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ttrpgs

on fudging (part 4)

Today we talk about yet more reasons not to fudge.

being honest

Nicht dass du mich belogst, sondern dass ich dir nicht mehr glaube, hat mich erschüttert.1

Friedrich Nietzsche, #183 Beyond Good and Evil

It occured to me that people might think I was finished with the fudging series after the last post, but I think there’s more to unpack. That was specifically an attack on the idea of fudging rolls to preserve a story, but we’ve got a few more left that we need to drag down and beat into submission. Once again, as clarification, these posts are about people who fudge without their players realising.

Transparency at the table is only a good thing, and if your players are happy with that, play on maestro.


sniffing the dice

When it comes to using dice as an object for generating tension, there’s a lot about the argument I do not disagree with. There’s certain “ceremonies” that occur when we play a lot of RPGs, the sound of dice rolling for an unknown cause, the players looking at the DM’s face to discern whether the value they rolled beat the threshold they needed, the pivotal moment where the rolling of a dice will dictate the campaign’s course for sessions to come. These are powerful moments, and it is not surprising that they’ve become memes, jokes and often referenced elements of the D&D culture. The rolling of dice taps into some primal part of the human brain, where the brakes are off and there’s nothing to it but what Lady Luck gives to you. This is, more depressingly, one of the reasons why gambling is so addictive, and such a problem.

There’s no greater evidence for the importance of dice in mainstream RPGs than the fact that even the most die-hard (hehe) of fudgers will struggle to remove the dice altogether. People argue whether or not DMs should fudge, but they’re very rarely for removing the dice altogether, even when they’re throwing gigantic cubic spanners in their much-beloved stories. They know the clacking sound of the dice is important, they know that the players feeling the element of fate in their interactions is valuable – so we keep the doors, we’ll keep the steps to the temple, even when the alter within has been desecrated2.

There’s a couple of pragmatic arguments that I can make here, which I’ll make first, and then there’s a more wistful, philosophical one. My first point, is that it only takes one realisation, and someone will realise. Whilst I think that people are normally bad at identifying instances where Things Aren’t Statistically How They Should Be, I believe that people have a sense that they develop over the course of regular play. If you’re fudging in favour of characters surviving encounters, it only takes a few strangely knife-edge combats before people start smelling that something’s off. As a player who has played in campaigns where people have secretly fudged dice, there is nothing worse than that moment of “was that really the roll?”. You begin to question every roll, not just the ones that are being fudged, because the players don’t have access to that information.

The moment that someone realises this is happening, the curtain is pulled up. The emperor has no clothes. The doubt has been seeded. Instead of a monster landing a critical hit being a tense moment where the hand of fate has tipped against the players, it’s a “uh-huh, sure” moment. Previously, you had the excuse of randomness to explain why certain rolls didn’t go the player’s way, but now, you’re the reason they didn’t. The terrible part of being the master of everything, is that you’re also on the hook for it. One of the greatest gifts of the dice roll is that it gives us distance: those moments of despair are directed at Lady Luck. Players curse their dice, claim they’re discharged and swear to not use them again in the session. Now that misfortune has a human face, and it’s yours.

the weapon of the enemy

It is of great importance to set a resolution, never not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual, he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s beleiving [sic] him. This falshood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all it’s good dispositions.

Extract from Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris Aug. 19. 1785.

It would be remiss here to quote Jefferson being good and honest without also pointing out his slave ownership and moral repugnancy. However, it’s a great quote, and I also agree with it.

I do not believe people who say that they only fudge “a little”. Let’s define some terms – if “a little” here refers only to the quantity of rolls, then it’s fairly meaningless. If you only fudged once in a session, but that fudge altered the direction of the campaign for the sessions to come, then you did not fudge a little, you fudged a whole lot of the game there. If “a little” means that the fudges were of little consequence…then why did you fudge at all? Things that are insignificant are excellent candidates for deciding through randomness, because then we don’t have to think about them, and can think about more important things.

In addition to the mostly semantic argument above, I see fudging as infectious. There’s a glib comparison to power I could make here – it’s hard to give up power and control; that applies to life, and dice rolls. What starts out as “fudging only to prevent TPKs or complete disasters” slowly takes hold in other areas. Now it’s fudging to push them towards content you think is cool, or fudging to stop them from killing a boss too quickly. That control starts to feel comfortable – the dice can no longer surprise you. Content you’ve planned will be reached, fights will continue until you’ve had your fill. You can tell how a session will go from start to finish, and it will go in the way you think is cool and good. Thank goodness, because you’ve got an awesome boat encounter planned for next session that you need them to get to.

How do I know this? I used to fudge. When I started DMing, I saw it in the same way that a lot of people do; a tool in a toolbox. I’d fudge to stop people from dying in a way I didn’t want, or to push them towards the stuff I spent a lot of time writing. It was only when I started to think about RPGs more abstractly, with prodding and influence from friends, did I realise what was happening. Fudging is the One Ring – I get that you want to use it to save Gondor, but soon you’ll be keeping it on your finger because it’s so damn comfy3. To disappear even further up my own arse, there’s a hope that these series of posts might do for others, what other videos and content about fudging did for me. If you do fudge, I’d suggest recording instances when you do, and looking at what sort of impact the ignored roll had. Seeing how far you’ve adjusted the game, even if you think you only fudge a little.

cogito

Let us assume you are the master manipulator. You have 100 Speech, you have natural 20’d your deception checks (you’re making the values up, but hey). You are the Werewolf of Wall Street. No matter how subtle your adjustments, there is one person at the table who will always know that you lied about the result of the dice.

You.

That time they managed to bring down the fiercest White Dragon, but only with a Hold Monster result that you fudged for them?

You know you did that.

That moment the party managed to perform a action-packed smash-and-grab, getting out of the building with their wits, intelligence, and because you fudged the sniper damage that would have killed one of them?

You know that it shouldn’t have happened that way.

That session which ended with one of the players exhaling and saying “I can’t believe that happened!” after they narrowly avoided a TPK, and you can’t either, because you lied about the dice roll that would have caused it.

You’re going to be thinking about that when they talk about how absurdly lucky they were.

I could go on, very dramatic. In all seriousness, one of the biggest problems with fudging for tension is that you know it isn’t real. You are robbing yourself of the experience that the players at the table are partaking in. Those moments above, which have players yelling and pounding the table? You can be there with them. You can celebrate when the white dragon falls because you didn’t guarantee it. Some of the greatest, most emotional moments I’ve had at the table have been when I’ve DMing, and things have come down to a final roll. In person, I come out from behind the screen, I throw the dice where all can see, and I get to react with the players. I revel in the glory of the roll going their way, I share in the despair of the worm turning. They know that, for that moment, we’re all a captive audience, we’re all sitting in the same stands.

That’s an experience I would never give up. No amount of control or power over the game is worth losing those moments of spectacle and bonding. In addition to this, fudging the rolls is a burden. For each roll, you’re thinking about whether you should, or shouldn’t let it pass. “Is that outcome fun enough?”, “Should I do something else?”. It’s fatiguing. There’s nothing I find more refreshing and liberating as a DM than just letting the dice do the talking. There’s enough to worry about in a game than needing to decide if an event needs your illicit intervention; sure that might lead to some sticky situations where the dice have driven the campaign in a particularly bizarre direction, but that’s when the players know that this shit is real. When they look in your eyes and see that what’s happening is not “all according to plan”, that we’re outside the city limits with our foot on the gas – that’s when they know they’ve found their game.

Don’t do yourself dirty like this. Bask in that tension, bask in the results. Let the game surprise you, like it surprises everyone else at the table. I don’t hate fudging out of some moral superiority – it’s a TTRPG question for goodness’ sake. I hate fudging because it makes the experience worse and robs the DM of the ability to enjoy it in the same way as their players. I hate it because it’s a crutch that you don’t need, one that’s giving you a limp.

I hate it because you can do better.


This might be the last post in the series, but I think it’ll be a living thing that I add to whenever I come across a disagreement, or a new argument for fudging. I’ve covered the arguments I put in part 2 with broad strokes, even if I didn’t call them out by name. I think the last thing for me to talk about is the DM as an agent of “fairness” against the unfair dice, and the DM as the arbiter of fun. That post might come a bit later as I’ve got other stuff that I want to write about first.

Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Footnotes

1 “Not that you have lied to me, but that I no longer believe you, has shaken me”. I included the original German just in case I translated it poorly, or the other translations online didn’t properly capture it.

2 Somebody stop me.

3 Despite me talking about LOTR a fair amount in these posts, I’m not a mega-LOTR fan. I do really like it, but it’s not my be-all and end-all.

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