An Origin Story

Zenopus asked us to describe our experiences with Holmes Basic.
In 1989, at the age of 8, I played my first game of D&D (whitebox) with my father’s group. It was his goodbye session, as far as I can remember, played before we moved to the sticks. Players included myself, my dad, the son of a local author, my sister’s Godfather, and a future Grand Arch-Druid. I learned many important things (not all bears are talking bears, for example…), lost my first two characters (neither to the aforementioned bear), and had an enormous amount of fun. But this is the tale of my Holmes.

Christmas 1989 (which I still accord the title of Best Christmas Ever), my now 9-year-old self acquired 2 things that would shape me for years to come. One was a boxed set of Squad Leader, lighting off my devotion to hex-and-counter wargames, not to mention wargames design. The other was a second printing of Holmes, with an unexpected bonus: it also had the books from the Mentzer Basic set within. I rapidly settled on Holmes as my primary source, mostly because his set seemed more dedicated to actually playing the game (see: advice on non-human characters, which which I ran rampant for years). Granted, the Mentzer book was destroyed by a cat about 8 months later – whereas I jealously guarded my Holmes until several pages literally crumbled from use in my late teens. I kept the dice for almost a decade before I lost the last, hopelessly-rounded D20 down a drain in Pensacola.

Anyway, that boxed set served me well. Synthesizing those two books made me realize the value of grabbing things I like from multiple game systems; the elipses in both taught me to house-rule and craft my own content. It also taught me to bash together new rules and systems if the rules didn’t give me what I needed. I used it to run everything from Oz to Narnia*, Star Wars to the Three Musketeers. I even used it as the core of a Lego wargame my brothers and I played intermittently for years. My current brand of D&D is built on it; the first question I ask whenever I see a new system or quirk is, “Will what this adds to the game for me or my players be worth the difficulty over just hauling out Holmes?”.
The dungeons were also most useful.
I consider “In Search of the Unknown” to be a vital part of Holmes. It adds important rules; the hireling supplement in the back of B1 is an orphaned part of the rulebook, and I’ve used its distinctions between henchmen and hirelings ever since. I’ve also found that people who cut their teeth on B2 seem to ignore hirelings as a fact of life. Likewise, the example of the drowning rules under the hallway pit trap give an excellent example of ways to create new rules on the fly. In fact, B1 shaped my perception of D&D more than almost any other source. I’ve run that dungeon into the ground (8, 10 times now?) and people still come back for more. It still kills the stupid and unwary, but it’s not deliberately unfair. The traps are tough, but avoidable (especially for a prepared party). The dead party at the entrance makes the newbies’ hair stand on end, and simultaneously searching them makes the players instantly aware (if they have any brains at all) that there are intelligent monsters up ahead.  The treasures are unique and require creative thinking and ingenuity to extract. The rumors are hilarious.

Years later, in Lemoore, I finally replaced my Holmes set after a good bit of dabbling in 1e and 2e AD&D; 3e was about to come out, and the purchase was initially just for nostalgia’s sake.
It’s worth remembering here that I am a Navy man. 2001 marked my first deployment, and my carrying space was obscenely limited. I had to pack the maximum entertainment value into as small a space as possible; though I didn’t know it, my “1-month” shakedown cruise was about to turn into a 10-month parade of bullshit. I’d brought only the 3e core books, Spycraft, and some 40k/Battlefleet Gothic books. I played three campaigns on that boat, but none of them were all that fulfilling, and I found it increasingly annoying that so much of our games depended on leafing through pages of rules rather than just playing the damned game; that replacing a character became a 3-hour+ exercise in tweaking so no-one put in anything “deadly”.
On the next (allegedly 5-month, actually 10-month) cruise I stuffed my Holmes into the briefcase with my 2e PHB and DMG *(I used the 1e MMs almost exclusively with 2e, simply because it had less extraneous text and a lot more information on playing with the monsters..) and BESM, another simple, compact, and flexible game system. Guess which ones I actually ran? After that, I still ran 3e on request, but I gave up on it about 6-7 years ago – about a year before I found the OSR, as luck would have it.

Today, Mr. Holmes’ creation has the honored “right next to my elbow” place on my bookshelf, inside a folder with T1, B1, and B2; it’s next to my Judges’ Guild folders and the LotFP books.

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2 Comments

  1. Zenopus Archives

     /  February 28, 2013

    Thanks for the story! I’m following your blog now.

    Interesting that your father’s group was playing OD&D in 1989. Did they stick with it all through the 80s or was that a revival?

    Reply
    • As far as I know, they were playing it both as a call-back to their college D&D days, and because it’s what they had to hand.
      I particularly remember that when I was squeeing after I got my hardcopy of the Ready Ref Sheets a year ago, my dad mentioned not having seen the one his group used since I was a “little kid”, which definitely places them as using the Whitebox in the early eighties.

      Reply

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