GM Fiat & Fudging

When we were doing the Sons of Kryos show, I said the following:

If you are fudging die rolls, your game system is failing you.

From the response, you’d have thought I said, “If you fudge dice, you are obviously a baby-eater who denies the holocaust ever happened.” Some folks freaked the eff out. Others e-mailed me thanks and shook my hand when they met me. Those two responses made me think I had said something, right or wrong, that needed saying.

It has come up again with the Dragon Age table-top RPG in several threads (at the end of this one, SG & RPG.net).

Basically, the DA ttRPG said something like:

Sometimes it’s a good idea to make certain tests secretly, so the players don’t necessarily know the result. This is usually the case for any sort of test where the characters don’t immediately know whether they’ve succeeded or failed. For example, you may want to make Perception tests secretly. If the test succeeds, the character notices something. If it fails, then the player doesn’t know whether it’s because the character failed to notice something or there just wasn’t anything there to notice in the first place.

and

On occasion a particular die roll may result in an anticlimactic or just plain dumb outcome. In such a case, feel free to change things a little to make the outcome more interesting or more in line with how the game should go. This is called “Game Master Fiat,” since the judgment of the GM overrides the strict letter of the rules.

We could go the normal route and talk about trust and power dynamics or some bullshit but I am going to forgo that and just get to what those kinds of games do to me, as a GM. I know what I do with a system that asks me to whip out my Rule 0 at the table. I willfully avoid the rules and do everything I can to avoid the dice.

I was pretty good at it and it was mostly my buddy, Jason who noticed. It was stressful. I hated it.

I want games where failure doesn’t mean the game will go into the crapper, games that are admittedly, written to my strong suits. That episode of Sons of Kryos was recorded years ago; I stand by the basic idea. If I wanted to re-phrase it to be more diplomatic maybe I could say something like:

Games that demand I fudge the die rolls failed for me, maybe you have a technique that makes that work for you but it just makes my GMing experience stressful and my playing experience flat out not enjoyable.

GM’s have a whole lotta juggling pins in the air and it takes a bunch of energy and concentration to do that job well. I want my energy focused on coming up with cool consequences for the players’ actions with confident knowledge that when we go to the dice, it will help the game along, rather than hinder fun and damage or destroy what we have all built together.

EDIT Interesting related game design thread, check out Paul’s response down towards the bottom of the thread.

EDIT II electric bugaloo: Conversation is also happening in this SG Thread

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34 thoughts on “GM Fiat & Fudging

  1. “I wrote a game with boring results. If you don’t like those results, do something else when you get them. I dunno what. Sorry about intentionally making the game boring, but I figure that’s, I dunno, let’s call it a creative constraint.”

  2. I think the defensiveness came from the other things I remember being said in that episode. If I recall correctly — it’s been some time — you said that when a GM fudges,

    a. The players can tell.
    b. There is no real recovery possible, because now players know the gm’s willing to fudge.

    If I’m remembering correctly, then some of defensiveness is coming not because of “the rules system is failing the GM”, but because of the feeling that you’re also saying, “And you, the GM, are making a bad, bad mistake. You can never recover from it, and your players can smell it on your breath.”

    Does that make sense?

    • It does make sense and I’d apologize for framing my thoughts on the matter with such strong words but it’d be a lie. It is a gaming conventional wisdom that to my mind needs to perish. I’ve done it and never enjoyed it. It is a technique born from weak game design, where failure is not made to be interesting.

      Ah well…

    • Good question, Jason.

      The way Burning Wheel allows one to frame a conflict around a player’s intent and make the failure attached to that. Also, the way dying works in that game, in general. It is very easy to get hurt and/or maimed and very difficult to die.

      Mouse Guard allows failure to cause either conditions of harm to come to the character or a twist, a further complication in the game’s fiction. MG is probably the best example, honestly.

      Spirit of the Century and Diaspora deal with consequences comes directly to mind, transferring damage to something tangible in the fiction before the conflict causes a character to be demolished.

      Dogs in the Vineyard allows players to back out of a conflict and simply lose their intent, rather than staying in a conflict they are obviously going to lose.

      Hope those help…I’m sure there’s more.

  3. I have a medium length post in that thread on Storygamers, where I analyze where I think the “Good” Gm label really comes from.

    Jason, I can tell you w/o hesitation, that Burning Wheel provides for interesting failure and I know Judd feels that way. Our BW “13 Cities” games where often driven by failed skill rolls, Circles tests etc.

    in BW, it is easy to get hurt, but pretty tough to die… so mechanically, that is one way that failure is interesting. Being wounded and trying to carry on is dramatic. Being cold and dead might not be as much…although my PCs death in the 13 Cities drove even more cool stories afterwards.

    The Circle test is one where the player asks for an NPc to come their life. If you fail the roll, the NPC might show up and might have an “enimity clause” invoked. Oh, yeah, you get that NPC type (or specific person) but they have a bone to pick with your PC.

    Failed Circle tests are SOOOO much fun!!!

    • Judd, Storn, thank you both for the examples. I definitely have a better idea where you’re coming from.

      I’ve been following the thread over at Story-Games too, and I tend toward the same opinion as Rob Donaghue: that it’s just another took in the toolkit.

      At the same time, if it stresses you out don’t do it.

      The goal is seeking the joy and wonder in gaming with your friends. Do what makes that happen.

  4. It’s funny that you posted this –I just got done have a conversation with one of my buds on how most RPGs give players no outs.

    Most RPGs have rather binary consequences -you’re alive, you’re dead. And while there are ways (to varying degrees) of determining when you’re on death’s door, there is no way to really do much about it with rules as written. In most games, you have to run or just keep fighting, with just keep on fighting being the sane option many games leave you with.

    When you are left in that situation, you have no outs. No way to end a conflict other to succeed or die. I think we can agree that death, with a few notable exceptions is the most boring consequence ever. It means story over for the character(s) that die.

    A system with no outs forces you to become a grim fatalist accepting each roll as it comes, or to fudge dice rolls.

    I’ve definitely fudged die rolls, but I generally grow to avoid it. I agree with your premise — a system should be able to provide consequences other than death, so the story can continue. You might lose an arm or an eye, but that suffering is waaaay more interesting than killing you off because of a random die roll.

    A long post to say “Yes Judd, I agree with you!” but there we are. 🙂

    Good stuff.

  5. I think it’s interesting that games like D&D have elements like resurrection, things that on the surface might look like they allow for faithful adherence to the dice, but in my experience leave one feeling empty. You know that something is wrong when you find yourself wishing the GM had fudged the rolls, while your character returns miraculously from the grave. Weird. I third all the burning wheel comments above. BW has really given me the tools I need to tell the types of meaningful stories I am interested in.

  6. As Zeke mentioned on twitter, we have advanced this sentiment quite a bit and garnered some very strong responses.

    Part of the fun of the game is the system both manipulating it and being punished and rewarded by it.

    Some people (most people in fact) feel the rush of making a crucial die roll or the sting of an unlucky failure(1). Some people like to play the game, work with the system and see how things play out(2). And some people just want you to tell them a story(3).

    Cheating ruins 1 and 2. And it neither helps or harms 3. Not cheating guarantees 1 and 2 and has no effect on 3. You can tell just as good a story with failure as you can success.

    In fact with a well made game you typically end up with either getting what you want (success) or things getting more complicated (failure). I think the biggest failing with DnD (any edition) is that every encounter is about Success or death. Not success or failure.

  7. In defense of the Dragon Age RPG as a system, it is actually pretty easy to get hurt and pretty hard to die as well:


    KILLING CHARACTERS
    As characters lose Health, they get closer to death. When a Player Character’s Health reaches 0, he is dying. He will die after a number of rounds equal to 2 + constitution unless he receives healing. A dying character can talk but cannot take any other actions. The character dies at the start of his turn on the final round, so his allies have until then to save him.

    The thing about fudging die rolls I think is more about about the designer’s particular philosophy of gming than covering for a weakness in the system. I certainly don’t think he meant to imply that fudging is necessary to make the game work. It is just a tool in the gm’s toolkit.

    • Understood, DA is being held up as a recent example.

      Honestly, more than that, my beef with DA is that you cannot play Grey Wardens out of the box. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

      • Yeah, I don’t know about that – I don’t play computer games. From what I read it seems the defense is that even in the computer game you don’t start out as a Grey Warden, you have to get experience first. The current DA box set is just levels 1-5. Presumably GW’s have to be level 6+? Probably a marketing decision.

        My beef about the box set is the same as Ralph’s intial complaint – not enough source material (especially for folks who have not played the computer game).

  8. Judd, I remember that particular SoK show very clearly, as well as when you said what you said. It really made me think and led to a long-term reassessment of my gameplay. For me, it was a challenge really, to re-evaluate my approach to RPGs. Since the end result for me has been better gaming, I’m glad you said it!

  9. I sent you an RPG.net private message in January 2008 about this very subject. I was firmly in the fudge rolls camp, to prevent PCs from dying, IIRC.

    Lately, probably the past 5-6 months, I’ve been rolling dice in plain view, without the use of a GM screen.

    We’re playing Savage Worlds. It’s really hard to kill a PC in Savage Worlds. And I’ve tried.

    When I roll the dice in front of my players, their PC could die and I can see it in their faces. It prompted me to discuss with them, via email unfortunately, the topic of fudging rolls and use of the GM screen – which got kinda heated, I think (not quite sure, though).

    Amazingly, I’ve only had one PC death, and that was because he did an action that required his death (grenades, grabbing the enemy, boom) and he was cool with that (he made up another PC right away and I inserted him back into the game).

    But I’ve tried to kill PCs in Savage Worlds, and it just hasn’t lead to a great, apocalyptic millions upon millions of PC deaths, so I don’t really understand why the other GMs in my group would want to fudge rolls when I can only get one kill by not. Just doesn’t make much sense to me.

    Ah, well.

    So, yes, a former “fudging roll is OK” gamer now doesn’t.

    • Another convert, who shall walk with the rest of us into the kingdom of heaven, where dice are rolled in the open, before the eyes of the Lord.

      Can I get an amen?

      Sorry.

      Thanks for stopping by and posting. I appreciate hearing about the transition.

  10. Hi Judd,

    I think there’s two issues that tend to come up with fudging.

    First is the issue of whether the system is doing what you want, as mentioned.

    The second is the social contract. In some cases, the fudging is open, which is basic Lumpley Care principle in action. But in most cases? The fudging is hidden, in which case, the social contract, “We agree to play by these rules” has been broken, and being hidden, there’s not really a way for the group to really think and talk about that.

    And when players can TELL it’s been fudged? Again, now you have to deal with the emotional aspects of broken social contract. How much more work and less fun is that than just either skipping a roll outright or playing a different system?

    It’s a failure both of design and of the culture in recognizing that rules should matter and serve the game, instead of “getting in the way” which makes this an all-too-common thing.

  11. You were right when you said the system is failing. Frankly, most of the time this topic comes up, we’re talking character death. Why use the rules most of the time but ignore them when it’s most important?

    That’s why you were so right about players being able to tell and killing the dramatic function of the dice. Players can tell because most of the time the GM isn’t fudging, and then they do when everyone is holding their breath.

    That’s the system failing the players and the GM.

    Don’t water it down man; you’re the champion of the cause!

  12. Two bits of information you might be interested in Judd:

    1: I am not seeing people defend fudging from the player side. Maybe they are out there but everyone who seems to be advocating cheating is a GM.

    This begs the question, Do their players even know this is happening? And how do the players see it? Are they really saying to themselves “I know the GM won’t kill me and thats what is fun.” Or “I trust the GM to make things happen the most entertaining way.”

    I wonder what would happen if one of these GMs talked to their players about this. “Hey guys, if things are not going the way I want in the game, I cheat. Is that cool with you guys?”

    2: A big problem here is the willful ignorance and “bitchiness” on the part of the fudging defenders. This does not help their cause. Constant willful “misunderstanding” of what the issue is (ignoring dice rolls) obscures the case.

    This is a basic exercise in rhetoric. If you muddy the water enough everyone looks equally bad. They are trying to win an argument, the other side is trying to uncover the truth.

    I think it is this disconnect that is causing frustration.

    • 1: Many players would probably be fine with it. The defensiveness comes because people feel like they are being criticized, like the fun they have had is being derided because of discussion about a technique they have used.

      2: I think this is an exercise, not in rhetoric but in internet discussion.

      Agreed, though, not everyone taking part in discussions on this topic this week are doing so in any kind of way that is hoping for any communication. Such is life.

      My main problem with fudging is when it is used as a lame prop-up for piss-poor game design, rather than making the results of die rolls interesting.

  13. I would totally be one to shake your hand, Judd. 🙂

    I don’t see any reason why you should have to apologize for or quality your original statement. Mr. Newman’s post says it well: Rule 0 is a design cop-out, plain and simple. It’s a holdover from all of the wargaming baggage that still bloats so many RPGs with rules that actively get in the way of their goals, much less the group’s fun in general.

    That companies still design this way just boggles my mind. (It’s not just DA; I think every RPG Green Ronin has produced contains similar Rule 0 content.)

    And from a purely social contract standpoint, it’s incredibly sad to me that fudging has become so embedded in the hobby’s techniques.

    Anyway, all of this makes me think of Chris Chinn’s recent posts on the subject:

    http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2009/12/15/the-roots-of-the-big-problems/

    http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2009/12/19/a-way-out/

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