21 May 2018

grodog's start in gaming - 1977: Cedar Avenue, Star Wars, and Holmes Basic

As with many who began to play D&D in the late 1970s, I started playing in 1977 (the summer of 1977, in my case), and began to play with what is now-known as the Holmes Basic Set. A the time, it was, of course, just The Basic Set, since it was the first one published by TSR:

1977 Holmes Basic set, first printing
(image from The Acaeum)

What follows is text I wrote for the first few drafts of my introduction to Tales of Peril: The Complete Boinger and Zereth Stories of John Eric Holmes.  I
eventually rejected that draft and rewrote it because in the writing I focused too much on me (Allan) and not enough on JEH (Holmes), who is after-all the real author of Tales of Peril, and he and his works are why the book was being published in the first place.

I still kept the text, though, because I liked parts of it, and it does tell the story of how I not only got into D&D, but part of why I continue to love Holmes' work so much.

The summer of 1977 was a very good year in my life, for three wonderful reasons: 1) my youngest brother Brian was born in March, so in August we moved into a very cool Dutch Colonial home across town from our old house on Euclid Avenue---the new house featured a dumbwaiter in the kitchen, hidden compartments in benches, trapdoors in ceilings, an Alice-In-Wonderland-sized door in my bedroom, and a secret door between the dining room and the garage; 2) “Star Wars” was released and received with instant acclaim in our family; 3) and, sometime after arriving on Cedar Avenue that summer, I began to play Dungeons & Dragons. Sort of.

An older kid down the block named Jon taught me and my younger brother Phil how to play, using the Holmes Basic set. We painted Jon’s Strat-O-Matic football figures as D&D miniatures, using Testors enamels---red ones became kobolds, blue were goblins, green orcs, and our PCs had gold or silver helmets. It didn’t matter that they didn’t wield any weapons (although we improvised painted toothpicks and paper clips as spears, swords, and such), or that they were all the same size, in the same pose. The rules we followed were equally blobby and misshapen, and I’m not at all sure that we played D&D in any form that would be recognized today, but it was still sufficient to hook me.

So while Holmes Basic was my first introduction to D&D, my real introduction to the Holmes Basic Set came through our gifted teacher and librarian at Merchantville Elementary School, Elizabeth Mager. Mrs. Mager (as I still think of her) indulged my continuing interest by allowing me to write at least three research projects on D&D, and gifted me with the school’s copy of the Holmes Basic Set when I graduated in 1984. One of the research papers compared balrogs as depicted in the AD&D Monster Manual and in “Khazad’Dum: A Beginniner’s AD&D Scenario: Tolkien’s Moria” by Lewis Pulsipher (from the February 1983 issue of White Dwarf), to Tolkien’s original descriptions from The Silmarillion and The Fellowship of the Ring, complete with my rendition of the Heritage Models Dungeon Dwellers #1262A balrog demon miniature as the cover image*.  For the other two I created homemade dungeons, in which I learned the proper usage of footnotes by citing some of the new Magic-User spells published by Gary Gygax in Dragon Magazines #67 and #68 (November and December 1982).


I also combed through The Readers’ Guide to Periodic Literature, year by year, searching for articles about the game, which is how I discovered “Confessions of a Dungeon Master” in Psychology Today.  My introduction to Boinger and Zereth and their madcap fantasy world came through my first issues of Dragon Magazine—numbers 58 (February 1982) and 63 (July 1982). "In the Bag" likely inspired the modification of a portable hole into a portable dungeon home for one my high-level PCs in college.  I quickly connected the dots between some of the character mentioned in “Confessions” and “In the Bag” and sought further Holmesian adventures, rewarded when Dragon reviewed Maze of Peril in issue #121 (May 1987), which I received from my local bookstore the following month. 

Holmes’ interest in Lovecraftian gods and monsters also drove me back to research his and Rob Kuntz’ “From the Sorcerer’s Scroll” article, “The Lovecraftian MythosIn Dungeons & Dragons” (from The Dragon #12, February 1978), and the follow-up fan repartee in the letter columns of TDs #14 and #16---finding the out-of-print issues proved much more difficult back then, however (not unlike HPL protagonists seeking their own sources for lost lore!—a practice I continued while hunting for articles about the World of Greyhawk).  These were all precursors to the Cthulhlu Mythos in Deities & Demigods and Call of Cthulhu itself, of course!

In the early 2002, after moving to California, I wrote to Gordon Linzner (Space & Time publisher of Maze of Peril) to ask if he could put me in touch with John Eric Holmes, which he graciously did.  I had written to thank Eric for his Boinger and Zereth stories, as well as his work on the Basic Set, and while I only corresponded with him briefly, Eric's warmth and generosity have always stuck with me. 

I didn't own any D&D rules myself until a few years later---at some point between the summer of 1979 and the summer of 1980 before the release of Deities & Demigods (which was the first AD&D hardcover I remember waiting for its release to buy)---when I bought the Monster Manual, Players Handbook, and Dungeon Masters Guide all at once, and eagerly devoured them. Since my original PHB was a 6th printing (January 1980), my DMG was revised (December 1979), and my MM was a 5th printing (probably 1980), I assume that I bought the books somewhere in the spring/summer of 1980. And it was only then that I really began to learn the actual rules of how to play D&D myself ;)

I remember playing B2 and perhaps B1 after they came out, but I don't recall playing the earlier G, D, S, or T modules until after they were republished in the early '80s with the color covers. We didn't play modules when I was first learning to play, but I don't remember geomorphs or mapping much either---I mostly remember using those minis to play out battles and scenarios, more like small-scale skirmishes. We probably played some of the Heritage D&D-lite games like Crypt of the Sorcerer and Caverns of Doom, too, since I remember those distinctly (but we also owned copies of those, so I may recall using them after we'd bought them vs. earlier with Jon).

By the time D&D grew popular enough that we were having D&D sleepover weekends as kids, we were mostly playing modules, but we still made up our own stuff for the game too, BITD. In general, though, we preferred modules since they were better quality than what we were coming up with as 10-13 year olds ;)


A couple of years later, I designed and taught afterschool courses for kids learning to play and referee D&D, and structured the classes around Holmes’ and Moldvay’s Basic Sets.  



And that's as far as the completed text got.  I outlined some further notes to expand on about my correspondence with JEH, the fun of working with Chris Holmes, Zach Howard, and Eric Frazier on Tales of Peril, and such, but once I realized that the introduction included too much me, I shifted focus to the actual contents of the book and JEH himself, which turned out much better in the end.


* here's the balrog mini, for reference; neither my balrog research paper nor its cover drawing have resurfaced over the decades, which I'm sure is a blessing from Istus:

Heritage Models Dungeon Dwellers
miniature #1262A demon


  1. Great story and a great teacher. What grade were you when you started? Love the use of electronic football pieces. I like the idea of making monsters whatever color you feel like or happen to have a bottle of.

  2. First grade in 1977, so I was 7 years old. Other than breathing and reading, I can't think of anything that I've been doing as long as playing D&D ;)


  3. Really cool! Thanks for sharing that!

  4. Great story, Allan! That Balrog mini is boss! :-)

  5. Excellent work, Allan! That I now know some of the people and locations you mention makes your story all the more endearing to me.


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