Saturday, July 10, 2010

Blue Book, Cover to Cover (Part I)

Let's begin at the beginning: the cover. I've always had a great fondness for the cover of the Holmes rulebook. It's probably one of Sutherland's best pieces and perhaps his best color piece. As a kid, this cover illustration really summed up what Dungeons & Dragons was all about. And while I'd now argue that Tramp's PHB cover is unsurpassed in encapsulating D&D in a single image, Sutherland's Holmes cover gives it a run for its money. Whereas the PHB cover emphasizes the logistics of dungeon delving -- making maps, hefting loot, cleaning weapons, dealing with hirelings, etc. -- Sutherland's painting emphasizes its adventurous aspect.

A knight and wizard facing a red dragon captured then, and still does now, that difficult to define yet easy to grasp sense that there was something more to exploring a dungeon than mere venality -- or at least there could be. Certainly, there is loot to be had on Holmes's cover -- quite a lot of it, in fact -- but it's long seemed to me to be a mere ornament rather than the focus of the piece. A dragon means a pile of treasure and the bigger the pile of treasure, the badder the dragon, and thus the braver the guys who resolve to go toe to toe with it.

I realize I've said this many times before, but it bears repeating: I love the "groundedness" of Sutherland's pieces. They're fantastical but they're not pure fantasy. The knight's arms and armor, even the emblem on his shield, evoke real world history rather than pure flights of fancy. The same goes for the wizard, with his stars and planets robe and conical cap, albeit to a different degree. I don't know that anyone ever dressed in such a fashion, let alone anyone claiming to wield magical powers, but that's how Western tradition has long portrayed a wizard, so seeing him there beside the knight felt right. All these elements combined to create a cover that really spoke to me as a kid and drew me right in.

Of course, so did the blurb "the original adult fantasy role-playing game for 3 or more players." I've discussed this before and I don't want to dwell on it too much, but I regret the way that, as the years have gone on, roleplaying has, in general, assumed that its target audience consisted primarily of children. That's an assumption that's not present in OD&D -- a fact Gygax confirmed -- nor is it present in Holmes.

Holmes maintains consistency with OD&D in lots of other subtle ways, too. Its interior cover, for example, recalls the subtitle of the LBBs, calling D&D "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Role Playing Adventure Game Campaigns." Gone is the references to wargames, despite the fact that both this rulebook and the LBBs note that they are "Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." That's probably part of the reason why, even when I wasn't using them regularly, I've always associated miniatures with D&D. That's not to say I consider minis necessary for play, but I've never considered them antithetical to it nor do I think the presence of minis on a game table is somehow evidence of a less sophisticated style of play.

Also of interest on the interior cover is the copyright notice. The rulebook, or at least the printing I have, is listed as being copyrighted 1974, 1977, and 1978. The 1977 date is a reference (I believe) to the earliest printing of the Holmes rulebook, while the 1978 date is a reference to the revised printing. And of course 1974 is a reference to the publication of the LBBs, once again suggesting that Holmes presents itself as a revision of the 1974 rules rather than anything else. AD&D, by contrast, includes no reference to 1974 in its various copyright notices.

Dr. Holmes's short preface immediately states that "This book is based upon the original work published in 1974 and three supplementary booklets published in the two year period after the initial release of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS." He adds that, as an introductory work, it "limits itself to basics." Then, more intriguingly, he says:
The rules contained herein allow only for the first three levels of player progression, and instructions for the game referee, the "Dungeon Master," are kept to the minimum necessary to allow him to conduct basic games. This is absolutely necessary because the game is completely open-ended, is subject to modification, expansion, and interpretation according to the desires of the group participating, and is in general not bounded by the conventional limitations of other types of games.
Holmes seems to be implying that, as an "open-ended" game, it's important that there be few instructions for the referee beyond the bare minimum needed to understand the basic rules. I found that intriguing as a kid and I find it even moreso now. It's a line of thought that's in keeping with one school of thought regarding OD&D's very spare approach to rules explication and it's definitely at odds with the direction the game would take later. The preface also includes the obligatory reference to AD&D "for players who desire to go beyond the basic game," although, at the time of its first publication, AD&D consisted solely of a single hardback volume, the Monster Manual.

Following Holmes's preface is a nearly word-for-word reproduction of Gary Gygax's foreword (properly spelled this time) to the original edition of D&D. There are a few minor changes to the foreword, mostly intended to direct readers to sections of the Holmes rulebook rather than sections of the LBBs that are non-existent in the new edition. Again, the inclusion of this foreword suggests strongly that Holmes ought to be viewed as an introduction to and development from OD&D rather than as anything else, including a "basic AD&D," as many see it.

26 comments:

  1. For the longest time, I considered the scene on the AD&D PH cover one of adventure as well. The "heroes" were the two thieves stealing the gems from the eyes of the statue of an evil god right under the very noses of the cultists that has just sacrificed a snake to said statue and the heroes had just been spotted by the bandaged-head guy on the back.

    I don't think that now, but I probably did for at least 20 years.

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  2. I like the simplicity of the cover, but have always prefereed the UK version as it just seems more dynamic, mysterious and grim.

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  3. I agree with your interpretation of the quotation regarding open-ended gaming; I don't really see what else Holmes could be getting at, and I was pleased to see this passage when I got out my own copy of Holmes recently.

    I wanted to add that I'm really looking forward to more posts in this series; I think the discussion will be very useful, and I'm sure it will be fascinating.

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  4. You should include a picture of the cover since you are discussing it.

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  5. I'd be hard-pressed to decide whether I like the Holmes cover or the PHB cover better, but having started with Holmes, that cover illustration was my first, visceral, impression of what D&D was; I will always love it.

    I think this scene also implies the necessity of planning one's expeditions carefully. The adventurers don't look like they've just opened a door and stumbled upon a dragon. They have come for this treasure hoard. They look like they have a plan and are prepared to fight a dragon. The dragon, on the other hand, looks like he was caught unawares.

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  6. Sean,

    I wish I had a good image of the UK Holmes cover, but I've only ever seen very dark and blurry scans of it.

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  7. I wish I had a good image of the UK Holmes cover, but I've only ever seen very dark and blurry scans of it.

    The UK cover illustration has a silver metallic sheen, which makes it difficult to scan. There is a thread on DF that has scans of all the images in the UK version, including a scan of the cover pic that's clear enough to allow a decent look at it.

    http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?t=20401&highlight=holmes

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  8. Have you read the interview with Holmes in Dragon #52? It was written for the release of the Moldvay edition, but contains some interesting titbits.

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  9. [edit] Ah, I see you mention it in a previous entry. Hard to keep track of all of your posts. ;)

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  10. This was never one of my favorite covers, but like you I prefer the historical groundedness of the art. The "punk Ren-Faire" look of more recent art has rarely appealed to me.

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  11. It's hard to get over the fact that if you quickly scan pages 2-7 (including the Preface you mention) the only thing in all-caps-italic-boldface is the phrase "ADVANCED DUNGEON & DRAGONS" (4 times).

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  12. It's hard to get over the fact that if you quickly scan pages 2-7 (including the Preface you mention) the only thing in all-caps-italic-boldface is the phrase "ADVANCED DUNGEON & DRAGONS" (4 times).

    I suppose that's true. I sort of tune it out nowadays and it becomes less and less apparent when you're reading the text closely, but it's a good point nonetheless.

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  13. It's hard to get over...the phrase "ADVANCED DUNGEON & DRAGONS" (4 times).

    9 times in total throughout the whole book in fact. Having made a bit of a study of the subject, I myself dismiss the AD&D references totally.

    It's an interesting exercise to follow what is said about the Holmes rulebook by both Holmes and Gygax over the period of it first being announced till several years after it was printed. During this period it went from being an edited version of the 3LB's + Greyhawk, intended as an introduction to the Original version of D&D; to being a possible introduction to either OD&D or AD&D; and finally to be seen by most as an introduction to AD&D. This evolution of intention makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective but, nine AD&D references aside, it doesn't change the fact that Holmes is an edited version of OD&D with a few pure Holmes twists.

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  14. "Having made a bit of a study of the subject, I myself dismiss the AD&D references totally."

    I think my point (and I believe James took it this way) is that the same can't be expected of the many people who received a Holmes D&D box, and had that text alone with which to learn and judge the game.

    Even James on Jul-8 wrote: "A lot of people tend to view the Holmes rulebook as a an introduction to AD&D, a position the rulebook itself seems to imply at various point..."

    And I would have to humbly point out that it's not "implied", it's explicitly stated these many times: AD&D is the most common reference, with the greatest emphasis, in the most important locations, throughout the Holmes blue book.

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  15. I was mulling this post over and had a tangential realization. For a game called "Dungeons & Dragons", I can't remember very many published adventures that had a dragon as the biggest encounter. I have an easier time thinking of dark magicians or undead than dragon centered dungeons.

    It seems odd, now that I think about it.

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  16. I submit that Holmes and the Monster Manual fit hand in glove at least as well as the PHB and DMG do.

    The MM uses the 9> armor class scale and the 5-point alignment system just like Holmes.

    Like many others who started with Holmes, I took the text at face value and used it as a starter kit for AD&D. I don't really care that EGG claimed that this was not what the Holmes Edition was intended for since (a) it's contradicted in black and white in the pages of the book and (b) much of what EGG said in retrospect was sprinkled with BS.

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  17. I wish I had a good image of the UK Holmes cover, but I've only ever seen very dark and blurry scans of it.

    I noticed the art looks very similar to one of the illustrations in the back of the Fiend Folio. The fighter and magic-user are the same.

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  18. And I would have to humbly point out that it's not "implied", it's explicitly stated these many times: AD&D is the most common reference, with the greatest emphasis, in the most important locations, throughout the Holmes blue book.

    While I am strongly in the camp that interprets Holmes as being an introduction to OD&D, there's no question that, as written, it self-identifies as an intro to AD&D. The text never refers the reader back to the LBBs or Supplements, but frequently suggests turning to AD&D for fuller treatments of topics. Now, I think we can all likely agree that these references were inserted by Gygax or someone at TSR rather than being original to Holmes, but their presence does explain why lots of people -- and I was one of them during my youth -- saw Holmes as "Basic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" rather than anything else.

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  19. For a game called "Dungeons & Dragons", I can't remember very many published adventures that had a dragon as the biggest encounter. I have an easier time thinking of dark magicians or undead than dragon centered dungeons.

    It's a funny thing, isn't it? I've noted before that I rarely use dragons myself and don't actually like them much as opponents. Gygax commented more than once that the name chosen for the game was only one of several considered and it was only because one of his daughters liked Dungeons & Dragons that he went with it. I wonder what the other names might have been?

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  20. Like many others who started with Holmes, I took the text at face value and used it as a starter kit for AD&D.

    Oh, I did too, but mostly because, at the time, I'd never seen the LBBs, let alone read them, so I couldn't see how much more consonant with OD&D Holmes is than with AD&D.

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  21. And I would have to humbly point out that it's not "implied", it's explicitly stated these many times: AD&D is the most common reference, with the greatest emphasis, in the most important locations, throughout the Holmes blue book.

    And on the surface of it, it would certainly appear that Holmes was written to lead the newbie to AD&D, but as I said above, a study of the history and facts surrounding the production of the Holmes rule set show otherwise. Painting black stripes on a white horse doesn't make it a zebra.

    The text never refers the reader back to the LBBs or Supplements, but frequently suggests turning to AD&D for fuller treatments of topics.

    Which is because when Holmes wrote the manuscript there was no AD&D, just D&D, to which there are actually 10 references (one more than the references to AD&D).

    Now, I think we can all likely agree that these references were inserted by Gygax or someone at TSR rather than being original to Holmes

    Gary himself inferred this to be the case, saying he had to make a decision, point customers back to OD&D, or point them towards the as yet unfinished AD&D - he chose the latter, which of course was a smart move.

    ...but their presence does explain why lots of people -- and I was one of them during my youth -- saw Holmes as "Basic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" rather than anything else.

    Yes it does, and I too was one of those youths that believed so. History though, has proved otherwise. Not that it matters of course since Holmes, while not seamlessly compatible with either OD&D or AD&D, is still nevertheless easily compatible with both.

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  22. I wonder where the conical wizard hat originated?

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  23. It's a funny thing, isn't it? I've noted before that I rarely use dragons myself and don't actually like them much as opponents.

    One of the favorite campaigns I participated in as a player (as opposed to GM) had a dragon as its master villain.

    The dragon was a highly intelligent spell user and spent much of its time polymorphed into human form (we didn't have any clue for most of the campaign that our archenemy was actually a dragon), engaging in all sorts of evil behind-the-scenes political machinations (partnered with the local undead necromancer).

    The most jaw-dropping moment came when we realized that one of the party members, a PC magic user whose player had dropped and allowed the GM to use his character as a NPC who made occasional guest appearances, was actually the dragon in disguise. The real PC had been slain months earlier and the dragon had infiltrated the party in his form. It suddenly made sense that our unseen foe always seemed 1 step ahead of us, no matter what plans we made (to be fair, we realized with hindsight that the DM had dropped plenty of clues that something very hinky was going on with the character).

    Finally putting down that dragon remains one of my fondest gaming memories.

    And, yeah, up until that campaign I had never had a lot of use for dragons as a DM, but, after playing through it, I developed a whole new respect for their potential.

    Gygax commented more than once that the name chosen for the game was only one of several considered and it was only because one of his daughters liked Dungeons & Dragons that he went with it. I wonder what the other names might have been?

    Mazes & Monsters, maybe? =)

    And, hey, this is the first time I have posted a response, but I have been following the blog for a log time, and I just wanted to thank you for such a great read. I actually cut my teeth on AD&D (so a lot of the OD&D stuff is a little over my head) and I am not sure I share some of the gaming sensibilities that a lot of the old school "grognards" seem to espouse, but, even so, I always find your posts fascinating and thought-provoking. Yours is one of the few gaming fan sites that I visit without fail every day.

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  24. I will always love the Trampier PHB cover more because parts of the Holmes cover (in particular the areas of grey stone behind the dragon's head) are somewhat lacking in the execution (amateur painter talking here).
    But the Sutherland cover of the Holmes box was my first introduction to D&D and just screams "Open this box and play me!"

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  25. And, hey, this is the first time I have posted a response, but I have been following the blog for a log time, and I just wanted to thank you for such a great read. I actually cut my teeth on AD&D (so a lot of the OD&D stuff is a little over my head) and I am not sure I share some of the gaming sensibilities that a lot of the old school "grognards" seem to espouse, but, even so, I always find your posts fascinating and thought-provoking. Yours is one of the few gaming fan sites that I visit without fail every day.

    You're very kind to say this. Thank you. It really means a great deal to me.

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