A group of folks decided to look at some OS/R games to see how they play and how the term OS/R may or may not affect the game design itself. There are a ton of games to choose from, but several of us mentioned Blueholme and I volunteered to run it. We have four players, though only three were at session one. As we worked out which game to run, some of the classic adventures came up as well. I am a fan of the old TSR adventure The Lost City (B4) and thought that it would showcase some of the ideas that the larger OS/R community. Why?
I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies. – Ash, Alien
The Lost City is deadly as fuck.
Blueholme is a recapitulation of the blue cover Holmes Basic Dungeons & Dragons™ first published in 1977. Blueholme was published in 2016-17 and has a Prentice rules (levels 1-3) and a full Journeyman rules that goes from levels 1-20. They took those rules, with the magic of the OGL, and basically give you the same rules, extrapolated over the longer stretch of levels.
What’s the Same?
You would think this would be everything, but no that is not the case. The core that first Basic D&D is indeed here.
- Five Alignments
- Four Classes (Fighter, Cleric, Magic User, and Thief)
- Four Species (Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling)
- Humans can be anything, but the dwarf and halfling can only be Fighting Men and an Elf can be a Fighter and Magic User. The language of this has been cleaned up a bit, but parts of it are still sketchy, I think by design. But it is not quite the later Moldvay edition (1981) which mandates species (race) as class. In Holmes species and class are separate things.
- A d20 is used for resolution of attacks and saving throws. The d6 is used for damage from weapons, and the d20 is again used for % rolls. This is something I forgot until reading this and I will try to remember it for next time.
A lot of the wording from the original has just been copied over to these rules.
What is Different?
A few things are different, but mostly in the idea of a cleaned-up layout and extrapolating the rules all the way to level 20. But the fundamental change is one of the game’s heart and maybe its intention. This may seem esoteric and perhaps irrelevant to mention, but the original Holmes’ Basic has a stream of consciousness quality to the rules. And maybe that’s just layout, but to me, it feels like J. Eric Holmes is telling me how to play as a voice over for a Bakshi film.
Here you see elves, who unlike dwarves and halflings are both fighting men and magic users.
I admit I have a romantic view of this time for fantasy media. Call it nostalgia if you wish. But I think what you see in your head when you play is part of play. And in this case, the original rules are superior. The evoke something primal, scratchy, imperfect, and grainy as if you were playing on a UHF channel. Blueholme has better lay out and more organized a tad. But it lacks that sweaty game store and big glasses feel to it.
I just want to say that despite our exploration of OS/R, this is not a commercial for OS/R products or play. We have had some interesting micro-discussion about the marketing vs. the actual games. I will not harp on it, but it would remiss not to mention some of the OS/R principles we kept in mind during play. These are courtesy of Matt Finch, but you can find many similar ideas in OS/R discussion. They are four principles we kept in mind.
- Rulings, not Rules
- Player Skill, not Character Abilities
- Heroic, not Superhero
- Forget “Game Balance”
I will come back to Rulings, not Rules at the end.
We did record the first session, but it is not up as of this. You will note there are some places where we discuss rules, but I did my best to let them make their own decisions in terms of play without worrying too much about the rules. In fact, I would say Holmes/ Blueholme are more “What to do in a given situation” than they are rules covering every possibility.
I made up a minimal backstory to give them context as to why they were in this desert. It dovetailed with that given in the adventure, I just added some cities and names. In essence, a sandstorm scattered the player-characters and they are wondering lost. The water and food ran out and they are parched. I toned down the number of days lost because I thought it more realistic, otherwise they’d be dead or unable to fight. All characters are 1st level.
The three characters, Roland (Sam) a human fighter, Bartle (Jon), a human thief, and Sheeshoosh (Robbie) an elven magic user, find a secret door held open by the dead body of a hobgoblin. The hobgoblin has a crossbow bolt in its chest. With some investigation they determine the hobgob was killed by a trap. I think it is here that we determined there is no Find Traps skill for thieves. I used the d6 rule to have them roll. Further in they find a closed door and determine that it will close on them. Both of these doors are spiked to stay open. Inside they find three bronze tubes with doors on them. They also discover (via GM rolls) that there is poison gas coming into the room. In fact, the entire room is trapped in multiple ways.
The gas trap is circumvented by keeping the door open and they come up with a great plan to trigger a trap on one of the bronze tubes. Here, they discover that the tubes have ladders in them. Each ladder goes up into a statue of a god, where there is a mouthpiece and levers. They figured out that this was a way to speak as one of the gods. At the bottom of the ladders is a room and it turns out there are three fire beetles in the room. These hungry and aggressive creatures attack, though Bartle nailed one from the ladder with his crossbow. The battle was back and forth, and by that, I mean a lot of 1’s and 3’s were rolled by the players and the GM. Bartle did lose 3 of his 4 hp in the battle. With no reasonable way to heal that.
They love that room and run into a Wandering Monster (you kids know this as a random encounter), which turns out to be one of the descendants of the ancient people who ruled this lost city and built the step pyramid they are in. She hands them some powder and walks off. Problem is there is nowhere for her to reasonably go, so I had to play with that a bit. They searched down the hallway, found a worthless statue to one of the gods, and the “wandering” monster came out of a room filled with her rivals. She walks away in a huff but the five men in the room all turn and look at the characters. I leave it on that cliff-hanger. I find playing in the old way really lends itself to cliff-hangers.
Rulings, Not Rules
This worked out, but it worked out because I am familiar with these rules, the idioms involved, and feel comfortable doing it. But as a principle of play, I find it frustrating despite the fact I feel comfortable making improvised rulings as needed to keep the session going. If you have a solid system that gives you something work with, then extrapolating the rules to make a ruling is easy. In this case, Blueholme has a decent system: d20 to resolve, roll a d6 to damage or find traps; occasionally use the d20 (or d100) for a percentile roll. So making a skilled check, it is easy to choose one of those options. Most of the time I said, “roll a d6”.
But not every OS/R rule has that and not every game master has that level of confidence. Rules (system) matter. I should not have to make it up or extrapolate. We did that in the 70s and (in my case) 80s because they are early games. But something made today, could certainly have used a simple chart or bit of direction.
We are planning four sessions for each exploration, so there are three more sessions of this planned.