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This essay addresses whether or not it is good game mastering practice to change the result of a die roll that only the game master sees.
I recently got sucked into a Twitter conversation about it when I should have been sleeping.
Next time, I’m going to link to this essay and call it a night.
It’s annoying. A lot of you already know this and don’t need the reminder. Sorry, I’ll have a better post next week.
It’s not your table. Why do you care?
You’re right. In the end, it isn’t my table and it doesn’t affect me directly if you decide to fudge dice in your game.
Different people play different games for different reasons. Go crazy.
There are several issues that advocating dice fudging does affect.
The culture across the hobby. If GMs fudge dice as a matter of course, it damages the gaming hobby by creating a broad base assumption that everyone does it and it’s perfectly acceptable, when that’s not the case at all.
Not everyone fudges dice. Some of us are vehemently opposed to it.
When it becomes common belief that every GM does and should fudge dice rolls then it becomes something that you have to discuss with every new player who sits at the table and every GM you happen to play with.
I prefer to play with strangers at a convention or game shop and assume my GM is not fudging dice. I prefer that my players at a convention or game shop assume that I am not going to fudge the dice and they should make choices accordingly.
That’s why I care.
The players can’t tell when you are fudging the dice.
Yes, they can.
Check your ego. Unless you fudge dice very rarely, or have high level poker face, they know.
They may not confront you. They may not care because they are having fun. They will catch on.
The player may not be able to tell the precise moment but they can tell.
If the player has some basic comprehension of dice probabilities, they’ll eventually start to wonder how it is that your monsters don’t hit as often as they should, or fail saves, or doesn’t detect them when they are failing to be sneaky. They may recognize it because the fudging happens at certain moments where other outcomes were more likely.
When you say, “My players can’t tell,” you are assuming, “My players are stupid or not paying attention.”
Are your players stupid?
I’m telling a story and to hell with the dice if they get in the way!
One of the most common arguments I see is that if the dice result is going to screw up your story then the GM is correct to fudge the dice. This gets at the heart of one of the most pernicious concepts in role-playing games today.
That concept is that the game master is telling a story and the game is collaborative storytelling. Wrong. Wrong Wrong.
If you are telling the player character’s story, then you are no longer playing a game.
I’ve gone over this multiple times from multiple angles. If you want to go deep then click on the links below.
The highlights are as follows:
Role-Playing Games are not the enactment of a game masters story.
A role-playing game is a game in which there are player controlled characters, in a situation, making choices that have outcomes resulting from the choices the players make.
A story is an account of events, real or fictional, for the purpose entertainment or instruction.
Stories and RPGs are different things.
People get confused because RPGs can feel like a story, can be used to tell stories (just not the story of the Player Characters) and great game masters use storytelling skills.
Why do you hate fun?
Sometimes the results of the dice produce disaster for players.
These outcomes are sometimes “not fun.” Maybe you’ve selected the wrong game to play or you need to modify the game you are playing.
If “fun” at all costs is your intention then pick a game that only produces outcomes that you and your group consider fun. Limit the possible outcomes of a die roll and tell the players what those outcomes could be before you roll. If you don’t like character death then pick a game that doesn’t have character death or modify the game you are playing. Be honest, and communicate to the players that their characters cannot die, no matter what.
To me, and many other people, that sounds boring. The richest, most dynamic RPGs don’t always produce fun.
They can produce discomfort, horror, sadness, fear, anxiety, excitement, exhilaration, disgust, joy, anticipation among a broad range of human emotions. There are various valid reasons why you might want to play a game with terrible things happening to characters. If you remove those possibilities by fudging dice because they aren’t “fun” then you eliminate the emotional depth of the game.
If you want something light and pleasant, that’s fine. Different people and so forth. Be upfront about it.
My players like it that way.
You are an amazing actor.
You have players who are dumb and won’t detect the odd coincidence that your monsters start missing every time the PCs get low on health.
Your players are fully aware that you are fudging die rolls and are happy to play characters in “your story” because you have Tarantino level storytelling skills.
Maybe they just don’t know any better because they’ve never played in a game where the game master wasn’t fudging the dice, respected their agency, intelligence, and kept their ego in check and admitted their errors when they made a mistake.
If a character dies then the player is out of the game session.
This is a lack of concern for the player.
In an OSR game, a character can be created in a short period of time. Nobody cares if the new character shows up for a reason that would make a reader throw a novel across the room. You aren’t writing a novel. You are playing a game with humans at a table.
It totally breaks verisimilitude for the party to find a lost adventurer tied up by goblins and stuffed in a closet in a room right next to the one where their good friend Bob the Fighter died. Conveniently they left all his gear there too. So what?
Are you the continuity coordinator on a film set or a game master running a game for your friends? Get the player back in the game as soon as possible.
If you are playing a game that takes a long time to create a character, ask players to have a backup ready to go. A lot of 5E players like creating characters and have spare ones around just for fun anyway.
Hand the player an NPC, a henchman, or hireling. Let them play the villain or the monsters.
Whatever you do, get the player back in the game as soon as you can.
Allow me to retort.
Fudging dice has impacts that ripple out from that one moment in time. It is a practice that is opposed to the concept of games. Fudging dice is a crutch for the lazy, emotionally immature, and unimaginative game master.
Why are you lying to me Brett?
When a game master is going to alter a die roll, it is almost always during combat.
A monster hits but you know they are certain to kill the character. So you say, “Miss.”
That’s a lie. You’ve just lied to your friend. It’s perhaps a harmless “white lie” but a lie.
The more you lie, the more problems you create further down the line. We all know this. We’ve heard the fairy stories and parables.
Lies build on top of lies. The ridiculous tactic worked last time so the players try it again. If you don’t lie again, there will be an un-fun moment and players will be sad. So you fudge the dice again.
And again. And again. And again.
“I’m telling a story and this die roll is going to ruin an important plot point in my story so I have to change it,”
You have lied to your players.
You told them they were playing a game but in reality, this is an interactive narrative. The people at the table are your audience. They are tourists visiting a curated series of interactive scenes instead of players whose decisions create the outcomes of a game.
Have you told them that?
Fudging undermines the concept of “playing a game.”
Games begin with situations that have indefinite outcomes. Outcomes are determined by the combination of player choice, game mechanisms and game master adjudication. If you have decided that you must have a certain outcome then you’ve short circuited the basic concept of “game.” You’ve wiped away player choice and game mechanisms.
The player choices are cumulative. What class? What weapon to carry? What protective spells to cast? What potion to buy from the alchemist? Turn right? Turn left? None of that matters because if they make a bad choice that is going to get a character dead, you’ll fudge a couple rolls.
A lot of people misinterpret the OSR mantra of “rulings over rules.” That’s a design principle. That’s designers understanding that no game can cover every case and that referees should be trusted to make fair and reasonable rulings.
Most of the time, OSR referees are following the rules. When rules that the group have agreed on apply to the specific situation in play, you don’t need a ruling. The goblin attacks and hits for 1d6 damage. The character dies. The rule applies. No ruling is needed.
Fudging is a choice to ignore the rules and mechanics in favor of what the game master wants to happen.
Are you sure that what you want to happen is what your players want to happen?
Have you discussed it with them?
Pride never helps. It only hurts.
Sometimes you mess up. You create an encounter that is unfair. Maybe you make an encounter that you thought would last a long time but the characters are blowing through it and you are about to have a two round combat that was supposed to be a set-piece that lasts an hour.
Dice fudging is not the answer. It feels like it might be the answer, but it isn’t. You fudge a couple rolls and you’ve “saved” the scene. But what did you learn?
You learned that you could get away with lying to players. You’ve learned that you could avoid the embarrassment of saying, “I messed that up. Let’s roll it back to the point where you bashed down the door, you’re all still alive.” Or accepting that the players were more clever than you today and wiped out that big bad guy you thought was going to be an epic fight.
What did the players learn?
They did not learn that you are an honest and humble participant in the game who makes mistakes from time to time and owns them.
They did not learn that their choices in preparation and execution of their plan were brilliant and would have resulted in a lopsided victory.
If they realized you were fudging, they learned that you will lie to them, the rules don’t matter, and that you think they are stupid.
Squash your ego. “My fault. Lets do that over,” or “I thought that guy was tougher than that.” or “I should have telegraphed the danger of that monster a lot more,” is a mature and honest thing for a game master to tell their players. That sting you feel is ego. Ego is the enemy.
If you screw up and admit it to your players you will have learned a valuable lesson and the long term integrity of your campaign and game group will be better for it. The players will trust you to be fair and honest when you want to take them someplace uncertain and weird.
If you take the short term win by fudging, you learn and teach the wrong lessons.
The path of the righteous man…
I recommend rolling in the open as much as you can. It takes away the urge to fudge the dice because they are right there where everyone can see them. There are certain die rolls I do in secret but most of them are out front. There are very good reasons not to roll in the open. It is not an absolute and you will have to find the approach that works for you.
If you feel like fudging is a habit you’ve got into, it might be a good practice for a while. Once you’ve internalized it, you can go back to rolling behind the screen if that’s what you want to do.
Make a decision about what every possible die result means before you roll the dice. You don’t have to know every potential outcome in detail but you should decide, before the dice roll, what results are in favor of the players or against them. If you state that out loud before the roll and then let the players see the result of the roll, there can be no doubt that the dice have spoken.
If you don’t want to kill a character, don’t make that a possibility. Tell your players what you are doing so they can make the choice as to whether they want to play in a game with lower stakes or not.
Honesty is the best policy. If you want your players to trust you, be worthy of their trust. Tell them the truth. If you make a mistake, own it. You’re players will forgive you and respect you more for having the guts to be honest.
Embrace the oracular power of the dice. If the game you are playing uses dice then randomness is part of that game design. The designer put it in there on purpose.
When you fudge dice, you are lying to the players and potentially undermining their trust in you as the game master.
There are better ways to solve issues when the game produces a result that you don’t like.
4 thoughts on “Is Fudging Dice Good Game Mastering?”
With this DM you are preaching to the choir, but preach it brother! I’ll even throw in an Amen!
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I reckon that most of my regular readers already agree but I do get some new folks who haven’t heard this before and it needs to be said.
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Some GMs say they do it because they are trying to make sure the game is fun.
Huh, how about that .. the GM knows better than the players how to do fun. The players are doing fun wrong?
Maybe the players should also do things to ensure the game is fun. Like fudge their own die rolls?
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I don’t fudge personally, but I also always prepare for what will happen if the PCs lose the fight beforehand so I don’t need to pull punches. I’ll also be very clear about when they are going into a deadly fight.
Fighting a bunch of bandits? Sure they may kill you, they may not. Ransom and blackmail are pretty lucrative.
Fighting a couple of starving dogs..? Oh boy you do not want to lose that fight.
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