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Staying underground, dungeon or no dungeon

In his series of G+ posts based on reading/reflecting on games, Jason D'Angelo mentioned he'd be going through Dungeons & Dragons (1977), by J. Eric Holmes. Unable to resist, I asked him to chat me with about that, and so here we are.

Some of the points in there bear further deep-dives. If you agree, find one or two and say so.

I mention in there that Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & Mouser stories played a big role in my decision that D&D couldn't do fantasy, or wouldn't be doing it for me anyway. All of the stories qualify for inclusion, but if I had to pick one to demonstrate the point unequivocally, it'd be "Adept's Gambit." Also, during editing, I realized I'd left out the other seminal text in that decision, which was Night's Master by Tanith Lee.

In the middle, Jason found it relevant to ask how my experience of the game, juxtaposed with the experience of The Fantasy Trip: Wizard, informed the larger arc of my play-experience and move into publishing in the late 1990s. I decided to clip out the next half-hour of the discussion, sparing you, for which, you're welcome. Since it wasn't entirely off-topic and might interest someone out there, I will include it in a comment.


Ron Edwards's picture

... but here's that half-hour autobiography clip, much good may it do you.

You're personal history highlights for me what you've said about regional variation in the initial distribution of the act of playing D&D. I think, in Alberta, I must have been nearer what you identify as the early "vibrant center" of the phenomenon. 

And yet, I totally missed the whole Holmes / Moldvay editions. I attribute this to the other big influence in Edmonton's university wargames club--they were the development center of Chivalry and Sorcery. I suspect I missed Holmes / Moldvay because I played C&S for the years they were released, then bought AD&D 1st ed. I was never fully satisfied with AD&D and went to DragonQuest, then Champions, then Fantasy Hero. While I had started as an SF reader, I never really got into SF role-playing. I never ready superhero comics until I bought Champions!

Unlike yourself, I played (usually GMed) probably weekly from 1979 through 1990 until I moved to Vancouver BC. 

Noteably, I was exposed to dungeon crawling for several years before I actually read much sword and sorcery, so I didn't experience the cognitive dissonence. (Xeroxed 1st ed Men and Magic at 13 and Elric at 15.)

robowist's picture

If my schedule worked out with other players, I'd be into a Holmes game . . . or even a game using the white box. I'm also intrigued by your references to Melee and Wizard, which I haven't played, but I did take a dip into DragonQuest (which I sadly don't have in my possession anymore).

I still have my white box edition, though I started playing the game using Holmes. That was back in high school in Mobile, Alabama. There was no game store selling role playing games at that time, so a few of my friends would persuade one of our mothers to drive us to Biloxi, Mississippi where the nearest such store was located. I remember reading Holmes and wondering about the Advanced D&D references since I didn't have those books and they weren't immediately available to me. 

I got into Robert Aspirin's Thieves World books and still have a generic game module which came out using that world as its basis, and I still have that set as well.

One thing that strikes me about Holmes is just how deadly the game is: Clerics, for example, start out with zero spells at 1st level (though as I recall they do have some turn undead powers), and wizards have only a single spell that they are allowed to memorize. It took a lot of work to build up to the second level, and as I recall, part of our tactics involved leaving dungeons to heal up and then returning, and doing that multiple times. I soon took over GM roles, and the spartan nature of the game was delightful since it encouraged me (and my friends) to fill in so much within the framework of the rules.

Jason D'Angelo's picture

You probably deserved a better conversation partner here, because I was really interested in letting you do the heavy lifting--sorry about that!

I have played tons of D&D, but because it was always my brother's show when I played growing up, I never knew what was the homebrewed stuff (most of it, I think) and what was from the books.  As a result, I didn't have a lot of points of comparison in reading Holmes through and worked most of my own analysis as a stand alone game rather than comparatively. I came to this conversation keen on hearing what you had to say about the game both analytically and comparatively, to fill in my lack of knowledge.  Thanks so much for doing that!

The Holmes text really impressed me as a playable game, and to me, it didn't make any bones about what it was.  You could and should bring all the powers of your imagination to the table when playing it, but it is at heart a strategy game, one that challenges the players rather than the characters.  In the introduction to "In Search of the Unknown," Mike Carr observes that it's a good introductory dungeon because "[i]n general, this dungeon is less deadly and more forgiving than one designed to test experienced players. It is designed to be fairly challenging, however, and is by no means 'easy'. Careless adventurers will pay the penalty for a lack of caution - only one of the many lessons to be learned within the dungeon!" The dungeon teaches players to be cautious and how to expect dangers in dungeons.  It might be for 1st level characters, but more importantly, it is for 1st level players.

I don't play D&D anymore because it doesn't scratch any itch I have, but reading Holmes made me want to stock a dungeon and play it as a sort of buildable boardgame.  Or rather, the importance of percentages and randomness at every turn reminded me of computer games.  The DM is kind of a thinking computer who has to keep track of time and turns to roll for wandering monsters on every third turn and demand the players rest for a turn every 6 turns.  Checking to see if doors are locked or is secret doors are spotted, it's all percentages.  Nothing in the game tells you to fudge numbers or decide not to roll when the players are having bad luck with their dice; play it out and see if they survive and how much loot they get.  Understanding the terms of the game made me want to pick it up and play it for what it is.

And as we say in the video, I really love the encouragement Holmes gives for making up your own spells, your own monsters, and your own percentages to suit the world you want to play in.  At just about every turn, he says to take what we've given you here and use it as the basis for what you create, whether that be the pricing of equipment and arms that you want to create, or useful spells that we didn't think of.  That's where that sense of fun and encouragement resides that makes it such an inviting game.

And thanks for the long diversion into your autobiographical gaming arc!  I greatly enjoyed it!

Ron Edwards's picture

Maybe a Holmes Fun Festival is called for, after the Champions Now situation clears a bit toward the end of this year. ... Actually that does sound like a lot of fun, as in, multiple groups, on-line mini-con activity.

And yes, the next time we talk, I'm going full Freud + Active Learning on you: "how does that make you feel?" "what do you think about it?"

More seriously: I think there is something really profound going on between the apparently utterly-mechanistic, strategic side of Holmes text/play, and the utterly playful "make up more" "make it your own" side. It's not just a precursor of coded, left-right-right-left, live-or-die, roll-this roll-that computer game play. That somewhat wicked, somewhat cartoony element is really there, and so is the notion that you, at your table, will create or discover some thing that the author of the game does not know, but wants you to find on your own.

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