Monday, September 19, 2011

Balrog PCs gone missing

Yesterday I discussed the sources for the two references to Balrogs in the Blue Book. For the second day of Tolkien week, I'll discuss another instance where Holmes did not retain a reference to Balrogs.

OD&D, Vol 1, Men & Magic, originally mentioned Balrogs under "Other Character Types":

"There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Balrog would have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee" (pg 8).

And there was actually a Balrog PC in Gygax's Greyhawk campaign, though I'm not sure if this was before or after Men & Magic was first published. In the OD&D Discussion forums, Mike Mornard (Gronan of Simmerya) told us:   

"Interestingly, I played a Balrog in Greyhawk. Yes, THE Greyhawk. Of course, I started as a 1 HD, very weak Balrog. THAT is the problem, and why Gary later changed his mind; there is virtually constant pressure from the player of an unusual character to power up her or his character, and only a referee of the judgement, skill, and determination of Gary, Rob, and Dave can juggle this without totally unbalancing the game."

According to a post on Tome of Treasures (from the work of forum member harami), the reference to Balrog PCs persisted through the 5th printing of the OD&D set (~Spring 1976), finally being changed for the sixth printing (~late 1977) to replace "Balrog" with "Dragon". The other references to Balrogs (as well as Hobbits and other Tolkien references) were also removed from the 6th printing of  OD&D.

The first printing of Holmes (~early Fall 1977), was made prior to these changes and retained many of the original Tolkien references in OD&D, such as using "hobbits" instead of "halflings". Holmes, however, changed the sentence from page 8 of Men & Magic to read:

"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 expedition. 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" (pg 7).

Thus, while Holmes retained several other references to Balrogs in the Blue Book, here he chose to replace the example of a Balrog PC with a centaur, werebear and Samurai, presumably because these are less extreme variants for a beginning DM to handle. The revised sentence is well remembered due to the evocative imagery of these non-standard types in conjunction with the wide distribution of the Basic Set. The idea of a Balrog PC might be more widely remembered if Holmes had retained the original example.


  1. Interesting article! Although I can understand Gary's growing reluctance for allowing such characters as PCs, Balrogs and other monsterous races were widely used by PCs in Dave Arneson's original Proto D&D Blackmoor

  2. Ah, so the note in Men & Magic likely came from those earlier Balrog characters in Dave's campaign. Gronan's Balrog was in the Greyhawk campaign, possibly inspired by the Men & Magic note?