Friday, 22 November 2013

As a player or as a GM, no fudging please

Every so often, the old question rises again:  should the GM ever fudge?  In examining this question, I am going to define fudging as changing the outcome of die rolls, or the meaning of their outcome, during the course of actual play.

It is pretty easy to understand what is meant by changing the outcome of die rolls:  If you roll 2d6 for damage, and 12 comes up, but you say “10” instead, you have changed the outcome of die rolls.

Changing the meaning of the outcome works like this:  The opponent had 12 hit points, the player rolled a “12” on damage, but rather than have the meaning of the roll (opponent dies) play through, the GM changes the opponent’s hit points, or gives him a special ability, or does something else behind the scenes so that the opponent does not die, but can follow a script which more closely adheres to the GM’s expectations or idea of “fun”.  The meaning of the roll’s outcome within the context of the game has changed.

People can fall on either side of the “fudging” debate, and many people are divided in how they feel , but I have never encountered any single instance where I think the game would be improved by fudging. 

Some debunking:

"Now it doesn't matter what I roll!"
Not fudging makes the GM a slave to the dice.

No.  The GM chooses when the dice are rolled, and chooses what dice are rolled.  The dice are still a tool; the only thing that changes is that the GM is firm in his decision to use that tool and brave enough to abide by the results, even if they throw him “off script”.

Fudging is the same as prep work.

No.  Prep work – including “on the fly” decisions that the GM has to make to supply unexpected information within the scenario – is part of world-building.  World-building presupposes a world in which the players can make decisions, and world-building within the context of a game presupposes that those decisions matter.  Prep work supplies the context for decision-making, and has nothing to do with fudging.

Fudging is a good tool for developing GMs to learn the trade.

I strongly disagree. 

Consider a case where the GM decides that Trap A does 3d6 damage, and that 3d6 damage is rolled with a result of 18 against a character with 14 hp.  In this particular case, having the PC die is not “on script” for the GM – it throws his “plot” off the rails.

In the case where the GM does not fudge, he learns to adapt to new situations, and he learns that throwing the plot off the rails is what players do.  It is what makes their choices meaningful.  He also learns that he needs to consider the possible effects of anything he throws into the game – if he does not want PCs to die from a failed save, for example, he should not include save-or-die effects.  By seeing the outcome of unexpected game events, his understanding of what can happen is increased.

In the case where the GM fudges, he learns that changing the die roll can keep his adventure on the rails, negating the effects of player choice.  He learns that prep work is not really important – he can just change stuff mid-stream.  He does not develop anything outside his comfort zone, as game events cannot take him there, and he reinforces his “plot” over the tapestry of context, choice, and consequence which the game becomes without fudging.

I only fudge when it is important.

Then you are fudging at the worst possible time.

When it is important is when player choices matter the most, and you are removing the ability of your players to have their characters succeed or fail by those choices.

I only fudge when it is not important.

If it is not important, why not let the roll stand?  Why are you even rolling at all?

It doesn’t hurt the players if they don’t know.

Consider trying to learn chess, where your uncle keeps letting you win no matter how poorly you move.  If you think your uncle is doing his best, it might make you think that you are a great chess player.  But it will quickly prove otherwise when you play someone who isn’t handing you the game.

Did your uncle’s “kindness” in letting you win help you or hurt you?

So too with the fudging GM.

It’s the same as when you roll a die to make something appear random when it is not.

No it is not.

Imagine a scenario where the GM knows there is no secret door, and rolls the die.  The meaning of the outcome (no meaning) is known prior to the roll.  The GM is not changing that meaning.  The GM is not changing the roll.  No fudging is occurring.

It’s my game and I can do what I want.

Yes.  Yes, it is.  And if you can find even one player who wants the same thing, you should play the game that you want to play.

But let me quote Mr. Joseph Goodman, if I may, on page 314 of the Dungeon Crawl Classics core rulebook:

  • Always roll your dice in public.  "Let the dice fall where they may," as the saying goes. The players will learn fear, as they trust in the objectivity of your combat encounters.

  • Let the characters die if the dice so dictate it.  Nothing is as precious as a PC's life when it can be taken away -  and nothing is so unchallenging as a game where the players know the judge will not kill their characters.

Wise words, in my humble opinion.


  1. I'm pretty sure one of our GMs pulls his punches this way and I never enjoy his games as much. I mentioned something about how no PCs had died in our years-long Deadlands campaign and his reply was, 'dead PCs are bad for the story.' That really didn't sit well with me. Luckily the other GMs that alternate with him are great.

  2. In my opinion, there's one scenario when fudging is okay. If the DM misjudges an encounter, and makes it "obviously" too lethal, it's okay to fudge to correct the mistake once you realize it.

    1. I believe that this is covered under "Fudging is a good tool for developing GMs to learn the trade", above. Needless to say, I disagree. Note that I do not mean a typo here - where you intended to type "22 hp" but held the "2" key too long and ended up with "2222 hp".

      If you wrote your scenario with something that is "obviously" "too lethal", then I would say you need to let the dice fall where they may to learn (1) how to better judge encounters during prep, (2) to trust your players to take appropriate actions based on circumstances, (3) to learn that the world will not end for you or them if they do not, (4) to allow your players to learn that things are as they are, and not rely upon your adjustments behind the screen (so that they have to rely upon their own estimation of encounters) and (5) that once #4 has been achieved, no encounter can be "too lethal" so long as there is a reasonable amount of context in which the encounter occurs.

      So, while I respect your right to your opinion, I do not agree.

    2. An encounter can be infinitely too lethal, as long as the PCs have the chance to avoid it. It's bad GMing
      to arbitrarily have 10,000 wraiths jump out of nowhere and attack the PCs. If you then fudge so the PCs don't die, it's a forgivable correction if all you do is give the PCs a chance to flee, which obviously they should know to do - fudging so the PCs then win is even more bad GMing.
      If the PCs go to the City of Ten Thousand Wraiths, then fine, let the dice fall as they may.

    3. If you are the type of GM who arbitrarily has 10,000 wraiths jump out of nowhere and attack the PCs, how is fudging to allow fleeing helpful to the players? How is it helpful to the GM? In the case of the players, they might as well know right now that this guy isn't ready to sit behind the screen. In the case of the GM, the same.

      Really, suggesting that a GM who suck so badly as to create and implement encounters that pitch the game aside is somehow fixed by fudging is just wrong. Sometimes a game needs to be pitched aside.

      Note also that "if all you do is give the PCs a chance to flee" you need not fudge, as you need roll no dice. And, honestly, it is better for all concerned if the GM just admits what the players already know - he was being a bonehead.

  3. Also note that in old-school games, character generation, and even building up a high-level character from scratch, is nearly painless and is very fast. So character death isn't as much of an issue as in new-school D&D.

  4. Doesn't matter which side of the screen I take, I despise fudging. If you want to remove or mitigate the possibility of some result, do it before the game starts. For instance, if you don't want players dying in a random bar fight (seems a bit harsh for what in S&S would be a recreational activity), it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume most people would deal subdual damage unless their lives were threatened

  5. Fudging is not in my toolbox as a GM. The randomness is part of the excitement. And the reason why I make my rolls in the open. Adventures go into dangerous places and sometimes there will be situations that have them outgunned, but those are the same encounters they remember if they can overcome it.