The Straight Fudge

Being a GM is rewarding hard work at best, and a nightmare of record-keeping, crowd control, and floor-mopping at worst. But at its core, the role of the GM is to make the game fun. It’s not always about knowing the rules, or keeping the players heading in the right direction to tell your story. In fact, if you are only there to tell your story then you are probably on the wrong side of the GM screen.

Combat and skill checks are two of the most basic mechanical ways for the player to interact with the gameworld. So what happens when the dice don’t go their way? What happens if they stumble upon an encounter that is too far above their level? What if a lucky shot or an unlucky break causes the entire campaign to fall flat on its back?

Let me talk about FUDGING.

This can be tender subject, both for players and for game masters. There are probably endless opinions about the subject–one for each human asked–but for the sake of this thought experiment I’ll stick to the three most obvious and straight-forward: Do It, Don’t Do It, and Sometimes Do It.

First, a quick definition:  Fudging, as in “fudging the numbers,” is when the GM takes a creative interpretation to the results of a roll, for good or bad, that is usually in direct opposition to the literal results of the roll. This could also be accurately called “cheating.”

Let me set the scene:  Your adventurers are pursuing a character that they will later discover is the “big bad” of your campaign. For now, they don’t realize that this NPC will be pushing the story and creating tension for weeks to come. All they know is that he stole something from another NPC. You’ve set up a terrific chase scene, with brilliant mechanics, difficult traps, a gripping cinematic eventscape…And then one of your player’s says “I use Psionic Reach knock the boulder off the ledge onto his head.”  You grit your teeth, because you didn’t really foresee that trap being used against your own antagonist, but fine, you’ll roll for it. Damn. It’s a 1. The boulder crushes his skull, killing the NPC, and essentially ending your campaign before it starts. Right?

Of course not. That’s why you roll behind a screen.  “Ooh, sorry, the boulder crashes down just to the left of the fleeing suspect, narrowly missing him.”  “What did he roll for defense?” a player may ask (and that player is probably a trouble-maker at the table for questioning the GM in the first place.) “A 9,” you reply. “Just enough to dodge.”

Fudging. It’s cheating, sort of. But is it wrong? Is it the wrong decision for your game?

1. DO IT.

First of all, let me get this out of the way. I fudge. I don’t do it often, and I don’t like to do it at all (it makes me feel guilty.) But sometimes it necessary. The real question is: How do you know when it’s necessary?

The answer is: “When it’s fun.” That’s what we’re here for. To have fun, to enjoy ourselves. To tell incredible stories, to forge friendships, to use our brains and imaginations in a way that no other thing in the real world would let us. I’m not going to let one random dice roll stand between my players and I and fun.

BUT…

2. DON’T DO IT.

There HAS to be some amount of restraint on fudging. Player’s have to feel like their decisions matter, especially if they are taking an action that they know is a long-shot. Luck is a fun element when it’s on your side. I’ve had players ask to do something completely outrageous and unlikely, and instead of saying “no” I’ve told them “roll the dice.” Boom. Natural 20. You just defied the odds. That’s a memorable experience that will stay with that player forever, and I’d never DREAM of taking that moment away from them. This is not the time to fudge. If you railroad the story, fudge every roll, and never let the dice fall where they may–especially if your player’s become aware of it–you’re going to lose the table. It won’t be fun. Fudge in moderation.

3. SOMETIMES DO IT.

What’s even better than fudging in moderation? Making sure you put yourself in situations that you won’t HAVE to fudge. Don’t set a pivotal plot point at the mercy of the dice if you don’t expect to abide by that dice result. Why do that? Don’t go into a situation knowing the outcome. There’s no reason to bother with pointless skill checks and asking player’s for their opinions if you are just going to “move the story along” however you see fit, no matter the outcome.

When is a good time to fudge? When it’s fun. FUN. Fun is why we’re here. Has your Barbarian just missed six turns in a row? Did she decide to spend every last bit of energy she has on this one final attack just at the hopes of getting a little piece of the damage-pie? Did your Skeletal Knight just roll a defensive tie? Fudge it. It wasn’t a 12 after all, it was an 11. She hits. It was fun. She won’t quit playing the game now. And you know, it makes sense in a story about heroes performing great deeds that a dramatic moment like that would succeed anyway. It’s relevant to the game.

So do it when you must, and don’t feel bad. Don’t do it too often, and don’t let your players know. Don’t fix broken mechanics with fudging, fix the broken mechanics instead. Don’t not do it, just because you want the universe to decide everything. That’s what most of us are here to escape from, after all.

And always remember: There’s a reason that we as GMs make our rolls behind a screen.

 

Character Backstory: Description vs Discovery

My favorite thing to do in all of gaming is to make new characters. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tabletop rpg, a video game, or even a board game that allows different builds, rolling up a fresh character is my ultimate feel-good moment.

Sometimes those characters really stick with me on a deep personal level. It’s not always just my characters, either. Characters created by those in my gaming group sometimes come to life and affect me in ways that I never expected. So what is that special element that takes a half-giant cleric and turns them into my favorite comic book hero of all-time? What makes a standard npc become an integral part of a campaign when they were originally supposed to just be background dressing for a village inn?

The initial response might be “description”: Build a fully living, breathing, fleshed-out character with an elaborate background, personality quirks, desires, goals, and countless other minutiae. Make a finite being. Make it real. 

But I think many experienced gamers can recount stories of “the time they tried to make an awesome character and it just didn’t take.” What was missing? Why wasn’t Golliban the Sellsword a memorable character?

I have a working theory on this. It wasn’t that the character had too little; It was that the character had too much.

If a character is completely developed, and you try to embody that character, you are essentially limiting yourself. You are stuck inside the borders of that character description, saying to yourself “well my instinct is to do this, but my bio says I have to do this.” You better be a hell of a good actor to take on that role. And even if you are a really good actor, a character is still only as good as it was written. It is still limited. It’s still finite.

Real people grow, and explore, and change, and shift. THAT’S what makes a character in a book or movie come to life. You discover new things about them, they surprise you, they encounter things that aren’t covered in their bio. Discovery beats Description every time in the connection department.

So does that mean you should just start off with a nebulous, undefined blob and see where it takes you? Eh, probably not. You still need a road map to cross the expanse, or at least a signal flare in case you get lost.

Try this as an experiment: Give your character a “thing” that they like. Maybe they love to gamble, or they go crazy for strawberries, or they can’t sleep without their mother’s locket. You don’t have to know why yet. You can discover that as you play. Now give them a thing that they don’t like. Maybe they are afraid of rapid moving water, or they can’t stand vegetables, or goats just make them angry for some reason. Again, there doesn’t have to be an elaborate reason why set in ink. Make up a general backstory without too many specifics. Let those specifics fall into place as the game develops.

A job, a physical description, and some family history will help set the framework, but don’t pigeonhole yourself. You’ll discover new things about this identity as you play–IN THE MOMENT. Those are the things that should stick and become bio.

Spend less time trying to figure out how your character would act, and instead just experience their reactions as they happen. Leave them enough air to grow and change. Learn about them at the same time your teammates are learning about them. Don’t focus so much on sticking to a plan or following a bio, just play. They’ll become the character they are meant to be if you get out of the way and just let them breathe.

The Long-Swinging Pendulum Of Race Selection in RPGs

I’ve never been very fond of those blog posts–or often more accurately, those clickbait articles–that try to tell you that there are X types of people, and you should load this page and grant a hit to our advertisers to find out which kind you are. BUT, there is something to be said about identifying different personality traits and patterns and preparing for those in your gameworlds. For the sake of this very unscientific and non-exhaustive post I’ve going to describe three different gamer types when it comes to race selection, because its worth examining play-styles. If nothing else, figuring out which one you identify closest with might grant you the opportunity to purposely try out another play-style (which really is the very definition of gaming in my small personal sphere of experience.) WARNING: This probably seems pretty biased, but I’m making fun of all of us equally, even me.

 

The Maximizer:

You already have an idea of the kind of character you want to create. The mechanics and documentation of the game you’re playing will dictate which race you’ll choose, depending on which benefits your character the most.  If your character is a big brute that hits stuff hard with a large thingy, you immediately find the racial bonuses that grant the largest Strength modifiers. Any other bonuses or penalties don’t matter. Why does a master swordsman need history knowledge or communication skills? We’ll just carve up anyone that opposes us. Maximizing the preconceived abilities of your character is paramount; it would be STUPID to do anything else. Your roleplay will just have to fit into this character, which is probably going to be pretty one-sided. But by-gods, you’ll get the results you are looking for, and you will rarely fail. You have gamed the game.

 

The Whimsyist:

You flip through the pages until you find something that makes you say “Oh, that’s cool!” This becomes the foundation for your character. Mostly, you just compile things that seem cool to you, with no consideration to whether there is any synergy between the powers, traits, and bonuses. As long as it seems fun to do, you’ll do it. Win or lose, fun is all that matters. Sure, your Priest doesn’t have any Wisdom because you wanted to be “really super fast,” but that’s not the point. The point is you have a crazy-fast Priest. That’s fun.

 

The Empathizer:

You look closely at the “person.”  It doesn’t matter what the bonuses and penalties of a specific race are, you just want to make a connection with them on a personal level. This type of creature has dealt with something that you relate to, so you can instantly jump into roleplaying them. You are more equipped to play this character than anyone else, because you understand them. The Laroon were created to serve the High Elves, but they fought for their independence, and you can relate. You don’t have to be an actor: you just act. The abilities and powers of the character don’t matter, because you are just here to bring them to life, and you’ll deal with whatever they must deal with.

 

Do you find any of this to ring true? Have you ever examined your choices in character creation before? What brought you to your decisions? Would actively going AGAINST those tendencies make for a more interesting experience? I’d love to hear your feedback.