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Blueholme: Not lying to you about your chances in The Lost City

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.

The Ruleset

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.

Talking OS/R

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.

Play

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.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

I have found a sort of 'genie won't fit back in the bottle' effect in playing older games written before some sort of widespread change in design. Things like, '...there is no perception roll in these rules, how do you handle Notice Checks?' etc.

I am curious how often the urge to determine success in the session (for finding hidden items, noticing traps, etc was based on a roll of a d6 (or other die) and how often on player description of character behavior.

You certainly picked a challenging module full of some interesting sites. I remember it being very popular way back when in one of the groups I played with. They got a lot of replay value from it~

Sean_RDP's picture

There are four of the early mods that I am happy to return to and The Lost City is one of those. It is very expansive and characters can make quite an early career out of it. I also think that it works well for use with the D&D Basic family of games. 

In early D&D, there was no roll to detect or disarm traps. It was up to the player to describe what they were doing to find traps and, if they found one, the GM was supposed to judge whether their described attempt at disarming would work.

Sean_RDP's picture

Right and we discuss that a bit during the session. How they got past the trap on the bronze tube is a great example of this.

Ron Edwards's picture

Damn right. To focus on the Holmes version ...

(elbowing myself aside) Qualifier: the Holmes text shifts through the course of its eleven printings up through 1982 when it was discontinued; your version's wording may differ from the one I'm holding right now.

(ahem) ... the main rule concerning traps is that they catch you on a roll of 1 or 2 on 1d6. Period. No "detect." If there's a trap and if you, as the text puts it anyway, "pass over it" in reference to a trap door, then roll that d6 and see what happens. Thief or no thief, thief my ass. Whatever detecting one may choose to include in the fictional events is imposed upon the result of that roll.

In the thief description, there is reference to removing poisoned needles as an example of the kind of thing a thief may do to traps, and the text includes a table with percentages to do this by level (there are only 3 levels in the game). The listed ability is remove traps. Still no detecting.

Everyone commenting so far has hit upon one or another aspect of this general issue. The latter-day authors know what the game text is supposed to be saying, much in the way that fundamentalists know what the Bible says. And when they go to the text, they say they see it, right there where any damn fool can see it. And if the words on the page actually do not say that, it doesn't matter! Because they know what it says. Or what it's supposed to say. Or what it "means," obviously.

The alleged retroclones aren't clones at all. A really good example is the arrogant notion that they didn't have rules and everyone just "ruling'd" their way through play, and thus, go ahead and "ruling" it for whatever you assume it needs - even when it does not. It is not a "ruling" to say that you can always detect traps by extrapolating the d6 mechanic. It's nonsense, because the detecting is already accounted for in the existing mechanic to get caught by it or not, and the only reason a person wants there to be a detecting roll is because they're accustomed to it from playing and learning later games.The original Holmes text is explicit and functional concerning the ordering of actions, although it is not numerically deterministic - sure, you don't roll up an order, but you know who states the order of resolving the clashes and why. It's a rule. It needs no rulings.

I am especially unsympathetic to the claim that one is "just" cleaning up or re-presenting the original rules for any of these games. The cleaning up is not just cleaning up, the clarifications are not just clarifications - it's organizing play and the purposes of play in a fashion that suits the sensibility of 1990s-and-afterwards RPG design. Most of them even create mechanics out of the blue, e.g., characteristic rolls and initiative rules, in the equally fundamentalist notion that if God had been thinking just a wee bit more clearly back in the day, He would have said it this way instead.

 

Helma's picture

well, unfortunately I’ve decided this is the place where I’m going to describe my D&D time traveling experience so I'm not gonna run (and anyway, I don’t know how to put up an own post and whether anybody in “my” group will post anything). For context: Another group of us, a couple of people mainly on my side of the Atlantic tried a one-shot of Holmes (the text I see on my screen says 2nd printing jan 1978). For me it was the first ever game of Dungeons and Dragons and I actually liked a lot about it. We played a Finnish scenario our GM brought to the table.
Reading the text shows me that the authors did try their level best to explain things to novice players and actually succeeding pretty well. The rules for character creation are easy to follow and I ended up with a thief (sic) as my first character and an elf as my replacement character (just in case you know). The elf was a little bit more difficult to understand, but I think that was just me and the others very nicely helped me along. There was a bunch of “special abilities” listed for the thief and later in the text the necessary details were provided for most of them – maybe the rest was just flavor or it is relevant in case you survive longer than 3rd level. Surviving seems really hard, your chances to succeed in anyting you have to roll for are pretty slim. What was to be rolled for was clearly stated and easy to understand. One nice detail was when I realized that the early form of a d20 must have had 2 sets of the numbers 0-9 on them and would have been the only die needed apart from a d6 that is used to determine most things you don’t need the d20 for. I don’t remember us to need to assume any rule during play. Wee were lucky not to walk over any traps and our GM was extremely unlucky with his rolls for wandering monsters, so I still have a living thief – though, given how much of her money she spend to equip herself and how much money she walked away with she lost money from this endeavor. Fun fact, as nobody made me roll I decided she would have lifted anything the others found in the place from them before leaving them. Now I hope to have the chance to go forward in time from 1978 to see what later editions may have to offer me.

There were some rulings. Off the top of my head:

  • Lots of climbing at the start counted as two turns of exploration for resting purposes.
  • Being able to add body weight in some cases to opening stuck doors.
  • In some cases I have a particular wisdom or strength value to notice or be able to do something. These were pure rulings with no textual basis, as far as I remember.
  • The effect of the napalm (aka lamp oil) at the end when there were lots of drunken goblins with their drink, wooden furniture and random trash around. I gave 3/6 to ignite the napalm with the thrown torch, and on a roll of 1 I spontaneously made it more explosive then it would otherwise have been.

But, as per the rules, I usually confirmed these with the group. Since the rules do allow changing themselves with group agreement, I feel this all was within their spirit.

We also removed the weapon attack speed thing, but that turned out to not matter. It is the only explicitly broken rule in the version of the game we used that I noticed. (All weapons have same damage, big weapons do not have any edge in initiative or attack bonus due to reach, but big weapons only get to attack once per two rounds while very small ones attack twice a round. This makes light weapons the superior choice always, unless the referee adds some simulation or other rulings somewhere.)

I have not checked if Blueholme claims to have the same rules or if it has them. From discussions it seems that at least the procedure for selecting spells for magic-users (and elves) is different.

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