Sunday, 5 July 2015

Blueholme Prentice Rules: Review

Blueholme Prentice Rules - Michael Thomas // Corey Ryan Walden
Author: Michael Thomas 
Price: $0.00/$9.99 (DriveThruRPG/Dreamscape Design)
Format: PDF/Print
Page count: 57
System: Dreamscape Design

Year: 2014

I will be transparent: I do not own Dungens & Dragons Holmes (unless a PDF copy counts). Over the past two years the retro-allure has certainly tempted me. Ebay's nightmarish, and often extortive shipping prices to New Zealand have inevitably prevented this however. When +Michael Thomas released the Blueholme Prentice rules I was interested by the potential of this ruleset, particularly if it was rules-light and representative of Holmes. My personal dealings with Michael have been very positive - he is a nice guy, always willing to chat - and he was generous enough to mail me a physical copy for review (which doesn't often happen!). 

It should be apparent to anyone vaguely acquainted with my writing that I enjoy OD&D and B/X Basic. The freewheeling aspect of these editions is appealing; particularly the minimal preparation required, and the maximum potential for fun. Historically the Basic Set emerged with the purpose of introducing new players to the hobby, and going to some lengths to clarify the existing OD&D rules. Assuming Blueholme cleaves closely to the original Holmes rules (warranting a "retroclone" status), I expected a simple and transparent system, while being representative of the original texts.

The purpose of this review is not a study the minute similarities and differences between Holmes and Blueholme. Rather, the purpose is a subjective impression of the game as a standalone system. Of course, this review cannot help being informed by the primary inspiration of this system, so some comparison to Holmes will inevitably occur. 

The Good
I'm a sucker for a good cover. Undoubtedly one of the biggest appeals of Blueholme is the awesome cover art by Jean-Francois Beaulieu. It captures the essence of the Holmes set nicely with its iconic blue cover. The dragon is very reminiscent of the original, yet the whole piece is a satisfying homage without being a pedant to history. I've previously discussed my disdain for OSR products that are slavishly reminiscent of TSR's yesteryear. I like that the Blueholme cover deviates from tradition in a fun way. Its is not a kitsch or tacky try-hard attempt to invoke nostalgia, but the roots of inspiration are transparent. I will talk about the artwork later, but suffice to say, I adore the cover.

Blueholme's true strength is its vivid and crystalline presentation. The table of contents provide excellent oversight, fitting into a single page. The introduction is a brief synopsis of the booklet and welcomes the reader to dive right in. I cannot praise the simplicity and alacrity of writing enough. In my opinion it is very eloquent, forgoing many of the arduous textbook conventions of a role-playing game. Blueholme Prentice does not require mental exercise to grok the contents, to flick between pages with a confused frown, or to toil through pages of dry and uninspired text. 

These rules are designed to quickly consult amidst the flurry of an exciting game, rather than being an encyclopaedic reference work one is required to memorise with fastidious dedication. This is a workman's D&D. This is Blueholme's obvious appeal. Tables, charts, explanations and descriptions are executed with the mantra of concision and explication in mind. For this reason I eagerly anticipate the Blueholme Compleat rules. If Compleat is accessible as Prentice, I believe it will be an excellent edition. My proclivity and adoration for OD&D probably influences this belief somewhat!

Character creation is a simple process in Blueholme, representative of the ethos of early D&D. Thomas has designed Blueholme to be even more accessible than the original texts, which is an added bonus. This is surely the strong point of the game. 

The example character sheet (pictured left) is indicative of the simplicity of creating characters. 

This is a no frills approach to D&D. If you're looking for a system that enables quick play and practicality, Blueholme excels. Some gamers may be deterred by the brevity and interpretative nature of the system, but I perceive it to be a selling point.

Let me be clear that I do not have a go-to edition of D&D. I'm an edition whore. Sometimes I like playing a granular system like AD&D, AS&SH or 3e. Sometimes I want a quick rules-lite game of OD&D or B/X. Sometimes I want an in-between like 5e or Savage Worlds. Prentice firmly inhabits the rules-lite camp, and is a viable candidate for classic styled games.

The Bad

My largest complaint with the Blueholme Prentice rules is the almost exclusive usage of common domain images. For the indie designer on a budget, this is often a necessary design choice, and one I fully understand. 

However I cannot shake the feeling that the assortment of images chosen to "fit" the system only make-do rather than convince me of an over-arching flavour in a satisfying way. What do I mean by this? If the cover artist had illustrated this entire booklet I would be in love with Blueholme. The cover image invites excitement and imagination, reminiscent of early editions, while the interior art does not fit a cohesive theme (besides being public domain). In this way the presentation seems somewhat confused or disappointing at times.

Of course this necessarily raises a larger question of designer sustainability, and one's ability to afford up front the costs needed to generate new products. In short I would have liked the layout and interior artwork to be commissioned. Consequently I would be holding a truly inspiring product. I understand the upcoming Blueholme Compleat rules will be filled with commissioned artwork and this is an excellent decision, hopefully extending to commissioned layouts and graphic design too.

A secondary critique which is slightly unfair, is that Blueholme Prentice is only for levels 1-3. One is referred to the Compleat rules if one wishes for higher levels, much like Holmes referred the reader to AD&D. This is a minimal issue for a number of reasons:

1. Prentice professes to adhere to Holmes (which was only levels 1-3). Therefore why would it go beyond 3rd level? That is what Compleat is for.

2. The PDF of Prentice is a free download. Think of it as a taster, if you enjoy Prentice and/or want additional levels graduate to Compleat.

3. Short campaigns needn't exceed the first 3 levels of play (in fact I remember reading somewhere that Eric Holmes' campaigns rarely surpassed 3rd level).

Some readers/players may find this an annoyance (and was probably a factor that detracted from TSR's Holmes). If your campaigns are centred around the first 3 levels of play, or you are frequently gaming one-shots, I would recommend you seriously consider using Prentice rules as your go-to (but please, more artwork from Jean-Francois Beaulieu!).

Final Thoughts

Blueholme Prentice is an imaginative tool. It captures the spirit of early D&D, which is about adjudication rather than minute rules-lawyering. It offers a palette of options, rather than dictums. It is clear, concise, and utterly gameable. I can imagine porting my own house rules and class variants to Blueholme with no problems. I'm very much looking forward to Compleat, which promises to surpass Prentice's shortcomings (level limitations and the detracting public domain artwork). An entire book filled with commissioned artwork will be awesome. 

By all means pick up a free PDF copy of Blueholme Prentice. Pay for a physical copy if this review has ticked your requirements for a pick-up game. Besides clarifying the ambiguities of Holmes, this product makes no attempt to expand on the original. This is purposeful, and firmly situates it as a true retroclone.

I plan to run an adventure or two using Blueholme, and who knows, it may even replace my habit of using B/X for one-shots. It's a ruleset I won't mind thrashing because that's what it's designed to do: be gamed.

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