Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Play Report: Holmes Basic Intro to Gaming for Post-Millenials

(Depicted: Severed goblin ears or maybe dried mangoes)
Two weeks ago, my friend A. sent me an email saying his kid wanted to learn how to play D&D, and asking if she had to buy expensive 5e books and equipment.  I pointed A. toward free basic 5e pdfs, but asked if his daughter would be OK with the older editions of D&D.  He replied that his daughter and her friend would be fine with something Old School, and asked me if I would do the honor of DMing a game for his nuclear family and his daughter's friend from school. 

So, on Saturday, the weather warmed up a bit and I drove out to A.'s house.

My wife was kind enough to take care of our own kid solo at our house for the majority of game day.

A., his wife, his nearly-teen daughter and her same-aged friend met me at their door and helped me unpack my dog-eared B2 Keep on the Borderlands and worn but well-appreciated blue Holmes Basic rulebook onto the kitchen table.  Character sheets and cheat sheet rule references from Zenopus Archives were to prove handy.

The daughter's friend had seen D&D played on Stranger Things and was a big fan of Legolas from the Lord of the Rings movies.  Both kids were able to relate to the idea of D&D races, classes and levels.

For the sake of jumping right into the adventure, I usually like to provide pre-generated characters for which players can optionally change the fluff/backstory/nomenclature, but I thought the kids would like to have the experience of rolling 3d6 in order and deciding what their potentially very flawed and interesting 1st level character would be good at.  The daughter's friend named her character a Tolkien Elvish name (no, not Legolas) but found his stats would be better for a human or dwarf.  So he became a dwarf.

The other players rolled up a human magic-user, a human thief, and another dwarf.  They gave them wacky names.  Nobody was interested in playing a cleric.  I thought: You'll be sorry when you get to the Temple in the Caves of Chaos!

The kids really got into drawing their characters and choosing age, height, weight, etc.

The green dried mango picture above alludes to the fact that I can't resist DMing anybody's adventure without customizing it. The PCs visited the Tavern soon after entering the Keep and extracted a hefty pile of rumors.

My addition to the rumor chart: You can "harvest" ears and hearts from goblins - the Keep military will pay a good bounty on each of them - and it's said that if you can stand the disgusting taste, they are extremely nutritious.  The PCs also heard this when they chatted with the Guildsman at the Guildhall, and learned that he would also pay for these items.

The Party also heard and noted the infamous "'Bree Yark!' is goblin language for 'We surrender!'"

Two mornings later, the PCs, once they had found the U-shaped ravine, headed into the goblin caves on the southwest lower level.  They were surprised when the goblins didn't give up after yelling "Bree Yark!" and reinforcements showed up instead. The goblins, snarling and whining, inflicted some damage on the intruders.

 My buddy, the family man's family man in real life, had his character wear the stink-eyed vulture from Gary Gygax's read-aloud around his neck as a grisly trophy (he had shot it.)  A. was also brutal in the goblin caves, drenching the humanoids with the oil he had brought and setting them alight. The PCs quickly harvested charred goblin ears and hearts when the combat was over.  They ran deeper into the caves as noises echoed from elsewhere in the complex of the remaining goblins mustering and bringing the roaring bribed ogre with them.

Injured party members who ate the goblin ears and hearts restored 1-3 of their hp.  Generous? Yes, but these were 6th Graders playing their 1st ever RPG. Gruesome?  Yes, but the parents were OK and the kids didn't think too much into it.  Besides, goblins, hobgoblins, etc. are big on eating humans. This is indicated by, among other things, the "Come in!  We'd like to have you for dinner" sign.

The party's thief rolled a lucky 12% and picked a locked door at the otherwise-dead-ended top of a staircase.  The party burst into the hobgoblins' common room.  Oil and torches were thrown.  Conflagrations ensued.  The party ran out the opposite door, spiked it shut, and the magic-user fired off his single spell of the adventure: hold portal.  As quickly and quietly as they could, the PCs searched for a way out.  They finally saw daylight oozing in under the oaken entrance door of the hobgoblin lair.

Agitated hobgoblin survivors of the Common Room Massacre broke through the spiked-shut door as the Hold Portal spell quickly faded.  They ran howling up the corridors and stairs, rousing the entire tribe to pursuit. Guards near the entryway hacked at the party, who took heavy damage.  The magic-user was reduced to zero hit points.  The party retreated under the afternoon daylight toward the forest, then the road, then the Keep.   

Goblin ears held aloft to the soldiers manning the Keep gatehouse earned the battered party congratulations and an invitation to dine, a few nights after they recovered, with the Castellan in the Inner Bailey.  The Castellan was pleased with the intelligence the party gave about the location of the Caves and about some of their inhabitants.  The party gave him several goblin ears and hearts as a gift, which also impressed him (thanks to the thief's canny suggestion, they seemed to offer the Castellan all of the goblin pieces, but actually retained several pieces to sell elsewhere or eat themselves later).

At this point, the kids were getting jokey and restless, so I adjourned things.  We all talked and ate snacks a bit, the daughter's friend's dad showed up to get her, and I left not long after.

Some observations:

  • It was always fun to read Gygax's module, but to run this verbose, text-heavy material at the table I would have appreciated more Bryce Lynchian bullet point design.
  • The read-aloud background, etc., is a wee bit long.  That "after 3 sentences, players stop listening" advice really holds true with kids.
  • It takes a lot of energy to DM with a mixed group of kids and adults with somebody else's material (in somebody else's house.)  It would have been easier using my own material which I know inside and out.
  • Maybe immersion of kids in a generic medieval fantasy world was easier in the cultural moment of the mid 70s to early 80s.   The generic medieval Keep didn't seem as fascinating to the youth of today as it had been to me and my peers.  Maybe they would have preferred something like Middle Earth Role Playing which could have the full force of known Tolkien characters, situations, and locations behind it. Seeing the Peter Jackson LOTR and Hobbit movies on the screen looms large in their cultural milieu.
  • It was slightly interesting but not very surprising that nobody cared about the implications of using violent force in a hobgoblin common room filled with families and youngsters, nor about the implications of cutting out goblins' ears and hearts and eating them.  Everybody was secure with fiction. 
  • The kids (and the adults, to a lesser extent) really hated having to make their own maps.
  • I have never used miniatures because I'm cheap and I like to avoid hassle, but maybe the kids would have liked them (and scenery) to visualize combat better.


  1. Sounds like you all had fun. I would play with chess or Clue pieces or anything to help the kids visualize.

    1. That's a good idea, Chris! I have always avoided miniatures because I don't want to spend all that money, but chess pieces on a paper grid wouldn't be a bad way to give the kids the benefit of visuals minus the expense and hassle of minis.

    2. We're also using pieces from old board games a lot. Also coins and small d6s.

  2. Huh. This is pretty interesting (especially your observations). Had the kids any prior experience with computer RPGs? Were there any gripes about the simplicity of the (Holmes) basic rules?

    1. Glad you found it interesting! I like playing D&D with people who have never played before or don't have so many preconceptions of what they are supposed to do. About 8 years ago, I DMed for an artist friend who had never played D&D (and didn't read Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser types of literature.) An unsavory-seeming fellow with a patch over one eye waxed on to her PC and her party about unguarded ancient tombs on the steppe which were full of forgotten gold for the taking. Somebody steeped in the right tropes would realize "oh, here's an adventure hook" and jump in (with proper preparations and suspicion toward the hook-dangler) to remedy their empty-wallet condition. But the artist was thinking like a sensible real-life person, not a swords & sorcery character: "Descend into a dark hole in the ground? Listen to a rogue? No way!" So it was cool to see D&D tropes from an outside perspective.

      Anyway, to finally answer your questions: One of the girls had played computer RPGs, but the other, raised by my bohemian intellectual friends, had only really played Minecraft before on the computer.

      They had no gripes about the simplicity of the rules, but they did wonder about no armor for the mage, not many weapons for the mage, why only leather armor for the thief.

  3. Glad the character sheets were useful! I put those spaces for Age, Height etc on there because I knew kids loving picking out that stuff. I've shied away from burning oil in my kids' games because of the horribleness of burning something alive, although of course when I was a kid it never bothered me, though we never used it much.