To Tinker, Or Not To Tinker (Part 2)

Shockingly, yesterday’s long-winded rambling history of my ongoing failure to stop tinkering with games did little to reduce the pressure I feel to do so. And reflection and rumination on what I wrote and how I felt while writing it didn’t do much to help.

Despite my love for the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, and my firm belief that it’s probably the best single edition of the game ever created, it definitely has a few shortcomings and there are parts of it that aren’t quite what I want them to be. The cleric is overpowered for its XP table, I believe. The magic-user is under-powered. Race-as-class is not ideal, and halflings and dwarves get to advance too quickly and elves too slowly. The thief is just not quite what I think it should be. And the fighter, while a fine “base,” is relatively bland.

So, other than thinking every single class has some pretty serious deficiencies, I love it!

A lot of my frustration in those areas comes from the XP tables. I have no problem with the cleric having the majority of the fighting ability of the fighter, plus spells, plus turning undead…I just have a problem with the cleric advancing 25% more quickly with all these things. At least the relatively under-powered thief has fast progression to offset the fact that is severely limited at lower levels.

The non-human race/classes were a major hang-up for me when it came to accepting Basic D&D, and though I’ve come to be okay with them, they are not my preferred solution. The way that they are implemented, however, drives me to the edge every time I think about it for too long. Dwarves and halflings have rather significant advantages over humans, with the saving throws being big and the trap detection and infravision of dwarves or the +1 missile bonus of halflings really making a noticeable difference in play, but the dwarf only pays a 10% penalty and halfling no penalty at all in XP rates. The elf, meanwhile, gets similar advantageous abilities while multi-classing and does pay an XP prices….which might be “correct” compared to the human classes but is a travesty compared to the dwarf and halfling.

And don’t get me started on level limits. They are supposed to be the great equalizer, but I don’t see that they really equalize anything at all in practical terms. Level limits don’t affect halflings until 9th level. Elves and dwarves are not impacted until 11th and 13th level, respectively. Now, in the grand scheme of the total 36-level Basic game, these limits serve some purpose, but in the scope of B/X as published and in my game as played, they are completely 100% useless. Very few player characters ever reach 9th level, so limiting non-humans to 8th level as a balancing factor does nothing whatsoever for me.

Honestly, tweaking the XP tables would go a long way towards mollifying me. It’s not that I necessarily care strongly about “balance,” but the XP table issues are so severe that I cannot help but see them as a problem with the fundamental system. Tweak the cleric, dwarf, and halfling up. Alternatively, maybe the right solution would be to tweak the fighter DOWN, bumping the others up in relation and also speeding progression a bit, which is something I’d be okay with. But that leaves the magic-user and elf, both of which I think are shafted on the XP tables. And it leaves the bland plainness of the fighter and the fact that on many level advances it gains nothing other than an additional hit die.

So, if we’re going to tinker with the XP tables, we really should do it right and do it so the end result is what we want. And that means also addressing the thief problems while we’re at it. And that means deciding exactly what we think the thief class IS. Is it a specialist who lurks in the background shadows only to pop out to perform a specific task? If so, it should actually be good at those tasks, which it is not. Or is the thief maybe more of a general adventurer, similar to the fighter but one who didn’t attend advanced combat school but took non-combat elective AP skulduggery courses instead? In that case, the thief should have more hit points.

And, if we’re going to do all this for the sake of fixing things, we obviously need to fix them correctly, so let’s list and abilities and study the results. Let’s do our best to quantify the value of each ability in game terms so we can make good decisions. Let’s build reasonable XP tables that we can be happy with.

A lot of my thinking here probably originated with the “Customized Classes” article in Dragon #109. I spent a LOT of time poring over that back in the day, and I still look at it from time to time when the tinkering mood strikes me. Though I don’t exactly agree with all the numbers, I think the concept is sound. Also, I am gratified that it more or less supports my beliefs about the cleric and magic-user XP tables.

So my tinkering over the years has led to a succession of several (many?) takes on XP tables built based on the totals of ostensibly-objective ability values. I have developed many of them, though I have not had much luck finding any older than about 12 years. My guess is that they all have had similar numbers on them. I generally have a set of numbers for the four core classes and a separate set of numbers for the four races (including humans) that can be combined to get the total XP for each of the 7 B/X race/classes.

My most common plan is to A) implement the revised and improved XP tables for the four core classes, B) separate race and class, defining dwarves and halflings as fighters and elves as fighter/magic-users, and C) eliminate non-human level limits, instead balancing things out by making non-humans pay more XP to advance at all levels. This creates a B/X game with the same seven classes that all advance to 14th level at what I think are appropriate rates.

Of course, the next step here is D) now that you’ve defined race and class separately, it’s easy to implement more class options for non-humans and you know they’ll be balanced. This, honestly, is a pro not a con, in my mind. But we’ve crossed the line from supposedly “fixing” the B/X classes to “changing” them. This is where the tinkering turns from playing with matches to letting your little fire in the corner grow until you struggle to control it.

And then comes E) if it’s balanced, why can’t humans multi-class too? Because, to be frank, a human fighter/cleric solves my paladin problem almost perfectly. Fighter/thieves solve my issues with thiefy rogue-types. Cleric/magic-users fit perfectly into a campaign I’m putting together right now. If you want the stuff, you just pay the price.

This is when the flames reach the powder keg.

Around the time that the keg is about to blow, I realize that things have once again spiraled out of control and I call a sudden halt to everything. Usually, I vow to return to complete by-the-book, rules-as-written play. I resolve that even though I don’t like everything about BTB RAW, the advantages are great and the risk is small. Plus, I’m playing the same game that everyone else is, which is important at some level to me.

That’s where I am today. I usually want “better” classes and more options. I could implement any of the various third-party solutions for the latter, but I usually think that the unbalanced nature of the B/X XP tables (as I perceive it) to be the larger issue and that expansion classes built on that same questionable foundation are not really what I want.

If the option is to change it all wholesale or leave it as is, I have so far come down on the “leave it” side of the line. I grit my teeth and just go with it, trusting in the wisdom of the game’s founders and falling back on the purist ideal. I can rest assured that all of the material I’ve written so far and that all of the official and third-party material out there will line up just right. I can know that if I start up online games open to the public, players will know what they’re getting. So I sigh and stick with by the book rules as written.

My latest takes on the races and classes are pretty good, though. I can really see them being put into use. Man, there are some great possibilities there.

Maybe if I just tinker with the cleric a bit…

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