Tag Archives: RPG

Should a DM ever Fudge their Dice Rolls?

NO! At least that’ll be the answer you hear most  often and it’s probably the answer I’d give you 99% of the time but I think that there is a little more to it than there would initially appear to be. Just in case anyone thinks I’m only talking about D&D here, because I say DM, rest assured that DM is just my preferred title for the roll, from many years of running D&D, and this article can just as easily apply to GM’s, Keepers, Marshalls, Referees or anyone else that takes on the mantle of running the game.

It’s kind of easy to rush and answer no and depending on which side of the screen you generally reside the reason why is probably different. For Players it can seem galling that a DM is fudging the dice, after all it means one of two things and neither can be good, either the DM is making sure that you have been hit, suffer more damage etc. or that you are no longer in charge of your character’s destiny. For DM’s fudging a dice can seem unfair to players as their character’s aren’t really defeating that dragon and haven’t earned their victory or it can be argued that fudging a dice makes the game ‘unrealistic’.

Those opinions are all valid, in their own context, but I think all of them mean that someone has lost sight of the entire point of getting together and roleplaying in the first place, which is to have fun and no-one is having fun if luck appears to be against them and ultimately that’s all a dice roll is, luck.

Fudging Dice, all 1's

So a little history lesson. When D&D was in it’s infancy, even before it was actually a game and it was just a bunch of guys meeting up to play, the DM/Player relationship was very adversarial and the game was much less forgiving. The whole point was for the players to build characters and parties and to discuss and implement tactics in order to make their way through a dungeon and collect treasure, therefore earning XP and increasing in power. D&D was created by historical wargamers and so the dynamic was a very confrontational and tactical one and under these circumstances there were only really two ways a DM could cheat, either to change the meticulously planned adventure to make sure the players did/didn’t face a particular challenge, or to fudge a dice roll.

Changing what was in a dungeon once the players made their way in or fudging a dice roll were cardinal sins in early D&D because it meant that the players couldn’t rely on themselves and the other players and that they were basically at the mercy of DM’s whims. I can understand this because there is a valid argument that if a DM constantly fudges the dice then the players are little more than voice actors in the DM’s own little story. How can you feel the satisfaction of clearing a dungeon and saving a town if your own choices don’t really matter?

Conversely though, many DM’s will argue that roleplaying is about the back and forth dynamic between DM and player and that it is the specific playing of a character role that makes the game. Therefore relying on the fickle dice gods to support the most interesting or the anticipated course of action is doomed to failure. Again, I can understand this because all too often a player can be asked to roll a dice, with only the slimmest margin for failure, and you can all but guarantee that the dice will come up a 1, just ask my Numenera group….

For a DM having the game derailed by bad dice can be massively frustrating because many DM’s, myself included, often put in hours of work to prepare an adventure. If a few bad dice rolls make all that for naught, then the temptation to fudge the dice so that the story can proceed the way you want it to can be strong indeed.

So which argument is right? Is fudging a dice roll a cardinal sin or perfectly acceptable? Well in this, as in many things, there are not absolute black and whites, just areas of grey, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I think that newer DM’s  tend towards letting the dice fall how they may. This is often because people new to the hobby tend to hold closer to the rules than those with a wealth of experience under their belt (not always, but generally in my experience). Newer groups in general tend to more closely resemble those early D&D sessions in that the dynamic between the two sides of the DM screen can seem like an adversarial one. I’d say that this is also the case for younger players and for those who migrate from wargames or computer games as those people are more likely to be competitive or be more accustomed to there being a definitive way to win or complete the game.

On the flip side I find that DM’s with more experience tend to be a little more lax with the rules and dice than their newer counterparts and older players, or those with less free time, prefer a little more latitude in playing. Older players often don’t want to have to plan meticulously when entering a dungeon, often that will closely resemble the activities that they undertake in their day job (and who wants to do that in their free time?).

Personally I used to subscribe to the former methodology, in letting the dice fall as they may and the players reaping the rewards or accepting the consequences of their actions. The problem I have found is, as mentioned above, many of my players don’t have a lot of free time and constantly failing because of bad luck can be massively disheartening. This can highlight another issue with dice and for this I’ll specifically use D&D as an example. Simply put, very few people who are skilled at something, as characters are supposed to be, will fail a task 1 in 20 times. In the case of D&D this isn’t just failing because the roll of a 1 can mean failing catastrophically and this just isn’t realistic. Sure you can houserule the game so that players don’t roll if the task is sufficiently simple for them but what if they are making potions or poisons? Surely the inherent risk in such activities warrants a chance of failure every time, but 1 in 20?

Despite not having complete faith in the traditional ‘fudging is cheating’ point of view, I can’t bring myself completely to the other side either. Characters should have strengths and weaknesses and these may or may not be strengths and weaknesses or areas of knowledge for the player so you can’t rely on roleplaying alone to determine the outcome of encounters. There should be an inherent risk to sending your character into the dungeon and your fate shouldn’t just be determined by whatever is convenient or best for the plot. Some of the most memorable moments I’ve had as a player are when the dice have fell in my favour, like 7 out of 8 attacks rolling natural 20’s or getting a head shot on the main enemy on the first action after his boxed text monologue. If everything moved along at the speed of plot then these situations would never have happened.

I don’t want to play along in someone else interactive story, I want to feel that my character has the chance to make a difference in the world because of my choices for their actions and not because the DM’s story allows it. With that said, I don’t want my level 10 fighter to be killed by a couple of goblins with some exceptional luck, regardless of how funny it sounds in my head.  I want somewhere in the middle and that’s where I find myself falling on the spectrum nowadays, about halfway between to fudge and not to fudge.

That’s not meant to sound like a cop out, it’s my genuine feelings on the matter but it can be better summed up in the following way-

It is acceptable to fudge the dice if it is to the benefit of the players.

Some DM’s will argue that ‘or the game’ should be added to that statement and if your agreed upon play style emphasises the story above all then that’s fine, but I’d ask why those DM’s are asking the players to roll dice for those actions in the first place, if their failure will derail the story? Surely those activities should just be summed up with a description and not carry the chance of failure in the first place?  To me the only time to fudge a dice roll is when a series of highly unlikely events have conspired to cause a player to die or the story to be derailed, not just a single dice roll, in other words it should be the last resort.

The role of DM is one of trust because, regardless of whether you fudge dice or you do not, the players need to be able to have faith that you are being honest with them. If you can’t trust your DM not to cheat in their favour then any competitive aspect is null and void and lighter play is just destroyed because the DM clearly wants to make the game competitive and, worse, will cheat to make sure they win. Regardless of which camp you fall into cheating as the DM is the very worst thing you can do. The DM is God in a roleplay game and can always win if they want to, the trick is not abusing that power and makin sure that everyone has fun.

Tatters of the King, A Call of Cthulhu Campaign Review

Name: Tatters of the King
Type: Roleplaying Campaign Book
Publisher: Chaosium
System: Basic Rules System
Format- Softback
Size: 27.5cm x 21.4cm x 1.8cm
Pages: 232
Price:  £16.99
Rating: 5.0 Stars (5.0 / 5)

Tatters of the King, Cover

The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Tatters of the King is a full Campaign for the Call of Cthulhu rpg. Predominately written for the 6th edition rules the campaign can be run using any edition of the game with minimal changes and could be converted to Trail of Cthulhu if the Keeper was willing to put some effort in. As with the majority of Call of Cthulhu adventures the game is set in the 1920s but there is no reason that it couldn’t be amended to work in Cthulhu Now or Cthulhu by Gaslight and I’m fairly confident that an era change wouldn’t dramatically change the tone of the adventure.

The book has a full colour, glossy, front and back and is black and white inside. The production values are high with original art throughout and, as is common in Call of Cthulhu products, the level of detail and research from the author is meticulous and accurate. My only criticism of the book is that the plastic coating on the edge of the cover has come away and rolled back, giving the book a bit of a beaten up look. My book hasn’t be carried around in a bag or treated poorly and so the fact that this has happened is a little disappointing.

Tatters of the King, damage

Tatters of the King unfolds using Robert Chamber’s book The King in Yellow as its basis and while its not overtly vital that a Keeper read this, I would suggest that you do as some of the stories help with the tone of the game. The book is now open source as it was first published in 1895 and it can be found here. Within the context of the Cthulhu mythos The King in Yellow is a manuscript for a play of the same name, one that, if performed in full will drive the audience irrevocably insane. It describes the strange city of Carcosa, which sits next to a lake ,and it details the ruling class of that city as they interact with a mysterious Stranger from across the lake. In the Cthulhu mythos The King in Yellow is the Great Old One Hastur, who lives in lake Hali, the lake upon whose shore Carcosa sits.

Full disclosure at this point, the rest of the review will include SPOILERS.

Tatters of the King is a 3 part campaign primarily set in the Great Britain, although the later stages take the investigators to Italy, India and finally to the shadow of Mount Everest in the Himalayas in Tibet. During late 1928 an alignment of stars brings the Hyades, a star cluster in the constellation of Taurus, and the supposed home of Hastur into close proximity to Earth and this affords the cult of Hastur on Earth a rare opportunity. It begins with a prologue in which the investigators spend an evening at the theatre in London’s West End, watching a performance of The King in Yellow, which breaks down into a riot in the second act, as the nature of the play takes control of the audience. Next the investigators are asked to consult on the case of a patient in an asylum in the English countryside, a man whose ramblings and scribbles notes work as the catalyst of the overall plot.

Tatters of the King, Book 1

Part 1 deals predominately with a cult of Hastur in London as it plans a ritual to bring Carcosa to Earth. The players investigate strange murders and try to track down cult members piecing together the clues in order to first understand the cults intentions and then to find out where and when the ritual will take place in order to try and prevent it being successful. This is probably the greatest of the 3 campaign parts and, in my opinion, is the most fun to run. There are some great npc parts to play, not least of all the madman in the asylum, and there are some really thrilling scenes. Most notably the enemies in this section are human and I find that human enemies provide a level of fear that other, more alien, parts of the mythos cannot because they are so far removed from the natural fears of the players.

Part 1 ends with the players approaching the site of the ritual, in Scotland, and being drawn into the land of Carcosa, during the events of the play. The players must track down the cult members within Carcosa and stop them casting the Summon Hastur spell. This is a strange section to run as the dark melancholy of Carcosa is hard to capture and the city is deliberately confusing. My party split up within the city, as some fell into a river and were washed downstream, which further compounded how difficult this section was to run. If you run this part well, and are confident in your knowledge of your players, you can use encounters here to provide glimpses of what is to come.

I was very fortunate when I ran Part 1, I had an investigator cast the spell, Bespeak the End of the Day. This spell affords the investigator a warped glimpse of the future and I showed the player the death of their investigator, along Regents Canal, which is one of the encounters late on,in Part 1,  just before the party head to Scotland to disrupt the ritual. This was deliberately timed and instilled a sense of dread in the party that was compounded when the realised that they were about to set out to that encounter. It’s hard work to foretell the death of a character and to have it come about without forcing the issue (which I didn’t) but when it works it makes for a truly phenomenal and memorable encounter.

Between Parts 1 and 2 the Keeper is encouraged to run a smaller adventure or two, to keep the players involved as there is a break in the campaign between March and December 1929. The idea is that the investigators think that they have succeeded and that the threat of Hastur is over. Within the framework of the campaign there is a downswing in cult activity as the Hyades disappear from the sky but that doesn’t mean that it’s all over, rather they players are lulled into a false sense of security (as much as it possible in Call of Cthulhu) before the adventure throws them back in at the deep-end.

Tatters of the King, Book 2

Part 2 serves as a reintroduction to the events surrounding Hastur. It deals with another mythos entity, Shub-Niggurath and it’s set within the Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood in the West Country, specifically Gloucestershire. Ownership and knowledge of the Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood book isn’t required (I don’t own it) but I imagine that it would be an asset. This is by far the shortest of the 3 sections of the campaign, running to only 21 pages.

This part reintroduces a character from Part 1 and he serves as the conduit for the whole section. I spent a substantial amount of time preparing to play him as it is essential that he gets across all of the information without seemingly giving it up in a monologue. The investigators travel to Gloucestershire and visit a farm where one of the principal cultists from Part 1 lived for a time. This allows them to discover notes that ultimately lead them to Italy and beyond in Part 3. While at the farm they get to intervene and prevent the activity of a group of local Shub-Niggurath worshipers in order to protect the farm. I personally like this section a lot as it deals with the concept of the ‘Old Gods’ of Britain and really highlights some of the ancient pagan practices that can been seen at the heart of many ancient communities within the British Isles.

Tatters of the King, Book 3

Part 3 is when the campaign goes global. The party travel from London, to Italy, to Bombay and then finally into Tibet and the Himalayas and much of this happens in a reasonably short space of time. The adventure follows the notes found in Part 2 that detail a further Hastur cult in Milan known as Il Fretelli del Signo Giallo (The Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign) and it’s own attempt to draw on the power of the Yellow King. It also follows one of the  English cultists who has gone to Italy to meet with the cult and then traveled on to India and Tibet as part of an expedition into the Himalayas.

While in Italy the group deal with a different kind of cult, one that is distinctly Italian as it’s members are not just university professors and dilettantes, but bookshops owners and artists. They meet a cult divided and learn something of the feelings of it’s members before discovering where the English cultist has gone and finally encountering a Byakhee that has been sent to silence a disgruntled member.

From Italy the party travel to Bombay in India and the adventure provides a interlude on a steamer ship that allows the investigators a brief respite and gives the Keeper an opportunity to release some of the tension built up thus far, before it really kicks into high gear for the conclusion. Obviously this chapter can be skipped or briefly mentioned before continuing on with the adventure proper but if you have a party that just likes to roleplay and are enjoying their characters then you can use this time to let them interact with the other steamer passengers and engage in some on ship activities.

In Bombay (Mumbai in the modern world) the investigators encounter proper British Colonialism as India was the jewel in the British crown at this point in history. This is the beginning of the end of the campaign as the investigators learn that the English cultist has traveled onwards, through India to Tibet and ultimately to to Drakmar, the home of Hastur on Earth. Bombay gives the players the opportunity to outfit themselves for an expedition into the Himalayas and lets the Keeper throw a couple of interesting encounters with the local culture and religion at them.

Throughout the entire campaign the Keeper is encouraged to plague the investigators with dreams of Hastur, Carcosa and the Tattered King and this should really step up as the party reach India and near the end of their long journey. I picked one player in particular to bully with these visions and it was a fantastic coincidence that he was the one that failed the most checks to resist seeing waking visions of the Tattered King when I exposed the whole party to them. These visions and dreams are a really important part to the campaign as a whole as they add another layer of atmosphere to the general eeriness of the game as a whole.

The party travel through India to the boarder of Tibet and then finally up through that mountainous country into the high Himalayas. The investigators must contend with a harsh and deadly landscape, language and culture barriers (despite the guides that they will most likely have hired) and altitude sickness as they climb higher into the mountains, into the very shadow of Everest, following in the footsteps of the English cultist and his Italian companions.

The final chapter of the campaign see’s the party enter The Upper House, in Drakmar. The Upper House is the home of Hastur and where his guide will bring him down to Earth. This can go a good number of different ways depending on whether the party are able to find and stop the English Cultist and how subversive the keeper has been swaying the investigators through visions and play. Like a great many Call of Cthulhu campaigns Tatters of the King doesn’t end in a grand battle with the enemy, no human could stand against the might of a Great Old One, even one with no real presence on Earth. The end see’s Hastur, closer to Earth at Drakmar than anywhere else and pulled closer still because of the ascendance of Taurus in the sky, ask those present who will guide him to Earth. The party has a number of choices to make and, as is the way in Call of Cthulhu, they fate of the world is truly in their hands.

This is a really great campaign, probably the finest Call of Cthulhu campaign that I have run and that includes Beyond the Mountains of Madness and Masks of Nyarlathotep (I’m eagerly awaiting my copy of Horror of the Orient Express from the Cthulhu 7th edition kickstarter at the time of writing). Perhaps it’s just my familiarity with British culture but I found that this campaign was well written, paced well and gave just enough to the investigators at each section so as to build the story and atmosphere at the right pace.

As with every Call of Cthulhu adventure Tatters of the King comes with a large appendix of player handouts and these are well written and thought out so as to challenge the thinking of the players. I particularly like that the handouts in Italy are written in Italian which challenges the investigators to either learn Italian or find someone they trust enough to translate those documents for them.

For those who aren’t from or based in Britain or versed in the history of this great nation, the campaign provides an appendix detailing London at the time, along with a map of the city at the time. In addition, throughout the campaign, there are notes detailing the physical, social and political landscape of the various locations at the time. I found this particularly helpful during the Italian section as I know very little modern Italian history and wouldn’t have considered the impact that the rise of fascism in Italy at the time would have on the adventure.

I was extremely fortunate when I ran this campaign as my players bought into it entirely and played their characters well. When one character foresaw his death at Regents canal, the player went into the encounter willingly and enjoyed using it as an opportunity to build the story as opposed to seeing it as a challenge to overcome. In the final encounter one player decided that all of the visions of the Tattered King meant that he was to be the herald of Hastur and bring him to Earth, which was completely opposed to the will of the rest of the party and a truly fantastic end to the campaign.

I think it’s worth mentioning that this campaign runs quite differently from the majority of other Cthulhu adventures that I have run. There isn’t actually a huge threat of death or ‘other’ (the affectionate term I have for the variety of things that can happen to you other than being killed or driven insane), although sanity loss is a very real danger. I think that works to it’s advantage because the constant changing of characters can serve to take away from the players investment in the game.

If anyone is looking for a well written, well paced and interesting Call of Cthulhu campaign the you could do a whole lot worse that taking a look at Tatters of the King.

So with that I have just one more thing to ask you. Have you seen the Yellow Sign?

Tatters of the King, The Yellow Sign