I’ve been thinking lately about how to impart a more Holmes-like feel to Swords & Wizardry games. Now, before you ask “Why not just play Holmes D&D?”, of course this is an option. Holmes Basic D&D is a great ruleset in its own right, but has some limitations that could be filled in nicely by S&W (higher levels of play of course, but also wilderness adventuring rules, among other things), and S&W has all of the advantages of an established retro-clone – it is free in PDF, it is still in print at low cost, the rules are better organized and consolidated than the originals it copies, and it is supported by an active community. It turns out that doing this is not that hard – using the Swords & Wizardry Core rules (note we’re discussing the latest, 4th edition) as a base, many of the Holmes Basic mechanics are already present, either as options or as by-the-book rules. Not surprising, really, since Holmes Basic and S&W both stem from the 1974 OD&D rules, and both add bits and pieces of the various supplements. Let’s see how we can modify S&W Core to make it more Holmes-like.
In Holmes, players can adjust rolled ability scores by trading points in non-prime requisite abilities, subject to certain rules. In S&W, merely a nod to these rules is present, but one could just adopt the Holmes mechanics wholesale with no issues. Get rid of the strength bonuses/penalties from S&W completely (this is commonly house-ruled in OD&D and Holmes, I would at least add a small bonus of +1 for strength scores of 15+ and the corresponding penalty for scores of 6 or less). Also gone would be the extra first-level spell for a Wisdom of 15+. The spell-choosing mechanics for M-Us are pretty much identical, so no changes are needed there. Constitution and Dexterity adjustments are almost the same. Charisma, too, is much as in Holmes, with merely a maximum number of hirelings noted.
The four core classes are the same. S&W Core has more multi-classing options than Holmes, but I would keep these, along with the S&W multi-classing rules detailing advancement and hit point calculation, which fill out the very sparse rules for Elves given in Holmes. Most of the class abilities will be as in S&W, except that fighters do not get multiple attacks per round against 1HD creatures. The fighter’s parry ability can stay, since Holmes has a similar rule. I’d add the Holmes rule that states a weapon will be broken and no damage taken if that weapon is used to parry and the to-hit roll is exactly what was needed.
The Holmes 5-point alignment can be adopted as-is without any real issues, but it’s also not a big deal to keep the S&W standard 3-point. This choice won’t impact play at all.
The Holmes rules use the OD&D turn undead table for Cleric levels 1-3, which is very different than the one used in S&W at the same levels. The S&W table generally gives Clerics less of a chance to turn, but at first level gives them some small chance to turn shadows and wights. However, since the general result is the same (2d6 creatures are turned on a successful roll), I would opt to keep the S&W table to keep things simple.
Scrolls and Spellbooks
Spellbooks in Holmes are large, heavy and impossible to carry into a dungeon. This makes re-memorization of spells impossible for extended adventuring. However, Holmes also comes with another rule that mitigates this restriction a bit, that a M-U of any level can scribe a scroll for one week’s labor and 100gp per level. This allows even 1st level M-Us to start with one scroll, if they roll high enough for starting gold. We can just import this rule as written. If you want to be even nicer to your low-level M-Us, allow them to re-memorize spells from a scroll, with the restriction that they must have had the spell or spells previously memorized (this rule comes from the Holmes retro-clone BLUEHOLME).
For magic missile the S&W rules give the option to require a to-hit roll in exchange for more damage, this is identical to Holmes so we’ll use that option. The sleep spell is almost the same as in Holmes. There are quite a few spells in Holmes that are not in S&W (specifically dancing lights, ventriloquism, enlargement, Tenser’s floating disk, audible glamer, ray of enfeeblement, remove fear, resist cold, know alignment and resist fire), so you could allow some or all of those if you like.
Armor & Armor Class
Remove the option for ring mail, and use descending armor class.
Use the option given in the S&W Core rules for the standard five categories of saves.
I’ve noted before that the Holme’s oil rules are quite detailed, you could import those as-is, although this would not be my personal preference as I would opt for the simpler S&W rules. Note that this nerfs oil quite a bit – in S&W flaming oil is primarily useful as a deterrent to monster pursuit (this is taken directly from the OD&D rules), it does only 1d4 damage the first round and 1 point of damage for two more rounds. So you might want to compromise and allow oil to do more damage per round, 1d8 as in Holmes, or perhaps 1d6.
Encumbrance and Movement
In Holmes, each character is assumed to carry about 15 pounds of miscellaneous equipment, and can carry about 600gp (60 pounds) more before being considered encumbered. The base movement rate is then looked up on a table, factoring in armored vs. unarmored. In S&W, each character carries 10 pounds of miscellaneous equipment, to which we add armor, weapon and treasure weight (and adjust for strength) to determine movement. Holmes is slightly simpler, but there is not much difference and so I’ll opt to keep the S&W rules. I do like the Holmes example of having players note where their PC’s equipment is worn or stored, so I would add that as a requirement during character generation.
Weapons & Combat
The rules surrounding weapons, attacks per round, and damage represent some of the bigger differences between the two games. In Holmes all weapons do 1d6 damage, and we also have the infamous broken “daggers attack twice per round and heavy weapons once every other round”. This is so often house-ruled that I think it makes sense to just keep the S&W rules and tables, for simplicity’s sake, with a minor change that bows can only fire once per round.
Combat is easy – just use the “Blue book method” given in the S&W Core rules, since it is based on Holmes already. The additional rules in S&W for other specific situations can stay, they are either identical to Holmes, or just additions that are seldom used anyway.
I would adopt the S&W bestiary as-is, the S&W Core rules use d8 hit dice and variable/multiple attacks as in Holmes, so no changes are needed.
The S&W rules are very different as far as generating treasure, however this is not visible to players and so we won’t need to change it.
That’s essentially it. As you can see, there are not many changes needed to give S&W a more Holmes-like feel. Here is a summary of rule changes for the “full Holmes experience”, of course you can pick and choose from this list as suits your taste.
- Remove the strength bonuses table entirely
- Allow the Holmes point swaps for prime-requisite ability scores
- Have players note equipment location on their character sheet
- Fighters do not get multiple attacks on 1HD foes
- Clerics do not get a bonus spell for high wisdom
- M-Us can use daggers only
- Scroll creation rules for M-Us – one week/100gp per level of spell
- Add the additional Holmes spells noted above to the M-U and Cleric spell lists
- Use descending AC
- Use the optional five categories of saving throws
- No ring mail
- Bows fire once per round
- Thrown oil that hits a foe and is subsequently set alight does 1d8 damage for two rounds
- A weapon will be broken and no damage taken if that weapon is used to parry and the to-hit toll is exactly what was needed
- Use the “Blue book method” of combat from the S&W Core rules