I have played some form of role playing games since 1980 when the Magenta box Basic Rules and the AD&D player’s handbook found their way under the Christmas tree. I played through second edition AD&&D, along with a cluster of games and systems; Palladium, Arcanum, Gamma World, Paranoia, Star Frontiers, Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, MSH, DC Heroes, Toon, WoD, CoC and GURPS. That last became a fast favorite, until my circle of friends drifted apart, and I stopped playing games, somewhere between having small children, and the advent of RPOL.net. I began again, a few years after the OSR began, and have spent a few years gearing up with the latest edition of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy.
I have also been spending the same time reading through the wonderful OSR offerings found on Lulu, Drivethrurpg.com and various home pages of assorted authors using the OGL to try and recreate what they felt to be a faithful and nostalgic version of the games we grew up rolling dice for. I have been through dozens and dozens of these, from Dark Dungeons to Darker Dungeons, Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and many more excellent products, but one particular one caught my attention.
Long ago, a friend had given me a copy of the Holmes Bluebook that they had found in a thrift shop. It was delightful, but awkward in places, having played through a few editions by that point. In my later occasions of nostalgia, I found more beauty within it. Then one day, cruising through the “Free” section of Drivethrurpg, I found the Blueholme Prentice Rules.Even better, was a suggestion on the page that I pick up the accompanying starter adventure, The Maze of Nuromen. Both of these gaming products are edited by +Michael Thomas. His Blog is Dreamscape Designs.
Why Blueholme, out of the entire trove of OSR goodness? It has a certain elegance of mechanics not found in a few earlier versions (and many later versions) of the game. There are three aspects to the simplicity and clarity of the rules that struck me, and of which I heartily approve.
Firstly, initiative flows based not from a derived modifier, but from a simple base statistic; Dexterity, with further ties resolved by a quick contest of D6. Making one roll for each encounter still happens, but the likelihood of the problem of simultaneous action is minimized, smoothing combat.
Secondly, basic, and simple attribute modifiers are given for most humanoid races, opening the field for the possibility of playing almost any race. The proposed Compleat rules will address this further. Additionally, the simple suggestion of scaling monster Hit Dice, Hit points and Armor Class to meet the level of the party guarantees that the players will never find their encounters predictable or pushovers. The GM is effectively recommended to give the monsters class levels. I love it.
The third thing I like ifs that multiclassing is open to all races, and the rules are simple: the level advancement cost is a flat total of each class: no half class advancement; Hit dice rolled and averaged once per level. No fractions.
This collective set of modifications, and the fluid way in which they are presented echo after what I like about GURPS, and it makes me like the system more. These are streamlined, simplified rules, not complications.
In addition to these aspects of the ruleset, there are two other major reasons I like this game; the Art style and the tone.
The artwork, at the moment, excepting the great cover by Jean-Francis Beaulieu is open source, and assembled by John-Calvin Smith. The Prentice rules feature artwork by Henry J. Ford and Victor R. Lambdin, and what really transfixed me was the art used in Justin Becker’s The Maze of Nuromen is by Harry Clarke. This made me an instant fan. There is a lot of accessible art out there, but the particular selections Mr. Smith made have an awesome tonality to them. Harry Clarke designed a lot of stained glass windows in his time, and his bold and convoluted engravings reflect this, and also seem to have been an inspiration for the work of Russ Nicholson. The work by Clarke included was mostly from a series of illustrations he did for a collected work of Edgar Allen Poe, and has a pre-pulp weird fantasy look to it.
There is a tone in the writing that I am going to have to refer to as Old School. When I played 2e AD&D, there was a tendency to explain away everything with in game mechanics. If there were undead around someone interested in necromancy, they had to be level 5+ and equipped with Animate Dead. This is much less mechanistic; Gladiatorial skeletons in the Maze of Nuromen are there because the place is cursed, and they will keep on reanimating independent to the current intentions of the Big Bad Evil Guy. Boom. Things are because they are, without fiddly bits of how they came to be. That is weird, that is the flavor I used to find looking through Gygaxian writing, and more importantly, in Dr. John Holmes own writing. Not too long after picking up Blueholme, I ordered a copy of The Maze of Peril from the publisher, and was absolutely delighted. That book was full of weird things without in-game explanations, things that felt fluid and right in their context, without need of exposition.
The bronze speaking masks, the clever traps, the flow and feel of the details of the Maze of Nuromen are perfectly on point in this way, and brought me back to a place of nostalgia I hadn’t quite been at since I first cracked open the Basic book with the Errol Otus illustration. Similar to both of the Basic books I own, the sample combats and encounters are presented in a way that is engaging and easily understood. the Prentice rules work well as an introduction to the hobby, and handles the feel of appendix N work more than adequately.
The other important thing this game did for me, as I saw the development of the Compleat rules, was a request for contributing artists. Now, that project is on hold, but it jumpstarted my artwork. Since I started trying to draw Old School Fantasy art, I have had four commissions. One pro-bono, two paid and one for barter. My interaction with this game has led to my becoming a better and more productive artist. I even ended up with art in Tim Short’s OSR fanzine The Manor. I would love to work on the project if it resumes, but even if it doesn’t, The Prentice rules still stand, and are worth playing.