Fudging is Bad Form

By | January 17, 2015

Wow, that’s a controversial title, isn’t it?  I stand by it.

Fudging is the practice of modifying a game mechanic result or keeping a game mechanic hidden in order to ensure a desired outcome.  When a player does it, it’s called “cheating.”  But for years and years, GMs have been taught by other GMs, by advice columns and whatnot, that they should fudge results in order to make a game more interesting, more engaging, and keep the story moving.  But my perspective is quite different:  fudging the dice (and the difficulties players are rolling against) is in fact detrimental to a GM’s skills, to player engagement, and to the hobby as a whole.  It is through fudging that railroading is not only possible, but implicitly encouraged.  I’ma ‘splain:

Fudging Makes Rolling Irrelevant

Traditional games are played with the GM rolling “behind the screen” or keeping the target number of rolls secret until after the dice have been rolled.  This is actually done in part to make fudging easier, thereby implicitly encouraging it.  But the inevitable result of fudging the results of the dice makes the dice completely irrelevant to the game.  The reason the dice become irrelevant is because, if the result (success, failure, partial success, etc) is decided upon by the GM rather than by the dice, the result of the dice does not matter because it is the whim of the GM that is the ultimate deciding-factor.  This is something many recent indie games have realized, replacing the traditional GM with a shared-authority/ownership model.  After all, if it’s going to happen based on how bad you want it, why bother with the pretense of rolling?

As an example, I’ve played in games where the GM never told us how high/how many successes we would need for rolls.  We would instead roll, and the GM would look at what we rolled and decide whether it was high enough to matter.  In these cases, the “game” is being played against the GM – specifically, are the dice going to be impressive enough to the GM that he lets you have the success.  If the GM doesn’t want a roll to succeed, the difficulty is too high/too many for the roll to matter.  If the GM wants a roll to succeed, the difficulty is too low/too few for the roll to matter.  And in situations where the roll result is “close,” the outcome is still dependent upon the whim of the GM.

Even in situations where the GM only fudges “once in a while,” or fudges only to the players’ benefit, the fact remains that the GM, once fudging is introduced, could fudge at any time.  The inevitable result of this is that all rolls are irrelevant because they can be overruled by GM fiat.

Fudging Hijacks the Narrative

As an extension of making rolling irrelevant, it also makes player characters irrelevant in significant ways.  If fudging is on the table and the rolls don’t matter, then the narrative of the game, the game’s story, is going to play out more-or-less the way the GM wants it to play out.  In these situations, the player characters (and their players) are largely along for the ride, only able to affect the narrative in limited ways.  This is the famous example of whether you’re going to find yourself in the dungeon by going down the east road in the woods or the north road in the woods.  You’re going to get to the same point either way, so the choice given is largely presented to provide the illusion of free will and agency.  But make no mistake: fudging places absolute control of the narrative in the GM’s hands, and is a clear violation of the Czege Principle: “when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.”

I find this particularly egregious, because it has numerous fallout effects:

  • GM Elevation:  By being solely in control of the narrative, the GM becomes “more important” than the other players.  This leads to the creation of structures like Rule Zero, “The GM is always right,” and to attitudes like the GM needing to find ways to control unruly players, as though “not following the story the way the GM has prepared it” is a somehow undesirable behavior that should be struck down.
  • Player vs. GM:  Through elevation over the players, what should otherwise be a cooperative game is made into an adversarial game.  Players will become increasingly “unruly” the more they realize they have no narrative control in an effort to assert their own value and agency on the game.
  • Player Frustration:  Because success is ultimately in the hands of the GM, the GM will ultimately win any adversarial narrative confrontation if the GM chooses to do so.  This breaks the final illusion of agency for the other players, leading to players having to follow the railroad or not play.  And many players, to their detriment, do not follow the principle of “no gaming is better than bad gaming.”
  • The Cycle Continues:  Some of these players will later move on to be GMs in their own right, because they have been taught that the only way to have narrative agency is to have the total narrative control that comes with being a GM who can fudge the results.  They will therefore play this way, and teach a new generation of gamers that this is the way ’tis done.

Fudging Erodes GM Skills

Continuing that train of thought, fudging actually makes GMs worse at what they should be doing.  GMs are responsible for running games, creating game worlds, creating adventures and adversaries, and being fair referees.  I’ll start with being a fair referee.

Good referees don’t say “well, you were this close, so I’ll let you have it.”  Imagine the uproar if a football referee counted the 1-yard line as the end zone because it’s really close!  Good referees concern themselves with the facts of the outcome, not modifying the outcome to try and enforce a cosmically-defined balance.  Fairness, in the case of the referee, isn’t kindness – it is identification of fact.  And fudging explicitly prevents a GM from being a good referee.

GMs are also responsible for creating the experiences their gaming groups will play through – and since the seminal Dragonlance adventures of the 80s, standard adventure design has basically been about the railroad player characters need to hop on in order to experience the adventure.  Over the years various tricks have been employed to make this less obvious – clues in one encounter directly lead to another encounter, with few red herrings to potentially distract players, and a strong focus on combat to minimize potential variations in the story.  But adventures are still designed to play out more-or-less as-written.

What this means, of course, is that GMs are trained to focus their efforts on giving the players an illusion of agency while always (subtly, so they don’t notice) steering them back onto the prepared path.  Doing this is narrative hijacking and is also eroding a GM’s ability to notice and explore potential stories that could emerge as a result of player agency.  The GM becomes less good at improvising story because he is spending all of his efforts improvising ways to get back to the pre-planned story.

And this is certainly in part because more mainstream roleplaying games require an enormous amount of work to prepare an adventure.  Half-page (or longer!) enemy stat blocks, magic item and treasure generation in addition to creating a story framework; this is a terrific amount of work.  GMs don’t want to do all that work and risk it blowing away in the wind, that certainly would not be fair to them.  But unfortunately it transitions their skills away from improvisation, cleverness and quick wits to more structured and less nuanced play.

For example, if a clue is required in order to continue a story, some kind of roll is traditionally made in order to notice that clue.  But what happens when no one succeeds the roll?  The GM must fudge if the story is to continue!  Or, alternately, require everyone to continue rolling until someone spots the clue.  Either way is a fudge – and in this way, fudging encourages designing adventures that assume fudging, which therefore require fudging to run, which perpetuates the cycle.

Fudging Encourages “The Right Way To Play”

It is the perpetuation of “the dice don’t matter, only the will of the GM matters” (AKA GM Fiat, or even to an extent “Rulings not Rules”) that narrows the hobby.  Players who were more likely to try unusual things may be penalized for such attempts because they might force the GM to work harder or leave the railroad.  This is generally unacceptable (see GM Elevation above), so instead of the limitless possibilities that should exist in a tabletop game, new players or out-of-the-box players are actually forced into a smaller set of possibilities.  Some new players, finding this to be not as fun as they thought it would be, leave the hobby never to return – after all, video games can give them the same experience with better music and graphics.

But some new players stick around to continue playing.  And they learn that there’s a “right way to play,” and learn not to think outside that box.  This leads to behaviors such as character optimization, wherein characters are so specialized and so powerful at their thing that it becomes virtually impossible for the GM to fudge without the player calling bullshit.  Charops, in this sense, is explicitly encouraged by Player vs. GM adversarial play, which is in turn encouraged by fudging.  And now we have an entire generation of players who have been trained that this is the way you have to play in order to overcome obstacles.

Fudging Means System Doesn’t Matter

No matter what system, no matter what mechanics, fudging means that you’re always playing the meta-game of “do what this GM wants.”  It is for this reason that some GMs are valued over others – those GMs are more likely to have a “what they want” that aligns with certain players, again leading to a fragmentation and narrowing of the roleplaying community.

For example, I’ve played in several World of Darkness games that were basically a D&D game but using dice pools.  Savage Worlds plays like D&D when you set a dungeoncrawl in it.  Both of those rulesets have their own strengths, but those strengths aren’t expressed when the metagame is instead “same old adventure, same old GM.”

Which is in part why a lot of games that really require players to break out of that traditional roleplaying mold have a difficult time getting market penetration.  We have trained at this point decades of players to accept the wisdom of fudging, narrowing the audience for games and fracturing the overall playerbase.

Fudging:  Not Even Once

That’s why we designed Forthright Open Roleplay to require all rolls out on the table, and to require all difficulties to be announced prior to the roll.  It takes some getting used to – undoing so many years of bad habits is not a simple affair – but ultimately it encourages the kind of emergent roleplay that allows players to truly have agency and allows GMs to really express the flexibility of their own skills and of the Gamescape.  We did this also in part by making adventures much simpler to design, so they can be developed on-the-fly.

I’ve had a couple of playtesters say that when they would sit down to run FOR, they would not follow the open-rolling rule.  Unfortunately (and this is kind of bad for business, but hey), that would be a scenario when they are playing the game wrong.  Philosophically, that guts the entire point of the system – the idea being that the very Forthrightness of keeping difficulties and results in the open will lead to emergence.

But then, folks are trained to play the metagame.  That’s why you shouldn’t fudge.  Not even once.