pitfalls of later editions (like ability score inflation). And since the book is so short, I figured I could go through it line-by-line and simply list any changes or mods I'd be likely to make. I'll try to include my reasoning as well.

Let the bullet-points begin!
  • Charisma is the first thing that needs a change as I'd like an actual table of "followers" available by score. Here I'd go back to 0E (Men & Magic, page 11) to define followers as "hirelings of unusual nature" and probably use the same table. CHA of 13+ would also receive a +1 bonus to reaction rolls based on Holmes statement (page 11) that adjustments should be made for high charisma.
  • Strength would receive a +1/-1 adjustment to melee attacks in the same way as DEX provides adjustment to missile attacks. Note: that's attacks, not damage.
  • Wisdom would provide an adjustment to saving throws (same scale as DEX), which are going to get overhauled a bit. I'm not going to give clerics better saves by dint of class, but by WIS? Sure. As should anyone who's got the points there.
  • Ability score adjustment is a little clunky as written, but I don't see much reason to house rule it.
  • I'd go with Holmes original statement (later contradicted) and allow both Dwarves and Halflings to be thieves.
  • I like Meepo's Holmes Companion rules that give fighters a +1 damage bonus in melee for STR of 13+. I'd add it.
  • I like Meepo's Holmes Companion rules that give thieves a +1 AC bonus in melee for DEX of 13+. I'd add it.
  • Magic-users receive a +1 bonus to save versus spells to represent their "counter-spelling" ability. I'd be extremely tempted to allow magic-users the use of MAGICAL weapons.
  • Good clerics get to dispel undead, evil clerics get to use edged weapons (i.e. they're not "forbidden from drawing blood" like good clerics are).
  • Thieves may be of any alignment, even good.
  • Dwarves and halflings receive a +2 bonus to all saves.
  • Rather than divide XP between two classes for elves (and worry about half-hit dies for uneven advancement), I'd add the XP total required for both classes together to see how much is needed to advance; for instance, 4500xp to progress to 2/2 and 9000xp needed to reach 3/3. The immunity to paralysis applies to revenants (i.e. "wights") as per Chainmail, not ghouls. I'd only allow half-elves to become thieves.
  • Damage for "cut-down" weapons should be reduced by a die type (D6 to D4, for example), though never less than D4.
  • Additional character classes: I've seen Holmesian rule bibles that included stat ups for all the sundry listed in this section. I'd do something similar, but that's for a separate post.
  • Character alignment: I kind of like the five-fold system, but I think I'd go with 4E's version instead (chaotic good would become "good," lawful evil would become "evil"). I would cut alignment language.
  • Ten minute turns would be henceforth changed to real world minutes, for the purposes of calculating things like durations, wandering monsters, lights going out, etc. Movement rates only become important in pursuit situations.
  • XP for monsters would not be further divided based on a comparison of character level with monster HD; the "diminishing returns" of beating on small monsters should already be accounted for in an increase of XP needed to advance in level.
  • Holmes is the first, perhaps only, edition that lists no end to level progression for ANY character race (while 3E and its successors do not cap level advancement for demihumans, they cap advancement for ALL characters around 20-30). I find the implications of this fascinating. Likewise, it's interesting that dwarves in Holmes don't face the same XP penalty they do in B/X (though elves take a little more to level up). Practically speaking,  think a hard limit of 9-11 is probably appropriate for Holmes (wouldn't want PCs to end up more powerful than Sauron, after all). In the immediate term, I'd probably again turn to Meepo's Holmes Companion, for progression beyond 3rd level.
  • For saves, I'm going to go with the single save option: everyone gets a 16 to start, and the number decreases by 1 per level (which is pretty close to Chainmail, on which the saves are based). Characters using a shield receive a +1 bonus to saves versus dragon breath. Poison no longer has a save. [EDIT: on second pass, I think I'll give it a base 14 to start and reduce it by 1 for every TWO levels of experience]
  • Cleric spells do not have to be chosen prior to an adventure.
  • Combat rounds are ten seconds long [EDIT: this is already the case in Holmes]. Each character receives a single attack. Damage is D4 for daggers, saps, clubs, and improvised weapons, and D6 for anything bigger. Weapons wielded with two hands (at the expense of a shield) increase damage by one die type (to D6 or D8), though this isn't possible with small weapons like daggers. For characters over level 3, I'd probably scale attack progression like B/X (Meepo's, while based on 0E, is a bit generous for my taste).
  • Regarding first blow: I think DEX order is just fine, and wouldn't use a random D6 at any point (the combat example doesn't...with regard to characters within 1-2 points of each other), simply allowing simultaneous combat. In man-to-man duels I might give a slight edge (like a half point bonus) to characters wearing lighter armor than their opponent...maybe even more.
  • I have come to the conclusion that Holmes's "poison = damage" (rather than death) is really the best possible system, though I wouldn't grant saving throws (the random roll itself shows how bad a dose a character received). The difficulty here, is one of scaling...a 5th level character isn't "more resistant" to poison, but they have HPs that allow them to survive huge amounts of toxin. To rectify this, damage would also be tallied against a character's CON...if poison damage exceeds either of a character's CON or remaining HPs, the character dies. Damage to CON is removed at the same rate as normal healing (1-3 per day of rest), unless neutralized by a cleric. Magic items (and racial abilities) that protect against poison would reduce damage received instead.
  • While I'm tempted to do away with flaming oil altogether, I'll leave it.
  • As stated, I prefer 10 second rounds to one minute rounds.
  • I like the parry rules. It stays pretty much unaltered (can a shield be used to parry? why not?).
  • I like the rules for dual wielding characters found in Meepo's Holmes Companion. That's in.
  • Interesting that there are no morale rules in Holmes, though I think I can live without 'em. It calls for a lot more DM fiat with regard to how far creatures will fight before surrendering...certainly wouldn't make much sense for EVERY opponent to fight to the death, would it?
  • Monsters...not much to tweak here other than the usual re-skinning and mod'ing that goes on. The abilities of the undead would vary a bit (I've moved on from energy drain), but that's a subject for a different post.
  • Treasure...same thing. The assortment here is fine, but I would (of course) add a bunch of my own, unique-ish items to the troves plundered. The given weight of coins are off (in the Encumbrance section, Holmes gives the 10 coins to a pound rule); here he says all coins weigh about twice that of a quarter (11.6g or so) which would make it more like 40 coins to the pound. I'd probably go with that amount (meaning the encumbrance section would need to be fixed to reflect the four-fold increase in value-to-weight ratio), but that's still pretty easy.
  • I'd probably limit wands and staves to D20 charges when found, but I'm not really enthused on these types of "spell-storing devices" anyway.
OKay...that was actually a pretty fun exercise. I don't think any of it is a terribly radical departure from the Holmes rules (well, perhaps the saving throw stuff), and it still feels recognizably "Holmesian" to me. It's definitely a system I'd like to take for a spin, and doing a line-by-line read and analysis has given me all sorts of wonderful ideas.

I guess I'll have to do a Holmes series.


  1. Let M-Us cast each spell they KNOW as many times as the spells per day table. e.g. a 2nd level M-U could cast the 1st level spells she knows, each twice a day.

    Might have to modify the higher level spells per day chart a bit downward. Certainly exercise control over how many spells a M-U knows. i.e.Maybe not use the % to know chart and require all but 2-4 starting spells be found/learned in play.

  2. @ Stu:

    Interesting idea, but not one I'd roll with. With the ability to boost a PC's INT at chargen, you could have a wizard with access to 6-8 spells at 1st level, 12-16 at 2nd level and 18-24 spells at 3rd level...and that's with the MINIMUM number known.

    Personally, I really like the scroll penning rules of Holmes, which allows an MU to kit out his/her arsenal with "spells known," but at a COST. It's the only edition of D&D I've seen where scroll scribing is a truly viable (and desirable) option of play. Which is very cool and archaic.

  3. Nice list. One minor thing that jumped out at me was your interpretation of the poison rules. Holmes says, "the victim must make his saving throw against poison or paralysis and also take the number of damage points indicated by the die roll". I've always interpreted "the number of damage points indicated by the die roll" to refer to the d6 damaged caused by the successful hit. I believe Holmes is just teaching the new DM that a poisoned weapon requires a save vs poison and a damage roll. The combat examples follow this; Bruno takes damage (not enough to kill) but then fails his poison save and dies.

    1. @ Zenop: I read over the poison paragraph more closely, I believe you are right. Huh. My interpretation was based on something I read (several years back) on some OSR forum (Dragonsfoot perhaps)...however, perhaps they were talking about a different "Basic" (Mentzer? Maybe)...I've just been operating on an assumption of how Holmes worked.

      However, since I *like* my assumption, the "poison as damage" house rule will stay in effect. A person can get be snake bite several times before succumbing to poison, after all, but they'll feel sick/awful after even a single dose.