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.
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.