"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Conan is a 3rd level fighter

I am mostly a lurker at Dragonsfoot but there have been a series of posts begun by Geoffery of Carcosa fame that examine the potential of a "Holmes-only" campaign and a number of follow-up posts (Gods for a Holmes-only campaign and what the mortality rate might be) that I have been reading with great interest and have made a number of comments on.

What is meant by a "Holmes-Only" campaign? Basically, that the Holmes 46-page rulebook is the only rulebook. You therefore have to ignore all references to AD&D. What impact does this have on the rules? The major impact is that the game would be limited to 3rd level for all classes.

I think that the idea of a "Holmes-only" game has a lot of merit and I would love to try something like this. While I would encourage anyone to read the relevant posts on DF, the reasons I think this would be very interesting are (and some of these are intertwined:

1. The game would more accurately reflect the sword & sorcery literature upon which the earliest editions of D&D are based.

2. Magic-user spells would be limited - there would be very limited access to the spells that have a tendency to "break" encounters or scenarios such as fly, fireball, know alignment. They would only be available through magic items. How many Conan stories have the sorcerer flinging fireballs?

3. Fighters would also be limited in terms of ability to a degree that is gritty and in line with the source literature. No longer could a fighter easily face off against 20 city guardsmen without fear. Geoffrey gives the example of, " the beginning of "Red Nails" where Conan and the warrior-woman Valeria are charged by a "dragon", which is clearly a stegosaurus. Contrary to mistaken stereotype, Conan did not thump his chest and go toe-to-toe with it. Instead, Conan and Valeria ran away. Conan as typically presented in D&D would laugh and be eating the stegosaurus for lunch after a few short melee rounds. A 3rd-level Conan, however, would turn tail and flee, just like in the story."

4. Holmes has an excellent roster of monsters and magic items which, when combined, can make a party of 3rd level adventurers epic but keep both the monsters and adventurers relevant.

5. It focuses advancement on things other than levels but level advancement takes on an even bigger significance as there is only 3 levels. But, there are also other mechanisms for advancement or gaining new abilities - more tangible measures such as questing to find the scroll that has the unique spell you need to fulfill a specific task, finding more treasure so you can hire enough mercenaries to defeat the tribe of Orcs threatening the town, negotiating for the cooperation of a band of brigands to overcome a nearby dragon. Sure these things can be done with unlimited advancement but when the level limit is capped at 3rd level, these are the things that advance your character - their story and the impact they have on the world - instead of XP calculations.

Some problems with running a "Holmes-only" campaign are:
1. Finding players interested - there would be a whole array of existing attitudes and perceptions that would have to be overcome.
2. Demi-humans. Why play a fighter when a dwarf is available and not limited in terms of level caps. Likely have to give them XP penalties or exclude them completely to, once again, get closer to the S&S literature.


  1. Just a suggestion:

    Making Fighters Epic with only 3 levels- let human fighters get 1 attack per level against opponents with less then 2 hit dice. This gives folks a reason to play something other then a dwarf or an elf (who don't get this ability).

  2. I like jsemaj's suggestion and I wholly support this approach in general.

  3. If the over-riding goal is to get closer to the underlying S&S literature, I would be inclined to just scrap demi-humans. Therefore there would be no need to give Fighters anything.

    However, if the goal is to just focus on a low level, rules light version of D&D, then I could possibly see some sort of adjustment being made - either something like suggested or an XP penalty for demi-human, etc.

  4. This was always (and still is) the reason I loved Melee/ Wizard from metagaming. Every fight was a life or death struggle and 6 Orcs never became a yawn fest. Absurd army of kobolds vs. one fighter rubbish is what killed a lot of the fun in D&D for me. Anyone with a sword is a threat and the deadly nature of combat forces players to "get creative" I love it!

  5. Another point regarding how to prevent everyone from playing a demi-human since all characters are capped at 3rd level:

    Holmes ability score generation is 3d6 in order. To be a dwarf, your character must roll at least a 10 constitution. That means that right off the bat almost 50% of PCs won't have a high enough constitution to be a dwarf.

    Halflings must have a 10 in both constitution and in dexterity. Thus, around 70% of characters will be ineligible to be halflings.

    As for elves, p. 7 of Holmes indicates that they progress more slowly than other characters. Since Holmes progression is already pretty darned slow (an average of 11 game sessions to rise a level--p. 22), that's a pretty big disincentive right there.

    So my solution would be to stick strictly to 3d6 in order. That will ensure plenty of human PCs.

    And thanks for making this blog post! :)

  6. My original comments on Geoffrey's idea haven't changed: good luck finding a handful of players willing to game for 30 or so sessions to get their characters to 3rd level! I think the IDEA is intriguing and would make a great pick-up or convention type setting (no one higher than 3rd level in the campaign world); however, the actual application would be very hard to implement. I'm still waiting for the brave soul(s) who are willing to devote a year or so to this endeavor just to prove they could. Just imagine the look on the poor Joe's face as the 2nd level ftr he has been playing for 2 years gets killed by the thrown axe of a kobold warrior, or a fall into a pit trap, or the bite of a good sized war dog.... I won't even mention the absurdity of a "god" that a decent sized troll could work over like a pint of beer at a biker rally....
    I remain very skeptical this would work, and that anyone will give it a shot in any case.

  7. I agree that finding players for it would be very difficult today. The funny thing is that finding players in 1980 for a campaign that used only Holmes would have been easy. What has changed? Players' attitudes - and not for the better.

  8. I know in the middle to late 3E period there were discussions of E6 and E8 games where advancement effectively ended at those levels.

    It's a very different game, especially E6.

  9. I must be in a distinct minority since I honestly don't care when my PC gets killed. I simply role-up another PC and jump back into the game. It's all fun.

    When I DM, I still have a blast when my NPCs get killed.

    To me, the fun is experiencing a fantasy world through the eyes of your characters. Doing so through the eyes of a single character (as opposed to a succession of characters) doesn't add anything for me.

  10. "I must be in a distinct minority since I honestly don't care when my PC gets killed. I simply role-up another PC and jump back into the game. It's all fun."

    I don't think you're entirely wrong (or right) Geoffrey; I just thing that's your different way (and experience) of looking at the game. I do think, however, that D&D as a whole is a "single character" type game as opposed to a "series of characters" type game, simply because the mass of rules supports this. Now, whether or not someone could have fun by the "Holmesian Method" is a matter of conjecture; until someone puts in the year or so necessary to run a campaign built around "tops at 3rd level" we won't know.

    We are all molded by early game experiences. For example the group we started in 1979 or thereabouts at 1st level eventually did the "sacred path" of the GDQ series and fought Lolth to the death in 1986. In that group (which waxed and wane between 3 to 8 players and 8 to 15 characters during the time) were a handful that had started out those many years ago at 1st level in B1 scrabbling for pieces of copper and dodging death at the hands of kobolds. The experience of having three of the original players and some of their original characters (several had perished in the intervening 7 years) finally bring the campaign to a conclusion was a very powerful (and dare I say emotional)one, and what really made me a "single character" believer for life. It is an experience that would be totally unable to be fufilled in a campaign world where the odds of making 3rd level in 7 years of gaming would be rough at best (and then having the ultimate campaign battle against, say, a single giant might be anti-climatic in the extreme).

    But again that's just my experience; I wouldn't say it's necessarily more valid, but I do think as you mentioned Geoffrey you are in the minority when you say continuity in the form of long-living characters isn't a huge draw for you. I think for the minority of players (and probably DMs, if you polled us) the "single character" method does add quite a bit to the enjoyment of the game and campaign.

    Interesting discussion, though!

  11. I would give my left...arm to run a 'Basic only' game.


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