Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Sword of Forbearance - Altering Dice Rolls in D&D

Certain topics come up again and again in TTRPG discussions, and few are as contentious as ‘fudging’ or altering dice rolls.


Now that we have got that out of the way, let’s talk about fudging.

Over the years I’ve seen many people argue that fudging is “bad DMing”, it is unfair, it is dishonest, etc, etc. I disagree with this. There can be many reasons why the DM might decide to change the results of a dice roll. 

An argument I have seen many times is, “If you are not going to use the result then why even bother rolling”? This is a bit more persuasive on the surface, indeed, why bother rolling if you already know the result you want?

The problem is that this isn’t always the case, you don’t always know the result you want before rolling the dice. I’m sure you have been in this situation before, someone gives you a choice between option A and option B, you say you don’t care, because when they ask you can’t think of a reason to favor option A or option B. Then the decision is made to go with option A (for example). Suddenly you realize something you have forgotten, or you get a feeling that, no, you don’t want option A. Sometimes making the decision clarifies your feelings about that choice, and you don’t like the results. 

This is a perfectly legitimate result and a normal feeling to have. Choices, when they are presented to you, sometimes seem clear and simple and you think you have a handle on all the variables. Then when those decisions are made, your feelings change, or you realize that you have forgotten some key variable or implication of the decision.

So the fact that you didn’t have a preference before the dice were rolled, but you do after, is not an example of inconsistency, pointlessness or malice, it’s just human nature when making decisions in a complex environment.

Additionally, it's a popular misconception about early edition D&D that fudging was forbidden. Take Gygax’s view on the subject:

Perhaps surprisingly to some, Gygax makes it clear that the dice are your tool, not the other way around. You can veto them, choose not to roll them, make up whatever arbitrary weighting of dice roll you want, or change the consequences of the dice rolls as you see fit. The only example he gives of a dice roll that you should never change is your “system shock” roll (which you roll when you are brought back from the dead), otherwise death is ruled out completely.

In short, Gygax acknowledges that losing a much loved character for some arbitrary reason that is no fault of their own is unfair, and should be mitigated at the DM’s discretion. So even as far back as 1e the DM is taken to have ultimate authority over all aspects of the game, and that means that fudging is fine for old school DMs, BTB.

Gygax embodied the idea of “free Kreigspeil”, the idea that games like TTRPGs needed a neutral arbiter with ultimate authority, authority over the rules, and even over the dice. Gygax understood, as the early wargame designers understood, that wargames, and TTRPGs, were complex systems, and complex systems could interact in unpredictable ways, and leave the referee unable to appeal to the rules to fix the problem, or worse still force them to spend too much time trying to find the answer in the rules.  What this means is that EVERY aspect of the game is amenable to DM fiat. If that’s the case, fudging cannot be off the table.

However, there is another take on this that I have seen a lot more lately, specifically that choosing NOT to fudge dice rolls in the game is harmful to the players, and a mark of bad DMing. 

I must admit the first time I saw this I was flabbergasted. TTRPGs are games, and games rely on mechanics, if it is OK to overrule those mechanics at the DM’s discretion, it should be OK to leave the mechanics alone at the DM’s discretion as well. IT’S THE DM’S DISCRETION.

Or so you would think.

What has led people to think that rolling dice and letting their results stand is somehow an example of “bad” DMing? In one case I saw it was suggested that letting the dice stand was “choosing the dice over people”. I had to digest that for a few minutes. It seemed fairly hyperbolic, but as is often the case, hyperbole can suggest there is something deeper at work.

On the surface it seems obviously false, as a few moments of consideration will show. There can clearly be situations where the DM chooses not to fudge and as a result a PC might die, causing someone to lose a treasured character. This is exactly the sort of thing that Gygax warned about. 

But the flip side is also true, choosing not to fudge might mean that the PCs gain some important advantage, or a beneficial result that they might otherwise not gain if the DM chose to alter the results of the dice roll. So for example, I roll for treasure, and I don’t fudge dice results, so I could roll up an artifact or relic when rolling treasure for that ogre. Many, if not most, DM’s would fudge this result. Choosing not to fudge can thus benefit or harm the PCs, something that people forget when evaluating the practice. 

So why the vehemence around the practice? For many years the discussion of the issue (at least as far as I have seen it) was that, for the most part, fudging was considered to be OK in small doses, but there was very little resistance to the idea of letting the dice stand when they are rolled. Now I’m seeing more pushback against this.

The main factor I can see that has changed over the years is the rise in popularity of narrative focused gaming. The idea is that the game is supposed to be a form of storytelling, and if a story is being told, sometimes it’s not the “right time” for a character to shuffle off this mortal coil. Add to that the fact that modern versions of D&D put more emphasis on backstory, time investment in character at character generation, and role-playing the character. When players have invested so much in their PC’s, is it any wonder that many view refusing to fudge dice rolls as harmful? Dice can kill you, and death is the end of your story.

Telling a Story
Let’s say for a moment that you agree with the following premise: TTRPGs are a form of shared storytelling experience. The DM and players get together to play a game and in the process tell a story together. It is at least plausible that one might look at the death of a character and say, “that doesn’t fit the story”, and decide to change the results of the dice roll that killed them.

However, who gets to decide this? Who gets to decide that the death of a character does or does not fit the story? The DM? The table? There are games that have explicit mechanisms for this, for deciding on the spot if a character death is right for the story or not. The player themself, for example, can decide if the death “sticks” in some games. D&D does not have an explicit mechanism for this. So it can be decided by the player, or by the DM, or by the table.

Unfortunately, any system that allows the DM or the table to decide and does not give ultimate say to the player will violate the premise that spawned this discussion, that the player might be harmed by the death of their PC. If that is your baseline, making sure the player is happy, then at the end of the day the player has to be the ultimate arbiter of when their PC dies. 

That’s fine if that is the way you want to run your game, as long as you are clear about it from the get go. It would be unfortunate if a player lost a PC without realizing that they could overturn the result. 

But consider the case where the DM dices death, and before the players find out the results, the DM gets to decide whether or not to accept those results. I have seen many DM’s openly admit that they have done this, altered dice rolls to “save” a PC when they feel that the story doesn’t yet call for their death.

This sounds fine on the surface, but scratch it a bit and it becomes problematic, for a few reasons.

First, it is open to abuse, since the players don’t know the results. Say a DM doesn’t like a player, what is to stop them from fudging a dice roll against the player in question? Or, say a DM favors a player over other players in the group, what’s to stop them from altering the dice in their favor all the time? I have seen this latter possibility in a few games over the years. 

If you are going to be concerned that NOT fudging rolls might be unfair to the players, you have to consider the possibility that allowing rolls to be fudged might be unfair as well.

But say you think that this isn’t a big concern, or that if you are concerned about the DM being unfair you have bigger problems than dice fudging. There is still another concern with the idea of “letting the story decide”, even if you aren’t concerned about your DM being biased.

“Letting the story decide” means essentially “letting the DM decide” if a PC lives or dies. And this puts an unfair burden on the shoulders of the DM. Why? Because any time the DM decides to let the PC die from the result of a dice roll, rather than fudging it, it is ON THE DM that the PC died. 

There is no “story” beyond the decisions made by the DM and players at the table, so if the game environment and a player’s decisions have led to a dice roll that can kill them, it is the DM who decides whether they live or die in a system where fudging is allowed. Once you have the power, the choice not to use it is its own responsibility. 

I can’t speak for others, but personally I don’t want that kind of responsibility. I don’t want it to be my fault that a PC died because I chose not to exercise my power to fudge dice results. I also don’t want it to be because of me that the PCs got a big treasure or killed a dangerous monster because I fudged in their favor. I want them to win it fair and square.

This may seem like an abstract concern, but it is a very real one. If you regularly fudge results, and make no mistake, your players have a good chance of figuring this out, then when you do die the obvious conclusion is that the DM let it happen. Sure, you might be a DM that fudges results without your players knowing, but unless you lie to them and say that you rarely if ever fudge dice rolls, they are going to know that is a possibility. And then it isn’t the game that killed them, it is your decision as the DM not to intervene when you had the power to do so that killed them.

It should be obvious, but in a game with a DM, the DM has significant power over what happens at the table, they control the whole game world except for the PCs. In an environment like that, one where the DM feels free to fudge dice results, the responsibility for the ultimate results of game play falls squarely on the DM’s shoulders. 

In short, saying letting PCs die when it is “story appropriate” leaves open both the possibility of DM abuse, and the possibility of resentment for the DM NOT interfering when everyone knows that they can. 

One simple solution to this, and I would recommend it from the days when I did fudge dice results, would be to take it to the table when this happens. So say the party thief accidentally triggers a trap when attempting to disarm it, and the rolls say that she dies. Say further that the party thief, one that has been in the campaign for a while, was going to achieve some important goal related to their backstory after this adventure. The DM might feel that this is upsetting to the player, coming so close to the goal but being foiled by a bad dice roll.

At this point the DM could take it to the table and ask, “What does everyone think, is it fair that Nell Nimblefingers will die here in this dark dungeon rather than being reunited with her long lost sibling?” 

A discussion can happen at that point, and if the WHOLE TABLE agrees that it doesn’t make sense, or it isn’t fair, then Nell lives! I think this is a fair solution, but be warned, if you open a process to consensus, then there is the real possibility that at least some members of the group might think it’s just fine for Nell to bite the dust. Then you are left with a lot of hurt feelings. 

I played in a game where this precise situation happened. The PC in question had for years been looking for a lost sibling, and right on the cusp of finding them, the PC was killed by a random monster encounter. The player made the case to the DM, who had changed results in the game before, that this should be nixed. The discussion happened, and several other players didn’t think it should. From their perspective, the PC was showboating and got killed, that was on them, and the death should stick. The DM eventually yielded to the player as they were very upset about their character dying, and there was resentment about it for long after. 

Just to be clear, I am NOT saying that choosing to fudge dice results is inherently wrong, or an example of bad DMing. I’m trying to make people aware of the potential pitfalls of choosing to fudge dice rolls. How you weigh those concerns and what you choose to do about them is entirely up to you. 

Accentuating the Positive

Enough about potential pitfalls, maybe you think that all of the points I have made so far are baseless, you have been fudging for years and it hasn’t caused any of these problems. 

Fair enough.

However, let me make the case for not fudging and see if there are any benefits you might be overlooking.

The first point I want to make is that this whole discussion is in a very significant way, flawed. It relies on a very limited reading, e.g. it ignores context and history. Our aforementioned thief, who died in the random monster encounter, wasn’t killed by a dice roll, she was killed by having a bad AC, getting into the habit of trying to backstab powerful monsters early in combat to get the glory of the kill, trying this with a high HD monster that was very unlikely to die from a backstab attack on its own, and the fact that the party had chosen to rest in the woods to camp for the night, when the woods were densely populated with monsters. 

It’s never just a dice roll that kills you. It’s never just a dice roll that saves you. If the DM rolls a powerful magic item for a weak creature, it isn’t the dice roll that rewarded you, it’s everything that got you to that dice roll as well. 

This should be obvious, but it is often forgotten. So you should stop thinking of it as fudging to “save” a PC from bad luck, and start thinking of it as changing the significance of everything the PC has done to that point. 

This might be too abstract for your taste, so let’s say you don’t agree with the assumption, or think it doesn’t matter.

There are still reasons to consider not fudging the results of dice rolls. These are the reasons that ultimately changed my mind. Note: I do all my dice rolling in the open, unless it is a roll that the players can’t know about, for those they are made without the player seeing the roll. So the vast majority of the rolling in my game, by the players and by me, is in the open.

  1. Fairness - the game already has a lot of room for the DM to influence things, it's important to have SOMETHING in the game that isn’t open to anyone’s influence. That helps to make it more fair. 
  2. Immersion - IMO, if the rolls can be changed the world feels less “real”. The real world sometimes pushes back against you, refuses to yield to your will. When the game does this it emulates reality, and invokes similar responses in you. To me this adds to immersion. When the players know that saving throw they are rolling is do or die, knowing that it can’t be changed makes it feel different.
  3. Excitement - When crucial results are rolled the whole table gathers round and screeches with the results. When you just know your DM will save you at the last second it takes some of the sting out of the dice. Raw rolling is ALWAYS exciting, because the risks are always real
  4. Sense of Accomplishment - When you succeed without DM interference it feels more like your success. My players know that if I roll a random encounter with a very powerful monster, and in 1e this can happen, wandering monster tables are not balanced, they will have to survive that encounter in some way, I’m not rerolling something more “level appropriate”. So when they do survive, they feel like rock stars. 
  5. Spontaneity and Creativity - letting the dice stand forces the DM to interpret the results in a way that fits the narrative. That’s a muscle that grows with use. The more you let the dice stand the more often you have to deal with results that don’t seem to fit. This experience is the key to success in improvisation, something every DM needs.  
  6. Rewards - we focus on death rolls, but letting the dice lay applies to EVERYTHING. Monsters rolled, treasures rolled, the lot. So there are many positives for the PCs to letting the dice stand. Treasure can be greater and monsters can be easier than they would be otherwise if the DM decided. There are benefits to this as well.

It does take a bit of getting used to, because sometimes you will get a result that feels wrong, but it’s important to remember a bit of human psychology here. Human beings suffer from what is known as affective forecasting problems, we are bad at predicting how we will feel about future developments. Generally we tend to assume we will feel worse than we do. We overestimate the negatives about negative experiences in our future.

In short, we tend to assume that not changing that crucial roll will lead to dire results all the time. I think this is a mistake. I have been DMing for 35+ years off and on, and I have had many opportunities to fudge dice to save PCs. 

Over the last 6 years there have been about 15 deaths in my home game (8 players). We play about 30 sessions a year. Here is what I have seen in these cases:

A. The player was ready to try something new, perhaps a class they had always wanted to play, so when the PC died they eagerly rolled up a new PC or took control over a henchman, etc. In some cases they liked the new PC even more.

B. The player was ambivalent or upset about the death when it happened, rolled up a new PC, and was completely unconcerned about it in a session or two as the new PC was fun too.

I think, and this is just a hunch, that what separates the campaigns OK with death from those where players get quite upset about it and feel wronged and hurt is fairness. Investment matters, if you are invested in a character you are more likely to care about their death. But I have had players in my game who have run characters for a while and had them die. They were invested, but they knew the death was fair. A fair and glorious end to an adventurer’s life is a good story too. I’d say that after 6 years of regular gaming, what gets talked about the most are the big wins and the big losses, when they took out the THING and when the THING took them out. 

At the end of the day everyone should do what their table agrees to. I think this is a great session zero conversation. I tell my players that I don’t fudge dice rolls, so I can’t help them out once the dice hit the table. They know death is a real possibility, and they know it’s impartial. That works for us. 

It might not work for you, your group may be more married to the idea of letting that story go on longer, and that’s fine too. For you, some fudging might be in order to make for a rewarding game or get to a meaningful conclusion. That’s all good.

I wrote this primarily to debunk the idea that *either* option is “wrong”, or “bad DMing”, and to give some of the costs of doing it and the benefits of not doing it. 

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