Three years ago I (briefly) reviewed the Blueholme Prentice Rules, a retroclone of the Holmes D&D Basic game. Since that time Michael Thomas worked on expanding his game to cover additional levels, and now the Journeymanne rules have been released. While I did help proof-read this game, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve looked at it, so I’ll be looking at this with fairly fresh eyes.
First thing of course is the cover, with artwork by Jean-Francois Beaulieu, is fantastic. I do think the title could be a bit larger, but overall this is one of my favorite OSR covers. Flipping through the book, the first thing that stands out to me is the plain San-serif font. I’m not a fan of it (even 1E’s San-serif font was far cleaner), and it’s blocky and pixelated. The headers and sub-headers should have been different fonts, and there’s not much spacing. I’m also not a fan of the tables; they should have alternating colors or such to make them easier to read, and they blend in to the surrounding text too easily.
But in contrast to all of that, it’s easy to see that the artwork Kickstarter paid off enormously! Instead of the sparse wood-block style of the Prentice rules, here we have a wide variety of artists on display. There’s very few images that fall short or look out of place, and several are among my favorite OSR/RPG pieces I’ve ever seen!
Like pretty much any OSR RPG this game opens with a (rather short) story, and then goes over what each chapter covers. I do like how there’s a section for what “level” means in certain contexts, as at least for this game there are 5 different uses/meanings for that word. Very confusing for those new to these kind of games! Next is a short section on rounding and multiplying, which as far as I know is unique to this OSR RPG; the multiplying part was confusing to me and took a number of reads, but hopefully that’s just me! Finally are notes on winners and losers, and how the rules should be read/applied; these two sections make excellent points and I commend Michael for including them.
Alright, time to dive in and create a Blueholme character! Coming from any other OSR RPG you’ll likely won’t see anything really different, but one thing I noticed immediately is there’s no section of races (termed species here) to choose from. Instead, Blueholme follows Mythras and the like by stating that almost any creature could be played as a character, as long as it fits the game desired by the referee and other players (also, on page 11 is a class hit dice adjustment table depending on the creature chosen).
We have the 4 traditional classes, and unlike Labyrinth Lord the cleric does NOT get a spell at first level, which was the norm for B/X D&D. Where Blueholme does follow Labyrinth Lord is the amount of XP needed to reach a level, as it ends with 1 rather than 0. Interestingly, there’s one place where Blueholme follows Basic Fantasy RPG: thief skills, as they all use d100 rather than the traditional d6 for hear noise. I personally prefer this, or using 2d6 like in Sine Nomine’s games. In other words, consistency.
This game does have alignment, and I’m likely to use it as in other games, i.e. not at all. Finally this chapter ends with equipment and transportation. What I noticed immediately was that there’s no damage listings for the weapons; flipping ahead to page 56 shows that all weapons deal 1d6. Huh; I know variable damage was an optional rule in many older D&D editions, but I’m so used to it now that it throws me off when I don’t see it, and I really do prefer variable damage, even so far as different damage vs. Large creatures.
This is a standard section comparable to other OSR RPGs. I only bothered to write this short section to again commend the variety and amount of artwork this game has, it’s spectacular!
Here we start to get into the meat of the game. I like that it denotes three different types of locales: the realm, wilderness, and underworld. Next it goes over time and turns, rounds, etc. For whatever strange reason in this game there is both the normal turn (10 minutes) as well as a combat turn (100 seconds?!), accounting for 10 10-second turns.
The rest of the chapter covers travel and obstacles in the underworld and wilderness, and then life in the realm and related construction costs, retainers and hirelings, etc. I do think this chapter is far better organized than most other OSR games, as it includes the city/realm portion in the player-facing sections/rules rather than split off to near the end of the book.
This chapter starts off with some handy encounter tables, including variable chances in certain types of terrain. There are also encounters for while in the realm, and even broken down by class of the adversary. This is something I haven’t seen in any other OSR game, and it’s a potentially interesting variant.
This game does have the rule for reactions, which many other games either have as an option or not at all. I think it’s a handy rule to use, as it can be a little more realistic as well as potentially avoiding a combat encounter that could kill one or more PCs. Like Blueholme Prentice and Holmes D&D this game uses Dexterity to determine initiative rather than a random die roll. While it’s one less thing to worry about, I prefer to add a little variety with the die roll, and still use DEX bonuses/penalties to modify it. As this game uses descending armor class, we can’t forget those attack tables/matrices! While I prefer ascending armor class, I have no problem with descending either.
This chapter ends with two short (I mean really short, like a half-page each) combat examples and the saving throw tables.
The first page of this chapter goes over using creatures as PCs; there’s a lot that may have to be adjusted. While most if not all of it makes sense to me, it is gonna slow down character generation, so be sure to have a session 0 for your game to get through all of it!
One little thing that I don’t like is that there’s no spacing between a creature’s name and its stat-block; it’s right below it. The stat-blocks are pretty much the same as any other OSR game, but it’s odd that the XP line is in the middle rather than at the end.
Like the Spells chapter this one also as a good amount of great artwork! Unfortunately before I know it I’m at the end of the chapter. While I haven’t counted out how many entries there are compared to other OSR games, there’s no doubt this is one of the shortest ones I’ve seen. Some of that is due to some of the entries being combined, such as the lycanthropes. But that also means a very shortened description block that doesn’t give any details to the different variants (not that I want a half to whole page on each, but I mean really). I’m sure if I went through and compared I’d find several of my favorites missing.
In this game treasure is noted by a number from 1 to 20, rather than roman numerals in Labyrinth Lord and letters in Basic Fantasy RPG. I’m not picky on any system, although Labyrinth Lord’s bugs me for some reason. ANYWAYS, the table is otherwise the same, with certain categories having a percentage chance. Looking at the individual tables, it sure seems like this game has more than its fair share of treasure, possibly as much as in Iron Falcon. This chapter ends with a note on creating magical items, which is something that although in pretty much every OSR game I just don’t agree with. Magical items should be left mysterious, unknown, and beyond even the most powerful character’s capabilities of creating.
Finally is the obligatory chapter with advice for the GM, which I find is a bit lacking in most OSR games. Whether it’s because they’re strictly following the spartan pre-1E D&D games, relying on additional supplements, etc. to fill that role, or they just blindly shrug with the usual “just use your imagination kid!” attitude, I just think pretty much all OSR games could fill in far more detail.
Does this game do that? Well almost a page goes over designing an adventure, while almost two pages covers designing the underworld (i.e. the dungeon layout). The next page or so covers the wilderness and realm, and that’s definitely not enough material and detail. The final two pages gives some generic GM advice and optional rules.
Overall this chapter is painfully short, as this games has chosen to follow the other OSR games and blindly copy their predecessors rather than make an effort to add on even just a little bit more of what we’ve learned through time, experience, and trial-and-error.
With all of that being said, do I recommend this game if I had read it on its own and no other OSR games, and then compared to what must be dozens of other retroclones and such now available? There’s a unique feel and aspect to this game, being one of the rare few (or perhaps the only) games to model itself after the Holmes D&D game. Of course for this expanded game Michael had to postulate what Holmes would have included and written, but I can’t fault that any more than those who have tried to make a “AD&D 2E if Gygax had sole control” game.
If Holmes D&D has a special place in your gamer heart, then you’ll definitely want to check this game out. Going simply by look/design/layout, it’s a bit on the plain side, but with a generous amount of artwork that mostly leans on the fantastic side. It may not have been a pioneer like many of the other OSR games, but I think it can more than hold its own beside them.