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Hot Button: Mmm…Yummy Fudge

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On June 20, 2008 @ 7:45 am In Hot Buttons | 17 Comments

While Martin covered this topic before, no “hot button” column worth its salt wouldn’t tackle this question: Do you thin it’s appropriate to fudge dice rolls or consequences?  For those of you not up on the clean-shaven Keebler forest gnome lingo (oh, come on…they’re way too short to be elves! And if it’s fudgy and delicious, it was obviously made by gnomes!), fudging is whenever the GM covertly breaks the rules to attain a desired result.

In my experience, fudging usually pops up when a PC’s life is threatened. Some players really identify with their characters and the GM doesn’t wish to risk the loss of the player’s emotional investment. In other instances, the GM may have pinned major plot elements to the PC and doesn’t want to lose them. And, in far too many cases, a heroic PC destined for greatness just died like a punk because of botched roll.

In another common scenario, the GM may fudge because an NPC is about to be cut down before her spotlight moment, or because a large portion of the plot is about to be derailed by an astute observation or chance “impossible” skill check made by a player.

Throughout my GMing career, I’ve gone back and forth on fudging. While fudging can preserve characters and continuity, it can also feel like (and technically is) cheating. There’ve been many times when I’ve seen a GM get caught fudging and have it not be appreciated by the players. Heck, I’ve seen players leave games over it. I’ve also found that player knowledge of fudging often leads to sloppy play.

On the other hand, I’ve used hidden modifiers to ensure that PCs don’t die like punks or adjust dice rolls to preserve elements of an adventure. I’ve saved a character’s life when it would be inconvenient and plot-stopping to kill him. I’ve stripped the power level of a daunting villain on the spot when things start to go south for the PCs. In all of these cases, it improved the adventure.

Currently, I don’t fudge (although only because I fall into my exceptions below), but I have in the past and it’s likely I’ll do so again.

What say you? Do you routinely fudge in your games? Do you hate fudge, think it’s always creamy and delicious, or only in the mood for it once in a while?

Exceptions

1. Many games build chance manipulation into their games with mechanics such as action points, drama dice, hero points, etc. Technically, this isn’t “fudging” because it is part of the game.

2. Anything overtly agreed upon at the table is also not fudging. For example, my wife hates character deaths. In my games that include her, it’s agreed upon at the table that any character “deaths” merely put the character out of commission for a while.

3. I realize that the Golden Rule (Rule Zero, Rule One….any variation of “if the rules trump fun, ignore the rules”) applies to fudging. However, it might not be “fun” if the players feel its a cheat.

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.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Hot Button: Mmm…Yummy Fudge"

#1 Comment By greywulf On June 20, 2008 @ 8:18 am

Absolutely 100% happy to fudge the dice, old chap.

That’s one of the reasons why I love Mutants & Masterminds – dice fudging (ie, GM’s Fiat) is built right into the game. If you want to change a result in favour of one that’s more dramatically appropriate, the PC gets a Hero Point to spend (and therefore redress the karmic balance) at a later date.

In other games (read:D&D), I’ll fudge a roll to save a recurring villain’s life if the tide of battle turns badly against him, and one of the reasons I prefer 3rd Edition-style saving throws. If Blurgh the Archwiz fails his Will Save, I can outright lie and give him another round to teleport to safety with a cackle of “I’ll be back!”. In 4e where players roll more of the dice, that’s difficult to pull off. Not impossible, just harder.

When it comes to saving the player’s bacon I’m more inclined to do it early in their career when they need all the lucky breaks they can get. It’s no fun having a character die in the first scenario due to an unlucky run of dice. That’s less of an issue in 4e where you’d have to try really, really hard to kill a character anyhow. Not impossible – but I’m still trying :)

The key is that the GM should be fair. Even when the dice aren’t.

#2 Comment By thebrownshow On June 20, 2008 @ 8:45 am

I always fudge die rolls, and my players know it. They know that any time I fudge a roll or make a call, it’s always in the interest of keeping the game fun for everyone, so they never have a problem with it.

#3 Comment By drow On June 20, 2008 @ 9:31 am

i’ll fudge the dice to save a low-level PC from a minion’s death, but that ends around 5th level. after that, they’re on their own. i never fudge dice to save a monster or the plot, i’m not that attached to them. :)

#4 Comment By Micah On June 20, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

+1 vote for “fudge as necessary”

It comes down to trusting that your GM is doing what is necessary to keep the game fun and exciting.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On June 20, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

Rather than fudging, we house ruled our D&D game as you did for your wife (in exception 2 above). They like the tension and giving them the DCs to hit (instead of hiding the numbers for possible fudging) speeds up combat, which I like.

Most of the time, I’d rather negotiate a bad roll at the table– often a player will come up with a solution that’s worse for the PC, but keeps their character playable.

In games like Primetime Adventures, a big part of the trick is making sure both success and failure are interesting. If your character is cool whatever the dice says, then I’m very happy letting the dice have their input. If the system isn’t good that way, I’m interested in seeing if we can make it so– via house rules, add-ons like the Temptation Dice Martin mentions below, or anything else.

#6 Comment By brcarl On June 20, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

I completely agree that fudging only seems to become an issue when there is a character life on the line — NPC or PC.

Given that, I’ll ride the fence and say “it depends.”

If you’re playing a gritty game, or “just for fun” where the players aren’t too deeply invested in their characters and/or the plot, then I say play ‘em as they land.

But those aren’t usually the games I play in. My regular groups consist of deep story and lots of role-play, where the players have spent good effort fleshing out backgrounds and the GMs have spent even more time integrating those backgrounds into the plot. So having a key NPC or PC die at the “wrong time” can really screw things up — wrecking the fun.

That being said, I’m much more likely, as GM, to fudge to save a PC than to save an NPC and/or a plot point. So the fighter got a lucky crit and smacked the BBEG to oblivion? So the diplomat PC got an auto-success roll on her conversation check and thus the double-agent NPC has to spill his guts — including that key secret that wasn’t supposed to come out until much later? Too bad! That’s why it’s harder (IMHO) to be a GM than a player! You have to think on your feet and adjust.

Maybe the BBEG isn’t REALLY the BBEG, but rather just a front for the true threat. Maybe the double agent is actually (purposefully!) misinformed, and the real secret is much more convoluted than it seems. The trick is being creative and spontaneous enough that you can adjust the story and/or setting for unforeseen events.

P.S.: In one of the games I am a player in, we’re doing heavy role-play and deep plot, yet the GM insists on rolling in the free-and-clear as well as playing with occasional “save or die” mechanics. I’ve discussed it with him offline and he insists that without the fear of death that players won’t play properly — they’ll be “too brave” because they know they can’t die. I found this a bit insulting, but couldn’t argue that softening the fear of death would likely color some decision making.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 20, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

I’ve come to the conclusion that whether to fudge or not comes down to the game system itself. If the group is enjoying the game using the rules as is then you should not fudge at all. If the system allows for certain rolls to take away from the fun of the group then you should fudge with the consent of your group (not on a case-by-case consent, but by an agreement made before play begins). Some systems work better with a little fudging and others don’t need it.

#8 Comment By Dragonstar On June 21, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

I’ll fudge when necessary to the enjoyment of the players, and that includes more than just dice rolls. If my players are expecting an epic fight, and the PCs would have taken him out in one hit, I add a few HP on for good measure. Or perhaps a feat that the adventure’s author ‘forgot’ to put in. My own rule with this though is that if I adjust to make something harder, it will *never* result in a player’s death.

#9 Comment By Mort_Q On June 22, 2008 @ 8:50 am

@ greywulf

You don’t need to be able to fudge the savings throws of recurring villains to preserve the plot in 4e. Just give them a suitably cinematic at-zero-hitpoints power (like the Tarrasque) to escape with.

It’s written down. It’s a rule. Now it’s not cheating.

#10 Comment By Omnus On June 22, 2008 @ 11:13 am

Fudging is NOT cheating. It’s a tool, and one that, if used sparingly, your players never have to know it’s being used. That being said, if fudging is overused, it cheapens the game, making those clutch “nat’ 20s” less glorious and your game more arbitrary. I don’t think the game determines if you should fudge, it really should be the players’/DM’s chemistry. If the DM is purposely running a high-mortality game (like a campaign centering on the Tomb of Horrors), fudging is hardly necessary, and the players probably aren’t that attached to their characters, nor are they necessary for the story’s completion. In any story where the DM NEEDS someone to live (PC or NPC), well, you’re God for a reason. God doesn’t roll dice, so they say, and you don’t have to listen to yours either. However, if you want options other than fudging, most games have the solution built into the framework.

1) Nothing says “I love you” like Ressurection.
2) If you don’t leave a body, you can’t prove their dead. Cliffs, big explosions (“There’s no way he could have survived that!”), etc. give you a chance to step out of the mechanics of mortality and bring back the (probably heavily-patched together) bad guy or even PC. As an example, I once had a PC killed by a wandering twisted archon on Mechanus, plane of absolute Law. His death would have been a major blow, as he was a prince whom the campaign involved heavily and the party had no means for ressurection. So he got knocked off a sheer cliff with the death blow, found by modrons (you know, the cute little round mechanical critters) and they rebuilt him, made him faster, stronger, better (than the corpse he nearly was). He became the six-million gold-piece prince! Aside from developing a fear of magnets, and an addiction to lubricating oil, we went on with the story with a chuckle and yet another gaming story for posterity.
3) There’s always a member of the family who could fill their kin’s shoes (see: Green Goblin/ Harry Osbourne) to plague the PCs.

These are only a few options, I’m sure any clever DM could think up plenty more for his/her given situation.

#11 Pingback By » Blog Archive » Loaded Dice – Die Rolling Lies? On June 22, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

[...] boys over at GnomeStew have posted another interesting article, this time on the topic of fudging die rolls as a DM. This [...]

#12 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 23, 2008 @ 11:00 am

The DM was advised to use the “Obscure Death Rule” (as I think it was called) in the original Dragonlance modules, in much that same “There’s no way he could have survived that” fashion that omnus mentions, to protect PCs and plot-critical NPCs. And, like mort_q says, it’s in the book, so it’s not cheating.

IIRC, this rule was meant to make up for the fact that, in the beginning, the setting had no clerics and no resurrection. But there’s no reason you couldn’t use it in the early phases of any campaign, when those services are unavailable or unaffordable.

That being said, if you don’t let the PCs kill the bad guy(s) sooner or later – or if the bad guys don’t stay dead – then their players are going to get frustrated.

#13 Comment By BryanB On June 23, 2008 @ 7:38 pm

I don’t like to fudge. I once played with a person who’s cheating nearly made me want to leave the game. It wasn’t fair to the other players at the table when the cheat would save the day time after time after time. Once the GM caught on to it, the group would pay the price, because the GM wouldn’t count any critical hits that the cheat inflicted on the opponents effectively leaving us a man short. Since fudging is almost the equivalent of cheating in my mind, is there ever a good time for it as a GM?

My answer is: Yes, if necessary. This is why: I’ve had to pull a few punches over the years when my dice hit an infernal hot streak. I tend to have uncanny luck on the dice going from really poor streaks to incredible prowess runs that boggle the mind. I can handle these kinds of streaks as a player, but what happens to my games if they happen as a GM? I can ruin an entire campaign with one night of natural 20s dishing out mayhem on the PCs. So then, what can I do about it? How about making adjustments to my damage rolls? Is that too far out of bounds? What about reducing the third critical on a PC to a normal hit dishing out a low damage total? I think these things are reasonable actions on the part of the GM in an effort to keep lady luck from wrecking the campaign.

Another fudging might happen if I blew it when I was designing an encounter. If I feel that I blew it with the difficulty of an encounter, then I am likely to fudge things a little bit so as to make things more equitable for the PCs. This is particularly true when I suddenly realize that a critter has some devastating attack that I had forgotten about. Why punish the PCs for my design shortcomings? Thankfully, this has become more infrequent thanks to decades of experience. I have also come to the realization that it is better to prepare an encounter with too little challenge and beef it up on the fly, than to have it be too difficult and try and figure out how to ease the challenge without being silly.

I really try to let the chips fall where they may, but sometimes a little fudge is needed. Just remember that too much fudge will make everyone at the table sick.

#14 Comment By Nefandus On June 24, 2008 @ 10:50 am

In a game with reasonably balanced mechanics, fudging dice ends up deprotagonizing the players because it removes or changes the consequences of their choices. GMs often fudge dice because they are concerned about killing a player character, and they don’t want a personal conflict at the table. Unfortunately, in fudging, they invoke that very problem.

Here’s why:

The act of fudging is an expression of GM fiat, a way of making players into passive witnesses rather than active participants who choose their fate. In a lot of the older RPGs, where there wasn’t much complexity in the tactical and strategic choices in player creation or in opposed challenges, GMs often had to “read the tea leaves” so to speak, to either add or cope with complexities offered by the players. As such, GM fiat was baked into their systems. Players and GM would negotiate what happens next, and the result was decided by the GM, though players could “suggest” an outcome. Of course it was personal – because everything was decided by the GM.

On the other hand, the newer games tend to pay more attention to choices and consequences, and those “suggestions” are now planted firmly in the players’ control. For the most part, once combat is engaged, the “game” is very much the same between the players and the GM. With a balanced encounter, the GM can now afford to take less of an interventionist role in the action – because it really is less personal. Yes, the GM sets up the encounter, but once engaged – the GM should play it out.

When a GM exceeds his authority at the table, and cheats to let someone live who should have died, or cheats because there is a danger of losing a character – he imposes his own ending on the scenario he set up. It’s personal because there can be no expectation of consistency. How do you explain why you cheated to save one player character, but not someone else’s? In striving to avoid a personal grudge, you’ve sewn the seeds for confrontation yourself.

In addition to that, once players catch on to the safety net, it saps the game of tension, and over the long run, player apathy sets in. There’s nothing at stake – there’s no GAME – just story. Players need to view the GM as a fair gamer. As a GM, I make no bones about being fully sympathetic to the players. I want them to succeed as much as they do, and when their characters die, or when something unfortunate happens, that’s part of a game, and it’s part of good drama too. There have been a few times where I was as desparate as the players to pull a losing combat out of the fire – threatening a total party kill – and, by golly, they did it. It was a geeky game rush for everyone there.

If something does go off the rails and I do need to “fudge” something, I stick to what I control. My tactics. My environment. I don’t overwrite the outcome any more than I would tell the players what to do. Maybe a third party enters the fray, or some other random and distracting element. Maybe the bad guys do an inexplicably bad tactical choice (like players don’t?) In such a scenario, it’s just a nudge – enough for a party to disengage, or to scrape by.

#15 Comment By claidhmore On July 1, 2008 @ 10:27 am

I’m currently running Legend of the Five Rings, which allows me to fudge without fudging – I roll the dice, and get to pick which dice I get to keep back. If the NPC troll is about to kill the PC and I don’t want him or her to die yet, I pick a couple of lower dice to even it out. This gives me flexibility but sometimes the dice just come up as suck (multiple 10s = ow), and I play through it. Haven’t had any character death, but multiple downs and one out. It’s a really dangerous system. :D

Now when I ran D&D 3.5 I fudged when the players didn’t do something that was completely brainless (which did happen a few times). Fortune favors the quick-witted. Then again, I also let them do pretty much anything, if they could say it.

#16 Pingback By e’s Interviews: Phil of Musings of the Chatty DM On August 3, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

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#17 Comment By Squeejee On December 12, 2010 @ 4:59 am

I utterly despise GM intervention on what the players roll, for a reason that goes back to one of my first games. In a Star Wars RPG: Sagas Edition (yes, I’m young) campaign, I was running a Mandolorian Heavy Weapons Expert – Rambo with power armor, basically – and the GM had a very “plot rails” -centric philosophy. Of course, this being a Star Wars game, that plot centered around the Jedi PCs and the Sith NPCs, with my character usually being left in charge of keeping the mooks at bay. Whatever, I get to roll a ton of “to-hit” dice and rack up an impressive head count, so no complaints. But then we met the Sith Lord.

It was the most memorable thing that happened in the entire campaign – a moment that other players in that group would inevitably bring up when we discussed it, and it stands as one my personal “all-time-best” moments. A spectacular, single round of shooting, that dealt 206 damage to the NPC in a single full attack action, at level 3. There were no boots left to smoke on the floor, it was character defining.

And then he brought him back in the next scene, completely unharmed, and I was pissed. I’m still a little bitter about it, but that was the past. I have similar reasons for disliking GMs who save my character from a death that should have happened – it just really cheapens the experience for me to know that I can’t make a heroic last stand, because I’ll always wake up captured shortly thereafter.

I’ve decided that at my table GM dice are rolled in the open, and the only one responsible for what happens to players is themselves for not running when things turned south. Somewhat harsh, but no players have died in my campaign for a while yet because they know the stakes ahead of time.


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