Sunday, 6 April 2014

Obeying the Dice

Recently on Facebook, I came across this post by Frank Mentzer, which reflects upon this blog post.  While the blog post is too long to quote in full, both are worth reading, and I suggest that you do.  Clearly, Frank Mentzer believes that a GM can and should fudge the dice, and can run a "player character" in the same milieu in which he is GMing.

Frank writes "Some good points are always made, but every one of these commentaries incorrectly presumes one vital point: Yes, some DMs ARE good enough to avoid the negatives that are described. Some DMs can and DO ignore die rolls (for the right reasons), and some can and do play a character (for the right reasons)."

I don't think that any one of those commentaries (and I assume he would include mine as well, as we have butted heads before) assumes that some GMs are not good enough to get away with it, merely that their game would be better if they did not.

The problem here is that, while Frank asserts that some DMs are good enough to avoid the negatives described, he offers no practical solution to those negatives.  Nor, in fact, does he offer any evidence to support that claim.  Nor does he answer the obvious logical problems with a position that a person with full knowledge of a situation has when attempting to play from a position wherein gaining knowledge of the situation is a primary goal.  This is not dissimilar to the player who wants to read the module before playing, because, yes, some players ARE good enough to avoid the negatives of doing so.  In fact, the problem is exactly the same:  the person, while playing the dissociated game, pretends to play the associated game.

(Add to that the problem of fudging die rolls, and decided aforehand that you want certain outcomes to occur, and the question begins to arise quite quickly whether or not the "DM PC" is especially favoured or the only one that the GM feels uncomfortable fudging for.  Either the GM fudges for his PC, or does not, at points where fudging only benefits that PC.  That silence on what occurs in these cases is all that one hears is not surprising.)

What we get continually are comments like "Your inexperience is showing; a good game master can have both. (Sorry you've never seen a game that good.)", which are an attempt to argue by authority rather than from a reasoned perspective, and "Sorry, I don't exist to obey dice." which is a straw man argument.  If you decide when to to roll the dice, what dice to roll, and what the various outcomes will mean, following the results of the dice doesn't mean that you "exist to obey dice" but that you have knowingly added a random element.  If you are unable to then use that random element, which you knowingly added, and still have a fun game, perhaps you shouldn't be so certain that your definition of a "good game master" is as firm as you would like to believe.  Or, maybe, when you roll the dice, you don't do it knowingly, but that still doesn't make you a good GM.

The point is not that Frank Mentzer is a bad GM.  The point is that he is making a lousy counter-argument.  Indeed, his counter-argument is meaningless in terms of actually countering the argument he presents it in opposition to.

I am no where near as absolute in my thinking as the writer of the blog post.  It may be true that "some DMs ARE good enough to avoid the negatives that are described."  I, for one, tend to believe that some GMs are not skilled enough to make a game work without fudging dice, and if you are one of these, then you should fudge...because that really is the best you can do.  I also believe that, so long as you can get a single player, you should run whatever game you want however you want.  But neither one is an indicator of quality.

The closest we get to a reasonable position is "From this POV, if you follow the rules and the dice produce an encounter that will wipe out the entire party, then you wipe 'em out. That's the rules of the game.  But the game is supposed to be Fun, and that's not. So I fudge it."

I wonder what game Frank is playing where rolling an encounter automatically wipes out the entire party.  I have never played it.  In fact, I have never played, on either side of the screen, an RPG where such a thing was remotely true.  I can just imagine the response to the GM who says "Sorry, guys, I rolled an encounter with 200 orcs.  You all died." without any input from the players as to how they handle the encounter.

If you have ever played in such a game, I am fairly certain that the problem is not that the GM didn't fudge his die rolls.

The line of thinking which makes "choosing to roll the dice and then following the results" is "existing to obey the dice" is actually similar to writing a scenario, and then determining that following your dungeon notes makes you a slave to the written word.

Likewise, in the comments, some have likened this to relegating the GM to a computer, which is utter nonsense.  In a computer game, the computer can only respond to players following pre-programmed responses.  If 200 orcs are encountered, and that encounter can only be responded to by fighting, then, sure, there is a problem.  But the problem is not in the 200 orcs, but in the way the computer can respond to the choices of the players in reaction to the encounter presented.  IOW, fudging the die rolls to eliminate encounters that you previously allowed on the encounter table because you cannot imagine how the players can respond to them without a TPK, and because you cannot respond to the ideas of the players in a way that keeps the game moving, you might want to reconsider whether the non-fudger or the fudger is responding more like a computer.

Which is not to say that a TPK is a "bad" or "unfun" outcome, even when it is the result of a random encounter.  I would have a long, hard think before I determined that an encounter that wipes out the party is not "Fun", and I would have a long, hard think before I determined that "Fun" was the be-all and end-all of all game play.  The limits we impose on our failures are also, perforce, limitations imposed on our successes.

"Some DMs can and DO ignore die rolls (for the right reasons), and some can and do play a character (for the right reasons)."

I look forward to the post that explains exactly what these right reasons are, and why fudging the dice and trying to run a PC ('cause no one is arguing that the GM cannot run an NPC) are the best solutions to whatever problems these reasons arise from.  But I expect that I shall not be reading such a post any time soon.  It is easy to explain the problems caused by fudging dice; I have yet to read anything that supplies a benefit to fudging dice that does not break apart on even surface examination.

"[E]very one of these commentaries incorrectly presumes one vital point: Yes, some DMs ARE good enough to avoid the negatives that are described."

No.  Every one of these commentaries correctly presumes one vital point: While some GMs may be good enough to avoid the negatives that are described, the odds are good that you are fooling yourself if you think that you are one of them, and the odds are even better that it would still improve your game if you didn't fudge or play DM PCs, even if you ARE that good.


  1. The impetus to fudge the dice, or at least one of them, hinges on what games (until recently) have done a fairly poor job explaining. Going to 0 HP (or your game's equivalent) doesn't have to mean death. It certainly can, and the writer of the post that Frank responded to would seem to argue that it should, but that is just one of the many options you as a GM have at your disposal for when the players lose.

    It's just as valid to take the dice as-is but drastically change the situation. You lost to that band of goblins? They strip the PCs of their gear and bring them before the Goblin King where he will decide their fate (slavery, execution, torture them to learn secrets about kingdoms, whatever is appropriate for the situation/world/fiction).

    I won't argue for one being better than the other, but I do know my preferences. That's not to say that death should never be on the table, only that death as default for failure makes me extremely hesitant to invest myself in a new character.

  2. Vanguard, as the writer of the post in question, I want to say I agree with you. If I seemed to imply that death was the default for failure or bad luck that is not what I meant. What I was trying to get at was the idea that if I am not going to accept the result of the die roll, why roll it in the first place?

    Death is not required; consequences, like you point out, are required. One should run the game as fairly and interestingly as possible and for me that results in being true to my rolls.

    1. "What I was trying to get at was the idea that if I am not going to accept the result of the die roll, why roll it in the first place?"

      Yes, this exactly. Fudging is for people who can't/don't know how to introduce consequences into their games.

      I think one mistake that newer GMs often make is designing a situation around which they need a certain piece of gear, bit of information, etc in order to complete. This is just bad design, in my opinion, and drives the need to fudge as well. I would much rather see the GM just hand that out than fudge the rolls. Of course, I would suggest not even designing situations that only have one way out, so to speak.

  3. Mr. Bishop, Thank you for the post about my original post and Mr. Mentzer response. I followed you on ENworld and was greatly helped by your thread on faery tales. I hope we have a long a mutually fruitful correspondence. Everything that I have read, only makes me interested in your work.

    Gregory Guldensupp

  4. To keep people abreast on some developments in the Facebook thread, in the comments on that thread, Frank Mentzer wrote:

    "Mr. Bishop, you're correct that I didn't bother to make a serious argument on this topic, just a couple of one-liner responses.

    You say you're unaware of a game where a random encounter can wipe out the party. Try 1e, Temperate (the usual) conditions, in forest, rough, or hills; 2-5% chance of Undead, within which there's 1-5% chance of a Lich. Roll a foul reaction and the party is probably toast. (And I'll ignore your hyperbole about it 'automatically' wiping out the party; that's not what I posted.)"

    My respoonse:

    Mr. Mentzer, I assume that you are well aware that the generic wilderness encounters are exactly that - generic - and that the person running the game has the option to either roll encounters, or not roll encounters, or (more importantly) to tailor encounter tables to the region being explored. Most TSR-era adventures, for example, have their own encounter tables. IF you put a lich on your table, and IF you are rolling to determine its reaction, and IF you assume that "hostile" automatically means "is going to kill you all, now" THEN you are correct. But IF those three big IFs are correct, THEN it is the GM, not the dice or the system, that is at fault.


    In response to Greg Poehlein on the same thread, I wrote:

    Greg, do you really think that the only alternative to the GM telling a story is "just to play with the pretty dice"? Neither I, nor anyone else, as far as I know, is advocating that you "blindly follow the dice", but rather that if rolling the dice results in an outcome you find unacceptable, you didn't do your job well enough before rolling the dice.


    For the record, though, given a poll sample of 112 votes (which, admittedly, is not large enough for firm conclusions), 14% of respondents preferred (2% strongly) that the GM fudge, and 55% (41% strongly) preferred that the GM not fudge.

    In another poll, 61% of 41 respondents felt that, as players, they know when the GM is fudging.

    Until better data comes along, the majority believe that they know when the GM is fudging, and the majority would prefer that the GM does not fudge. Better than a third of players feel strongly that the GM should not fudge. If the goal of the game is "fun", as Frank Mentzer suggests, then wouldn't the GM be better off, say, following the preference of the majority of gamers in this regard?

    Just a thought. I have still not heard or read a good argument for fudging. Just some one-liners.

  5. Re: Hyperbole

    You did not say an encounter that "might" wipe the party out, you said an encounter that "will".

    Your argument for fudging the rolled encounter relies upon the idea that the encounter will (not might) wipe the party out, for two reasons: (1) any encounter might wipe the party out, if combat ensues and the dice go south, and (2) if the encounter only "might" wipe the party out, then the reason for fudging given (preventing the party from getting wiped out) does not yet exist. You could just as easily, if you were to fudge, do it later when the die rolls really did matter.

    Either the encounter die roll matters (as you seem to assert), or it does not (in which case the given reason to fudge does not exist). You cannot have it both ways, and pointing this out is not hyperbole.

  6. Frank Mentzer writes: I'm tempted to erase (4 in a row? too serious, too long), but we'll let everyone watch you troll. ;>

    Daniel J. Bishop writes: Ad hominem is the last resort of a weak argument.

    And that, my friends, is why I am keeping a record of the argument here.

  7. In response to Robert Walker:

    The stats counter a specific argument. I also said " I also believe that, so long as you can get a single player, you should run whatever game you want however you want." and I have said that many, many times over many years. I have been running games for 36 years, and I agree that you can do whatever you want. But, if you are going to argue that you are doing something so that players can have Fun, then what players actually want is relevant. That is not "ONE OF US" mentality; that is using rational thinking.

  8. This is the common sort of thing that happens with these discussions. A statement is blithely disregarded with no actual counter-argument and then it resorts to fallacies and personal attacks (as shown above). The heart of the matter is, they would rather continue to fudge and run DMPCs because it's an amazing win-win for them. They do what they want AND get to congratulate themselves on how awesome they are as DMs that they can totally excise human bias and the other negatives that go along with these practices from their games.

    That's the problem with running a fantasy world: all too often you live in one too.

    Ugh. And yes, that is ad hominem. I don't care. The behavior is damaging the game and, as shown by numerous studies on game design and polls like those mentioned above, it is not something most players like.

  9. Frank wrote a piece about how the poster was inexperienced, had never seen a game that good, and "incorrectly presumes one vital point". Which one can only take to mean that his "one vital point" is an uncontested fact, and, we shall note, those who disagree with him are simply inexperienced or haven't had the pleasure of "a game that good". It amuses him. I merely took his statements at face value and examined whether or not they made sense, and found them sorely lacking. I was still able to suggest that he (or you, or anyone) should run a game however they like, but, yeah, his condescending post rubbed me the wrong way, And they rubbed me the wrong way enough to write about it.

    What I have not seen, yet, is a single rational response that demonstrates why my analysis of Frank's words is flawed.

  10. In response to Robert Walker (If we go back to Franks original post, he merely has issue with the blog poster asserting that 'fudging the dice' is some sort of evil that only bad DMs do and his rigid thinking and slavery to his dice amused him.)

    No; he avers that the blog poster is wrong, inexperienced, and has simply not seen such a good game. However, what Frank does not do (and I suspect cannot do) is demonstrate why the blog poster is wrong, or what benefit is derived from fudging the dice or playing a "DM PC".


    What he in fact does is admit that "good points" are always made about why one should not fudge/run a DM PC, but rather than address those points, makes unsupported claims that imply that the problem is lack of experience and just not being a good enough GM to avoid all of the "good points" being made for not doing so.

    There is a pretence of rationality, but the entire thing is argument from authority and ad hominem attack from start to finish. The Emperor has no clothes. There is no substance behind the opinion, and it flies in opposition to all the evidence that is available.

    I would never make the argument that the GM cannot, or is not entitled to, fudge roll if that is what the GM really wants to do. Again, so long as you have a single player, you can and should do what strikes your fancy. But I would make the argument that, for the majority of games and gamers, fudging does more harm than good, and I can not only back that up with rational argument ("good points") but what (admitedly poor) statistical evidence there is bears out the same.

    Nor have I ever heard a single rational argument that suggests fudging is helpful. I have heard a lot of "I really like Joe, and if he fudges, I'll put up with it." You gotta take the bad with the good. But that is not a reason to promote fudging.

    In short, there is no rational reason to suspect that fudging improves the game, and many rational reasons to suspect that it harms the game. BUT, if someone can actually respond to the arguments against fudging, or supply a rational counter-argument for fudging, I would be happy to widen my horizons.

    (That is what some here call trolling, apparently.)

  11. Frank Mentzer, whether or not D&D is a game depends very much on how you define "Game". By some definitions, RPGs certainly are not. By others, I would say that they are. But whether or not D&D is strictly a "Game" or not is irrelevant to the arguments I am making, and I neither ask nor require that you concede FRP (D&D or otherwise) to be so.