Things Better Left Alone - a Sad Review

Author: DHBoggs /

 Things Better Left Alone

- Pacesetter Games, 2023 (note this is not the Pacesetter brand owned by Goblinoid Games but an entirely different company owned by Mr. Bill Barsh.)

- Designed for Pacesetter's Adventure RPG rules - I do not have these so I can neither recommend or pan them, except to say that these rules use a THAC0 stat, which is rather strange since the THAC0 method was largely unknown by gamers until years after the Holmes Rules were out of publication when TSR released All That Glitters in September 1984, and it wasn't a widely used mechanic until 2nd edition. (edit: see comment by Paleologos)

Be that as it may, appropriate Homes-esque rulesets that could apply include:

  • BlueHolme
  • Wizards, Warriors & Wyrms
  • Holmes 77  

Alternatively, gamers can use a Holmes rules expansion guide like Meepo's Holmes Companion, or The Holmes Treasury. Since it gets mentioned from time to time in the interwebs, I'll just add that The Grey Book is another ruleset that nominally draws some inspiration from Holmes, but in my opinion it is quite far removed and not really an appropriate choice for a Holmesian game.


As the person who edited the Holmes to Level 14 ruleset back in the day, its a safe bet to guess I'm a big fan of the Dr. J. Eric Holmes "Bluebook" edit of D&D, and as a professional historian and the guy who brought Tonisborg back to life you can imagine my excitement upon learning that Pacesetter Games had teamed with Chris Holmes, son of the good Doctor. to publish Dr. Holmes home dungeon maps with notes for the rooms.

Prior to this we have only three published dungeons from Holmes:

  • The Dungeon of Zenopus sample level in the Bluebook
  • The Dungeon of Arzaz in the Fantasy Role Playing Games book by Holmes in 1981
  • The unkeyed dungeon of the Lizard King, also in Fantasy Role Playing Games

Historically, early dungeon keys were basically mnemonic triggers for DM creativity.  For example, a room might have a note that says "4 Skeletons, 3 hp each, chest with 1000 silver".  

It is the responsibility and the pleasure of a Game Master to play off those notes to create a unique experience for each session they run. 

For those of you who have it, you will know that this is much the situation with the Lost Dungeons of Tonisborg. When we prepared the published book, I took those bare notes from Greg Svenson, cleaned them up, and added only such mechanical information as was needed to ease the burden on the GM - such as rolling up the stats for the magic swords, values of gems, languages spoken and so on.  To this I sometimes added terse descriptions and small notes to aid play such as "The orcs may be working for the balrog in room 3" or "the acolytes in this chapel are preparing for a service" or "What is this werebear doing in here?" and so on.  The goal was always to preserve the historical text while aiding the Game Master with a few sparks of creativity so they can run a true piece of history at their table.

In a discussion on Tenkar's Tavern  HERE Bill Barsh of Pacesetter seemed to express similar views:

TC 17:51 ...I really worked hard to make sure that this has Holmes in as it could possibly be. You know if you want to play D&D like you play D&D back in 1977 this is this is absolutely the adventure for you. ...I think we took it we took this thing extremely seriously. I mean I think one of the reasons we really really wanted to do this too was we wanted to get J. Eric Holmes Legacy out there for people to be able to acquire today.


 TC 30:48 ...again this should be more Holmes and less me. Unfortunately there's a lot of me in there just because of what what we were handed, but ...I think the whole team worked really hard to make sure that we kept it as Holmes as we could.

Promising, but that last paragraph does raise a red flag.  Let's take a look at the product and for starters I'll get the potatoes out of the way before dealing with the meat, so to speak.

It is a standard 8.5" x 11" size product and decently thick at 76 pages - currently only available in pdf.

The first 4 pages cover introductory material. Advice is given for tying this adventure to Zenopus dungeon adventure, and the overall situation within the dungeon is discussed with just enough detail to explain the situation without overdoing it.  Overall this is good and useful material. So far so good

Skipping over the dungeon material to page 39,  we have a few very nicely done random monster and treasure tables, and pages 41-52 present a plethora of new monsters and magic items.  A few of these are shown to come directly from Holmes notes, but I'm not going to parse these individually for how "Holmsian" each may or may not be.  As a whole the section seems perfectly useful and good. 

Pages 54 - 60 contain character sheets for potential hirelings. 

Page 61 describes a Pacesetter magic item called the Green Flame that ties to other Pacesetter adventures.

-Pages 63 -75 are maps, including a newly made map in black and white - note a separate blue and white version of this map also comes with the pdf.  First impressions of these redrawn maps are that they are rather plain, and don't appear to have taken much effort. but look serviceable.

 Very fortunately, Holmes original maps are also reproduced in the pdf. Holmes maps are rich with detail and most of the rooms are marked with terse notes to tell you what is in them. 

Since we have these originals, its easy to check them against the redraws to make sure the redrawn maps are accurate and haven't missed anything.  

Here is where the ugly begins.  The new maps don't match the originals.  I don't mean there are one or two differences here or there, I mean the new maps are seriously, drastically, and deliberately fucked up.  These are no longer Holmes dungeon maps.

Yes you can tell without too much difficulty which sheet of the new maps is supposed to align with which of the old, but details are starkly changed.  There are new rooms added and original rooms removed.  Steps are missing, stairs are missing and even the original entry stair is completely relocated for no good reason.  Corridor sizes are randomly resized, aligned differently, lengths changed and choke points and entire passageways have disappeared. On and on and on.

Mind you, the originals are on graph paper and fairly clear, so it is not as if it would have been even slightly difficult to load them into a graphics program - even a free one like Gimp - and simply create a clean and exact copy to proper dimensions on a new layer.  I mean I can do this - have done this sort of thing - and frankly probably will do so with the Holmes maps for my own use, so I can't begin to imagine what excuse there is for an experienced game company with real graphic artists and cartographers on tap for why the new maps aren't faithful copies - especially given that the new maps are so basic.

Unfortunately, bogus maps aren't the end of it.

The Dungeon

Pages 5 through 48 cover the dungeon key.  This was an opportunity for Pacessetter to clean up the notes on the map, add stats as needed, some suggestions where appropriate and a few bits of obvious detail.  Entries could have been writen in a manner that followed Holmes own model, amply demostrated in his Dungeon of Zenopus (Bluebook) and even The Dungeon of Arzaz.

It was also an opportunity for Pacesetter to add historical information and quotes such as bits and pieces from the Maze of Peril book or Holmes Dragon articles where the events described in the stories correspond  with a location in the dungeon, as quite a few actually do.  Further we could have had small anecdotes from Chris Holmes or anyone who may have played in the dungeon. That would have been super cool.

We don't get anything like that.  What we do get, on the very first entry, is read-aloud BOXED TEXT. 

Now look, I'm not a hater of boxed text per se., but it certainly receives a lot of criticism and more to the point, post dated the Holmes era significantly, so again, the choice to use anachronistic boxed text in presenting someone else's historical and posthumous dungeon design instead of following his own style feels very wrong.

Still I might have forgiven the boxed text if it was not followed by, lets call it "invented" material.  Quite frankly, there is paragraph after paragraph of fluff written by Pacessetter.  Each room is embellished with an entire storybook of material that springs from the mind of Bill Barsh, apparently, and not Holmes.  It is completely unnecessary and so overwrites the true Holmes material that you can't run the dungeon authentically.

Here is a small example.  The new map relocates (!) the original entry stair from a corridor into a room designated as 2 on the new map.  On the original map there are 12 savages in this room (why move the stair to dump the characters immediately into a big fight is beyond me, but I digress).  In the room description we are told these savages are in some kind of religious trance staring at a green flame - a tie in both to other Pacesetter products and to an entirely new Mcguffin added to the dungeon.  I'll just note here that this also isn't the last time tie ins to other Pacesetter products completely unrelated to Holmes are found in the dungeon. 

Another example, room 7 is a simple locking door and moving wall trap, per the map notes.  A true-to-Holmes description of this might have been something like:

"Dark stains (from blood) may be observed on the back of this door and the floor immediately beyond it. Unless held, the door will swing shut and lock and the opposite wall begin to move.  Anyone in the corridor will be crushed against the door in 2d4 rounds unless the lock is picked or the door is forced by a combined strength of 18 or greater."

Instead the Pacesetter description adds an elaborate painting, a bowl intended for a blood sacrifice, spear points sticking out and additional falling walls. Come on man.

Each entry is treated this way, as if it is Pacesetter's personal playground to make up whatever nonsense that strikes their fancy.  Further the made up fluff is very 1980's - 1990's BECMI in feel.  It doesn't read at all like Maze of Peril, it reads more like a Mystara module.

It is extremely frustrating as a historian of the game to see this mistreatment of Holmes dungeon. These ahistorical changes in map and text to the work of a key figure in D&D history are baffling and unnecessary and a missed opportunity.  Its a bit like selling "authentic" copies of Michelangelo's David, where the statue is now wearing sneakers, pants and sunglasses - because, you know, that makes it "better".

This was not a happy thing for me to write about. I really really really did not want and do not like to write a negative review, but the subject is too historically important for me not to be honest about the content of this product.  I want at least to acknowledge that I certainly appreciate the fact that Pacesetter made the product available.

Would I recommend the pdf - Yes, absolutely - the reproductions of the original maps alone are worth it and the monster stats etc. make a nice bonus. Hey, the cover art is pretty cool too. You should buy this product if you have any interest in Holmes or Bluebox D&D.


I honestly recommend you DO NOT print out the new maps and you rewrite or gut the key entirely using the notes on the map as your guide and removing all the Bill Barsh fluff.  Unless of course you would rather play in a 1990 style Pacesetter dungeon than a 1976 Holmesian one. 


paleologos said...

Thanks for the review - I'm planning to pick up "Things Better Left Alone" but haven't had a chance to, yet.

It's really great that the original maps are included - I don't think I'd mind the changes, if I'm going for a BECMI feel. Would be nice to see a Blueholme version, actually.

One thing - I believe that THAC0 might have made it's first published appearance in RPGA1 Rahasia (1983) which predates "All That Glitters" by about 18 months

Lance Duncan said...

Well that's disappointing, unfortunately I ordered the print copy because I thought it would at least try to be faithful to the original. I rarely buy modules because I don't need someone else to do my imagining for me. I wanted this specifically for the historical value and not for a "fun" adventurer.

'Evil' Jeff said...

I feel that anything that Pacesetter puts out should be thoroughly examined and questioned. The B/X Remastered product fiasco was one of the worst products I ever backed. After several extensive emails detailing major errors, the last PDF still was riddled with errors. Wonder if their 2nd edition version of the rules fixes all the issues of the 1st?

Lance Duncan said...

So got my physical copy in the mail today. Was excited despite what I read here, but was seriously disappointed. I was hoping for some designer commentary about how this adventure came to be, a forward or something at least. No explanation, just straight to the adventure. And The maps are really a lot worse than I expected, practically unrecognizable from the originals. Also they have zoomed our maps which you can barely even see the grid, that's just an editing issue. I have had a chance to read through the content yet, but my gawd it looks wordy. I detest adventures written as novels, one of the main reasons most stuff written for 5e has no appeal to me. The worst culprit is the layout. The major chapters in the table if contents have the same font size as the subheadings, reminds me of the 1e dmg, and not in a good way. I understand the desire for a certain amateur/ old school aesthetic, heck I'm writing my own rules to look like they were written on a typewriter, but that doesn't mean we have to abandon basic layout principles; and I'm no graphic design artist, this is just my gut feeling from reading a shit tin of books. So yeah I will definitely not be using the module as is, probably take the Map and notes and maybe use some bits from the module that are interesting to fleshout my own porttown dungeon

Post a Comment

About Me

My photo
Game Archaeologist/Anthropologist, Scholar, Historic Preservation Analyst, and a rural American father of three.
Powered by Blogger.

My Blog List