Unplanned character death is one of the worst things that can happen in a campaign. It ruins at least one person’s evening and damages the narrative as a whole, so it’s no surprise that we offer a lot of advice for how to avoid it. Most of that advice passes without controversy, but one recommendation always raises hackles: that GMs should fudge their own dice rolls to avoid accidentally killing a PC.
A lot of people have a major problem with the prospect of GMs not being 100% truthful when reporting their dice rolls, both here on Mythcreants and elsewhere across the vast expanse of the internet. The very idea causes a powerful, even visceral reaction. This isn’t a huge surprise given how RPGs are often described as contests of skill between player and GM, but it is a problem. Fudging dice is a vital tool in a GM’s box, so today I’m going to lay out why it’s acceptable to fib about your damage total if it means saving a beloved character from the jaws of death.
Dice Fudging Is an Old Tradition
A major misconception I often see is that fudging dice is some newfangled idea invented by the kids these days with their story games and their fail forwards. Why, back in the good old days we didn’t need to avoid character death. We took our critical hits, and we liked them.
In contrast to what some people might believe, fudging dice is not a new idea. It is at least as old as the GM screen, which I’ve been able to trace back to 1979 but could have an even more venerable history that is beyond my skill to uncover.
The primary purpose of a GM screen is to hide information from the players. It can also provide quick reference material on the interior side, but that’s secondary at best. The main reason to have a barrier up in the first place is so the players can’t see your monster abilities or your dice rolls. Sometimes that’s just to keep players from metagaming about a boss’s special power, but on occasion, it means telling the players your dragon rolled a 12 when they actually rolled a 20 so the adventure doesn’t end in a total party barbecue.
If a GM was really determined to never fudge their dice, they’d always roll in front of the screen for all to see, and that’s never been the tradition for as long as I’ve been roleplaying. Granted, I wasn’t around at the very beginning of the medium, but some of the GMs I learned from were, and they were the ones who passed on the idea of concealing dice to me in the first place.
Of course, just because something’s been done for a long time doesn’t make it the right thing to do, so let’s talk about why fudging dice is the right thing to do!
RPGs Are Not Competitive
Something I see repeated over and over again in arguments about fudging dice is that the GM would be “cheating” by doing so. That this act of misreporting your dice represents some fundamental breaking of the rules. At a surface level, this seems obviously wrong since most RPGs explicitly give the GM permission to break the rules when necessary, but that’s hardly satisfying.
The real reason this argument doesn’t work is that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of roleplaying games. RPGs are not competitive contests of skill like Eclipse or Settlers of Catan.* In a competitive game, you’re trying to see whose skill and luck will prove victorious, and you need accurately reported dice rolls to accomplish that task. In those games, fudging dice would indeed be cheating because it subverts the intended results.
RPGs aren’t like that. Even in the most tightly regulated systems on the market, even the ones that pitch themselves explicitly as a competition, the GM could wipe out the PCs with very little effort. That wouldn’t be fun for anyone, which is why RPGs are an inherently cooperative experience with the GM trying to create the best experience they can for their players.
That might sound like it only applies to narrative-heavy games, but the cooperative dynamic applies to combat-filled dungeon crawls as well. In those kinds of games, the GM is setting up a situation where the PCs get to feel like badasses for defeating an appropriately difficult encounter, and that feeling is likely to be diminished if PCs start dying because a pit trap rolled too much damage.
RPG Systems Aren’t Perfectly Designed
Okay, so fudging dice rolls isn’t cheating as most people think of it, but it’s still going against what the rules say to do,* and that’s probably bad. The designers made those rules for a reason, so you wouldn’t want to mess with them, right?
In an ideal world that might be true, but does this world look ideal to you? In real life, RPG designers make mistakes all the time, whether they work for established industry leaders or design passion projects in their spare time. They create rules that are unbalanced, unclear, or just plain unplayable. Trusting them to know your campaign better than you do is a road to ruin.
That’s all assuming you’re playing a game the way it’s meant to be played. One of the many joys of RPGs is modding them to do something other than what they were originally designed for, and at that point, most designer intent goes out the window. The rules might have all made sense in their original context, but now you’re using them to have dance-offs with space whales, so you’ll need to use your judgment.
Whether you’re playing a factory-standard game or one that you’ve modded to heck and back, it would be silly to let your entire party die just because the rules say that should happen based on your dice roles. There’s no secret reward waiting for you if you take that leap of faith, just a short fall into a spiked pit trap.
Players Will Never Notice
I’m going to tell you a secret about the people who insist fudging dice destroys the integrity of a game: it is 100% likely that their GM has fudged the dice to keep their characters alive and they didn’t even notice.
How can I be so sure of that, you ask? Good point; it’s not as if I’ve planted cameras in every GM’s home and am furiously compiling the footage into a searchable database at this very minute.* Instead, I make my guess based on a remarkably consistent element of player psychology: they want to win.
I’ve found that a player’s desire to win is nearly universal, from rules-light story gamers to the most hardcore dungeon delver. It’s stronger in some than others to be sure, but it’s always there. Because players want to win, they almost never question things that go in their favor, unless it’s so obvious they suspect a trap.
If you tell a player that the iron golem missed them when in fact the dice say it took their head clean off, the player will believe you and keep going so long as you have even the semblance of a poker face. Just avoid staring at the dice in wide-eyed terror, and you should be fine. The player will continue feeling like a proper badass, and you can get on with the game.
Unplanned Character Death Is the Worst
Up to now we’ve gone over all the reasons it’s not morally wrong to fudge your dice in the name of avoiding character death, and why it won’t bring the game to a screeching halt, but there’s one more piece of the puzzle: Why avoid character death at all?
Put simply, letting PCs die at random will hurt your game. In most cases, it will hurt your game a lot. In a narrative game, every dead PC is a knot of unresolved plot threads that will just be left hanging forever. Enough dead PCs will cause your whole story to unravel as the replacement characters slowly realize that none of them have any ties to the original plot.
Running a combat-heavy game is no escape! Remember, RPGs are not competitive games. There’s no consistent, agreed-upon set of rules for how difficult an encounter or dungeon should be. That means players who lose their characters are likely to get bitter fast, blaming the death on poorly balanced fights and overpowered enemies. It’s hard to blame them; they might even be right! But even if you’re the rare GM who can create perfectly calibrated challenges on command, it won’t feel like that to your players. Their characters still died because of something you created, not a set of impartial rules, so it’ll always feel a little like your fault.
On top of all that, players grow to love their characters, no matter what kind of game you’re running. Losing a character not only ruins an evening but teaches the player not to bother investing in their next character, since they can be snatched away so easily. This will kill a game if it runs unchecked, and sometimes the only way to avoid it is fibbing about how much damage an orc’s axe did.
There Are Limits
As with most things, it is possible to take fudging dice too far. You should always take steps ahead of time to reduce the likelihood that you’ll need to fudge the dice in the first place. It would be impossible to list all the ways you could plan ahead like this, but they could include…
- Keeping a tally of your PCs’ hitpoints so the monsters can choose to attack healthier characters
- Setting up conflicts that don’t have life-or-death stakes
- Crafting allies or magic items that can credibly save a PC from death
- Using a system that simply doesn’t have random character death
If you plan ahead, it’ll reduce the number of times you need to alter the results, which is good since it can get a little tiring for the players if you do it too often.
At the same time, dice fudging is something you do to protect player enjoyment, not further your own agenda. There are very few situations other than preventing PC death where it’s acceptable to fudge the dice. Remember how I said players don’t question things that benefit them? Well, they’ll sure as heck start questioning things if it feels like you’re manipulating the dice to steer the story in a certain direction, and that’ll go downhill fast.
Even if the dice results are highly damaging to the story, it’s usually better to rearrange things behind the scenes than it is to pretend the roll came up differently. Sure, your main villain may have just died from failing their reflex save versus a fireball, but you’ll be better off taking a few days to think about where the campaign goes from here. Figuring it out might be a challenge, but it’s better than damaging PC trust by fudging rolls that otherwise came out in their favor.
So long as you keep these limits in mind, fudging dice is a perfectly respectable option to keep PCs from dying and preserve the integrity of your game. While it might rub some people the wrong way in concept, in practice it usually passes without notice and helps you avoid catastrophe at the same time.