No, not the sensational 1959 Miles Davis album, but the equally seminal 1977 'Blue Book' D&D rules by Dr J. Eric Holmes. I want to review Holmes' treatment by a pair recent retroclone RPGs: Blueholme and The Blue Hack, both by Michael Thomas.
If one of these things interests you more than the other, you MIGHT be in for a disappointment with this blog...
Holmes' 'Blue Book' rules set has a legendary status among D&D fans, and deservedly. Before Holmes volunteered his services, D&D was a rag tag collection of cheap booklets and magazine articles supplemented by fan products of varying credibility. Since few gamers owned them all, no one who played D&D was really playing the same game and the game itself was pretty impenetrable if someone hadn't shown you how to play it first.
Eric Holmes changed all that. His 50-page softback manual set about building the Original D&D game from the ground up, starting with character creation, rules for combat, spells, monsters, treasures and concluding with his wonderful sample dungeon, the 'Tower of Zenopus'.
By modern standards of rules design, Holmes' book is cluttered in places, sparse in others and confusing all over the place, but compared to what had gone before this was a lean, modernist take on the baroque grotesquerie that D&D had quickly become. Oh, and it only went to third level for PCs. To go further with the game, the reader was directed to the then-forthcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules set that Gary Gygax had been working on and was to emerge, with the Players Handbook, the following year.
AD&D pulled down the tower that Holmes had built. In Holmes' game, rolled attributes counted for very little. Your prime requisite (e.g. Intelligence for Magic-Users) boosted your earned XP. Dexterity awarded you +1 or -1 to hit with missiles. Constitution earned you +1, 2 or 3 Hit Points. That's it. No Strength Bonuses. No extra spells for Clerics. No Armour Class modifiers. Oh, and all the weapons dealt 1d6 damage, whether they were a dagger or a two-handed sword.
The effect of this was to de-emphasise combat as the central pillar of What D&D Is All About, in favour of exploration, traps, riddles, puzzles and NPC encounters. PCs are individuated, not by their attributes, but by the player's imagination. Since a Strength 17 Fighting Man functioned no differently from a Strength 7 Fighting Man, the colour had to come from characterisation. Holmes offers the standard D&D classes (including Thieves and Dwarves, Elves and Halflings functioning as classes too) but offers encouragement to go beyond this, citing his famous example of a diverse party of adventurers:
Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, hobbitish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man
In a 1981 article in Dragon Magazine, Holmes is quite explicit about his free-wheeling approach to character generation:
Most game systems rather rigidly specify what kinds of characters players may assume, but the majority of referees are lenient. If a player particularly wants to be an unusual or inhuman character, many referees will let him. It's not unusual to encounter player characters that are werewolves, Vulcans, samurai, centaurs or whatever. Fantasy role playing is, after all, an exercise in imagination
In another Dragon article, Holmes confesses his own preferences for non-canon characters:
For several years there was a dragon player character in my own game. At first level he could puff a little fire and do one die of damage. He could, of course, fly, even at first level. He was one of the most unpopular characters in the game, but this was because of the way he was played, not because he was a dragon. I enjoyed having dragons, centaurs, samurai and witch doctors in the game. My own most successful player character was a Dreenoi, an insectoid creature borrowed from McEwan’s Starguard. He reached fourth level (as high as any of my personal characters ever got), made an unfortunate decision, and was turned into a pool of green slime.
Uh-oh. Dreenoi. Roll for initiative.
Gary Gygax dismantled this approach with AD&D. Character attributes were exalted and character classes nailed down to very specific collections of powers and advancements. Whereas Holmes might identify his character as a 'Lawful Werebear', AD&D invited you to become a a 4th/5th level Half-Elven Cleric/Thief with a 17 Dex and a 16 Wisdom.
Perhaps that's the fascination with Holmes' work: it offers a brief window into a year (1977) when D&D could have gone another way. If AD&D was prog rock, with complexity and grand pretensions, then Holmes was that other flower of 1977: punk rock, with its three-chord simplicity and vigorous DIY ethos.
Eric Holmes. Johnny Rotten. Rarely mistaken for one another.
Two figures bestride the Internet, bearing the Holmsian lamp aloft. Zach Howard runs a fantastic Holmes blog and website, the Zenopus Archives, making the case in fair weather and foul for continuing to play D&D the way Holmes envisaged. He has done fantastic advocacy for the 'Tower of Zenopus' dungeon and delved into Holmes' manuscripts to explore how much Gygax diluted and redirected Holmes' intentions.
Click the image to explore the underworld of Holmes Basic.
The other is Michael Thomas, over at Dreamscape Design, who has published two loving Holmesian D&D retroclones: Blueholme (in two versions) and Blue Hack.
Blueholme Prentice is pay-nothing on drivethrurpg; Blueholme Journeymanne is quite cheap on drivethrurpg or there's a nice hardback from Lulu; Blue Hack costs next-to-nothing on drivethrurpg
The 2013 Blueholme Prentice rules (62pp) is a fairly standard OSR retroclone. Thomas takes Holmes' rules set and presents it in his own words, with the orderliness we now expect in good games design. There's a bit of advice on how to play the game and how to referee it. There's nice (public domain) B&W art. The ambiguities (e.g. elven fighter/magic-users) are cleared up. The attributes still offer almost no distinctions. Weapons all deal 1d6 damage. This is vintage Holmes, straight from the cellars. Carrion Crawlers get a copyright-dodging name change but I think Johnny Rotten and other veterans of 1977 will feel right at home here.
Is there a use for this sort of game, besides nostalgia? After all, Charlie Mason's White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game one-ups Blueholme by going back to the original D&D rules set, but compressing character progression into 10 levels and adding variable weapon damage (well.... 1d6-1, 1d6 or 1d6+1 but it's variable!). It only slightly expands the modifiers for high/low attributes, it's got a low price point and it's rather more lovely in its typeface and old school William McAusland art.
The appeal of Blueholme Prentice is precisely its strict boundaries. It offers a D&D experience with just three levels of experience. The King of the Realm, he's a third level Fighter. His Court Magician? He's a third level Magic-User. The Guildmaster Thief? Third level too! This is a world with a ceiling on it and, rather like crafting a haiku, composing scenarios within such limits draws forth surprising creativity.
If you're not psyched by a 3rd-level-campaign, fear not! In 2017, along came Blueholme Journeymanne (118pp) on the back of a successful Kickstarter, with hardback rules and lots of original art by old school veterans like Russ 'Firetop Mountain' Nicholson that has a great late-Seventies vibe.
Russ Nicholson's homage to David C Sutherland III's art panel that introduced the original Holmes Basic Set makes me feel happy in ways only the Germans have words for.
All of this and twenty (count them, TWENTY) character levels, spells up to 7th level, hirelings and strongholds and VARIABLE WEAPON DAMAGE. Yes, at last. But not just different dice for different weapons. Oh no. All weapons still roll d6s (take THAT, Gygax) but puny daggers roll two dice and pick the worst while heavy weapons roll 2 or 3 dice and pick the best. Delightful!
In just over a hundred pages, Blueholme Journeymanne muscles up alongside White Box and thoroughly intimidates it. Actually, they're both great games. It really boils down to whether you want your D&D campaign concertina-ed into ten levels or twenty. White Box has a cool fey-themed thing going on with its monsters but Blueholme Journeymanne is more Sci-Fi, with Lovecraftian Mi-Go and Deep Ones in the mix alongside Dreenoi. Yes, Dreenoi.
Human, Dwarf and Dreenoi, together at last. Watch out for that Green Slime!
This is where Journeymanne plays its Holmsian trump card. Character races are gone: poof! Instead, this:
It's been a long journey, but we finally got there. You can play that Lawful Werebear at last. I like to think John Eric Holmes (who sadly died in 2010 and missed this renaissance in RPGs) is smiling upon this, up there, in the Outer Planes of Chaotic Neutral. Journeymanne gets the next-best endorsement from his son, Chris Holmes:
These cyclopean corridors of peril await you and your players as they did my friends and me in 1976 when we explored the dungeons of John Eric Holmes.
If this doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you ought to be reading reviews of Miles Davis jazz albums.
The Hacks I like, all on drivethrurpg (click on images for links)
Blue Hack is a different beast. It's a variation on David Black's The Black Hack (2016), which offered an alternative streamlined take on D&D, with attribute tests replacing skills and abilities, ten character levels, super simplified classes, monsters and spells and groovy Usage Dice replacing tallying arrows, torches and rations. It spawned a host of imitators with various degrees of professionalism. Karl Stjernberg's Rad Hack is a fantastic pop art take on Gamma World, while Matthew Skail's Blood Hack is a cheerfully amateur (but very imaginative) interpretation of Vampire: The Masquade.
All well and good, but how do you Holmesify The Black Hack, which is about as stripped-back as an old school fantasy RPG can get? How is Blue Hack any different from The Black Hack?
The answer, oddly, is to make it more like the sort of D&D that Black Hack is trying to escape from.
The Black Hack enjoyed a recent Kickstarter and there's a fancy Second Edition out there but the original rules are a trim 20 pages that are a master class in clarity and elegant graphic design. The 'Big Six' stats here here (STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA) and four classes (Warrior, Cleric, Conjuror and Thief). Going up a level boosts your Hit Dice and lets you improve your Stats. Spells are summed up in no more than a dozen words each.
This is the spell description for Power Word Kill:
A Nearby target with 50HP or fewer dies and cannot be resurrected.
Blue Hack takes all this and stirs back in some recognisable D&D. Dwarves, Elves and Halflings re-appear as character races, adding familiar flavour abilities, and Fighter-Mages are added to the class roster to accommodate those mystical elves. The presentation is a bit more expansive (it runs to 26 pages) and illustrated by the ubiquitous William McAusland's adorable B&W art, but the descriptions retain that charming "figure-it-out-yourself" brevity. Here's the explanation for the spell Limited Wish:
Change reality in a limited way or time.
When I think of the ink that's been spilled in D&D rulebooks and magazines trying to codify, limit, clarify and define what a 'wish' spell can do, this makes me want to break down and cry.
Like a lot of Hack RPGs, Blue Hack feels like a slap in the face. Why did you just spend all that time and effort mastering Blueholme Journeymanne (never mind freakin' Dungeon Crawl Classics or D&D 5th ed.) if you could play fantasy RPGs as simply as this? Like a stage magician's prestige, it makes you blink your eyes and look for the trick. Can it really work like that?
Well it can and it probably should, but something is lost. Perhaps what's lost is Holmes himself, whose genial ghost presides over every page of Blueholme in both its iterations but seems absent from Blue Hack, which is really just a pretty version of any already pretty game, given a more recognizably D&Dish spin. No rules for Dreenoi PCs. No Lawful Werebears. Maybe that's my beef with it.
Skip to the end. My feeling is that, while the Hack RPGs are a fantastic development in roleplaying rules, they're not necessarily the way I want to go with old-school dungeonbashing. Sometimes, the flavour is in the rules themselves and, with minimal rules, you often get minimal flavour. With, say, the Rad Hack, the flavour is in the whacky radioactive post-holocaust setting. But with D&D-hacks, the flavour is in the D&D, which is exactly what you're taking out.
Blueholme does a stunning job at honouring Holmes' legacy and provides a set of OSR rules that should be right up there for anyone wanting to explore the wild frontier of '70s-style D&D. Blue Hack is a solid Hack version of D&D, but I guess I don't really have a need for such a thing when the more conventional OSR D&D retroclones are already so sweet, simple and inspirational.
There's a module for Blueholme - The Necropolis of Nuromen - which I'll review later this week.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..