Monday, 2 August 2021

On Fudging The Dice

 Been a while, hasn't it? And now Ya Girl is back with her hot opinions.
I'm doing discourse. God help me.

here is a photo, because the algorithm likes that.

So. Dice fudging. It's been in the conversation lately and everybody has very strong views and I cba to try to fit mine in a tweet so here we go.

First up, let's define our terms. Dice Fudging is when you roll a dice for some mechanic, and the result is rubbish so you pretend you got something else instead. You generally see it discussed in the context of the GM doing it in order to keep the story flowing or anything too weird happening.

So, right off the bat I'm going to say that the "never fudge, let the dice fall where they may" people are wrong. Not because that's not a valid style of play, but because they're being absolutist about a matter of subjective taste. I'd also say that the (less common) people who say that a GM has an obligation to fudge to keep things on track are making the same mistake.

In practice, how you handle this is going to vary wildly from group to group depending on tastes, priorities, the system being used, etc etc.

The question isn't really about the GM getting to ignore the dice, it's how you relate to the game mechanics as a power structure. If following the mechanics and dice rolls to the letter results in a naff outcome, do you overrule them? And different play cultures have different answers to that question. Assuming everybody else shares your culture of play, or that a single culture of play applies to all the games you use, will lead to less interesting results.
If I'm playing Call Of Cthulhu and flub a Notice roll to get that vital clue that moves the investigation to its next step, then the GM tweaking things so the investigation doesn't stall out is pretty justified. On the other hand, if I'm playing B/X and fail a save vs poison and my PC dies, the GM shouldn't be tweaking that because unexpected lethality is part of the intended experience. Different priorities in different games.

I mean, hell, even as an OSR GM I've done this now and then. Mostly for random encounters, if I roll an encounter and it makes no sense for it to be there (perhaps I get a large predator in a tomb without enough prey to support it), I ignore that result and re-roll. I'm prioritising keeping the fiction internally consistent over obeying the whims of the dice.

On the other hand, I'd never fudge things like combat or traps. If you die, you die. Play smarter next time. Otherwise, if I tweak things to save one PC, that sets a precedent for similar situations in future. Bad vibes.

Ultimately, it comes down to having a robust social contract in place. If everybody's on board with that style of play, it's fine. If they aren't, it's not. Just make sure everybody's on the same page, and be open about what you're doing. 

A lot of the time, fudging the dice is a corrective mechanism. Perhaps you called for a roll when you didn't really need one, and realise after the fact that actually, no, you already know what should happen. Perhaps the game mechanics are flawed or don't cover this situation, and produced an inappropriate result. Nudge things back on track, and move on.
No RPG is perfect (except the ones I write, obvs). Some amount of maintenance will be needed on the fly. Sometimes, fudging dice is just a way to account for those flaws without having to take the whole game apart and houserule it to be better, which might be more effort than it's worth.

So far, so milquetoast. Now time for a 1000 scoville take.

If the GM can fudge the dice, why can't the players?

This is one of those questions that gets people really weirdly angry. Like asking 'if you eat meat and that's okay, why isn't it okay to kill animals for the fun of it'? It exposes those little irrational biases that make people uncomfortable, I suspect.

And the answers I mostly get generally take the same form.
"Oh, you can't trust players, they don't know what's best for them."
"If you trust the players with that, they'll abuse it."
"The GM's job is to make the game fun, and players don't have that responsibility."
"What's to stop the players fudging every roll and winning everything?"
...and so on and so forth.

And I dunno. I find this perspective fucking infantilising. It treats players like selfish assholes with no impulse control who just want to win at all costs. The GM has this paternalistic duty over the players, who will ruin everything if you let them, because they don't know what's good for them. Urgh. 

Here's another thing. 
"No, the players can't fudge! That's cheating!"
Is it? Is it though? If everybody at the table is cool with it, if it's explicitly an option, then you're not violating your social contract.

(See also the question asked of many polyamorous people: "If you hook up with somebody else, aren't you just cheating on your partner?" No, because no agreement is being violated, and they're fine with it. Jeez. Okay end of stupid aside.)

What this comes down to is power structures. The GM is given power. They can ignore the rules, if they want to, because they're in charge and it's their prerogative. Rule 0 means what the GM says goes. Players can't, though, because we don't allow them that power.
Fuck that noise.

You want to know a dirty secret? I've fudged dice as a player sometimes, too. And you know what's fascinating, and counter to all the arguments I hear on the topic? I've never done that to make myself succeed.
But sometimes, I want to fail and the dice won't let me. Sometimes I want to RP having that trauma and paranoia, and want my investigator to fail her San check. Sometimes I think it would be more fun to fail my self-control roll and accidentally blood bond myself. Sometimes I want my Dread character to knock over the jenga tower and go out in a blaze of glory.
Sometimes failing is fun, and the dice won't let me.
And this is a playstyle that so many people in this discussion just... don't seem to account for. They see it in terms of 'winning' and 'unfair advantage' because... 
Well, look. Because D&D is often played as a game about violence and winning, and they assume that's how all RPGs work.

You know what? If we've decided that we're going to override the mechanics sometimes to make the game more fun, then that power probably shouldn't be centralised in only the GMs hands. Players should get their own creative input.
Heck, sometimes people ignore the dice because, look, they've had a shitty day and they just want to feel powerful, and if they do so fucking what? We aren't playing poker, money isn't on the line. Heck, it probably isn't even a PvP situation. Just let them have it. It's not a big deal.

Why are people so mad about this?
Because it questions the unspoken, unchallenged assumptions about GM authority. And that makes them uncomfortable.

And look. High GM authority games where the players don't have that control can work fine. Plenty of mystery or exploration games, for example, rely on hidden information to function, and the GM is making calls with info the players aren't privy too, and bringing the players behind the curtain to make these calls would spoil the process of discovery.
It can work really well. But it's not the only way of doing these things.

I feel I should probably clarify that I tend to favour games that don't fudge dice, either as a player or a GM. But also, I favour games which only roll dice occasionally, in high-stakes, uncertain, dramatic situations. Mostly you can handle things with the conversation loop, letting the fiction evolve without needing randomness to get involved.

Anyway in conclusion, it's a complex topic that largely comes down to individual taste, and also our default assumptions about GM authority aren't the only way to do things.

Addendum: a friend described dice fudging (when used in healthy ways) as basically a retcon. Something went wrong - either the mechanics were flawed or a bad call was made - so we're going to go back and undo that mistake. Which I think is a good way to look at things.