Leaving It Up To Chance - On Fudging the Dice
Scene: A group of people play Dungeons & Dragons
An ogre has cornered the party’s wizard, separating him from the front line fighters who normally protect him. The DM picks up her dice and rolls to hit, scoring a sound hit against the poorly armored mage. She then picks up the dice for damage like any other attack and the results are high – very high, nearly maximum damage.
She wavers for a moment, knowing that the wizard, already injured from previous encounters, will not just be taken out by the blow, but pushed past the point of a simple Cure Light Wounds to recover. It will kill the wizard outright. But, as is customary, she’s rolling her dice behind the iconic GM screen that protects her secret maps and provides quick reference to often-used tables. She decides on the spot to fudge the die roll, just a little. Nobody wants to see a beloved character bite the dust, so the 16 damage is reduced to 12, just enough to ensure that he’s unconscious and will need to be tended to by the party cleric in a hurry.
Nobody’s the wiser, the players all groan as the wizard falls and later cheer as he is revived by a timely laying on of hands from the party paladin. Fun is had, sodas are swilled, and the adventure goes on.
Except for one thing – somebody cheated.
Are your hackles up? Cheated. It’s a loaded word, isn’t it? Not one you usually seem ascribed to an altruistic act. But isn’t that what just happened? Except for the absence of an express end “victory” state, it’s no different than a boxer throwing a match, right? The boxer gets paid by whoever wanted him to take the fall, his opponent notches the victory – everyone wins! And yet – somebody cheated.
In RPGs, fudging the dice behind the screen to get the result that you want to get seems innocuous enough on the surface. But think about it a little more. You’re the GM, you already have godlike power over the game. You can, at any time, initiate the ultimate scuttling maneuver – “rocks fall, everybody dies.” By changing the results on the dice as well, what you’re saying is that “the dice matter, except when they don’t agree with what I want to have happen.” Ask yourself then, why did you roll the dice at all?
Now, I’m all in favor of changing the rules of an RPG to suit you. I’m even starting to come around to rulings being more flexible than rules. But they need to be consistent. If you’ve thrown the dice, you need to honor those results or perhaps you shouldn’t have been throwing them in the first place. GMs need to understand that when they pick up the dice themselves, or tell a player to throw them, they are ceding absolute control over the outcome. And that they’re doing so because that’s where part of the fun comes from!
An understanding of this is I think central to the rise of games that both eschew a binary result state (success/failure) and include a meta-game mechanic for everyone, not just the GM, to influence die results after the fact. If the goal is to have fun, if the only good character deaths are meaningful character deaths, if it’s more important that the story be an exciting one – this removes the onus of having to break the rules – to, baldly, cheat – to get the results you want. And I think, along with it, removes the stress of cognitive dissonance that goes along with saying “here are the rules” on one hand and “I’ll disregard them when needed to make the game I want to make.”
This probably sounds like a screed against trad RPGs, which if you know me is patently ridiculous. GURPS is my current jam and I’ve got Hero System coded into my genome. But I also know going in that I’m much more interested in playing those games by the rules, as light or heavy as you like with options and switches and sourcebooks, and enjoying the synthesis that results. I’ve never had quite so much fun as playing a character who lost a hand in battle – I didn’t decide that during character creation, it happened to me, because the dice didn’t love me that night. Had our GM decided that he needed to fudge the roll, he could have, and we’d have been none the wiser, but I’d have missed out on the character development that came along with being mutilated in a fight, watching the veneer of civilization and good humor as it peeled away to leave the angry justicar that he’s become.
So, my message is not to abandon the old games, but to be true to them. Pick the right game for you and your table – maybe that’s D&D, maybe it’s GURPS, maybe it’s Dungeon World, hell, maybe it’s Amber or some other diceless game system – and play it the way it was intended to be played. Not without house rules, but without deceit. Play it purely, honor the mechanics that you choose to use, and watch as the game unfolds. You may well be surprised what you get in return.