Monday, December 27, 2010

Unscientific Sampling

Last week I asked a somewhat random question on Twitter, "GMs: If you strongly object to dice fudging, do you equally strongly support data transparency, such as visible enemy stats & Powers?" The answers I got were interesting and informative and have left me thinking.

So, to step back, the reason for my asking was this: I understand that dice fudging is a hot-button issue for many people, but one reason I don't assign much weight to it[1] is that there are so many other ways for the GM to cheat, (many of them good, desirable techniques) that focusing on dice fudging to the exclusion of these other methods is counterproductive at best, and deceptive at worst.

Of course, I say deceptive like it's a bad thing, but I don't actually mean it as such. As the purpose of non-jerkish fudging is to improve the game, part of that is that it can't be obvious and the GM can't get caught. To that end, almost every GM should say they're opposed to fudging, whether or not they really are, for the same reason magicians should espouse a belief in magic.

That's neither hear nor there though. To come back to the question, I saw a few broad trends in the answers: First off, some GMs fudge, and are ok with it. No shock there. More curious was the split between the non-fudgers. Some support "radical" transparency (something I took, probably inaccurately, as a shorthand for no cheating within mechanics). All well and good, but the other group was the one that really got me thinking: almost every "no fudge/no transparency" answer had some manner of qualifier in it.

Saying it that way makes it sound somewhat more defensive than it was, many of the qualifiers were useful insights, but by and large, I got a sense that responders realized there was a discrepancy. This impression was exacerbated by the fact that this group was also most likely to couch the issue in emotional terms (honesty and cheating most notably).

Now, I don't draw any conclusion about fudging itself from this. It's going to be a contentious issue pretty much forever, and it's a fool who thinks that making the argument for his position on it is going to sway people with its mighty logic. But it does leave me thinking about dice.

I don't think anyone would argue that dice aren't important to us, as a community. They're a central part of our identity, possibly more central than any other single idea I can think of. Even rpgs without dice define themselves by their absence. And I think that in turn informs on why this is such a charged issue. Discussions of dice fudging are rarely discussions of techniques and achieving particular ends[2]. I think it's hard to talk about fudging without talking about who we are.

1 - The other reason is that I spent many years playing dicelessly, mostly with the Amber Diceless RPG. That departure meant that when I returned to using dice, it was to serve specific needs, not because I needed them in general. That arc resulted in me viewing dice usage much like any other technique.

2 - Though one of the rare civil discussion sprung up at


  1. Hm. I have fudged die rolls, unapologetically. I can understand folks who object to it on the grounds that if it is necessary, something is wrong -- the rules, the reason for rolling the dice, that sort of thing. I can understand folks who object to it on the grounds of, um, objectivity, of the dice as an impartial judge. Oh, I think they're wrong, but it's a valid way of playing.

    I've found the dice a bit of a Roarshach test -- if I don't like what they're telling me, well, I've figured out what I want to happen. At least once, I openly fudged by group consensus -- we all agreed that a failed result for an over the top James Bond type maneuver was Boooring, so we overruled the dice. These days, I'd probably not bother with the roll, or if I did, it wouldn't be about whether the maneuver succeeded or not.

    But, yes, I've done other types of cheating or deception or whatever one wants to call it. I try to avoid lying, but one GM I had told a barefaced lie, and when I realized that, I was actually okay with it. I can't quite put my finger on why beyond, "The story just worked for me." Also, I suppose I thought in retrospect that I had all the clues and might have caught on.

    I have maneuvered one player into working with the timing I needed to pull off a mystery. Oh, it was her choice whether to do something before or after I knew it would be too late. Totally her choice. Yep. Just like when you pick a card, any card, it is totally your choice, and the magician is not in any way forcing your hand. But, to paraphrase The Prestige (movie, not book), you want to be fooled, so it's okay.

    Here, the player had the choice, and I presented it in such a way that I was pretty sure the choice I wanted would get picked. It was legit simply and solely because the player enjoyed the adventure. If the player had thought it sucked, it would have been proof I'd screwed up -- but I was pretty sure I was on solid ground, as I'd been running for this player for over a decade.

    Mind, I will sometimes get ticked at what I consider beyond the pale cheating and railroading. I'm currently running Tatters of the King, a Call of Cthulhu campaign with a lot of really good set pieces and a lot of "you've got to be kidding me" moments. Twice, thus far, I deliberately broke the railroady bits, and both times, the results were exactly what the author had been intending. In one case, it was luck of the dice. In the other, the PCs of their own and their players' free will, got back on the track the author said Absolutely Had to Happen. And, I'm good with the results. I just thought mandating 'em sucked.

  2. Part of the problem to me is that it's tough to get into a nuanced discussion about it, which I think you've found. There's a lot of baggage that probably comes from a particular gamer's background, possible being exposed to some frustrating experiences (anyone else remember the Dexter's Lab episode about D&D, where Dexter the tyrannical DM actually tips the die over to another number to punish the players?)

    However, I've found that there's some games where I prefer everything in the open, some games I prefer everything closed, and some a mix between depending on style of the game. Ultimately, I find that it has to come down to trust level to work- it's why in my D&D campaign, I'm much more likely to fudge monster powers than a die roll, and my players trust me not to do it maliciously.

  3. Well, here's my two cents, even if it probably won't matter:

    My opinion is that if you can't handle the "unfavourable" result, you shouldn't have rolled the dice in the first place. There are other ways to fix this, such as negotiating outcomes or re-defining failures from the get-go. No need to flip the die.

    I am also of the opinion that if there's a reason to cheat, then there's a problem with the game at large. Why not discuss it and house-rule the problem, fix it, address it, instead of "cheating" behind the screen? Or maybe I'm reading your definition of "desirable GM cheating" wrong. The point of "desirable GM cheating" is to make the game more enjoyable, right? So that means there's a rule somewhere that's making the game not-really-enjoyable.

    I don't think visible enemy stats are in the same category as fudging at all. Hidden stats are imperfect information required to create a challenge. The imperfect information is in the dice roll itself, because we don't know which number will show.

    The kind of "magician" GM that Lisa talks about, I don't really count that as cheating, it's just that the GM is not playing by the same set of rules as the players, but it's implied he is. Is that cheating? I dunno. I don't think so. It's one of the ways to GM, I won't pretend I like it, but I understand why it's satisfying.

  4. I won't fudge die rolls, and I make the throw totally transparent (and I expect players to do the same). But then I am also extremely careful as to when I resort to actually using a die roll to determine things. There are many other ways a gamemaster has to fudge the game and maintain narrative focus and balance. But at some point we have to remember that we are playing a game and not just maintaining the tradition or communal oral storytelling.

    My reason for this is that you are cheating the characters otherwise. If there is no risk of failure then that reduces the joy of success. It is up to you (and the players) to make the failures as interesting as the successes (even if that failure is a "pointless" death [then why did the character get in that situation in the first place?]).

    [This is one of the reasons why I dislike games like The Dying Earth which rely heavily on dice mechanics and put extreme restraints on the character's actions based on their die rolls (cf roll of 1 or 6 in this case).]

    As for being open about monster abilities, I usually am. I like my players to play with open secrets (that is the players know the secret stuff about the other players), since I find that good players will weave the other player's secrets into the narrative as well as their own. So why should I be any different? Besides, knowing that it is a big scary monster helps players to make the correct decision some times (whereas hiding the fact might mislead players as to their chances).


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