Roleplaying

Why You Should Fudge the Dice to Avoid PC Death

A group of well dressed Renaissance soldiers playing games of chance.
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.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Suscriptor Justiciero

    > “Dice fudging is something you do to protect player enjoyment.”

    Including your own, of course. Don’t forget that you are playing too. All of you are there to have fun.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I certainly enjoy the game more when PCs aren’t randomly dying!

      • Bubbles

        That’s fine, as it is your personal preference. The problem with this article is that – at the beginning at least – it states that all GMs must fudge dice to avoid unplanned character death. However, I believe that it should depend on what is agreed between the GM and the players. Yes, it is fine to fudge dice if everyone agrees that it is allowed. However, not everybody likes it, as has been clearly stated by many people in the 206 podcast comments section. If the article is merely meant to state that fudging dice is not always wrong, as it seems to by the end, it is fine. The title, then, is misleading, so it may need to be changed.

  2. Michael Campbell

    Having refereed far more games without a GM’s shield than with one, I would say that there is a skill to be learnt from refereeing without the GM’s screen.
    Specifically fudging the narrative instead of the die rolls.

    Indeed I’ld recommend playing “by the book & without a screen” with players and see where it takes you.
    You might find players actually find the gut wrenching terror that a few bad die rolls could cause a character to become; dead, fast, is it’s own entertainment for the players that they can’t get under the carefully shepherded adventure that you instead espouse.

    Maybe a key component of a role-playing game is…game!?!

  3. Matt

    I agree that fudging dice rolls to protect PCs is often the best option. I also think that there are situations where not fudging the dice rolls would be good. For instance, if I was playing CoC, the DM rolling in full view of the players would be cool. The game is meant to be a harsh experience, and if the players like it, then that’s great.

    • Bubbles

      I understand what you mean. I will stand by, however, what I said in my above comment. Whether to fudge dice rolls or not should simply depend on whether the DM and the players have agreed that it can happen or not. Mind you, I suspect that Oren was advocating this point of view specifically (as opposed to dice rolls should always be fudged in this situation). It is just that the title is probably somewhat misleading to get people to pay attention. Then again, I don’t know for sure what he meant, so I am writing this comment.

      • Michael Campbell

        Not just the title, some of the text is ill considered too.
        ” 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. ”
        Firstly “ruins” is a strong word, I’ve known players for whom it would be considered “a bit of hiccup”.
        Secondly, the kind of play being foreshadowed is not the only style of play. If a group of player characters go into a dungeon, kill some orcs, take some loot and rescue a princes but not all of the original party members come out alive:- That is also playing a role-playing game and is just as legitimate a hobby as the grand campaign of character self exploration.
        Indeed one of the great threats to the hobby is the tendency of role-players to say; “We don’t do it that way therefore your way is wrong.”
        If the hobby is to grow then people need to learn that “live & let live” must also mean “play & let play”.

        Also:
        “the PCs get to feel like badasses for defeating”
        I’ld like to point out that a “badass” with no risk of personal consequence is quite simply; a “bully”. Bullies always* strike when there’s nothing too inconvenient stopping them which is precisely why they strike the short kid or the kid with glasses or the known/proven pasifist.
        *Your mileage may vary.

        Some systems are not designed to allow players to be badasses but rather small heroes achieving small victories in a world of limited options, like Cyberpunk2020.

        Feeding children nothing but what they like is unhealthy.
        So too, feeding role-players nothing but the chance for their star to shine leads to unhealthy behaviours.
        I’ld recommend to Oren that he try playing with different role-players. Some of them actually appreciate the struggle that comes with “my character died but he died fair & square.”
        But such role-players are more likely to self identify as war-gamers which perhaps is why Oren has met so few.

  4. GeneralCommentor

    While I agree with the sentiment in most regards I think that, as is often the case with roleplaying articles on this site, it seems to be workign from a bit too narrow a reference point of RPG systems: There are a decent number of games in which player death is not only possible, but explicitly encouraged and part of the experience (The classic example being Paranoia, in which characters start with five back-up versions of their PC in reserve). While fudging important dice rolls in D&D and the like to keep a character going is a perfectly valid choice, fudging the dice in Paranoia or Call of Cthulhu or Gamma World or Kobolds Ate My Babies is going to completely change the structure of the game, and if you’re a person who’s playing one of those games the whole “death can and will happen suddenly and for stupid reasons” is probably one of the selling points.

    So, while it’s certainly no sin to fudge dice rolls there is certainly a segment of players who revel in this sort of senseless character death and I don’t think it’s particularly fair to say that, provided everyone at the table is onboard with this situation and having a good time, their enjoyment is any more or less valid than anyone elses.

    As well, to address the “RPGs are not perfectly designed”, while it’s touched on a bit near the end of the article I think attention needs to be emphasized on the fact that there are other systems to run in which this sort of thing isn’t a problem. I’d argue a system that requires you to fudge dice rolls or ignore portions of the mechanics in order to have a good time is probably not that great a system. There’s a wide variety of options out there that accommodate a vast array of genres, playstyles and intentions that will probably fit any individual group’s needs better than trying to hammer a square system into a round playstyle.

    • Rose Embolism

      Not to mention Basic D&D and AD&D, where it was common for players to run multiple characters, and the characters had henchmen and hirelings. So instead of a small group of four characters where a death could cripple the group, you could have an overall party of up to 30-40 characters. Deaths in that case could be more easily replaced.

  5. Jenn H

    I like it when more narrative based games give players the ability to fudge the outcome with things like “luck points” (or what ever your game calls them). No dice manipulation needed. And other systems such as various apocalypse world hacks give the GM plenty of options other than death (why go for the kill when you can go for the pain?)

    Other games (Paranoia, Dungeon Crawl Classics) are all about random PC death. Planet Mercenary even gives you extra points for your next character depending on how the current one died.

    My preference is to go for systems that have mechanics built in to avoid PC death, unless you really want a high mortality rate.

  6. Richard

    If I might offer my two copper pieces….

    “Fudging” a die roll to avoid a player’s death shouldn’t be mandatory. There are times when an honorable death in combat is an appropriate result (even if it means you’ve got to introduce a brand new character for the player, or find a Resurrection spell post haste). Then there are times when you don’t want to reward a player for doing something obviously stupid and against the advice and wishes of all the other players.

    In the end, it’s a judgment call. You have to know your players…..

    • Michael Campbell

      Well said.
      Players who discover that their character is inhabiting a consequence free environment do have a habit of acting out in an attempt to find out where their boundaries actually lie.

      If a big stack of hit points leads to “Looney Tunes” behaviours???
      Just wait ’til the players realise; that stack is infinite!

  7. Rose Embolism

    I think this is a case where its important to both know the game system and setting well, AND select the game thats proper for what you want to do.

    There are games where death is completely off the table, such as Golden Sky Stories and Do. There are also systems, such as Fate, where it is always possible to concede a conflict without being taken out, and where even in that event, its up to the Referee to decide what the results of defeat are. Therefore in Fate, character death is pretty much always a consensus between player and referee.

    There are other games such as Feng Shui, Exalted and James Bond that are designed to either make characters tough, resourceful or lucky enough that they really only die when facing an elite opponent. Their systems are based around the idea that player characters are the equivalent to the stars of action movies, and give them ways to survive random fights.

    On the other hand, there’s games such as Runequest and Warhammer which are based around the idea that even experienced characters are vulnerable, and death is always on the table. I’ve seen an experienced party get ambushed and TPK’d by trollkin- bottom feeder monsters- because of some bad rolls, and that wasn’t a design flaw, because that’s how the game is designed.

    In short, system does matter, so pick the system that does what you want it to do.

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