Guest Review: Holmes Basic Blue Book Edition

Guest Writer: Patrick Bird

Back to the Beginning: Care and Use of the Holmes Blue Book Rules

Back when the role-playing world was in its first half dozen years, the first true mass market boxed set that neophyte adventurers could purchase in the late seventies was what is now called the Holmes edition.  With its brightly colored  box that showed a warrior with his bow and a magic-user with wand ready facing a dragon, the Holmes boxed set was designed to grab viewers.  The rule book inside, with the same cover as the box but done in shades of blue, giving the Blue Book its name, helped steer new players into the deep waters of the rules for fantasy role-playing.  Although the rules inside were originally written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the editing of their game notes was undertaken by John Eric Holmes, a medical doctor, associate professor of neurology at the University of Southern California, and fantasy author.  His work editing what he considered essential materials from the previous five booklets and with some information from the developing rules for AD&D gave us the rulebook and boxed set that is referred to by use of his name.  The result of his editing was a 48 page rulebook that seems like it should be woefully inadequate when compared to the three hundred plus page rulebooks of the current era, but that still managed to contain almost everything a player of the game needed to get their feet wet.  Within these pages lay the essential rules needed to construct the characters needed to play a game for the first few levels of experience, but also the information required to assemble a dungeon to send the adventurers into in search of fame and fortune.

The first ten pages deal with the core information for adventuring.  The rules are few but well detailed and the variety of options are limited, even though one section does hint at the greater options for classes available in the new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules!  Encumbrance is discussed, again with few rules but with an example of what an adventurer may carry and how to record one’s equipment so a player can quickly show that they do have the needed rope, rations, or whatever else might be essential at any moment in game.  From there the book began to move into actual rules charts and tables.

Cover of the Holmes Basic edition, blue cover

Cover of the Holmes Basic edition, blue cover © Wizards of the Coast

Starting on the tenth page our first chart was one of wandering monsters.  This gave players an idea of what they might encounter and gave DMs a needed chart of what was reasonable to have their players face.  Even though the following listings of monsters gave notes for such horrors as dragons, giants, and the dreaded purple worm, the beginning DM could easily see at a glance that none of these things appeared on the wandering monster charts for the first three dungeon levels.  The neophyte DM might still place one or more of these deadly foes in an adventure anyway, but the chart helped reinforce the ideas of balanced encounters.  That way there would hopefully be fewer monsters that would quickly turn brave adventurers into dismembered corpses without any real chance of survival in an attack.  The wandering monster rules also told the neophyte DM that balance was the key: no adventuring party, even one supplemented by hirelings, should run into an unfair amount of opponents.  In addition, there was always the chance that some deal could be struck and that an accord could be reached between the player characters and the denizens off the depths.  The next chart after wandering monsters was for a hostile/friendly reaction table.  This is where role playing could really shine!  Less intelligent monsters might be willing to leave in peace if offered food or some shiny baubles in exchange, but for the more intelligent and/or greedy the players had better be ready to part with some coins or gems to escape conflict!

This led directly to the next chart for experience point awards and one of the most important and overlooked ‘rules’ in the game: “Monsters killed or overcome by magic or wits are worth experience points to be divided among the entire party.”  As stated in this sentence, overcoming monsters by use of one’s wits is worth experience points, and the same amount of experience as hacking them to pieces.  Distracting the small horde of giant rats with some standard rations tossed into their midst?  That is worth the same amount of experience points as chopping the rats to pieces, and has less chance of a character getting bitten and infected with disease.  By the same token, convincing the troll under the bridge that there is another much more wealthy and/or tasty party of adventurers coming along shortly that would serve the troll’s desire for wealth and/or food in their gullet better than the scraggly and poor bunch currently crossing (i.e. the billy goats gruff defense) is worth the same experience points as successful combat would have been, and likely with a higher chance of success.

Beyond this section came the brief character class tables and character abilities tables with the original rules such as percentile dice for thieves abilities and no spells for first level clerics.  Following that were spell rules, saving throws for characters and monsters, and then the relatively brief listing of spells.  Even though the rules in the Holmes boxed set were only for characters of up to third level, the spell listings covered up to third level magic-user spells and second level cleric spells to be used in the event of more powerful casters being encountered or spell scrolls of higher level spells being found by the adventurers.

After the section on spells comes the section on combat.  It covers the basics of what can happen and goes into some of the more esoteric rules as well, like the advantage of cover and the use of flaming oil, poisoned weapons, and holy water in combat.  There are quick and easy rules for order of actions and parrying as well as examples of both solo and group combats.  Some of the rules seem odd to the long-time player of the more advanced iterations of the game, such as all weapons using a standard d6 from the damage they cause, no matter whether the weapon was a dagger or the massive two-handed sword.  But these rules were included for ease of use in a day when the variety of polyhedral dice we have today were harder to come by.  In fact, many early copies of the Holmes boxed set came not with dice but with a laminated piece of cardstock in the book itself which had a variety of numbers on different colored backgrounds.  These chits were meant to be carefully cut out and all those with the same color background were to be placed in their own cups and one from the appropriate cup would be drawn at random when a roll of the appropriate ‘die’ was needed.  Much easier to just make as many things as possible require the simple and commonly found six-sided die one could borrow from (and possibly forget to return to) one of a dozen family games that might be around the house.

Following this are the monsters, both magical and mundane, that one might encounter along the way both in dungeons and in the above-ground realms.  From minor threats that may not even be threatening, such as elves, dwarves, blink dogs and even a unicorn, to the monsters that can make any adventurer with half an ounce’s sense quail in fear, such as dragons, giants, wraiths, vampires, and the most monstrous of all, the purple worm.  Each is presented with a basic overview and the stats needed to run one in combat or conversation, if they are willing or able to converse!  And, most important to the neophyte adventurer looking to keep their bellies full, a roof overhead, and their equipment the best available, a code indicating what treasures may be found once these enemies are defeated.
After the monsters comes the treasure tables, along with notes and charts to help the DM determine what can be found.  This includes not only coins, gems, jewelry, and/or magic, but also some notes on maps to other locations and hints of the treasures within.  Maps are the food for the continuing adventures of the characters as otherwise they might well just return home and content themselves to rest on their laurels.  The brief lists of possible magic items include those of typical power as well as those of immense power, including the greatly desired and fabled Ring of Three Wishes.  The description for that item does explicitly enjoin the DM to make sure that the wishes granted are not unreasonable and that those who request unreasonable things suffer for their hubris.

After the section on treasures mundane and magical comes what might be the most important section of this or any similar book: a section that begins with the title “Dungeon Mastering As A Fine Art.”  While the following ten pages are mostly examples and a mini-dungeon, there is still much of importance to be gleaned here.  The DM is given some good advice on how to create a dungeon and how to populate it.  Special mention should be given to the variety of non-lethal traps and the variety of tricks that the DM can use to make the dungeon more challenging and more memorable to those who adventure through it.  Such tricks are expected to be non-lethal curiosities instead of ones to destroy the unwary, unwise, or just unlucky.   In my experience the players do tend to remember the puzzles and their solutions more than hordes of monsters and treasures, and the stories told are often the ones of the teleporter maze, the puzzle box, and the trap that shrunk the characters (but not their gear!) to action figure size and they were left to try to escape through rat tunnels by using whatever items they could find when they had no choice but fight the gigantic-to-them rats that were hunting them!

Then comes the sample dungeon that shows how a dungeon can and should be populated.  There are several different ‘monster’ groups in the dungeon, some fairly easy to overcome and some quite difficult! There are unusual features within, such as a swiftly flowing underground river that bisects several rooms and can easily kill careless characters, and the previously mentioned puzzles and tricks that may not need to be solved to advance but that can provide an advantage to the adventurers who can solve them.  And, another important part of dungeon creation, many of the rooms have neither occupants or treasure with eight total having nothing of interest within them at all.  Dungeons are meant to be explored and combat, while expected, is not meant to be a constant activity within the halls of adventure.

The Holmes Blue Book was the introduction to role-playing games for many players in this era, and it was a great blessing to both players and DMs who could use it as the starting point for many adventures.  Its size, thinner than most magazines of the era as it was 48 pages with a soft cover, and its ready portability made it easy to take with a fledgling DM anywhere he or she might go.  My original copy went on Boy Scout hikes and camping trips, to a variety of camps, and (generally against the wishes of my parents) to school with me tucked inside my binder.  Role play gaming could happen anywhere, and the Blue Book made doing so easy.

Forty years after its first appearance the Holmes Blue Book is still a very useful and worthy tool for introducing the newer players to the game.  It lacks the off-putting size of the newer rulebooks and encourages the DM to make their own calls in the absence of specific rules, so long as their rules be fair, balanced, and, most important of all, encouraging fun for all players (including the DM!).  The general tone of the work reinforces the “we’re all here to have fun” method of gaming instead of the all too common  ‘DM vs. other players’ adversarial relationship that detracts from the hobby.  Let’s face it: in any game the Dungeon Master can callously destroy wave after wave of player-characters without any real effort, so where is the fun in that?  With the Blue Book’s frequent reminders to consider balance and to make the game fair but challenging, only the most difficult or obtuse DM will insist on being a perpetual killjoy.

Gather with your friends and fellow adventurers.  Explore the adventures that the DM has created or arranged for you.  And, most important of all, no matter what happens, enjoy the game.  That is the spirit of the Holmes Blue Book, and a spirit we all should embrace.

Game on!

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