Thursday, May 29, 2014

Part 31: "This Inoffensive Looking Little Creature"

Part 31 of a comparison of Holmes' manuscript with the published Basic Set rulebook. Turn to page 31 of your 'Blue Book' and follow along...


In the manuscript, Holmes labels them "Pegasus" but the published rulebook changes it back to the plural Pegasi, as originally used in OD&D. The manuscript has just two sentences, derived from the original source. Holmes has them with a Lawful alignment and only serving Lawful characters; the published rulebook changes both of these to Lawful Good.

The OD&D description says they "fight as heavy horse", which Holmes has as "fight as a heavy war horse". In the context of the Holmes rulebook, this statement is not clear. Pegasi have 2+2 HD, but fight as a 3 HD creature? Monsters with 2 to 3 HD have the same "to hit" rolls per the table on page 19. This is probably a relic of a reference in OD&D to Chainmail, where there are entries for "Heavy Horse" on the Combat Tables on page 40.


Arrrr! This is the last 'monster' included in the manuscript by Holmes that was deleted by TSR, and it's yet another man-type. From OD&D Vol 2, Holmes included Bandits, Berserkers, Buccaneers, Cavemen, Dervishes, Mermen, Nomads and Pirates, omitting only Brigands, but only the first two made it into the published rulebook. In the case of Pirates, it's easy to see why TSR deleted it - most of the information here is also found in the section on Buccaneers. The original material in OD&D Vol 2 simply says "Pirates are the same as Buccaneers except they are aligned with Chaos". Holmes made two changes to this - Buccaneers have an alignment of 50% Neutral/50% Chaotic and Pirates have a 20% chance of "Chain Mail, Heavy Crossbow" instead of 10%. Holmes entry on Buccaneers even has a note "Pirates are always chaotic" which covers the only OD&D difference.

Holmes used Pirates in his Zenopus Sample Dungeon, Room M, and they conform to the rules given here (1 HD, AC7, 2-12 GP). So in the original manuscript this 'monster' in the Sample Dungeon was represented in the Monster List.


Pixies go all the way back to Chainmail, where they are grouped with Sprites. Holmes draws part of the text for his manuscript directly from the Chainmail entry, specifically the "defenders note minor shadows and air distortions" and the note that they can fly for three turns and then rest.

Gygax keeps the manuscript entry unchanged but adds three short sentences to the published rulebook: "They use short bows, small spears, and daggers. Their royalty are powerful magic-users. All are friendly with elves and fairies".  Chainmail grouped "Fairies" with "Elves", and this continued with Greyhawk, listing "fairies" among the types of elves (pg 5), and the Monster Manual as an alternate name for Gray Elf. Interestingly, Moldvay Basic drops these last three sentences, ending where the Holmes manuscript. Nowhere else does the concept of 'pixie royalty' appear, although the Monster Manual gives them a number of spells.

Purple Worm

The Purple Worm also goes back to Chainmail, where it is a type of dragon: "Finally, the Purple, or Mottled, Dragon is a rare, fightless worm with a venomous sting in its tail" (pg 35). OD&D Vol 2 separates the Worm from the Dragons, and gives it a much more detailed description, which Holmes follows closely in the manuscript. He changes the chances of swallowing on a hit from any "over 20% of the minimum total, or 100% in any case" to "Any hit more than 2 over the minimum". He also changes the first part of the last sentence from "never check morale" to "unintelligent". The published rulebook splits the third sentence into two sentence, adding detail on how to handle a hit by the tail: "and if it hits a saving throw vs. poison must be made".

The first edition has an illustration by David Sutherland of a purple worm battling a fighter, magic-user and cleric (a similar grouping as on the title page). This was deleted from the second edition when the monster section was reformatted.

Update: Prior to Chainmail, Gygax wrote a series of articles about colored dragons in the Diplomacy zine Thangorodrim. For the fifth installment, in issue #9 (Aug 1970), he wrote about the Purple Worm: “Of doubtful species, the Mottled or Purple Worm must be included in any study despite the possibility that it is not a true dragon. The creature has no wings and no internal form of weapon unlike other dragons. Yet its body shape conforms otherwise to the kind as does its general behaviour. The Purple Dragon has a venomous sting in the tip of its tail, one drop of which is enough to fell an Oliphant. It is sly and treacherous. The species is found only on the Islands Umbar."

Rust Monster

Rust Monsters first appeared in Greyhawk, and Holmes follows the entry closely but with the typical editing to condense it. Holmes refers to them as "inoffensive looking little creatures" although the original uses "inoffensive" without "little". The published rulebook makes two changes to the manuscript. The first sentence refers to "ferrous metal" in the manuscript, as in Greyhawk, but "ferrous" is dropped in the published rulebook. Does this imply that the rust monster can affect non-ferrous metals such as bronze armor/weapons or even a silver dagger? The rulebook also changes the last sentence from "eats the rust" to "eats the rust and corroded metal", clarifying the monster's dietary habits.

It's unclear if Holmes knew how the rust monster was envisaged by Gygax & company at the time he worked on the manuscript. I believe the first picture of the Rust Monster appeared in the Monster Manual in December 77, six months after the Basic Set was released. The picture in there, by David Sutherland, is based on a plastic monster toy manufactured in Hong Kong that inspired the D&D monster created by Gygax & company. For more on this, see this post by former TSR artist Tony DiTerlizzi.

Continue on to Pt 32: "Commonly Found Near Graveyards, Dungeons or Deserted Places"
Or Go Back to Part 30: "It is, Of Course, Ochre-Colored"
Or Go Back to Start: The Holmes Manuscript

A pack of plastic rust monsters. Source: Tony DiTerlizzi

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Return of Basic D&D

And it will be free! The latest post from Mike Mearls on the Wizards site explains this important piece of the new 5E D&D:

"Basic D&D is a PDF that covers the core of the game. It’s the equivalent of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia, though it doesn’t have quite the same scope (for example, it won’t go into detail on a setting). It runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options."

The same core classes and races as the original Basic set in 1977. Perhaps even a bit closer to Holmes than later Basic sets, since presumably it won't have race = class, thus giving demi-human thieves among the options.

"But the best part? Basic D&D is a free PDF. Anyone can download it from our website. We want to put D&D in as many hands as possible, and a free, digital file is the best way to do that." 

Pure awesome.

"If Basic D&D is the equivalent of the classic Rules Cyclopedia, then the three core rulebooks are analogous to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Want more character options? Pick up a Player’s Handbook. Looking for more critters for your campaign? The Monster Manual has you covered. Want to sculpt a unique campaign? Pick up the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Still, Basic D&D is the true heart of the game and could easily provide a lifetime of gaming."

"At the launch of the D&D Starter Set, Basic D&D will include the material needed to create characters and advance to 20th level. In August, with the release of the Player’s Handbook, Basic D&D will expand to include the essential monsters, magic items, and DM rules needed to run the game, along with the rules for wilderness, dungeon, and urban adventuring. (The Starter Set already covers the aspects of these rules that you need to run the included campaign.)"

20 levels is way more than I expected. That's all of B/X plus more. Way back in OD&D, Gygax wrote, "There is no theoretical limit to how high a character may progress, 20th level Lord, 20th level Wizard, etc."

"As we introduce new storylines like Tyranny of Dragons, we’ll also make available free PDFs that provide all the rules and stats missing from Basic D&D needed to run the adventures tied into the story. The adventures released as part of Tyranny of Dragons are playable without requiring any of the core rulebooks or the Starter Set. With just the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules, you can play D&D for years."

"Basic D&D makes it easier than ever for new players and DMs to jump into tabletop RPG play. We’re involved in the greatest gaming hobby ever invented. It’s time to bring that hobby to everyone who wants to take part."


In view of this, I'm still inclined to think of the new Starter Set as a "module plus". The original versions of B1 and B2 had a number of pages of DM guidance for Holmes Basic. Plus B1 had a bunch of pre-gen characters. The new Starter Set sounds like an expanded version of this. The free pdf is the Basic rulebook, the Starter Set is the module for DMs.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Meet the New Basic...

...same as the Old Basic?

The newest iteration of 37 years of D&D Basic Sets will be released this summer, and is available for pre-order right now

When I saw the cover art I immediately thought of the Mentzer Set, with a lone warrior facing off against a red dragon. We all know how that ends:

1983 Sliding Puzzle. Source: Tome of Treasures

The green lighting on the dragon on the new Starter Set also reminds me of the green dragon on the Moldvay Set, one of the few basic sets to not feature a red dragon. I can't say I really like the new art very much but of course I am heavily biased towards old school RPG art.

The new Starter Set follows the tradition started by the Holmes Set of including a rulebook and a module. When I saw yesterday that the new rulebook would only be 32 pages long, shorter even than the Holmes rulebook (48 pages), I was immediately suspicious that it would not contain full rules for the game. And today designer Mike Mearls confirmed that while it would have pre-generated characters and an adventure module (64 pages), it would not contain character generation rules or info on how create an adventure, as it is "a set you could hand to a board gamer to make them into a new DM running D&D". This seems to follow the model of the Dragon Strike game that TSR put out in the early '90s. This raises the spectre of "crippleware" but Mearls referenced as an yet undisclosed "step between the Starter Set and the Big 3" that will contain the character generation rules. Possibly an on-line version of the playtest document? Hopefully it will be something that can be printed out and will fit inside the box.

The Starter Set will supposedly cover character levels 1-5 (like the 1991 Basic Set), but without character generation rules this is somewhat meaningless. It sounds more like a fancy introductory module for character levels 1-5 rather than a real Basic Set.

5/21 Update: Mike Mearls has an update on the step between the Starter Set and the PHB:  "we just announced at the ACD distributor conference that about 15% of the Player's Handbook will be available for free as a PDF". Encouraging... He also mentioned in that conversation that the extra options for tactical combat and spell point systems will be in the DMG. Interesting way of layering the rules by using the DMG as an 'options' book.

Back Cover of the Starter Set, via Enworld (who have a great info page):

Click for a larger view

Thursday, May 8, 2014

TSR Percentile Dice in the 1970s

This photo is courtesy of Will T. on G+, and shows the 1970s TSR 'Percentile Dice' (left) in comparison with the 'Polyhedra Dice' (right). Each set is still sealed in the original bag, verifying that the dice came pre-inked. The 20-sided dice are each marked from 0-9 twice, hence the two different colors, white and pink, for generating percentiles. Today these dice are commonly referred to as 'Low Impact' due to their rapid wearing when used.

Source: Wayne's Books
The Polyhedra set was included in Holmes Basic sets, until a shortage forced a temporary replacement with chits. The Percentile set was included in other TSR games includingTop Secret and Boot Hill, as shown above in a photo from the Wayne's Books website.

Source: Tome of Treasures
TSR also sold each set separately as shown in this entry in an early catalog, 'Games for Imaginative People' from 1977/1978. The Polyhedra set is listed at $1.49 and the Percentile set at $0.89. The first three printings of the Holmes Basic rulebook also list these sets for the same prices in the product listing at the back of the book. Later printings still list the dice for sale but the prices have been removed. 

Source: Ebay auction
Jon Peterson, author of Playing At the World, discusses the history of TSR's early dice in his post, "How Gaming Got Its Dice". He mentions the company Creative Publications as the source of the Polyhedra dice, and presumably they supplied the Percentile set as well. Above is a book by Linda Silvey published by Creative Publications in 1978, showing their Polyhedra Dice set mixed in a sea of other dice.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Part 30: "It Is, Of Course, Ochre-Colored"

Part 30 of a comparison of Holmes' manuscript with the published Basic Set rulebook. Turn to page 30 of your 'Blue Book' and follow along... 


Yet another Man-type from OD&D Vol 2 that Holmes included in the manuscript but TSR cut from the rulebook. The introductory sentence is directly from the source, and the leader composition is taken from the OD&D entry for Bandits, which the original only makes reference to. The composition of forces is from the original's "Nomads of the Desert" column; Holmes omits similar info for "Nomads of the Steppes", as well as a sentence about the additional guards at Nomad encampments. Much of the manuscript Nomad entry is repetitive with the entry for Bandits, so in terms of saving space it makes sense that TSR cut it.

Ochre Jelly

Holmes leaves out the first sentence describing them as part of the "clean-up crew", and adds a line explaining they are ochre-colored. This didn't really help me as a kid since I didn't know what color ochre was. The rest of the entry follows the original closely, including that they do 1 die per round damage to exposed skin. The published version changes this to 2 dice per round, which fits with the 2-12 points of damage they were given in Greyhawk and which is used for the "Damage" stat in the rulebook.


This is the only monster where Holmes includes a "Damage" stat. Labeled a "Damage Bonus", the amount (1 die + 2 points, or 1d6+2) is from the original entry in OD&D Vol 2. Greyhawk changes this to 1d10, which the published Holmes Basic rulebook uses for the "Damage" stat. The rulebook also changes "and do additional damage when they score a hit" to "and are of various disgusting colors". The published rulebook also adds " their giant-like sacks" to the end of the last sentence, referring to the sacks in the Giant entry.

In the original version of B2, written by Gygax for Holmes Basic, Gygax further ups the Ogre's strength to 1d10+2; see page 17. It's not just that the Ogre in Cave E is exceptionally strong, because the Bugbear chieftain on page 17 is described as being equal to an Ogre and also does the same amount of damage. This could be an editorial oversight. In B/X and the Monster Manual, Ogres do the standard 1-10, although the Monster Manual does allow for leader types doing more damage, 2d6 or 2d6+2.

The B2 Ogre also has AC 4 by wearing a bearskin - one of several humanoids in B2 with improved AC due to armor upgrades. So Gygax didn't feel that humanoids were stuck with the AC they were given in the rulebook. B/X and the Monster Manual each have them at AC 5.


Orcs have a lengthy entry by OD&D standards, almost half a page. Much is the composition of Orc tribes/lairs, which Holmes greatly reduces in the manuscript.

In the original printing of the OD&D rules, the first sentence of the Orc description refers to Tolkien: "The number of different tribes of Orcs can be varied as desired, basing the decision on Tolkien or random chance". This was changed in the fall of 1977, after Holmes Basic was out, so we know Holmes worked from an earlier print. Naturally the Holmes manuscript includes the Tolkien Orc reference in edited form: "There are several tribes or nations of orcs as described in Tolkien. Assignment can be made to one of these on a random basis". The published rulebook drops the "as described in Tolkien" and the second sentence entirely. As far as I can remember, this is the only Tolkien reference in the manuscript that was changed before publication of the first printing. In the second and third printing various references to "hobbits" were changed to "halflings", but other Tolkien references (balrogs, Nazgul) were left unchanged. So it's not clear why this one Tolkien reference was omitted. For more on the Tolkien references in the Holmes Basic rulebook, see this page: Tolkien & the Blue Book.

The published rulebook makes two other changes to the manuscript. Drawing on the original entry, Holmes gives a group of 100 orcs a 10% chance of being accompanied by a dragon. The published rulebook deletes this line, leaving only a chance of Ogres or Trolls. The rulebook also adds a stray sentence at the end about Orcs having a -1 to hit in sunlight.This was in the original entry, so Holmes seems to have overlooked it, perhaps because it is made by reference to Goblins ("Orcs do not like full daylight, reacting as do Goblins").

Owl Bear 

This beast was added in the Greyhawk Supplement. In the manuscript, Holmes draws from the Greyhawk description, and adding a clarification that they are "huge bears with the heads of owls". There are no changes to the published version other than the usual addition of Attacks and Damage stats (3, for 1-8 each). Since Holmes original description is unchanged, the implication is that these three attacks are for "beak, claw and bear-hug". However, in the module B2 it clarifies that the three attacks are for 2 claws and 1 beak, with no mention of the bear-hug. For the description of the hug, we have to go back to Greyhawk, which gives them "2 claws/1 bite" for "1-6/claw****, 1-12/bite", where the asterisks indicate "hug on score of 18 or better causes 2-16 points of additional damage". 

Continue on to Part 31: "This Inoffensive Looking Little Creature"
Or Go Back to Part 29: "They Usually Inhabit Tunnels, Mazes and Labyrinths"
Or Go Back to Start: The Holmes Manuscript