Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Holmes Delusion

There’s this pernicious rumor going around old school circles nowadays. I’m sure you’ve caught a whiff of it, either on the forums supporting basic D&D or simulacrum games, or in the writings of the various bloggers that talk about old school D&D. The rumor is that play at lower levels is desirable to the point where mid level or high level play shouldn’t even enter the equation. To wit, that it would be a swell deal to cap level advancement at, oh, say, 3rd level, and have an entire campaign built around a Conan-wanna bes blundering around at 1st and 2nd level for the duration of the campaign (after an estimated 1-2 years of playing time, mind you). I’m going to call this “The Holmes Delusion” in honor of the ruleset enabling this madness, the basic blue book D&D rules by J Eric Holmes.

Now, to start out, I have nothing against the “Holmes” edition of Basic D&D. It’s the rules set I started with (out of the classic blue box with the Dragon cover), and B1 was the first adventure I played in as a player and ran as a DM. As a starter, and a beginning introduction to the game, it’s great. It introduces the concepts you need to know, with character classes, spells, magic items, monsters, and a great beginner’s dungeon (Tower of Zenopus). Along the way most of the concepts of RPGs are disseminated---going up levels, melee, different character classes and races---the “basics” as it were. The preface itself states “It (the book) is aimed solely at introducing the reader to the concepts of fantasy roleplaying and the basic play of this game. To this end it limits itself to basics. The rules contained herein allow only for the first three levels of player progression, and instructions for the game referee, the “Dungeon Master”, are kept to the minimum necessary to allow him to conduct basic games.” All very well and good, and definitely spelled out, if not implied: This set does NOT go to “eleven”. Roll with this for awhile, but when you know what you are doing, move to AD&D and continue your advancement and enjoyment of this game. The blue book can be your guilty little pleasure; keep it around to run your kids through it someday to whet their appetite for the real thing.

Some however have a different viewpoint. Why not the ENTIRE campaign in this one blue book, capping everything at 3rd level (the highest level discussed in the rules set), and go from there? Which isn’t a problem per se,, since different strokes for different folks, etc. What’s interesting to me is the amount of play this discussion has generated, and the positive spin given this style of play from the grognardic masses.

The idea was first introduced (as far as I can tell) on the Dragonsfoot boards by none other than Geoffrey McKinney of Carcosa fame ( In a thread entitled “Holmes Basic D&D as a Complete Game”, Geoffrey leads off his post with “The 46-page basic D&D rulebook edited by J. Eric Holmes in 1977 can serve as a complete game in and of itself. The rulebook has rules only for characters of levels 1-3. There is no reason that even a long-term campaign could not be conducted using PCs and NPCs of only 3rd level and lower.” The posts go on to describe in more detail the fantasy world where everything tops out at 3rd level, and the consequences of such (mages not being able to cast more than 2nd level spells, limited magic items, severely high mortality rate among PCs, long stretches between leveling, Gods who are barely higher than 3rd level in power, etc), and what a game of Holmes-only might look like. Both pros and cons are given for this quirky idea, and anyone wanting to explore this further can travel to the Dragonsfoot threads under the “Classic D&D” board to get more info (check anything with “Holmes” in the title).

Left by itself, this idea hurts no one, and IMO only exists in a sort of make believe campaign world that you think up when you are either drunk or really desperate for something new (How about a campaign world where there are only elves? Or one where we play intelligent talking bunnies? How about a world where orcs are good and humans are evil, and there are no other monsters? ). It falls under this category because no matter how exciting or intriguing the idea is at first, inevitably this type of campaign is exciting and intriguing to only one or two people (the creator/DM being one of these), and either never gets created, or gets played maybe a handful times before everyone gets thoroughly bored of the concept and moves on to more traditional fantasy settings.

I feel the “Holmes Delusion” falls squarely under this category. While it would be a novel idea for a short period of time (particularly as a good backdrop for a tournament setting), I find it very unlikely a solid group could be found to experiment with this concept for a year or more, delighting when their long-surviving character (the 19th one they have rolled up) finally makes the jump to 3rd level (only to die at the hands of a group of kobolds the next adventure). Not the stuff of heroic roleplaying, for sure. The entire premise of Dungeons & Dragons is setting a long term goal for your characters, whether it be material wealth, a kingdom, marrying the princess and moving to the suburbs, killing the lich that killed your pet dog, whatever. To do this, the general idea is to acquire more and more abilities, spells, powers, and magic items to achieve your goal. To say the entire concept of the game is built around rising in “levels” is so entrenched it pretty much goes without saying…..hey, even EGG ran some high level characters once upon a time (Not to mention those pesky character experience tables in the PHB that show advancement to double digit levels)

So by itself, an interesting idea by Geoffrey of a campaign world that surely no one would be masochistic enough to actually play in, no harm there. Except something I like to call “The Holmes Delusion” starts creeping in, and suddenly supporters for this unusual proposal start piping up as time goes on with the idea that “this is real old school D&D”. With a touch of “Good Old Days Syndrome”, suddenly a bunch of otherwise rational gamers are writing things like “All the best games are low level games, anyway” and “Low level playing more accurately replicates the traditional Sword and Sorcery experience” and “Conan was only a 3rd level fighter, anyway” and “Low level playing is grittier and grimmer; high level play loses all sense of wonder”? I can and have refuted all of these assertions time and again, but the consistency with which they are spouted make me wonder if these supporters are truly serious, or like in the above examples, they are just fantasizing of a simpler time and place and would no more start up a “Holmes Only” campaign than they would a “Pixie Characters Only” campaign.

What is very interesting to me is the amount of Dungeon Master types that jump at the idea of limiting a game to level three (or level six, or level 9). I wish there existed the means to study this phenomena more and work up some kind of operating hypothesis….are they, deep inside, afraid to run higher levels? Are these mostly DMs who are regularly out-maneuvered by players once the players get more capabilities, and wish to keep the advantage? Do they have trouble imagining a campaign that goes beyond a randomly made underground dungeon with kobolds, orcs, and giant centipedes? Does the thought of the TPK give them anticipatory shivers of delight? Are they truly just hankering for a time when a simpler game meant one rulebook, some dice, graph paper and a pencil? I wonder if the conclusion reached would be that those who want a more “authentic” sword and sorcery experience are just not equipped to run players higher than 3rd level? BITD a notorious OD&D DM I knew of was quite good at killing off players by the handful (no one made it over 5th level in any of his campaigns) and slowly but surely the players in his games dwindled as they came to realize he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. Running a high level party does require a DM to keep track of a lot of nuts and bolts, and having run the GDQ series as a fledgling DM I can attest to the fact that the only thing that kept me ahead of 4-5 players with 2 characters each was extensive preparation and quick thinking on my feet. But honestly, I bet none of the above are the main reason.

Perhaps all this Holmes Love, it’s nothing more than a “Back to the Womb” by older type gamers who are also enamored of the renaissance of retro-clones and simulacrum games (which I admit I am also fascinated by). Alas we’ll probably never know. From my experience I enjoy low level play, mid level play, and high level play about the same….all types have their own attractive bits. Part of the fun for me at DMing higher levels is the entire vista that opens up when characters get to 9th level or so, a new world of dragons, giants, beholders, high level evil mages and clerics, liches, etc. Not to mention you aren’t afraid to have your characters jump on a boat and cross an ocean, climb a mountain, or trudge across an arctic waste (why, the hypothermia alone would kill poor little Pipkin the 1st level fighter in a Holmes game!). And for my games in particular, higher levels are the times when the characters move from dirt covered peons to true movers and shakers in the campaign world. In the Holmes world, it’s impossible to be much of a mover and shaker when a well trained war dog can gut you in two rounds….but that may be the point.

Somewhere along the way, tied in with dislike of 3E and it’s successors, and going all the way back to the shabby way EGG was treated by TSR, the old schoolers have latched onto the “Less is better, more is worse” mantra and are now taking it to it’s logical extreme. It’s only a matter of time before someone creates a D&D campaign that resembles Twerps, with every die roll being a d6, all dungeons being completely random affairs with miscellaneous monsters and treasures, and each adventure being a “back of the 1E DMG charts” created megadungeon of 15 levels sitting one atop the other with no rhyme or reason.

There was a reason the game evolved into the version most of us prefer ( a pre-2000 version in most cases): We got bored of that random, low level shit. We wanted our mages to toss Fireballs and Lightning Bolts and Cloudkills; we wanted our fighters to hack through an army of gnoll warriors to rescue the princess; we wanted our thieves to backstab the gloating evil priest before he ever got a spell off; we wanted our clerics…well, hell, we wanted our clerics to become the head of their own church with followers, worshippers, and servants doing our bidding (who says there isn’t a touch of the Jimmy Swaggert in some of us???). WE WANTED POWER! It’s a dream as old as the day the schoolyard bully shoves your face in the dirt; “Hey, you scaly little kobolds, WANT A PIECE OF ME NOW????” The Holmes Delusion eliminates that possibility; you might as well be playing “Schleps and Schlubs” as D&D, with your 10 STR fighter screaming like a little girl as he runs from the bugbear threatening him in the dungeon (after playing said fighter for a year and getting him to the edge of 2nd level, of course).

Anyway, as you see, I have lots of observations but no solid conclusions. The rules don’t support such an interpretation, so anyone wanting to run such a campaign must have solid reasoning that goes against everything EGG and others who created this game both played and preached. I have asserted time and again that I’d love to hear an account of a regularly attended Holmes run game as described that extends past a year (with the same players who are still hanging onto their 2nd level characters, one sword hit away from rolling up Joe the Fighter #16). So let’s go to the DMs and supporters of the Holmes Delusion, and ask them: Do you want to run this sort of game? Have you run this sort of game for any length of time? What is the appeal of this sort of campaign? I’d also love to hear from players who would enjoy this type of campaign and why; seems like the very antithesis to what we have come to expect out of RPGs in general and D&D in particular. Personally, I love to wrap up a 2-3 year campaign with the clichéd giant battle against the Evil Overlord’s Army of Darkness, not Fred the Ogre’s motley band of goblin minions.


  1. Nice post. Personally I don't have a problem with a Holmes-only campaign (sounds like WFRP, really) but I don't like the way it makes a virtue out of suffering. There's something awfully puritanical about it: only by seeing dozens of your characters die will you be spiritually edified. I've got nothing against low-level struggle, but without the reward of high-level play it all seems too masochistic.

    Also, I have a problem with this sentence:

    Low level playing more accurately replicates the traditional Sword and Sorcery experience.

    Why does it always have to be about Sword & Sorcery? I like Sword & Sorcery but I like all other kinds of fantasy too - and this insistence that being 'old school' is all about S&S is starting to get on my nerves. Was that a real quote or a paraphrase?

  2. "Low level playing more accurately replicates the traditional Sword and Sorcery experience."

    I'm actually not paraphrasing..but darned if I can find the exact reference. I skimmed several Holmes threads on Dragonsfoot and on blogsites before writing, and wrote down several promising quotes like this (I must thank fellow blogger Black Dougal for his "Conan was only 3rd level" quote!!!). I very much agree with your sentiments...who wants to replicate the S&S experience down to the last detail when an entire world of fantasy (created by yourself) awaits?

    And yes I didn't even focus much on the masochistic side of Holmesian gaming, that somehow only by rolling up 100 characters (and having 99 of them die) will you be playing "real" old school D&D...maybe another blog at another time!

  3. I think lower level is better for S&S shenanigans, but I think a fair amount of discourse in the old school scene right now seems to be pushing S&S harder than necessary. That's a reaction to S&S gaming being under-served by the last few iterations of D&D, but I think other avenues of exploration are in danger of being left in the dust.

  4. Great blog, Mike! I appreciate that you devoted so much thought to the topic of a Holmes-only D&D campaign.

    "Do you want to run this sort of game?"
    Yes indeed.

    "Have you run this sort of game for any length of time?"
    No. That said, my Carcosa campaign is almost 3 years old, and I'm pretty sure that the highest level any PC has reached is 6th. My core group and I have been playing D&D since 1980, and (with one exception) in all our campaigns the PCs never hit 10th level. In the one exception, it got up to 13th level.

    "What is the appeal of this sort of campaign? I’d also love to hear from players who would enjoy this type of campaign and why."
    The appeal to me both as a DM and as a player is that (IMO) the higher level spells give a super-heroics flavor to the game. Wizards flying around, lobbing fireballs, teleporting, etc. just isn't my cup of tea. I think the 1st and 2nd level spells feel more fantastic, like the stuff in Tolkien, Howard, etc.

    As a player, I don't really care about gaining levels or getting stuff. I like the feeling of wonder I get from exploring a fantasy world, and that feeling is (for me) at its most intense when my character is human and down-to-earth. (This probably explains why I play a human 99% of the time.) As soon as my magic-user can teleport (for example), that fantastic feeling gets diluted. It starts to feel comic bookish to me.

    Given the standard magic-system in A/D&D, the only way to maintain the feel of fantasy rather than of super-powers is to limit the spells to 1st and 2nd level. (This is also one reason why I have an entirely different system of magic in Carcosa. Even a 20th-level sorcerer could never fly, teleport, and all the rest.)

    Let me emphasize that all the above is decribing my own feelings only. FOR ME, the 3rd and higher level spells feel like Marvel Comics. The 1st and 2nd level spells, on the other hand, feel like Tolkien, Howard, and the like.

  5. "I don't like the way it makes a virtue out of suffering. There's something awfully puritanical about it: only by seeing dozens of your characters die will you be spiritually edified. I've got nothing against low-level struggle, but without the reward of high-level play it all seems too masochistic."

    My attraction to a high body count is the stark honesty of that sort of play. IMO, the only way to prevent most PCs from dying at 1st level is for the DM to fudge or to throw softballs. Note I'm not advocating "killer DMing". Rather, I'm advocating strict neutrality. Consider: A 1st level fighter in Basic D&D has 1-8 hp. Suppose he roles a 2 for hp. Should he get to re-roll? If so, does the DM's orc get to re-roll his hp?

    What happens when the 2 hp fighter gets hit in combat even once? He probably dies. How in the world (save through paranoid and very lucky play) is that 2 hp fighter ever going to amass 2,000 xp?

    As DM, I have no attachment to my NPCs and monsters, and I have no problem with them dropping like flies. I feel the same way as a player regarding my PCs. D&D Land is an insanely dangerous place full of monsters and magic spells, and 1st-level PCs go looking for trouble! In an absolutely impartial campaign, it makes sense that 95% of 1st-level PCs would never see 2nd level.

    Of course, I have no problem with DMs and players who want a campaign in which the PCs have a better than even chance of attaining high level. That's just not my preference.

  6. Interesting comments, Geoffrey. From posts you made you've said you don't have any great attachment to characters; you are there for the game, and as soon as one character dies you just roll up another. Where we would disagree is that ultimately I think D&D is character driven, and in the end is a heroic fantasy game; while "superheorish" I think the upper levels also allow for more variety and intrigue. What about a higher level game where access to spells that "Marvel Comics" the game like Fly or Teleport never appear? I would probably attempt that before capping mages at 2nd level spells.

    However, I would never say one experience is more authentic or more fun than another; it's clear you are finding like minded gamers. It's interesting you did find a group that seems to think as you (the Carcosa group). If you ever decide to run a "Holmesian" campaign I would be intersted in hearing how it turns out, whether it be success or failure.