Saturday, October 15, 2011

Holmes on Holmes Basic

A compilation of quotes from J. Eric Holmes regarding the creation of the first Basic Set:

From “Fantasy Life in a Game Without End”, by Beth Ann Krier, LA Times, 7/11/79 (pg H1):
"Holmes recalls reading all the way through the [OD&D] rules and still not knowing how to play the game. He first became angry and later offered to edit the rulebook. "Some like having D&D simplified. And there are others for whom it can never be too complicated" he says, adding that his revision attempted to preserve some of the Byzantine D&D flavor and didn't dare tamper with such beloved phrases as "loathsome trolls are tough and rubbery and have the ability to regenerate."
From "Basic D&D Points of View" by J. Eric Holmes, DRAGON #52, 8/81, pg 14 and 16-17:
"When Tactical Studies Rules published the first DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rule sets, the three little books in brown covers, they were intended to guide people who were already playing. As a guide to learning the game, they were incomprehensible ... When I edited the rules prior to the first edition of the D&D Basic Set, it was to help the thousands (now millions) of people who wanted to play the game and didn’t know how to get started. Gary Gygax acknowledged that some sort of beginner’s book was badly needed, and he encouraged me to go ahead with it. What I discovered is that the invention has four vital parts: the first is character generation ... the second part concerns magic ... third, a section on "the encounter" ... Finally, there needs to be a section of the rulebook intended for the DM ... [that] include guidelines for setting up and conducting adventures, usually with several examples. I struggled very hard to make all these things clear to the readers of the first Basic Rules and yet retain the flavor and excitement of the original rules. I even used the words of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Collectors Edition (the original books) whenever possible. I had disagreements with Gary over some items (I wanted to use a spell point system, for instance), but we kept the rules as close as possible to the original intent. D&D is, after all, a truly unique invention, probably as remarkable as the die, or the deck of cards, or the chessboard. The inventor’s vision needs to be respected."

"The first Basic Set rulebook contained some irritating typographical errors. Someone at TSR rewrote the wandering monster table and put in a number of creatures that were not in my list of monster descriptions. But most of the errors were corrected for the second printing."

"The first Basic Set had one of those diagrams which said that blink dogs were lawful good and brass dragons were chaotic good. I never felt that this was particularly helpful. I am sure Gary Gygax has an idea in his mind of what chaotic good (or other “obscure” alignments, etc.) may be, but it certainly isn’t clear to me."

"Organizing a Party, The Caller: I think this rule should have been thrown out. I put it into the first Basic Set because it was in the original invention. I have never seen a successful game where one of the players was elected caller and actually did all the talking to the DM. Usually everybody talks at once. The resulting confusion is much more lifelike; one can hear the characters dithering at the cross corridor as the monsters approach."

"I’m glad to see Moldvay included the dragons just as I did in the first edition. It seems almost silly to describe dragons in a book intended only for player characters up to the third level. On the other hand, think how disappointed you would be if you were an inexperienced player who bought a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game and found nothing about dragons inside!"

"I’m proud of the original Basic Set, and I like to think I did a good job of describing a great invention, the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game, so that everyone could enjoy it. The nicest compliment I ever got for it was from a game-store manager who said, “That’s made a lot of people happy.”"

From Fantasy Role Playing Games by John Eric Holmes, November 1981:
"In 1974 I persuaded Gygax that the original D&D rules needed revision and that I was the person to rewrite them. He readily conceded that there was a need for a beginners' book and "if you want to try it, go ahead.
I went through the original three rule books and the first two supplements, Blackmoor and Greyhawk, of which Greyhawk is the greatest help. Trying to use the original words of the two game creators as much as possible, I edited a slim (48 page) handbook for beginners in role playing, published by TSR in 1977 as Dungeons and Dragons and usually marketed as "the basic set"” (pg 68).

"The Basic Set of Dungeons & Dragons can be purchased as a rule book alone or as a boxed game with rule book, dungeon module, dice and miscellaneous playing aids. While limited, the game is complete in itself" (pg 80, caption for picture of Holmes Basic Set with rulebook, module B2 and chits).

"Most game stores no longer sell the original three little D&D booklets, so these need not be considered by the beginner. It was out of these booklets, plus the supplements that were issued every year, that I edited the Basic Set rulebook. This has been re-edited and reprinted and the version now sold has eliminated some of the inconsistencies and typographical errors that appeared in the first edition. The boxed set includes dice and a pre-written dungeon adventure. The dice are usable but so cheaply made that most gamers throw them away and buy another set" (pg 79).

"When and how should he transfer from one game system to the other be made, and should the Basic Set be used at all, since the game will outgrow it? 

Let me answer the first question last, since the Basic Set is, to some extent, my own creation. It fairly represents, I think, the game as it was first produced. As much as possible it uses Gygax's and Arneson's words from those first scrambled rule books. It seems to me to be unfortunate that Advanced D&D does not grow smoothly and naturally out of the Basic Rules, but it doesn't. The combat system is different. Anyone is going to go on with the game to higher and higher levels (the Basic Set only covers the first three levels of experience) should start with the Advanced D&D and not bother buying the Basic Set. I think I can give this advice objectively, since I have no financial interest in the sale of Basic D&D sets" (pg 84).

"Earlier criticism of D&D was based, very rightly, on the total obscurity of the rules. It was literally true that one could only learn to play the game by watching a game in progress. I would like to think that this problem was solved by the "Basic Set" booklet, which takes the beginner into the first three levels of experience" (pg 98).


  1. Great post.

    It's funny, 'cause when I first got Holmes' basic set I was around 11 years old. Nobody know what the heck a Role Playing Game was. I couldn't figure out all the rules. I understood combat but magic was beyond me for the most part. But we sill played - totally wrong for about 6 months until we saw the game played an the local hobby shop. Total eye opening experience.

    The Holmes' rules will always be, IMO, the 'perfect' D&D game for me.

  2. Thanks, BI. I was about 9 when I got my first set (~1982), and I couldn't understand it either until that summer when I met some new neighbors that knew how to play. Sort of - we didn't use dice or chits at first, just storytelling with choices!