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There are few issues in the tabletop community more divisive than fudging. It is a topic everyone has an opinion about and if you ask ten people their thoughts you will receive ten different responses.
What is dice fudging? Dice fudging is when a DM/GM makes a roll, dislikes the result, and applies a more desirable result in its stead.
There are numerous reasons a GM might fudge but generally it falls into two camps: fudging to avert tragedy, fudging to ensure success. Fudging is Deus ex Machina. Ensuring success, averting tragedy, that all sounds like good stuff, right? So why all the hate for fudging? Well, fudging is gentle slang for its baser name: lying. One problem with lying about dice is only one side of the GM screen is allowed to lie about their dice with impunity. I’ve been in a group that aggressively dismissed someone for dice fudging as a player. When a player lies about their roll results it’s lying, cheating. When a GM does it, it’s fudging. Fudging sounds a lot more benign doesn’t it?
From my perspective the biggest problem I have with dice fudging is the same problem I mentioned in my blog on no-win fights. Chance is what it’s all about. Even a 99% chance of one outcome means there’s still a risk. Chance is given agency in RPGs with dice (usually). Any situation with dice carries with it the possibility for success and failure, no matter the odds. When either end of the spectrum is removed the chance the die symbolizes is neutralized.
If the action cannot fail, do not roll.
If the action cannot succeed, do not roll.
That is the easy cardinal rule. Death savings throws? If you as a GM refuse to allow this PC to die in this fashion, just say so. An easy house rule for the situation would be to consider all dying PCs as KO’d until the end of the encounter or the PC is revived. No death saves to potentially fail. However, this situation does not remove the risk of death. If the party doesn’t succeed they either suffer a TPK or leave their unconscious companions to the baddies’ discretion.
Probably the largest single piece of the whole mess is character death and its effect on the player. Personally, if you have a player who can’t handle the death of a PC you have larger table issues with the player. Accepting the death of a character with grace is a highly underrated quality in a player. I, and I don’t believe I’m alone, would rather have a PC die and its story end than have a campaign fall apart leaving the PC’s fate to the ether unresolved.
Consider Dark Souls. The video game series is heralded, beloved, for its brutal difficulty. It’s a game that forces players to fight tooth and nail for every inch. But it’s fair. It doesn’t mollycoddle and each victory a player earns is sweeter for it.
In the end I don’t remember many of times I rolled 13 to-hit and it was just enough to kill an enemy. I do remember some of the saving graces and I tend to feel sour about it. But I remember the anxious eyes around the table on a crucial die roll. The crestfallen moments and the brilliant arrivals of surprise natural twenties. Fudging makes those moments less special, less defining to our games as they are meant to be.
I understand the chance inherit in dice mechanics and that chance has the ability to disrupt the campaign. There are alternatives: diceless systems like Amber and other systems that have a different method of conflict resolution without the unpredictability of dice or cards. For me, I like the chance. It’s one of the big reasons I keep showing up to roll dice.