I Stopped Fudging Rolls and My Games Became More Fun
Fudging a dice roll is the act of rolling a die and then announcing the result to be something other than what was rolled. The only time this isn’t considered to be cheating is when the Dungeon Master, Game Master, etc. is the one fudging the roll.
But why would someone cheat, especially the GM? There are many reasons a GM would want to fudge rolls, but generally, it’s done to ensure a particular outcome happens. This could be an outcome that favors the GM, or it could be an outcome that favors the players.
Hell, I used to fudge dice rolls. It’s not a crime. However, I found that it made my games way less fun despite my fudging efforts to make them “better”.
My Early DMing Experience was Chock-Full of Fudge
I hadn’t touched D&D or any other RPG in years before my Junior year of college. A couple of us had played before and thought it would be a good idea. I’d always enjoyed DMing so I did. I found myself immediately enjoying planning, prepping, writing things down, and DMing every session.
My friends were into it, but I was afraid of what would happen if they weren’t. You know, first impressions and all.
The first 2 campaigns I’d ever run I fudged dice rolls pretty regularly. My players liked “winning”, or so I thought, so I’d push the odds in the favor of them becoming the big heroes.
It was towards the end of the 2nd campaign where I stopped fudging dice rolls entirely. After I gained a bit of confidence and grew to understand my group, I realized that by coddling the players and making sure they didn’t lose I was doing a disservice to the game.
My friends weren’t playing to win. In fact, people don’t play RPGs to win. They play to see how it goes. Victory tastes better after defeat, and I wasn’t letting them taste defeat. There wasn’t any danger or drama because they were always coming out on top.
The Story is Important, But It’s Not the Most Important Part
I realized that by fudging dice rolls to influence the narrative to be more in favor of the party winning I was 100% railroading. Maybe not to an egregious extent, but I was certainly forcing the outcome of the roll in a certain direction.
Regardless, early-on in my GMing “career” I was very concerned about the story of the game. We’ve played other systems but the vast majority of the time we play D&D.
It was once I stopped fudging dice rolls altogether that I realized that while the story of a D&D campaign is important, it’s by no means the most important part. This is a game system that revolves around exploration and combat. Both of which benefit heavily from randomness.
Should you have a story at all? Absolutely. It should be a good one too!
Is it a narrative, story-focused system? No way. There are better systems out there to play a truly narrative-focused game. Try some out!
When we play D&D my players and I now care way more about interesting combats. Fun dungeons. Interesting locations. But the story is often on the backburner. It’s there, and we’ll sure as hell appreciate it in hindsight, but it’s not what we care about in the moment.
When we play a PBtA game though? We’re focusing way more on the story than the mechanics.
A lot of people claim to fudge dice rolls for the good of the story of a D&D campaign. For me, that was the root of my issues. I was changing things to what I believed my players wanted, rather than what they actually cared about: playing a game.
What Happened After I Stopped?
I’d forewarned my players that Out of the Abyss is unforgiving. It’s brutal, focuses on survival, and the tables are essentially always turned against you. Particularly in the beginning of the adventure. But they insisted regardless.
I took that to heart. I let the chips fall where they may and called out whatever dice rolls I saw.
The turning point for me was when in a single combat a misplaced crit killed a character outright and the following attack finished off another. I winced, thinking that this is when everyone leaves. But nope, they were still there. One of them even tore up their sheet themselves!
It was at this point when I realized that I made the right call.
Combat Became More Intense
The immediate and most noticeable outcome of my self-imposed ban of fudging dice rolls was that combat became much more dangerous. Characters can die now! They’re not unkillable superheroes anymore.
This was when quite a few of my players started to really shine in terms of tactical decision making. They’d push their spells to the limit, watch like hawks for opportunity attacks (or when to avoid them), and make more interesting choices besides trying to deal damage.
I had to ramp my game up in turn. While I still have a fair amount of your typical “5 orcs vs. the party in a 10×10 room” fights, I’ve gotten considerably better with choosing creatures with unique abilities and have made my own tweaks and homebrew to really throw the players for a loop. Not to mention all the different kinds of battle maps and battlefield mechanics I’ve come up with over the years!
We started taking the game more seriously. I wasn’t pulling any punches, so they had to make up for that. It’s worked out damn well.
I still am averse to TPKs. A bit of my hesitation is still that creeping feeling of “will they stop playing?” It’s something I need to work on, but I’m getting better with realizing that it’s ok to dumpster the party if it’s done so fairly. Combat is much less risky when death isn’t an option.
We Embraced the Randomness
Life isn’t fair. That’s a fact.
Oftentimes when we have a really good plan or idea, it doesn’t always play out to the letter. Maybe there’s a variable that we forgot about. Sometimes though, plans fail just because of pure dumb luck.
Not every convincing argument the bard makes to an NPC is going to land, even if your player role-plays the hell out of it. I mean, even in real life, the most prepared orators can slip up their words or lose their pacing halfway through their speech. Random failures and accidents happen all the time, even in the most crucial moments.
There are also times where my players have had almost no chance in succeeding, yet with a stroke of luck, they were able to squeeze out of a tight spot.
Randomness is a part of life, and it’s a core part of RPGs. That’s why we have dice! You don’t need to tip the scales in one side’s favor to make things interesting. Sometimes the game is at its most fun when things get completely out of hand.
Is Fudging Dice Rolls Inherently Bad for a Game?
Personally, I don’t think I could go back to fudging dice rolls. Part of this is because we primarily play online and it’s much more convenient for us to use macros to roll attacks, checks, etc. However, it’s mostly because I don’t think it benefits the way I like to run my games or more importantly, how my players like to play.
That being said, The Id DM has a fantastic article on how reading your players can actually set you up to fudge dice but improve the game for the table.
In the article, he talks about how he was rolling extremely poorly and the combat was dull for the players. There was no element of danger since they’d barely taken any damage. So, he decided to fudge the dice and ensure that a couple of the creatures did some damage. It livened things up and engaged the players because now there were stakes.
I don’t believe this was a harmful way of fudging the dice since the end result wasn’t changed and the players enjoyed it. He also states that this is a seldom-used tactic as fudging too often removes player agency. They may feel that their choices no longer matter.
Fudging dice rolls isn’t inherently bad for your campaign. But it is a slippery slope. Giving the players rolls in their favor all the time belittles their agency and accomplishments, but fudging for yourself can quickly turn the table into a “players vs. GM” environment.
Context and frequency both matter when fudging dice rolls. If you’re going to fudge dice, do it once in a while, and only when it genuinely improves the game for the table.
Perhaps no longer fudging dice rolls didn’t have nearly as big of an impact in my games as I suspect. Instead, it’s simply that I’ve gotten better over time at making encounters, locations, NPCs, etc.
However, I don’t feel that way at all. I found that when I was seeing the game more as a story or some epic tale I was more inclined to fudge dice to give the players or the story a “more interesting” outcome.
There’s still a story in all of my games, but I find that it’s something we look back on rather than something we focus on. The randomness, the epic yet threatening battles, and of course the failures all play a part in creating something unique. Your game isn’t a book. It’s a game first and foremost.
Once I stopped worrying and “fixing” the game with fudged dice rolls, D&D became way more enjoyable for my group. Consequences and tough decisions make RPGs fun, don’t be afraid to present them. Even if you think your players might hate them.
Personally, I think that fudging behind the screen (and not necessarily just die rolls) is a very useful tool in a GM’s toolbox. But in order to use it effectively, you need to understand your players. Who they are, how they act, and above all what they enjoy.
My group has a few characters who enjoy their characters but have an easy-come-easy-go attitude towards them, and those players I would only fudge if I thought they would die in a particularly undramatic and unsatisfying fashion. One of my players is an outright masochist by proxy, and I would never fudge a roll to keep one of her characters alive. One of my players lives only to make awesome characters and have them do awesome things, and him I wouldn’t let die unless we’d arranged it beforehand, I knew he could easily get resurrected, or I was confident I could make his death truly awesome.
The thing I find myself fudging more often than die rolls is progress. Sometimes my players are hyped and ready for a fight, so I’ll throw in a few more combats that I had originally planned when I wrote up the adventure. Sometimes, winning seems like a formality, or the players are getting bored, or they’re low on resources and close to TPK, or we don’t have much more time and I want to get to a stopping place, so I’ll cut out content they didn’t know was there to hurry things along.