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Hot Button: When to Pull Punches

Posted By Martin Ralya On May 18, 2010 @ 2:30 am In Hot Buttons | 19 Comments

Fudging is and always has been a hot topic — here on the Stew, in most gaming groups, on message boards, you name it.

That’s because it gets at the core of what gaming is all about, and once you figure out where you fall on the “NEVER FUDGE EVER EVER EVER!!!! — I heart fudge, I love it, it’s the bestest!!!!” spectrum, it reveals a pretty fundamental divide among GMs.

Roughly speaking, that divide is about what’s most important to you at the table: story, letting the dice fall where they may, fairness, keeping players happy, etc. And once you know the divide exists, it can be a sore point in your group.

Kurt just finished up a three-part series of articles on fudging, Recipe for Fudge (Exposition, Fallout, and Lessons Learned), so I’ve got fudge on the brain.

Let’s look at just one slice of the fudge bar today, a favorite hot button of mine: As a GM, when should you pull punches?

Should you pull punches when…

  1. A player is having a bad night?
  2. You realize you really skewed a combat against the PCs?
  3. A PC slips, falls off a cliff, and is about to die?
  4. To preserve the story?
  5. To cover up a mistake you made?
  6. Someone might lose a valuable item?
  7. You want the PCs’ plan to work?
  8. You didn’t prep enough material, and the fight needs to last longer?
  9. Your significant other is about to lose his first character ever?
  10. The previous adventure really sucked, and you want this one to be more fun for your players?

And a follow-up: Is it even possible to generalize about these situations?

In other words, whether you’re pro-fudge, anti-fudge, or somewhere in between, would you give the same answer in each of the 10 situations above?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Hot Button: When to Pull Punches"

#1 Comment By evil On May 18, 2010 @ 8:22 am

I will gladly pull punches when I’ve skewed a battle against PCs and realize it too late. Since we never have regular attendance at our games, it’s often hard to determine which skills or classes will be represented, so battles can get out of hand quickly if I expect someone and they don’t show up.

As for the others, most of the time I won’t fudge, because my games already have mechanics built in to prevent bad things happening that they PCs can’t control. Even when a player has a bad night, I don’t tend to fudge; everyone has a bad night now and then.

#2 Comment By raistlin50201 On May 18, 2010 @ 8:46 am

These are the responses I think I would give in each situation listed.

A player is having a bad night?
-Unless this is something beyond understanding I just let this happen. I have had the stated case happen once, but I consider it more special case.

You realize you really skewed a combat against the PCs?
-I will fudge this, but given I tend to run combat on a what is interesting and appropriate, that is a given.

A PC slips, falls off a cliff, and is about to die?
-Depends on why they slipped. If it was just player stupidity, then they suffer the full effect. If it was just bad luck, they will suffer, but I will tend to make it non lethal if I can (give them more chances to save them self).

To preserve the story?
-I will adapt the story such that what the players did will have an effect, but not break things. (ie. they killed the BBEG in the first scene? The creature it was drawing power from is now unleashed, ect)

To cover up a mistake you made?
-Nope, that is my fault, so the players should never suffer because of my mistake. I have the most control over things, so I have to be the most careful. If I really need to change something, not sure why I would, I would ask the players directly.

Someone might lose a valuable item?
-See the cliff answer.

You want the PCs’ plan to work?
-As a general rule in my games, if you do something cool, it will work. Any rolls you make determine what extra outcome occurs. Great rolls, it works beautifully, maybe even doing something extra. Bad rolls, still works, but maybe something else goes wrong after.

You didn’t prep enough material, and the fight needs to last longer?
-Doesn’t apply to me as much, as I tend to run games off my head more than anything.

Your significant other is about to lose his first character ever?
-Can’t comment as I have no experience with this scenario.

The previous adventure really sucked, and you want this one to be more fun for your players?
-Not sure. If I feel that fudging will help make the game more fun for everyone, then sure. Otherwise I would try and just push myself to make the next game better in other ways.

As for a general rule, I would go with, if you know it will make the game more fun, do it, otherwise don’t. Most players are willing to accept bad stuff happening once in a while, but losing their trust can change everything.

#3 Comment By callin On May 18, 2010 @ 8:49 am

To generalize first. The end desire of an RPG game night is to have fun. That is it. Fun. How we get to that point is different per player and group. Some like to see a story and campaign progress to its end. Some like the challenge of survival. It all depends on what a group defines as fun.
Is a TPK fun? Is the lack of threat of death fun? Find out what your players like and go with that…just remember easy does not always equal fun.

For my personal responses…
A player is having a bad night? Fudge.
You realize you really skewed a combat against the PCs? Fudge.
A PC slips, falls off a cliff, and is about to die? Fudge (a single fluky bad die roll should not kill).
To preserve the story? No (story goes on beyond death).
To cover up a mistake you made? Fudge.
Someone might lose a valuable item? No.
You want the PCs’ plan to work? No (there is always a new plan).
You didn’t prep enough material, and the fight needs to last longer? No.
Your significant other is about to lose his first character ever? No.
The previous adventure really sucked, and you want this one to be more fun for your players? Fudge.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On May 18, 2010 @ 9:03 am

Didn’t everyone answer these questions during the three posts that started it all (this time around)?

A more interesting tack might be to ask under what conditions you’d change your mind about the whole thing. Of course, the real answer is: *Never*! Roll initiative!

Personally, I see this debate – which I hadn’t appreciated was a long standing one when I got ensconced in the reply chain here – as the same breed of animal as “BRP is the only way to run Call of Cthulhu!”, in that the people who voice the most radical opinions seem not to be people who are actually involved in a game right now who have gotten caught up in the insidious lure of talking about the game as an end in and of itself.

I don’t mean for anyone here to take that personally. I don’t know anyone here well enough to make personal slights. I’m referring to the debate in a wider context.

The same thing happens *in spades* with wonkhammer 401k, as I’m sure you all know. The less a person plays, the more they feel moved to state strong views on this or that “broken” aspect of the game.

It might be interesting to match the replies to the previous three “fudge” articles to the in/out of game status of the people espousing the views they hold, just for fun.

Anyway, have at it lads and lassies with my utterly unneeded blessing.

Now *there’s* a thought: do men and women approach the question of messing with the dice in the same way?

Hmmmm.

#5 Comment By LordVreeg On May 18, 2010 @ 9:41 am

I only fudge if it’s my fault as the GM.
I tend to make things a little tough on my PCs, and I am very thorough with my prep and adventure set up, though very sandbox-y.

As such, the only issues are when I get it wrong and the Killrate is too high.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 18, 2010 @ 11:26 am

Should you pull punches when…

1)A player is having a bad night?

Depends on why the player is having a bad night, but in general no.

2) You realize you really skewed a combat against the PCs?

Yes, but I try to work the fix into the story somehow. I limit this sort of thing to revising stats and not fudging rolls.

3) A PC slips, falls off a cliff, and is about to die?

No. Why put the cliff in the scenario if there isn’t the possibility of falling off of the cliff?

4) To preserve the story?

In general no, but there can always be an exception.

5) To cover up a mistake you made?

No. Admit to the mistake and correct it somehow with the group’s input.

6) Someone might lose a valuable item?

Nope.

7) You want the PCs’ plan to work?

Nope.

8) You didn’t prep enough material, and the fight needs to last longer?

Nope. Add material on the fly.

9) Your significant other is about to lose his first character ever?

Nope.

10) The previous adventure really sucked, and you want this one to be more fun for your players?

Yes, because I probably have not found the right groove yet and need the flexibility to get things right.

And a follow-up: Is it even possible to generalize about these situations?

Probably not. I’m just working off of the top of my head with gut reactions here. You never know what might happen at the table, so I try to keep an open mind on this stuff.

#7 Comment By mougoo On May 18, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

It depends on

a) the system,
b) the players’ expectations, and
c) what is fun.

#8 Comment By Volcarthe On May 18, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

as a general rule:

if it’s a non-important fight, the PCs win.

if it’s a semi-important fight, not acting stupidly should let the PCs win.

if it’s the epic battle for the fate of all, no holds barred, no punches pulled.

#9 Comment By unwinder On May 18, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

1. A player is having a bad night?
If they’re having a really bad night, I’ll let them succeed at some routine things, at least, like hitting really low-level enemies.

2. You realize you really skewed a combat against the PCs?
I’ve almost always erred on the other side of this particular coin, and I’ve often unapologetically beefed monsters up mid-combat without telling anyone. They’re usually my own homebrew monsters anyway. I don’t see why my prep work, which was purely theoretical, should overrule what the game here and now is telling me.

3. A PC slips, falls off a cliff, and is about to die?
I would not put a slippery ledge on a cliff unless I wanted to create mortal danger, or unless I already had a plan for the player to cheat death.

4. To preserve the story?
Only if the players agree that the story is ruined if left unfudged.

5. To cover up a mistake you made?
Not usually, though there are instances.

6. Someone might lose a valuable item?
Losing an item is pretty much the realest consequence that you can dish out without maiming or killing a player. I’d never go out of my way to spare an item. The one exception I can think of is that I’ve played one game where one of the classes is really items-based (they get a lot of items for free, and can push certain items beyond their usual capacity). If you’re in a situation with classes like that, then depriving Romeo Scrabs of his Steam Motorcycle is almost as bad as taking away a rogue’s ability to perform sneak attacks.

7. You want the PCs’ plan to work?
My players are well aware that I grant a nebulous “cool idea bonus” to plans that I like.

8. You didn’t prep enough material, and the fight needs to last longer?
Artificially extended combats are generally way more boring than improvisation, so no.

9. Your significant other is about to lose his first character ever?
Playing favorites is not going to get you anywhere with the players. But I typically give first-timers a lot of wiggle room.

10. The previous adventure really sucked, and you want this one to be more fun for your players?
There are a lot of ways to deal with this situation. The main one is to build a better adventure. I don’t see this issue coming down to a single die roll.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 18, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

“Should you pull punches when…” Emphasis mine; depending on your definitions, this may or may not include fudging. That said, my attitude towards fudging is changing due to PFSD (Post-Fudge Stress Disorder).

What kind of punch pulling are we talking? I roll in the open, so changing the dice is not an option. I usually don’t change critter stats mid-way through a combat. I rarely tweak tactics, but that can usually be rationalized as “bad guys are generally stupid”. I may also tweak some details of the adventure: if the party is doing great and the group is having fun, but they really need a good night’s rest, then the wandering monster table might not be consulted tonight.

Specifics:
A player is having a bad night? Nope; players can adjust their own tactics.
You realize you really skewed a combat against the PCs? Yes, but see above for how.
A PC slips, falls off a cliff, and is about to die? Only if I didn’t already make it clear that “falling off of this cliff means almost certain death”.
To preserve the story? Mea motherfucking culpa, but not as readily as in the past.
To cover up a mistake you made? Only if not fixing it means dead PCs. I have no problem admitting mistakes, ‘fixing’ them, and moving on.
Someone might lose a valuable item? Nope; items come and go.
You want the PCs’ plan to work? Almost never, unless one minor tweak can prevent an entire session from going FUBAR.
You didn’t prep enough material, and the fight needs to last longer? Nope; that’s what improv skills are for.
Your significant other is about to lose her first character ever? Nope; that’s what flowers are for.
The previous adventure really sucked, and you want this one to be more fun for your players? Nope.

Oh, and @unwinder“I don’t see why my prep work, which was purely theoretical, should overrule what the game here and now is telling me.” Fucking brilliant.

#11 Comment By pseudodragon On May 18, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

I reserve the right to fudge anytime and for any reason that I see fit. Having said that, I rarely do fudge and just because I fudge a roll in one adventure for a particular reason, it doesn’t mean I will fudge the next time the same circumstance arises. A little goes a long way. Overdoing it will create a false sense of security for the players and deflate the tension that makes dramatic moments so poignant in the game.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 19, 2010 @ 6:14 am

@Roxysteve – I saw value in plucking out just this particular aspect of fudging and seeing what folks thought about it.

@Volcarthe – I love this idea! I’ve never considered breaking fights down like this. Interesting!

I’ve fudged in situations 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8, though I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule (always/never fudge) for any of them.

That’s the part I find interesting, personally: That despite the polarizing nature of fudging philosophies, many GMs (myself included) approach fudging on a case-by-case basis.

That seems sensible and reasonable to me, and based on the responses so far it’s a common approach.

#13 Comment By longtooth On May 19, 2010 @ 9:51 am

Like most things, it comes back down to balance. A hard “no fudge” rule means that the PCs are completely at the mercy of the dice. This can be a terrible destroyer of the holy grail of successful immersion into the game. Suspension of disbelief. A couple of bad rolling streaks and players will start to feel like everything is going to come down to chance anyway. Opposite that you don’t want to encourage “superman” mentality in which poor decisions have no consequence because the GM is going to fudge away major mistakes to keep the story moving.
The key is found in the middle ground. Where the players feel comforted that they the chaos of the universe isn’t going to consume them, but they had better not become meta terrasques.

#14 Comment By BryanB On May 19, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

Game prep is onerous. Game prep is too much like work at times. There are occassions, when I am in a hurry to finish up an NPC statblock that I miss a review of that NPC’s capabilities. For example, in my last Star Wars series, I completely missed seeing an NPC’s REF defense score and failed to fully realize how hard it would be for the party to hit that NPC.

I didn’t realize my mistake until the combat sequence was underway and my best PC blaster shot came well short of hitting the NPC on a good roll. That’s when the REF score practically yelled out to me, “I’m much too high you moron!” :)

So yeah, I lowered the REF score to an acceptable level. The NPC was still hard to hit, but not near impossible to hit without a natural twenty. So I pulled the punch to cover my mistake. And it kept the game fun without anyone knowing that I had goofed (though a certain gnome knows now). :D

#15 Comment By ChrowX On May 20, 2010 @ 6:26 am

This is a tricky subject that relates to the whole GM-Player conundrum…
On one hand, you are trying to tell a story as a group with everyone supposedly working together for that story (players intentions may vary). This excuse doesn’t hold up when every player is in the game for their own reasons and want to tell their own story, as opposed to listening to yours. This is particularly annoying when players think they, as individuals, are more important than the game and, by extension, the group as a whole.

On the other hand, some games are also players vs the GM where the players only play so they can go up against the challenges the GM cooks up. Kill unique monsters, get glory, loot, etc etc.. This kind of gameplay only exists to see if the players can survive, so if they start dying off, that’s just part of it, isn’t it? Why fudge when reasonably trying to kill and stop your players is the point?

I’m willing to agree that you fudge a roll or two when you accidentally pick something way out of your players’ league, since I know what its like to be on the receiving end of an unmercifully unfair beating. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever been part of a party that was nearly wiped on the first encounter!)

#16 Comment By Dan On May 20, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

No.

1). I don’t expect the players to fudge their die rolls. In fact, I (and pretty much every DM I know) get mad whenever a player of mine cheats with the dice. As DM, I make a theoretical deal with the Players: they will not fudge the die rolls, and neither will I. If I want the Players to uphold their end of the bargain, I must do the same.

2). Part of the whole idea that separates D&D from many other games is the fact that there is luck. That is why we have dice. It does not make sense to me why we have dice, if you will just change the result if you don’t like it. If you don’t want this, then play a dice-less game.

3). While many DMs speak about the “illusion of fairness,” why not make it real? This is much like my 1st point, but it is not fair to the Players. The monsters are monsters for a reason, they are hard to kill.

4). I don’t like it, and generally Players don’t like it. They don’t want to feel like they’ve been helped along the path or babied, and for some reason they always think this, even though it is not true. Player’s get a much bigger sense of enjoyment when they know they dropped a monster through their own power. Also, the same goes for me. When my monsters do something (ex: killing a PC*) through their own power, I feel awesome.

Now for all of my talk, I fudge the die rolls only one time, and it’s not even the die rolls really. I fudge only when I accidentally make the adventure/encounter too many levels higher/lower than the Players’ characters. This would be an accident on my part of not realizing the Players level.

~Dan

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On May 20, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

I really like Volcarthe and mougoo‘s questions. I tend to roll in the open, which takes some of the fudging out of the picture, but given the right circumstances, I’ll adjust stats on the fly.

Of course, sometimes it’s more “winging” than prep– which is more tense, because the numbers aren’t solid anyway…

#18 Comment By scruffylad On May 22, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

1. A player is having a bad night?

As a general rule, no. Although this one is very circumstantial. It’s possible monsters might go after this one a touch less? It kind of depends on what’s meant by a “bad night” I guess. (If they’re just not rolling well, they can hopefully adjust to compensate. And I might pull back the NPCs just a touch, under the rationale that such a pathetic enemy (the PC) isn’t worth focusing on. On the other hand, a player that’s had a bad real life day might very much enjoy some hack and slash therapy, so at that point, I may actually throw *more* stuff at them. :) )

2. You realize you really skewed a combat against the PCs?

This is the one where I’ve probably done it the most. Poor adventure design on my part shouldn’t get the party killed. (Of course, this assumes it’s a fight that my adventure led the party to, and is too hard despite their best efforts. This does not come into play if the players are half-assing things, or if they ran off and did something stupid. (If you don’t like my adventure and want to run off after the lich instead, I can pull his stats straight from the book, and if you can’t handle that, then tough. lol))

3. A PC slips, falls off a cliff, and is about to die?

If I put a cliff there, it was meant to be a danger. Watch where you step.

4. To preserve the story?

I prefer to just make the story adapt to fit whatever my players do. I think when I was new and green, I probably fudged in this area more. With time and experience and practice doing things on the fly, much less. I realized I could usually provide a better game if I was much more reactive to my players (less railroading.) The extra parts I prepared but didn’t get to use can always be tweaked and recycled elsewhere, after all.

5. To cover up a mistake you made?

See answer to #2.

The other thing is though, when you let the players run free a bit more, you end up doing a lot more reactive, extemporaneous stuff, so you’re making things up on the fly anyway. So that’s not really fudging.

6. Someone might lose a valuable item?

I don’t think I’ve ever fudged this. Usually, the players have plenty of stuff anyway. I rarely plan situations designed to take stuff away from them, so if they wind up in that situation, it’s probably their own fault.

7. You want the PCs’ plan to work?

I don’t think I’ve done this either. Only reworked things I had designed poorly. If the players just aren’t getting it, I might drop a hint, or even take a break and talk to them, try to steer them in the right direction. (Remind them of things their characters have learned, point out the parts of the map, etc. Hope that it clicks for them at some point.) Not really fudging so much as giving a nudge.

8. You didn’t prep enough material, and the fight needs to last longer?

I have done this a few times, but generally just tend to put in more “in between” fights if needed. But over time, I started designing my adventures to be much more free-flowing anyway. So maybe I have 4 encounters planned, and I’ll use some variant of them, if the players use the common paths open to them. So it’s either all fudged or none fudged, depending on how you look at it.

9. Your significant other is about to lose his first character ever?

I’ve never gamed with a significant other. lol.

I must say, that I do tend to go a bit easier on the first-timers. I try to dish out what I think the player can handle, and adjust as they become comfortable with the game. Sort of a training wheels phase, I guess.

10. The previous adventure really sucked, and you want this one to be more fun for your players?

I can see this being a motivation, but I’m not sure how much fudging it is to adapt an adventure as it’s being played. If you write two really static, non-dynamic, rotten adventures in a row, maybe it’s your adventure-writing skills or even approach that needs to be fixed?

#19 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 22, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

@scruffylad“On the other hand, a player that’s had a bad real life day might very much enjoy some hack and slash therapy…”

Excellent point! I can see it now… “The BBEG turns to the thug blocking your path, and says, wait – what’s the name of the guy who fired you? Lumbergh? Right. He says, ‘Lumbergh, hold these so-called heroes while I finish my MacGuffinations…’”


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