Don’t Sleep It’s Broken

Expanding/editing my comments from What Makes Something Broken G+ thread:

“Broken”, for me, is anything that makes normal character choices, tactics, or roleplay irrelevant.

“Normal”, for me, is whatever’s described in the setting. This is sometimes implicit, but there are books mentioned in the D&D prefaces, Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, or John Carter of Mars, or some Cimmerian thief named Conan.

The World of Greyhawk looks like 100-Years-War to Napoleonics, with Elves and Dwarfs and Giants on the fringes. Blackmoor/First Fantasy Campaign looked like the Italian Renaissance on a border with Mongol hordes, with cults armed with alien tech. Empire of the Petal Throne looks like the Aztec Empire, Vedic period India (pre-600 CE), a lot of advanced tech, weird aliens, and quasi-Lovecraftian gods; things that are broken in default setting or Greyhawk may be more passable in Blackmoor or EPT.

Exhibit 1: Sleep:

Sleep: A Sleep spell affects from 2–16 1st-level types (hit dice of up to 1 + 1), from 2–12 2nd-level types (hit dice of up to 2 + 1), from 1–6 3rd-level types, and but 1 4th-level type (up to 4 + 1 hit dice). The spell always affects up to the number of creatures determined by the dice. If more than the number rolled could be affected, determine which “sleep” by random selection. Range: 24”. [mdh: 240′ indoors, 240 yards outdoors]
—Book I: Men & Magic

Sleep spell is my classic example of “broken”. Many players love original edition no-save long-range area-effect Sleep, rampaging thru a dungeon with it, until a Referee has an NPC magic-user TPK them with it. Walk into the far end of a 240′-long corridor, or cross a field at 1/7 of a mile away, and there’s no save, fall asleep, throats cut. Then everyone’s unhappy.

The only defense is taking up to 16 equal-Level mercenaries along, so some of them will get slept instead of the PCs, but then the PCs are probably paying equal shares and make no money, which in original edition either directly becomes XP, or can be spent on training/orgies to get XP. So progress grinds to a halt because of this stupid spell.

This is not “normal” in anything except maybe EPT, where a small army of slaves were de rigueur dungeoneering gear, and got expended in traps and spells.

There is nothing else you can do. Die or cower behind a wall of cannon fodder. No rational NPC Magic-User would ever have any Level 1 spell but Sleep ready.

In practice there’s a polite agreement where the Referee doesn’t give common hostile NPCs Sleep, because the game ends if they do. Just searching TSR’s B-series PDFs, I see one hostile NPC with Sleep in B4 Lost City’s Tier 3, one boss you shouldn’t stand-up fight in B6 Veiled Society, a deadly magician in B7 Rahasia, and a couple in B9 Castle Caldwell. All of the other sleep-inducing gasses and other effects give saving throws.

In less dogmatic games, the Referee just house-rules a saving throw in and maybe reduces the range, and it’s a non-broken spell again.

Exhibit 2: The Ranger:

The additional classes (from Strategic Review, early Dragon, and Supplements I-III) beyond the first 4 are generally broken. Rangers, Paladins, Cavaliers, and Barbarians are better than Fighters in every way. Assassins, Bards, and Monks are better than Thieves in almost every way (trivially lower skill chance). Druids are better than Clerics at spell-casting, weapons, AND can turn into bears! Illusionists are the only somewhat balanced additional class. There is no reason to take a stock Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, or Cleric if you can take one of the additional classes.

The setting implies mostly human warriors, thieves, wizards, and priests of varying types. Demi-humans without level limits, balanced stats, or some other drawback are broken, because there is then no reason to be Human. In OD&D, Dwarfs are limited to 6th Level, Elves are limited to 4th/8th Fighter/Magic-User, Halflings to 4th Level; non-Humans rarely appeared in Gary Gygax’s groups.

You can make a setting for that, I used to run an urban-vs-wilderness setting where the primary classes were Assassins, Cavaliers, Illusionists, and Nightblades (reskinned Bards) vs Rangers (toned down from the RAW), Druids, and Barbarians (toned down even more). A generic “fighter” or “thief” didn’t exist, and would have been completely overshadowed by better classes.


3d6 Six Times In Order

“I’m gonna revise what I said earlier. You’re not cowards if you don’t try this, you’re boring. And that’s worse. Cowards at least can be interesting. Who dares, wins.”

This, I completely agree with. Players are often terrified of 3d6 stats (or even the 1d4-1d4 I use in Stone Halls & Serpent Men), in a way that’s never made sense to me.

My first three characters in 1978, with 1-2 players and 1 DM so we each ran a few guys, were rolled 3d6 in order:

  • Grecal: Dex 16, Int 15, Wis 6, rest 10 or less. Magic-User. Sneakiest bastard mage/knife-thrower ever. Later class-changed to Illusionist.
  • Starkad: Str 15, Cha 13, rest 10 or less. Fighting Man. I’d been reading about the Norse sagas, because that’s the kind of weird kid I was.
  • Cleric I don’t remember: No really terrible stats. Died in first adventure. I’ve played only one Cleric again (Gracke Sundowner the Half-Orc Fighter/Chaos Cleric) in the following 40 years.

I played both Grecal and Starkad actively for years, they finally got killed in an asshole DM’s deathtrap dungeon called Hexcomb Horror, so I just ignored that session and kept using them. Now they’re just background NPCs, as a Referee I don’t spotlight hog from players like Ed Greenwood, but they’re around if you need information or a patron.

There’s no significant benefit or penalty to high or low stats in Original D&D, Holmes Basic, or other white box rules (up to +10% XP gain! Maybe a +1 bonus!); but even when they were run in power-gamer AD&D, they were fine. Stat rolls against any mediocre stat, in any stat roll system (1d20-roll-under, 3d6-roll-under, 1d20+bonuses over target number, etc.) are going to give you a 25-50% chance of success, which works fine in actual play. Just don’t make stat rolls be save-or-die without some warning, way to get a higher bonus, or way to recover; failure is a complication and a few complications or stupid play should lead to death.

One point Noah doesn’t get to: In Original D&D, there’s a TON of ways to increase or decrease your stat scores. Fountains (drink everything! … after testing for acid, etc.), magic books, divine favors (sacrifice at every altar!), etc. Sometimes you get an increase, sometimes a decrease, but you need that random variation to improve. Later editions (and SH&SM because it’s balanced against 3E) gave level-up stat increases just like CRPGs had been doing since the early ’80s. You’re not stuck with crappy stats forever, there’s a chance you’ll get better.

The fear of 3d6 in order is especially galling in Tunnels & Trolls, where the entire advancement mechanic is that you start off kinda crap and get to add to your stats.

Adventuring in Stone Halls & Serpent Men

Have brought in a lot of lessons learned from using SH&SM, more optional rules, and reorganized adventuring to be more convenient. Layout and proper art pass are still on my TODO list, but not for a while longer.

Moved the download links to a permanent page:

  • Stone Halls & Serpent Men

  • Editing:

    • All fractions now display super/subscript.
  • Characters:
    • Stat death now happens at -5 (equal to 0 on 3-18 scale) instead of -6 (equal to -2 on 3-18 scale)
    • Hit Point options
    • Assassin’s Stealth gets more detail
    • Hunter skills get more detail
    • Prestige Professions all require Level 4
    • Alchemist gets Create Chemical
    • How to roll social status for NPCs
    • Earthborn starting equipment
  • Equipment:
    • Took 18th C lanterns out of medieval tech, gave Dwarfs Shadowvision instead of Darkvision
    • Purchaseable poisons
  • Combat:
    • Multiple Attack Initiative
    • New Combat Stances for more tactical, martial arts choices
    • Weapon vs Armor (Optional)
  • Adventuring:
    • Moved to a more useful location.
    • Explain dungeon depth and Level.
    • Law & Order
  • Hazards:
    • Combined details of Search, Invisible, Stealth, Tracking Scent, Keen Senses.
    • Cave-Ins
    • Advanced Deprivation
    • Insanity, using Curses for the effects, rather than a Freudian list of disorders
    • Intoxication
  • Magic:
    • Low-mana and high-mana environments affect MP
    • Doubling spell range & duration with extra MP
    • Optional: Material Components
  • Bestiary:
    • Terror effects added to several monsters
    • Bear variants
    • Cat, Dog, Crocodile, Frog
    • Ghost, Wraith, Spectre combined & expanded
    • Skeletal Warrior, Knight
  • Treasure:
    • Adjusted many monster treasures (mostly down)
    • Made treasureGenerator.html to roll random treasures.
  • Referee:
    • Place Names
    • Weather
    • More Traps
    • Community Events


Kyle Mecklem asked:

What should a game have to possess the “spirit” of old school Dungeons & Dragons?

Good question!

D&D-nature is about exploring some area (possibly a social graph, as seen in B6), call-response interaction with the Referee (see those early examples of play in OD&D and Holmes), and deadly results from bad luck or bad decision-making, with just enough rules to handle the common cases.

There are no fixed rules.

  • Six stats? Many games have 3 stats, or 7 or 8, and are still D&D-nature.
  • Group initiative? OD&D used Chainmail’s individual weapon-rank initiative system. Holmes basic used individual Dex-rank, rolls for ties.
  • Hit Points? Chainmail just had alive/dead results from combat, and it was the official combat system of OD&D. There are later games that have no HP and only survival rolls, which seems VERY D&D-nature.
  • Descending AC? Most retro-clones have ascending AC, and they seem to have D&D-nature.
  • XP? Metamorphosis Alpha has D&D-nature and no experience system.
  • Theatre of the mind combat? Well, mostly, but some people do run D&D-nature games with minis, tho I think that’s poor form.

In fact, I don’t see any rules that can’t be thrown out and still have D&D-nature, and for example Ken St. Andre, M.A.R. Barker, James Ward, Greg Stafford, Kevin Siembieda, and Dave Hargrave recognized that and made their own things which are still D&D-nature. Venger Satanis‘s Crimson Dragon Slayer is D&D-nature, even though it’s basically Over the Edge (I was going to say “with swords”, but there’s few guns on Al Amarja, so… it’s OTE)

Where it stops is when you’ve codified everything and forbidden people from screwing with the rules, or nerfed it so nobody can have a stupid death.

  • AD&D does not have D&D-nature, not so much because of the excessive rules as Gary’s rules-as-written edicts from convention games.
  • Obviously some forms of D20 have D&D-nature, even if 3.0, 3.5, and Pathfinder do not.
  • 4E did not, it’s arguably not even an RPG.
  • 5E kinda does, but it covers every surface in Nerf® and makes sure mommy will kiss your owies and give you back a hit die when you take a popsicle break. Has anyone ever died in a 5E game? Is a TPK possible?

D&D Cartoon Time

“That was Venger, the force of evil! I am Dungeon Master, your guide, in the world of Dungeons & Dragons!”

Classic, but note:

  • Ranger: Cheesemonkey munchkin Aryan creep. Basically everything I loathe most wrapped up in one guy, and he’s the “leader”, just because he talks loudest.
  • Cavalier (Eric): Whiny rich asshole with plate & shield but no sword. Should’ve been a Paladin so at least he’d have “good” to excuse his “stupid”. I kinda get a “Less Than Zero” vibe off Eric, like he might’ve ended up like Julian if he’d stayed on Earth. He’s the right age, demographic, and attitude.
  • Acrobat (Diana): Worst class ever, but the girl’s cute and fur bikinis are sexy. Monk or Assassin would’ve been better.
  • Thief (Sheila): Soulless ginger with a voice like fingernails on chalkboard. But she’s the only effective-at-class character.
  • Barbarian (Bobby) & Whiny Thing (Uni): Thief’s little brother sat in on a game, and got the only class more broken than Ranger. Never uses any of the dozen+ skills given in Dragon #63/Unearthed Arcana. Is Uni supposed to be the party healer? It never comes up that I know of.
  • Magic-User (Presto): Mediocre amateur does nothing except with magic items, which is a good levelling strategy for classic M-U. Unfortunately, he has no self-direction, casts only when he’s ordered to by others, and his “spells” are just begging for help with some “alla-kazam” chants. I’m pretty sure anytime someone calls him “Wizard” they’re being sarcastic, since that’s the 11th-level class title, and he’s 0-level.

Dungeon Master runs an annoying game, probably modeled on Ed Greenwood, where he appears in-game as his own talking head NPC to deliver quests and lame backstory (“until the dragons were driven away by good magic”).

Random encounter table in the quadruple-sun wastelands of Dungeodragonia:

  1. Tiamat
  2. Venger and/or Shadow Demon
  3. Flight of Shadow Dragons
  4. Giant Scorpion
  5. Fat Dragon
  6. Beholder

Party marching order is terrible, Rgr, Cav, Acro, M-U, Thf, Barb. Dumb. Should be: Acro (walks point), Barb (lead fighter), Cav, Rgr (ranged), M-U, Thief (trail rear); swap Acro & Thief situationally.

“Tell me, Ranger, what brings YOU here?”
“You know me?”
“He’s Merlin, he knows everyone!”

Asshole wearing green leathers with a bow and a smug look of someone with an extra hit die. It’s not magic to guess he’s a Ranger who’s so personality-less he only goes by “Ranger”.

Horrific nightmare fuel, a semi-invisible Hector the Halfling; this is why I don’t allow Hobbits:

Hector the Halfling

Hey, it’s KELEK™, Evil Sorcerer (Chaotic Sorcerer, 7th Level Magic-User), WARDUKE™, Evil Fighter (Chaotic Superhero, 8th Level Fighter), and STRONGHEART™, Good Paladin (Lawful Lord, 10th Level Fighter) as seen in XL1-Quest for the Heartstone and the D&D toy line. Kelek’s plan was bonkers but effective, except then Venger kicked his ass. Warduke captured Dungeon Master, that’s one bad-ass NPC.

In Strongheart’s XL1 stats he’s just a fighter, with an intelligent magic sword +2 (not a holy avenger!) that can detect evil & heal; that’s a neat end-run around Paladinhood. In “Servant of Evil”, he’s a useless follower with a cask of Santory 1855(!), and a magic golden hammer that makes force fields; very disappointing appearance.

The Orcs here are exactly how I envision them: Green-skinned & pig-snouted, cruel slavers at the Mines of Theramore (! later used in World of Warcraft as their super racist Human supremacist faction city). Lizard Men look far too human-with-lizard-heads. Bullywugs are overly competent, they remind me more of the Final Fantasy “Sahagin” more than either D&D Bullywugs or Sahuagin.

“Magic armor, shields, and weaponry
Barbarians detest magic and distrust those who use it. They will refuse to employ any sort of magic item if they recognize it as such. They will destroy magic items if they have their way. While a magic-user will be shunned by barbarians, clerical spells are not regarded as magic (except for the more powerful spells not typically usable by a tribal shaman or low-level cleric), so barbarians will associate with clerics on occasion.”
—Gary Gygax, “The Big, Bad Barbarian”, Dragon #63

So Bobby ignores this rule not just for the Magic-User (which, to be fair, everyone playing Barbarians ignored, just as Paladins ignored the obvious Assassins and other heretics in the party), and his club and the party’s items, but also a magic amulet handed directly to him by the Dungeon Master. I know he’s like 8 years old, but cheating little bastard.

“Magic works in “our world,” though with some limitations. Magic-users without spell books will, of course, be unable to regain cast spells. Clerics will be completely out of touch with their deities and their servants, and subsequently will not be able to regain spells above second level. There may be problems obtaining material components
for spells, and substitutions may result in interesting alterations of spell effects at the DM’s option. Some spells are affected by the location; see below for more information on spell alterations.”
—Robert Shroeck, “The City Beyond The Gate”, Dragon #100

The multiverse magic rules are inconsistent and wrong. In “Beauty and the Bogbeast” and “The Box”, the kids get back to Earth, they have to leave Uni behind, and their magic weapons don’t work on Earth; but also in “The Box”, Venger (a demon!) is able to reach Earth with his flying nightmare mount, and his magic works. There’s also “Modern Monsters” by Ed Greenwood (ack, spit) in Dragon #57, and “Sixguns & Sorcery” in the AD&D DMG, clearly stating these principles. The kids should be able to come back to Earth with their weapons and start a new dark age of magic and tyranny.

“PRESTO Spells Disaster” starts with the party being chased through a forest by a Stegosaur; it’s classic D&D to have dinosaurs running around, but it was a plains herbivore. Robert T. Bakker hadn’t published The Great Dinosaur Debate yet, but this was known from pre-80s research.

We finally get a name for the four-armed, membrane-winged, face-tentacled monster from the Prison of Agony, “Slimebeast”, which is weird since it isn’t slimy, and doubly weird since there’s never been official stats for it!

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.

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
      • 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 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.
    • 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.
    • 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


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 Greyhawk 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.


  • 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!