Tasty treat or terrible cheat? – Fudging rolls: can you, should you, do you?
C: This week we’re discussing the relatively innocuous, not at all contentious topic of fudging dice rolls as a DM.
A: Yes. This came about because we mentioned fudging rolls in passing in a previous conversation. We weren’t even saying that we’d done it. But it led to some discussion by our players. They were…curious.
C: Yeah, they realised, ‘Oh my gosh, this happens.’
A: Looking back through the online chat, the exact words were ‘omg dms fudge their rolls’ followed by ‘i feel… / betrayed…’ and ‘Shock / Horreur / Decepcion’. And I think this was mostly tongue-in-cheek, but there was an honest edge to it.
C: Quickly we should explain for anyone who doesn’t know what we mean by fudging a dice roll. This is when the DM behind their screen—part of why screens exist—sees the dice roll, disagrees with the result, and decides to make it a different number.
A: Yes. Either higher or lower, as the situation requires. I’d also include changing numbers like AC or hp on an existing character sheet within this purview as well, as it’s secretly altering things and keeping it from your players.
C: And we’re not going to do the whole conversation today because this is big discourse. You know, it’s not dinosaurs-in-D&D big, but it’s still pretty hotly debated. But we wanted to talk a bit about our experiences with it.
A: And to reassure our players that we're not cheating too much.
C: Right. Because I don’t think either of us have made a habit of fudging rolls. But I really get why you do it. In your head, it’s like, ‘Ah, I’m fixing the problem’. When your fight isn’t hard enough, you want to make it more challenging, or you think, ‘This fight is too hard, I need to fix this.’
A: It’s true; there’s so often that temptation to fiddle with a combat to make it more exciting for the players. Like, if your party is obliterating your monster after round one of combat, there’s a temptation to add on 20 hp. Though in those situations, I think it’s more like, ‘Oh man, Maddy will kill the monster in round two. If I give it some extra health, Petra and Weyrholm, who go after Maddy in the initiative order, can join in the fun and attack it too’. Like, I’ve only done it in situations where I’m confident that adding hp will prolong a fight but not change the outcome in any way. And honestly, if I’m having to add hp, my villain is obviously donion rings, as one would say.
C: Yes, indeed. I think this lines up with stereotype about why DMs fudge dice rolls, too—it’s not usually the DM malevolently creating a critical hit for the bad guys, and is usually the DM ignoring a critical hit which would randomly obliterate one of the player characters (especially at low levels where crits can be super deadly). Generally the intention behind a fudged roll is to fix an oversight or mitigate an unanticipated problem.
A: Also, the more I DM, the more experienced I get at building enemies, so I need to do this less. I did fudge hp a bit in the start, but I think that comes with being a new DM. These days I’ve learnt to give my villains Toughness and Diehard and really high Constitutions, which generally assuages the need to change things mid-combat.
C: I think you’re right. The risk of adding or taking away hp, for example, is that you don’t want to mislead your players. If your players are fighting a big bad guy and you tell them, ‘Oh, this guy’s looking really rough’, or ‘This guy’s in single digits’ and then you add 20 hp onto said guy, your players are going to be like, ‘Woah, what the fuck?’. It’s the same with changing attack rolls or their AC or saves. You need to make sure that if you are fudging things, you’re not punishing the player for having believed you before. You don’t want to contradict yourself—that would make the issue you’re trying to fix worse, not better, or it’d create a whole new issue.
A: That’s true. You don’t want your players to hold back from using spells when they need to, or from wasting a high-level spell on an enemy whom they could basically unarmed-strike to death.
C: Fudging rolls should be more like getting props in order backstage, as opposed to deceiving the audience about what’s already been on the stage. Of course, it’s not always that simple, but in general it pays to go where the dice take you.
C: I think the exceptions are when your plot relies on either information being learned or not being learned—
A: Especially the ‘being learned’ one. There have been times when I’ve assumed pre-session that at least one of my five players will spot something and then you all roll under a 10 on Perception. And I’ve ended up doing that awkward thing five minutes later where I’m causally like, ‘Does anyone want to do another Perception check?’
C: Right. And maybe some people would argue that you should plan around not having secrets, but that’s pretty hard to do.
A: True, and preparing for every possibility is impossible, so you have to focus on developing the most likely outcomes.
C: In my last game, one of the characters, Ghost, rolled to see what she knew about the family of another party member, Emer. And she got a Natural 20, which meant that I had to reveal a big secret about Emer’s family to her. This was going to be a huge twist in Act Four—it would have been one of the big plot points in the story.
A: Ah, man. I’m sorry.
C: It would have been shitty of me to deny Ghost that knowledge on a Nat. 20. But I now have a four- or five-digit word count’s worth of notes that just go right into the trash for Act Four because they no longer matter. So I can very much understand why someone would be like, ‘Ah, fuck. I would prefer not to do this.’
A: If Emer had asked an NPC about her family and they’d got the crit, would you maybe not have revealed the twist? Because I’ve definitely had that the other way with NPCs—they’ve rolled a Nat. 1, and for players I often give slightly incorrect information on a 1, but with NPCs it feels too confusing, so I sort of pretend they got a 2 instead and that they know nothing rather than knowing the wrong thing, if that makes sense.
C: Yeah, I’m not sure what I’d have done if it hadn’t been a player who had got the crit, but I’d certainly have been tempted. I hope I’d still have moved with the spirit of the dice, especially because I think that a good twist isn’t just the shock and reveal—it’s the long-term effects of the twist. (Take notes, Benioff and Weiss.)
A: That’s true, we’ll still get to experience the ramifications of the reveal, even if not in the way you imagined.
C: Yeah. And that’s a lesson for me about what you make into a roll—like sometimes you will realise, ‘Ah shit, I shouldn’t have made this into a check because this is just information they should know’ or ‘Ah, I shouldn’t have made this knowledge attainable on this check. How can I reward them for succeeding without blowing the whole fucking thing?’
A: But it can be tricky to do in the moment. There’s also the factor of trying to keep the game moving. Like, sometimes none of the party will make the DC of a check, but if you’re all really close I might just let you have it as a ‘combined effort’ as it were, which isn’t quite fudging rolls but is, like, playing slightly fast and loose with the rules.
C: Yeah. I mean, a large part of a DM’s job is putting down the railway tracks before the train goes careening off the edge—players will pull out some batshit stuff and you need to decide what the DC is on the fly there. Now that’s not fudging a dice roll, but you are literally conjuring a mechanic out of thin air.
A: Yeah, they’ll try a method that you hadn’t thought of, which will inevitably involve having to quickly invent things and improvise.
C: To return to fudging rolls, then, hopefully this has clarified things a bit—for our players at the very least. It’s a benefit of being a DM that we can get to use, but we try not to, and when we do, it’s to try to help the game.
A: Yes. Also, I really want fudge now.