To Tinker, or Not To Tinker: That is the Question

Like many players from the earlier days of the hobby, I’m a tinkerer. I have always had the urge not only to “fix” things I perceived as broken and “improve” things I thought could be better, I enjoy tinkering with changes for sake of trying new things. As many game tinkerers probably know, this can lead to a situation that spirals almost out of control, where the changes come fast and furious and tinkering with the game can take the place of actually PLAYING the game.

In about 1985, after a few years of gaming, I came to realize this slippery slope existed and that I was sliding fast. My first effort to reign it in was an attempt to play AD&D pretty much “by the book,” something we’d never actually done to any great extent. Gone were custom classes, changes to existing classes, new stuff from Dragon magazine, and other various houserules we’d implemented. Of course, AD&D players know that playing 1e truly and totally BTB is quite the task and difficult to manage. It was an educational experience but it didn’t last.

Late the following year I had my first “back to basics” renaissance. Two things led to this: my frustration with spiraling tinkering and the growing mess that was classic Traveller, the first RPG I ever played and my other main game. I went back to little black Books 1, 2, and 3 only–at some point adopting the moniker “LBB123” for it–and have never really deviated from that. To this day, I play LBB123 using the 1981 revised edition and am better for it.

I think in part because of this successful move, I finally and reluctantly accepted the idea that Basic D&D was not a game to be looked down your nose at. I had, like many AD&D players in those days, held a rather poor opinion of Basic and Basic players. But my success with core-only “old” Traveller (already five or six years decrepit!) convinced me to look again. And I liked a lot of what I saw.

Unfortunately for me, by 1986 the version of Basic on the shelves was the 1983 Mentzer revision of Basic. While a fine game and mechanically almost identical (initially) to the 1981 B/X edition, the mega-introductory ELI5-style writing was off-putting for an experienced teenage gamer and I had a lot of trouble getting past that aspect. At the time I was not really aware of fact that the 1983 edition was different than the earlier one other than artwork, and if I’d somehow managed to get a hold of B/X in 1987 I might have changed over permanently at that point and been a lot better off for it.

In the end, I had trouble convincing my players that Basic was better and even I had a more than a little trouble with thieves having 1d4 hit dice, with race-as-class, and with the fact that the rules (and spells and monsters) were split over two books. So the return-to-core effort fizzled out and my intention to stop all the damn tinkering once again evaporated in a puff of houserules. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that the shift to “all B/X all the time” became permanent.

So here I sit, doing my best to stick to B/X rules as written, only making minor changes when they are of obvious benefit and do not impact anything in a meaningful way. For example, I use 4d6-drop-lowest for ability scores and allow players to arrange the scores as desired. While I think I would personally prefer 3d6 in order with limited point swapping as by the book, I recognize that players are going to want to avoid sub-par characters–more important than actually getting superior characters, IMO–and don’t want their PC’s class partially determined by the score order. Since the results from 4d6 drop lowest are within the standard range and only slightly better, I’m perfectly fine with it and the improved play experience of my players makes it a no-brainer.

Some tweaks, such as “max hit points at first level,” incapacitated instead of dead at exactly 0 hit points, and allowing magic-users a few other weapons in addition to dagger are common and part of making the game a little more survivable, especially for lower level characters. Again, these don’t make any significant changes to the game.

Other tweaks, such as altering the way clerical turning of the undead works, not requiring spell casters to memorize spells, or using 2d8-use-best for battle axe damage are in the vein of “fixes” or “improvements” and probably invalidate my “BTB B/X” claim, but I maintain that such tinkering is minor and not of any meaningful consequence.

Which, of course, is what addicted tinkerers will always say.

Which, also of course, leads them to tinker further.

Which, of course, is what I’m battling the urge to do right now and why I began writing this post.

Which, also of course, rambled on and on and will have to be continued (and hopefully concluded) tomorrow.

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