Monday, May 10, 2010

RIP: J. Eric Holmes (1930 - 2010)

I read the news that J. Eric Holmes passed away on March 20, 2010 due to complications from a stroke on James Maliszewski's Grognardia blog yesterday. For players of role playing games of a certain generation, this is very sad news indeed. His passing is all the sadder because there are so many who don't know how much he contributed to the role playing game hobby. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created and promoted new hobby through their Dungeons and Dragons role playing game, but it was J. Eric Holmes who made that game intelligible to the world at large. His efforts, and those of Tom Moldvay and Dave Cook, are major contributions to the growth of the hobby as a whole.

J. Eric Holmes wrote the first "Basic" edition for the Dungeons and Dragons game, he describes how he -- a Professor in the Department of Neurology at USC at the time (Fight On!) -- came to write the product in his informative book Fantasy Role Playing Games (Hippocrene Books 1981) as follows:

In 1974 I persuaded Gygax that the original D&D rules needed revision and that I was the person to rewrite them. He readily conceded that there was a need for a beginners' book and "if you want to try it, go ahead..." I edited a slim (48 pages) handbook for beginners in roleplaying, published by TSR in 1977...

Without that Basic set, the role playing game hobby may have aged out with the older generation who were the majority of the audience playing the game prior to the publication of Holmes' work. Gary Gygax wrote of the importance of the Holmes Basic set to the hobby as a whole in Dragon #22:

If millions take to the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien, and nearly as many follow the heroic feats of Conan, the market potential of a game system which provides participants with a pastime which creates play resembling these adventuresome worlds and their inhabitants is bounded only by its accessibility. Access has two prominent aspects; availability is the first; that is, are potential players informed of the fact that the game exists, and are they able to physically obtain it; and difficulty is the second, for if once obtained the game is so abstruse as to be able to be played only by persons with intelligence far above the norm, or if the game demands a volume of preliminary work which is prohibitive for the normal individual, this will be recognized and the offering shunned even if it is available. D&D failed on both counts, and still it grew. Today we are putting D&D onto the track where it is envisioned it will have both maximum availability and minimum difficulty. This is best illustrated in the "Basic Set."

Well over two years ago we recognized that there was a need for an introductory form of the game. In 1977, the colorfully boxed "Basic Set" was published. It contained simplified, more clearly written rules, dungeon geomorphs, selections of monsters and treasures to place in these dungeons, and a set of polyhedra dice -- in short all that a group of beginning players need to start play with relative ease.

Without the "Basic Set," D&D would have grown due to the size of the interested market, but it would not have had explosive growth. Gygax is right that the original rules failed on both the above counts, he is also right that the "Basic Set" succeeded on both. This is evident is that the "Basic Set" increased sales exponentially as it provided a pathway to the other products -- a well lit and easy to follow pathway. In the article quoted above, Gygax states that between January 1974 to December 1975 (two years of sales) 4,000 sets of the original rules were sold. Comparably, at the time the article was written (February 1979) the "Basic Set" was selling 4,000 copies per month, "and the sales graph is upward."

Holmes articulated the underlying difficulty of the original rules as follows:

When Tactical Studies Rules published the first DUNGEONS & DRAGONS rule sets, the three little books in brown covers, they were intended to guide people who were already playing the game. As a guide to learning the game, they were incomprehensible. There was no description of the use of the combat table. Magic spells were listed, but there was no mention of what we all now know is a vital aspect of the rules: that as the magic user says his spell, the words and gestures for it fade from his memory and he cannot say it again.

Holmes understood that gaming companies needed to write products that could introduce people to the hobby. They needed to promote their products to broader demographics if they wanted to survive as a viable industry. Roleplaying games tend to get more and more complex the longer the rules set remains in play, and thus become more difficult for the neophyte player. One response to the "rules bloat" has been to reboot with new editions, but this can alienate your existing player base who enjoy the complexity the game has to offer. The other solution is to offer an introductory version of the game. The hard core current players will not, as a block, purchase the product, but it is a great way to introduce new players into the hobby.

Hasbro is attempting to apply this lesson with product offerings that are coming out later this year -- among them a new Dungeons & Dragons Introductory Set.

John Eric Holmes was a great advocate for the role playing game hobby, a gaming enthusiast, and the game designer responsible for making D&D rule accessible. He was also an active member of Edgar Rice Burroughs fandom. He is definitely someone I would have loved to meet.

From one Trojan gamer to another, all I can say is Fight On!
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