Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Holmes: A Palimpsest

Part of the reason Holmes fans enjoy detailed analysis of his text is that there are inconsistencies in it that reflect his self-defined role as primarily an editor rather than an author. The text must be read as a palimpsest with at least four layers that derive from four different goals for his book.

His first goal for his book was to edit the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons rules into a clearer, easier-to-learn format. Contrary to about half of what Gary Gygax later said on the subject (even great men are subject to lapses of memory), and contrary to what the final text says and what most readers have concluded, Dr. Holmes began this work before Mr. Gygax began assembling his own edits into the manuscripts that would eventually become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The blue book was not originally related to AD&D at all. Much of the text in Dr. Holmes's Dungeons & Dragons is word for word the text from Mr. Gygax and Mr. Arneson's Dungeons & Dragons text, as it was intended to be.

His second goal was to address the text to beginners, to create an introduction to the original Dungeons & Dragons that made it easier for new players and DMs to learn the game. He focused on just the lower levels of the game - though he still kept many higher-level monsters - and omitted complicated rules that could be considered add-ons to the core foundation of rules. Likewise he stripped down the advice to DMs, along with the wilderness and siege rules. In some cases, his excision of these supplementary rules is not complete, leaving the fingerprints of his editing in the final manuscript. Although later the project to create the blue book was described as always having been motivated by the second goal alone, there is reason to believe this second goal was arrived at later, that at first he planned a complete re-edit but after discussion with the folks at TSR decide to limit its scope to a beginner's guide.

His third goal - unstated, but evident in the text - was to reflect Gary Gygax's evolving vision for the game. We see this goal with his import of options like the Thief class from Mr. Gygax's Supplement 1: Greyhawk, with his adoption of the five-part alignment system from Mr. Gygax's article "The Meaning of Law and Chaos in Dungeons & Dragons and Their Relationships to Good and Evil" in the February 1976 issue of The Strategic Review magazine, and with borrowings from Mr. Gygax's draft Player's Handbook and Monster Manual manuscripts. These updates were sometimes worked smoothly into Dr. Holmes's emerging text, but they often introduced inconsistencies that betrayed their supplemental nature.

A fourth goal - not his but imposed upon the text by TSR during the production process - was to advertise the forthcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game and to generally try to repurpose the text as an introduction to that game instead of to the original Dungeons & Dragons game. Although TSR and Mr. Gygax originally approved Dr. Holmes's goal of creating a re-edit of and introduction to original Dungeons & Dragons, the further Mr. Gygax proceeded with his Advanced Dungeons & Dragons project the less he liked the idea of having Dr. Holmes's project point new players and DMs toward what Mr. Gygax increasingly began to think of as the past. In 2005 Mr. Gygax wrote on the EN World forums that he was the one who inserted the AD&D material into Dr. Holmes's book. This layer of edits was rushed and created numerous inconsistencies in the final text.

Some will find these claims noncontroversial, but others will find them bold. In the series ahead I hope to examine each of the four layers in details.


  1. You truly are a student of the ancient art of D&D. Holmes is a man who helped pave the way we play D&D. Yet that wasn't he goal his goal as you stated was to take an already made game and make it easier to learn and play and what makes the game great are the inconsistencies, it gives it a personality and soul.

  2. Thanks, Alex.

    Yes, Philotomy Jurament has made this intriguing argument, that the inconsistencies of the game are part of its soul, something to be protected rather than eliminated. Part of the reason he's right has to do with the tension between D&D as a hobby versus D&D as a product.

    D&D began life as the former, as something that people not only did together but also created together. The original boxed set - and even more so Chainmail - makes repeatedly clear that the authors understand that the players and DM are playing their own game, and that these published materials are intended to help them and spur them on, not to instruct them on the proper way to play.

    This do-it-yourself hobbyist approach is miles away from AD&D's insistence on playing the game correctly, though at times text in support of some of this original spirit survives in passages within the three AD&D books. That change from hobby to product was probably the biggest change in the history of role-playing games since their original creation.

    To be grokked, then, Holmes's work needs to be studied in terms of that shift to figure out how it relates to it. Interestingly, despite the layer of inserted text promoting AD&D that Gygax and others applied to it, Holmes's text makes clear that he wanted so strongly for his readers to continue the hobbyist approach to the game that he not only repeatedly suggested the DM innovate, he forced them to do it by describing the importance of topics like loyalty and morale but then omitting any rules for them.

    In this and other ways, he tried to push DMs to embrace the spirit of creativity of the original books. There are imperfections in his book that come from this palimpsesty approach to its composition, there are others that come from his careful preservation of text from the original books in all their imperfect glory, and there are still other "imperfections" that come from his rejection of a product-oriented approach to his rule book.

    So although he was working to make D&D easier to learn and play, he was also simultaneously working creatively to make it more "inconsistent," to turn it into a fluxus quo that the DM and players would mold and shift on the fly to help them play together. That style of play, in which the rules are just a throw-away prop to help everyone play the real game that lies beyond rules, is the true original spirit of D&D that captivated so many people back in the day and continues to inspire the old-school renaissance. The dungeons and the dragons, per se, are just the trappings of something far more interesting.