Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Holmes (Credit Where Credit Is Due)...

OK, so I first played D&D in 1978 with a friend who had precious little to go on and mostly winged it.  Long story short, my family moved, we lost touch, and that was that, sadly.  But by 1980, an introductory D&D set was available at our local K-Mart.  I made it abundantly clear what I wanted for Christmas, and my mother obliged, changing my life forever and doubtless for the better.

That rulebook was HOLMES BASIC.  The one with the chits.  I was enthralled with its many possibilities and now, as a disabled adult who found love, (literal) war, and (a very happy) marriage, this continues to wield a strong influence that shows itself in the way we (Olde House Rules) design our products...   

The finer points of Holmes align with the stated goals of all our rulesets, and it's worth devoting a post to why.

Being an introductory game, Holmes was simple.  This made it accessible to novices, but had other benefits as well (intentional or otherwise), that mattered greatly:

1) Lacking endless pages of complex rules, the DM had to devise their own rulings, usually on the spot.  This made the very act of running a game more challenging and got them INTIMATELY involved beyond just rolling dice for the monsters...   

2) Without reams of special powers, players had to improvise and employ good strategy, which got THEM involved as well.

The cover says it all - while leaving
everything else to the imagination of the reader...

3) More importantly, simplicity made Holmes Basic a logical extension of the imaginative play we loved as children.  And since most of us started gaming in adolescence, it was a great way to translate this into an adult context.

But despite its simplicity, Holmes still had depth because it offered plenty of exciting content.  Indeed, monsters were offered beyond levels any 1-3rd level type could ever deal with:

1) Seeing these monsters lent the impression of a universe far beyond any present experience.  This filled out the implied setting and created a sense of danger and wonder.

2) But these foes COULD be engaged by a larger party with many henchmen provided the DM scaled them down to the lower end of what was possible given their hit dice (i.e., 1-4 HP per die).

3) Alternately, intelligent players found that killing isn't the only way to win the day.  Learn when to RUN!  Indeed, I can remember this one DM who introduced strong enemies, not to fight, but to cleverly avoid.  It was a lesson in the big picture.

Finally, Holmes Basic left out a lot (this was inevitable as an introductory set and doesn't constitute any failure).  For instance, there were fewer magic items listed.  But this was also a major advantage, by our reckoning, for the following:

1) Magic was rare and understated, making it even more coveted and, frankly, miraculous.  Nothing got cheap and boring.

2) What lay beyond was LITERALLY mysterious, because it came from the DM's own imagination!  This, too, lent a sort of wonder.        

3) Even the crappy production and artwork helped out, as this left readers to fill in the blanks for themselves...

Holmes basic was literally my introduction to the hobby as it pertained to writing adventures and running games.  It absolutely set the standard for the style of gaming I prefer and left an indelible impression on our personal efforts at game design, noting that Pits & Perils is an obvious homage to Holmes in style and approach (although not mechanics).  Its finer qualities were our stated goals, and I hope we did even half as well getting it across!


  1. I loved that cover art, even better than the later B/X art that followed (despite Erol Otis).

    1. You certainly get the sense of being next in the party's marching order and getting ready to fight and (hopefully) win that awesome loot!