What is Dice Fudging?
So, what does it actually mean to, “fudge dice,” in a tabletop rpg? When the gm ignores a dice roll, or ignores the result in favor of something they want to have happen, the gm is fudging the dice. Before we can really go into that, let’s establish a base line. When do we roll dice in an rpg? A friend of mine once put it thusly, “We roll dice when you and I disagree about the outcome of an action.” That sounds pretty simple, but as gm’s we often call for dice rolls that don’t actually mean anything. I’ve been guilty of this many times. Sometimes we do it as a place holder, or to buy time to figure things out. This if often the case of things like perception checks. But if a particular roll is meaningless, why have the roll at all? If we agree about what’s happening and what’s going to come out of it, why roll at all? Sometimes we call for rolls because we think we’re supposed to. A player says, “I search the room, what do I find,” and we call for a perception check. But why? Why did we ask for that roll? Because it seems logical, they’re searching therefore we must have a die roll right? But no, if them finding the loot isn’t dramatically relevant why bother with the dice roll? To increase tension over something that doesn’t matter? So, if we’re only going to roll dice when it matters, why cheat?Why lie about it?
Why do GM’s Fudge Dice?
GM’s usually cite the following reasons when they fudge dice:
- It made the story better.
- It made the game more enjoyable for everyone.
- The player had failed at several rolls and was getting frustrated.
- It would have killed their character senselessly.
If we take a moment to think through what’s actually being said it really comes down to a couple of things. First, the gm has a story they’re telling and the die roll didn’t fit into that story line. Second, they didn’t want to risk upsetting a player with having something negative happen to them.
Why is that Wrong?
The first one assumes that the gm is the storyteller, and the players are riding along and absorbing that story. But that assumes that the story is something that the gm brings into the game at the outset, and that ultimately the player’s actions have no meaning unless they serve the story of the gm is trying to tell. That seems contra-indicative to what an rpg is. An rpg is a game in which the participants come together to create a story collaboratively. Which seems to preclude the notion of the gm coming into the game with a story to tell. A lot of gm’s think that because we do a lot of game preparation, and spend a lot of time coming up with npc’s, monsters, plot lines, treasures, and such that we’re telling a story to the players, but that’s not accurate. What we’re doing as gm’s is setting the stage. Instead of thinking of ourselves as storytellers, it’s more accurate to think of ourselves as stage managers. We’re setting things up, and filling in all the little bits, and making sure that things come off well, while the players are telling the story. But what does that have to do with fudging dice? Well, if we shift our thinking to say that we’re not responsible for telling a story, now we don’t have to try to control what happens. Our responsibility becomes making what the players do, and what the dice say to be meaningful rather than driving some underlying story. So, instead of fudging a dice roll we find a way to make that dice roll meaningful and evocative.
The second one assumes that the player was going to get mad about the result of the roll. Firstly, that’s kind of a slap in the face of the player isn’t it? Oh, you were going to get mad, and give me grief and a hard time and make the evening less fun for everyone else because your character failed at something or something bad happened to your character, so I’m not going to do that. Taken in that context, wow, that’s really insulting. This is in part an outgrowth of the binary nature of some games. You either succeed and get what you want, or you fail and you don’t. But those aren’t the only options we have as gm’s we can do other things with the results of a die roll because that is in our purview as the gm. We do get to say what that dice roll means and how we use it. Which does lead us into a somewhat fuzzy grey area. Ok, I just rolled a critical hit on a player character, but what does that mean? Or better yet, what could come out of it? I’m about to do 900 points of damage on your poor little 3rd level monk. This is not going to be a happy day for them. Ok, they are so dead, but how can we use that more evocatively in the evolving fiction than to just say, “Well, you’re dead, best start rolling up a new character, sucks to be you.” One of the best tools that I have found for this sort of situation is to hand it off to the player, let them decide how that plays out for their character. For starters, I’ll be good money that they will be harder on their character than I was going to be. Also, it’s their narrative, they own it, they deserve to be the one to say what happens. We haven’t fudged the dice, we haven’t invalidated the roll, we’ve handed the narrative off to the person directly impacted by it.
If a player is going to get upset by the result of a die roll, you have a different problem, and one that has nothing to do with the dice, or the game, and everything to do with people. It’s outside the scope of this article to go into that, but let me just offer this. Have a grown up adult conversation with people. Also, that emotion might be perfectly valid, it’s a question of what are they going to do with it? I’ve been the player who rolled fail after fail after fail in a game, and yes, it’s frustrating. It’s annoying to fail over and over again at the thing we’re supposed to be good at. That sucks, and we’ve all failed in those moments, I know I have. But, it’s up to us as hopefully mature human beings to look for a way to turn that string of failures at least into something interesting and evocative. (Your humble author is still working on that himself.)
I’m not going to talk about fudging dice as cheating because each of us has to decide for ourselves whether what we’re doing is right wrong or indifferent. My assertion is that dice fudging isn’t necessary, and it puts the emphasis on the wrong thing which is this, It’s not about success or failure, but what we as players and gamers make out of it. Also, listen to the voice of the dice, they may very well be leading you someplace far more interesting than where you intended to go.
Have fun, and keep rolling.