You know the situation. Your characters are facing a bunch of goblins you threw in there just to have a combat encounter, because you feel like you should have one here. And what happens? One of those apparently harmless goblins crits and would deal deadly amount of damage to one of the characters. So, what do you do? Well, okay, maybe you didn’t roll the maximum, maybe he just rolled poorly on damage instead…
You know, no-one’s ever going to know…
… except that they always do.
You aren’t as good a liar as you think you are. That laugh you just made sounded really fake. And now they know. You fudge dice. Maybe they don’t know the depths of your depravity yet, but they do know you are at least willing to do it.
So, “okay”, you think to yourself, “I won’t do it the next time.” Sure. That’s something. Don’t repeat your mistakes, but you have to think this through. So, okay, last time you saved a character from certain death. Now, another character is about to die without any real reason, but you are adamant about not fudging any more dice. You might be right not to do it, but from the player perspective, its clear favoritism. You were just willing to save that guy’s character, so why not mine? There might be differences to how important different characters are to your campaign, but to the players their own character always matters the most.
Now, I know fudging is actually pretty much standard operating procedure to many GMs, but lets get down to this with less rhetoric and more actual reasoning.
1. Don’t Lose the Sense of Danger in Your Adventures
Adventuring shouldn’t be easy. Its supposed to be a challenge. If you fudge the dice, you will lose that. You might think your players don’t know, but they do. They understand that if their opponents always fail in those critical situations that there must be some other force in play.
I was once in a campaign where the characters of two players were always wounded in some more or less grievous ways, and were often more or less out of action because of that, while the other two characters were hardly ever harmed. Although no-one ever discussed it, it was clear to all concerned that the GM was fudging the dice in the favor of those players, because those two characters were usually the ones running straight into danger.
What are the players supposed think in this kind of a situation? It didn’t really matter how the two of us approached a situation, because no matter how careful we were, we would somehow ambushed, while the other two would be able to do anything with no risk involved.
Sure, there were deeper problems here, but how could such a situation be satisfying to anyone? If the GM didn’t feel the need to fudge the dice, the campaign might have found some deeper meaning, but because that wasn’t the case, it came more about metagaming.
2. Design Your Adventures in Such a Way That You Don’t Have to Fudge
Random encounters don’t actually do anything for the story anyway, so why even use them? You really need combat encounters that much? Play a boardgame, then. Sense of danger is much more important than actual danger. You can induce a sense of danger in your players in many ways, usually using the unknown to your benefit. This is pretty basic human thing. What we don’t know is always scary.
How do you do this? Of course, it depends a lot on what you are doing in your campaign, but the example I always like to use is the sniper. The sniper doesn’t even have to be very effective as long as he can remain hidden and cause damage here and there. Its much more memorable than hitting faceless orcs with your generic sword, that’s pretty much only a stat on your sheet.
3. Don’t Rob Your Players of the Experience of Character Death
Games are about learning. One thing you can learn is to deal with death. Of course, the death of your character will be nothing like the death of your mother, but its about small steps. So, if the character can’t die, because you fudge the die, the player will lose the opportunity to mourn the character.
Death is also (or at least should be) a major story point. Players should be able to make them their own. Is your character going to smile wickedly at the on-coming death, have impactful last words or go out kicking and screaming until the very end? No matter what the player chooses, you have to let it happen. Its their prerogative. It should be a great conclusion to all the decisions they’ve made during the career of the character.
Also, don’t make any character too important to die. Sure, our fiction will often focus on a single character. Its hard to kill Tony Soprano in a show called Soprano, but if you put yourself in such a situation, your doing it wrong. Feel free to focus on characters for single sessions, because in that case its even more momentous, if that character happens to die.
(I’ll probably write separate articles on handling character death and importance of PCs.)
So, if you GM, don’t do it. I always use systems where I don’t actually roll the dice (thanks, Mr. Baker), so I never have the temptation to fudge, but I also empower my players to such a degree that when their characters time comes, its hopefully going to be glorious and memorable. When I GM at cons, I always get the best feedback from the players, whose character died, because they felt they got something extra out of the whole deal.
… and if you play, call out your GM when you think he’s fudging. Don’t let them do it. They might think they have the power to do so, but fuck them. Its your game as well.