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Recipe for Fudge, part 1: Exposition

As mentioned on GnomeStew’s Facebook [1] page, I committed an act of fudge last game. I’m not terribly proud of it, but it’s done, and has given my group a lot to talk about (and given me a lot to write about). I’ve got a few articles of material here, so this one is primarily about what happened, and why.


Without telling you all about my campaign, a few facts are pertinent.


The party jumped through, checked the immediate room, and had a tough time opening the door to the next room (no handles on this side of the “pull to open” door). Finally prying it open, they saw that a heapin’ helpin’ of badness awaited on the other side: dozens of skeletons, a few lesser demons, one major demon, and two Shepherds (undead priests of the Dark One).

Pictures added. They’re from an iPhone, so excuse the quality…

[2] [3]

This was (and should have been) a tough fight. Looking at it from the Bad Guys’ side, they knew that someone had managed to escape through a portal, possibly with Something Important, and had good reason to suspect that he might return, or that he might have come back for Something Important.


The fight started well; the two casters handily dealt with all but one of the skeletons, and the party focused their fire on the major demon. The major demons are supposed to be badass, and their ability to go Berserk (+2 to Fighting, Strength, and Toughness; ignore all Wound penalties) makes them nigh invulnerable.

One of the things that sets Savage Worlds apart from most games is its highly random nature. Goblin Mook #37 can take out Immortus the Godlike with one hit, if the dice say so. And tonight, the dice (and even the initiative cards) were on the GM’s side.

So when one Shepherd summoned another major demon into the rear echelon of the party, it got ugly. When said demon one-shotted the arcanist into unconsciousness, it was all over but the crying.

The party did not give up, however. As badass as the demons were, a Shepherd took the party’s tank from uninjured to death’s door in one hit. The party finally started to focus on the Shepherds, but the dice were having no part of it. One Shepherd made three Incapacitation checks, and stayed standing.


As I watched the damage-dealers fall one after another, followed by five months of established story (and untold months of background prep), with no escape for the party, I decided that Something Must Be Done.

In a movie, the action would freeze, and my thoughts would be voiced for the audience to understand what I was thinking. Doubts began to race past… Did I overestimate the party’s abilities? Were the demon’s defenses just too much? Had I forgotten anything? For those who consider fudging as a sign of weakness, this is where I blinked.

I gave the party a fighting chance. And they’re not out of the woods just yet. Most of them are suffering from permanent injuries (reduced speed, reduced stats, etc). They are deep in hostile territory, and have been spotted by reinforcements.


As far as fudges go, this was not a major one, but it was a fudge nonetheless. And I’m not terribly proud of it.

Did I do the right thing? After fretting over it for almost a week, I still don’t know, but it’s done. I’ll have more analysis of this over the next week or so.

What about you? Do you have any dark episodes of fudging in your past? How do you feel about them? Do you regret not fudging when you had the chance? Are you up front with your fudging, or do you keep it hidden? Sound off in the comments, and let us know!

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Recipe for Fudge, part 1: Exposition"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On April 21, 2010 @ 2:34 am

It seems natural for a berserk rage to run out — I’m not sure your players would even notice that was a fudge. That’s far better than fudging the dice would have been. I say you did a good job. Your players didn’t deserve a TPK, because they didn’t knowingly take on all the risk — you kind of set them up for it.

#2 Comment By Rafe On April 21, 2010 @ 6:54 am

If I remember correctly, you (Kurt) are the indie RPG gnome. Not to start some kind of war, but that tells me you like specific systems as vehicles for player-driven story.

If that’s your goal, would it have been accomplished by destroying the party at a long-awaited, story-focused, and pivotal moment? Some might be okay with it, but would your players have been okay with it?

Just as important, would you have been okay with them failing horribly? If the answer to either of those questions is “no,” then you did the right thing.

(For what it’s worth, I also think you did the right thing. I play BW almost exclusively and there’s nothing worse than watching a player fail a Steel test in combat when I’ve got a Set/Great Strike coming up… especially when the player has been totally strategic in his/her scripting. Sometimes shit happens, but sometimes it doesn’t need to.)

#3 Comment By Lychess On April 21, 2010 @ 8:15 am

I would have gone for the old knock em on the head and lock em up for torture approach, but that’s just me. Your fudge isn’t bad in and of itself, but making a habit of it will give the players a sense of invulnerability that isn’t good for plot development.

Right now there is a certain amount of “We should have died and the GM let us off” in the group. They can smell the fudge, even if they don’t know the recipe. Your choices are to ignore it (which will make the party more overconfident) or you can beat the stuffing out of them next adventure. There is nothing wrong with an adventure that ends with the party running for their lives or being captured. In fact those adventures are the ones that add tension and fear to the campaign. Just be careful. Players don’t like to lose.

#4 Comment By Svisionguy On April 21, 2010 @ 9:08 am

I am one of the players in Kurt’s group. I am also very much against fudging in any form (If the DM has not made some drastic mistake). Having been there and experienced the carnage first hand I can say that to the best of my knowledge Kurt did nothing wrong, save for rolling to well 😛

We got into the position due to poor tactics and poorer rolls, but thats the “nature of the game.”

The general feel from the player side, at least as I see it is that the fudge was obvious, our characters were going to die. Some members were “OK” with it some weren’t. I am the new guy to the group and I don’t have as much time vested in the story as the rest of the party so I can see how it may bother me a little more that the others. I am also new to the system and I am “That guy” who likes to switch character and builds to learn the ins and outs, which also contributes to my feelings about the fudge.

All-in-all, I have gamed with Kurt for over 5 years, he is a good gamer and DM so I trust him when he says it won’t happen again, so I am now OK with the decision as it makes the party happy in the long run.

Just a warning though Kurt…There is a Shape Changing 1/2 Orc Druid wandering around out there somewhere and he wants some action!!!!

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 21, 2010 @ 9:19 am

The article has been updated with pictures…

[4] – I’m not a fan of fudging myself, but what’s done is done.

One advantage to being a shape changing half-orc who wants some action: Your possibilities for dating are pretty much endless, and it’s not as if half-orcs are choosy. 😉

#6 Comment By Svisionguy On April 21, 2010 @ 9:30 am

I think I’ll give him the Quirk hindrance and make him have a Squelf Fetish >:) [5]

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 21, 2010 @ 9:37 am

[6] – I wouldn’t call myself the “Indie Gnome” as much as “The Gnome Who Prefers To Use Some Indie Elements In His Traditional Gaming”. 😉

That said, my definition of “fun” generally means that story trumps mechanics. But there is an element of trust that I violated. The ends may outweigh the means, but the means are not cool in and of themselves.

Y’all keep talking; I’ve got a yard to mow…

#8 Comment By kenmarable On April 21, 2010 @ 9:48 am

Preferences of course vary, but personally, that sounds like a typical week for me. 🙂

Probably my most common fudge is when a player does something spectacular – either really bold or clever move or incredible rolls, and leave the monster with just an utterly trivial amount of hit points/life/whatever left, I just roud down and let it fall dramatically. 99% of the time, that’s far more satisfactory for everyone than having the next player just get a simple hit on it and not even need to bother rolling damage. That’s too anticlimatic, and I will often (but not always) fudge that last little bit.

Well, I don’t do major fudges every week, but it’s pretty common in my games. However, I have the important flip side that if a fight is supposed to be big and important to the story, and it is becoming too easy (in a not-fun way, as opposed to a “We ROCK!!” way, there’s a definite difference), then I definitely fudge in the other direction and make things more difficult for the players.

Personally, I see it as the mechanics are there to help everyone have fun. If the mechanics ever get in the way of the fun, then it’s the fun that wins.

But I also realize that not all players or GMs feel the same and think bending the rules spoils the fun (as apparently you and your group). I’ll admit that it’s completely foreign concept to my brain, but if you enjoy the game that way, then go right ahead and enjoy it. Plus stepping outside of your viewpoint and fudging this once (or in my case occassionally not fudging even when I really want to) helps us learn and improve our skills.

#9 Comment By Nojo On April 21, 2010 @ 11:51 am

Unseen fudging doesn’t bother me at all. As long as play is fun, which includes risky and challenging, and the players don’t know it’s a fudge, it’s all good in my book.
From what you’ve written, the players were looking at each other, and saying, “Oh my god, it’s a TPK!” Then, suddenly it wasn’t. That’s the problem.
One idea, would be to fight on at full power. Drop them all!
Score *how* dead they are. Negative hit points would work. Or make them all roll some test. The player(s) who are the deadest are indeed dead.
The others wake up as prisoners with a view of the dead player(s).
“The master said killing you in battle would be too good for you. This one” the minion points to the dead player “got away easy.”

#10 Comment By evil On April 21, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

I’ve done my fair share of fudging adventures, especially when the entire party is on the line. I can story away one or two characters being completely dead, but a whole party….probably not. Luckily, bad guys tend to be overconfident jerks who like to string people along, so my favorite type of fudging comes with the complete beatdown and gloat method.

The PCs were well matched to this villain, but just couldn’t roll a hit to save their lives (literally). The bad guy, in a fit of sadism, began healing the players one at a time and then beating them back down until my players figured out that they could use this against the baddie.

I think the most important thing isn’t that you fudged, but in the end that you made your fudging mostly believable.

#11 Comment By cwhite616 On April 21, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

I’m a total sucker for fudge. (Hmm… Best not repeat that line to my wife.) I’d love to say that I can be a hardass at times, or even take the moderate stance that a GM’s privilege to fudge is related to some function of mechanics and social contract. The truth is, though, that I seem to want to see the end of the story as badly as my players. I try to avoid impossible situations… if the dice give me these, I can’t help myself but to fudge.

Nojo says “unseen fudging doesn’t bother me at all…” In other words, what you aren’t aware of can’t bother you. Of course, players who succeed on their perception checks will figure out that you are a fudging GM when nothing ever goes wrong for the players. The key, in my experience, has been to include the players in the choice when things get impossible. Pick a player who likes to make new characters, tell her that she sees a way to create a possible escape for her allies at great personal risk, and see what commences. Perhaps she takes the challenge, perhaps another player does, or perhaps no one does and they all die. In any case, they had some choice in how to react to their fate.

One group I regularly play with that is unusually attached to their characters began playing with a “death flag” rule. Each player had a literal flag on a pole that lay on its side in front of them. When the flag was “down,” they could not die. They could be knocked unconscious, kidnapped, etc… but unless they took a clearly suicidal action (which would be identified by the GM when they announced their action), their character would be around for the next session. Characters could raise their death flag, which would give them a mechanical benefit (extra action points, refreshing daily actions, exploding sixes, what have you), but it would make the characters “mortal.” If they die, they die. And, once raised, the death flag must remain up until whatever passes for an extended rest.

The death flag system has fudge built into it–it is a sort of social contract that the players are certain to get fudge when they order fudge. And the mechanical benefit to the daredevils allows players inclined to live on the edge to be even edgier, which is something they often prefer. Lastly, since the flag is a physical object in front of the players, it makes it somehow easier to ask the question of surviving players who lose all their hit points for their idea of how the situation might be handled.

It doesn’t sound like you did much wrong beyond letting your players see you sweat. And if the goal is to tell a good story… well, you’ve got me interested in hearing what happens next. Keep us posted!

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On April 21, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

It’s tricky, and you’re clearly thinking about setting precedents. It sounds like it was obvious to the players– but the reluctance comes through clearly too, so hopefully they won’t come to count on it.

If they do come to expect it, they might be surprised when you don’t ease off the throttle next time.

#13 Comment By Sarlax On April 21, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

My group currently has two 4E games: One run by me, the other run by another GM (Don, of the Stew). We’ve recently had a number of dragon fights that, to me, remind me why I deeply dislike fudging and make me pleased so pleased that it didn’t (seem) to come into play.

In the first encounter, we fought the first portion a tough battle against a green dragon and some of its minions. There was some … disagreement amongst the players about our ability to survive. We hadn’t been bloodied (half health for those who don’t know), but some were down on some major abilities. One PC started surrendering, and after some painful ransom, we left.

For me, there were two sides to my feelings about that outcome. First, I hated it from a roleplaying side, and it was very frustrating simply as a gamer to give up something. Second, it was refreshing that we as players all implicitly assumed that our GM was not pulling any punches at all. One faction wanted to escape because they were certain that if we remained, it would have been a TPK. I wanted to stay, confident in victory, and victory would have been oh so sweet against such a truly tough fight. All of the ups and downs of this encounter would have been a waste if our victory was assured through fudging.

In the next session, we teleported into the monster’s lair, ready to fight again. The fight last five hours of real time and felt even tougher. When we finally killed the dragon, we were able to savor our victory all the more because the stakes were real: If we’d screwed up, we would have died.

In the most recent session, we battled a different dragon under different circumstances. In this case, we trounced the monster in what was probably our fastest fight in months (if not the whole campaign). We opened with strong tactics and had luck on our side: The dragon was dead in three rounds and only one us had taken damage – and it wasn’t much.

Again, it was a very satisfying battle. Many GMs, upon seeing our great luck, would have asspulled another monster or introduced some other element to “heighten the drama,” which would have had the secondary effect of making our tactics and luck meaningless. As a player, I’m very happy with how our GM managed all of these recent, major fights.

As a GM, I’m very fudge-averse. I always roll my dice in the open, unless there’s a screen covered in notes I need to see, but that rarely happens now, as I use my laptop to manage my campaign. In an open DC system like 4E D&D, that makes it pretty much impossible to fake results. If I roll a 12 and it hits in round 1 but not in round 2, the players know something is up.

My objection to fudging is that it fundamentally diminishes the impact of player choice on two levels. On the tactical level, the level of combat and encounters, it diminishes the choices made by players to achieve a specific success. On the design (or strategic) level, it weakens the choices players made in the way they have created their characters.
Arbitrarily making a monster resist damage (or have higher defenses, giving it more health, etc.) after witnessing the damage output of a PC is cheap: It steals from the player the output of their clever choices. Weakening monsters in the face of poor choices by players, on the other hand, destroys the value from the successes they do manage to achieve.

Now, I recognize that the posted instance isn’t the same kind of case to which I’ve referred. It seems an effort to correct what might have been a GM error is estimating difficulty. Admirable intent, but then again, doesn’t almost all fudging come from good intentions?

Not to inflate the importance of what is just a point of view about how to play pretend at a table (we’re all in this to have fun), but there would have been two legitimate ways to handle this situations that don’t involve breaking the rules. The choice of which to use depends on why the TPK seemed to be manifesting.

Did the GM make an important error regarding the mechanics? For instance, was the demon’s rage only supposed to last for a turn, but instead went for half of the fight (not the case above, but presented for the hypothetical). Did the GM simply underestimate the toughness of the encounter? Did the *players* make an error in their tactics?

If it’s a result of bad rules implementation, I feel the appropriate response is to disclose it, either retconning the situation if it was singular (EG, the GM calculated damage to be twice was it should have been in last attack, killing the PC as a result), or gradually correcting the circumstance if it was persistent (the GM has been counting the monster defenses as being higher than they should be). In either instance, the GM should disclose the error to the players when he discovers it. Roleplaying is a cooperate endeavour, and it’s only reasonable to collude on decisions about to keep the game fair and fun.

If the GM or players have miscalculated but the mechanics are sound, I think it’s time for Plan B. What’s Plan B? It’s whatever *story and setting appropriate* result is a logical outcome of a botched encounter that doesn’t wreck the setting. Rather than changing the rules midstream, plan for orderly resolution of potential failed encounters.

For instance, in the case of the posted battle, is it inconceivable that the PCs might have been captured by the victorious demon rather than simply slain outright? Without knowing the details, I think it’s reasonable to assume that even a bloodthirsty but intelligent monster might have cause to keep his enemies alive – which gives them in the next adventure a chance to make a daring escape.

The other GM in my game did this in our battle with the green dragon (and quite likely later with the bronze dragon). In advance, he’d built into the encounter a way for us to negotiate or to surrender.

In a recent session of mine, a terrorist had sabotaged a train to accelerate dangerously into a populated section of a city; the PCs needed to stop the train or see hundreds of lives lost. I expected them to succeed, but I didn’t know for certain. Instead of making the story one in which failure was not an option, I allowed them the chance to not prevent the attack, but the campaign would have gone on. Had the train approached to closely, they would have been able to bail out, taking damage to their bodies and pride in the process, but living to fight another day.

The great thing about Plan B outcomes is twofold: First, it’s in keeping with the tradition of adventure stories by which most RPG games inspired. When Merry and Pippin are separated from the Fellowship, they aren’t immediately killed but instead taken hostage. When Indy is betrayed by Elsa, he’s interrogated instead of shot.

Second, they allow the PCs to truly own theirs wins and losses. Triumph is hollow if it’s handed on a fudge platter or delayed with fudge hurdles.

#14 Comment By J Gregory On April 22, 2010 @ 5:00 am

I don’t find it as tempting to fudge with Savage Worlds as it was in D&D. The Incapacitation rules mean that even if I put a PC down, there’s a reasonable chance she’s not dead, whereas in D&D, once you’re out of hit points, it’s pretty much Good Night Irene. So, as long as there looks like there’ll be at least one ally left to pick up the pieces when the dust settles, I try to let the dice fall as they may.

I used to find that the long hit-point grind in 3.5 gave me lots of time to think about how it was all going pear-shaped, and before I knew it I’d started to fudge a little without realising it or really intending to. With SW, it seems like the TPK collapse would happen much more suddenly (correct me if I’m wrong – I haven’t had it happen yet…), and would be harder to wriggle out of.

Of course, you can always offer the party the chance to surrender – even if only to torture. This way, if they refuse, you can plaster them without guilt. If they surrender, then there’s another interesting plot opportunity, and I haven’t ruined someone’s cherished character.

On a different note, Telas is someone whose advice and wisdom have been invaluable for my SW GMing, and I find it very heartening to learn that he occasionally has these problems too 😉

#15 Comment By Mark On April 22, 2010 @ 10:46 am

I am just starting out as a DM, and have not yet been in a situation where I would need to consider serving up fudge to my players, but I have some experience as a player with a fudging DM. A few years ago, my DM at the time had this motto: “Roll dice, ignore results.” He fudged ALL the time. There were only two ways for a character to die in his campaign. First, if you told him that you wanted a new character, he would allow you to get into a big fight that anyone in their right mind would avoid, and you could go out in a blaze of glory. The second way for a character to die was if he didn’t like the player. He never actually stated the second reason, but I noticed that he never pulled punches for that one guy in our group, but constantly did so for everyone else. It got pretty annoying. Although I generally enjoy all my characters, I am not so attached to them that I would be upset if one happened to die in combat.

As a DM, I can see that fudging for the sake of story could be useful, but it needs to be rare and invisible. As some others have said, fudging can lead to players feeling like their characters are invincible (I know I did with that DM), and can take away a lot of the fun. I guess we’ll see how it turns out with my game.

#16 Comment By mougoo On April 22, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

[7] – In other words, fudging should be safe, legal, and rare.


#17 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 22, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

Thanks for the many comments, and please feel free to continue.

I’ll address a few of these and more in the next installment – Fallout.

#18 Comment By mougoo On April 22, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

[8] – Looking forward to the next installment. I hope it contains more fudge jokes.

#19 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 22, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

[9] – Thanks! I don’t consider myself ‘wise’ (unless it’s followed by ‘-ass’), but it’s nice to hear that one is appreciated.

#20 Comment By Roxysteve On April 23, 2010 @ 10:47 am

Been there twice this month, as it happens, with much the same result. Then the dice flipped the *other* way on Saturday and my nigh-unkillable 500 year-old sorcerer survived eighteen game seconds of contact with a single enemy. The dice were so bad I just decided to go with it – the bad guy was a Black Lotus stoner and, well, they caught him “on the pipe”.

But: next time this happens, why not have the big demon depart the Earth, dragging the party through a magical vortex into hell, where they get left to fend for themselves until they figure a way back? Demons are vengeful and cruel, not necessarily smart.

Stay loose.

#21 Comment By Nojo On April 23, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

While we’re focusing on the TPK fudge, the bigger question is do you game to create an exciting simulation or an exciting story? Or both?

If you are a simulationist, Fudging is very bad. “The dice never lie.” When you are forced to improvised, you try to come up with the most realistic solution.

If you are a story-maker*, fudging is a tool for when the dice are moving the game away from any kind of fun story. You often improvise to increase the drama of any situation.

Take the suggestion, given above, to just kill off any target that gets walloped hard but the dice dictate is “almost” dead. This gives the character who did the damage the satisfaction of the kill. High drama. But you have to let the dice lie.

People get different things out of RPGs. This site has great ideas, but you will end up picking and choosing those that fit your play style.

*Story-maker: not storyteller, because you are making the story up with the participation of your group. In some games everyone is a story-maker, others, it’s mostly the GM.

#22 Comment By scruffylad On April 24, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

Fudging should be rare, ideally. (Well, ideally, it would be unnecessary, but…)

Generally, fudging comes into play when the game becomes unbalanced somehow – the players are stomping baddies way too easily, which ultimately diminishes enjoyment of the game. (No challenge, no danger, no fun.) The other way is when the baddies are stomping the players.

If the players are winning, usually the fudge is pretty easy – throw in another wave of monsters, give one a healing potion he didn’t have before, boom. No obvious fudge used (especially not if you’ve given monsters healing potions before, etc.)

If the players are losing, that’s tough. For me, it usually comes down to whether I’ve misdesigned the encounter (it’s happened a few times, I hate to say) or if they’ve just had wretched rolls (some nights the dice are just plain evil.) In those situations, I tend to be more inclined to fudge, because I’m either: fixing my own mistake, or scaling back the randomness factor just a touch.

On the other hand, where player stupidity is the cause of the mess, I almost never fudge. (I can’t remember ever doing it, but I’ll say almost, just in case…) In part, this is because I usually give players some warnings. Everything from the standard “are you sure?” to adding extra information first (“Your characters would know that the castle is guarded by 100 giants.”) The extra information bit is often important, because when players die later, they complain if they didn’t get all the information up front that was relevant. (“Well, if you had told us up front that this place was famous for lava, we would have done it different!” or plain old “You didn’t tell us about that part!”)

I guess ultimately, it’s about the tension between following the rules, and everyone having fun. No rules is no fun, because what’s the point? On the other hand, when the rules have holes in them, or the dice behave strangely (or the GM plans an encounter badly) then sometimes the rules get fudged a little to keep things moving. As long as it remains very rare, I think that’s fine. (When I was a new GM I fudged a lot more, I think. Now it’s a pretty rare occurrence. Some of that is just experience, I figure.)

#23 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 25, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

I do not believe that fudging is a bad thing. It can be abused, but such is the nature of many things. If your game needs a number fudged to keep it fun do it.

Now in this situation I would not have fudged the rolls. I would have let a TPK happen if that is the way things rolled. I would have done that because the PCs chose to enter the enemy’s domain. I would probably have arranged for a retreat to be possible, but with the consequence of the enemy being able to invade the PCs territory.

But so what? Would have, should have, could have… You looked at the game and perceived a problem, you made an attempt to resolve that problem and it didn’t work out as well as you had hoped. Perhaps the problem was fudging, or perhaps the problem was that you are inexperienced with fudging the game and would do better with practice.

Whatever the reason, it seems that you have learned from the experience and will be better prepared to handle a similar situation in the future. Whether or not you decide to fudge the dice is irrelevant.

#24 Comment By kossowankenobi On April 26, 2010 @ 11:02 am

/add one thumb up for fudging

does it require some crazy finesse (and deception) to pull off without your players realizing it? Oh yeah.

How do you deal with that bubble of verissimilitude popping if they find out? Hopefully they’re mature about it. If note – they don’t belong in my game.

#25 Comment By Roxysteve On April 27, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

[7] – Favoritism – a sure-fire campaign killer, and its flip-side: GM hatred.

Why GMs don’t simply ask hated players to leave a game is beyond me, unless it’s the underlying knowledge that if you’re in a revolving game group where GM duties float, you’ll be in the position of playing alongside or even on the other side of the screen of the banished player if no-one else in the group agrees with your assessment, and may be asked to leave a game or two yourself.

I don’t think these two linked concepts are really at the heart of the fudging debate though. They are individual problems in which fudging is a symptom, not a cause in and of itself.