Dungeons & Satan

Seems interesting, BADD didn’t directly hassle me back in the ’80s (small town, but at the time you minded your own business about religion; now the Christ-cultists have moved in), but of course they got TSR to make D&D lame in a futile attempt to pacify them. I’ve got it on in the background, will make notes as they come up.

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Reading the Dragon: Strategic Review V1N5

These are getting long enough, and deep enough into the origins of the game, that I’ll do just one per post for the rest.

  • The Strategic Review V1N5 (Dec 1975): 16-page newsletter/almost magazine.
    • Cover: Trippy piece by Greg Bell. I see a series of three magic-users, each summoning the next, rising from smoke.
    • News/”In the Cauldron” by Tim Kask:

      “We know that it’s late, but you wouldn’t believe me if I listed all the problems we had with it. Suffice it to say that I have been blooded, as an editor, by BLACKMOOR.”

      Many more woes of a small publisher, start of the DUNGEON Hobby Shop, catalog, and products which are mostly obscure now: EPT boardgame, Fight in the Skies (Dawn Patrol), Little Big Horn, Lankhmar (as I recall, a good but not great boardgame, despite my love for Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser), Classic Warfare minis rules. And then biographies of Gary Gygax, Brian Blume, Rob Kuntz, Theron Kuntz, and Tim Kask. Gary’s background as an insurance salesman always seems especially relevant to his style of gaming.
    • Sturmgeshutz And Sorcery Or How Effective Is A Panzerfaust Against A Troll, Heinz?: The infamous Tractics/D&D fight of Nazis vs EHP (Evil High Priest, a classic acronym now mostly forgotten). Stats for the modern weapons are quite weak until you get to the armored car, 2 half-tracks, and squad weapons.
      • A Panzerfaust does 8-80 dmg (avg. 44), and an OD&D Troll is HD 6+3 (avg. 24 HP, 30 HP in Holmes), so one hit will bring it to -20, but it will be back in the fight in 9 turns with 7 HP. But the Nazis only have 3 single-shot Pzfsts, and there’s 4 Trolls.
      • There’s an incomprehensible “Adjustment of Hits due to Armor” table.
      • The Unarmed Combat Special table is quite interesting. How did they make something this generally useful and then never reprint it again?!
      Score Effect*
      1-5 None
      6-10 Stun opponent, attack first next round
      11-15 Disarm opponent and attack first next turn — if no weapon in opponent’s grasp do 1-6 points damage
      16-19 As above plus 1-6 points damage inflicted
      20 Opponent knocked senseless if not AC 2 or less and above 7th level (adjust upwards for higher AC’s, i.e., AC 3 and above 8th level, AC 4 and above 9th, etc.) — takes 1-8 points damage in any event

      *Roll for each soldier, regulars have 1 in 6 who can engage in this form of combat, veterans have 3 in 6, elite adds 1 in 6.

    • Dave Sutherland art of “Attack of the Stirges”. Good sketch of horrible critters.

    • Mapping the Dungeons: Hoilday specials! For $2, get D&D Books 1-2, for $4, get D&D Books 1-2 + pullouts, in a box! An interesting “promo”, since the DM would still need a full $10 box with Book 3 to run anything. Announcing DM seminar at GenCon IX.

      “This issue seems to be heavily laden with items requiring your response. But, what other company goes to such pains to find out what YOU want? Anyway, we are looking for direction concerning D&D. We have received a number of suggestions concerning supplements (not all of them Good/Lawful), so we decided to ‘poll the players’. What do you want to see in the upcoming supplements? We have been kicking around the idea of a readers/players supplement, composed of material submitted to us.”

      That’s a generous attitude TSR rapidly lost and even aggressively attacked throughout the ’80s and ’90s, though lately Wizards of the Hasbro has been trying to open up with the 5E playtests and various surveys, they’re just not institutionally capable of doing much about it.
    • Mighty Magic Miscellany: Robe of Scintillating Color, Prayer Beads: Uncredited, but ended up in the AD&D DMG, both changed significantly for the worse. The robe’s description explicitly endorses the Holmes interpretation of a 10-second combat round, and 100-second combat turn, and it’s a mind-killer against high-Int Magic-Users:

      “When it is used in a non-combat situation, where turns are longer (remember, one turn contains 10 melee rounds), there is a 20% base chance of becoming hypnotized, with an additional 5% per turn increase. Any magic user that becomes hypnotized by the robe who has an intelligence of 17 or 18 has a 10% or 20% chance, respectively, of going permanently insane.”

      Prayer Beads is a set of reasonably valuable gems that randomly helps or hinders summoning a god, not necessarily yours or a friendly one! The AD&D Necklace of Prayer Beads is all positive effects, and the necklace gets taken away if you summon your god. Lame, Gary! Let the players summon Cthulhu if they want or roll badly, it’s fun!
    • Battle of the Nile Refought, by Dave Arneson: Don’t Give Up the Ship scenario, wherein righteous French republicans give the English monarchist dogs a good thrashing, contra historical version. Sadly lacks a detailed map or initial layout, so it’d be hard to run directly. Again, Napoleonics are so very forgotten these days, when it was one of the best wargaming periods.
    • First ad of the issue: Diplomacy World magazine.
    • The Armory: Modern Weapons Data for TRACTICS, by Mike Reese: Tank stats for Sheridan, Leopard (5 variations). “SHERIDAN does not carry nuclear weapons.” — WTF joke. Does not address the infamously shitty main gun of the Sheridan which would misfire, and then the unspent ammo would explode inside, killing a number of our troops in Vietnam. OOPS. Leopard’s quality German engineering, and just gets better over time.
    • Gallery of Gunfighters: Ben Thompson. Murderous sonofabitch murderhobo of the Old West. Oddly, there’s never been a movie of him, and only a few TV show appearances.

      “He was, in this author’s opinion, one of four most dangerous gunfighters who ever lived. He had killed at least eight men and probably as many as sixteen (although some report up to thirty-two killings), only to die in an ambush.”
    • What Is The National Wargame Convention?: In which Gary beefs with AH (The Avalon Hill Game Company®) about Origins convention vs. GenCon. Just get pistols and resolve this shit man-to-man, don’t bitch at the readers.
    • Creature Features:
      • Rakshasha (f. Rakshasi):

        “Known first in India, these evil spirits encased in flesh are spreading. They are fond of a diet of human meat, and as masters of illusion they can easily gain this end.”

        Ridiculously OP magic & physical defenses, but they’re only 7 HD so they won’t face real high-level PCs, and there’s a one-shot kill trick, rewarding any player who memorizes the monsters.

        I love the mythical Rakshasa, and the one from Kolchak the Night Stalker which inspired this monster listing, and the very powerful but not one-trick demons in Supplment IV, but these one-trick monsters are bullshit.
      • Slithering Tracker: How to assassinate your players if they sleep in a dungeon, for dick DMs.
      • Trapper: Also how to assassinate your players if they stay in a group, for dick DMs.
    • Second ad of the issue: Taurus Ltd has an unclear image of ocean and a wall of text in a tiny box apparently selling Raiders of the North, a WWII naval wargame.
    • Comic: Hideously ugly. “What do you mean, my fireball only did six points of damage?!”. This guy shoulda packed a Panzerfaust.
    • TSR Hobbies catalog. Notably:
      • Multi-sided Dice Sets — Each Set contains one 20-, 12-, 8-, 6-, and 4-sided die: $3 ($13.33 today)
      • Percentile Dice Sets — Two 20-sided dice: $2 ($8.89 today) — 10-sided dice weren’t available yet.
      • Professional FOOTBALL $11
      • Major League BASEBALL $12
      • NBA BASKETBALL $9
      • Auto RACING GAME (Indy 500 Cars & Drivers) $9
      • THOROUGHBREAD[sic] Racing (With Stats on Actual Horses) $7
      • Sports games? Is that still a thing anywhere, other than like Fantasy Football? I played some of the sports handheld electronic games back in the day, but not boardgames. Obviously now all the slack-jawed jocks would play Xbox sports games.

Reading the Dragon part 1

There’s an old RPG.net thread
which read Strategic Review/Dragon from the beginning, which has the interesting time-warp effect of showing how the game developed from a very minimal little thing to giant tangled mess, and incidentally revealed that the old players (hey, look, posts by JimLotFP!) prefer the minimal thing which is mostly stealth, puzzles, treachery, and action & adventure was dangerous shit; whereas new players (only played 3.x and later) prefer a giant bloated 1200-page set of encyclopedias with a “story” and superheroes swinging Buster Swords. I tell you, no bullshit, these animals like Ed Greenwood’s fucking Elminster “DM’s favorite NPC” stories. They probably play Forgettable Realms. If they held their honor dear, they’d draw steel and charge at that mortal insult, but they think it’s OK.

So I’ll do a short version of this time-warp covering what I think is interesting. The most gameable or relevant articles I’ve boldfaced. I’m sure you can convince a search engine to cough up copies of the old magazines to follow along.

  • The Strategic Review V1N1 (Spring 1975): 50¢, 6-page newsletter format.
    • News that “These acquisitions are: CHAINMAIL, DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP, and TRACTICS.” — Chainmail is of course the 20:1 figure scale Napoleonics miniatures wargame D&D evolved out of, Don’t Give Up the Ship is a Napoleonic naval wargame which was quickly absorbed into D&D’s naval warfare rules, and Tractics was WWII tank miniatures in a sandbox, with a referee. I’ve played a couple dozen sessions of Tractics and modern replacements, and it was a very serious game until TSR dumped it around 1980.

      But the thing to note here is that D&D grew out of Napoleonics, and that was a major interest of the authors of D&D and many wargamers of the time. I haven’t seen a new game about Napoleon’s wars in decades.
    • Creature Feature: The Mind Flayer: Here’s the first attempt at psychic combat, with an AOE Mind Blast ignoring Level, only Intelligence, class, and the Helm of Telepathy, giving results from death to stun to permanent insanity; a mediocre mind is actually the best defense.
    • Tractics errata sheet.
    • CASTLE & CRUSADE by Gary Gygax, explanation of why the spear is weak in Chainmail Man-to-Man combat, and by extension in D&D using Chainmail combat; which was, I gather, common before Holmes enshrined the “Alternative Combat System” as the only choice. This is one of the subtleties lost by not using the weapon vs armor/AC tables.
    • SOLO DUNGEON ADVENTURES by Gary Gygax, with special thanks to George A. Lord: More or less the system reprinted in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. “You may wish to have ‘rough-hewn’ and natural tunnels in lower levels, and where chambers and rooms are indicated substitute Caves and Caverns.” — rather implying the world-spanning Underdark of later editions.
    • Ad for Warriors of Mars: The Warfare of Barsoom in Miniature, published by TSR, written by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume. Which again, search engine. This is a tactical miniatures game, with a lot of RPG-like elements, not too much like Chainmail or D&D. E.R. Burroughs was major influence on early D&D, name-checked in the introduction and Book 2 monsters. And then the Burroughs estate sued based on Disney-revived copyrights, and many copies of this game were pulped.

      The other ad is for Star Probe, published by TSR, which I have never seen; from minimal research it seems to be a Star Trek-inspired wargame?
  • The Strategic Review V1N2 (Summer 1975): 50¢, 8-page newsletter format.
    • In Memorium, Donald R. Kaye, cofounder of TSR, age 37.
    • TSR –WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO Editorial Comment by Brian J. Blume “While we must make a profit in order to remain in business, TSR is not around solely to make money.”

      Irony: They probably meant that, in 1975. But once they got a taste, and once Lorraine Williams was running the game and company into the ground, money was all they considered.

      “The members of TSR are long-time gamers who have found that there is a great deal of satisfaction in creating and/or publishing a good set of game rules or an enjoyable game, and please note the emphasis on the term gamers. Some attempt to down-grade the game aspect of our hobby and pretend to simulute[sic] reality.”

      Road to Hell, Good Intentions Paving Company: TSR did indeed publish Gamist games, not Simulations or Narrativist/”Story” games. Until the same 2nd Ed/Lorraine era, when all adventures became story-driven plot railroads, and that’s remained true for almost everything under WotC and Hasbro. If you want an actual game where you make decisions, you can’t use much official D&D material.
    • THE STRATEGISTS CLUB: Survey for content preferences, with a discount coupon of 25¢-75¢ per product for people who send TSR $1. Uh huh.
    • CAVALIERS and ROUNDHEADS RULES ADDITIONS: English Civil War miniatures wargame by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. Another game that vanished, and a period nobody wargames anymore.
    • WARGAMING WORLD: News of conventions and magazines, including one from Flying Buffalo.
    • QUESTIONS MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED ABOUT DUNGEONS & DRAGONS RULES: The first actual explanation of how D&D is supposed to work, which you cannot get from the white box. Initiative is 2d6 + Dexterity modifier, morale system is “up to the referee, although there is one in CHAINMAIL”, experience for items, treasure, and monsters scaled by Level, and how D&D magic works. Notable to me in this are:
      1. The ever-changing initiative systems. I now count 1d6 unmodified, 2d6 modified, Holmes’ Dexterity rank, and Eldritch Wizardry second-by-second, in just original edition games.
      2. The many attacks given to high-level Fighting Men against even 1 HD monsters, like Orcs and Dwarfs; later rules would make that sub-1 HD only, like Normal Men, Gnomes, Goblins, and Kobolds.
      3. Grappling rules are implied to be some fistful of dice method, but never explained in this example. Grappling is a worse rules clusterfuck than initiative.
      4. In Vance’s books, it’s not possible to have multiple of the same spell, but Gygax explicitly allows it. “If he had no books with him” implies that a Magic-User can indeed carry spell books into a dungeon.
    • CREATURE FEATURES: The Roper. Gross, annoying, and at 10-12 d8 Hit Dice, offensively strong. I dunno if I’ve ever used one, but now I’m more interested.
    • RANGERS I, AN EXCITING NEW DUNGEONS & DRAGONS CLASS By Joe Fischer: Preposterously strong (2 hit dice at Level 1!), stacked with special abilities, casts from both Magic-User and Cleric lists at higher Levels, track, are hard to surprise, and get a bonus to kill giant-class giants and kobolds (I just read the thing, I can’t interpret this madness). The XP table is 25% higher than a Fighter’s, but instead of needing a prime requisite, they all get a 4/3 XP multiplier until 8th Level, so they level faster. The only drawbacks being they have to stay Lawful (which makes little sense, as Rangers would seem to me to be Druidic Neutrals or Elf-like Chaotics), can’t bank their loot (oh no what will they do, oh, yeah, murderhoboes), and no more than 2 Rangers per party. Well, thanks for small mercies, a whole party of Aragorns (1: “They call me Strider!” 2: “No, they call ME Strider!” 3: “They call me… Strider?” 4: “Some call me… Maurice.”) sitting with their backs to the walls of a tavern would be too much, but 2 is OK! This munchkin Lord of the Rings bullshit has been a pernicious blight on gaming since the beginning.
    • MEDIEVAL POLE ARMS By Gary Gygax: You know how sometimes people have really weird sexual kinks they can’t come out and discuss, but it shows up in everything they do? Polearms were that for Gary. Why do we need to know, in a game of “rules for gamers”, about every slight variation in German and Swiss polearms between 1300 and 1700 CE?
    • TSR NEWS: Announcements of Boot Hill (a game I’d love to have a new retro-clone of!), Panzer Warfare (never seen it), Classic Warfare with setting books (never seen it), and Greyhawk! “Anyway, if you decide to send ticking packages, be sure that the printer gets one also…”
    • SPECIAL! SPECIAL! SPECIAL! SPECIAL! SPECIAL!: Playtest War of Wizards for $5, when the production copy will be $7. Never heard of it, but apparently written by M.A.R. Barker of Tekumel fame. “it can be adapted for integration with such similar games as DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, CHAINMAIL, and the upcoming fantasy game PETAL THRONE.” But check out this spell list and page 2 and page 3! Silver Halo of Soul Stealing! Doomkill! I want a spell called “Doomkill”!
  • The Strategic Review V1N3 (Autumn 1975): 50¢, 8-page newsletter format.
    • Editorial: Very petty, catty calling out of hostile reviews, and stirring up a mob to harass the reviewer’s new company’s wargames. It’s like a Twitter cesspool but 40 years earlier.
    • TSR NEWS: Printing Fight in the Skies (aka Dawn Patrol), which was and is a really fantastic tactical WWI aircraft duelling system with experience and skills for pilots. Empire of the Petal Throne nearing print, and assorted others in production.
    • CREATURE FEATURES: The Yeti, The Shambling Mound, The Leprechaun, The Shrieker, The Ghost, Naga, The Wind Walker, The Piercer, The Lurker Above: Huh, why did the Wind Walker vanish into mist, while the others became more or less iconic?
    • MONSTER REFERENCE TABLE ADDITION, HOSTILE & BENIGN CREATURES by Wesley D. Ives: April Fool’s article 6 months late, statting up Drolls, Buydras, Wererommels (Armor Class see Tractics), Weregandalfs, and so on. Entirely accurate depictions of several new-endangered species of wargamers.
    • THE BATTLE OF THE EBRO RIVER IN 5mm NAPOLEONICS: Actual play report, and again a bygone wargaming genre.
    • WARGAMING WORLD: Miniatures news, magazines, a few Play-by-Mail campaigns, almost all forgotten now.
    • GALLERY OF GUNFIGHTERS, Part 1 The Art of Gunfighting: Boot Hill hype, excellent background on how to live, fight, and die as a gunslinger. “He who lived by the gun frequently died by the gun; or on the short end of a long rope.”
    • FROM THE RIVENSTAR SONGBOOK: THE UNICORN SONG by Moonwulf of Rivenstar (aka Michael Longcor): Poetry/joke, the kind of thing you should copy out and sing for the players when they go to a tavern, so as to provoke a bar brawl.
    • MAPPING THE DUNGEONS: Addresses for D&D referees and clubs, and first action report of Dave (The Fiend) Arneson’s Nazis vs Necromancers wargame.
    • Deserted Cities of Mars, by Jim Ward: Description and generation tables for Barsoom, especially in Warriors of Mars. More of the early E.R. Burroughs influence, before litigation and the inferior tastes of mere Tolkien hippies excised most of this from D&D.
  • The Strategic Review V1N4 (Winter 1975): 75¢, 12-page newsletter format.
    • Editorial: Hiring of Tim Kask (“expect to see some improvements and changes in SR next issue”), Terry Kuntz (“will be the one responsible for all the rules interpretations requested, so get mad at him from now on.”), and Dave Arneson (“produce material like a grist mill (Crack! Snap! Work faster there, Dave!).” — Ha ha, no, Dave ended up writing half of Supplement II and then flaking out).
    • MAPPING THE DUNGEONS: Equivalents of MiniFigs “Swords & Sorcery” miniatures to Hyborean nationalities, which suggests quite a lot of early fantasy RPG/minis gaming was using Robert E. Howard’s Conan books as their semi-official setting.

      Fanzines announced: Alarums & Excursions, Greg Costikyan, several others already running “Dippy” Diplomacy fanzines.
    • CASTLE & CRUSADE, A FEW MORE WORDS ON MEDIEVAL POLEARMS by Gary Gygax: JESUS JUMPED UP CHRIST ON A SPINNING POGO STICK, GARY! ENOUGH.
    • CHAINMAIL WEAPONS ADDITIONS: Jo Stick, Bo Stick, and Quarterstaff stats, possibly munchkiny.
    • PANZER WARFARE: ADDITIONAL UNIT ORGANIZATIONS by Brian Blume: Division numbers for Russia, Italy, USA. There’s a fixed number of Battalions per year, but no costs listed, so I’m perplexed by what kind of game Panzer Warfare was, it seems high-detail and yet not concerned with your strategic investments?
    • THE STRATEGISTS CLUB: TSR fan club banquet seated 58 people, had a $20 gift cert (worth $88.89 in 2017’s debased currency). TSR won its own awards, but unlike most years, it earned those.
      • Best New Game Of 1974: Dungeons & Dragons
      • Outstanding Designer: Gygax & Arneson
      • Outstanding Writer: John Lundstrom – naval historian
      • Outstanding Wargame Magazine: Wargamer’s Digest
      • Best Miniature Figure Release: Custom-Cast “Fantastiques”
      • No award was made for the S&S novel due to the proliferation of novels named, and the catagory will probably be dropped.
    • THE EXCITING GAME OF FANTASTIC ADVENTURE: Dungeon!: Great introductory game, some version of it is still in print from Wizards of the Hasbro.
    • THE ARMORY TRACTICS WEAPON/VEHICLE GUN CHANGES: Errata sheet
    • WARGAMING WORLD: Gen Con, Origins, and a lot of diplomacy. More magazines, including The Space Gamer!
    • ILLUSIONISTS! GENERALLY APPEARING AS A NEW CLASS FOR DUNGEONS & DRAGONS By Peter Aronson: Much more of a balanced “advanced” class, Int & Dex 15 requirements were quite hard on 3d6, slightly limited in direct damage, but ideal for the crowd control activities Magic-Users were mostly doing anyway. Very limited set of magic items they could use. Generally a great spell list, only up to 13th experience Level and 5th spell Level, but that’s far above where any “legitimate” D&D ever reached (Gary will have many words on that subject in a future issue).
    • TSOLYANI NAMES WITHOUT TEARS by M. A. R. Barker: Illustrated with a fat priest about to sacrifice a terrified half-naked woman; why is it never a priestess about to sacrifice a terrified half-naked fat man? Cultural notes about naming EPT characters, and then 2 pages of tables and calligraphy which you would never be able to write at the gaming table; and this was when the only copy-cut-paste was with a mimeograph or Xerox, scissors, and glue.
    • Repeated boxes of THE DRAGON IS COMING!. He’s not even breathing hard.
    • Ad for Empire of the Petal Throne, $25 ($111.11 in 2017’s debased currency).
    • Creature Features: Clay Golem
    • Mighty Magic Miscelleny: “Ioun” Stones: Adapted with permission from Jack Vance’s “Morreion”, but then nerfed down from godlike artifacts taken from a dying star into trinkets that add a little stat bonus and can be easily caught.
    • Ad for En Garde!, GDW’s Three Musketeers RPG. $4 ($17.78 in…): Quite a good game, a mix of strategic career advancement and up-close duelling, keeps going in and out of print, so it’s not hard to find a copy somewhere, more or less unchanged since 1975.
    • GALLERY OF GUNFIGHTERS: Part II: John “DOC” Holliday (a/k/a Tom McKey): The guy everyone playing Boot Hill wants to be.

Review: Blueholme Journeymanne Rules

“These cyclopean corridors of peril await you and your players as they did my friends and me in 1976 when first we explored the dungeon of John Eric Holmes.”

—Chris Holmes, 2017

History: 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons (White Box) was incoherent, poorly illustrated, and almost unusable by itself. With some Strategic Review & Dragon articles, and then Greyhawk, it slouched towards a playable game.

In 1976-8, Dr. Eric J. Holmes wrote/edited a cleaned-up Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (Blue Box), and provided a readable, directly usable set of rules, some unique mechanics, new spells, and the art was a great mix of cartoony (Tom Wham), technical (Dave Trampier), and heroic (Dave Sutherland). The sole real defect was that it was limited to Level 3, and had references to ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS which turned out to be completely incompatible.

In 1978, I learned to play D&D with Holmes, the just-released Monster Manual (which uses Holmes/White Box/Greyhawk rules, despite saying it’s for AD&D), photocopies of White Box, and Supplement I: Greyhawk. And to this day, that’s what I think of as “Dungeons & Dragons that doesn’t suck”. Holmes has been out of print since the ’80s, and there was a mediocre scan on Paizo’s PDF store for a while (which I have).

Michael Thomas has gone above and beyond with Eric Holmes fandom, used Holmes’ fiction, collaborated with the son Chris Holmes, and brought in these influences, to make a real retro-clone of Holmes’ blue box as it may have been played at his table.

First, the art is excellent. The cover art by Jean-Francois Beaulieu evokes the original Sutherland dragon scene, the interior is black and white, clean line art in most cases. But there’s not much humor to it, it’s very serious business.

Blueholme Holmes
Beaulieu
Sutherland
Russ
Sutherland
Castellani
Trampier
BKM
Wham

Rules

These are low-powered, mechanically simple rules. You get bonuses for very few things, the power curve is very flat, and the tables are as weird/buggy as the original. Multi-classing is handled in a way vaguely suggested by how Elves worked in Holmes, adding all XP costs to level up evenly in all multi-classes, and is allowed to all character races. As in Holmes, there are only 5 alignments: Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil. All monsters and unknown things are allowed as races, subject to Dungeon Master Referee approval.

There are places where Blueholme extrapolates rules out differently than other editions, for instance Fighters receive damage bonuses at Level 4+; Magic-Users can create scrolls at low levels (Holmes’ intentional change or misreading of White Box, which only allowed Level 11 Wizards to make scrolls); Thieves immediately receive Read Language, Read Scroll, and Use Wand abilities, instead of waiting for high levels.

Magic-Users in this version are implied to have a library of tomes containing all standard spells, they’re just not all known yet, and can’t be carried along on adventures. I wouldn’t run it like that, because it’s less fun to return to base or have to spend all money on scrolls; just give the M-U a portable spellbook. The spell list is quite complete. Magic Missile is of the White Box/Holmes interpretation that a magic arrow requires an attack roll. Sleep has a range of 240′ (or yards outdoors!) and no save, so hooray, I get to TPK any Level 1-4 party with my Goblin wizards! All the spells are the old interpretations, and balance isn’t really a thing. You’ll be house-ruling things if you want slightly less chaos.

Cleric lists include all the reversed spells with their own names and clearly defined, which may be a first for any D&D game (I just avoid them in Stone Halls & Serpent Men).

“There are generally three distinct types of locale wherein adventure may be found: the Realm, the Wilderness, and the Underworld.”

And these are handled in rather different ways, which is an interesting way of encouraging Basic-style gameplay: Downtime in the mostly peaceful Realm, quick, dangerous runs through Wilderness, and long delves into the Underworld.

Combat uses Holmes’ initiative system, counting down Dex from highest to lowest in each of 5 combat phases. It plays out very differently than other D&D editions and OSR games, you really need waves of spell-casters, archers, and melee fighters. There’s not exactly unique weapon damage like Greyhawk, but a rule to distinguish small and large weapons.

The combat tables are generally just like White Box, with AC 9 (unarmored) down to AC 2 (plate & shield), and improvements in large steps every 3, 4, or 5 Levels. Saving throws are Breath Weapon, Wand/Touch, Gaze, Ray/Poison, Spell/Staff, similar to Holmes but differently ordered (since traditionally, but not specified in these rules, you choose the left-most applicable save, this can be a little different).

One place where this is anachronistic is that Thieves in Greyhawk fought and saved as Magic-Users; Holmes’ tables didn’t go all the way up, but implied they saved as Fighters; in Blueholme Thieves fight and save as Clerics. This is a slight power creep, and while it helps single-class Thieves, I’m leery of Magic-User/Thieves getting a cheap upgrade.

The Monsters are mostly the Holmes list, which had a lot of lower-level creatures with a few higher-level (implausibly so for Level 3 chars!) threats. There’s a fair amount of Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry monsters, often renamed a bit. And new monsters, such as Angel, Carnosaur, Cyclopian, Dagonite, Deep One, Demon (Normal, Large, or Huge, with a random roll table for powers rather than “Types”), Dreenoi (a SF insectoid race), Golem, Great Race, Green Grabber, Mayhar, Mi-Go, Old One, “Sagroth” aka White Apes, Sauropod, and Thipdon. Holmes’ fiction implied an H.P. Lovecraft/Clark Ashton Smith cosmology, and the game actually supports that. However, there’s no stats or mechanics for the greater entities of the Mythos, or insanity, which is disappointing.

There’s no experience for monsters table. And good luck finding even the experience rules, they’re under Adventures instead of next to Characters. You might search for the Grewyhawk experience table, or look at Delta’s XP: The Big Switch posts, or even just go back to White Box’s rule of 100 XP per HD, which makes low levels go very fast but is later the same as Greyhawk’s table.

The encounter tables often refer to monsters by their stock D&D names, not the Blueholme names, so you’ll be converting and page-flipping if you want to use them.

There’s an entirely new treasure table, which has slightly less coinage at first glance, but greatly increased numbers and values of gems & jewelry (far more likely to be 1000 GP or more). Armour, weapon, and misc magic item tables are longer, giving high-level loot, but there are no intelligent weapons, which were a mainstay of White Box, or artifacts as in Eldritch Wizardry. I don’t hate these tables, but they’re not suitable for stocking a dungeon without careful picking and choosing.

  • Vampire in Holmes: 10%: 2-20 x 1000 SP, 20%: 1-8 x 1000 EP, 45%: 1-12 x 1000 GP, 30%: 1-6 x 1000 PP, 20%: 2-24 Gems, 10%: 1-12 Jewelry, 30%: 3 non-weapon magic + 1 potion + 1 scroll
  • Vampire in Blueholme: 50%: 1d4 Gems/Jewelry, plus 10%: 3d6 x 500 SP, 20%: 2d8 x 500 EP, 45%: 4d6 x 500 GP, 30%: 2d6 x 500 PP, 15%: 6d6 Gems/Jewelry, 30%: 1 any item + 1 potion + 1d6 scrolls.

Campaigns explains how to design and stock maps, and some of the advice seems usable, but there is no equivalent to Holmes’ Great Stone Skull Mountain or sample dungeon (certainly the first good dungeon design I ever read), and the only examples of play in Blueholme are combat; Holmes spent pages on narration of exploration & mapping.

At the end is an optional rule for making ability rolls, 3d6 vs. ability score, with a short example. This is perhaps the only real nod to modernity, the kind of thing we did ad hoc back in the day but never had a consistent rule about.

Rating

  • Presentation: ★★★★☆ A lovely book, painstakingly correctly laid out. There are few errors I’ve found.
  • Organization: ★★★☆☆ Straightforward D&D organization, except perhaps that the optional character rules should not be on the last page. But there’s no index, and that’s a problem. With the PDF at least I can search for keywords, but in print this is hard to use.
  • Rules: ★★★★☆ For a traditional D&D-type game, this is the one you should play. If you can find an XP table.
  • Setting: ★★☆☆☆ Aside from the monsters, there’s just no setting, no adventure, no anything to suggest this isn’t in a white void combat arena. Holmes’ few pages of backstory, town, and sample dungeon at least gave it context. Super disappointing.
  • Utility: ★★★★☆ Sit down and run an old adventure. You don’t need to house rule much (at least at first), and it’s immediately playable.
  • Average: ★★★½☆ I love this book, but the flaws are also significant. I still think it’s the best straight-up retroclone; not a “new game sort of like D&D”, but “what D&D was like when I liked it”.

Harry Potter and the Natural 20

The best fanfic I’ve ever read (a short list, but generally not good), more rational than HP and the Methods of Rationality. Take a munchkiny D20 3.5 Magic-User Wizard, drop him into the story, watch how a little adventurer-logic fixes everything. Except where it goes far off the rails, because Milo’s tenacious but doesn’t quite understand NPC human behavior.

I binge-read book 1 of HP:N20 in a couple days, I’m trying to pace out the last bit; doesn’t look like it finishes book 2.

I know I’ve seen a few magical school modules, but I can’t find them. Not a lot ever tried, because Rowling/Scholastic are aggressive litigators and she doesn’t seem to like/understand RPGs.

  • Principalities of Glantri from 1987 had a School of Magic section, including a campaign setup for playing children at this boarding school, magical duelling, and the kind of constantly-hazardous “education” Hogwarts would be infamous for 10 years later.
  • College of Wizardry is one of those books I almost bought, but “eh, it’ll be boring, uncontroversial pablum, like all 2E stuff”.
  • Magic & Mischief is a Lasers & Feelings type game about Hogwartsy games, which might work as the system for non-D20 wand wizards.
  • Scholomance, by R. Lee Smith is on my reading list, and certainly looks like good material for a different magical school.
  • Witch Girls Adventures made a lot of noise when it came out, but I’m the wrong demographic for it.

Also, the fanfic is full of useful information:

D&D Tip: You know how Elmer Fudd feels when he’s chasing Bugs off a cliff and keeps running for awhile until Bugs hands him a book explaining gravity and he falls? Turns out that’s how D&D works, too. Check this out:
Monks are not actually proficient with unarmed strike.
Now that you know, you can’t unlearn it.
Happy gaming!

Dragon+ Magazine

Dragon+ magazine has some interesting content, mostly in the maps and some paintings (Hasbro can certainly afford good artists).

But the reader is a cruel joke. What is Hasbro doing? There’s an iOS app, Android app, and web version, but no PDF. It’s free-as-in-kittens content, why do I have to page thru this abysmal UI they’ve cobbled together? Or why can’t it just be a series of static, usable web pages, which might even be searchable?

D&D Survey

Hasbro has a D&D Survey which you should take, if you think the current edition’s direction needs adjustment.

My feedback comment:

Lack of PDF editions of 5th edition makes it a complete non-starter to me. I have the SRDs, which are fine for understanding the game if I’m ever in a group which will only play it, but if Hasbro can’t be bothered to publish in the format I use, I won’t buy. Meanwhile I can get every other game and module ever made as a PDF on my iPad.

While I liked Greyhawk back in the ’80s, I’m not a fan of necrophiliacs digging up Gary’s grave looting his setting and breaking everything because they didn’t take the time to understand it. Most of Hasbro’s would-be module or setting writers are hacks who can’t publish a novel, so they wreck settings or write linear trash adventures.

Compare basically anything published for 5th ed with anything by Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Venger Satanis, and it’s just laughable that anyone would choose Hasbro.

Do better or stop trying.

Beyond D&D

Just a quick note, the D&D Beyond site is now up.

Character creation seems OK, though I was unable to pick a multiclass before rolling ability scores, so the workflow there is backwards. It exports a decent PDF form, but only listed my “prepared” spells, leaving off two known spells. Still some work to do.

Compendium lets you buy digital rulebooks… Which seem to be only on the site, not PDFs, and rather hilariously have all the subclasses as DLC/addons/Pay-to-Win. No shit, you pay $1.99 to be an Assassin. Or $3.99 to choose from backgrounds like Charlatan, Urchin, or Pirate. I can’t even tell if this was a joke that went too far, or what. It’s a fucking role-playing game, man, you can write whatever you want in your background.

The entire set of “content” is $279.99. I am, uh, kind of awestruck at Wizards of the Hasbro’s chutzpah and greed.

Old-School Modules, Part I

I need to post more often. A new update of Stone Halls & Serpent Men is coming, but needs some more work and testing, since I’m making a significant change: Level 1 characters will only receive 2 Professions, they’ll get a 3rd at Level 2. There’s also a major gameplay & player control tool, and some other goodies.

In the mean time, I thought I’d go thru the collection of ancient modules, and see which ones are suitable and interesting to run with Stone Halls & Serpent Men. Since I expect most people don’t have the oldest rules (even though you can buy all but Holmes currently on DriveThruRPG), I’m just going to include their maps to show what they’re like, but I won’t do that for the standalone modules. All map rights held by Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast/TSR, except Outdoor Survival by The Avalon Hill Game Company.

This first installment will just cover original D&D, Holmes, Moldvay, and B1.

Dungeons & Dragons Book III Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (TSR, Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974)

The underworld adventure consists of a side-view of 6 levels split into several parts with interconnections, but no key.

There is a partially-keyed map for level 1. Not really usable as an adventure by itself, and the other levels are not detailed.

The outdoor map is the Outdoor Survival boardgame, with some features changed into fantastic equivalents, but it’s unkeyed.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Barely a sketch.

D&D Book 3-pg 3
D&D Book 3-pg 4
Outdoor Survival

Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Set (TSR, Eric J. Holmes, 1977)

There’s a much better side-view map of The Great Stone Skull Mountain, 7 levels including a domed city. But again there is no key.

The sample dungeon has a setting (sadly not the interior of the Great Stone Skull), a nearby town, and is fully keyed, with stats for the NPCs. I’ve only used this dungeon a couple times ever, but it’s nearly a modern adventure. Interesting points are the multiple entrances (stairs, tower, and sea cave) and multiple loops; it’s unreasonably hard for a defender to hold this dungeon, but that’s good for a starter adventure, where an overly powerful enemy can be avoided.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ Acceptable, if bare-bones.

D&D Basic-pg 39
D&D Basic-pg 42

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Basic Set (TSR, Tom Moldvay, 1981)

The side-view doesn’t even have named levels.

The sample dungeon of the Haunted Keep has one tower mapped with a few small rooms but a sort of interesting maze, fully keyed with example rolls from the tables. The scenario backstory about wererats, the second tower, and the 2nd-3rd levels are not mapped. I’ve never used this, and it’s kind of a sad little stub of an adventure.

However, note the dungeon key, by this time dungeon notation’s become standardized.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ Incomplete.

Basic D&D-pg 58
Basic D&D-pg 57
Basic D&D-pg 58-key

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Expert Set (TSR, Dave Cook & Steve Marsh, 1981)

The sample wilderness is the Grand Duchy of Karameikos with a hex map and 3 barely-described towns, and an unkeyed “Gnome Lair”. But it does have a terrain notation key.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Nothing there.

Expert D&D-pg 61
Expert D&D-pg 62-gnome lair
Expert D&D-pg 62-key

B1 In Search of Adventure (TSR, Mike Carr, 1979)

Two complex maze-like levels, completely filling a page each (starting the very artificial pattern of an 8.5×11, north-facing dungeon map, easily predicted by players), with about 8 themed areas. Quasqueton is a funhouse trap dungeon built by an obviously unstable wizard and his murderous militant partner. The descriptions are often evocative of the tone of a well-run facility degraded into the den of a few scavenging monsters. This is not a “mythic underworld”, it’s not Gygaxian Naturalism with ecological notes and political interactions mapped out, but somewhere in between.

There is no side-view, and it’s not absolutely needed, but there are multiple connections between the levels. A more 3-dimensional dungeon would probably be too hard for novice players to map.

The monsters and treasures are given in separate lists at the end of the module, not assigned to specific rooms, whether to throw off players who have read the module, or because TSR was trying to teach novice “Dungeon Masters” how to distribute items, though I don’t think they succeeded at that.

There’s a good section of character lists (12 of each class), for pregens or henchmen, with randomized personality, arms, armor, level, and spells.

The handout/background sheet including a Sutherland illustration and adventuring tips is interesting. And the occasional interior art, mostly by David C. Sutherland III and some “DIS & DAT” with David A. Trampier of Wormy fame, is both informative and a little wacky.

In general, this dungeon is less deadly and more forgiving than one designed to test experienced players. It is designed to be fairly challenging, however, and is by no means “easy.” Careless adventurers will pay the penalty for a lack of caution—only one of the many lessons to be learned within the dungeon!

The dungeon itself is ready to run, and I think it’s an interesting challenge even 38 years later. I’d replace the every-monster-in-the-book tables entirely with a smaller number of themed monsters, and work out patrol paths and zones where they can hear alarms and come running. Make the dungeon a living community instead of a prison where you murder inmates. The treasures are almost acceptable in value (maybe halved, with the really good ones hidden or guarded better than usual), but there’s no flavor text for any of the magic items, which I consider unacceptable, so I’d have to expand those.

Rating: ★★★½☆ The page-fitting maps and fill-in monsters & treasures hurt an otherwise respectable challenge dungeon.

B1-pg 31

If all attempts to escape fail, the persons trapped will be doomed to their fate.

Indeed.

Next time I’ll look at Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog and B2.

Non-Human PCs

Ken St. Andre (@Trollgodfather) was musing on Twitter:

Gamers, did you know that Monsters! Monsters!, a direct spinoff from Tunnels & Trolls published by Metagaming in 1976 was the first frpg to allow–nay, it required you–to play monsters as your protagonist player character. Not just humanoids, but any monster. Dragon anyone?

Monsters! Monsters! is pretty straightforward, Tunnels & Trolls with a giant list of monster stats instead of a few puny humanoids, how to fight humanoids, a sample village full of enemies (that STR 20 Miller is a beast!). It’s very much a sandbox, where your monsters go out and do whatever malevolence they want before returning to a nice safe dungeon.

It’d be a great game to run Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic (sort of NSFW), where half the characters are monsters from Black Mountain, half are humanoids from stupid fantasy kingdoms. Or mix it up with the old Dwarfstar boardgames as maps & scenarios.

(Speaking of which, I need to write a serious review of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls; I meant to do some tabletop or online play first, but that’s not happening, and I do play solos with it.)


White box D&D (Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (“Should any player wish to be one”, as crappy max level 4 Fighting Men), and the following rules-less advice:

Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as, let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (ed. by Eric Holmes, 1977) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (without the snark or level cap, alas), and again no rules, just advice:

ADDITIONAL CHARACTER CLASSES

There are a number of other character types which are detailed in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. There are sub-classes of the four basic classes. They are: paladins and rangers (fighting men), illusionists and witches (magic-users), monks and druids (clerics), and assassins (thieves). There are half elves. Special characteristics for dwarven, elven, and halfling thieves are given. In addition, rules for characters who possess the rare talent of psionic ability are detailed. However, for a beginning campaign these additions are not necessary, and players should accustom themselves to regular play before adding further complexities.

At the Dungeon Master’s discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man.

By 1979, all such permissiveness is gone, and I’m certain this comes from Gary having burned out on convention tournament games being griefed by weird characters, and just locking it down. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide has a 2-column essay on how unacceptable monster PCs are, followed by 3 columns on handling PCs infected with lycanthropy, so that nobody would want to keep it.

THE MONSTER AS A PLAYER CHARACTER

On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures. This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign. A moment of reflection will bring them to the un-alterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind.

[4¶ on how great humankind is elided…]

As to other sorts of monsters as player characters, you as DM must decide in light of your aims and the style of your campaign. The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded. Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign -and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them Off.

So you are virtually on your own with regard to monsters as player characters. You have advice as to why they are not featured, why no details of monster character classes are given herein. The rest is up to you, for when all is said and done, it is your world, and your players must live in it with their characters. Be good to yourself as well as them, and everyone concerned will benefit from a well-conceived, well-ordered, fairly-judged campaign built upon the best of imaginative and creative thinking.

I love the trite sign-off of his Rule Zero caveat. When Gary was being nice like that, he was flipping you off.


In Stone Halls & Serpent Men, I allow anything with the “Monster” race, because it really doesn’t hurt the game if they’re levelled up just like anyone else. The limits on gaining abilities are a little tough, but they keep monsters from completely overwhelming the humanoids.

A monster PC will have social problems, but rarely kill-on-sight: A Gargoyle stomping through the streets of Glorien would scare the citizens, and the guards will keep a distance and get more competent help to find out what the monster wants, but a relatively peaceful monster’s gold spends the same as a Human’s.