In my last article I discussed whether or not games masters should fudge rolls in their game. In this article, I want to talk about the other forms of ‘fudging’ that can occur within a game and how to deal with them.
After many sessions of adventuring, players approach the fortified chamber of the dread Storm Lord Morax, General of the Northern Hordes, BBEG and antagonist to the party.
You’re expecting an epic showdown however due to a mixture of luck and skill on the players part the Storm Lord is getting his bare hide handed to him and he’s on his last legs. You, therefore, decide to up the ante and give him an additional powerful spell, say a one shot of Disintegrate, on the fly. Is this fudging and does it impact player agency?
While this is certainly fudging things it’s a lot more defensible in terms of messing with player agency. We can assume that the players have already approached the Storm Lord with the expectation that it is a powerful foe, simply giving him an extra ability on the fly still fits within the expectation of it being a powerful foe. A spell like disintegrate whilst powerful has check and balances via the game rules as well that further keep it in line.
Likewise, as long as it has been established within the narrative that the Storm Lord has some kind of access to magic then there’s no conflict in giving him an extra spell doesn’t break this.
The exception to this is arbitrarily giving an NPC you wanted to survive some means of magically escaping when you realise the players are likely to kill them. This is almost always bad form as you’re forcing an expectation, that the NPC should survive, by fudging the game rules to do so.
Granted something like a Dragon could choose to fly away and that makes sense within the fiction. Equally a powerful wizard could have access to teleport magic which would make sense as well but randomly deciding your BBEG now has some epic teleportation out of the blue is always going to feel cheap for the players and should be avoided.
In general, I like to roll with the advice of putting the NPC’s in the crosshairs of the players. You often don’t really have any good reason to protect anybody and if the players have worked out a way to defeat them and you play it all out then let them have their glory. That’s one of the reasons they are playing after all.
Fudging a monster’s abilities on the fly should still be used sparingly, ideally for foes that have already been established as powerful ones and in line with what they can already do. Ideally, you’ve already designed such an NPC with such abilities encoded but we’re not all as perfect as me.
Deciding that every goblin now has access to fireballs, or all your bad guys can now fly will soon become rather frustrating as the players don’t have access to the same extensive swiss army knife toolkit that all the monsters seem too.
The players ask to do an unexpected task within a game. They want to tie their rope into a lasso and throw it around their fallen comrade then use it to drag them out of the way of a falling statue. The rules aren’t exactly clear on it so you pick an ability score that makes sense such as dexterity and set a DC value in your head, say a 20 because the task sounds hard. Your player gets an 18 and you decide actually that’s probably good enough, change that 20DC to an 18DC in your head and let your player pass the task. Have you fudged it and is it a big deal?
You’ve certainly fudged it but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Degrees of failure is a useful tool in this type of situation. If you make the DC value you complete the task and in this case rescue your ally. If you miss the DC value by 5 or less you have a soft pass, a pass with some kind of consequence as ruled by the DM. If you miss by more than 5 you fail catastrophically and it doesn’t work or you make things even worse. So in this example, a soft pass might mean that you caught the character and dragged them out but the head of the statue knocked them on their leg as it crashed down and they take some bludgeoning damage as a result. A hard fail means you fail entirely and your ally is just crushed by the statue.
Using this tool means that even if you’re a little hazy on an exact DC value you can still make a decent enough ruling. It’s only when you make a DC roll a binary pass/fail state that picking the exact correct number can literally be a difference of life and death for the players. Loosening how you approach it lets you loosen the DC strings.
This is effectively a modified version of the rule of ‘yes but’ which is another tool to use in these situations. You allow the action but you make the potential consequence of the action clear, or you pose a choice to the player as to what they can do in the situation. This allows you to strike a balance between what the player wants to do and what the rules and narrative will allow but playing the choice in the player’s hand.
You’re in danger with fudging DC values if you use it to force a certain outcome. You’ve envisioned in this scenario that the statue will fall on the player and crush them, trapping them so that the players have to find some way of lifting up the statue. The players decide and, they roll a 20 but you decide no it needed a 25, or whatever arbitrary number they didn’t get, and force them to fail. In this instance, you’ve railroaded the group and made a bad fudge.
DC values are a useful guideline but it’s up to the DM to be the arbiter of how difficult something is and whether or not it succeeds. The DM can always say that the action just passes and not have a roll at all. Although if there is a roll then the action needs to be able to succeed in some way or there’s no point in the player rolling it, it just fails. It pays to clearly communicate how easy or difficult a task will be and to work out appropriate consequences when the dice land. If you need to fudge something to do this then that’s really part of your role as a games master but should be done sparingly, with consistency and in line with the player’s expectations.
This form of fudging can be passable as long as you keep consistent by the narrative and the rules and make use of tools at your disposal to adjudicate the actions.
Twirly Fudge- Bending the Rules
In a recent session, a player running a barbarian wanted to douse themselves in water, leap onto a fire elemental and grapple it. The rules in 5E D&D are explicit that the elemental cannot be grappled, it’s immune to that condition. There’s nothing in the rules that says there’s an exception to this. So when my player asked to do this I was entirely in the right to say no, of course, I let him do it anyway because that sounds awesome. Granted with the caveat that he’d be set on fire but none the less he pinned down that fire elemental so he couldn’t set the entire rest of the group on fire. Is this bad fudging?
This is definitely fudging but it’s not necessarily bad. There are two things to consider when you decide to bend a rule on the fly.
Does it make the overall rules you’ve been using inconsistent and is it inconsistent in terms of the fiction, tone, and narrative?
A game does need a consistent rules set to be playable. If the players don’t know the effects of their actions then gameplay devolves into confusion, endlessly bending the rules will cause such a game. So when you decide to bend a rule you have to consider if it’s consistent with other rulings you’ve made. In the case of my fire elemental, it’s consistent enough to say that you can grapple an elemental by dousing yourself in enough water, we’d yet to establish anything in regards to such beings which said the opposite and it didn’t contradict any other rule of how the world worked so far.
You also need to maintain narrative consistency within a game. Does bending the rule create some jagged rupture in the fiction that can throw everyone in the game out of being immersed? Does it invalidate some aspect of the fiction that you have already established?
In the example above, while a human effectively wrestling a being wreathed out of the fire is patently absurd this is in the context of a heroic, high fantasy game where the player characters are incredibly powerful. It’s difficult to envisage a regular human warrior doing this but we could envisage Heracles doing something like it in a story hence it’s appropriate. In a grittier, low magic, low fantasy game such a ruling would be more suspect, although granted so would the inclusion of a fire elemental.
It’s in merging both the hard rules of the game in the book and the context of the fiction that you can come to the best decision about what is happening in the game and how to rule it. This is why it’s so important to be clear yourself when describing what is happening and to force your players to be clear about what they are saying and doing beyond ‘rolling to grapple’ or ‘rolling to persuade.’
Once you’ve made the ruling you also need to be consistent with it. This means if the situation happens again the players need to be able to do the same thing and likewise, it needs to be the same in reverse. So where my players to somehow gain the ability to be immune to grappling due to being coated in flames I’d say that if an enemy doused themselves in water before leaping upon them then that would be an exception.
Hopefully, that’s shed light on some other common forms of in-game fudging and how to approach them. When you have to make a decision as to whether or not to fudge the key things to keep in mind are to be fair and consistent to the established rules and narrative and to not be attempting to force any explicit outcome. Following that should allow the game to keep pace while allowing the players agency over the myriad of actions they can choose.