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on fudging (part 3)

Let’s attack what the role of the DM is, what a good story means, and why you don’t need to fudge to have it.

the storyteller

Literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

We’re now entering the part of the posts where you’re talking to me, talking about stuff I actually believe. I’m going to put a golden caveat here, the most golden caveat of all. If your players know that you’re fudging, and you have told them so, then that’s absolutely fine. I’m not so much of an asshole as to tell you that the fun you’re having, with the consent of everyone at the table, is illegitimate. These posts are for the would-be DM who’s wondering if they should, or the DM that currently is and hasn’t told their players.

This is about why you shouldn’t do it.


dice as a partner

Allow me to make the first hot take of the blog. You and the dice will tell a better story than just you. You should not see the randomness introduced by dice rolling as an obstacle to the story you want to tell – you should see it as a force that gives you fresh and exciting perspective on what would have otherwise been a duller experience. Let’s go back to our example of the Mines of Moria.

Would you have let Gandalf fall?

This is a serious question. What if we didn’t? What if Gandalf never left the party, never had a climactic battle with the Balrog, never succumbed to his wounds and died, never returned as Gandalf the White? I think we can all agree that the series of events that come from Gandalf falling from the bridge are compelling, exciting, and make Gandalf a richer character. In this instance, Gandalf’s “failure” did not diminish the story, but immensely enhanced it. In this way, the rolling of a dice gives us an opportunity to create something we otherwise wouldn’t – it challenges us to think of possibilities that were otherwise unthinkable. It makes us ask questions of things we previously thought unquestionable. What if the players don’t work with the town guard, and instead, they attack them? What if their attempt to argue their case in court does not lead to freedom, and instead leads to a death sentence?

I feel that where this can cause problems is where people have overplanned. In a game where the DM has taken it upon themselves to pre-plan every possible encounter, every possible branch in the road, the dice can feel like an obstacle. Now, where the dice should allow for interesting developments in the story being told, it becomes an odious task; another path that needs lampposts, houses, trees and names. But players do not play your DM notes. They do not play your A4 pages filled with characters, timelines and locations. They play what happens in the game, which happens one moment at a time. By reacting to the players, instead of attempting to control them, we can have Gandalf fall and create a deeper, richer world by opening up your space of possibilities.

When you do this, you’ll see a significant change in how you DM. You’ll notice that your thinking shifts away from attempting to control the player’s journey through a world, and instead to how that world actually is. What’s the punishment for attacking a town guard? What’s below that bridge for when they fail an acrobatics check? How do the bad guys actually operate? Your world begins to develop actual depth: not illusory depth, a charade that allows the players to do anything as long as it’s what you planned, but a world that is logically consistent, and reacts in sensible ways. Armed with a world that acts in these ways, we enable coherent ad libbing.1

Another good thing about telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you say.

August 1922, Tampa (FL) Morning Tribune, pg. 4, col. 6

this is not your story

This is the most obvious response to the argument. It’s a cold one, but it’s true nonetheless. RPGs are not the medium for you to tell a predefined story, and it isn’t a coincidence that many of the frequent concepts that come with an RPG (uncertainty/variance, players, rerolling characters) are antithetical to traditional linear storytelling. Your players are not an audience. There was not a chance for the reader to enter the Mines of Moria and lend Gandalf a hand, there was not an opportunity for the audience to climb the barricades and warn the students in Les Misérables, and there was not a moment that the viewer could get in on the action in The Big Short.

RPGs are a game. Games are interactive2. The interactive element in role-playing games is (commonly) in the control of characters by players of that game. Sorry if this sounds obnoxious, I am almost telling you how to suck eggs, but when framed in this language it becomes clearer to me why fudging for the sake of storytelling is so misguided. The “problem” that fudging is trying to solve here is that your story may be misaligned with the dice rolls you’re receiving, but do you know what else might be misaligned? The players! We reserve our hatred of uncertainty for the dice, confident that everyone at the table will play their part as we intended. We’ll erect as many invisible walls as needed to make sure they’re funneled down the route we’ve chosen, for our world is a maze of glass, with innumerable visible opportunities, but only one possible path.

Alright, I’ll dial it back.

RPGs does not have a “author” role, because everyone at the table is a author. We have our different domains, our different regions of the story. The players are responsible for their characters, and usually their character-adjacent bits and pieces (NPCs, property, backstory), and the DM is (usually) responsible for the gaps around them. One of the more frequent additions to RPGs is the ability for the players to add their own detail to the world, given mechanically via a dice roll. (Wrath and Glory is a recent RPG that does this explicitly3) When we say that we want to tell “our story”, this necessarily comes at the expense of the other players at the table, who might disagree on what that story should be (and have control as to where that story goes). You cannot tell a story that your players do not want to tell, you can only tell the story that you create, together.

god of the gaps

For me, the most tragic thing about fudging is that it’s unimaginative, and unnecessary. Changing the result of a dice roll is like a god changing the colour on a traffic light so they can go through it – the DM ultimately controls the game world, and thus, ultimately controls the circumstances by which the dice rolls arrive. If we look at D&D 5e again, the rules might stipulate that the goblin gets to roll a d20 to attempt to hit an adventurer, but you put the goblin there, you put the cave there, you gave the ability for the adventurers to enter that cave. There are systems where these things might be generated by dice roll, but in most mainstream systems they fit within the DM’s control.

If you didn’t want the adventurers to fall when crossing the bridge, or convincing the guard to let them into the bank, why did you set up circumstances such that they could? You could have made the bridge sturdier, you could have described how the guard is drunk, and how they have the appearances of a wild night before. Changing just the result of the dice is lazy, and if you’re someone who considers themselves an adept writer or storyteller, you should be able to come up with narratively satisfying solutions to these prolems without fudging. The main answer to why you’re doing it, despite having this level of control, is that you’re actually using dice as a source of tension. While you could have made the bridge sturdier, you wanted the tension of the dice, so you asked them to roll for it. That isn’t a “satisfying story” concern, and it’s something we will get onto in a later post.

Just one last note on this. On the “falling off a bridge” example, there’s absolutely nowhere in the rules of a system that state a player character falling off a bridge has ONE attempt to prevent their death. Most systems give you absolutely immense scope to avoid this stuff, and very few rolls (if any) are truly save-or-die. If a character fails the acrobatics roll to cross the gap, maybe they fall just short and end up dangling from a plank, requiring another roll to pull them up. Maybe they fall into a spider’s web, and are now imperiled by the spiders therein. It’s usually extremely bad practice anyway to hinge life and death on a single dice roll, and by setting up situations where a single success averts death, we avoid characters dying out of the blue in situations that might actually frustrate the player.

die hard

Character death is a major area where fudging occurs. You’ll frequently see this in “actual play” podcasts, where characters have been written, merchandise has been created, and a repartie has been established. To have a character die an ignoble death would be problematic for telling a serialised story. If a fan just bought a t-shirt with “Hoblas the Fighter Rules!” written on it, how do you think they’ll feel when Hoblas takes a javelin to the throat, thrown by the grottiest and most insignificant of goblins. I have seen a word-for-word defence of fudging this with “I would be a bad storyteller if I let a character die in this way”. Ignoring the “storytelling” part of that, which we’ve covered above, the ease at which characters die is controlled by two things.

  1. The DM, who determines the circumstances by which lethality arrived.
  2. The system rules, that determine the procedure by which a character can die.

Both of these things are within our control. You chose the system, you chose the ruleset to follow. You weren’t prevented from reading the rules for dying ahead of time, left with a sealed envelope that contained the precious two pages explaining the brutal effortlessness with which characters can lose their lives. If you’re playing D&D5e, you know that a character hitting zero HP goes unconscious, and starts to make dying checks. You and your players agreed that these are the rules by which a character can die – if it was too easy, then you can agree with your players to adjust them. In fact, many systems include optional rules to adjust the ease of character death4. The only reason you wouldn’t do this if you had a story that you wanted to tell, is if you wanted to create artificial tension.

In addition to this, if you’re playing a game system where death is commonplace and mechanically easy, you’re probably playing the wrong system. Old School Revival Systems (OSR/OSRS) where death can just be a case of hitting zero hitpoints, were not made to tell the story of a group of legendary characters and their epic journey (not immediately anyway). Similarly, Call of Cthulhu and similar cosmic horror investigation systems are not intending to give you a TV show, with a main character who’s nigh-on indestructible. Life is cheap, and characters are made to be created and killed. In these systems, the “story” is not about the characters, who are thrown into a meatgrinder and slain frequently, it is about the journey and experience of the players.

I’d note here that in D&D 5e, death is incredibly hard to come by. The mechanics of the three death saving throws, combined with the ability for healing magic to instantly revive characters, means that characters will only die when the party dies, most of the time. Aside from this, an unconscious character being hit which automatically causes two death throw failures, is the only other viable path5 which, you as a DM have control over. That doesn’t mean you have control over the roll of the dice, it means you had control over the goblin that stabbed them with a spear. If you didn’t want them to die, why did you hit them? Is it, perhaps, because you wanted the artificial tension of them thinking they could die?

tl;dr

If you’re not using the variety that dice rolls give you, you’re not being as creative as you could be. The randomness introduced by the dice gives us immense creative power and license, which we should be using. It also allows us to offload work onto the dice, using our brain for more important things.

If you’re coming into an RPG with a preconceived idea of where the story will go (not a general notion, but a ‘script’), then you shouldn’t be playing an RPG. You should be writing a book.

If you didn’t want the characters to be imperiled in a certain situation, then you shouldn’t have set up the circumstances by which they were imperiled. You control the world.

If you wanted death to be harder because your characters are important for the story, then you shouldn’t play a system where death is an eminent possibility. You should agree with your players that the rules for death will be changed, or play a different system.

The stories that you and your players tell will be better if you don’t fudge. That’s my firm belief, and I would really encourage you to try it if you don’t believe me. Do it. Play a campaign where you say to yourself that you’re going to do it without fudging, and see where that campaign goes. I guarantee you’ll look back on it fondly.

Footnotes

1. If you think of ad-libbing in the actual theatre sense, it (usually) begins with someone setting the scene. “You’re a doctor in an overbooked clinic” or “a waiter in a restaurant full of nuns”. When we start to think about how the world operates, we create the “scene” that the DM then performs in (which is then made much easier for that fact)

2. As someone who studied philosophy of language, the idea of trying to define anything about “games” is pretty painful, but I’m staking my flag here.

3. It also has the worst rulebook that I have ever read for a published game. I’m not sure if they’ve fixed it with the revised edition (created by a different team), but good lord it is a study in how not to lay out a rulebook.

4. D&D5e has an ‘Epic’ fantasy ruleset where short rests and long rests are more plentiful – typically, running out of resources like healing and magic is what kills a party, rather than instant death from a creature/trap.

5. This led to a rather awkward moment in one of the earlier episodes of Critical Role Season 2, where the DM was setting up a cone attack (with a dex saving throw) from one of the enemies, only to realise that the attack would hit an unconscious character (which automatically fail dex saving throws) and kill them instantly. Naturally, the attack was then adjusted in a nonsensical direction where that character was coincidentally avoided! Hooray.

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