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The Forgotten Smugglers' Cave: Index of Posts

An index of posts describing the Forgotten Smugglers' Cave, an adventure for Holmes Basic characters levels 2-4.                    ...

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Part 17: "Highest Dexterity Strikes First"

Part 17 of a comparison of Holmes' manuscript with the published Basic Set rulebook. Turn to page 20-21 of your 'Blue Book' and follow along... 


This is the section where Holmes presents the famous dexterity-based initiative rules. In this section the manuscript is identical to the published version, except for at the end where TSR adds: "If combat is broken off, the fleeing party must accept an attack without any return on his part, the attacker adding +2 to his die roll for hit probability, and the armor class of the fleeing party can not include a shield". In the published rulebook this information is completely redundant with the second sentence of the section "Melee Resolution".

Using dexterity to determine the order of actions has its ultimate origins OD&D Vol 1: "Dexterity ... will indicate the character's missile ability and speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc" (pg 11, Vol 1). The original rulebooks don't explain initiative any further (there is a complicated optional system presented in Eldritch Wizardry), so you can understand why Holmes went with the only statement in the original rules that spoke to it.

Thus, Holmes included an updated version of LBB sentence in the section on Dexterity: "Characters with high dexterity can get off the first arrow, throw the first spell or draw a weapon and strike the first blow" (pg 5 of the published rulebook). Note the addition of melee attacks to the list of actions. Other games using dexterity in combat that predate Holmes Basic include Warlock, a 1975 non-TSR OD&D Supplement, and the Metamorphosis Alpha RPG by TSR (1976).  

In Dragon #52, while reviewing the new Moldvay Basic Set, Holmes wrote: "The new rules introduce surprise and initiative die rolls into the combat situation. I had merely had the creature with the highest dexterity strike first. The initiative roll makes combat a good deal more chancy, and I’m not sure I like it. I will not object, to it on the basis of its being less “realistic,” however!"


This paragraph is unchanged between the manuscript and the rulebook. This means the inclusion of these parry rules, unusual for D&D, was due to Holmes. However, it's pretty clear that Holmes derived these rules from the parry rules in Chainmail, particularly these two sentences: "...the defender may parry the blow by subtracting 2 from the attacker's roll, but he has no counter blow ... If the attacker equals the original requirement for a kill the higher weapon breaks the defender's weapon" (pg 25-26). This is in the same section, "Man-to-Man Combat", that I believe led to Holmes decision to have two attacks per round in combat (see Part 16). I'm left with the overall impression of Holmes taking a serious look at Chainmail Man-to-Man Combat in order to understand how it could be used with D&D.

Note that the "person parrying does not get his next hit", but with Holmes giving two attacks per round a character could potentially attack and parry in the same round.


I always loved the flavorful title of this section, and it's exactly the same in the manuscript. The only change to this paragraph is that the end of the second sentence in the published rulebook adds  "...and shields do not count as protection when withdrawing". So both references to shields not counting in AC when withdrawing were added by TSR. So this is another example of Gygax clarifying the OD&D rules via the Basic Set rulebook.

Next up - Melee Examples!

Continue on to Part 18: "Bruno Dies a Horrible Death" (Combat Examples)
Or Go Back to Part 16: "An Exchange of Two Blows with Ordinary Weapons" (Attacks Per Round)
Or Go Back to the Index: The Holmes Manuscript


  1. I'm enjoying your commentary as usual. One note about the parry rule: as Delta explained in this blog post, Chainmail uses 2d6 rolls to hit, so a -2 is much more statistically significant in that game than it is when applied a d20 roll in D&D combat. He suggested doubling all modifiers taken from Chainmail, instead of directly porting them into D&D.

    Based on that, as a house rule in the Holmes game I ran this weekend, I took Delta's suggestion and doubled the parry modifier to a -4. The players did take advantage of it, and I saw several parries during the session.

  2. Great work, Zach---I'm really enjoying this series of articles! :D


  3. Another great article showing why Holmes Ed. really differed!