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.
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.