Thursday, February 25, 2010

Attitudes Toward Dice

Noisms over at Monsters & Manuals has a very sensible post about attitudes towards the use of dice in RPGs. I'm not entirely clear why anyone would find it controversial, especially when he explicitly does not pass judgment on either diceless gaming or games where "story" has primacy. My own advice is this: never roll dice (or make the players roll them) if you're not prepared to accept a negative outcome. That's why I don't include monsters, traps, or magic items that require saving throws unless I am willing to allow them to harm, injure, or kill the player characters and/or their henchmen/hirelings should things go awry. Conversely, I roll all my dice out in the open, lest I fall into the temptation to ignore the results.

I recognize that I have a higher than normal tolerance for letting the dice fall where they may, but I share Noisms's bafflement at fudging the dice. I think there are many perfectly valid reasons for not rolling dice to determine the outcome of an action in a RPG, but, if one is going to roll dice, why not accept their results?

40 comments:

  1. I sometimes ask the dice for advice but then make my own decision. Maybe I'm not really sure how I want things to play out, so I inject some randomness. Then I might look at the results and decide I don't want to do exactly what they say, but use that in some way to make my decision.

    For example, I might roll a skill check when a player asks to do something. That skill check will say success or failure. I could interpret that yes/no result into how well they succeeded or failed. Or, I could decide that a failure is a success on this action, but has some ramifications downstream. They failed the lock pick. I don't want them to be locked out, so they might be able to open the door, but it notified folks on the other side. Or they broke the mechanism and now it's completely unlockable.

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  2. I grew up on Runequest, a game where it is not a question of "If" but "When" PCs will be maimed and/or killed. My players (currently comprised of a few of the RQ group from back in the day) know that no fudging occurs when I GM. This has the unfortunate quality of negatively impacting PCs more often than bad guys, but no one minds.
    I agree with the statement that if you are going to roll dice, why would you avoid the result?

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  3. How about: while one may wish to consult an oracle out of curiousity, one don't neccessarily feel bound (nor see a reason to be bound) to take their advice? Or one just likes the sound of rolling dice?

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  4. I agree, James. No matter how clever DMs think they are when it comes to fudging, players can quickly figure out the difference between DMs who let things fall where they may (whatever the consequences) and DMs who frequently "massage" the dice into getting the outcome they want.

    One of the great benefits of dice is that they allow for fresh and unpredictable outcomes, whereas if the DM chooses everything he or she tends to choose things predictably.

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  5. "while one may wish to consult an oracle out of curiousity, one don't neccessarily feel bound (nor see a reason to be bound) to take their advice?"

    On the other hand, RPG players often expect to play a roleplaying game, and the oracle defense doesn't work in Vegas or Atlantic City for a reason. :)

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  6. I roll all mine in the open. It can add a lot of drama, especially since I do not ignore results. Great moments have happened where I kill a character on anything but a one on damage dice and WoW! I roll a one!

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  7. @Alan,

    I totally agree, and DM the same way. Yes, I will let monsters kill the party (I do straight-up combat where a hit is a hit, and if you're dead, you're dead), but if a spear trap does 1d6 worth of damage and I roll a d6, I might have it simply do 4 damage if that's what it takes to get the party to be careful. Of course, if it hits a warrior who can take the damage, it will deal the full six.

    That said, if I roll a low damage (say, one) I may add significant effects to make it MORE of a warning that 1 damage would be--perhaps it makes such a ruckus that it increases the chance of a wandering monster, for example.

    I totally understand playing it totally straight, however--no need to convince me of its merits. I wouldn't mind playing in a game like that, but it is too much emotional baggage for me to DM it. Perhaps with a different group of players (ones who all have significant DMing experience of their own, for example), it would be a different case.

    Either way, good post James! Thought provoking.

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  8. I roll 'em in the open, though lately we get through more and more gaming without ever needingto roll. But there's a reason we use dice. If you ignore the results, you may as well not use them in the first place...

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  10. > but, if one is going to roll dice, why not accept their results?

    I believe you are a fan of random tables, yes? Do you ever get a result from a table that doesn't fit, or isn't awesome enough or for some other reason you decide to reject? If the answer is yes (and I'm pretty sure I've read that specific advice from you) then
    1) that is your answer to "why fudge?"
    2) you're a no good dirty dice fudger :)

    The occasional dice fudger likes the spontaneity and creative generation of random dice. But once in a while the dice come up with a result that is way unfun. When that happens they reroll.

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  11. I used to fudge dice a heckuva lot more when I was younger than I do anymore. Mostly because I used to have a thing for playing modules "as written", and then running modules that were too arbitrary about calling for saving throws to damage/kill off the party for no real good reason. Nowadays I would just roll my eyes at the text and ignore it, but back in the day I didn't have the experience to do that. So I'd fudge the dice instead.

    These days I only fudge dice when I've got more than a binary decision to make with the roll and I don't like the result I get. Rolling for wandering monsters, for example. I roll orcs and, well, I'm bored with orcs tonight so screw it and add one to the roll. Or I'm rolling on the random treasure table and have somehow managed to roll the same potion I gave out last time - screw it, subtract one from the roll. Or I've got a random table of effects for a set of pools and the same curse has now shown up for the third time in three rolls - screw it I'm picking one of the other curses.

    But yeah - "never roll dice if you're not prepared to accept a negative outcome" is a damn good rule of thumb. I will say, though, that depending on the game I will sometimes call for skill checks from a player that I'm going to ignore anyway because I've already decided that the skill value the character has is enough to succeed. But I have players who feel cheated if they don't get to roll the dice for skill checks. So I let them roll. But that's more of an issue I have with point-based skill-list games and how they tend to implement knowledge checks than anything else.

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  12. I roll all mine in the open. It can add a lot of drama, especially since I do not ignore results. Great moments have happened where I kill a character on anything but a one on damage dice and WoW! I roll a one!

    That happened during one of our games last year. It's very exciting as everyone watches the dice roll - much more exciting than waiting to hear what the GM announces from behind the screen. :)

    No matter how clever DMs think they are when it comes to fudging, players can quickly figure out the difference between DMs who let things fall where they may (whatever the consequences) and DMs who frequently "massage" the dice into getting the outcome they want.

    I think this is an important point when thinking about whether you're going to fudge the dice or not in your game.

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  13. I agree James. At least for me, D&D is a game. I realize there are different sorts of games out there, but the way in which it is a game for me is that dice are the tool for deciding outcomes that are subject to chance. Once you take away the dice as that tool, you have a storytelling situation in which the "referee" is not a referee so much as the narrator who decides what happens. At that point (speaking for myself only) it ceases to be a game.

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  14. I believe you are a fan of random tables, yes? Do you ever get a result from a table that doesn't fit, or isn't awesome enough or for some other reason you decide to reject? If the answer is yes (and I'm pretty sure I've read that specific advice from you) then
    1) that is your answer to "why fudge?"
    2) you're a no good dirty dice fudger :)


    I can't speak for Noisms, but when I talk about "fudging," I'm not talking about rolls on extraneous tables of dungeon dressings or even wandering monsters. I'm talking about things pertaining to character action, such as attack rolls, saving throws, checking for secret doors, etc. I guess I distinguish between "minor" and "major" uses of dice, if that makes sense, and I try very hard never to fudge major uses of them.

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  15. What do you think about systems that allow players to "force" a fudge? Like fate points that the player spends to make the DM reroll a result, for instance.

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  16. I'm coming around to the roll-dice-in-the-open philosophy. Not something I wanted to be dogmatic about -- a logistical problem in the past was needing to have the screen up to hide maps, monster rosters, combat tables, etc. As I get to a point where I can run most of my gaming just mentally, that goes away, and I find myself just accidentally with no screen and thus rolling in the open.

    I find it actually takes a lot of the burden off my shoulders as DM. No mental energy tied up in "fudge this one, not that one, how much, how many hp does the fighter have left, what's a reasonable faux number that would be believable, etc., etc." It makes it more lightweight, fun, in-the-moment.

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  17. Hey James,
    A great topic, and thanks for bringing it up. I think people always have to remember that it is just a game, and if some-one is occasionally fudging their dice, well thats their perigative. I think that they can get defensive sometimes, because there are times when it comes across that if you don't follow all the dice rolls (or if you don't constantly rely on random tables) your playing a lesser game. I'm not implying you btw but sometimes others can come across a little that way.
    For myself, I love random tabels less for the randomness though, and more for the ideas they provide. I think I use them like some other people have mentioned..see what the dice say, and then mayybeee change it if I thought a different result would be interesting to explore, or would be more appropriate given the situation.
    As for combat rolls, only when I was young, I still don't know exactly why? Although to be honest I'm soon starting a game for all new players soon, and it will be tempting to give them second chances to keep them alive a little longer...but I swear i will try to resist the urge to fudge.

    word verification: subeat....now I want some subway dammit.

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  18. "What do you think about systems that allow players to "force" a fudge? Like fate points that the player spends to make the DM reroll a result, for instance."

    But those are defnitively not fudging, they're just another resource, except out-of-character. Might as well call them a "potion of defense" or something.

    As I wrote a year ago: http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2009/04/on-action-points.html

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  19. Well, I have another use for dice that doesn't involve a definite outcome by its score. Psychology. I roll the dice behind the screen, nod or seem interested in the result, and tell the player everything is quite and come- or say nothing at all. It freaks them out everytime. Meanwhile, I rolled for no other reason than to mess with their minds. Is a random monster lurking just around the corner, or worse? Not really. What did I roll, it did not matter in this case. Recommended for COC or horror-like sections of any D&D game.

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  20. I game with my kids a lot right now, and I do fudge the rolls from time to time- but I try to avoid rolling in critical situations. I don't need to make my 6 year old cry, really.
    with adults I roll in the open, although I am fond of a "one reroll per session, per player" kind of rule it helps to keep folks from turteling up.

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  21. I game with my kids a lot right now, and I do fudge the rolls from time to time- but I try to avoid rolling in critical situations. I don't need to make my 6 year old cry, really.

    Yeah, I can see that. If I were gaming with children, or perhaps demoing a game I might treat things differently. It would be the same if I was playing some other type of tabletop game.

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  23. The only rolls I used to keep hidden were for stuff that the character's couldn't be sure about.

    But then when I started playing open secrets (where the players know the dire and terrible secrets of the other characters and can play to them), it made sense that I should also trust my players to react appropriately when the dice revealed the discovery of a secret door that wasn't there (or the failure to discover a secret door that may have been there).

    If the players put their characters in a situation where a single element of bad luck kills their characters then they have come up with a bad plan. If the gamemaster forces them to do so, then they have come up with a bad adventure. Similarly if an entire epic quest hinges on a single dice roll, this is also an element of bad design. If the element involved is vital to the quest there should be no chance of failure in obtaining it and thus the dice shouldn't be rolled, any more than the dice should be rolled for walking across a smooth floor.

    And sometimes ignoble deaths happen. To quote a notable bard of yore, those sling's and arrows of outrageous fortune sometime hurt. It makes the heroic deaths mean something more. [But given the advantages that player characters have over non-player characters in most games this means the player got out of his or her character's depth.]

    Remember that when the Lady turns Her face from you, it is probably an omen that it was a bad idea in the first place, and you should run away and try something else. Of course, if you only have a single story track planned this may not be possible. But then why aren't you just reading your players a story?

    As Donagar would say, "May the Lady go with you!"

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  24. Good advice. I also roll die openly, & let them lay as they may, be it for good or bad. I don't fudge any die roll that pertains to the fate of a PC, whether it's to their benefit or not. To me, it always seemed a wee unfair.

    Now if I sense a player is having a rough patch of luck, I might choose to give him a break - but I always choose to do so without the use of dice. My philosophy: Once they're rolled, that's it. Accept what the dice reveal & move on. On the extremely rare occasion I'm on the other side of the table, I'm known for rolling some of the most god-awful character stats anyone could ever have - regardless of game.

    As for random tables, I'm an admitted control freak when designing an adventure. The only tables I randomly roll on are treasure tables, & wandering monster tables of my own design. Everything else I pick & choose at my leisure.

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  25. Fudge the dice? FUDGE THE DICE??? By God, that is just, un-American.

    But seriously. Use 'em or don't use 'em. Don't namby-pamby the results you don't like.

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  26. I also roll my dice out in the open, in a clear plastic tray that everyone can see into. It solves so many issues when the players know that you are a fair DM; that you don't cheat them... and if a series of 20s are rolled they know it wasn't made up!

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  27. As James says, it's important to distinguish between dice rolls which have different sorts of consequences - i.e. between those which pertain to character action and those which don't. (James calls them minor and major uses of the dice. Sounds like good descriptors to me.)

    Fudging I would argue is always wrong, but there are lesser degrees of wrongness. If you fudge on a random treasure generation table it's a minor use of the dice and hence a minor wrong (and one you might be comfortable with), but fudging saves is a major wrong and should be avoided at all times.

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  28. To expand just a bit on Ed Ross's "psychology" answer, sometimes you want to create tension for the players even when you don't get to experience it yourself. Obviously, over-using this device could render it pointless, but I would still argue that it can be useful to let the players think that an outcome you planned all along is happening at random.

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  29. I think the "distinction" mentioned above is just the classic issue of the DM having multiple jobs: (1) Pre-game setting up adventures and campaigns; (2) In-game acting as referee an adjudicator.

    In case (1) setting up dungeons is obviously, and explicitly in the books, a combination of DM creativity and dice-rolls to jog the imagination. In case (2) there's a strong argument, again bolstered by the core rulebooks, for letting the dice fall where they may.

    Obviously James is, correctly, talking about use of dice during active gameplay.

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  30. "If the players put their characters in a situation where a single element of bad luck kills their characters then they have come up with a bad plan. If the gamemaster forces them to do so, then they have come up with a bad adventure. Similarly if an entire epic quest hinges on a single dice roll, this is also an element of bad design. If the element involved is vital to the quest there should be no chance of failure in obtaining it and thus the dice shouldn't be rolled"

    I think this sums it up.

    I get that some GMs-groups-campaigns have evolved to the point where fudging, for the purposes of avoiding not-fun outcomes, has become embedded in the expected conventions of play. In these groups, failure to fudge in the expected circumstances amounts to a breach of trust.

    I'll always defend each individual groups' right to find their own truth. Who am I to know what's fun for some other group and what won't be? I can't.

    But to me, allowing yourself the option of fudging means you're denying yourself an opportunity to become a better GM. If your game hits a flat spot because of a bad roll/s, that tells you something if you'll let it. It tells you that either a) those rolls shouldn't have been made, or b) you should have been better prepared for them going bad.

    And maybe next time you face a similar situation you'll handle it so that it ain't no-fun. It might even be the highlight of the night.

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  31. > use of dice during active gameplay.

    What? No random charts are used during game play? Wandering monsters aren't rolled for during active game play?

    > there's a strong argument, again bolstered by the core rulebooks, for letting the dice fall where they may.

    Actually, DM intervention and fiat are taught.

    From X1
    "The DM should use logic when rolling wandering monsters. If the monster rolled is highly unlikely for the terrain type (for example, a plesiosaurus in a non-lake hex) the DM should either roll again or choose a different wandering monster. If the monster is either much too strong or much too weak for the party, the DM may change the number appearing or the monster's hit point sto provide a suitable challenge for the party.

    From DMG
    "They are willing to accept the hazards of the dice, be it loss of items,
    wounding, insanity, disease, death, as long as the process is exciting. But
    lo!, everytime you throw the ”monster die” o wandering nasty is indi-
    cated, and the party’s strength is spent trying to fight their way into the
    area. Spells expended, battered and wounded, the characters trek back to
    their base. Expectations have been dashed, and probably interest too, by
    random chance. Rather than spoil such an otherwise enjoyable time, omit
    the wandering monsters indicated by the die"

    Also from that august tome.
    "In closing this discussion, simply keep in mind that the dice are your tools."

    DM's tools, not the DM's master.


    I'm actually in the roll in the open don't fudge camp (and also in the pych out fake roll camp). But, once again, people are suffering selective memory and/or practicing historic revisionism.


    > I distinguish between "minor" and "major" uses of dice, if that makes sense, and I try very hard never to fudge major uses of them.

    Stronger argument, (and the one I see the rules actually promoting). But, how do you decide what is minor and major? Is fudging encounter roll cause party is so beat up it can't handle fight, major? What about changing results from orcs to something interesting cause been fighting orcs all day?

    Is not fudging a treasure roll that would give character gamebreaking powerful magic major?

    Is not open doors attempt vs door to empty room minor?

    Different DM's judge major/minor differently and thus you get a spectrum of when they fudge.

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  32. Norman Harman, I argued the toss (ha) over at Noisms with those quotes from the DMG etc. in mind, and it's nice to see someone quoting them back. I have a strong memory of the DMG and Dragon magazine telling me quite explicitly the dice were mine to command, not vice versa. And I've never received complaints from players - not in 25 years - for using my judgement to make the game more fun when the dice tell me it won't be.

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  33. But, once again, people are suffering selective memory and/or practicing historic revisionism.

    Or could it be that some of us are explicitly rejecting exactly the kind of advice Gygax is offering up in the DMG? I won't speak for anyone else, but I know I am. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm deeply ambivalent about AD&D and consider it to have canonized many trends I dislike in gaming, including the notion of the referee as a narrator or storyteller. I prefer a (generally) more objective role for the referee and letting the dice fall where they may in play is an important part of that.

    I certainly make no claim that this approach is "truer" or "better" than any other. Nor do I claim the authority of Gygaxian Holy Writ to support it. Indeed, I readily acknowledge that my approach is contrary to what Gygax wrote in many places throughout the 1e era, including in the DMG. That's not revisionism; that's me saying that, much as I admired the man and honor his memory, I still often disagree with him. I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this way.

    It's funny, because normally old school bloggers get slammed because we've supposedly made an idol out of Gary. Now we're getting hit because we're not being sufficiently deferential to what wrote in various places. Neither my post nor that of Noisms invoked Gygax or any other illustrious name to support our opinions, so, disagree with our positions all you like, but why start quoting chapter and verse to us? I'm not sure how that's relevant.

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  34. considering the post that follows this one, it seems kind of relevant to me...

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  35. @James you did not read my post very clearly (or I wrote it very confusingly).


    First I agree with you (and Noisms) as far as fudging dice go as I stated in last post. I disagree (strongly) with Noisms claims that the books tell us Fudging is wrong. I strongly disagree that there is one or a right way to play.


    > Neither my post nor that of Noisms invoked Gygax or any other illustrious name

    Yeah, neither did I. Noisms brought up rulebooks Not me. I simply provided examples that contradicted Noisms claims as to what they said. I mentioned sources NOT AUTHORS. [I didn't even mention what edition of DMG So, you either recognized the passage, the writing style or made educated guess.]


    You've addressed the parts of the comment in response to Noism's rulebook claim but have ignored my questions as to where this grey line of "ok to Fudge" / "not ok to Fudge" lies for the non-fudging, objective DM.

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  36. You've addressed the parts of the comment in response to Noism's rulebook claim but have ignored my questions as to where this grey line of "ok to Fudge" / "not ok to Fudge" lies for the non-fudging, objective DM.

    For me, the line is drawn at the table. I don't fudge dice once my players and I sit at the table together and start playing. For me, it's at least partially a matter of courtesy: if a player fudges his dice rolls, we generally call that cheating, right? I think the same thing applies to referees, even when doing so goes against the players. It's the referee's job to be impartial, after all.

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  37. If something in a game could be left up to the GM's discretion anyway but they either aren't good at or don't want to improvise and choose to roll on some table ("is this door locked or not?" etc) then I think it's a waste of time doing that and then "fudging" the result, but ultimately it doesn't really matter too much.

    If it's something the players assume is being done fairly and is entirely dependent on the game's rules and a dice roll (attack, damage, saves, etc) then things start breaking down if the GM isn't playing honestly. How much it breaks down depends on the group and individuals.

    As for the primacy of gaming advice in various RPG... there's a lot of fantastic things in the books (new and old) but there's also some not-so-good stuff as well. Any advice that someone at the table should pretend that they're following the rules of a game but secretly they don't... that's a really poor game design pattern.

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  38. Norman: Really? You're going to quote module X1 as an example of a "core rulebook"? :)

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  39. The mantra I used to repeat over at ENWorld was "Don't roll a dice unless you are willing to pay the price." Indispensable bit of game wisdom AFAIAC.

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  40. Actually, I've got to apologize for my comment 2 steps up, it was overly snide and Norman had a reasonable textual point on the DMG.

    While I tend to mentally focus on passages like, "Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own... In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time," (DMG p. 110), on further reflection it appears true that more ink is spilled in the DMG on opportunities to fudge things than otherwise.

    And truthfully, I think that's a mistake (i.e., one of those Gygax-AD&D-off-the-rails issues). In retrospect I think that opens the door to far too much wasted mental energy: "When do I start? When do I stop? How much is too much? What counts as 'do something stupid' to warrant player character death?"

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