Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Game: Review: Blueholme

Author: Michael Thomas
Publisher: Dreamscape Design
System: OSR (B/X) Compatible 
Marketplace (Prentice): DrivethruRPG,
Marketplace (Journeymanne): DrivethruRPG, Lulu

A few months ago Stephen Smith put his World of Wierth campaign on indefinite hiatus, because he was inspired by the Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg and it's many articles on the original play style during the testing phase of the development of Dungeons & Dragons. Mixed with patron play and one-to-one time, he was hoping to create an experience that feels like the player driven, intrigue riddled version of Dungeons & Dragons described therein. There was a catch, however: he didn't want his other players to require The Lost Dungeon of Tonisborg to play. In fact, he desperately wanted them not to have access to the book at all. 

Which, of course, meant that he needed a different set of rules that players could use. He wanted something as close as he could possibly get to the TAZ rules from Tonisborg without copying anything from the book. After looking through a dozen or so retroclones, he decided that Blueholme was the closest to the extremely light and simple feel of that rule set. And so, I have been playing for several months in a campaign that uses both The Prentice and Journeymanne rules for Blueholme.

The Blueholme Prentice Rules imitates the structure of the original Holmes Basic Dungeons & Dragons manual. It provides only enough rules to play from levels 1 to 3. Everything about Blueholme Prentice Rules is an homage to the original Holmes basic, and where possible, is even simpler. It embraces the idea that light rules and a format that encourages rulings instead of rules is a superior form of play.

Blueholme Journeymanne Rules are their own interpretation of what Cook's Expert Dungeons & Dragons rules might have looked like if they had been designed by Holmes with that same eye to simplicity and universality. The rules cover characters from 1st level to 20th.

Normally when I review a role-playing game, iI read the rules, and then I solo play a test designed to help me understand most of the unusual rules mechanics and systems. 

This one is a little different because I I'm coming from it from the position someone who has been playing the game in an almost-RAW format for nearly 6 months.

The Prentice version of Blueholme is available on PDF for free by way of Drive-thru RPG. The Jounreymanne version, which is a complete rule set, is available on DTRPG or roughly $15. There are print editions of Blueholme Journeymanne Rules available through Lulu.

Blueholme works to simplify Holmes Basic making it smoother and easier to remember. It would work best as a an introductory first step game, a gift for a child learning to play the game, or as a fast, rules-light game for groups with short game sessions.

What I Loved


Blueholme keeps the numbers down to the bare minimum of complexity: attributes (rolled as Crom intended - with a few alternatives suggested) affect generally one thing that the PCs must track. 

  • Intelligence offers language capacity (unless you are a magic-user)
  • Dexterity modifies ranged attacks
  • Constitution adjusts hot points the same for all classes (-1 to +3)
  • Charisma sets the maximum number of followers

Otherwise a class's prime attribute affects XP between -20% and +20%, and Intelligence affects a Magic User's minimum and maximum spells per level and chance to know spells.

All weapons deal a d6 with 2-handed weapons getting a +1 to damage. There is a 5-option alignment with LG, LE, N, CG, or CE available.

Subdual likewise uses 5e's model of allowing PCs to opt to do subdual damage that knocks out rather than kills NPCs at 0hp

Journeymane's Simple Dominion Rules

Journeymanne offers dominion rules inspired by the Expert D&D rules, but tidier and simpler; rules for generating the important core followers are listed by class. The cost of building or buying a castle, and the conditions under which a PC may do so are covered without a lot of the caveats and complications that appeared in teh Expert and Rules Cyclopedia versions.

Much like AD&D it gives you a cost fot the upkeep of your domain, pay for your retainers, and a rough idea of the income a dominion produces without the incredible amount of bookkeeping that the BECMI Dominion rules included.

Spell Research

Blueholme has a very straightforward system for spell design wherein a PC spends 2,000gp and a random number of months to get a base 10% chance of successfully creating the spell they have designed. This can lead to a magician spending years and tens of thousands of gold to create the effect that they want, with attendant frustrations much like magicians in the pulps. I have not seen a simpler system in any retroclone to date.

 Loose Race Setup

Blueholme separates class and "species" like OD&D does. But unlike OD&D's modifiers, it suggests that the PCs select a species from the monster listings if they do not want to be human, and the GM can disallow it, or allow it and work out the fine details of special abilities and attribute adjustments with them. Ultimately, species offers little in the way of game mechanics this way. A GM might choose to give PCs benefits from being an elves and he many not. The choice for playing an elf must therefore be made without reference to its mechanical benefits.

Interestingly the Dreenoi race from Star Frontiers has made an appearance as a suggested playable race. My current party in Blueholme has had quite a few of them join (and usually die horribly.)

Combination Classes

With race having only mechanical benefits at the GM's say-so, multi-class characters are much simplified: any player may choose to combine the four base classes in ways they see fit, with clear guidance on how those choices affect saving throws, hir dice, etc. These look like they may have been the inspiration for the similar rules in Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy.

Repeated Information & Cross-referencing

Where it is relevant to do so, Blueholme is not afraid to repeat information that might have been missed, and where that is impractical, Blueholme is quick to point to where else there is relevant information in parenthesis

Scrolls and Item Creation 

Magic item creation is handled with an Enchant Item spell that is clear and simple in its design.

Scribing scrolls is clearly explained in the Magic-User section. Scrolls are affordable to create and useful, as they can be used to memorize spells. The reasonable cost of scrolls makes it valuable for Blueholme M-Us to make them, but also makes it hard to want to use them needlessly.

Suggested Campaign Structure

Spread across two sections of the Blueholme books, ideas on how to build a campaign that are a fusion of Gygax's old advice on starting small, and adding detail as the campaign needs it (and the importance of a home base) and Holmes' advice on establishing how the people of The Realm live and fidning ways to clearly make the Dungeon a malevolent liminal and psychocosmic space.

Magic User Spell Gain

When magic users gain access to a level of spells they roll for their chance to know for as many of the basic spells as they like in whatever order, and add them to their PC's spellbook. This continues until they reach their maximum spell number or run out of basic spells. If they have not met their minimum, they may start re-rolling until they have met their minimum.

This makes the promblem of how to make sure their are enough spells to discover that can be a problem with campaign planning in D&D moot: PCs are likely to be armed with a substatnial selection of spells in their spellbook.

So long as you are sticking to the Vancian magic system of Blueholme this does nothing to affect game balance: Magic-Users might be able to select their spells from a relatively large menu, but they still are going to rattle off only a few each day based on their best guess of what they will need.

(Ultimately, the number of spells in a M-U's spellbook is not very important, because they can only prepare so many before the action starts.)

I like it, it makes it less impotant to seed spellbooks, scrolls, and strange tablets through your setting.

Firing into Melee is really Perilous!

Firing a ranged weapon into Melee in Blueholme hits any random target in the fray. I like this system as a deterrent from firing into melee.

Liberal Dusting of Lovecraft 

The monster section of Blueholme (esp. Journeymanne) includes Great Old Ones, Deep Ones, Dagonites, Mi-Go, Yithians and a few more of my favourite lovecraftian horrors. I always feel the contribution of Lovecraft to both D&D through Appendix-N, and through all the other Appendix-N writers he had a huge influence on (most of them) cannot be underemphasized.

Better Shriekers

The Shrieker is a D&D monster I end up using frequently, but have always found underwhelming, They are basically target practice for the party dwarf once your players learn to identify them. The "Screechers" in  Blueholme have a faster movement rate and wander about. They also have a defensive spore spray that can leave PCs busy hacking and wheezing when something else comes to see what just rang the dinner bell. I will be making these changes to all my shriekers going forward.


The artwork in Blueholme is one of my favourite parts. The art comes from an incredibly diverse pool of talent (including the late, great Russ Nicholson) but every piece beautifully evokes the feel and design choices of the early TSR-era books. I am really blown away by the quality of the art.

Growth Points

Scattershot Information Design 

This is a big one! As much as Blueholme does a great job at indexing and cross-referencing, the order of the manual is structured like the early D&D books it was built on: confusingly ordered, requiring a lot of flipping around to get the information you need.

It was just frustrating enough to me that I skipped reading most of the manual for the first few months of play, relying on my encyclopedic knowledge of D&D retroclones, and in TAZ in particular to muddle through.

I eventually took the time to read through Blueholme Prentice Rules and then Journeymanne proper, but sifting the book for information is a bit frustration. Especially when some things that I expect to be there, like encumbrance, are non-existant save as an optional sidebar.

It took me several times to parse the rules for learning new spells for magic users, especially as they are in the explanation of the Learn % & spell min/max table rather than in the section on spellcasting, leveling up, or spellbooks.

Too Open to Monster PCs

Personally, I prefer a humanocentric campaign with jus a few demihumans. I  am very leery of the effect of monstrous PCs on a campaign... especially as it forces me to muddy the waters about how and why certain creatures are "monstrous." Blueholme's approach, on the other hand, makes the inclusion of any or all monter types as PC at least negotiable and at the same time makes almost anything potentially "people" with full moral agency.

I also have observed that in many groups, an open invitation to monstrous PCs messes up game dynamics: GMs find themselves in the position of needing to justify why they say "no" to PCs rather than the PCs needed to negotiate for exceptions, which becomes a downward spiral unless the GM becomes ver assertive in a hurry.

Monstrous NPCs are Heavy Lifting 

The other part that makes Monstrous -- or even demihuman -- PCs require the GM to determine the mechanical way of expressing the unique traits of the character as a PC race. There are some guidelines for stat modifications on creatures I would likely never allow as PCs such as trolls.

I would suggest that at the very least if most human-like or sapient monsters are potential PCs they should get the D&D3e treatment of having an "As PC" section with suggestions for how to adapt them.

Dragon Size/Gender Weirdness

Dragons are handled in Blueholme the same way they are handled in OD&D and AD&D1e: they are divided by color, then size, and finally age category, with the combination of their size and age category determning their total hit points.

In Blueholme, the size categories are indicators of a dragon's sex as well, with small dragons being female, medium being male or female, and large dragons being male. I found this to be a pretty odd design choice, especially as, when staring down a dragon, I don't care much if it prefers "sir" or "ma'am." Nor does the game... as there is no mechanical consequence for a dragon's sex.

Campaign Goal Advice 

Overall, I think that the advice on campaign planning in Blueholme is spot on, with one exception: It suggests that a goal, such as 'Destroy X Artifact' or 'Prevent Y Prophecy' be set to help drive the momentum of the campaign and the factions.

Personally, I am not in accord with this advice. Giving factions and patrons goals that can be aided or thwarted by PC action can do the same thing, and do so without feeling like you have to drive the campaign to follow a goal. Personally I like it best when the PCs don't have any idea what they are doing, and grab at random dangers and objectives and turn them into campaign goals over their own volition; it is much mor satisfying for everyone.

That said, this advice doesn't necessarily lead to railroading -- it only creates the temptation for it. I would add the corollary of "be ready to have that goal dropped or ignored by PCs without trying to salvage it. And have a couple of spares."


Blueholme is a lightweight, simple entry into the Old-school D&D experience. I would say it sits in good company with Basic Fantasy RPG and Beneath the Sunken Catacombs as an OSR game you could hand a kid alongside a bag of dollar store dice, and see them just take off and soar. It also has great nostalgia value, and Journeymanne has staying power to run an effective campaign.

I have had the advantage of playing this game for months with an excellent GM, and I have seen it shine as a game that really facilitates creativity: With so little in the way of rules and complexity - on purpose - it encourages PCs to be creative about how to handle problems, and rewards them be leaving it solely to the judgement of the GM, not a dice mechanic, to determine whether in is successful.

It would not be ideal for every group: I think it works best in a group with  high trust and established relationships, as did D&D of the era. With a high trust group this is a great game for someone looking for a retro-D&D experience that is good at getting out of its own way. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review and you hit on a lot of great points on why I also love Blueholme. It is a solid clone and it really captures the feel of playing the Holmes Edition.