On the Benefits of Fudge

No, not that kind of fudge.  Get out of this thread and into your local Kilwan’s Chocolates. Dam fudgies.

No, I’m talking about fudging in a roleplaying game.

At one point, Matt and I were talking about the use of GM screens. I can’t remember ever seeing used as indented since I started gaming in the ’90s (and back then we were all cheap, and used the top half of the Axis & Allies box). Most of the time somebody brings one along only for quick reference, not to hide rolls. (Dark Heresy screens are a necessity; White Wolf games, not so much.) Matt was wondering why people don’t use them as heavily any more, and in response, I postulated that it’s a change in perspective regarding GM fudging; alter the main reason to have a screen—to keep the GM’s rolls hidden—and that alteration affects how screens are used.

There’s been a big backlash against GM fudging, and the shift is taking things farther and farther away from the screen’s origin. Originally it was a way to add distance and mystery to the referee: the GM is important, the GM rolls for things you shouldn’t know about, hence the barrier between GM and player. The downside was that some people used this as an excuse to cheat: keeping notes and rolls hidden in order to keep the game going where they wanted it to go, giving them an edge over their players. (Yes, this would be the adversarial GM, the guy nobody likes and everybody has at least run into once.)

The only person I’ve seen who used a screen in recent memory was for the terrible D&D game Matt and I played in, and he fit the cheating, adversarial GM to a T. He had a pair of identical dice which he called his “player-slayers,” which would always happen to roll 18s. (Or higher.) What he thought nobody noticed was that he’d set up one with an 18 showing and just roll the other one behind the screen. He also had a habit of rolling better-than-average damage. Things like that.

So a lot of gamers have moved away from screens because of the preponderance of fudge; most games and gamers I’ve known roll out in the open. It’s a common habit for many GMs to fudge: roll the dice, decide it’s better for some reason to choose a different number, and go with that. And there are weird crusades against this kind of GM on the internet. Most opinions fall into three categories:

1.) If you’re rolling dice but not taking the dice’s result, even if it means my character dies, why bother using dice at all? The dice should dictate the game/story, leaving everything to random chance, because that’s how the best games go.

2.) Fudging is a totally acceptable helper in the GM’s toolkit, and should be used as frequently as the GM decides is correct in order to help guide the story/group/campaign into where it properly should be. The Gamemaster, not the dice, dictates the story/game, because that’s how the best games go.

3.) The GM should rarely, if at all, alter what the dice have rolled, usually in order to make sure lower-level characters can survive. Instead the GM should modify numbers and results outside of random chance: increase/decrease the number of monsters, their hit points, or the damage dealt, for example. There should be a balance between random luck influencing the game, but the GM should be there to make sure the party doesn’t have to suffer through long runs of bad luck, because that’s how the best games go.

I’m kind of at a loss as to how and why there is so much vitriol on the subject of fudging—well, gamers and the internet explains a lot. A lot of it comes back to The Golden Rule (something the people on the White Wolf forums love to bitch back and forth over), and what exactly game mechanics are: set in stone, or flexible guidelines which can be rolled around in order to provide the best gaming experience. Needless to say, I’m a supporter of the latter: the Golden Rule is there for a reason, people show up to games for a reason, and it’s the GM’s job to make things as fun (or interesting, or complicated, or whatever your cup of tea is) as possible.

It is, of course, a trust thing, and dependent on personality. There’s also a huge debate about “running a story” and “running a series of loosely interconnected events which were planned prior by a third party.” (Not just the semantics, but the idea that the GM “railroading”/manipulating things because it’d be fun or fit the story is a good/bad idea.) Trust is important for gamers—we didn’t trust our D&D DM to do anything fun or non-adversarial, and left his game—and I can see why there’s such a hate against GM fiat. (Not that I support it, or think it’s a bit inane, but I can see it.) It’s a lesson in finding the right group for your game.

As for fudging… by rolling openly in front of other people, nine times out of ten, there’s no way to fudge, so I don’t. Some times I’d really, really like it if a monster’s special ability or feature went off—because it’d be fun, or make things challenging, or so that the monster won’t die in two rounds—but it doesn’t stop me from rolling with the dice. That said, I have fudged every once in a while; usually it didn’t break anything, or didn’t matter to begin with. The last time I thought about fudging was running Legacy of Fire, when an undead’s symbol of discord ability went off; as the PCs had been making Will saves with DCs of 24 and 26 with regularity, a DC 19 looked pitiably small, so I thought about bumping it up. Turns out I didn’t have to after all; their highest roll was a twelve. Hilarity (and another Yantar the Monk death) ensued.

I’d align myself closest with the third opinion on fudging. There’s a lot of trust the players are putting into you not to cheat or screw them over, but more important, you have to make things fun but challenging. Most of what I ended up fudging in Legacy was enemy hit points and spell selection, in my attempts to make monsters survive more than the surprise round, which couldn’t even slow the PCs down. Currently in Serpent’s Skull, I end up adding monsters to make up for the stupid-large party (and the Slow track). I felt somewhat vindicated when I saw James Jacobs mention on the Paizo forums that it’s a perfectly valid tactic and something they did in their games.

Fudging is generally a bad tactic—usually, but not always, it’s lumped in with “rookie mistakes” and “adversarial GMing” and “I’m the GM this is MY story” kind of crap. But there are many times some kind of fudging or Handwavium is necessary, like adding health or quietly doing away with a few extra fire giants. (The latter happens real easy when it’s 3AM and you’re not using a battlemap.) When the PCs are lower level, or running at half-strength, or are otherwise disadvantaged, I’ll fudge to get them to survive… until they’ve learned the good heal spells or have ample medkits, at which point they’re on their own. That said, I don’t pull punches when blatant stoopid is involved: deciding your third-level characters can “take” a T-Rex or purple worm will earn your the requisite three “Are you sure you want to do that?” questions; then you’re free to become worm food. And I consider increasing the opposition a valid tactic—reinforcements, max health, or whatever—if the PCs are consistently having too easy a time. Having a few pushover fights is fun and good for player morale; having a non-challenging campaign is no fun to run nor play in.

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