Saturday, March 1, 2014

Reconstructing Holmesian Combat

The Holmes "Blue Book" rules are well known as the original "Basic" rules for D&D, a bridge between OD&D and what we now know as the "classic" line – B/X, BECMI and Rules Cyclopedia D&D. They also have assorted references to AD&D, although few rules actually reference the advanced version in anything more than a one-liner.

Over the last few months, the Zenopus Archives have been excavating a typed manuscript that Holmes had turned over to TSR, before (relatively arbitrary) changes were made to the original. You can read the whole series here; it has gotten up to the monster section and is revealing that the original picks were a bit more diverse and OD&D-inspired.

But here I want to focus on Holmes's combat system, because it kind of went astray in the TSR version. The blue book is infamous for a rule that makes daggers super-weapons and two-handed swords virtually useless. It also makes fighters (always d6 damage) less useful than most monsters, who do variable damage. But this turns out not to be how Holmes actually intended it. Instead we find that Holmes didn't actually include damage in his monster listings and assumed that everything had 1d6 for damage and for hit dice. This draws things even and actually puts a first level fighter at a slight advantage over the orc, particularly if said fighter has a high Constitution score. Statistically it works out about the same as OD&D's 1d6+1 hit points for the fighter at first level.

Order of combat was based on Dexterity just as in the published blue book. Zenopus points out the OD&D basis of this rule, although Holmes used it more strictly than the OD&D FAQ implies. But where it gets really interesting is in Holmes's description of the melee round. He described it precisely - "Each round consists of an exchange of two blows with ordinary weapons." When this was excised from the blue book as printed by TSR, it made a muddle of the dagger rules, which simply followed normal weapons such as the sword in striking twice. Two-handed weapons and missile weapons only went once in a Holmes round.

This is a much more workable system than the published blue book, which slowed two-handed weapons down to 1 strike per 2 rounds, while leaving daggers at full speed. It also has a number of interesting implications. First, it makes melee combat quite powerful in comparison to using spells and special abilities, since the latter goes off only once in a round; melee characters are working twice as fast as their spellcasting counterparts. Second, it makes parrying an attractive option: a PC can opt to make two strikes in a round, or one strike and a parry, or even to do a double parry.

An interesting wrinkle is that TSR added the concept that shields do not count toward AC when retreating; it's a rather cumbersome rule that seems more in line with some AD&D combat than basic or OD&D. Also, through some analysis of the examples of combat, Zenopus comes to the conclusion that magic-users can't cast spells the round after they are struck in combat. This follows a rough order of spells, missile fire, then two bouts of melee.

This is one of the more interesting combat systems devised for D&D. It needs some tweaking, particularly in the case of morale, and it needs a rule to make two-handed weapons worthwhile, but it's got significant advantages over the system presented in the published blue book. The double melee attacks per round and parry rules make for some rich tactical choices, and create the potential to expand to extra attacks at higher levels without throwing everything out of whack. You can give fighters 3 attacks for every 2 of lower level opponents, without it seeming absurd or doing AD&D's odd alternating. It would also work well with claw/claw/bite type attack routines that the Monster Manual is fond of without making the monsters using it unbeatable attack machines. At the same time, it preserves the simplicity of OD&D's d6 based damage and hit dice, without making fighters underpowered. Moldvay fighters are much better than their blue book counterparts, but in the original Holmes combat system they actually come out looking pretty good.

Once Zenopus's series is done, I think this may create the basis for a really robust set of Blue Book D&D house rules, which I could see becoming a go-to for my future games.


  1. It is kinda weird how everybody gets hung up on the "daggers get 2 attacks" thing from Holmes. I was 13 and Holmes was my intro to roleplaying, and every one I gamed with just assumed it was a mistake -- it made no sense to this early teenager.

    1. I find it interesting that it wasn't exactly a mistake, but a problem introduced by TSR's editors. I kind of like the 2 attacks per round for small AND medium weapons, though obviously 2-handed weapons need some advantage to balance out the slow speeds.

  2. Yeah, it's only nowadays that we over-analyse the old rules and try to read the thoughts of the writers, rather than treating it as errata as it should be.

    Regarding the 2 attacks per round in the manuscript, it would be interesting to use it with the 2 moves per round of the original rules, too. Moldvay actually gave 2-handed weapons something in that they always struck first, so that might be a place to start in making them useful in "zero edition" Holmes.

    1. Heh, yeah. The tendency to parse older rules word by word has come up with some interesting interpretations, like "Carcosa dice" and so forth, but it hasn't really revealed any of the designers' intentions.

      I would probably follow Zach and give two-handed weapons 2d6 damage to compensate for their slowness.

      "Zero edition" Holmes seems to have some good ideas that would slot well into a blue book game. Once this series is done it'd be interesting to do a write-up of the rules changes needed to use the printed book as a zero edition version.

  3. I for one, like the two dagger attacks per round rule. I allow large two handed weapons the option of parrying every round, but only getting one attack every other round though.

    As far as that goes, I also apply variable weapon damage to complete the rules as I think it should be, but if I went with strict 1-6 damage for all weapons, I'd allow two handed weapons to get the better of 2 damage rolls to compensate for only one attack every other round.

  4. Great summary, Wayne. Thanks for the mention.


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