To Cheat or Not to Cheat—that is the Question

As a GM, do you fudge your dice rolls? (And when I say fudge, I mean “change”). Do you do it for the noblest of reasons or do you do it because you are a swine and want to crush your players’ enjoyment and prove to them you are the master?

 

It’s funny—when a GM “fudges” a die roll he can claim he’s doing it for the good of the game and the story (assuming it is done to help not hinder the players). When a player “fudges” a die roll, he’s cheating. That looks like a little bit of a double standard to me.

This is one of those questions that goes round and round the internet. Effectively, the question boils down to this: is it okay for the GM to cheat? Is it even cheating if it is done for the story or because the dice have not favoured the players? In my experience, you get two basic kinds of GM:

  1. Some GMs rigidly adhere to the dice; what the dice say goes. If they indicate a random encounter or that a PC is dead that’s what happens.
  2. Some GMs happily ignore the dice if by doing so the game will be better. This normally involves the PCs getting some boon or advantage.

As a GM I hate killing PCs as much as the next GM—the PC might be a beloved character that has survived untold sessions of gameplay and the players are invested in the PC. Certainly, as a player I hate it when my PCs die—normally death is the ultimate failure and as we tend to stick to relatively low-level games death is also often permanent. PC death sucks.

But—here’s the thing—without any risk, rewards are essentially meaningless. What’s the point in battling for three sessions through a monster-infested dungeon if there is no prospect of death or failure? You might as well save some time and just fast forward to the last fight (or just go to the pub). Fudging dice rolls, to me, seems more than a tad pointless—particularly if the players work out what the GM is doing. I’ve played in games where it has become obvious the GM is fudging things in our favour and it soured our victories—because it’s not really our victory anymore.

What Kind of GM Are You?


So which kind of GM are you? Do you rigidly adhere to the dice or do you change their results to better suit the game? Let me know, in the comments below.

 

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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15 thoughts on “To Cheat or Not to Cheat—that is the Question

  1. I fudge rolls all the time. In many instances I roll dice with no apparent reason. But I also roll dice in the open.

    Having the players not know what the dice rolls are about or what the roll actually is, creates tension. Imagine if the roll is a 1, so the BBEG fails miserably to hit. I don’t say that the BBEG is supposed to kill the PC, but a crit miss can be narrated as a near miss instead and keep the tension of the scene.

    Also, there are instances that I roll constantly high (or low). Then the fight is just too hard (or too easy). In these instances, I fudge any second roll with no second thought.

    So, yeah, I fudge my rolls all the time. I know it is not completely honest towards my players, but this is I guess one of the allotted powers of the GM.

  2. I never fudge. I’m not against it. I just enjoy getting surprises out of the game as well. My six Level 10 players killed an Ancient Green Dragon, they should never have taken on, in three rounds one night last year. I rolled 1’s, they rolled 20’s. It was a mugging. They laughed as they did it. But then a few games later 4 of them died in a library when a trap went off. I like the unplanned nature of letting the dice decide. You can’t script that. And I can say with utter confidence that nothing I’ve ever planned was memorable. It’s the crazy unplanned stuff random dice provide that gets talked about for years. I’ve put up every big bad imaginable over the years. No one cares much, or even remembers.
    But the night they broke into the wrong house and accidentally killed a butler – that’s been talked about for 20 years.

  3. i fudge rolls very judiciously and its generally to give the players a fighting chance against an enounter i’ve made too hard. That being said, important game changing rolls, I will
    make in front of the players so we can all share in the excitement.

  4. I roll combat in the open and let everyone see what’s going on.

    I also have a house rule that I roll a d6 plus d20 whenever a player makes a skill check. If I roll 6 on the d6 I use my skill roll. This helps avoid meta gaming – did their 19 fail because it was impossible or because I rolled a 2?

    However, I will use random encounter rolls as suggestion rather than gospel, and pick something different if I think it fits the current situation better.

  5. I fudge …. but sparingly.
    I enjoy the random “What the frank!?!” that comes from straight die rolls. For example we had a fight recently wherein the monster (a Harpie) crit failed, fell into some water and then proceeded to fail roll after roll and drowned, without the PCs ever laying a finger on her.
    But I also like to have a little finger on the scale. If an encounter is proving to be more difficult than planned … or too easy. Or if a contest of skills is over too quick. A little die fudgery can up the tension and help create more heroic heroes. With out risk there is no reward is true, so sometimes we have to up the risk factor …. or up the reward.

  6. If there is one thing I have learned about Game Mastering in 42 years its that you can’t win with Players. Somewhere in every DMG it says (basically) that the DM has the right and responsibility to use the power to fudge die rolls if it enhances game play. But then players found out about it. Heck, they were never supposed to find out about this DM power.
    I have used both styles of play, depends on the group. At least one player is going to pitch a fit no matter which style you use. With modern players throwing terms like “railroading” and “player agency” around its almost not worth the trouble to DM anymore.

  7. I fudge like here’s no tomorrow. Dice rolls on my side of the master screen function as story guidelines. There are no strict rules. I try to constantly guide the story for the fun of the players while keeping a sense of danger (and sometimes dread). If a player is completely reckless, without an ounce of imagination, just pure recklesness, I submit his fate to the dice. The same goes for an NPC, if I roll two natural 20’s but that steals the spotlight from my players, which have been rolling low numbers for the last 5 rounds, I make my NPC’s fail on purpose. It helps me create the feeling that everyone is underestimating the power or speed or the creature, not that their just having bad luck with the dices.

  8. Man, this is a topic I’ve written about a lot!

    I do not roll the dice if I do not intend to keep the results.

    I make all attack rolls out in the open. What’s more, I have the players roll damage against their characters. “You take 1d10+4 damage.” If they want to fudge the rolls, that is on them.

    As a player, I would much rather have my PCs die because the dice were against me than have the GM fudge. I have never seen an instance where fudging wasn’t ultimately detrimental to the game.

    OTOH, if the GM wants to fudge, and can get even a single player, the GM should always run the game s/he wishes to run.

  9. I am running a game now for new players, and they are all about Level 3. So I do lessen the damage sometimes, just so as not to wipe them out. As we go along and they get used to gameplay and get more attached, I don’t think I will be so forgiving. I understand either argument though.

  10. On the first page of the 7th Sea are the sentiments:
    GM Rule #1 There are no rules
    Rule #2 Cheat anyway.
    And to quote from the wonderful movie Dorkness Rising:
    Story trumps rules!
    I like the randomness of dice rolls, but my players are heroes in a harsh world, I don’t think they deserve to die in a random way. They can fail and have to regroup, they can die if they do something thoughtless, but I’m not sure LotR would be such classic if the Nazgul had rolled a bunch of crits on Amon Sul.

  11. Games where DMs fudge to keep players alive is like playing poker for fake money. There is no thrill in victory and no hard decision. Pair of 6s I go all in pre flop, red dragon I charge it.

    I always roll in the open except when it is a test the character s wouldn’t know the result off, like find traps. A lot of PC die in my game, but once players realize their is real risk they play smarter and more realistically. They run from combat, they avoid encounters, and they make selfish decisions in the name of self preservation.

    Because they know their is real risk when they do something brave it is actually heroic. If they chicken out it is a realistic human emotion.

  12. I do different things in different games.

    I’ve run games where every roll was in front of the players and if PC’s died, so be it. If my big bad died in one round, so be it. I let the players know up front this was how it was working.

    I’ve run games where I’ve rolled behind the screen and would sometimes fudge things. Sometimes the combat needed to be drawn out a bit. Sometimes it needed to end. Mostly did this for pacing purposes or to make things more interesting.

    It really depends on the game and the players.

  13. I try really hard to avoid fudging any rolls, and I think I generally succeed. Before I make the roll, I try to think about the worst acceptable consequences that make sense to me as well as general likelihood. I view the dice in an almost oracular way: the results stand in need of interpretation. So while I want to say no to fudging, I give an emphatic yes to interpreting! I also roll most things behind the screen: role-playing immersion first, game mechanics a distance second.

  14. No fudging for me. I like being surprised and rolling with the punches, and I think it increases drama and facilitates trust in the GM. So I roll in the open.

    If I need to fudge I do it in the fiction: reinforcements arrive, or the enemy makes a poor tactical choice, and so on. But without risk of death there is no drama, and I don’t want to be the one to arbitrarily kill a PC. If I regularly fudge, and then someone dies and I fail to fudge to save them, then I arbitrarily caused the death. So I strive for consistency.

    If the rules don’t deliver the game you want, so that you feel you need to fudge, then find better rules — there are lots of options. Otherwise why have rules at all? If I’m not willing to stick to a roll if it goes bad, then I don’t roll at all.

  15. One of my rules of thumb is, “Nobody knows what was supposed to happen”. If the fight’s proving too tough for the characters, nobody needs to know there was a second wave of ogres that had been awakened by the noise and about to appear. Likewise, if the fight’s not enough of a challenge, maybe it’s quite reasonable that was the advance guard and the reinforcements are arriving in the nick of time.

    If the party misses some feature, I can move it to their next stop. Or I can have something emerge through the door to attack from the rear. (“Nobody knows” the room was supposed to be unoccupied.) If the big monster in the sewer isn’t essential to the story, the party may simply hear the story in the tavern about its defeat at the hands of adventurers who went in after the party left. That’s a much more in-story way of letting the party know they overlooked something.

    I’m not above the occasional deus ex machina. When the rogue took on a burglary job that was too much for him (panthers make great watch-beasts), the local guildmaster intervened and tipped the scales toward living through the encounter. He even handled the clean-up and gave him the rags used to clean up the rogue’s blood, along with a warning not to leave his blood at a crime scene for the necromancers to play with. (He didn’t return *all* of it, leading to adventure hooks later on.)

    The lesson there is, the world’s a complicated place. Even a gaming world is a pretty complicated place. With a little creativity, you can always tip the balance toward challenging a party, or toward saving their skins (and not necessarily on the orc king’s wall!) With enough creativity, fudging to save the party may make things more interesting than merely killing them.