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tools ttrpgs

rpg tools and tech

There’s not an awful lot of writing out there on what you should use to help run or play RPGs. Most of the time, you’ll search for something specific (“mapmaking software”, “NPC generator PF2e”), and you will end up building up a toolbox of things that you find useful. This is me writing down everything I’ve found in the years that I’ve been playing. Some of it is free, some of it is paid for – I’ll include which ones are which. (Asterisk means it’s free)

There’s a rule that I’ve run into in my job as a Data Engineer/ML Engineer, which is that if a tool says it does everything, it probably doesn’t, or it just does it poorly. At time of writing, there is no magic bullet software that gives you everything out of the box for RPGs – I’d much rather use eight tools that do what they do very well, than one platform that does it all but badly.

This isn’t a top 10 list, or something where I’m throwing in everything and the kitchen sink: this is stuff that I actively use when running RPGs. If there’s a problem I have with it, I’ll tell you.


Game Engine

FoundryVTT

I’ve been using Roll20 since 2014. I cut my teeth playing RPGs in person, so it might have even been the first time that I played an RPG online. At that time, it was a relatively new (launched in 2012) service, which offered something that I don’t know existed before then: a sound platform to play RPGs on which was free. It was easy to use, and while it was somewhat lacking in functions, it was extremely easy to sling a roll20 link at my friends to get a game going. It had a wide selection of game systems supported, with the list being constantly added to by the community, meaning it only lacked the more niche games.

This is perhaps a bit disingenuous, but I’d say that it hasn’t really changed since then. I’m sure someone can come out and mention a raft of features that it has gotten since launch, but to me, it has all the problems that it did when I started using it.

  • A website design that was fine in 2014 but is now very outdated by modern standards.
  • A lack of responsiveness – everything feels delayed and painful.
  • Pretty woeful asset management, in terms of finding images that you’ve uploaded, and other data.
  • Playing audio is a chore, sometimes working, sometimes not.
  • It’s a centralised service, with all the problems that being dependent on a central service brings (downtime, security, closed source)
  • This is not from my personal experience as I haven’t tried, but I’ve heard making sheets for systems is a pretty awful time.
  • Limited and stilted GM tools (copying a token doesn’t copy rotation, a r g h, journal/notetaking has the absolute bearest of functionality)

This is ignoring all the nonsense that seems to follow Roll20, but I could keep going.

Release Notes for the Foundry Virtual Tabletop 0.7.9 update version
FVTT’s 0.7.9 release (latest at time of writing)

Bluntly, FoundryVTT is just a better piece of software. In my eight months of using it every week, I’ve never had a moment of “gosh this was better in Roll20”. Everything I said above as a negative for Roll20, is a strength for FoundryVTT. However, there’s two big hurdles for it:

  1. The price. (50 dollars plus VAT where applicable)
  2. The learning curve and setup.

If you’re expecting it to be a similar amount of effort to setup as Roll20, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s a bit of work to be done, depending on what solution you’re going for (self-hosted, managed service, dedicated server), but it’s definitely surmountable. Generally speaking, if there’s a problem, you can google it and get a solution. If you’re completely tech-averse, it might be worth looking at the managed solution/partner hosting options where they handle that for you.

As for the price, I’d much more in favour of paying a larger sum once, than a small sum until the end of time, especially if I’ve made content dependent on “premium features”. Obviously it’s an immense privilege of mine to be able to drop 50+ bucks on RPG software, but I do not regret it one bit.

There’s too much to talk about with FoundryVTT, I’ll do another post on it at some point in the future. I’m not intentionally trying to be pithy when I say that it’s changed the way I run games for the better, and I’ve never had a complaint from one of my players about it. Everyone prefers it to Roll20. It’s a smoother experience, more feature rich, powered by open source contributions from a big community. It does everything that I want for a game engine, and I can’t see myself not using it anytime soon.

Watch this space for another, in-detail post.

Map-making

Wonderdraft

I love making maps. I’ve been making maps since I was a kid, and I make maps as an adult. For me, there’s a few things that a piece of mapmaking software needs to have.

  • A reliable, modern, low-learning curve UI.
  • A solid selection of drawing tools. It doesn’t need to be photoshop, but it needs to have firm fundamentals.
  • A sizable selection of high quality pre-drawn assets that share an art style.
  • Support for additional, imported assets
  • Preferably non web-based. Yes, I know this makes me sound like a luddite, but for drawing tools, I’ll always take a dedicated application on my PC over the hassle of a browser in the way.
  • A reasonable pricing structure.

Wonderdraft ticks all of these boxes. It’s cheap, purchasable through a trustworthy mechanism (Humble Bundle), and does everything I want from a global mapping tool. Where it begins to fall down is in the regional mapping scale (city details, county-level stuff) – I primarily use it for worlds and continents, and avoid doing things like city design in it. Here’s some stuff I’ve made in it:

A region I very imaginatively named “The Kingdom” before being told that was ridiculous, and renamed to “The Kingdom of Meridian” – far more reasonable.
Wizards and Druids who hate each other and fight over islands, mapped.

For the scale of map that I want to draw, it suits it perfectly. Naturally, it’s going to run into an issue (if you can call it that) of “same-face”, where you’ll realise that a lot of maps made in the software look similar. This is an advantage for maps made for the same world, but might be a bit weird if you’re trying to do a campaign with a very different vibe.

Dungeondraft

It’s Wonderdraft but for battle/dungeon scale maps. The UI is very similar (unsurprisingly), the layout/tech underlying it is very similar. It’s much more unstable than Wonderdraft, and much rougher around the edges – this is because it’s a much younger product. All of the requirements I listed above apply here, but there’s one incredible thing about Dungeondraft that puts it above other software I’ve used in the past.

It integrates beautifully with FoundryVTT due to the genius module of Dungeondraft Importer. This turns the normally annoying task of aligning a grid with a background PNG, sorting out lighting, line of sight things like walls and doors into a literal three-click job. Click Dungeondraft Import, select the .ddvtt exported format file, import as scene, done. This is so fast that I’ve actually managed to cook up maps in the software as my players were travelling to a location.

Are you going to get professional artist quality battlemaps? No. Are you going to get extremely servicable maps that don’t take hours to make? Yes. Here’s some examples:

Mushroomy, leafy cavern thing.
An entrance to a tomb, imaginatively named “The Tomb Entrance”. Ignore the white space, as the players can’t see that.

I think if you wanted to get more stylised maps, or more dramatic maps, you’re going to need to pick up a pen/paper/copy of illustrator. As I said, the only thing holding it back right now is the instability and bugs, which it has a few of. Save often.

Worldographer

https://i2.wp.com/worldographer.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/screenshot.jpg
“What the”

I know what you’re thinking. “That looks horrendous”. “Wait, between Dungeondraft and Wonderdraft, what’s this meant to do?”. Like many DMs, I am sometimes possessed by a powerful, destructive craving to do a hexcrawl campaign. This is a mapmaking tool that enables specifically that. I can sense your next question – “can’t you just create a map in Wonderdraft and put a hex overlay on it?”. Yes, and Wonderdraft actually includes that as a function. Note that I didn’t say this was a tool to enable hex-based maps, I said this was a tool to enable hexdrawl campaigns.

The reason you want to use this, is because you do not want to be thinking to yourself “is this beautifully rendered hex a marsh, or is it a swamp?”. You want that distinction to be clear, so that you can spend less time thinking about what a hex is meant to be, and more time thinking about what that hex, and the other four hundred million hexes on the map contain. Worldographer makes that distinction clear, painfully so, and gives you a load of other functions related to world-generation and notekeeping. There IS a free version of the software with some functionality removed (like notekeeping), so I’m not sure I’d suggest using the free version other than to test it out.

A map of mine, ignore the scrawling.

Misc

TokenTool*

This piece of software is just perfect. You know how I said that I’d much rather have eight tools that do their specific functions well? TokenTool is that, personified. What does TokenTool do? It puts borders on images. Does it do anything else? Not really. It can put backgrounds on them as well, solid colours, gradients or other images.

What makes it amazing? It behaves exactly as you would expect it would. Can you drag images into it? Yes. Can you copy and paste images into it? Yes. Can you copy and paste out of it? Yes (uh, at least, I think so). Do you have to download images to put them into it? No.

I use it to put specific backgrounds and borders on my tokens, and that’s all I use it for. Best of all, it’s completely free. Amazing.

yEd*

yEd - Graph Editor

Keeping on the theme of “incredibly specific software”, yEd is a graph editor. It allows you to create flowgraphs, which is incredibly useful for the more involved campaigns where you need to keep track of relationships, clues, whatever. I’ve used it for Call of Cthulhu, Dogs in the Vineyard, Monster of the Week and more. It’s a bit rough around the edges at times, and it’s not as shiny and friendly as something like Microsoft Visio (paid for) – but at least I don’t feel like I’m at work using it.

Is the UI really that old? Yes. It’s no frills, but often that’s what you want in something like a graph editor. It is considerably better than something like Google Drawings for this, and it’s free.

donjon.bin.sh*

Medieval Demographics and Tavern Generator

There should be some law akin to Godwin’s Law but for donjon. Something like, the longer a discussion of tools for TTRPGs continues, the likelihood of someone mentioning a donjon tool approaches one. Well, here we are, it’s done now.

I’m going to call out two of the tools that I use the most frequently, though in reality there’s probably something in there for everybody. The Tavern Generator is extremely good for when your players want to know about the other tavern in the town. You know the one. It’s not the one with your interesting NPCs, with your story hooks, with a bar brawl just waiting to burst out – because they didn’t like the name of the place (calling it the Gilded Goose? What were you thinking). It’s that other tavern, the one you’re furiously trying to will into existence with every neuron in your brain.

The Tavern Generator gives you that. Sometimes it goes a bit extra:

“Okay”

Otherwise, it gives you a perfectly sensible base with which you can offload some of that mental processing. Speaking of offloading mental processing: do you know how many buckle makers your town needs? No? Neither do I, but the Medieval Demographics Tool does. Is that going to be an important demographic for your town? Probably not, but it’s very useful for sanity checking what you’ve done already. If you’ve got a village of 500 people, having thirty guards is probably unreasonable. I wouldn’t suggest ever trying a campaign where you attempt to fit every single job that the tool suggests into a town, but it helps keep us on the straight and narrow.

In-Person

I usually consider myself a split 50:50 online vs in-person DM. I think there’s advantages and disadvantages to both, and hold them in different places in my heart. However, in-person right now has the disadvantage of “we’re in a global pandemic”, so this is a section for after that whole thing’s cleared up. A lot of this stuff is going to be so egregious that you might roll your eyes, but hey, people have the fancy silverware for when people come round for dinner, I have the fancy…orc…tokens.

Elgato Stream Deck

Marketing image of the stream deck buttons ascending into space.

I’m a huge fan of audio in my games. While people might wrinkle their noses at the idea of introducing “impure, physical things” into their astonishingly cerebral game, I am not above playing spooky background music when something spooky is happening. Previously when I DM’d in person, I would walk over to my PC, put on a youtube video of some music, then walk back. Yes, I bought this device to not have to do that. Please, give me a chance to redeem myself in your eyes.

There’s two things that the Stream Deck has, that make it perfect for me.

  • Programmable physical buttons to play/stop certain sounds.
  • The ability to add background images to those buttons.

This means that I can have a button on the deck that says “Carriage Noise” with a little icon of a carriage behind it. I press that button, and a looping sound file of carriage wheels on a road begin to play out of my speakers. The stream deck is small enough to fit behind my GM screen, which means that I can now play a sound as I describe something spooky happening! No longer is there an awkward pause as I stand up, walk over to my PC and play some music!

OK, sure, there’s more reasonable soundboard software that enables this if you’ve got a smartphone or a tablet. But I enjoy the physicality of the stream deck, and the simplicity of the setup (no internet connection required, among other things). This is so far down the “must have” list that it’s almost invisible, but don’t knock it.

Campaign Coins…Coins

Big Bag Ol Coins

I bought a bag of Trade Bars from this website a long time ago, and they’ve been a staple of my RPG cupboard ever since. Real metal, really lovely quality, great art. Have they been extremely useful? Not really, but they (like many of the other things I use) add a level of physicality that I adore. Nothing says “lecherous public official” like handing a player a bag of coins and asking them to do something unspeakable.

Bear in mind that these are coming all the way from Australia, so don’t expect speedy shipping.


That’s it for now. I also make extensive use of Google Docs and Sheets, but I imagine most people are capable of finding a word processor/note taking application that suits them, so I didn’t include it here. I also haven’t included anything to do with figures or miniatures – which probably requires a post on its own.

This is obviously going to be a living list, so I’m going to revisit it occasionally with minor additions. Otherwise, there you go.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 3)

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.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 2)

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.

Categories
ttrpgs

on fudging (part 1)

what is fudging

No. Don’t do it, don’t fucking do it.

Adam Koebel, Office Hours Episode 70

Anyone who knows me, knows that I have very strong opinions on the idea of fudging. I have spoken at great length with people on what I think about it, so I wanted to have something written down. Maybe in a few years I’ll look back on these posts and think “wow I was completely off the mark”, but until then; I’m setting sail for blissful confidence in the things I’m going to write. This is the first of probably many posts, so BuCkLe Up.


Imagine a scenario where you are playing a TTRPG, say D&D 5e, and a player is about to be struck by a kobold wielding a spear. This is the first session of your campaign, perhaps even the first encounter – your players are excited to start a new adventure, you are excited to be dungeon mastering (DMing) for them. All is well. As the campaign has just started, you’ve created a series of (what you believe to be) easy encounters; stuff for the players to ease into character, get used to the game mechanics, and socialise with the other players. All going well, by the end of the day, your players will have triumphed over some minor challenges, taken some XP and gold, and be thirsting for the next session.

The first encounter comes up, a trivial scenario with three spear wielding kobolds. You roll initiative, and two of the kobolds are going first. They move forwards and stab at the nearest player character (PC). The first, rolling a solid 16, scores a hit and a chunk of damage is done. You describe in visceral detail how the kobold surges forwards, finding a gap in the armour of the player to devastating effect. The second kobold now comes at them, and you roll for the hit.

A natural 20, a critical hit.

This attack is going to knock their character unconscious, and may even lead to their death. Is this a bad thing? Are they going to be disappointed that the very first thing that happens to their character is being knocked unconscious, possibly slain? Are they going to be leaving the session thinking “wow, loved how I got to lie on the floor for that first combat, great”. Will they even come back for a second one?

Two options immediately present themselves.

  1. You deliver the blow, explain to them that this “just happens sometimes”. You hope that they understand, with any dice based game, random chance can give you unpalatable situations. Maybe you go easy on the floored character for the remainder of the session, making the enemies attack other players unless there’s no way around it. This was meant to be easy! Now you might have to rethink the next scenario, you didn’t think they’d be so low on health! You move onto the next characters in the combat, and hope they fair better, while pretending that you’re not uncomfortable with this series of events.

2. You tell them that the kobold missed.

The second option here, is fudging. You have rolled the dice, seen the result, and decided that you are going to ignore the result on the dice in favour of a different outcome that you will choose.

This is what the series of posts will talk about, and why I think that it’s the worst thing a dungeon master, game master, or keeper of arcane lore can do.