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Whittlin' Fiddly


Fiddly does not have to involve major changes or adjustments to a game. There is a discipline of Fiddly that involves minor changes to a game, a simple re-shaping of the material present. This sort of work can be thought of as shaving away at some of the details of a system -- whittlin' Fiddly.

The difference between whittlin Fiddly and straight Fiddly is best explained using an example, of course. The difference between the types of Fiddly can be shown using the matter of hit points as a subject. Hit point systems are always prime targets for fiddling, and hit points systems lend themselves well to every degree of fiddling. The nature of hit points can be examined for a specific game and then the Fiddly will begin.

You're Gonna Die

Hit points are a measure of physical hardiness for characters and beasties alike. The more hit points a creature has, the more difficult it is to defeat in combat. Hit points are used as a measure of wounding during combat and other stressful situations, and when all the hit points disappear, the creature in question is dead or nearly so.

There are different approaches to using hit points in games. Some games use a simple total of hit points to show the overall status of the character. Other systems break down hit point ratings to reflect the damage various body parts and regions can sustain before failing. Some systems allow hit points to increase as the character develops and others maintain basically static ratings. The hit point is a flexible tool.

Old School Hit Points

The hit point originated with the first role playing game, and on that incarnation of the hit point this discussion will focus. The hit point system used in the D&D family of games is the precursor to other hit point systems and it seems only fitting to discuss the first generation of hit point systems in this venue.

The hit point in D&D is more than a measure of mere physical structure -- bone and muscle and flesh. It is also a measure of resistance to fatigue, a measure of luck, and a measure of defensive ability. Over the course of a fight an opponent's attacks may wear down a character, but each and every successful "attack" is not a single blow, but a whole round's worth of feints and strikes, some of which will be avoided by a deft twist or turn, some of which will deflect off the character raising a welt or leaving a bruise, and some of which will draw some blood. The hit points lost reflect the character tiring and stress and shock mounting. By the time the last few hit points are lost, the combatant is so fatigued and stressed that a series of strokes that once would have been twisted away from and deflected aside now land solidly, slicing and smashing the character into oblivion.

The D&D system uses a simple total rating to reflect how capable a character is in terms of the ability to last in combat. The D&D system also allows characters to improve their capabilities greatly as they develop and advance through experience levels. Increasing hit points reflect improved endurance, increased pain thresholds, and greater skill in slipping and dodging blows.

Gettin' Fiddly Wit' It

The two approaches to Fiddling with hit points are different from the outset. Major Fiddly involves changing the basic nature of the hit point system -- eg. from a total points approach to a body part approach. Forsaking the question of whether one should do so, say that one wishes to use body part hit points when playing D&D. One then has to decide how to derive the hit point totals for the body parts. One also has to decide how the hit points will increase, if at all, and what the effects of losing all of the hit points in a part are, exactly.

It is easy to see that major Fiddly involves changing the basic nature of the system. The basic precepts on which the hit point system is predicated change. No longer are hit points used as a general rating of how much stamina and pain resistance a character has, but step clearly into the arena of rating the ability of specific body parts to absorb physical trauma; the aspect of tracking fatigue disappears.

It is possible to Fiddle in a minor fashion, however, and simply whittle on the system. The D&D system uses hit points to reinforce the heroic stature of the player characters, as even non-violent mages can become more durable in combat than active normal folks. The system can be fiddled without changing that basic precept.

Witness the difference between the D&D game and the AD&D game. Both use the same basic system, but one of the places in which they differ is that of hit point accumulation. The warriors of AD&D accumulate hit points at a rate of 1d10 per experience level where the fighters of D&D gain them at a rate of 1d8 per level (up to the maximum dice limits.) A difference exists between clerics and thieves between the games, also. This difference points the way to whittlin' at the system.

Using the basic precepts of total hit point ratings and accumulation of additional hit points with each experience level still allows a wide latitude of variance. Say, for instance, a group wants to play with less-heroic characters than AD&D provides. The simplest option is to simply use the hit dice from D&D. Alternatively, each character could simply accumulate a basic d4 of hit points each level; this could be supplemented with a bonus based on class. Characters could gain a set amount of hit points per level, an amount lower than the average gained by rolling the dice specified in the rules. To arrive at more heroic characters, larger or more dice are all that is necessary, or adding bonuses to the rolls at each level.

It is also possible to alter how the points accumulate. Perhaps one finds the hit points at lower experience levels to be acceptable, but believes the hit points accumulated at higher levels to be unwieldy. A decrease in the size of the die rolled for hit points gained will address this issue without changing the basic precepts. The maximum number of dice rolled could be lowered to achieve the same end.

Perhaps the concern is one of the variability in the number of points gained per level. Fifth level warriors, for instance, can greatly differ in the number of hit points accumulated due to the simple vagaries of the die rolls. This can be alleviated in a number of ways, and each without altering the basic precepts. A small die could be rolled and a class bonus added: for example, warriors average 5.5 points (d10) per level, and this can be gained by rolling a d4 and adding three, a practice that would preclude the extremes of the die. Alternatively, two dice can be rolled and averaged to determine hit points. A specified number of hit points can be assigned for each level (and then CON bonuses added in.)

Whittlin' at the Broadside

This branch of Fiddly may not involve major changes in games, but it is no less useful and no less important than basic Fiddly. This is not a lesser art, for adjusting the balance of slight changes in a game's systems requires a thoughful touch. It can be argued that this is the most useful branch of Fiddly, even, simply because a desire to make major changes in a game may mean the best approach is to simply choose a different game to play. Whittlin' Fiddly may be a gamer's best friend.

Larry D. Hols

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