In the world of tabletop RPGs, few practices are as divisive as the fudging of dice rolls. Most people have strong opinions on the subject either way, and it’s often difficult to find a middle ground. This article attempts to take a balanced, neutral approach to fudging. While at times, it may be necessary to fudge the odd roll, it’s often better to simply avoid putting yourself in a position where you need to fudge.
The Problem With Fudging
Don’t be naïve. Players will catch on to your fudging! And when they realise all decisions rest in your hands, their sense of danger and adventure will be gone. Sure, they may have slain a dragon. But did they really win that fight? Or did the ‘fudging GM’ just let them win? No matter what you say, they’ll never feel like they truly earned that victory. And what if the characters get captured, maimed, or even killed? Will the players blame the dice or the fudging GM? At the very least, it’s a little of both…
Fudging is a pernicious poison. While the practice promises a quick and easy fix, its dangers lie in overindulgence. Certainly, the occasional tweak behind the screen will do no harm. But the habit may become difficult to shake. And once you’ve gained a reputation for fudging, every call you make will be questioned by the players, either subconsciously or out loud. “Once a fudger, always a fudger”, they’ll say…
A Necessary Evil
So why fudge the dice at all? Because, sometimes, not fudging the dice ruins the fun. And that’s actually an excellent reason (perhaps the only one) to fudge things!
The truth of the matter is that dice-fudging is just another tool in the GM’s grand arsenal. I like to think of this ‘fudging tool’ as a roll of duct tape sitting in a plumber’s toolbox. The plumber in this analogy, of course, represents the GM. And a GM who fudges too often is a lot like a plumber who overly relies on duct tape to fix leaks. Sure: they can fix everything quickly and on the cheap, leaving a trail of happy customers in their wake! Yet at the same time, our plumber is setting the table for a massive avalanche of trouble down the road, when those taped-up pipes inevitably burst.
But just like that roll of duct tape, fudging remains a valuable a tool in the GM’s toolbox, albeit a tool of last resort. When the proverbial dragon turd hits the blade barrier, it’s almost always better to fudge than do nothing at all! Ultimately, the urge to fudge arises from the need to fix a problem during play. So why don’t we examine some of the most common reasons to fudge the dice and see if we can prevent those problems from arising in the first place?
1. Avoiding Character Death
If you’re not prepared to accept an encounter ending in the death of a player character, why did you make it about trying to kill them in the first place? It’s a rare monster that just wants to kill people. Some want food, others seek treasure. Most just want to be left alone. Factor those motives into your encounters! Not only will it breathe life into your game, but ‘boring old death’ is no longer the outcome of every single combat. The frightened goblins hoist a white flag, requesting safe passage. The starved owlbear goes after your rations pouch. And don’t forget about morale! Creatures, in general, dislike being maimed or killed, and will beat a hasty retreat if the tide turns against them. Remind the players that their characters, too, can (usually) hide, flee, surrender, or otherwise avoid combat if they choose to do so.
Of course, it’s not all up to the GM. Sometimes it’s the players who decide the encounter will result in a fight to the death. Well, if that’s a choice they’ve made, I say: “Let the dice fall where they may!” I’ll still take motives and morale into account, but if a character dies, that’s too bad. The reason we want to avoid forcing the player characters into random life-or-death situations is because losing your character to such an encounter feels unfair, since the player had no choice in the matter. If they choose and lose, however, those are the breaks.
Does this mean your monsters should never go for the kill? Of course not! But by making life-or-death encounters less common, as well as the result of the players’ choices, you won’t feel the need to fudge things as much.
2. Single Point of Failure
Let’s say the characters are investigating a murder. The killer hastily buried a bloodied glove at the scene of the crime; the one mistake which could lead to their arrest! The characters search the site and… roll a 2. “Nothing here, I guess!” End of scenario? Or do you fudge the roll?
Of course you should fudge the roll in this case! Had you given more thought to preparing the adventure, however, that would not have been necessary. If finding that glove was the only way to advance the scenario, you’ve created yourself a Single Point of Failure (SPOF).
SPOFs are problematic because they almost invariably force the GM to fudge, leading to awkward conversations at the table. “Yeah, I know you rolled a 2, but it turns out it was really poorly hidden…” Uh huh. Sure.
The good news is that if SPOFs are your problem, the fix is easy! When prepping your game, first identify any potential SPOFs. For every SPOF you find, devise one or two additional solutions the characters can uncover to keep the game flowing! In our example, the bloodied glove should not be your only clue. You’ll need a few others to ensure the characters don’t get stuck due to a failed roll. It goes without saying you should spread out these additional clues as much as possible and avoid making them all dependent on the same type of check. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!
3. Pointless Rolls
While reading about SPOFs, you may have been thinking: “Well, in my games I’d have them find that glove without even rolling!” That’s also an excellent solution! And it brings us straight to the concept of pointless rolls, which, broadly speaking, come in two flavours:
The first type of pointless roll is cousin to the SPOF: rolling the dice when you’ve already decided the result. When the dice don’t support the GM’s preconceived outcome, their bumbling attempt at fudging is revealed. So why bother rolling the dice in this case? Just tell the player what happens: “A careful search reveals a bloodied glove buried in the sand.” Clever readers will now throw back their heads, exclaiming: “Whoa! GM fiat! Isn’t that just next-level fudging?!” Well, ‘potayto – potahto’ – at least you‘re sending the message you’re not screwing with the dice. GM fiat, by the way, isn’t always a bad thing. While this is food for a whole new article, GM fiat also comes in two flavours: enabling and negating.
The second type of pointless roll is when failure has no meaningful impact. Lockpicking is a common example. A character wants to pick a lock. They roll the dice. They fail. They try again. They fail … Urgh. There’s two ways to handle this. One is to consider the best possible check result, compare that to the target number, and tell the player their character eventually succeeds – or realises they never will – after a certain amount of time. Veteran D&D 3.5 players may recognise this solution as the ‘take 20’ rule.
Another technique is to fail forward and have a failed roll still result in the character achieving their goal, albeit with undesirable consequences. Instead of calling for endless repeat attempts or – God forbid – fudging the roll, add a layer of meaning by asking a different question. Revisiting our lockpicking example, you might decide that the check result will not answer the question of whether or not the rogue can open the door (they’re capable enough), but rather if they can open it before the guards turn the corner! If you choose to reframe the question like this, you should tell the players what’s at stake before they choose to go ahead with their action. Perhaps the players really don’t want to risk running into the guards and they want to swiftly kick in that door instead. Note that any consequences you choose to introduce should further enable player choice (“You hear the guards approaching – what do you do?”) instead of negating it (“The guards are here – roll initiative!”).
In summary, there’s really no excuse for fudging a pointless roll. Either make a roll meaningful, or don’t roll at all.
4. Random Tables
Here’s where things get a little philosophical. Say you’re rolling on some table to select a random monster and decide to alter the result. Did you even fudge?
If you ask me, this is pretty much a grey area. On the one hand: if I’m using a random dungeon room table to design my next adventure, and I alter any results I don’t like, am I being a dirty little fudger? No, of course not! If, on the other hand, I’m altering a roll on the Wild Magic Surge or Reincarnation tables, it does begin to look a lot like fudging. Random encounter tables? I guess it depends. Let’s see if we can elocute the differences between these three cases and hash out some guidelines.
Broadly speaking, you might say there are two kinds of random tables: ‘creative tables’, which aid the GM in bringing the world to life, and ‘mechanical tables’, which support certain game mechanics.
When you’re using creative tables, you’re actually delegating your GM fiat to the result of a dice roll. And as previously mentioned, GM fiat (provided it’s the choice-enabling kind) isn’t considered fudging! If our random dungeon room table suggests we place a dark corridor beyond the entrance, the choice is: “Here’s a dark corridor. Do you want to go down it, or not?” Had I chosen to alter the result to a different area (say, a guard room), the same choice would still be there: “Do you go in, or not?”
While mechanical tables might also enable choices (being reincarnated as a gnome does force one to make some interesting new choices indeed!), they are at the same time the result of a player’s choice. When you choose to cast wild magic, for instance, all the potential results on that table factor into making that decision. So, yes, I’d probably consider it fudging if the GM altered such a result.
But it all starts to become fuzzy when considering things like a wandering monster table, which includes both creative and mechanical elements. And this is where I believe the GM should check their motives and decide for themselves if it’s okay to fudge.
If you want to alter the result because it would better serve the story (either for reasons of verisimilitude or enabling choice), go for it! If, on the other hand, you want to change things for purely mechanical reasons (such as increasing or decreasing the challenge during play), consider not doing it.
In any event, before altering the roll, I like to give myself a few seconds to come up with an idea to make the result work anyway – purely as an exercise in creativity. Maybe there’s a reason this white dragon is scouring the desert? Or perhaps there really is an enclave of goblins in the fifth circle of Hell?
Whenever you feel inclined to mess with random tables: “Search thy feelings, and thou shalt know when thou fudgeth!” But don’t sweat it. Remember, the key is to get creative and have fun!
5. Rubber-banding Challenges
‘Rubber-banding’ is a term borrowed from poor racing videogames, where the AI cars behave as if they were connected to the player’s car by invisible rubber bands. If you do well and pull ahead of the pack, the bands will tighten as the AI cars suddenly begin closing the distance with astounding speed and skill. If, however, you drive poorly (like I do), those same AI cars will linger, idle, slip, or drive into walls like bumbling idiots, allowing you to catch up. So, does rubber-banding AI increase the challenge of the race? Absolutely! And is it fun for the player? Not in the least! Once you realise that’s the way the game works, skill and strategy cease to have meaning – except maybe in those final yards of the very last lap.
The same goes for GMs who ‘rubber-band’ challenges by fudging dice rolls, hit points, and spell slots on the fly. It’s all great fun until the players start recognising the pattern. And please don’t kid yourself: they absolutely will! All battles suddenly become boring; each victory resounds hollow and every defeat turns suspicious.
But what of the opposite scenario, where you rubber-band the challenge to make things easier on the characters? Well, why would you? You’re no longer forcing them into potentially lethal situations, right?
Reaping Honesty’s Rewards
When it comes to toting GM advice, my policy is: “Tools, not Rules”. This means that although I stand by these techniques, I do not recommend you start blindly applying them to your own campaign, because that may not work. Rather, my advice is to gently ease into any new approaches and adding them to your GM toolbox one by one at a pace you’re comfortable with (perhaps with a few tweaks of your own). Before long, you’ll find the need to fudge will decrease as a result, and you can start reaping honesty’s rich rewards: trust and participation!
But perhaps it’s the GM who has the most to gain! By letting the dice decide, they are free to participate in the game to a much greater extent. When the GM, too, must roll to see what happens in the game, that’s so much more exciting than slavishly adhering to some preconceived plot. The burden of ensuring everyone’s having fun no longer rests squarely on their shoulders – the players and the dice are making all the decisions. The GM is just there to provide the context and interpret the results. And, of course, to enjoy the story unfolding at the table!
This, more than anything else, is why I love being a GM! I simply set the scene, prep some NPCs, agendas, and locations. But do I know where the adventure is going? Absolutely not. And that’s fantastic! It also allows me to be a true fan of the characters, and I can actively root for them without showing any favouritism.
The only way to get there, however, is to roll all (or at least most) of your dice in the open, in full view of the players. Resist the urge to fudge – you don’t need to put yourself in those situations anymore! Make the roll work and move the game forward. But don’t take my word for it – give it a go!
Time to fess up! Do you find yourself fudging the dice too often? If so, have we managed to convince you to try and mend your wicked, wicked ways? And just how did you implement these guidelines at your own table? Let us know in the comments!