Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Holmes Expert Boxed Set: What If?

Old school D&Ders seem to love “what if” intellectual excercises. What if D&D had been modeled on classical Greek myths rather than medieval Europe (Mazes and Minotaurs)? What if Traveller had cornered the market first and fantasy rpgs where modeled after it? What if the B/X series had been completed by Companion rules, rather than Mentzer?

My own head was spinning last night from a similar line of questions after reading a very intriguing passage in Dragon magazine #35 (March 1980). In Gygax's then-monthly column, “Sorcerer's Scroll”, he discusses at great length the various business decisions of TSR as it went gangbusters at the turn of the 1980s.

About halfway through he starts talking about about the internal debate at TSR about whether the Holmes Basic edition should have a product that pointed back to OD&D (as Holmes intended when he volunteered) or forward to AD&D as it began to be rolled out as a system. We all know which vision won. Thus the strange hybrid beast that was that first blue box set came into being.

Now here's the part I didn't know, there were plans for an Expert set expansion for Holmes underway at TSR in 1980. According to Gygax: 
“...as Basic Set sales soared, so did our plans... Design is now hard at work on the second boxed D&D game, the Expert Set. It will take players through at least 12th level of experience, tie in the best of the “Original” material, and actually add some new classes, spells, magic, monsters and so on. That should satisfy all those fans who prefer the complete flexibility and open form of D&D over the more controlled and formalized structure of AD&D.”
Whoa. Now obviously these plans were folded into a different plan in which D&D evolved into a new toned-down and simplified system that would be the B/X and later the BECMI lines. But it does pose a very tantalizing what-if.

What if that Holmes Expert set was rolled out before or in place of the B/X revision? Now there have been several nicely-done Holmes expansion homebrews such as Meepo's Holmes Companion, but what if there was full-bodied expansion along the more ambitious lines above?

Imagine for a minute a Holmes Expert set that retained it's unique bits. Five-fold alignment, DEX determines initiative, unusual spell descriptions, no racial classes, generous magic-item creation rules, etc. grafted onto an expansion written by the quirky (and slightly incoherent) mind that was J. Eric Holmes.

Imagine a set of new classes and/or races written by the man who explicitly stated that players could start at just about anything a DM gave her nod to such as a “centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man”?

Imagine new monsters from a guy so immersed in pulp fantasy roots as to actually write a follow-up novel to Edgar R. Burroughs strange and obscure Pellucidar series? It certainly would feature the Cthuloid and gonzo creations you get whiffs of in Mazes of Peril and his other stories. Were-shark anyone?

What about the module that would have accompanied it? Imagine a Holmesian mid-level adventure that would rival In Search of the Unknown or Keep on the Borderlands?

The mind boggles.


  1. That's a cool find, bro. Man, would I love to see this thing come to light. What kind of classes and other goodies would make it into it, you think?? Would they be different from AD&D and other other D&Ds??? And are you proposing that someone actually make this bad boy or just dreaming out loud?

  2. @wampus
    I'm mostly dreaming out loud, but the more I think I about it the more I would like to see something done like this.

    And to be clear I was day-dreaming about something more than a Holmes companion that conservatively fills in the gaps by using OD&D sources (though as a historical purist I love these attempts too). More like something that would be using Holmes Basic as it came to be presented as a hypothetical departure point much like the Moldavy and Mentzer editions were.