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Know When to Fudge It, Know When to Let It Go

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Rezmir and her few remaining hit points. (Taken in Roll20 and using art from Hoard of the Dragon Queen.)

In last week’s GnomeCast [2], I talked a bit about reviving my Eberron campaign with Chris and John. At one point, it was referenced that the gunslinger character in the campaign has pretty much killed at least two big bads with a single shot. That got me thinking about one of those incidents and how crucial it is to know when to let players have it easy and when to tweak an encounter to stretch it out.

Fudging rules and dice rolls gets a bad rap for a variety of reasons, some more legitimate than others. Back in the late 80’s when I first started playing, it was generally assumed that any GM fudging dice rolls was doing it to cheat and stick it to the players. Either that or they were doing it to keep the players in line and firmly on the train for their railroaded game. At the best, it was done because the GM was afraid of killing off the PCs. RPGs have matured quite a bit since those stranger days and our conversations about games have matured. To me, the more important question is ‘What will give the players the best experience?’

The most dramatic one-shot the gunslinger pulled off was while the PCs were visiting the Library in Korranberg to get more information on the dragon continent, Argonnessen. They had been sent to speak to a scholar there, but when they arrived he wanted nothing to do with them. He had bigger problems on his little gnome hands and had no time for adventurers trying to get themselves killed going someplace they shouldn’t. Eventually, as they kept pestering him, he agreed to help them if they’d deal with his problem. An artificer had brought a clay golem she had found back from Xen’drik and when she activated it, it killed her and began going on a rampage in the lower levels. It was currently sealed in her laboratory, but no one on hand had the wherewithal to deal with it. If the PCs took care of it, he’d give them they information they were seeking.

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He’s even got little bits of gnome on his feet…

Now, my players are a smart crew. Rather than heading directly down to the laboratory, they took advantage of being in one of Khorvaire’s preeminent repositories of knowledge and quickly learned what they could about golems. Within an hour, they had learned that the golem would be immune to magic and most weaponry, but was susceptible to bludgeoning weapons and adamantine weapons. The moment he heard that, the gunslinger’s face lit up. When he’d originally made the character, he’d outfitted him with adamantine bullets thinking they did more damage than regular ones. When he learned they did not, he switched back to regular ammunition, but never sold off the adamantine bullets. The others were, with the help of a harried librarian curator, able to get their hands on another adamantine weapon and bludgeoning weapons for those that didn’t already have them. They ‘wasted’ an hour preparing but had a better understanding of what they were getting into.

This was designed to be a tough fight. They were a magic heavy group highly dependent on fire and they had a reputation for solving problems by blowing them up with a fireball. The gnome they needed to talk to had already banned them from using fire since they were in a library, but the opponent they had to fight was designed to make them stretch outside of their normal tactics. I never expected them to rush in blindly, but they were quite clever in how they researched information and got themselves prepared. I also never expected how quickly they would win the fight.

The gunslinger had the highest initiative and was the first one through the barricaded door. On his attack, he rolled a 19. With a gleeful grin, he informed me that he had just bought Improved Critical on their last level, so that was a potential crit. The crit was confirmed and in one move, he dealt 89 points of damage to my big, bad, scary monster. This left just 12 hit points for the rest of the party to mop up. The monk and cavalier went next and easily took care of the creature. My pretty golem, with his gnome stained feet, never even got a chance to do more than roar menacingly.

For a brief moment, I considered having a second golem pop out from behind the shelves in the back of the laboratory, but the look on my players’ faces sealed the deal. They were laughing and grinning and they had earned the win and the joy it brought far more than I needed to make the encounter stretch into something it was never intended to be.

“But Ang,” I hear you ask, “You didn’t fudge anything. What are you on about?” This example showed a situation where a GM might have been tempted to fudge things, but it would have probably been less fun for the players. Here’s an example from the other side of the coin.

[4]

I should read it when the campaign is wrapped up.

My friend Jen [5] was running a 5th Ed. D&D game using a modified version of the campaign from Hoard of the Dragon Queen [6]. I have not actually read the book since I was one of her players, but I do know she put a lot of work into modifying it to fit the PCs the players brought to the game. Character backgrounds were deftly woven into the campaign’s story and two players had very intimate reasons for hating the half-dragon Rezmir, one of the primary villains. One player had wanted to play a Warforged monk, so Jen worked the race into the Forgotten Realms setting as Netherese relics. Rezmir and the cultists had gotten their hands on him and another Warforged, but while he played dormant and was able to escape their clutches, his friend was not so lucky. Meanwhile, the barbarian’s brother had been kidnapped by one of Rezmir’s flunkies and Rezmir herself had killed the barbarian’s friend, a wise and kind blue dragon. Our barbarian was not one to let people hurt those she cared for without punishment. Both characters had very passionate reasons for wanting Rezmir dead.

When the PCs finally caught up with Rezmir at Castle Naerytar, they came up with a clever plan to draw her out of the castle and ambush her in the surrounding swamps. It actually worked perfectly, but the two characters who were most invested in seeing Rezmir punished were hampered by low initiative rolls and poor placement on the combat map. In addition, lucky rolls by the paladin and my cleric left Jen with a major villain hanging by a thread before the two characters it mattered most to could even get into the fight.

Jen made the decision to tweak things and stretch the fight long enough so that the monk and the barbarian could get into the fight and get a hit or two on the half-dragon villain. Even though the paladin and my cleric had done a larger share of the damage, the monk was able to get a solid hit in and then the barbarian was able to finish her off with a killing blow, getting revenge for her murdered dragon friend and still missing brother.

What’s more important? Sticking with the dice or giving your players an enjoyable and satisfying experience? On one hand, sticking with the dice as they rolled gave the players a surprising and successful encounter. But on the other, if Jen hadn’t tweaked the combat, two players would have likely been left frustrated and disappointed at a piece of their history getting taken care of without their involvement. Hands down, I’m going to vote for the player experience every single time.

Have you ever fudged a roll or a rule to make sure your players got a good experience? How about a time when the dice surprised you and the players got an easier win than you expected? Tell us about your games!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Know When to Fudge It, Know When to Let It Go"

#1 Comment By NikMak On December 9, 2016 @ 2:18 am

Nice, thanks.

I also make player buy in an issue. in my Pendragon campaign (which currently sleeping, but it will awaken again one day in the future when it is needed) I have informed the players this will be a ‘fudge free zone’ the dice fall where they fall for everyone, all the time. In case you are not aware, Pendragon can be a highly lethal system with death from a single hit a distinct possibility. The PC kill rate in that game is very high… which is OK as the Pendragon setting is more about the family/estate than any individual PC. But the buy-in from day one mitigates (to a certain degree) the pain caused by character death.

In my Marvel super game however, the good guys ALWAYS win. players know we are emulating classic comic book stories and fully expect to save the day. I keep my dice rolls secret *cough*!!Fudge City Baby!!*cough* and everyone is happy 😀

#2 Comment By Angela Murray On December 12, 2016 @ 10:53 am

That’s a very good point about player buy-in. They need to know what type of game they’re buying into. I know I would be very disappointed at a highly lethal super hero game.

#3 Comment By Grzegorz Gacek On December 9, 2016 @ 3:41 am

I’d say that fudging the rolls is a complete, utter nonsense. No exceptions. The most important reason for using the dice is that they introduce the element of uncertainty. If we find this enjoyable (see situation 1 from the article) let’s use the dice. If dice are rolled but the result is meaningless and ignored by the GM the act becomes a pointless waste of energy.

Please mind that there already are several options for people who like the randomness introduced by the dice but want some control over it, like Bennies from the Savage World or Drama Points from 7th Sea. This kind of fudging is fair, because it is a part of the game. It’s regulated by the rules, known and accepted by everyone at the table. With a very little effort it can be added to any game.

If the GM thinks that some outcome of the in-game situation will be more fun for everyone she should simply go for it *without* rolling the dice (if other players agree beforehand to give her such power). This is the only fair way of doing it. I’m not sure if the second situation from the article really shows the benefits of fudging – I’d be more frustrated by learning that my great deed was a result of cheating than if my character wouldn’t be the one dealing the killing blow.

Another thing that makes fudging unnecessary is that the best way of ensuring that the barbarian and the monk have fun is designing the whole adventure in a way that puts them in the spotlight. Make their abilities the most important ones for finding the dragon’s lair and slaying it and try not to allow them to fail to reach the final because of one bad roll. It’s far more difficult then fudging the dice but if done well far more enjoyable (and won’t leave anyone disgruntled).

#4 Comment By Angela Murray On December 12, 2016 @ 11:01 am

Obviously, since I wrote the article, I disagree that the rules against fudging should be absolute, but this is probably also dependent on the people you play with. Everyone I play with would be far more disappointed at not getting the great character moment than knowing the dice were fudged a little.

I appreciate the advice you’ve given, but sometimes hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to look back and think about how you could have done it differently, but sometimes you’re in the thick of the moment and things go sideways. Players often do things that you don’t expect and may not respond the way you hoped to set up certain moments. It’s great to try and plan these things out in advance, but there are times when you have to adjust on the fly.

#5 Comment By Grzegorz Gacek On December 13, 2016 @ 3:33 am

I agree that people are different and everything the players agree on voluntarily is acceptable at the table. But this makes all the questions at the end of the article have the same answer: “it depends on the players” 😉

You mention something I have not initially thought about, that GM can get lost in the heat and realize that some other result would be more fun *after* the roll. I’d say that in such case the intent counts. If that was an “accidental” roll, made simply because the GM was in a rush and with a cooler head she’d have just described the situation without using the dice I wouldn’t call that fudging. In every other case, when GM grabs the dice thinking “I’ll drop those on the table but change the result if it doesn’t fit my purpose” the roll makes no sense as it makes no real difference.

Please also note that the “hindsight is 20/20” is double-edged as it can be applied also to fudging the rolls/situations. Imagine that some GM hastily introduced the second golem in the situation 1, spoiling the moment. What GM thinks of as a “fix” may bring exactly the opposite.

On more thing against fudging: the dice are objective. If the outcome of some situation is determined by the roll it is always fair. GMs decisions are encumbered with all the faults of the human nature. It is hard to be angry on the dice, it is easy to blame GM for some non-entertaining or unfair decision (whether she deserves that or not is a different matter). From that point of view using the dice is “healthier” to the group’s atmosphere.

I can imagine situations where fudging leads to an entertaining moment but is less fun in the long run. Victories are fun, but they fade away quickly, it is often failures which are remembered (which is good, as we should learn from them). The player surely had fun when his character dealt the dragon a killing blow, but maybe if he failed his character would have developed in a more interesting way, which would give him more fun in several adventures ahead?

Many years ago I’ve played a mighty dwarf warrior, who had slain many a powerful foe. But I don’t remember most of them. I do remember however a situation when I’ve failed several (4-5?) ~50% chance Fear checks and my character stood frozen during a dangerous fight with some undead. I was angry as hell but it added so much colour to the next sessions (you can imagine all the jokes ;P) that this memory stayed, while the more “entertaining” had faded. So, sometimes it is the failure that gives most fun 😉

#6 Comment By Silveressa On December 9, 2016 @ 7:06 am

I’ve seen this dilemma from both sides of the table as well. In one of my longer running Sci Fi campaigns I GM weekly, it originally started off as survival horror, with a very real possibility of character death if the dice turned against them. Unfortunately in play, the dice regularly came up abysmally low for the enemies, and without fudging, it wound up making several challenging encounters feel rather toothless, and lead the group into a false sense of confidence that nearly got them killed later on.

Over all though I still feel as if the initial survival horror atmosphere was greatly dampened by the poor results of the enemies dice rolls, and things would have been more suspenseful and challenging in parts had I fudged the rolls some in the favor of the enemy in key places to deliver the horrifying scenario my players were anticipating.

In a supers game I play in, I’ve also seen amazing dice rolls by the villains during a characters moment in the spotlight sabotage their moment of cool, and seriously kill the fun for those players for the rest of the session, (and in one case, permanently effected their over all interest in playing their current char entirely.)

In both of these cases fudging the dice to a certain extent would of made some encounters more fun over all, and paid off in the long run with a better campaign/story rather than “playing it as it lay.”

One compromise I’ve seen done by another player of mine, who also occasionally GM’s, (Hi Carly!) is to have a pool of “fudge dice” available in a reserve pile behind the GM screen. When a roll needs to be fudged to deliver a more satisfying story, she pulls a single die from the pile and adds/subtracts the result from the initial roll in need of modification.

This still keeps a random element to the “fudge” so it’s not the out right “cheating” of arbitrary number reassignment most GM’s do when they alter a die roll behind the scenes. She also limits the pool to a half dozen or less dice per session (usually in the d4-d8 values with one or two d12’s or d20’s depending on the system) and once they’re gone, whatever rolls stands.

#7 Comment By Angela Murray On December 12, 2016 @ 10:54 am

That’s an interesting compromise. I like the randomness it adds in to fudge the dice in one direction or another. How has it worked for her? Does it generally achieve what she was hoping for?

#8 Comment By Silveressa On December 12, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

It seems to have worked out very well in her games, since it adds a bit of an encounter safety net when the dice come up unexpectedly (un) Lucky either side of the GM screen without being too heavy handed on tilting the scales.

Another trick I recent heard of from another gamer friend is to take a page from D&D 5th ed’s rules and add an extra die to the mix in those situations and use the best/worst of the 2 rolls when you need to fudge things. Keeps the variable in play and offsets the unnatural good/bad string of luck that original die is being effected by.

#9 Comment By Lee Hanna On December 10, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

Usually not the die rolls, but sometimes the stats. Just yesterday, I was running a one-player game, and the player (and henchperson) decided to jump an NPC that was somewhat out of their league. I had written down one AC number for this guy, but there was a different one in the original text. I went with the worse one, to even things out a bit. It became a nail-biting thing for the PC, who was in a chokehold before the henchperson returned to the fight and scored a critical-hit backstab to end the fight.

I also remembered one time wherein I started fudging so that a brand-new player wouldn’t lose her first PC in a combat very early in a campaign. I rolled great, she rolled awful, and she was out of reach of the rest of the party and into negative hp, before her initiative even came up. One-shotting a character on her 2nd or 3rd time at the table, when it had been entirely random who got hit, seemed a Bad Thing.

#10 Comment By Angela Murray On December 12, 2016 @ 10:56 am

I’ve never had to fudge an overpowered villain down, but I have had to fudge one up a notch or two, simply because I underestimated how effective the PCs would be.

I think fudging to keep a brand new player in the game is a reasonable point to do it. You don’t want to alienate a player simply by making her first experience traumatic. 🙂