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ttrpgs

on fudging (part 2)

I am the fudging DM, and here are the reasons why I fudge.

the pro-fudge position

Magicians are the most honest people in the world; they tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it.

James Randi

Now that we’ve been armed with a definition and example of fudging, let’s construct a steelman for why someone might want to do it. These are points that have been said time and time again whenever this subject comes up (anecdotally, users on r/dnd are more pro-fudge, whereas r/rpg tends to be more anti-fudge). Let it be said that I disagree with every single one of these arguments, but I’ll leave them out for now.


the “insurance DM”

As any insufferable stackoverflow user will tell you, randomness does not mean “fairly and evenly distributed”; it means “random”1. So, while it is less likely that you roll three natural 20s out of five dice (the expected value of a d20 being 10.5), it doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and won’t happen. In fact, because of the relatively low number of rolls that occur in the average TTRPG, you should expect that your rolls will be all over the place (or uh, not).

The DM’s job is to act as a “statistical moderator”. We can’t rely on the law of large numbers to help us with such a small number of rolls, but the DM is able to step in and turn that fourth natural 20 roll into something else, or allow that boss monster who’s missed two turns in a row to finally get a hit. Rolling below a target constantly isn’t fun, and a fight where the boss doesn’t do any damage isn’t tense and so, not fun.

The rolling of dice is just a shortcut, or a model. We don’t have the time to go and calculate all the relevant factors when a kobold thrusts a spear at a player. A TTRPG cannot be a complete simulation of the world (or even just physics), so we bundle all of it up into the dice, and we use that as a flawed representation. By fudging, we simply alleviate one of the gameplay problems with that flawed representation, through a person (the DM) with the power to do so.

the storyteller argument

Remember that scene in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, where the Fellowship flees across a thin bridge, chased by the mighty Balrog? Where Gandalf successfully casts a spell to destroy the bridge behind them, but tragically fails his saving throw to avoid being dragged into the abyss by the Balrog’s whip? Imagine if, instead, most of the party failed their acrobatics roll to cross the bridge, fell into the void, and died.

Wouldn’t that be crap? They were meant to go on and do great things! After all, there’s two more books of their adventures (RIP Boromir), there’s stuff that they need to be getting to. Set pieces that have been planned which will be extremely fun to play, which people will be talking about for the rest of their lives! I don’t want people’s characters to die in such a mundane and insignificant way; they were meant to be heroes, and heroes don’t die without at least a sad backing track.

Furthermore, what if my player hard an arc in mind for their character? What if they wanted to play a Boromir character, who spends a portion of the adventure being a questionable and fraught character, but comes to their crowning moment of redemption and self sacrifice? Are they going to be happy that they now need to spend the next 30 minutes to an hour looking at the rules for character creation? No way. They’ve even drawn a sketch of their character on the sheet.

The dice is useful until it gets in the way of telling my fun and compelling story. When that happens, we throw it to the back of the cupboard until we’re finished with the really important scene. You can’t have Lord of the Rings with the dice getting in the way.

dice as a tension device

I love the act of rolling the dice. I love the reaction of my players when they hear it behind the screen, because they know that something is about to happen. I love when they roll the dice on an important check, when they desperately need a success and the odds are against them. What gives me the tension and reaction I want is the act of rolling the dice – not using the result. So why should I use it? Similar to the storyteller, it gets in my way, but I still want the tension it gives the game.

If the player’s success was guaranteed, they wouldn’t feel like it was an adventure, it’d be boring! So I have to make it seem like there’s a chance of failure, because that’s how I get my tension. The players don’t need to know that they couldn’t fail to climb that building, they don’t need to know that they couldn’t successfully cast restraining magic on my bad guy before they teleport away. They just need to think that they could, and that’s done by me pretending.

If we can have the tension that a dice roll creates, without the unpleasant uncertainty or statistical obnoxiousness, why wouldn’t we do that?

the fairness argument

My players did ALL the right things. They’re robbing a bank, right, and they meticulously planned the whole thing. They got floor plans of the building for all the exits, entrances and vents. They paid off the head of the security company that provides the guards, so they’re short-staffing the bank today. They’ve worked out the rotation of the door key codes, so they’re able to painlessly access the employee areas of the bank, alongside the perfect forgeries for ID cards they had printed last week.

So how is it fair that they failed three rolls in a row to convince an employee that they’re meant to be there? They put in all that work, and now there’s a police squad coming in to arrest them. By fudging the roll, and allowing them to pass that employee, I’m being fair. They put in so much effort, so they deserve the good outcome, even when the dice roll disagrees.

If a player has done all the right things, then we should ignore the dice. I don’t railroad them, give them undeserved riches, or sadistically destroy them. I encourage fun and good roleplay while giving them lots of choices in what goes on. The dice can get in the way of all that. I let them roll so they have a feeling of control and I tailor the responses accordingly but a string of crits or failures is only going to affect them so much if they are making good role-playing choices.

If they’re punished, even when making the correct choices, then they’ll lose faith in the game and become jaded. I have to make sure that the game rewards their work with success, which is fun.

all fudge arguments

I don’t fudge to screw over my players, or to elevate them to gods. I fudge for them to have fun. Fudging is a tool for me to use as the DM – it’s another element of the toolbox, and it’s my job as the DM to use the toolbox to make sure that the players are having fun. When I fudge, it’s in favour of my players.


Footnotes

1. Responses to people complaining that their shuffling ipod played the same song 4 times with “that’s what randomness is” is the same as saying to a suffocating man that he shouldn’t be screaming for oxygen, because it’s only 20.95% of what we breathe.

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