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Dungeons & Dragons, Holmes Edition

D&D Basic Holmes EditionAs a birthday present, I just received a copy of the classic Dungeons & Dragons “basic” edition game rule book edited by Eric Holmes. This edition of the game was intended to be an introduction to the overall game of Dungeons & Dragons, and a stepping stone to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons edition of the game. The first, original edition of D&D was published in 1974, the advanced edition in 1978-1979*, and this basic introduction in 1978.

The preface says, (caps and bold as in the book):

This book is based upon the original work published in 1974 and three supplementary booklets published in the two year period after the initial release of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. It is aimed solely at introducing the reader to the concepts of fantasy role playing and the basic play of this game. To this end it limits itself to basics. The rules contained herein allow only for the first three levels of player progression, and instructions for the game referee, the “Dungeon Master,” are kept to the minimum necessary to allow him to conduct basic games. This is absolutely necessary because the game is completely open-ended, is subject to modification, expansion, and interpretation according to the desires of the group participating, and is in general not bounded by the conventional limitations of other types of games. This work is far more detailed and more easily understood than were the original booklets nonetheless, for with it, and the other basic components of the game, any intelligent and imaginative person can speedily understand and play DUNGEONS & DRAGONS as it was meant to be played. Players who desire to go beyond the basic game are directed to the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS books.

I was introduced to D&D through the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules edited by Tom Moldvay, published in 1981. The Moldvay edition was a revising of the Holmes edition, but instead of being a “gateway” into Advanced D&D, it lead to Expert D&D. Yeah, it’s confusing; see the last sentence of the footnote below. Anyway, I only mention this to explain that although I played “Basic D&D” in my earliest days of gaming, it was a different “basic” than this edition I’m reviewing here. I’ve always been interested to see and read the Holmes edition of this game, but the books are relatively rare.

The thing that sticks out most to me with the text of this game rule book is how so very verbose and convoluted everything is. I’m fluent in the complicated rules of Advanced D&D, (and they are very complicated, and spread out through two poorly organized books), but reading these rules in this basic version of the game makes my head throb. Not only are they written in verbose paragraphs, and scattered unorganized through the book, but many of the rules are just very badly designed. For instance, check out this bit of text, (with apologies for my poor scan):

First off, for ease of reading and understanding that first part should not be one wall-of-text paragraph. Now, as for the rules, earlier in the book it is explained that all weapons do 1d6 damage. (For variable damage, you are directed to the AD&D books.) So, a dagger and a battle axe do the same amount of hit point damage. But you can attack twice in a round with a dagger, and only once every other round with an axe — that comes to dagger has 4 (1d6 damage) attacks to the axe 1 (1d6 damage) attack. That’s absurd. That’s either extremely poor game design or some sorry editing work. And this isn’t just a cherry-picked section. The whole book is riddled with crazy stuff like this.

The section on magic weapons says that magic swords add their bonus to attack rolls, but not to damage rolls. Unless that sword has a bonus for certain types of creatures (like a “Sword +1, +2 against Lycanthropes”), in which case the bonus gets added to damage against that particular creature, (like lycanthropes). But magic weapons other than swords add their bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls. That is: a sword +1 adds +1 to the attack roll but not the damage roll, (once a round); but a dagger +1 adds +1 to the attack roll and the damage roll, (twice a round).

Let’s even go back to the beginning of the book and look at how this all starts out. The text explains that character ability scores are created by rolling 3d6 to generate a number from 3-18. Then each ability score is given a paragraph of explanation. But the numbers, (3-18), don’t give any bonus or penalty beyond experience point adjustments. Although the text says, “… a character with a strength of 18 would be super-powerful, one with a strength of 3 (lowest possible dice roll) would barely be able to lift his sword off the ground,” there is no actual mechanical difference between the two characters. Other than an experience point bonus/penalty, there is no game mechanic difference between 18 strength and 3 strength. They both still use the same attack numbers, same damage numbers, and can carry the same amount of weight, (treasure and equipment), by the rule mechanics. It’s the same with Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Only Constitution, (-1 to +3 hit points per hit die), and Dexterity, (-1 to +1 missile fire adjustment), have any game mechanic difference for the number assigned to them. This leaves me wondering, “Why?”

Reading all this stuns me. These are some horribly written rules. It’s not like the designer(s) missed something, or forgot something, they directly state most of this insanity. And for a “basic” and “introductory” set of rules, the text is ridiculously verbose and convoluted. I grew up in gaming with the Advanced D&D rules, (after beginning with the Moldvay Basic D&D game), so I’m used to the intricacies of a complicated game system. But this Holmes edition is bad. Really bad. Childishly bad. The text reads like it was written by a 15 year old trying to impress the reader with his vocabulary while padding out the page count. The rules seem to be developed on the fly, in a stream of consciousness method, without any play testing or second reading.

An interesting note, though, outside the terrible rules and writing: the concept and use of miniature figures on the table top is mentioned throughout the pages of these rules. A big complaint by “old school” D&D players about the modern D&D game, (starting with third edition published in 2001), is that the game today assumes and “forces” the players to use miniature figures. But this rule book from 1978 assumed and guided the use of such figures even then. (I used miniature figures from my earliest days of gaming because the rules I read, like in this book, directed me to use them.)

Overall, I’m really surprised, (in a bad way), by this book. I can’t say I’m “disappointed,” because I didn’t get this book to entertain me. I got this book just to read an integral part of D&D’s publishing history. But I am surprised at how poorly designed and written it is as a game, and I’m astonished that this amateurish piece of confusion got published as a “basic” and “introductory” version of the game that eventually grew into the cultural phenomenon it did. As complicated as the Advanced D&D edition is, (in concept, in rules, in organization, and in publishing pattern), it made more sense than this introduction. And the Moldvay Basic D&D edition is by far a better written, edited, organized, and designed “basic” game than this version. And note that this review I’ve written, here, doesn’t even scratch the surface of what all is in this book. This Holmes edition of the D&D game is just awful throughout, every section, every page, every paragraph. Just abysmal.



* The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual was first published in 1977, but it was only a book of monsters, not a book of rules. The AD&D Player’s Handbook was first published in 1978, and although it actually contained game rules, it didn’t contain everything one needed to play AD&D, (it didn’t even have rules for creating a character). The AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide was first published in 1979, and with it players at last had the full game rules for playing the advanced version of the game. The early days of D&D publishing was a bit schizophrenic and confusing, and it’s a remarkable study to figure how the game managed to grow despite that mess.

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A Shelf Full of D&D

This is the D&D shelf in my local game store. It’s not the edition I prefer, but I have to admit it does stand out better on the shelf than any of the other editions do.

Shelf Full of D&D


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New Game Group

Temple of Elemental EvilYou can keep a geek out of his favorite game for only so long before he starts craving adventure again. I found a new group of D&D players who are around my age and who appreciate old school dungeon crawls. They told me they were about to start a campaign playing the original (AD&D1) Temple of Elemental Evil using the D&D3.5 rules, and I about peed my pants. ToEE is in my top three favorite classic adventures, and D&D3.5 is my favorite edition of D&D.

So I connected with these guys through email, and they invited me, (and another guy), to join them. Friday night we all got together for our first game session, to meet and create our characters for the campaign. We didn’t get a whole game session of play in, but we got enough that I see good potential in playing with them.

There are six players plus the DM. Our characters are:

  • Fighter
  • Fighter
  • Cleric
  • Sorcerer
  • Rogue
  • Paladin — me

Player's HandbookYes, I’m playing a paladin again. No, it’s not what I always play, (this is the third out of maybe a dozen characters I’ve played on a regular basis), but I just felt that a paladin was the perfect thematic idea for attacking the Temple of Elemental Evil.

We are all starting at first level, and our first excitement came when the caravan we were traveling with, (to Hommlet!), was attacked by a bandit gang of humans and gnolls. We did well fighting off the attack, and the event allowed our characters to bond a bit and take the measure of each other in battle.

Upon reaching Hommlet we took rooms in the Inn of the Welcome Wench, and set about learning about the area around the village. We made friends, contacts, and even annoyed the local curate of St. Cuthbert. Eventually we were given a mission to go back to where the caravan was attacked on the road, and track the bandits back to their camp or hideout. We needed someone with tracking skill, and learned that a local yokel named Elmo was a decent tracker, and he was willing to join us as a hired hand.

We went out on the road again and set Elmo to tracking the bandits. We ended the game night looking across a bog at a crumbling old moat house where the trail seemed to lead. Next game session we’ll sally forth and investigate the place.

* * *

Now, I gave full disclosure to the DM that I have played part of, and read the entirety of Temple of Elemental Evil. It’s been a while, and I don’t remember details of individual dungeon rooms and such — I only remember some major points. (I know Elmo.) But I said any information that I do remember, I’ll keep it out of character knowledge, and I won’t ruin the game for anyone. I just want to experience this adventure, and I don’t care if I have to get a lobotomy to remove the knowledge from my brain. He didn’t seem concerned about what I might remember. I’m glad, because I am very excited about this game.


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Again the Boys Delve into the Dungeon, part 2

Continued from Part 1.

The two fighters who separated from the main group walked relatively quietly down the corridor, (compared to the cacophony of voices yammering in the main group). They made a couple of choices in directions when they came to crossroads, and ended up they knew not where. Rounding one corner, they came face to face with a giant spider, big as a horse.

Dungeon Explored

The spider attacked, the fighters fought. One of the fighters was killed, and the other managed to mortally wound the spider, and it fled. The surviving fighter hustled back the way they had come in hopes of catching back up with the main group. He learned why splitting the party is always a bad idea in D&D.

The main group found a set of double doors to the north and immediately kicked them open.

[This is the gray area of the map above. As DM, I pulled this room and it’s contents pretty much out of thin air, so it’s not actually on the official map. But you can see it drawn on the battle map in the below picture.]

D&D Aftermath

Beyond the doors was a large room with a burning fireplace in the left and right walls, and another set of double doors in the far wall. One of the fighters immediately walked from the entrance to the fireplace on the right, while another walked to the left fireplace. As soon as the fighters stood in front of the fireplaces, the fires flashed and a flaming imp-like creature jumped out and attacked them. During the ensuing battle, one of the other fighters walked from the doorway straight across the room towards the other doors. In the center of the room, a hidden pit trap, (not drawn on the battle map yet, as it looks in the picture above), fell open and dumped the fighter into a 10′-deep pit full of fire.

The falling fighter took damage from the plummet, and from the fire. Another fighter quickly pulled out a rope and tossed one end down to the trapped and burning friend. The trapped fighter climbed/was pulled up to safety, but he had to drop his spear and shield to grab the rope. A few moments after the fighter escaped the burning pit, the trap door closed back up.

The fighters battling the imps finished their enemies with no harm to themselves. But then the cleric approached one of the fireplaces to search it, and when he got near it, another fire-imp burst forth. Another short fight ended with no friendly injuries. But they figured out that approaching the fireplaces would continue to produce the fire-imps, so they made sure to stay away.

They went to the double doors on the other side of the room, (carefully avoiding the center pit trap), and kicked them open. Beyond was a smaller room with some boxes, a large table, and shelves along two walls. The table and shelves were lined with glass and pottery containers full of various materials. The explorers began searching through all the scattered stuff, hoping to find treasure.

On the big table, one of the fighters found a large, sealed glass jar with what looked like a black cat suspended in a liquid. He opened the seal, and out came a gas in his face. He made his saving throw versus paralyzation, so nothing happened to him, but he did drop the bottle, and up jumped the cat, with wings. The cat flew up to the shelf on the back wall, looked over the crew, and then flew past them all and out the door. The fighter who freed it dashed off after the flying cat, and stepped on the pit trap.

There was a scramble to rescue the fighter, (who took damage from the fall and the fire), and then the pit door closed again. The fighter was disappointed that the cat got away, and he was very interested in finding it again and making it a pet. While standing in the first doorway, thinking about how to find where the cat went, the fighter heard the sound of battle down the hall, towards the kitchen. He called to the others back in the cluttered room, and they all moved forward to find out what was going on.

What they found was one of the fighters who had earlier separated from the main group, and he was engaged in a fight with four goblins. The main group rushed to his aid, and the goblins were easily defeated. After the battle, the main group learned what happened to the other fighter.

So now, with the remaining fighters (and the cleric) all reunited, they decided, (read: I suggested), to head back out of the dungeon to re-equip supplies and pick up a replacement fighter for the one who died. Once back outside, one of the fighter-boys asked about buying new equipment. This boy had played last year, and he had treasure still written on his character sheet from then — several hundred gold pieces worth of treasure. So he bought plate mail armor for himself and the cleric, (the boy’s dad), and a bow and a quiver of arrows. When the other boys heard about this, they asked him to set them up with better armor. So, within a few minutes, all the fighters had better armor and new shields and spears, (to replace those lost in the dungeon fights and traps).

Then they headed back into the dungeon, and I handwaved their trek back to the cluttered room so they could continue their search for loot. As they entered the first room, (with the fireplaces), the new fighter walked in first and right into the pit trap. Another scramble got him out before the doors closed. Then they had the idea of using chalk to draw a circle around the trap so no one else would step on it. [Note: three different fighter-boys fell in that simple trap.]

Then a couple of the boys were getting a little fidgety, so they went to one of the fireplaces to prompt another fight with a fire-imp. The fight was quick and easy, like the previous ones. (As DM, I was disappointed that the fire-imps didn’t get to show off setting someone on fire. But, luck of the dice failed to impress.)

The fighter who was wanting to find the flying cat went back out of the room and into the hall to stand guard and look for and think about the cat. Two other fighters joined him. I’m not real sure what they were thinking, whether they thought the cat was just going to come flying back to them.

The other two fighters and the cleric went back into the cluttered room and began going through the boxes. The cleric found a bunch of silver bowls, plates, and other serving utensils packed away in the boxes. One of the fighters found some loose gold, a shiny magic shield (with a flame painted on the front), and a magic dagger that talked! This fighter took the new shield in place of his old, and sheathed the dagger on his belt. He then went out to the hall to get the other fighters’ assistance in collecting the other loot.

The other fighters were impressed with the new shield and dagger, but the one fighter was still lamenting the escape of the flying cat. Again, a couple of the fighters went to a fireplace and summoned out another fire-imp. During the battle, the fighter with the shield noticed that he didn’t feel any heat from the fireplace or the imp. He concluded that the shield was somehow protecting him. They summoned another fire-imp, and this fighter killed it with the new dagger, and found that the imp’s fire seemed sucked into the blade. Everyone was impressed, but no one really knew what that meant.

By this time, it was time to wrap up the adventure, as parents were starting¬† to show up to pick up our guests. So I handwaved the party’s exit from the dungeon.

Like last time, all the boys had a great time. I was thrilled that the game was such a success, and I was exhausted from the mental work.


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