Boy is this one a hot topic. Fortunately I have the definitive answer.
Don’t fudge in your games.
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…Oh okay it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
In it’s commonly understood form fudging is the act of the games masters altering a dice roll behind the scenes. In most games, we’d call a player rolling one dice and pretending it’s another cheating, however, the games master has a unique role within D&D as a neutral arbiter of the game-world, ergo it’s within the GM’s remit to alter a dice roll if they feel it’s appropriate
Let’s take an example scenario of why a games master might choose to fudge. A monster scores a critical hit on a player that the games master knows by the rules would kill them. The games master alters the roll to a regular hit behind the scenes to prevent that player from dying. The player is none the wiser and simply assumes they took a normal hit. This may be because the group is at a point in the narrative where such a death feels anti-climatic. This may be because the party is fighting against weak enemies such as a pair of scouting goblins and the GM feels it’s inappropriate to have these slay a player. Perhaps it’s the start of a 6-hour session and the GM doesn’t want to derail all his preparations with a character death. These all seem understandable reasons as to why a games master would fudge in this circumstance so what’s the problem?
Player agency is the problem. Player agency can be defined as the ability for a player character to make decisions in the world, for those decisions to have consequences that the player was aware of to a degree before making them and therefore for the player to have control over their own character and an ability to shape the world and ongoing narrative of the game. This requires the player be able to experience the game world in a consistent manner that makes sense within the rules and fiction.
Fudging a dice roll removes player agency as it functionally removes the choice of the player to engage whatever monster, or scenario they decided to engage in since the GM has already pre-determined the outcome. In this case that the player will survive and the monster will be defeated. It further removes the choice of the player to play in a game where sometimes creatures can land critical hits, or for their character to be in any danger. A GM pre-determining an outcome regardless of player choice is what we call railroading and a massive strike against player agency.
It is not up to the GM to determine probability. That’s exactly why we use dice in our games. If the outcomes are already pre-determined then why bother rolling any dice at all or engaging in a game that’s ostensibly meant to involve freedom of choice? You’re robbing the players of the experience by doing so. You might think that a goblin killing a player really sucks as it’s just a goblin and now the player who was killed will be disengaged by them dying to a lowly enemy. If you consider the narrative of the fiction now that’s not any goblin, that’s a goblin that managed to kill Throg the Barbarian. He’d arguably get to grow more powerful as a result, similar to a player leveling up. The little guy is a champion of his tribe now, the players will have an active reason to want to get their vengeance on him and his tribe as the stakes are far more personal now. The goblin and his tribe will now also strike a note of fear in the players, they proved themselves able to kill their friend and could do it again. Allowing the dice to fall where they land has actually made the world more engaging to the players.
Another example. A monster hits a players character and the GM knows by the rules that if the hit is a critical hit the player’s character will die from the result. The GM alters the result behind the screen in order that the role is a crit and the player’s character dies. This could be because the group is at a point in the narrative, such as a climactic final battle, where such a death feels appropriate. Or this could be a fight against a powerful enemy for the party to fight against such as a dragon or lich and the GM feels it appropriate that they’re able to kill one of the players. Or it could be the end of the session and the GM desires it to end on a dramatic note.
This example I think would almost unanimously be frowned upon by the players and the RPG community in general. Fudging a dice roll to kill a player seems bad form to say the least. Yet doing the same thing to prevent a situation killing the player is usually seen as understandable. In my mind, they’re both deadly impacting against player agency as they both force a pre-determined outcome on the player. Whilst the effects of the latter will have an immediate, visible and damaging effect on the player as they lost their character through no fault of their own the former has a far slower and insidious effect. It removes the consequence from a players actions and their agency.
There’s a famous quote by Gary Gygax
” A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make.”
I hate this quote. It makes my eyes twitch. It’s a shoddy excuse to disregard player agency in the face of lazy gming. While it’s hard to gauge what exactly Gygax himself meant by the quote he was heavily into writing simulationist rules sets and modules so it’s hard to believe he’d entirely just disregard them.
The role of a GM is a neutral arbiter of the game and a solid, balanced ruleset along with the dice themselves are vital tools the GM needs to be that arbiter. Human beings, in general, are not neutral creatures, we all have various biases and can be rather bad at making fair decisions especially in the heat of a moment hence being able to defer such decisions to a rules set and to the dice gods makes it possible to run a fair game in the first place.
The thought of playing in a game where the GM can simply ignore results of his own or my dice within the rules of the game that he simply doesn’t like is the antithesis of why I play a roleplaying game. To make decisions for my player character and see the outcome of those decisions within a consistent gameworld. A goal that dice fudging prevents. It was my choice to fight that Medusa if I failed the save and got petrified then that is on me. You don’t get to decide that as a GM any more than you get to decide the Medusa does turn me to stone.
A games master’s role is a difficult one, they always have to be prepared for the unexpected and in the heat of juggling all the various aspects of the game, it’s easy and understandable to want to fudge over things. Hence I challenge GM’s to roll with the punches more, to throw those dice out in the open and to move with the shifting and often unexpected results that can occur and the awesome moments that can spring up.
In my next article, I’ll discuss other forms of fudging in the game that go beyond dice rolling.
Categories: RPG game master advice