I saw a twitter post today about fudging rolls. It’s not like I don’t typically see people asking questions like this on the daily, but there was just something about seeing it as a yes/no poll that kinda set me off on wanting to talk about it? I tried to do a messy 20-tweet-long rant until I realized: wait, this is why I have a fucking blog for this stuff.
Alright so anyway.
My main point: Fudging rolls are complicated! It can’t be summarized as a yes/no binary!
What I mean by this is that there’s no definitive ‘you should fudge’ vs ‘you should never fudge’ because there’s honestly a time and place for each.
Fudging dice rolls, for anyone unaware of this, is the act of rolling a value then either finding reasons to reroll it OR outright lying about the result.
While it is typically associated with gamemasters, it isn’t exclusive to them. I’ve seen plenty of players roll dice off tables then see the result to only decide between “it fell off so I’ll reroll it” and “oh hey a 17!” This can also come up when a die rolls on an uneven surface and the answer changes between “the 13 is more face-up than the 1” and “we should just reroll.” Sometimes a player will even just roll a poor result and go “oh sorry, the die slipped” or “I rolled wrong” and reroll it. This doesn’t even cover playing online and having people roll physical dice when everyone else agreed to roll digital. Yeah, I don’t doubt you can roll 19s, but when you roll 3 nat20s in a single night and have failed nothing, even the most trusting of individuals are going to squint their eyes at this.
When a gamemaster(GM henceforth) does it, it’s typically assumed that they’re doing it because the game is more engaging if a certain result occurs. I’ll be honest in saying that a boss missing 4-times in a row isn’t very interesting and that I, personally, will just have them hit once in a while to make it resemble even a modicum of a challenge.
But neither explanation of ‘why we fudge dice’ is the point of the article.
Secondary point: If the game has no meaning, you shouldn’t be playing!
I don’t really talk about it much but I’m a big fan of the show Community. In season 2 there was this one episode where the study group picks up a game of Dungeons & Dragons in order to cheer up Fat Neil(actual character name). One line, in particular, stood out to me when Pierce stole the Sword of Ducain and ran off with it, and Jeff asked if the DM could just kill Pierce and give back the sword:
“I’m the Dungeon Master, I have to be impartial or the game has no meaning.”
— Abed, Community S2E14 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
I still think about that line.
What is the point of a game?
– To have fun with your friends? You can play video games or other activities to the same effect.
– To experience a good story? Go read a book.
– To feel emotions? I can enjoy a sad movie EASY.
Honestly, there’s some combined amalgamation of engagement and enduring interest in the shared narrative, as well as the idea that the choices you make matters, that make the game worth it—to me, at least. There’s a kind of unwritten social contract that player and GM enter that they’re making choices that ultimately have some sort of meaning in the grand scheme of things. You’re not just trying to tell a story: you’re trying to tell a story together.
If a single player wanted to have complete control of the narrative-spotlight and go on a quest entirely about him coming to terms with his destiny, yeah sure he can do it but if the others aren’t on board then they’re being kind of an asshole. In the same vein, if a GM wanted to tell their story without player engagement, then they should write a fucking book. The meaning comes from that we all agree to go at this together and allow the Fates to decide when we have no clue where to go with a narrative.
I think fudging rolls, at least in the most common case of ‘wanting to succeed instead of fail’, breaks that narrative contract. It’s saying to everyone “fuck the promise we had to share this together, my victory narrative is way more important.” Note that that’s mostly targeted towards players. In the case of players: I don’t think there’s a single case where a player should fudge a roll.
A GM, however…
So yeah, I know I was JUST talking about how the point of the story should be the shared narrative element of it, that no one should be pushing their narrative above the others, and that if the GM wanted to push their story instead of players they should write a book. But also there’s a plausible exception to all of this: the GM should fudge rolls only to enhance the player’s narratives.
What I mean by that is that I don’t think a GM should ever fudge rolls to push characters into a narrative by force. I don’t make all of a Boss’ attacks hit or crit because I want the players to lose. I make a Boss’ attack hit because they’ve missed 4-times in a row and the players are starting to get bored. In that same vein, if I’m rolling, say, a death save for an NPC, I might choose to have it succeed or fail based on whether that’ll be more engaging for the players. Succeed, so they have a few last words. Fail, to have a tragic death that was ‘too soon.’
As a quick aside: I will never EVER fudge a die that rolled the minimum or max value. In d20 systems, the nat20/nat1 is a sign that the Fates(if you so choose to believe in em) have decided this should/n’t be ignored. In World of Darkness or Savage Worlds, where dice explode, this could be sealing the fate of a character and the GM shouldn’t be pushing that onto the players.
Another case of GM dice fudging that I do actively enjoy is what I call the ‘Withstanding Blow’, or: increasing or lowering the damage to be more engaging to the narrative. If a player has 27 hp and I rolled 29 on a fireball, I sometimes might ‘make it only roll 26.’ This still has the players placed into a bad position, but gives the players one last chance to change the scene’s outcome. Maybe they go in for a strike, hoping it’ll be just enough and they can feel like a badass. Maybe they run, hoping to live to see another day.
I love those kinds of situations because you can truly see the mettle of a character(or at the very least the person playing them).
What was my point again?
I suppose I’m saying that, at the end of the day, fudging dice rolls isn’t some yes/no poll. No, players should probably never be doing it. Yes, sometimes the GMs should sometimes do it but only if it enhances and lifts other people. But also no, they shouldn’t do it to push a narrative onto the players because failing to be impartial is destructive to the whole point of playing tabletops.
Good lord, I almost tweeted all of this too.