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Monday, April 27, 2020

Holmes Ref: Rolling up an Adventurer

Another Holmes Ref sheet - actually a two-parter this time!

Go the Holmes Ref page to download the sheet

The first page is shown above and gather together the six standard abilities and modifiers, as appearing in Holmes and also including the expansions I posted a few years back (...has it really been that long?).

To make things more interesting I've included six alternate old school options for generating ability scores. 

The first, which I've termed The Bullpen, reflects the habit of early Lake Geneva players of rolling up multiple characters until they got one they liked, naturally with high stats. This was eventually immortalized in the AD&D DMG as Method IV of character generation, where 12 sets of 3d6 stats are rolled up and one is picked. A variation on this practice was also seen in Alarums & Excursions #2 (July 1975), where a character generation sheet (link goes to Playing at the World) suggested rolling three sets of stats for one character, or five sets of stats for two characters. I've added a restriction I've seen suggested occasionally (here or here, for example) that the extras are to be saved as replacement characters.

The Arnesonian method was mentioned here on ODD74 by Dave Arneson himself in 2008. That's right, Dave was a member of the forum and made over a 170 posts in 2008 and 2009 before he passed away.

The Gygaxian method comes from Method I of the AD&D DMG and Gygax's houserules for running OD&D games in the '00s.

The Holmesian method comes from Holmes early A&E article, "Warrior-for-Hire". It was intended for NPC men-at-arms, but there's no reason it couldn't be generalized it to PCs.

The Ivesian method was detailed by Wesley D. Ives in Alarums & Excursions #14 (August 1976), stated to be used in his Homlas campaign.

What I've termed the Swansonian method is simply an additional roll for a bonus ability for a character rolled up RAW. The first version of this kind of table by Mark Swanson was featured in the very first issue of Alarums & Excursions in mid-1975. It was presented by Lee Gold as Mark Swanson's Special Abilities, and was popular enough with A&E contributors to become known as "Swanson Abilities" by other A&E contributers. See the character generation sheet at Playing at the World linked above for an example of such a use. Jon also discusses the "Swanson Abilities" in his commentary in that post, which was the first to bring it to my attention. The Complete Warlock in 1978 included a variation on these, called "Table of Special Abilities", but includes more defects than bonuses. Gygax eventually developed a version of these called Knacks for his Lejendary Adventures RPG in the late 90s.

Swanson's original list was actually two lists, one for clerics/fighters and one for magic-users. I've instead made a single table for all characters with 50 entries, some inspired by Swanson's list but many others simply brainstormed while perusing Holmes Basic. See the screenshot below.

If you note any typos in either page, please let me know below in the comments and I will eventually correct and repost the sheets.

As with the previous new sheet (the Equipment Reference Sheet), these will eventually be incorporated into a new version of Holmes Ref. The various existing Holmes Ref sheets and compilations can be found here.

Update 4/29: Revised version posted at the same link. Corrected typos found by myself and others and clarifies some wording in places. Screenshots still reflect the original version, so check the pdf if you note a typo in the screenshot.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Chris Holmes on the Appendix N Book Club podcast

Chris Holmes, son of J. Eric Holmes and an RPG illustrator, is the guest on the latest episode of the Appendix N Book Club podcast!

In this episode they discuss Tarzan at the Earth's Core, a crossover between Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan and Pellucidar series. J. Eric Holmes wrote an authorized sequel to the latter that was published in 1976, Mahars of Pellucidar.
"Chris Holmes joins us to discuss Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan at the Earth’s Core”, contemporary fantasy fiction, the Holmes Basic set, the varying levels of dignity given to the black characters, IP crossovers, surprisingly positive depictions of Germans, “Mahars of Pellucidar”, magic dirigibles, the developmental biology of reptiles, informal vs codified ways of encouraging heroism in RPGs, the incredible speed in which pulp characters learn new languages, the future of Pellucidarian fandom, and much more!"

Here is the link to the show:

Episode 67: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan at the Earth’s Core”

Demos S. aka paleologos who writes the OSR Grimoire blog gets a shout-out from Chris for helping to facilitate the show.

And make sure you listen all of the way to end for a surprise announcement from Chris regarding his father's books!

Monday, April 13, 2020

Smaug vs the Sutherland Red Dragon

Left: Smaug by Tim Kirk (1975). Right: the cover of the Holmes Basic Set (July 1977). 
Click on the image for a larger view

David Sutherland painted a cover for the Holmes Basic Set that remains one of the most iconic early D&D illustrations. It literalized the title of Dungeons & Dragons, showing a dragon in a dungeon. The viewpoint is as if we are members of the party of adventurers who have just entered the chamber and disturbed the huge red dragon resting on its seemingly endless bed of gold and treasures.

This image has influenced the cover art of many successor sets ranging from later TSR D&D Basic Sets to the Pathfinder Beginner Box. Sutherland's take on the Red Dragon appeared in other D&D products of the era, including the Monster Manual and Monster Cards.

The 1975 Tolkien Calendar

Sutherland's dragon was in turn possibly influenced by an earlier image of red dragon on a pile of gold that was published about two years before Holmes Basic. This was a stunning depiction of Smaug by Tim Kirk that appeared in the 1975 Tolkien Calendar, which included works done as part of his MFA from Cal State. In particular, note the similar (but not identical) poses of the dragons, the head "whiskers" of the dragons, and the wide ventral neck scales. There are also similarities in the treasures embedded in the pile of gold, including urns, chests and embedded swords. There's even an arching shape over the head of each Dragon (vaulted ceiling for Smaug, entrance archway for the Sutherland Dragon).

Kirk's illustration in turn appears to be a modernization of Tolkien's own "Conversations with Smaug", which appears in the Hobbit itself. Note how Tolkien has placed skulls on the floor around the pile of gold and compare this with the skulls in Kirk's pile of gold:

Source: The One Ring

Additional Evidence: Pig-Faced Orcs

By the mid-70s, Tolkien's Middle-Earth books had grown extremely popular and the 1975 calendar was the first to feature art from an artist other than Tolkien himself. It's easy to imagine that a fantasy artist such as Sutherland would have encountered this calendar. But t
here is one other bit of evidence that Sutherland was familiar with the Tolkien Calendars. The 1976 Tolkien Calendar (which would have been published in mid-to-late 1975) included art by the Brothers Hildebrandt, including this image of very pig-faced orcs: 

And Sutherland was the one who slightly thereafter introduced pig-faced orcs into D&D, via his illustrations in Swords & Spells (July 1976, per the Acaeum), Holmes Basic & the AD&D Monster Manual.

This illustration is spread across two pages in Swords & Spells. 
Source: OldSchoolFRP

See also:

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Reviews from R'lyeh on the Ruined Tower of Zenopus

Reviews from R'lyeh

Reviews from R'lyeh is, as the sidebar states, a "blog dedicated to reviews of RPGs and their supplements, with an emphasis on Call of Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian inspired games. All leavened with the occasional board and card game review."

They typically review multiple products each week, but cover each thoughtfully and in depth. Last fall I noted a review series dedicated to conversions and sequels to the modules B1 and B2. And I was very pleasantly surprised to find the The Ruined Tower of Zenopus covered a few weeks ago:

"At its heart, the Old School Renaissance is about emulating the style of play of Dungeons & Dragons from forty and more years ago, and about exploring the history of Dungeons & Dragons, so it is always fascinating to see what its adherents will find after ferreting around in the archives. The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is a perfect example of something surprisingly brought back to the attention of the Dungeons & Dragons-playing audience..."
Read the full review here:

Product Link:
The Ruined Tower of Zenopus is available on DMs Guild

Click on the "RTOZ review" label below to find more reviews of it.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Holmes Portrait by David Crawford

A fantastic portrait of Dr. Holmes in an imagined study drawn by fan David Crawford! 

David posted it to the Holmes Basic Facebook group last week and gave me permission to share it here. He wrote: "A little sketch in tribute to J. Eric Holmes, depicted here as a wizard (Zenopus himself?!?) in study."

Holmes studies a tome on his desk, while before him "is the ruined tower of ZENOPUS in the crystal ball". Behind him, a skull sits on one shelf of a large bookcase filled with books.

It really captures his likeness, and the black ink line art is reminiscent of David Sutherland's work in the late '70s. I can imagine this piece appearing with Holmes bio in the Basic rulebook.

Thank you, David, for making this.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Don Turnbull on the Sample Dungeon as "Coherent" dungeon design

THE PHOENIX (later just PHOENIX) was "A British Board Wargamers Magazine" published by SimPubs, a UK affiliate of the company SPI, from 1976 until 1982 (36 issues total, which are available here on As Dungeons & Dragons ramped up popularity during the era of Holmes Basic, Don Turnbull wrote a semi-regular column for this magazine called "D&D: Notes from the Underworld" (likely a play on Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground). It started in issue #15 and ran for eight installments, with the last in issue #26 July/August 1980. An editor's note at the top of his first column indicates that his column will serve to introduce D&D to wargamers:
"I am pleased to welcome Don to these pages. Without much fear of contradiction I can say that he is one of the small band that first really brought boardgaming to our shores in the far off halcyon days of Poultron Press [an early name for SPI  Z]. His deep experience of the hobby is reflected in anything that he turns his hands to - D & D is no exception. It his hoped that his regular articles on this and other games of a similar nature will enable us all to appreciate what some amongst use are wont to call 'unreal wargames'! Note his comments on feedback  we are waiting!"
Don Turnbull (1937-2003) started his career in gaming by publishing a Diplomacy zine, Albion. He was an early D&D enthusiast in the UK, running an OD&D megadungeon named the Greenlands (after the street where he lived), a few sections of which were published in White Dwarf and Dragon magazines. He rose to prominence in RPG circles working for White Dwarf, writing reviews and editing the Fiend Factory column compiling new monsters by various contributors, which he later turned into the Fiend Folio (1981). He went on to run TSR UK, publishing Imagine, the UK analog of Dragon magazine, to which also contributed a regular column. During this period he co-wrote TSR's classic U1-3 series of modules with Dave J. Browne and oversaw the UK module series. He next worked with Gary Gygax in his ill-fated post-TSR company New Infinities Productions. He continued to run D&D games - set in Greyhawk's County of Urnst - for his friends until he passed away in 2003 at the age of 66.

A photo of Don at Games Day III (17 Dec 1977) with the new UK printing of the Holmes Basic set appeared in White Dwarf #5 (Feb/March '78): 

"Dubious characters handling dubious material! From left to right, Bill Howard, Don Turnbull, Tony Ball and Rob Thomasson". However, based on the below photo, I think Don is actually the one wearing the plaid tie.

In 2016, Ian Livingstone of Games Workshop posted on Twitter a photo of Gary Gygax, Turnbull, himself and Steve Jackson (the UK one) in 1979:

The second installment of his column for the Phoenix (in issue #16, Nov/Dec 1978), is devoted to dungeon design, including distinguishing what he describes as "incoherent" and "coherent" designs, and the strengths and weaknesses of each. As an example of "coherent" design he cites a certain dungeon very familiar to us:

"The coherent design requires much more initial work. First the DM must invent a rationale for the design — give the dungeon a history and provide reasons why it should be more or less as it is. The new edition of the TSR rules [the Holmes Basic set  Z] contains a good example — the cellars and tunnels beneath a sorceror's tower which, since the mysterious death of its architect, are rumored to contain fabulous treasure and unspeakable monsters. Such a rationale might be made available to the players, int he form of local legend perhaps, before their characters can penetrate the dungeon; or it might simply serve as the DM's private source of design ideas. 
Of course, the coherent style is far from convergent: there will almost certainly be elements of incoherence within it. In the TSR example, the sorceror's tower will have some areas of random or near-random occupancy  who can tell what monsters have made their lairs in its myriad passages and rooms? Was the death of the sorceror caused by an invading party of monsters in the first place? There is plenty of room for flexibility here. 
Once the 'history' has been devised, the design flows from it, and in my limited experience designing comes somewhat easier at this stage than in the incoherent style. In the TSR example, the sorceror would have had sleeping quarters, a study and/or laboratory, a trophy room perhaps, a library, some servants' quarters, a dungeon in which he used to incarcerate potential victims of his experiments etc. Some of his personal possessions (scrolls, magic books, artifacts) might have survived if they were carefully hidden. His faithful manservant may even still be doddering around wondering what has happened to his master but determined to keep the place tidy in readiness for his master's return. The trouble with coherent designs is that they tend to be limited in the physical sense. Even if the sorceror had created a large 'lair' it won't take long for a visiting party to ransack the place. If a designer is to create a setting large enough to keep his players occupied for a long series of adventures, he must thing bigger than this. Nor, in the end, will he be able to get by with a sorceror's tower here, an Orc stronghold there, a Dragon's nest in the interior of the hill, and Undead area below the local burial ground and the like. Sooner or later, in connecting all these parts to form a whole, he will come to the point at which the coherence drifts away  he may even come to a point at which his imagination refuses to conjure up another rationale."

There are interesting ideas here for expanding the Sample Dungeon, some of which I've touched on myself over the years:

-Invading monsters, still in the dungeon, presumably on a lower level "where Zenopus met his doom". Possibilities that come to my mind include Holmes' Dagonites (analogs of the Deep Ones), Ancient Builders, Lovecraft's Mi-Go (which I call Whisperers), D&D's Troglodytes, or some kind of Green Flame manifestation, which I used in the d12 Hauntings of the Zenopus Dungeon.

-Living quarters for Zenopus such as a bedroom, study, laboratory, trophy room (B1 In Search of the Unknown has one of these), library, servants' quarters, and/or prisoner dungeon. Some of these would more likely have been in his destroyed tower, but it does give some possible ideas for filling in some of the empty areas in the basement, or for a modified adventure set closer to the disappearance of Zenopus when the tower was still intact.

-A hidden cache of wizardly possessions. Along this line, when I've run the original I've placed an old "Storage Room" in the empty room south of Room J (the Spider's Lair), which I've been meaning to write up here for quite a while.

-A former servant of Zenopus still wandering about, waiting for his return; I especially like this one, although it is more logical with an adventure set closer to the disappearance of Zenopus before the tower was destroyed by the town. The intro to the dungeon mentions that some of his servants escaped the immolation of the tower and I used one as a source of a rumor in Portown rumors. I also placed a former creation of Zenopus as one of the wandering monsters in my 5e adaptation of the dungeon, and have former familiars (the "goblin figures") in the aforementioned d12 Hauntings.

Turnbull's later U series of adventures is  a logical extension of his idea of coherent dungeon design. And the haunted house in the first module, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh certainly has some similarities with Holmes' Sample Dungeon, such as a missing "wizard" and an underground connection to sea caves harboring smugglers. Thus, the development of the U-series appears to have been influenced by Turnbull's earlier encounter with the Sample Dungeon in the Holmes Basic set and his view of it as a strong example of "Coherent" dungeon design.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Holmes Ref: Equipment Sheet

Here is a new reference sheet for Holmes Ref, an expanded Equipment List:


This is something I started working on a while back, put aside, and just came back to last week and finished.

If you are not familiar with Holmes Ref, it's my slowly-accumulating series of reference sheets for Holmes Basic referees. The full set of Holmes Ref sheets & compilations can be found here.

Notes on the Equipment Sheet:

-It's written up like a catalog or menu that adventurers might actually read in game. The equipment is divided up by shop to provide a bit more of a generic town setting if you wish to roleplaying purchasing equipment, either before character creation or later during play.

-Each list is also numbered so it can be used to roll for random items, for instance to generate mundane items found in a dungeon, for example on the corpse of an unlucky adventurer...

-Sources include the Holmes Basic equipment list, the OD&D list (which is the same except for including some larger ships and lacking Tinderbox) and the Keep in the Holmes Basic module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. The Specialist section of OD&D, Vol 3, provides the names for the Armorer, Smith and Sage and B2 provides the names for the Provisioner, Chapel, and Loan Bank as well as prices for the Inn & Tavern and Loan Bank.  

-The weapon shop list preserves the original Chainmail weapon classes in order (1-12), which generally correspond to length.

-The general store list ("The Provisioner") includes an equipment pack ("Basic Explorer Pack") as number #11 that includes each of items #1-10 for 35 GP. For a quick start, just have your character grab this pack plus armor and weapons.