Monday, March 08, 2010

The Wonderful Scrolls of Doctor Holmes

Over the weekend I was flipping around in the blue Basic D&D rulebook edited by J. Eric Holmes. One of the better-known quirks about the Holmes edit of D&D is the easy scroll rules. Any magic-user, starting right from first level, can make spell scrolls at the cost of only 100gp and 1 week per spell level. No doubt you can see the big gain here for MUs: once the party lands 100gp or more in loot they can dramatically increase the number and variety of spells available to the one shot wonder in the pointy hat. I adopted this rule in my first World of Cinder campaign and one of the most successful characters of that venture was a scroll-wielding magic-user. At one point Carl, the player of the magic-user, took a wad of cash and whipped up one of every spell he could cast, thereby avoiding the "Aargh! If only I had memorized X!" effect that often bedevils magic-users. 3.x D&D's Scribe Scroll feat was basically the same mechanic, so I wouldn't be surprised if that part of the system was suggested by someone who started with Holmes Basic.

The treasure section of Holmes Basic also has a couple neat bits about scrolls in it. The random scrolls section provides the possibility of finding spells scroll of one to three spells each, cursed scrolls, and three kinds of protection scrolls (vs. lycanthropes, undead & magic). According to the text following the magic item tables all spell scrolls are for magic-users only. Clerics are out of luck, except for the protection scrolls that anyone can use. One interesting lacuna is that the rules don't specify how to generate which spells are on the scrolls, allowing for the possibility of putting cleric spells on magic-user scrolls.

"Ridiculous!", you may scoff, "Dr. Holmes never intended the DM to put cure light wounds in the hands of M-Us!" Maybe, maybe not. Check out this next part. Here's the last three items on d10 chart for generating random scrolls:
8 Any potion spell except delusion or poison
9 Any ring spell except wishes or regeneration
0 Any wand spell
First off, the terms "potion spell", "ring spell" and "wand spell" sound like a lot of fun. Under this set-up the wand spells that can be found on scrolls are magic detection, secret door & trap detection, [cone of] fear, [cone of] cold, [cone of] paralyzation and fire ball. The 'ring spell' scrolls are invisibility, animal control, plant control, weakness, protection +1, water walking, fire resistance and contrariness. For 'potion spells' we get growth, diminution, giant strength, invisibility, gaseous form, speed, flying and healing.

There's lots of juice in those 'spell' lists. Here are some random thoughts:
  • Because of the four attack wands, the chance of getting a scroll you can use to zap enemies with is higher than it appears from just glancing at the random scroll chart. Ditto your chances of getting a Scroll of Invisibility, since both potions and rings come in that variety.
  • A Scroll of Healing is the same as Cure Light Wounds in effectiveness. A first level magic-user with one of those babies is actually a better healer than a first level cleric, who gets no spells under the Holmes rules.
  • If I was playing an M-U and I found a Scroll of Secret Door & Trap Detection I'd immediately ask the DM if I could put that spell into my spellbook. If the DM said no, I'd then ask if I could use it to make researching such a spell easier.
  • On the other hand, maybe magic shops might sell scrolls that magic-users can use but they can't put the spells into their spellbook. Sounds like a good way to keep the magic shops in business. "Sorry, but that Scroll of Cold comes with DRM, so you can't put it in your spellbook."
  • A Scroll of Contrariness and Scroll of Weakness look like curse scrolls, but what if you could cast those effects onto other targets? Making the evil wizard's pet minotaur Contrary seems like a cool thing to do.
  • Wouldn't it be even cooler to use a Scroll of Gaseous Form on a dragon and the poor vaporous beast is forced to watch while you loot it's hoard?
Holmes isn't my favorite version of the game, but I'm really digging on these scroll rules.


  1. I've been using the 100gp for scrolls for awhile. It works out well, although you would not believe the amount of crying and moaning I hear when they find out it takes a week/100 gp. *snort* When I tell them the alternative is going back to the old AD&D rules - I hear a lot of shutting and upping.

    I'd love to see a mage get in on the scroll wielding action like that.

  2. Great topic. I'd never taken the time to read all the little scroll details involved in Holmes Basic. Thanks!

    The scroll manufacture cost of: [(100gp + 1 week) x level of spell] is in OD&D Vol. 1 Men & Magic (page 7) as well.

  3. Of course what you are pointing out was missed by me the first go round: in OD&D only Wizards and up may manufacture magic items, scrolls included. Now I get it :-)

  4. I remember finding this gem of a rule in Holmes and baffling my fellow players and the DM when I announced that I would use 100 gps from my starting money to scribe a scroll before we went on our first adventure.
    Holmes and OD&D state that each PC starts with 30-180 gold and since I had rolled more than 100 for gold and the magic user really didn't need much (a dagger? torches? rope? food? dungeoneering accessories and still money left over?), the DM let me have my scroll!
    In re-reading, the Holmes book seems to suffer compared to later, slicker versions --- but we had more fun with that little book...

  5. Nice post! Between making the scrolls and paying for accommodations, this is also a good way to get PCs to spend their excess cash.

  6. I see a mage wearing crossed bandoliers, Pancho Villa style, only stuffed with rolled-up scrolls!

  7. "Sorry, but that Scroll of Cold comes with DRM, so you can't put it in your spellbook."

    Ahem. That's ARM.

  8. No, DRM is correct. Without digits on the hands, it'll be harder to copy the next one.

  9. One might justify a restriction on transferring scrolls like "Detect Traps And other Cool Stuff" into a spell-book by declaring that rather than a spell as such, the scroll supports some kind of magical glyph imprisoning a creature (such as Jack Vance's sandestins) for this one task -- to identify a trap or what-not, after which it is freed from its indenture. Simply copying the glyph would have no use, unless the summoning/binding magic is also known.

  10. I just use a magic quill that can ignore that annoying copy-write dweomer when I scribe spells on black parchments. I also as I like to keep spells backed-up in my SP (spellbook).

    I remember the trial of the Batadex, that allowed Magic-users to freely scribe copy-write-ed spells on their scrolls, but then the Guild came out with the DMAC! All that copy-write protection causes spell miss-fires, even when cast properly! ;)

  11. This an interesting excellent post & string of comments about Dr Holmes' use of scrolls
    - here is the opinion of another neurologist.
    Purchasing scrolls is fine and dandy; however, the prices should
    increase in an exponential manner; otherwise, a 2nd player character
    party will be able to afford a world altering 9th level spell; hence prices =

    100gp for 1st level
    400gp for 2nd level
    900gp for 3rd level
    1600gp for 4th level
    2500gp for 5th level
    3600gp for 6th level
    4900gp for 7th level
    6400gp for 8th level
    8100gp for 9th level

    I use a conversion rate of 100 pieces = 1# of encumbrance;
    otherwise, each gold piece has a ridiculous rate of exchange.
    (It takes three pounds of gold to buy a short bow?)
    In my delusional world a coin is eight times the size of a piece; therefore, one gold royal or silver dollar weights about 38gm.

  12. Clovis, I follow your thinking on pricing scrolls purchased. Obviously scrolls made by magic-users should be cheaper than retail and would be limited to spells they could actually cast.

  13. One thing I do as well is require 100gp/1 wk per level to copy spells into spellbook.

  14. It's gonzo craziness like this that just convince me more and more that Dr. Holmes didn't have a clue what he was doing in terms of making a "game that would stick". He succeeded at making a great beer and pretzels intro to D&D, but it's really a different game than either OD&D, AD&D, or any of the other Basic varieties (Moldvay or Mentzer). I don't even think it's good as an intro to D&D unless you want your player to have to "relearn" the game once they move up to another version...

  15. Anonymous5:17 AM

    Why 'move up' to another version? Between the Holmes Treasury or the Holmes' companion + the monster manual you would be all set for a whole campaign...what an elitist attitude, YOUR D&D is shallow and juvenile to my REAL D&D grown-up game of let's play pretend...really now, get a grip wanker.