The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: RPGing is Story Telling

The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: RPGing is Story Telling

inspiration_tomblizardAs I recall, I began playing Dungeons and Dragons at the very end of 1st Edition. Most of my early memories are of playing AD&D and that’s still my favorite Role Playing Game (RPG) system. My buddy Chris and I used to ride our bikes to Hobbyland and he would get a shiny new TSR module, while I grabbed a color-bled, paper-bound supplement from Judges Guild.

I had read Moorcock and Lieber by then (though I didn’t get to Tolkien until early high school). I had acquired a love of Greek mythology (and to a lesser extent, Norse) earlier, and The Trojan War was probably my favorite subject matter (I rooted for Troy: that was disappointing: I mean, c’mon, tear apart the walls to drag in a giant horse your enemy left you???).

You know, The Iliad is like a game of Chainmail: a mass combat wargame with the fantasy supplement for individual heroes. Then  you’ve got The Odyssey, which is an overland (over-the-sea, mostly) D&D campaign. After you’ve played that one a time or two, you could switch to The Aeneid and you’ve got an overland campaign with a kingdom building mechanic. Huh – there’s fodder for another post…

My earliest fantasy gaming memories are of playing Adventure on an Atari 2600. That led to Temple of Apshai on an Atari 1200XL computer. I mapped out every room of that game (and The Upper Reaches sequel) on graph paper. Eventually I got an IBM-compatible PC and tore through the gold box games from SSI. I made the graphical leap to Dungeon Master from FTL (this preceded the more successful but derivative Eye of the Beholder by a few years). Even when I stopped playing pen and paper D&D, I continued on through Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Morrowwind and right up to Age of Conan.

Though I stopped playing, I still read a lot of 3rd Edition D&D stuff and began playing once again with Pathfinder. And as I wrote here at Black Gate just a few weeks ago, I’ve begun running a Swords & Wizardry game for some non-pen and paper fantasy players (it’s a good post. Really. You should go read it!).

And from Dungeon! to Wrath of Ashardalon to the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, I’ve played fantasy board games for decades.

inspiration_wraithSo, while I like playing RPGs in a variety of formats, there is one thing I LOVE about the pen and paper version, which is reading RPG supplements. Modules, source books, unneeded splat books about kobolds – doesn’t matter. I’ve read dozens and dozens of modules I never intend to play or run. But I read them and I get caught up in the stories and the backgrounds. I enjoy following the threads laid out in the adventure. And my imagination goes further. I’ve thought about a novel based on Pathfinder’s Falcon’s Hollow trilogy more times than I can count.

The Forgotten Realms and Golarion are probably my two favorite RPG worlds. And that’s largely because I love the histories and area backgrounds that have been developed. I find books about that stuff as fascinating as novels.  And I’m absorbing the histories of The Lost Lands book by book.

For me, RPGing is about storytelling. Whether you like an options and rules-heavy system like Pathfinder; or a rules-light one such as Swords and Wizardry (if you didn’t click over to that post I mentioned earlier, how I chose between those two systems is at the root of it. You reaaaaaly should check it out).

The Elves of Myth Drannor: Cheliax’ complete conversion after Aroden failed to appear:  the tragic fate of the Army of Light after Tsar: these are grand stories. If I like the world, be it Ravenloft, Greyhawk or Hyboria, I’ll devour the tales and information about it.

But that whole side of things is just one part of it. Long before I wrote magazine columns, regular blog posts, Solar Pons newsletters and Sherlock Holmes short stories, my imagination was helping write stories by playing D&D.

The actions I took (along with the rest of the party) determined what happened in the story we were creating together. Whether we were in Count Strahd’s castle, where my cleric rolled a ‘1’ to Turn Undead (I needed a ‘3’) and the fighter was drained of a level: or we were running full speed out of the sewers underneath the City State of the Invincible Overlord (Wraith Overlord): or not doing so hot picking up clues in The Gray Citadel – we were creating a new, living story.

Still one of the finest books I've ever read. And the Fagles translation is superb.
Still one of the finest books I’ve ever read. And the Fagles translation is superb.

Even in a rules-heavy system where you say, “I look for traps. I need to roll an 11 or better,” your imagination is picturing the scene as if it were on a movie screen. And the result of that roll takes you another step down the story path.

I can’t count how many hours I played the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights games on the PC. And believe me, I enjoyed them. But that’s not the same as a pen and paper RPG (or, these days, a play by post game on a forum). Completing quests and getting all the gear and levelling up to get more skills is all massive fun. But the story telling part is minimal, at best.  I’m not disparaging it: I still play at the PC (it’s a great stress reliever), but it’s a different experience.

And as part of the Swords & Wizardry game I’ve just started running (c’mon, now, you HAD to have clicked on that link by now, right?), I’m keeping track of the experiences the PC/MMO gamers are having in playing a pen and paper game. The World of Warcraft veteran made an MMO-type of decision during the first session (It’s at the link: seriously) and she has already said she’ll respond differently in the future.

Whether it was Slave Pits of the Undercity, or Tomb of the Lizard King, or The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh or Wilderlands of High Fantasy, playing D&D fueled my imagination. And coupled with the fantasy and mystery books I was reading, along with Bullfinch’s Mythology, I was learning how to weave stories.

There are various benefits of pen and paper RPGs – the ability to work cooperatively is a HUGE one for younger kids. But for me, the story-telling aspect of them has had a life-long impact on me. While my fiction has been in the mystery field, fantasy is the fertile soil my creativity springs from. And those old D&D books and game sessions were the seeds and the water. And they still are.

So, uh, what did you think of that Swords & Wizardry article?

UPDATE 9/21/16

I was looking through Frog God Games’ The Lost City of Barakus, as I hold out hope that the Swords & Wizardry group will want to roam around that mini-campaign after the current adventure wraps up. The following was in a sidebar:

Frog Gods, why can’t you stick to the rules?

Yes, we break the rules (again) in this book. We are assuming (and you know what that does) that you are using the Swords & Wizardry Complete ruleset with this product. Now, there are certainly other OSR rules that can be used to enjoy this adventure, but we like the think we have a pretty good set to take care of your needs.

However, with that said, we break the rules as set down in the Complete rulebook. In this adventure, you will find half-drow, half-orcs, halfling monks, etc. We are strong proponents that story should trump rules. As long as it makes sense! So, we play a little fast and loose with racial restrictions.

If this causes a problem for the Referee, simply use a similar race to emulate the NPCs found within this adventure.

Now, Frog God owns the S&W rules set. And Barakus (which was a 3rd Edition classic from Necromancer Games) is also theirs. So, they can do anything they want with it, willy-nilly. But I think they approach it exactly the right way.

“Story should trump rules. As long as it makes sense!” Yes. And they offer a simple, self-contained solution for the GM if they don’t want to step outside the rules.

RPging is story telling and within the RPG itself, you don’t have to let the rules take precedence over the storytelling.

And this makes 20 game/RPG-related posts I’ve done here at Black Gate!

Swords & Wizardry vs. Pathfinder
The Lost Lands for Pathfinder
The Northlands Saga – Complete
The Warlords of the Accordlands
Judges Guild Premium Editions
Gary Gygax’s Role Playing Mastery
Runebound – The Sands of Al-Kalim
Runebound – The Mists of Zangara
Necromancer Games (Part One of two)
Frog God Games (Part Two of two)
Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Game System
D&D Adventure Game System – Temple of Elemental Evil
Dungeon! Board Game
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
221B Baker Street: The Master Detective Game
Conan: Age of Exiles
Steve Russell of Rite Publishing – RIP

You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.

He founded, the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’ and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He is an ongoing contributor to The MX Book of New Sherlock Stories series of anthologies, with stories in Volumes III, IV and the upcoming V. 

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John ONeill

Three cheers for the gold box games from SSI! Pool of Radiance made me a PC gamer for life. Sounds like you and I played a lot of the same games, actually. Glad I’m not the only one who remembers Dungeon Master… man, that game was transformational when it first appeared. It’s pretty much the reason I bought an Amiga.

What the heck is Falcon’s Hallow?


Dang it!

Thought I’d pick up Hollow’s Last Hope, to see what I’d missed with Paizo’s first foray into RPGs… the CHEAPEST I can find it between Amazon and eBay is $50! :-/ The following two modules are more reasonable…

Was the Guide to Darkmoon Valley a standalone retail piece? Can’t find it in the usual haunts.

Thanks! -Anthony


Thank you for all the info Bob,

Very nice of Paizo to offer free/reasonably priced downloads.

I have ordered a hardcopy of the Guide, and just downloaded Pathfinder Adventures to my Google Nexus 6P 🙂


Like you, I cut my teeth years ago on AD&D, Traveller, V&V, etc. Fell off the RPG wagon for a number of years, but got back in with 3.0/3.5 when one of sons caught the bug. I too chose Pathfinder over D&D 4e (…not much of a choice, IMHO).

Recently I’ve had a hard time finding a “local” gaming group. And like you, I definitely “feel the bloat” of Pathfinder, and long for some kind of return to simplicity that might lead me to an Ol’ School RPG. We’ll see. In the meantime, I look forward to Guide to Darkmoon Vale 🙂

Pathfinder Adventures looks pretty stout… and as a 355MB download to my phone, it better be! 😉

Thanks Again, -Anthony


I’ve been wanting to explore RPGs as a way of spending time with my 6yo daughter and 8yo son as they get older. After reading the review a few weeks ago, I went and ordered Dungeon!, which seemed like just the introduction I was looking for; we’ve already had loads of fun with it.

In the past, we’ve mainly played games like chess and Risk, which are very abstract and logical. Risk, for instance, is just graph theory and probability; it’s fun on a cerebral level, but the “world domination” aspects fall by the wayside pretty quickly.

What most I’m enjoying about Dungeon! are its imaginative aspects. It’s like a long and cool game of let’s pretend. You can tell that you’re enjoying it on that level, rather than on a purely strategic level, when you find yourself deciding to fight a fire giant despite the terrible odds, merely for the grim glory of battling to the death all alone in a dark corner of the dungeon.


Another good one, Bob. My gaming history is similar to yours. I started playing RPGs with 1st edition AD&D, continued to 2nd edition, and played a few one-offs using the Basic rules. I played Pool of Radiance on the Commodore 64 along with other fantasy games I can’t remember. My friend had an Apple and I would play Ultima with him on his computer. I quit RPGs as other obsessions took over and then college, grad school, and tenure took up all of my time. A few years ago, I got the itch to do some gaming again. I started small with board games like Zombies! (actually played the Humans! version). Later I bought Wrath of Ashardalon thinking there was no way I’d have time for a full RPG again. These days I’m playing 5E and would recommend it to anyone wanting to avoid rules or supplement bloat. I both play and DM now and having a great time.

One gaming experience, I’ve had that it doesn’t sound like you’ve done, although the play-by-post forum style is similar, is play-by-mail gaming. Years ago when I was a kid I played Hyborian War before I got into computer games. About four years ago, I checked to see if I could find anything about Hyborian War on the web out of nostalgia and was surprised to see that RSI still runs games of Hyborian War (they also run a Forgotten Realms play-by-mail game). There is a dedicated Hyborian War group at the Road of Kings forum.

I’m definitely with you about gaming and the connection it has with creativity and story-telling. In fact, I’ve raised questions here (don’t remember which article I was responding to) about why fiction seems to get top-billing in terms of story-telling over something like RPGs. Genre fiction gets upturned noses from lit snobs, but RPG modules rarely even get noticed by anyone who isn’t in the games industry.

Gabe Dybing

It’s delightful to read another rpg post so soon after that other awesome post, Bob. In fact, I was logging into Black Gate to thank you for that post. That other awesome post, that is. You really made visible for me Swords and Wizardry. I downloaded it and read it cover to cover. It is precisely what I need right now!

I think it might have been you who told me to try out pbp when, in a Black Gate blog years ago, I lamented not having a gaming group anymore. I never got to the pbp, but a new gaming store opened up in my town, and for almost two years now I’ve been running a regular game on Sunday’s (two years is also how long it’s been since I’ve given John another post on Poul Anderson — yep, I’m sorry to say [but am I, though?] that I gave up the Anderson blog to make time for my gaming).

But after almost two years, my Pathfinder characters are 9th level and the rules crunch is so EXHAUSTING. My players want to play through 20 — to 21, really — so they can get time to use all their special level 20 abilities. And I’ve committed to giving them that experience. So I might have two more years with Pathfinder.

But in the meantime I’ve broken it up by alternating weeks with a new futuristic campaign using the Cypher System. And I’ve spent spare hours during the last few days and nights dreaming, reading through Swords and Wizardry and the campaign matter for Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea. I’ve already told my players that when I get done with my Pathfinder, if I haven’t been seduced by Starfinder at that time, I tend to be running some Cypher and some OSR. And I wanted to thank you, Bob, for your excellent article.

Never played Dungeon, myself, though I’m intrigued. A few weeks ago I finally got some close friends who aren’t pen and paper rpg gamers to play Descent, though, and they seemed to take to it (maybe some “real” role playing might be in our future). I see you like Runebound (I think I even read your original post, way back in the day). I wonder if you’ve ever checked out Descent, set in that same universe, and if it differs significantly from Dungeon. I enjoy Descent’s mechanics. I wonder, even, if it would be a worthy experiment to take those game rules and start full role playing with them. And soon we will have the Conan board game from Monolith! I know a number of people here backed that one! It shouldn’t be all that difficult to migrate my Descent players over to that one when it comes in the mail, and then it should be even easier to seduce them into “real” rpg.

Anyway, the point of all of this was thank you, Bob. I myself never played D&D at all till v. 3. I was role playing in those coming-of-age years, though, but my games were MERP and Champions, West End Star Wars and TORG: The Possibility Wars. It’s nice learning about the “Original Game.” I guess that’s something else I love so much about Swords and Wizardry: Matt Finch’s comments on the “Original Game” and role playing in general are so interesting and entertaining, nearly scholarly. Cheers!

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