Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Is Fudging Just a Style Difference?

I contend that it is not.  To my mind, a difference in style is cosmetic, whereas a difference that actually affects the substance being offered is not.  If you don’t buy into that premise about style vs. substance, the odds are very good that you will not buy into the reasons I think fudging fundamentally changed what is being offered by a game.

The issue arises from a discussion on Dragonsfoot (http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=58418), and is related to previous blog posts on Context, Choice, and Consequence: 

Simply put, you can run your game however you like. So long as you have even a single player interested in the type of game you want to run, you should run your game however you like....no matter what I, or anyone else, thinks about it!

But the interplay between context, choice, and consequence is real, and it is what drives player interaction within the game milieu.

In my experience, the GM “fudges” for one of two reasons:

(1) He believes that the consequences of the choices made by the players should be ameliorated (for good or ill), or

(2) He believes that he has made a mistake in presenting the context, and therefore the (die roll dictated) consequences do not follow from the choice as presented to the players.

Either way, the GM is fudging because he has no faith in the choices made by the players. If the players play smart, and make a scenario “too easy”, they are effectively punished when the GM pumps up the opposition.  Likewise, when the GM makes things easier to prevent an “undesirable” outcome, he makes smarter play irrelevant while simultaneously deciding which outcomes are desirable and which are not. He narrows the range of the game to a very few possible outcomes.

There are three basic arguments that arise from the “pro-fudging” side of the debate:

1. Fudging allows the GM to keep “the story” on track.

This, of course, assumes that there is a single story that must be kept on track, with a known beginning, middle, and end.  It is a fallacy, for example, among some GMs that every module has a known beginning, middle, and end.

In reality, events in a game without fudging are a story only after the fact.  If you have determined the middle and end beforehand, then what do you need players for?  How can something where the players only occasionally get some minor input into what occurs be at all the same as a game driven by player decisions?

Let's take, as an example, a lovely outing against a Hill Giant Jarl. There is definitely a beginning, but what the middle and end are no one can say until events play out.  Do they find a way to burn the giants out?  Are they cautious and clever?  Do they tip their hand early, and end up facing the giants en masse? And the end....do they find the route to the next module in the series?  Do they learn where to go by using speak with dead upon the Jarl's decapitated head?  Do they give up and run away?  Do they all die?

Even in a ten room dungeon, how do you know ahead of time that Room 10 is the end?  Perhaps there is a TPK in Room 5.  Perhaps Room 7 is so scary that the PCs give up and seek greener pastures.

Every published module has a beginning. Every published module has a lot of potential middle. Every published module has a lot of potential ends. If you know the middle and the end before you start playing, then you might as well be writing a novel.  In fact, the very difference between player choice mattering and not mattering may be summed up with whether or not there is “the” middle and “the” end.  And, as soon as you start lopping of ends (“Can't have a TPK in Room 3!”) to meet your idea of what “the middle” and/or “the end” are supposed to be, you have moved away from doing anything like what I am doing with the game.  The further you go down that road, the less this is “style” and the more it is substance.

Note also that there are game systems that give bennies allowing outcomes to change.  Many of those games give those bennies to the players, allowing them to choose when to alter the dice, thus allowing them to choose narrative paths by regarding context and while keeping potential consequences in mind.  This is different, in my mind, to GM fudging, because there is no attempt to create an “illusion” that choice matters; instead, another layer of choice is being added.   There is no “the story” before the fact; the story is what happens at the game table.

In essence, this argument supposes that a player-decision-driven sandbox and a railroad are two “styles” of the same thing.  I reject this supposition, and contend that they are two different things.  There is no reason for the GM to keep things “on track” unless there is a track to follow.....and I would argue that such a “track” destroys the core strength of a P&P game, which is the interplay between context, player choice, and the consequences of that choice.

You might as well be playing a computer game….and it is notable that computer games attempt to emulate that interplay of context, player choice, and consequence as far as they are able.  That this is important, and considered desirable, by a large segment of the gaming population should be made obvious by its adoption, in so far as possible, by other gaming industries. 

Indeed, if tabletop games were just Resident Evil when Gary and Dave set pen to paper, without the fancy graphics, I very much doubt that there would be a tabletop rpg industry today.  Computers can do it better.

2. Fudging allows the GM to re-balance encounters when they seem unexpectedly unbalanced.

Although this is addressed somewhat above, I would like to note that the perceived need for “re-balancing” is often the result of player choices, which have made the encounter easier or harder than the GM expected.  It is, specifically, removing the effects of those choices.  Changing the encounter or fudging the die rolls in this case absolutely removes the value of player choice, for good or ill.

Another common rejoinder is that the GM is fudging to ensure the outcome desired by the players.  But if the goal is to ensure an outcome that is desirable for the players, why not let them make that decision?  Leave it up to them to fudge their die rolls, and fudge their current hit points?  The answer is obvious – because it changes what the game is. It is not just style.

Any game that makes changing the die roll an overt choice, with limitations as to how that choice is implemented, empowers choice at the table. I am all for that. My game of choice (Dungeon Crawl Classics) uses a Luck mechanic that allows players to adjust their own die rolls, for example (or, in the case of halflings, die rolls of your friends as well).

Conversely, any game that attempts to make you believe that your choices matter, while the GM secretly fudges events behind the scenes to reduce the impact of your choices – whether by changing die rolls or otherwise – dis-empowers choice at the table.  It is the same problem that would occur with players being allowed unlimited ability to fudge rolls and hit points at the table; it changes what is being done at the table, and it is more than just a change in style.

The funny thing is, whether or not the GM’s fudging is of benefit is very easy to test.  I would encourage any fudging GM to instead put that power in the hands of the players, in the form of Luck or Fate points, or what-have-you, and then discover when the player wants the dice to stand or not.  I will guarantee you that 90% of the players I have encountered – in two countries and several American states – are happier to have that decision in their own hands.

The GM is plenty empowered – determining the context and what choices are available, as well as the range of consequences – without having to fudge anything.

A final rejoinder is that the GM cannot always balance encounters “properly”, or take every eventuality into account, and therefore should fudge die rolls to maintain fairness.

I don't believe that at all.  It is noteworthy that the “eventualities” that the GM fails to take into account are the decisions of the players, and the consequences of those decisions.  Changing things to revert an encounter back to the “expected status quo” is intentionally nullifying the choices made by the game’s participants.  In my opinion, the GM should be making it possible for the players to worry about balance.  It is up to the players to determine when they are in too deep, and to take appropriate action.

This does not mean that the GM need not do his best to make a playable environment for the game, but it does mean that, having done his best, the GM should not then fudge to ensure that his expectations for how encounters will play out are met.  It also means that, so long as the GM includes context by which player decisions can be made, it is possible to include encounters that are “unfair” if the players make poor choices. 

An excellent example of this can be found in Sailors on the Starless Sea (By Harley Stroh, for the DCC system), where there is a creature which can be easily bypasses, or which can easily kill over half the party if they fail to understand the clues providing context.  I have run games using this module where both have occurred, and the players had great fun under both circumstances.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon the GM to help make the context, and possible consequences, of choices available to the players.  It is not incumbent upon the GM to fudge encounters.  And, again, if the GM really feels that he is unable to do this properly, it is always better to put some form of “fate points” in the players hands, so that their choices matter, rather than remove the effects of their choices from behind the curtain.

In my experience, sooner or later, players always realize that the fudging GM isn’t really the Great and Powerful Oz.

3. Not fudging is being a “slave to the dice” or a “dice fetishist”.

This one is easy.

If you don’t want to consult the dice, don’t roll them with the intent to consult them.  If you don’t want something to be random, don’t make it contingent on the outcome of a die roll.  There.  Done.  You don’t need to be a “slave to the dice” in order to stop fudging.

Sometimes, in order to preserve the contextual information of the players to a level appropriate for their characters, the GM will want something to appear random when it is not.  For example, when a thief is checking for traps when there are none.  Not rolling is too good of an indication that there is nothing to find.  So, yes, you can roll the dice without the intention of consulting them, and still not be fudging.  If, however, you are rolling the dice with the intention of consulting them, and then decide to ignore the result because you don’t like it, then, yes, you are fudging.  And, also, either you should not have included that as a potential result, or you should not have consulted the dice.

The “dice fetishist” rejoinder is laughingly easy to respond to, because no one is suggesting you be a “slave to the dice”.  Simply don’t make random rolls if you don’t want randomness.

There is always, of course, the possibility that you are the type of GM who wants to fudge, because you want to preserve your storyline, or because you worked hard on an NPC or encounter, and you don’t want luck or good planning on the part of the players to ruin your shining moment.  If that is what you want, and you can find even one player that goes along with it, or is actively pursuing it, that is the kind of game you should run.

But I will not be playing in it. My response is a firm, but polite, “No thank you”.  And I do not believe that it is a difference in “style” – the farther you walk down the fudging path, the more you are doing something that is very different from what I am doing.  And that, my friends, is a difference in substance.


  1. Replies
    1. Oh, and thank you for reminding me why I don't bother reading Dragonsfoot anymore.

    2. You're welcome. But I visit Dragonsfoot all the time, and there is a lot there which is worthwhile!

  2. One time I should have fudged, and didn't. I was trying to get my girlfriend's brother to play with us, and spent a great deal of time explaining the game, creating characters, and then running a short adventure. First encounter was with some kind of giant poisonous insect, all of his characters were killed in the first ten minutes of play. He never played with us again. Maybe I should have chosen kobalds or something (it was a random encounter, and I didn't realize at the time how deadly the bugs were.)

    1. You were there, and I was not, but I can think of a lot of ways to handle this without fudging. Had you fudged, you would have created an expectation of fudging in the future. That would have done the brother no favours.

      I think that the problem was how much time you spent explaining and then creating characters. If the brother thought he could have a new character in a couple of minutes, and try again, his attitude might have been different.

      Note also that the 1e DMG has excellent advice about setting up special adventure areas for people new to the game.

    2. Another quick thought; it would have been better to actually stop the game, explain what was happening and the error you made, and then either reset or go on, so that the brother would have known that he was going to succeed or fail based on his decisions, but that you were not out to just kill him.

      How is that different than fudging? First, it is honest, and honesty builds trust. Second, it puts some of the choice of how to proceed in the player's hands.