Question: When Do You Fudge the Dice?

Posted by on Dec 20, 2010 in Dice, Play, RPGs | 22 Comments

Today, on Twitter, Rob Donoghue (@RDonoghue) asked:

GMs: If you strongly object to dice fudging, do you equally strongly support data transparency, such as visible enemy stats & Powers?

After some dialogue, Tracy Hurley (@SarahDarkmagic) wrote:

To turn it around, why shouldn’t players fudge their own rolls so that they have more control over their own narratives?

All of which makes me want to zoom out a little bit and ask a survey question:

When do you fudge the dice? Why? Do you have predefined circumstances in which it’s legal to cheat? Do you go on instinct? Do you never fudge at all?

I imagine our answers will vary based on the games we play and why we play them—what we get out of play. That’s fine. Whenever the question of dice fudging comes up, I tend to think of D&D, the game in which I learned to fudge dice and became aware of why and when I did. Is it the lingua franca for this conversation?

22 Comments

  1. Russell Bailey
    December 20, 2010

    You fudge the dice because the system has failed. You know in your bones that the bones rolled wrong, so you rip free from the skeleton and you make shit up.

    Why did the system fail? Maybe because it’s not the system you want it to be right now, because ninety percent of the time it is perfect but just like anyone you’ve ever slept with sometimes you fight.

    Or because you pushed its buttons when you shouldn’t have. Because there should have been no roll here and you asked for one anyway. This is the thing to learn: when you don’t want to, don’t. Because if you do it anyway it will be unsatisfying and discomfiting and you will want to take it back.

    That’s why you fudge.

    Reply
  2. Eddy
    December 20, 2010

    Ryan Macklin, John Wick and I had a roundtable about rules drifting on the Walking Eye podcast recently (not sure when the ep will be live), but we talking about ad-hoc rules drifting a bit as well. The answer I came up with boils down to “when the experience would fail because of the dice roll.” What that experience is, and whether the experience would be a bigger failure if dice fudging occurred at all, is up to each group.

    Reply
  3. Mark Barrett
    December 20, 2010

    Six thousand years ago I was playing D&D with a beloved high-level Ranger character. I walked into a clearing, the DM rolled that a Red Dragon was there, then rolled that it breathed. This despite the fact that my character would have sensed/heard the animal from a league away.

    Unfortunately, the DM didn’t believe in fudging die rolls, even though the resulting death of my character violated both the spirit of the game and the logic of the game world. His defense, even as I hurled him from my rooftop into the path of an onrushing train (okay, I’m making that part up), was that the die didn’t lie. Fail.

    Fudging die rolls is done to protect the player’s experience, including abuse from rules gone awry. To whatever extent the fun is in chaos and chance, it’s also founded on fairness and players being responsible for their own mistakes.

    The die may not lie, but the premise of the question being answered by the die can certainly be wrong.

    Reply
  4. Jack Graham
    December 20, 2010

    I’ll fudge in only two situations:

    1) to prevent pointless, non-dramatic character death, or,
    2) when the dice are just being ridiculous (and refuse to stop being ridiculous).

    Examples of #2 are warranted, as it’s broad.

    Example 1: We had an Eclipse Phase session one night where every third die roll came up a crit. It completely shredded a very carefully balanced encounter. I ended up fudging a few rolls to preserve balance, because my ten-siders were clearly smoking crack that night. (This sort of thing happened with the old WoD system a lot, too — too many fumbles).

    Example 2: The save to end an effect system in 4e D&D is a pet peeve of mine. The problem is that you’re no more likely to save successfully on your fifth attempt than on your first. Judicious DMs need to fudge this one all the time (or risk being beaten with a hammer).

    Reply
  5. EKB
    December 20, 2010

    As a GM, I don’t fudge. I encourage the players to fudge and thus remove me from anything resembling a railroad – it’s not GM fiat if you’re not the GM…

    If I’m feeling the need to force my story, then I need to be sitting at the keyboard writing rather than at the table. Collaborative storytelling needs to be collaborative and not just storytelling.

    Reply
  6. Malcolm
    December 20, 2010

    Fudging is not necessarily indicative of the system being bad or the GM making a bad choice. It may happen because of a “bad result” where you “ignore the dice,” (though you usually do not; see below) but this is not integral to the event. It happens with great systems and good choices, too.

    For the most part, boys and girls, the “take the roll” versus “ignore the dice” dichotomy is a false one: an intellectual trap that represents the interests of game designers who’d like to think they utterly dominate the user experience. In this way of thinking, when the system doesn’t exercise uncontested power over the game the design fails, and the designer fails. I will leave the audience to consider what this says about the culture of tabletop RPG design.

    Fudging is the application of social intelligence to the asocial intelligence that went into the game. Game systems are asocial because the book is not a person. It cannot form those adaptive relationships with you.

    In truth, when I’ve interrogated GMs about this the result jibes with my own experience, which is that the dice roll is as often as not still a factor in the eventual judgment. I make dice rolls all the time that lead me to decide “Well, I don’t want this guy to totally go aggro, but a little aggro works,” The dice aren’t getting ignored at all. The quantitative result suggests a qualitative result to being in as an inspiration.

    A system that does not allow us to make use of this dynamic is a system that distrusts its players.

    Should players fudge? I don’t see any reason why not in principle, but I think it would often be damaging as a creative technique, because it’s difficult to identify with your character and be your character’s personal deity at the same time.

    These days I not only fudge, but I often tell players when I fudge. (“I rolled that he’s immediately attack but you guys did pretty well talking to him and that feels like bullshit, so he’s surly.”) Sometimes that works for them, sometimes they argue for the dice result. I don’t always inform players of fudging, but this is usually due to pacing considerations. I might hide rolls for other reasons, such as when it would be annoying to jump between narration and sausage-making, or even (*gasp*) to preserve an “illusion,” because, well, it’s not an illusion — the dice almost always count, even if they don’t count exactly the way somebody who wrote a game somewhere wants me to count them.

    I think the dominant way this is talked about is so poisoned by assuming every GM outside some arbitrary group of gamerati is playing at “Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies!” GMing that it’s hard to see how this legitimate bit of craft works.

    Reply
  7. Chuck
    December 20, 2010

    I never fudge the roll results. I let the player see those. If somehow those results would be utterly detrimental to the story, I simply don’t let the results lie — usually throw in a “but.”

    “Yes, you take a bullet to the chest BUT…”

    And then we let the story dole out some other kind of consequence — a consequence in-theme, a consequence that makes the game MORE interesting, not less.

    — c.

    Reply
  8. Chuck
    December 20, 2010

    I should also add: it’s important (from my view) to try to keep the fudging to a minimum because this isn’t JUST a story we’re talking about. It’s also a game. Games have rules, and if you’re playing that game with those rules, you obviously made a choice to do so — hence, no fudging that isn’t pre-determined by all those at the table.

    — c.

    Reply
  9. EKB
    December 20, 2010

    While we’re adding to ourselves…
    –Player fudging has a mechanic to it.
    –The limits of a fudge are subject to table consensus.

    Complication isn’t necessarily a fudge. One of the traditions we have at the table is that fails have an explanation attached. Based on why the character failed, there will likely be some benefit if the explanation is especially creative. Hardly a fudge, more like adding some extra awesome sauce.

    Character death from a die roll as a reason to fudge is BS. If they’re putting their character in a situation where a single roll is all that lies between character death and survival, then the player is viewing their character as disposable. Fair enough – Blackleaf’s dead. If the GM is forcing the fight to a point where retreat/escape is impossible, then that’s its own form of crap scenario design and beyond the scope of the commentary. And none of this precludes heroic final acts, last words or anything else – a random death can still have meaning.

    Reply
  10. Fred Hicks
    December 20, 2010

    I don’t fudge die rolls themselves (as in change the numbers), but I do occasionally get creative with my interpretation of the numbers that the dice-oracles feed to me.

    Reply
  11. Fred Hicks
    December 20, 2010

    I don’t fudge die rolls themselves (as in change the numbers), but I do occasionally get creative with my interpretation of the numbers that the dice-oracles feed to me.

    Reply
  12. Zachary North
    December 20, 2010

    I do fudge, usually for the same reasons as the above posters: When the results of the roll are extreme in a particularly un-fun way.

    I’d add the caveat that I do my damnest to make sure the players don’t relize I’m fudging it. It signifcantly distracts from my perception of their enjoyment. My deception is probably not successful half as often as I think it is, but I try.

    Reply
  13. Jack Graham
    December 20, 2010

    Making player fudges a resource is a nice alternative.

    Our DM, Than, credits each player one re-roll on major holidays (a few times a year). For a long-running, regular group like ours, it works really well. They’re a precious hold out that you sit on until you really, really need them. I’ve seen them save PCs from death several times. It strikes a balance between fudging and strict, by the numbers play.

    Reply
  14. johnzo
    December 20, 2010

    I try not to fudge anything.

    If one of the outcomes of dice rolling is stupid, then why bother rolling the dice? Instead, just skip directly to the desired outcome.

    Reply
  15. Will Hindmarch
    December 20, 2010

    Sometimes the desired outcome of a roll isn’t solidified in a GM’s heart until after the dice are rolled. (“Yeah, it probably shouldn’t crit Doug’s character. Not now.”) Some dice rolls can give out more than two outcomes, and if three of four outcomes are acceptable, but you roll the one that’s not… what then?

    Why is ignoring a die roll fudging if skipping a die roll is not? Does a rolled die have that much power over us that rejecting its outcome is more significant than denying its chance to weigh in at all?

    A die roll is a piece of information, not an arbiter. Discuss.

    Reply
  16. Shawn
    December 20, 2010

    I’ll “fudge” the dice when the group consensus wants a retcon. So far, it hasn’t been an issue.

    For those who find themselves fudging on a regular basis I have another question: Did you really need to roll? As GM, I try to only ask for rolls when both success and failure are interesting. If / when success is a requirement I’ll either let the player narrate it or phrase the roll as ‘avoiding complications’ rather than succeeding or failing.

    Re: data transparency – Yes, I support data transparency. It doesn’t really make much sense not to – at least not in long term campaigns. As any Information Security professional can tell you, “Obscurity is not security.” You can’t obscure game data used repeatedly from observant players. Why try?

    Reply
  17. Tracy Hurley
    December 20, 2010

    I’m not against fudging dice rolls but I do think that the implications of the act can be a bit more nuanced than they first appear. Much of my opinion was formed through my first system, 4e D&D, and I don’t have a long history of gaming, so take anything I say with a grain of salt.

    By fudging a roll, the player is stating that the outcome they want is more desirable than what random chance would have allowed. That is not necessarily bad. In fact, it might mean the difference between a fun night and a dull and boring one.

    However, it shouldn’t be done lightly. Too often DMs use it to make things too hard or too easy for the players or to protect their darlings. “I can’t let this PC die, the whole adventure arc requires that they live.” The players never feel that sense of fear for their characters or they are railroaded. Fudging too easily becomes a crutch for the DM.

    In addition, some players need a feeling of fairness. Particularly in D&D, DMs ask their players to give up control over their character to the DM and the dice. While it’s true that the DM has far more tools at her disposal, the appearance of an impartial third-party, played by the dice, makes it possible for some groups to function. It’s possible that an individual player doesn’t want to play in a group ruled by the dice, but to just dismiss it annoys me as much.

    Finally, with 4e, fudging hurts some players. The game is about resources. If a player chooses to invest in the ability to have greater control over their destiny, through reroll powers or bonuses to certain die rolls, ignoring the dice altogether can have negative consequences. What happens when a player asks me to reroll a fudged die roll, spending a power to do so? Do I reroll? Do I fudge that one as well? Do I come clean?

    I’d feel much better about fudging if even a bare-bones system or set of agreements existed to support it. That way I won’t be seen as violating the trust of the table and we can still work on crafting a story that surprises the players while being maleable when it counts.

    Reply
  18. johnzo
    December 20, 2010

    A die roll is a piece of information, not an arbiter. Discuss.

    I have a contrary view, based on my preferred game style.

    I want our D&D game to run on consensus. When we don’t have consensus — like, say, when I want the monster to whack a PC and the player doesn’t want their PC to get whacked — then we turn to dice-driven arbitration, with clear outcomes as specified by the rules.

    I’m leery of just overriding this consensus based on my idea of best and worst outcomes. My idea of what’s optimal in the fiction isn’t necessarily what’s truly optimal for anyone else at the table.

    So, I’m like Shawn: if there’s a consensus for a retcon, then we’ll retcon. Otherwise the dice fall as they may.

    I’m also a believer in information transparency because of the efficiency boost it provides. I’ll put out little folded cards with the monster defenses on them, so that I can offload the “compare to-hit roll vs. monster defense” step onto the players. It sounds like a little thing, but it really helps me not have to break my flow.

    Reply
  19. Buzz
    December 21, 2010

    I can’t really remember the last time I fudged a roll. It seems to me that the point of rules is to push play in interesting directions, ones we may niot have envisioned if left purely to fiat. If I find that there is a constant feeling that I need to fudge in order to make the game feel “right”, then either my group has different expectations than the system does, or the system is simply not delivering on what it promised.

    Thankfully, there are a lot of great games out now that both make explicit their goals and provide systems that support said goals.

    Reply
  20. Bradley Robins
    December 21, 2010

    These days I rarely fudge dice rolls. (I can’t think of the last time I did it. Probably within a year, but maybe slightly longer.)

    Mostly this is because in the types of games I play and with the folks I (generally) play with, if I don’t want the mechanics/chance/whatever to have a say in the outcome we don’t roll in the first place. (That we’re not perfect at this identification is why some fudging still happens.)

    If we want something to happen, by collective decision (and all the complicated ways it gets made), then its going to happen. By the time we get around to rolling its usually because we’ve decided that this is a time where we want to let the dice fly and cross a Rubicon. So when the dice roll up shit, that’s shit that we accepted ahead of time could happen.

    This also ties in with the fact that I like games with fuzzy logic rolls, where group interpretation of results is somewhat expected. As Malcolm points out, any game that gives me unilateral results where the dice rolls could come up with something that makes no emotional sense in the context of the moment would lead to me using the dice as a guide but disregarding the fine detail. OTOH, a game that says “they failed their roll, do something TERRIBLE” is going to work for me because then its a matter of personal/group creative inspiration to decide what that terrible thing is.

    I think its notable in this stance that I don’t play many RPGs with a competitive/gamist/whatever agenda anymore. I play games that are more geared around exploration of character, construction of meaning, interpersonal relations, and all that hippy bullshit.

    As close as I get to D&D these days is Castle Ravenloft,and in Ravenloft no one fudges. Because in that game, rhetorically positioned as a board game, “fudging” is “cheating.” However, I have a suspicion that if we were to play D&D 4th (very similar rules set) there would be fudging, simply because the shift in the name of the game/way we think about the game would cause a shift in expectations that would result to us using the dice less as absolute deciders and more as a soft of fuzzy logic guideline.

    Reply
  21. Bradley Robins
    December 21, 2010

    I missed a post before mine!

    Yes, I’d say that for me most of the time, a dice roll is a piece of information and not an arbiter. That’s a nicely concise way of saying what I was groping after above.

    Reply
  22. Ivan
    January 3, 2011

    Sometimes, just sometimes, the mechanic of the roll is relied upon to help the narrative.

    Ages ago in an ADD2Ed game campaign we had a friend in the group who played a paladin – a paladin who managed to break a sword with a critical failure roll in almost every game. It was like a catch-phrase.

    On said paladin player’s last night before moving out of town the DM runs a game with him in mind. A very important and very magical sword is handed to him for the duration of the game.

    You see where this is going. And like clockwork towards the end of the game the paladin character rolls a 1. Player is feeling super guilty as DM describes the breaking of the sword and everyone’s laughing along with him. The DM had *relied* on his crappy roll and his honesty with the roll as it ended up breaking a curse that was tied to the sword and resolving the night’s conflict.

    Sometimes it’s the crappy roll that helps tell the story and moves the story along.

    Reply

Leave a Reply