Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Holmes Thought Experiment

In the afterglow (and recovery from) the celebration of Pascha (Easter), I was reading the introduction to the Cook-edited Expert D&D book and was transported in time back to 1981 when Moldvay's Basic first came out. On my way over to my best friend's house for our weekly get together, I got into an argument with him over which version of D&D was better — my Holmes Basic edition or his shiny new Moldvay Basic edition. There wasn't much substance to our argument (it was really just an "I've got a newer one, nya nya!" kind of fight), though I do remember scoring points because Holmes had stats for giants.

I had this flashback because Cook includes some tips for using my old Blue Book should I not have the Red Book version of the Basic rules (what he calls the "early edition of D&D Basic" and "older D&D Basic"). Cook explicitly states:

...in any place where the older D&D Basic rules and the new D&D Expert rules differ, the D&D Expert rules should be used…several charts from D&D Basic have been reprinted on the back of the title page for reference.

I remember buying the Expert book before I went out and bought Molday's Basic (and before we eventually all moved onto "Advanced" D&D because that was obviously better than "Basic" and "Expert"). Thus, there was a time in my life when following Cook's advice would have been necessary.

Here is where I came up with a little thought experiment. Given that my friends and I didn't have access to, the budget for or fell into the implied advertising campaign of AD&D, what would've happened if I continued to insist that the Holmes edition was better than Moldvay's? In other words, what would my home-brew D&D games look like if I did the opposite of what Cook recommended and I allowed Holmes to trump Cook?

Cook lists the major areas where the two rules differ (Alignment, Encumbrance, Weapons (both normal & magical), Monsters (where Expert emphasizes wilderness encounters and there a few statistical discrepancies) and Treasure (Holmes prefers random placement and has 5 copper = 1 silver), but there is an amazing amount of consistency. This amalgam of Holmes & Cook is not really that far out in left field.

There are a couple of significant differences and omissions that I really like, however, when Holmes is preferred over Cook where the two differ:


Characteristics are de-emphasized to a dramatic degree and their primary function is to determine whether or not someone gets an experience point bonus.
  • No combat bonus for Strength.
  • Intelligence gives the wonderful wonky percentage to know spells and a minimum number of known spells — which the Magic User appears to start with!
  • No save bonus vs spell for Wisdom.
  • Dexterity give only a bonus to hit with missile fire.
  • Constitution still gives a hit point bonus (but only for 15 and above)
  • Charisma is not a dump stat — it can save a character's life. High Charisma characters are more likely to be taken prisoner that be killed and their followers (both men and monsters) will stand by until death. There is no upper limit for the number of hirelings with high Charisma.


There is an absolutely fascinating little paragraph in Holmes about Additional Character Classes:

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.

Couple this with the hints at paladins, rangers, illusionists, witches, monks, druids, assassins, half-elves and the idea that Dwarves and Halflings can advance as either Fighting-men or Thieves and elves are both Magic-Users and Fighting-men gives players a tremendous amount of freedom to fiddle with classes. In addition, this creates a nice little compromise between race-as-class (which I am a fan of) and those who want their dwarf or halfling to be something other than a dressed-up fighter.

Whereas there is plenty of information upon which to hypothesize a Halfling and Dwarven Thief, there really is no immediately apparent way to proceed with the other classes suggested. The half-elf seems to suggest an elf who can be either a Magic-User OR a Fighting-man.


Personally, I love the touch that there are no holy symbols, only crosses!


In practice, I tend to ignore encumbrance until it becomes obviously important (like how are you going to move 50,000 gold pieces?). I abstractly base movement rates upon armor worn. Therefore, I love the common-sense approach Holmes takes towards encumbrance — players list a location for every piece of equipment carried. If it doesn't make sense, you can't carry it.


I love the fact that Armor Class is a representation of a type of armor, rather than an abstract number. Sans a Dex bonus to AC, magic bonuses become a penalty to the attacker's roll. This opens the door to plausible Weapon vs. AC use.


Gnolls are mentioned throughout Holmes. They exist in the wandering monster tables, as examples for spell targets, as a language demi-humans know and as the equivalent for how a kobold-chief should fight as. There is even an illustration that we modern gamers would recognize as gnolls (hyena-men); however, they are not among the monsters in the monster section. Nor are they in Cook's Expert edition. It is possible to infer that they are 2HD creatures (based on their place and number in Holmes' monster encounter tables) but zero description as what a gnoll actually is. Thus, we are free to make it anything that we want — I am personally tempted to go with Lord Dunsany's gnoles who appear to be gem-loving dark fey who live in hidden holes in trees.


Magic-users can spend 100gp and 1 week per spell-level to create scrolls! This gives them a tremendous amount of flexibility — if they can afford it. This is rather key, since in Holmes Magic-Users can only use daggers and they will always have an AC none with no bonuses to protect them at low levels.

Finally, Holmes has the Stone Mountain cross-section with its evocative Great Stone Skull, The Pit and Domed City & came with B1 rather than B2...


  1. Does Holmes have variable weapon damage? Across the board d6 weapon damage seems to come up when folks talk about how low-level Magic-users in OD&D aren't as weak as with variable weapon damage.

  2. @Spawn of Endra

    No; however, it is not explicit. Cook does give variable weapon damage as an option. Interestingly, I just noticed that Holmes has daggers able to attack twice per round which makes me wonder why anyone would want to wield anything else...

  3. I'm near positive that the reference to daggers attacking twice in a round is simply a justification as to why it does the same damage as a great sword, and not to be taken as a literal two attacks a round. They have a similar damage potential because they are quicker. I've heard it explained as a reference to weapon speed in AD&D, but to me it just reads as though it is poorly worded.

  4. Later printings of the Holmes rulebook did have an entry for gnolls in the monster section. See https://sites.google.com/site/zenopusarchives/ for more information

  5. There's been a lot of of work on this over at the OD&D boards, Dave, if you haven't seen them.

    Re the dagger-thing: I'm pretty sure that it was mentioned that this was a garbled translation from Chainmail. Check this thread.

  6. @Desert Scribe @ Matthew
    Thanks for the links! Super interesting...

    However, this thought experiment is to see where my home-brew would end up using an amalgam of Holmes and Cook with the editions I own. As such, I don't have any stats on gnolls and the rules suggest 2 attacks per round with daggers and variable weapon damage is an option via Cook.

  7. Glad you liked the link, FrDave. Thought experiments like this are fun; I've been daydreaming about creating a megadungeon using only Holmes (and the copy of B2 that came with my basic set for additional ideas).

  8. Fr Dave, I have a new blog devoted to Holmes Basic which you might be interested in:

    Zenopus Archives

    Today's post was on expanding Holmes and I referenced your series here.