Random luck affects us all the time. Just last week, the sewer line backed up in my house. As it happened, a local plumbing company dropped off a coupon the next day, fixing our headache at a very reasonable cost. Conversely, several years ago, my brother called me to announce that my first niece was due to be born any minute. I ran out to my car – only to find one tire completely flattened.

Neither of these situations had anything to do with my skills, talents, or experience; they were simply random factors that made a situation easier or more difficult. This contrasts with difficulty factors in RPGs, where we often set a difficulty based on the situation at hand and then leave it at that. Sometimes, we may build in ‘triggers’ (e.g. It’s normally an average difficulty to bluff past the temple guardian, but if the PCs are obviously armed then it becomes a very difficult roll), but we hardly ever randomly shift the difficulty.

In regards to fairness, this makes sense. The players aren’t going to take too kindly to the GM seemingly making up difficulties on a whim, or turning what was an easy task into a difficult one later. It smacks of GM fiat actively frustrating the PC’s actions. On the other hand, seemingly difficult tasks that turn out to be easy smacks of the GM ‘going easy’ on the PCs and making challenges seem less important.

Still, there is a certain amount of realism in having random factors modify situations. Consider a PC trying to infiltrate an office building. Through careful observation, she’s noted that there are two receptionists. One is very nervous and ‘by the book;’ the other is more laid back and easy to bluff. Obviously, the second receptionist is the one that the PC wants to bluff past.

But what if that second receptionist just got chewed out by his superior for not following the rules a couple hours before the PC speaks to him? Obviously, that easy Bluff check just got more difficult. Or what if that receptionist called in sick and someone from a different department had to fill in? The easy Bluff check just got even easier. Neither case had anything to do with the PC’s skill or approach.

While pondering this dilemma one evening I happened to think about my Fudge dice. I bought them for a FATE game I never got around to running and they’ve been collecting dust on my shelf ever since. For those of you unfamiliar with Fudge dice, each die has six sides. Two sides have a ‘+,’ two sides have a ‘-,’ and two sides are left blank.

I realised that I could use a fudge die to emulate random chance. By rolling one die just before a skill check is made, I can determine whether to adjust the difficulty up (+) or down (-) a step simply by reading the die and interpreting the result. There is an equal chance of the task being easier, harder, or unchanged. If I want to skew towards unchanged, I can simply roll 2 fudge dice and only count doubles of ‘+’s or ‘-’s; this lowers the chance of a changed difficulty to about 22% of the time.

Obviously, you don’t need to use Fudge dice; you could get a similar result to two Fudge dice by rolling an 8-sided die and counting ’1′ as ‘-’ and ’8′ as ‘+.’ That said I think a Fudge die provides a great visual cue and makes it easier for players to tell when fate is against them.

This is my idea for random factors, how about you? Do you have a similar system? Would you use one? What pros and cons do you see with a random difficulty factors?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.



13 Responses to Lucky Fudge

  1. I think you overcomplicate things. What’s in a die roll anyway? What’s in opposed rolls? That’s questions to ponder.

    Let see character skill and skill rolls from a different perspective. Let see it as the skill will always allows the character to succeed. The skill roll is that random factor that tells us if any random factor is making it harder or just as easy as it should be to succeed with the task.

    Let say that you’re about to climb a wall. The default state is that you will succeed but the GM demands a roll and the skill roll fails. Perhaps the wall was really hard now when thinking of it? Perhaps it had guards on top of the wall? By explaining the failed roll, the GM can “raise the difficulty” retrospective just by describing why it fails.

    What does this mean, really? It could mean that it’s strange to even give modifications in the first case. You still got a random factor (the dice) so why bother with modifications? What was the point of giving a positive modification if the roll failed anyway? Doesn’t that mean that the modification was pointless?

    But to go back to my original point. What is a die roll? It’s noting more than the difficulty of the action. It’s more obvious in BRP systems (roll die equal or lower than the skill). If you roll 40 with 1d100, that’s the difficulty of the action. Your skill must meet that requirement (40% or more) or it’s to hard for you.

    You can take this one step further. The GM can roll the difficulty and the characters must match it with their skills. “The difficulty is … *roll* … 40%. Who will succeed?”. It’s almost the same thing as the GM rolling all the skill rolls, but seen from another perspective.

  2. Another way to handle this is to just let the dice-roll be able to go either way past the dice. On a low roll beneath a threshold you roll again and substract, on a high roll you roll again and add.

    I use a primarily D10 based system so 10% of the time we get these flukes where chance does odd things while still letting the players be in control of their dice.

  3. The more I think about this, the more I like it. I respect Rikard’s opinion on the over-complication, but if used sparingly, I could see this adding a lot of spice to a game.

    Of course, it has to be done with the full buy-in of the players, or it will seem like the GM is just being arbitrary. I think the odds of such “environmental factors” influencing the situation should be lower, say 20% or less maybe. That is, before the attempt, roll a d10. On 1-2, a negative complication has arisen. On 9-10, a positive complication occurs. Complications modify the DC by +/- 1d5. This give each potential check a little bit of drama, while showing that you’re not “out to get” the players.

    Does it complicate things? Perhaps a little. But I like how it adds that little bit of uncertainty to the situations. A player with a ridiculously high skill can still fail due to forces beyond their control. Players with really low skill can still “have luck on their side” and succeed where they normally wouldn’t. And the addition of a single die roll to add a little drama to the situation is more than outweighed by the possible story benefits.

  4. Considering that the dice in most games really only ever tell a player “No.”, more randomness with absolutely no player input seems capricious at best. It may be more in line with a simulationist model (reality is messy) – but if you adhere to Sid Meier’s “a game is a series of interesting choices”, this doesn’t make the choices more interesting.

  5. I’m with others in that it seems unnecessarily complex. The vagaries of life are already baked into the player’s roll. I think the message to take is to remember that a bad roll doesn’t necessarily mean “your character wasn’t up to the task,” it can also mean “circumstances beyond your control foiled you.”

  6. This is a really interesting concept and the thought of the summed distribution is interesting.

    I’m personally of the thought that if a character can accomplish a given task or not is not random. Either they have the skill to do it or they do not and the normal die that you roll is simulating the “world noise” that your article is dealing with.

    BUT I can also see interpreting it as “There is a certain proportion of DC9 challenges that your character can deal with. Is this one of them?” being the normal roll and the additional roll being the “world noise”

    From a probability standpoint, you can interpret this model a keeping the same DC and instead of rolling your D20 you’re rolling d20 – dF + modifiers. Since the two dice are independent their average roll is the average of the d20roll – the average of the dF + modifiers. Since the average of a fudge die is always 0, this model has no effect on the average roll it produces. However, since the variance of this model is variance of d20 + variance of dF you’re increasing the variation of your die rolls.
    You’re also changing the distributional shape to a more bell-curvy one.

    All in all very cool and an interesting new model interpretation.

  7. In a system like D20 there is already so much variance built into the mechanics that I don’t see the need to add extra +/- randomizers to add color. I simply add color via storytelling after determining the basic result. For example, if a PC misses a climbing check by a few points I might say, “You were doing pretty well scaling that wall until you hit a loose stone near the top and slipped.” When a PC rolls really well on a perform check I might say, “Your song about war heroes really struck home with a group of veterans in the audience. They wept with delight, which made the performance much more powerful for everyone present.”

    These small environmental factors– a slightly tougher terrain, a receptive audience– could be represented with +/- dice and tougher or easier skill checks. In a mechanics system with much less range of outcomes I would resort to that. A diceless system, for example. (Yes, I would add dice to a diceless system. Because I hate diceless that much. Because I don’t accept that outcomes are so deterministic. There’s always something small that changes from one attempt to the next.) But in D20 it’s already baked in.

  8. Hi there.

    Nice article! I think the differences in opinion being expressed are all certainly valid, but I agree with Blackjack and really think this element depends on how you GM and on the style of play your group is comfortable with.

    In games or groups with high levels of player narrative control I have seen player success (with a successful roll) convincingly described as a combination of luck and skill. In situations or games where the narrative control lies primarily with the GM I have seen such descriptions work really well too. Clearly I have also seen “An 18. I successfully perform. How much money do I make?”

    There is an argument, however, that unless it is going to add to the story, is there ever a need for more dice?

  9. Walt Ciechanowski

    Thanks for the comments! This has certainly been one of my more interesting discussion threads! ;)

    I just wanted to make a few universal comments:

    1. External modifiers being separated from skill rolls are the norm, not the exception. If a PC needs to run across a narrow ledge, the GM is going to modify the roll if it’s snowing. What I’m differentiating here is whether the environmental factor is revealed prior to the dice roll.

    2. It did occur to me that ‘environmental’ modifiers could be presumed in the regular dice roll. I left out my paragraph on that because the focus of the article was on using Fudge dice for non-Fudge games.

    3. One fun way to use this system is to let the player roll the fudge dice along with her normal roll. This way, it’s still the player in control of her own fate.

    • The point I was trying to make, which perhaps I didn’t do so clearly, is that Fudge dice are really valuable in games like Fudge where outcomes are otherwise fairly deterministic and more of a distraction (though perhaps a fun one if the players are into it) in games like d20 where there’s already a wide range of variance baked into every skill check.

      By deterministic, I mean a game where a player with rank x in some area will always beat an opponent or obstacle with difficulty y when x > y. There’s no luck of the roll involved. There’s no “My chance of balancing on a 2 foot wide log as I cross the river is about 80%, so there’s a small chance I’ll fail.”

      Of course, it’s not really luck we’re after. A die roll is a stand-in for all the small situational factors that are really hard to predict and vary from one attempt to the next. With the log crossing it might be things like the log is slippery in some places, the environment can be distracting, or a shoelace unexpectedly snags on a small branch and causes you to trip — which happened to me IRL two days ago!

  10. I have to agree with everyone that rolling dice to begin with gives enough of a variation to represent “world noise” as Mr. Neagley so succinctly put it. I actually try to minimize the effects of world noise in favor of player agency when I run.

    I’ve written about it here: http://violentmediarpg.blogspot.com/2012/12/advice-for-gms-rolling-with-ones.html .
    tl;dr: Basically, my idea is that if a character has a good strategy but a bad roll let them fail forward.

    I think, however, dropping fudge dice for inspiration when you’re improvising a game could be an excellent way to keep things interesting. Additionally, dropping fudge dice to determine whether or not the hazard-level of the action is apparent seems useful as well.

    It would work like this: Drop two different colored fudge dice (or roll one & then another). One die is the hazard level or extra noise as above. The other is whether or not the hazard level is noticeable. + the hazard level is readily obvious. (The wall is covered in flaming oil.) Blank means careful observation and/or a perception/ spot/ wisdom/ etc. check would reveal the hazard level. (If the character’s in a hurry, no way he/she will know.) – means that the hazard level is concealed and couldn’t be noticed until midway through the action.

    I’ve been really into randomization for inspiration lately so this was quite pleasant to consider. Good article, sir. Good comments, persons.

  11. I think that Phil Vecchione wrote an article some time ago about “Writer’s Dice” by Daniel Solis. The link is here (borderline luddite, so no html, I’m afraid): http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/writers-dice.html.

    I have this app on my iPhone and have found it very useful for generating the sort of complexities that we have been discussing. Phil discusses it much better than I can, but I have found the random addition of so, if, but, as, etc, to stimulate ideas on both sides of the screen if rolled as part of a skill check. GM narrates the consequences of a fail, players the consequences of a success.

    Of course, this takes us on to the topic of degrees of success, which often make this sort of thing implicit in the game engine itself.

  12. Oh look, the computer did it for me. Magic.

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