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.

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14 responses to “Staying underground, dungeon or no dungeon”

    • You’re personal history

      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.)

    • If my schedule worked out

      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.

    • Alan, I’m responding to you

      Alan, I'm responding to you waaaaay out of the time-line, this being 20 months later!

      However, in reviewing these comments due to a recent one here (below), I realized something: that maybe people don't know, or don't remember, that only Holmes (1977) precedes AD&D. That B/X (Moldvay) was released in 1981, after the full three books of AD&D were published, and that Mentzer (1983/1985) is considerably after that.

      The word "basic" has caused a lot of mis-history in the story of D&D, I think. "Basic" has to come before "Advanced," right? But it doesn't.

  1. Great Conversation

    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!

    • Maybe a Holmes Fun Festival

      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.

  2. A Few Thoughts

    I had a bit of a self revelation about Moldvay / Mentzer last night and shared that with Ron, who pointed me here. I think I had actually listened to this once before, but gladly did so again. It is a good listen.

    Alignment – Oops

    I realized that the alignment in Homes is different than AD&D or the later Moldvay or Mentzer. And I suspect many people gloss over it or just assume, as I did, that it conformed to the three alignments (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic) or the nine alignment grid.  But no, it has five alignments. Lawful Good or Evil, Neutral, Chaotic Good or Evil. Although there is some wording that describes most chaotic people as evil (damn hippies). That may or may not be an artifact of Three Hearts & Three Lions, where some of the chaotic forces are in fact good people. But I am not sure of that and that is clearly me bringing some of my own bias. But there is only one virtuous alignment, Lawful & Good, and even neutral is more self-interest than cosmic balance. In fact it is not cosmic balance at all.  You are kind of a jerk, but not a chaotic jerk.

    I wondered if the the Blueholme game had that and sure enough it retains the 5 alignment set. I wonder though if that is just a case of rubber stamping the original or if someone actively thought about it and made a deliberate decision to put that in there.

    Mentzer's Edition

    I agree that this edition is a well done, well made, mostly well conceived stand alone RPG. The Elmore art and the layout absolutely change the aesthetic from the Moldvay (previous) edition. And in doing so make a separate game (that was my revelation last night – Moldvay and Mentzer are not the same game, though clearly related).  And in fact each BECMI set is a new game that barrows concepts from the previous game, but is its own game. BECMI is not a single game until the Rules Cyclopedia. 

    Setting / Backdrop

    I remember my first reaction to Into The Unknown. I had previously played through Keep on the Borderlands, which retains a degree of DIY, though not to the same level. Both do a good job of hinting at a wider world without weighing you down. Mentzer is where Mystara really starts to take shape, even though there are hints in the Moldvay Expert. Even so, it always struck me as the right amount of setting. Even later adventures only expand the names and places, but do not do much as far as world spanning events or finding rings of power. 

    • I’d like to dive into this

      I'd like to dive into this sequence of publishing more systematically. You raised a different issue for each title so they're hard to compare.

      Alignment clearly needs some real investigation. One of the problems with Holmes as a text is that it went many reprintings, each of which received its own cut-and-paste from the evolving Advanced rules. I have a 1979 copy currently which I am certain is not quite the same as my original from 1977 (long gone, physically), and alignment might be one of the things which wiggled through these changes.

      But that aside, what are the alignments for each of the three, as far as your copies say? And more generally, per game, what even is alignment in terms of what players must do? Just describing the character's outlook or philosophically breaking down the alignment description isn't good enough – does any of them really say or instruct how this is to be applied as a play device?

      My personal take which underlies this question (because I do not have all three and have barely touched let alone played Moldvay) is that they track strangely to the publishing history of the game and also to its public reputation.

      Holmes is raw underground: by a fun, clear writer who loved fantasy fiction, targeted for people who did not need the game itself to deliver a genre. We know why it was published: because the Blooms desperately needed something to get out into the stores, and Gygax was buried under Dragon articles and a certain completist ideal of research and presentation. Since it's limited to levels 1-3, it is remarkably digestible and understandable as a unit.

      Moldvay is a genre piece of its own, of a particularly satisfyingly weird fantasy mainly reinforced by the art style, and it's a bit of a mystery to me why it was published – after all, "Advanced" was now fully loaded into the Waldenbooks chain, a significant financial cultural investment. Why release this alternate thing at all? The conceit of basic vs. advanced was a dead letter from the start. Was it to have something "gamer-ish" in the hobby stores, as opposed to "book-ish" in the bookstores? Also, although it could not have been planned, I notice that historical love for this version tracks very hard to the areas that would be later hit hard by the Satanic Panic – I suspect that for whatever reason, it was considered the "good version" by worried parents, probably due to the lack of titties and demons – although if you ask me, its brand of fantasy was subversive in its own right.

      Mentzer represents, to me, an extremely different philosophy and even cultural ideology of play. First, it was built to support the author's famous skill at running planned and entertaining adventures on schedule; second, it was timed exactly to the attempted acquisition of the property by Gygax and Mentzer (which failed, due to the Williams purchase); and third, it is notably sanitized compared to any and all prior versions of the game. There is not one single edge about any single thing whatsoever. The mystery is why the Williams did not scuttle it immediately upon assuming ownership of TSR, although the answer may be easy, that it sold well and widely.

      I agree with you fully that we're looking at three different games. I'm really interested in taking each one seriously and separately concerning fundamental play variables: why do we play, whom do we play, what procedures are most important for play, and how does play typically turn out.


    • Alignment


      For reasons, I am going to completely ignore alignment in the original pamphlets; I do not think its relevant at this point. 

      Holmes has 5 alignments (pg. 8):

      • Lawful – Good & Evil. Individuals with a predictable code of behavior, for good or ill.
      • Neutral "…Neutral characters, such as all thieves, are motivated by self interest and may steal from their companions or betray them…"
      • Chaotic – Good & Evil. Unpredictable and cannot be depended on. Are mostly evil, though there are exceptions.

      It conneccts alignment to some magical items, creating barriers to using certain items. It also states explicitly that the DM can change a character's alignment if they feel that the character is acting against their alignment, their proscribed/chosen ethics and morals and norms. Or punish the character with experience loss. The example given is a good player killing and torturing a prisoner. 

      My impression here is that the intention is two-fold: to model actual behavior of fictional characters and create a model for players to follow; and to prevent zero-consequence play. I know, I just made a thing up. Perhaps better said, that to ensure the DM has the authority and the tools to punish players who are excessively sociopathic or psycopathic even though they are purporting to being playing (modern – good guy) heroes.  Even though the characters of Holmes are much more either classical heroes or something out of the New Wave and antiheroes. 

      It does mention alignment language or, as its called, divisional language. And creatures understand hostile divisional languages when confronted with them. All told, Alignment is given one big paragraph, a graphic, and a mention in the next paragraph under languages.

      (Interesting sidebar: 4th edition D&D has 5 Alignments.)

      Moldvay has three alignments (pg. B11):

      • Lawful – Predictable, the group above the individual, mostly law abidiing if the laws are fair, and usually synonymous for good. 
      • Neutral – A balance between law and chaos. Neither should be more powerfual than the other. Neutrals are mostly into personal survival, which I argue is not exactly self interest. There is a great deal of flexibility in behavior, though Moldvay Neutrals are not total dicks the way they are in Holmes.
      • Chaotic – A philosophy of luck and chance. The individual is above all and there are no rules or morals that need be followed, with all the contradicitons that entails. Usually synonymous with evil, which is interesting. In some ways this is the neutral of Holmes.

      The example given is more robust than in Holmes, Alignments are described as the three basic ways of life, meant to guide PCs and monsters. Alignment language is mentioned again and in fact gets its own paragraph. It is very mystical. If you change alignment, you forget your old alignment language and immediately know the new one.

      This version of alignment in D&D does feel much more akin to Moorcock than Poul Anderson and is I think the definitive trinity of alignments people think about when thinking about the three alignments system at all. This feels cosmic and it paints chaotic alignment in a very bad light. Moreso than Holmes, in my opinion. But I do not think, now, that it is the "definiteive" alignment code, just an interesting stop along the way.

      Mentzer has three alignments (pgs. 9 & 55 Basic_Player Book)

      So the basics (on pg. 55) are verbatim from the previous (Moldvay) edition. However, on pg.9 there are several paragraphs related to the solo adventure you just went on. The adventure helps you make a fighter character and leads you through several encounters, including some social encounters. It talks about the alignments of those involved. A couple of interesting artifacts:

      Lawful is explicitly stated to be the behavior of good guys. Good guys look out for other people and are selfless. The opposite, Chaotic, is the alignment of the bad guys. Selfish people and edgelords. It is the alignment of the magic-user in the solo adventure, Bargle The Infamous. One of the two best NPCs in any game ever. (The other being Samuel Haight). I do not think this is an accident. The fighter and cleric are the good guys, the magic user is the bad guy. My impression of the Satanic panick is that it was more relevant to this edition than the previous one. And magic users, users of magic, are 

      The second interesting point is that neutrality is explicitly talked about as the alignment of animals. It never mentiones a neutral character, but does describe the constictor snake in the adventure as being neutral. It does also say the neutral does not mean stupid, but I also do not think this is an accident. 

      There is an evolution here. In all three, alignment is meant to be proscriptive of behavior: these are three patterns of behavior you can follow. In Holmes it feels more like setting the tone; in Moldvay its seeking to tap into some cosmic conflict at a basic level; in Mentzer it is drawing lines and putting flags into these behaviors and is much more explicit about who the bad guys are. 


    • As I am not sure how to edit

      As I am not sure how to edit a reply, "magic users are evil". 

    • That’s a great summary.

      That's a great summary.

      It also explains to me why I've never felt the directive, obliging weight of alignment as a play-procedure, and why I did not associate that weight with playing D&D.

      I doubt I need to review this principle, but I will: one's first exposure to a thing, and any explanation that comes with it, has a tendency to sink in hard. You tend to think of however you interpreted the text or had the activity enforced upon you as "what it is," and all other versions are merely incompetent or complicated attempts to say the same thing. This holds even when the very same text you used, or thought was being used, is held open in front of you to show that it says something entirely different.

      Without boring everyone with the details, briefly, I never internalized the notion of alignment as a fixed directive – "you can't do that." When I encountered this phrasing and expectation in play, I immediately rejected it as ignorant in light of the texts I had encountered: Holmes for the basic structure (five-way), and Gygax's very clear text about entirely flexible behavior per character in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. I had encountered this particular combination as my X, so I'd internalized X as correct, and in that context, everyone I met was doing it wrong and had no impact on me.

      I wonder how many of me there were and are? I am suspecting, very few. The RPGA model of play was, in every way, Mentzer's standards and methods, which before his BECM was published, saw publication through dozens of modules, and those served as the means of practical-play entry into the game and often into the hobby in general. The directive role of alignment as who you are and how you play, a predictable and fixed contract for the player's expected activity, seems to have become alignment in practice, not only for people who did it, but as overall hobby vocabulary.

    • I did not realize Mentzer had

      I did not realize Mentzer had such a hand in the RPGA stuff. Early and later RPGA is an interesting topic all on its own, but that piece of the puzzle has me thinking about it.

      In terms of internalizing alignment as a "directive" I think you are spot on. I was 10 when I taught myself to play the D&D Basic (Moldvay). I did not really know you shouldn't go outside of RAW (rules as written) so three alignments and using them as a guide to character behavior was not only right, but in my head made sense. It was my X. I never felt it hindered my role-playing at all, because within those handrails are a huge area to walk and visit. It gave the game a definite purpose. Of course by the time college came around I was happy to shed alignment in favor of free wheeling – death dealing in Cyberpunk and Runequest. 

      Again, as an aside if folks want to check it out, there is this notion that D&D is the only game with alignment. Its not true. Palladium Fantasy / Rifts etc… use alignments and these are direct shots at the AD&D Brady Bunch/ Hollywood squares version of alignment. At least in my opinion. Also, Stormbringer / Magic World uses the Law – Balance-Chaos dynamic in a different way, but its a close cousin to D&D alignments.  Not entirely relevant to this conversation but if ever a larger topic of alignment comes up, it may be so.

    • Wikipedia’s account is

      Wikipedia's account is factual: Frank Mentzer#TSR Inc. It's especially enlightening to examine the R series that's mentioned there, as the model for the "new school module" that would dominate publications for years. Very different from the adaptations of the earlier tournament modules like the A series.

      I examined this transition in some detail in part 2 of my Finding D&D series, viewable in Finding D&D: Communion.

  3. A Short Moldvay Comment

    I think this deserves its own actual play, so I will save most of my comments for when that happens. But there are I think a few things relevant to the greater conversation of Holmes and Moldvay and Mentzer that folks might find of interest.

    I want to start at the Foreward, which I re-read yesterday for the first time in a few years. I think it speaks volumes, I will highight a few things and have one specific quote.

    It calls D&D the game, "D&D Fantasy Adventure Game." Even though it acknowledges it is an RPG, Advanture / Fantasy Adventure is the language of the day. And I think that may be relevant to how people, some people anyway, saw RPGs. A fantasy adventure is not necessarily the same thing as a role-playing game. Maybe. Except it is the same thing?

    It states the original D&D is a classic. It talks about the rules additions and revisions over the years and states those rules are for folks with gaming experience. Odd, because no one had much RPG experience and in fact most people had zero RPG experience, This seems to me, to be Moldvay viewing the gaming hobby as one monolithic entity? I may be reading too much into it. And whether this is how he really felt OR is TSR propooganda, I cannot say.

    Here is the part I want to quote (Moldvay, pg. B2)

    The D&D game has neither losers nor winners, it has only gamers who relish exercising their imagination. The players and the DM share in creating adventures in fantastic lands where heroes abound and magic really works. In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination. The important thing is to enjoy the adventure.

    I don't have much to say about that, other than I remember feeling perfectly fine with the idea that if I had to change a rule, I could, but wouldn't unless I had to. I think the emphasis on a shared experience was lost somewhere along the way, but again it is explicitly stated as being part of the designer's intent.

    For some reason Holmes name is not mentioned in the Acknowledgements below the Foreward, at least in my copies. Why that might be, I am not sure.

    Last part, I promise. On the next page in Introduction it talks about the D&D Expert Set and the D&D Companion Set. The former was published in the same Moldvay style, though it would be reprinted in the Mentzer style. The latter was never published in the Moldvay style but becomes the "C" in BECM for Mentzer. In this text it is listed as going for levels 15 to 36, but in fact it goes to 24 or 25? With the Master set of rules taking you from there to 36. 

    I've never gone 1 to 36. But someday I will either as a DM or player. 

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