Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Holmes Complete, Redux Edition...

I love Holmes Basic.  Aside from being my gateway drug (long story), it's just the perfect synthesis of old-school D&D and something simpler and more streamlined.  As far as introductory sets go, it's stuffed with content; and the fact that it only takes its players to 3rd level evokes the wonder of low-level play and everyone's first time at the table.  The spell inevitably fades with experience; but it begs the question: Is it possible to play Holmes Basic as a complete game?  It's a question a fanatic like me loves to ask.     

In fact, I asked it four years ago.  It was a thought experiment written in the moment, but I've had time to refine the idea.  Looking back, it needed the work.  So here we go, once more tackling my pet project.  If you own this excellent product, you can use the following rules to run Holmesian games in all their low-level glory.  Just observe the following:

(1) Assume everything else is the same except for that which follows...

(2) Characters begin the game with maximum hit points at first level (i.e., 8 for fighting men and women, 4 for magic-users, etc.), rolling randomly for levels beyond first.

(3) Should a character die, whether in combat or similar misfortune, they fall unconscious, losing one level.  If recovered by their friends (within a reasonable amount of time), they awaken with 0 HP, but very much alive, and may be further healed, although never beyond what their new level allows.  First-level characters aren't so lucky and die, an all-too common fate, noting that lost levels may only be recovered through further adventures.

(4) Clerics add +1 to all turning attempts per level after 1st.  Third-level clerics add +2 and may turn mummies on an unmodified 12.  Specters and vampires represent the apex of undead villany and reject even the most pious of practitioners.  This serves to preserve some mystique for these monsters and a sense of lore (if not dread) within the campaign... 

(5) Elves serve as both fighting men (maximum 2nd level) and magic-users (maximum 1st level) for a total of three levels, beginning with 6 HP, +1d6 at their second fighting level when eventually attained.  Experience points are split between both classes - even when further advancement (as a magic-user) is no longer possible.  Those at first level in both classes die when reduced to 0 hit points, but enjoy the benefits of armor and spellcraft. 

(6) Fighting men (and elves) add +1 to hit per level after first to reflect their prowess.

(7) Spellcasters get access to more magic and miracles, mainly to keep them relevant in a scaled-down game where higher levels will never be reached.  Clerics get spells at first level, while magic-users employ more across the board per the following spell table

(8) Thieves must redo their entire table lest they perform so poorly that their relevance gets called into question.  After all, a 3rd-level robber, is supposed to be a master thief...

(9) Hirelings are necessary to take on the toughest foes, which are included in Holmes' introductory rulebook just begging to be fought.  To this end, the referee should ensure an expeditionary mindset, incorporating men-at-arms and porters to full effect. 

(10) For every successful expedition into the dungeons or wilderness, meaning one where the party leaves and returns alive, each character earns 1 renown representing the fame surrounding their exploits.  At 50 renown, they may occupy a church (cleric), castle (fighting man), tower (magic-users and elves who opt out of a castle), or den (thieves, and always located in the city).  Each employs 3-12 servants, a third of which are henchmen who never leave the home base.  Such abodes earn enough revenue to be largely self-sufficient.   

Doing this will (hopefully) result in a game that captures old-school's emphasis on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  Clerics are warriors, with powers all the more miraculous for their rarity; and magic-users feel more like Gandalf and less like the overdone superheroes of modern fare.  Powers take a back seat to good strategy, and every delve feels like an expedition into the Amazon, because it is.  The excitement of low-level play is preserved because, really, a lot comes down to little guys against big dangers.

But of course, the last and most important thing is what you, the reader, add to this, for no game is ever complete until the players make it so.  Anyway, in this time of isolation and knuckle-biting politics, a new take on a classic game just might be just what the proverbial doctor ordered, and Holmes (an MD and neurologist) was the real deal.  Anyway, please enjoy this, and don't hesitate to add or change anything - surely Dr. Holmes would approve...


  1. This is exactly the type of game I'd like to run/play, although Moldvay Basic is my poison of choice.

    1. Thanks! Moldvay is another fine choice...

    2. I've never actually played Holmes. I don't even know if I've seen a copy of it.

  2. My heart has gone to holmes lately as well. I ve been reading zenopus and considering a hack I wrote. I think the time has come to run some Holmes again.

  3. Actually losing one or more levels works well as a proxy for being laid up for an extended period and then having to rebuild muscle mass and retrain to return to peak condition.
    Well thought there.

  4. Of course he would approve. An alternative to hirelings is to let your players run two characters if they wish. You can extrapolate most of the rules to level 4, or buy Blueholm for more spells.

    1. Great options! We're blessed not only with Holmes, but with some exceptional community content. Honored to hear from you...

  5. This Holmes Basic sounds awesome! Though you could always borrow some rules from Sword & Wizardry Continual Light:

    -S&WCL tops out at Lvl 7, but you keep track of 'Adventures' afterwards and use them for small, incremental gains. I could see something similar for NewHolmes-Keeo track of XP, turn in some for Rewards...

    2000XP-re-roll HP, keep either the higher total or Total+1
    4000XP-gain a Lvl 1 Spell Slot (M-U/Cleric)
    3000XP-gain +15% for a Thief Skill, divisible into multiple skills if need be (Thief)
    5000XP-make Potions (M-U) or Holy Water/Candles (Cleric)
    10000XP-a single Cross-class Ability. Read Magic Scroll, a Thief Skill at 25% Use Shield for non-fighters, Use Leather Armor for M-U, Use Sharp Weapon (Holy Dispensation) for Cleric etc, etc.

  6. Two things on my mind lately and both of which I'd like to do. I'm Leaning towards fleshing out a setting of sorts

  7. sorry I posted the same link twice.