Thursday 23 February 2012

Beholder Basic

"Bruno the Battler smashes open a dungeon door and is confronted by a big goblin in chainmail armed with a scimitar."

Here's something silly I've been working on. What if there was a bone-simple version of 4th Edition that kids could play? That slaughtered some of the sacred cows - like ability scores - and shamelessly hard-wired collectible fortune cards and tokens into the core? And what if - just for the hell of it (or perhaps in protest against all this "back to basics" stuff flying about) - we kit-bashed this monster into the oldest edition of D&D available: the original D&D Basic Set?

You see, the other day I discovered that I own the "Holmes Edition" of D&D: one of the original boxed sets, printed in 1978. I've never actually played it - I was three years old at the time of release, so the best I could've done was chew on it - but reading it now is quite an eye-opener. I cut my teeth on the red box, published almost ten years after the original pamphlets, and I think it's fair to say they'd tidied things up by that stage. In comparison, Holmes sounds like it was written by a madman. Still, despite its scatter-shot approach to layout and tone, it's not without charm. In particular, reading this edition shows me that some of our sacred cows aren't as holy as they seem. Take races, for example. Here we find a wonderful column that suggests:

"At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man." 

And people complain about "the circus coming to town"? Also note, "halflingish" - really quite beautiful.

Overall, reading Holmes made me wonder what I'd like from a basic set today. I've bought both the Revised Red Box and the Pathfinder Beginner Box, but in truth I think that both of them are flawed. They're trying to teach overly complex systems to an audience that's really too young to get it. Equally, I don't think the answer is to go back to Original D&D. Rules-wise, 4th Edition was a pretty lean beast, and - despite the hate - introduced some new toys to the box that I think our kids would really get on with. Power cards, for instance. I think it's a shame to throw these out in favour of graph paper and pencils. What I want - and I'm not talking 5th Edition here - is to see a basic version of 4th Edition that's somewhere between the D&D adventure boardgames and the role-playing games, but fully playable in the "old-fashioned" way; i.e. without tiles and miniatures.

The character card you see above - artwork care of Sandy! - represents what I'd work towards:

  • Heavy emphasis on cards and counters, much like WFRP 3rd Edition. Players have a character card that they lay in front of them, which they use to "socket" their power cards to.
  • No ability scores (the use of arrays and skills has made them obsolete in 4th Edition, in my opinion). Instead, fixed bonuses for defences, supplemented by class-specific gear cards.
  • An even further boiled-down set of skills: now refined to just four. 
  • Less Hit Points for an even more lethal experience.

Who knows, maybe I'll take it further, and actually write this thing up? Take that as a warning.


  1. Looks cool. I think you're on to something!

  2. Thanks, Colin. Sandy's just mailed me the Cleric sheet, so check back soon to see that!

  3. I agree completely. Getting a simple rules sheet and not over using miniatures is key to getting kids hooked. I must admit that drawing maps (10ft through doorway etc) was the best bit for me. Really felt like discovery. Can you keep that bit?

  4. Absolutely, Jason. I loved dungeon creation and mapping as a kid (hey, I still do!). I just think pencils and paper can share the same table space with power cards and tokens.


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