Breaking Down the Wall

How hiding your rolls could be hurting your campaign.

Article by Chris Michaud

If you flip through the manuals of the more popular role-playing games, almost every single one of them has a paragraph that reads something like this:

“Sometimes as a (Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Referee, et al), things might not go your way. An important character might have bad luck with the dice, and it may throw your game for a loop. In this case, it’s okay to cheat sometimes. You can do this by making all your rolls secretly behind our special cardstock screen, available for $9.95 at your local hobby shop…”

Most of the people I play with are game masters – and most game masters I know are very much guilty of fudging their dice. I’ve run entire campaigns where I paid little or no attention to what my rolls looked like. Dammit, I had a story to tell!

Certainly, the logic behind fudging makes sense. If you’ve invested a lot of effort into designing a campaign, or if you’re running a canned adventure without a lot of room to breathe, then wacky die rolls can easily derail your game. Cheating allows you to maintain a certain level of control, so you don’t have to worry about the adventure turning into a train wreck.

The problem with fudging, however, is that savvy players know you’re doing it – and they will react accordingly.

The Trouble With Fudging
I was running a game of Deadlands once off of an adventure I had spent a lot of time designing. One of the crucial parts of the adventure required the player characters to be thrown in jail for the night. The guys, of course, resisted arrest -violently so. I needed to make sure they failed the encounter, though, so I fudged away. This came back to bite me when one of my players rolled a 56 to hit (In Deadlands, this is an excellent roll). I bounced some dice for my character’s Dodge, pretended to look at them, and said, “Ah, man! You guys are getting robbed!”

One of the players stood up, threw his chair on the floor, and declared, “What the hell is the point of playing this game if you’re not gonna let us do anything?”

I was tempted to dismiss this behavior as immature. After thinking about it, however, I realized that this was a reaction to poor judgment as a game master. What, exactly, is the point of using a system of rules to govern a game of make-believe fairly, if the person in charge has every intention of discarding them when it doesn’t suit them? If you’re going to make it impossible for players to succeed, then what do they have to gain? Further, if you choose to protect players from the dangers of your world by fudging, what is going to stop them from getting lazy with their role-playing or, even worse, taking advantage of your gracious attitude?

Some would argue that role-playing games are primarily exercises in storytelling – and manipulating die rolls helps to protect important characters (including player characters) who will be important later on. If your table is perfectly cool with this, and you use this tool in a judicious manner, then that argument is fine. In fact, there are many systems out there which can provide you with mechanics that emphasize drama over death (I recommend Scarlet Wake by Ben O’Neal, which is currently in the final stages of production).

The problem is, even if your group is primarily concerned with spinning a good tale, your players still want to flex their characters’ muscles once in awhile. If your players know that you’re the cheating kind, then the burden of determining victory or defeat is perceived to be on your shoulders at all times. If this perception becomes too strong, it can potentially devalue everything about your game–the rules, the characters’ stats, even the actual role-playing itself. When the illusion of a “Fair Game” disappears, a number of things can happen:

Players can feel “Boxed in,” like their actions will have no real effect on the game world or the story your group is trying to tell.

People who are primarily in it for the “Game” aspect of role-playing (completing challenges, vanquishing villains, etc.) may become frustrated by someone exercising veto-power over their efforts.

Some players who think their characters are “Protected” will stop putting real thought into their role-playing…or, even worse, they may make stupid decisions on purpose because they think they can get away with it. These players may be especially upset when you put your foot down, because they might feel like they’re being treated differently.

Of course, if you can manage to cheat while still maintaining the facade of a “Fair Game,” then these issues won’t really affect you. Good luck trying, though – because I’ve never once met a player who could keep their nose out of the Game Master’s Section of your favorite RPG. You show me a seasoned player who is oblivious to the art of fudging, and I’ll show you someone who thinks professional wrestling isn’t fixed.

A Radical Concept
The thing about being a Game Master is, your players are investing a lot of trust in you. They trust you not only to entertain them, but to run the game in a fair way. They trust you to not only to adjudicate the rules, but to take the talents and actions of the characters into account before narrating the scene. Fudging can potentially erode that trust–because it is, in essence, playing favorites (no matter whose side you’re on). If your players are starting to lose their trust, let me lay some advice on you…

…you can strengthen your gaming experience by trying a game where GM rolls are completely out in the open.

Upon reading that statement, many GMs are already typing another address into their browser as we speak. After all, fudging is a time-honored tradition, dating back to the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons. Regardless, there are advantages to playing it fair.

1. Games Become More Challenging: If players know they can no longer count on you to save their characters from the doom of the dice, they will be more inclined to work harder to protect themselves in-game. This means they’ll have to role-play harder, and really use their heads.

2. The Burden of Failure Shifts: Yeah, it stinks when the dice just don’t cooperate with the players’ interests – but at least the problem is with the dice. If your rolls are out in the open, players are less likely to blame you for the three consecutive critical hits from a peasant guard or a neonate Caitiff.

3. Games Become More Unpredictable: Let’s face it–without surprises, role-playing games can fall pretty flat. However, things can get a lot more interesting when, all of a sudden, a relatively weak NPC starts annihilating the adventuring party, or a 13th Generation Vampire scores a lucky blow to take out the elder Prince. This plays well into the story aspect of games – because it creates twists which much be accounted for in the story.

4. The Game Master is Challenged as Much as the Player: First of all, you will need to more carefully design encounters to suit your players. Second, when the players throw you a curveball (Like successfully outwitting an “Invincible” character), you’ll get a chance to use those storytelling muscles in a way you weren’t expecting. When this happens, you’ll find yourself playing the game just as hard as the players are.

And finally, the most important one…

5. Player Characters are Elevated to their Rightful Place

Let’s face it – when a GM cheats frequently to “Protect the story,” said GM is often just making sure the story goes their way. This is counterproductive to the essence of role-playing games. The object, at least as I understand it, is to allow player characters to have a real impact on their game world, through their actions and ideas and talents. Take this away, and the players are left with nothing. Unless you’re telling the best damned story ever told, your players are going to lose patience while they impotently bang on the walls of the impenetrable “Story Fortress” you’ve built around your game.

in 99 games out of 100, Player Characters are supposed to be the most important part of the story. They are the main characters. Numero Uno. This means that their characters are the ones who drive the story. So if they try something you don’t want them to do because it will affect your carefully planned storyline, it’s up to you to accommodate their efforts rather than feign a disappointed look at the dice and say, “You got robbed!”

Of course, running a fudge-less game can be a difficult challenge for people who are used to using such a tool. I know it was for me – but you’ll find after awhile that it’s more fun to roll with your players’ punches than it is to cheat your way out of a narrative bind. This is especially true if you’re into role-playing games for the story aspect. Any storyteller can write a story in advance and read it aloud. It takes a master, however, to be able to flex in and out of the influence of a group of player characters. After all, they’re just doing what player characters are supposed to do!

Now, I’m not suggesting that you stop fudging forever and ever. We all know better than that. Even I’ll probably fudge again someday – fudging has just been around too long.

What I am suggesting is that you try running a couple of games without the protection of your cardstock screen. Make yourself vulnerable. Push yourself as a game master. Then ask your players if they had fun afterwards. I know mine did.

Chris Michaud can be found online at sledgeman.diaryland.com.

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