Sunday, July 24, 2016

Entitlement Blinders

Nearly a year ago I wrote a post called 8 Tips That Will Let Any Idiot Improve Their D&D Game.  In it, I stressed the importance of not fudging the dice, arguing in just a few sentences that the DM should be as bound to the rules as anyone else.

Yesterday, I got this answer from Helene de Marcellus:

"See, I do fudge the dice rolls. And I will continue to do so. See, I'm running a campaign with at least 9 pcs at a time, and I have to work a lot to balance the monsters. Oftentimes, they end up being a few challenge ratings higher. The group's besting this monster, and then, on it's turn, it one-shots a pc. Or it would, if i didn't fudge the roll so the pc is merely unconscious. Call me a bad DM for not balancing the monsters right, or the traps, but sometimes I need to fudge stuff to keep the game moving. As long as the players don't see me fudging the rolls, the reality is not broken. I do NOT use fudging as a means for lazy story-telling. I use it to fix my mistakes. Sometimes, if i didn't fudge, I'd have TPCs [sic] on my hands, and that would not be good."

This is an excellent example of the level of hubris that exists as many gaming tables around the world. The depth of privilege this indicates makes it far more interesting as a deconstruction opportunity that it does for a responding rant.

Take, for instance, the self-accusation that the writer makes, suggesting that I would call her a "bad DM." That entirely misses the point.  In the post above the comment, I stress how obeying the rules doesn't allow for the sort of 'solution' that's being proposed here.  Obeying the rules demands innovation, improvement in oneself and in the level of the game being offered.  Taking short cuts, such as the justification for fudging die rolls offered above, makes for a bad game, not a bad DM.

Pause and consider the same words above be used as by a sports referee to explain the importance of making bad calls - in order to ensure that the "game" between the opposing teams is "better" because it "keeps the game moving."  Imagine this being the argument because one team is vastly more talented than the other.  Imagine the ref saying, "I call penalties in order to fix my mistakes."

The key, however, is this: the DM here has convinced herself that the players don't know.  She says so blatantly: "As long as the players don't see me . . ."

This is the cognitive dissonance at the bottom of the problem, because the players do know.  Of course they know.  Refs or umpires who think they're pulling the wool over the eyes of the players and the crowd exist - and they are absolutely the worst, because it represents a specific kind of blindness: the one that argues that they're the only people with brains.

Consciously or sub-consciously, it doesn't take long for anyone invested in the game to recognize that something is wrong - particularly when the party is fighting something huge that, somehow, doesn't seem to kill five or six characters in the party.  Or that the rolls seem to 'mysteriously' favor the party.  Nor does this take long.  We're most of us familiar with all kinds of games long before we come to D&D.  We have an intuitive understanding of how random success works.  The link describes how participants were tested against the authenticity of different decks of cards, red vs. blue - and while it might be surprising to some, it took a mere 10 draws from the bad decks before participants in the study began to react physically to their use; by 40 draws, the problem was consciously understood.

No one "saw" the decks being stacked.  "Seeing" wasn't necessary.  The DM who thinks that the screen or any other tactic can hide fudging is suffering from self-delusion.  All the players know - even if they say nothing.  For those who have played the game before, the acknowledgement of the game being fudged is there as soon as the screen goes up.

And while many, many people in the game accept this, the truth is that fudging substantially reduces the value of the game.  The players never "succeed" on their own.  It is always with the DM's help.  This undermines their general feeling of triumph . . . tainting every achievement, making the game a dull grey mess.

Get rid of the screen.  Let the players see the dice, just as they would at a craps table.  Accept that losing is part of the game. Don't use the dice to "fix" your monster selection for encounters.  Rather, "fix" your monster selection by playing out as many TPKs as you need until you learn.

Until we understand that we're not better than our players, Our Games will never be better than we are.

If you read this post and liked the sentiment of opposing fudged die rolls, or you'd like to see me go on writing posts like this, donate $5 or some such consideration through my blog or become a Patreon supporter, giving me some small stipend a month that you won't notice affecting your bank account.


Anonymous said...

What's your procedure for traps and secret doors? I have a strong aversion to "You know you wouldn't have found one if there is one." In these situations I use hidden unfudged rolls.

Back to fudging as safety net, while on the surface it seems as if you are protecting players from the dreaded "unfun", following the implications reveals some problems. The DM is faced between the choice of always providing a safety net or deciding on a case by case by case basis, both of which undermine the game.

In the first case, why have all those rules and track hit points in the first place? At the very least, why not use some rules to define consequences that are more clear than "If the rules kill your character, the DM makes up something up that's bad for you." Honestly I think that's why people started writing story games. They codify consequences a little bit more instead of having rules that will always be ignored. The rebuttal might be "Just make it appear that they're always lucky.", which is doomed to failure.

In the second case, the actual rule is "When the rules produce PC death, the DM decides if the PC dies." This means that playing the DM's preferences is part of the decision process, and that the stakes for player choice are either extremely low or nonexistent.

If I establish that I will save your pc, then when I don't it can be accurately said that I killed your pc. In a fudgeless game, I don't think "The DM killed me." really exists.

A series of encounters that the pcs are guaranteed to win don't really mean much. The decision of if and when to fight has no stakes.

Even if I didn't care about the players at all, I would run this way. I'd be pretty bored knowing what's going to happen most of the time.

Character death might suck, but explicit or implicit character invincibility sucks more.

I think some of the DM as entertainer model is the result of a lack of fear. The combination of the rules, the dice, and the players produces some great results, if you give them a chance. The show will be better when you stop trying to run it.

Anonymous said...


I recall reading a player poll about fudging. Turns out that the percentage of players who want it is much lower than the percentage of DMs who use it.

Anecdotally, in my last session the ridiculously overpowered sleep spell saved the party from the jaws of death. My mathematically minded player wondered aloud what the chance of survival had been taking into account all factors. Much more interesting than wondering if I would unilaterally decide if they died. A pedestrian encounter with fire beetles, made exciting by the existence of real stakes.

You sure get me going Alexis.

Anonymous said...

Another addendum. I actually read a DM posting about how it was offensive to him to be asked if he fudged, because it showed a lack of trust on the part of the player. Now that's some cognitive dissonance.

Anonymous said...

I actually read a DM stating that he found being asked if he fudged offensive, because it showed a lack of trust on the part of the player. Wow.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The thief trap/secret door thing: it stems from a desire to ALWAYS ensure that the party is questioning, "Is there a trap?" no matter what, as the thief can never be 100%. Why? Because it is seen as tension-creating. After 37 years of D&D, I can say that it is, at best, mildly perturbing. Most long-time players eventually develop a "meh" response: if there is a trap, there is, fuck it. Or to be more precise, let's just get on with it.

Why shouldn't a thief be able to search a room and state unequivocally that there is absolutely not a trap here? I know engineers, architects and electricians who can see through walls (practically). They would notice immediately that a tile had been touched with a tool. Any decent mason could look at a wall that wasn't straight and know instantly. Why not a thief? Why not just suck it down that traps are not really all that interesting in a game anyway? Fundamentally, traps are just "gotcha scares" for DMs to employ, about as interesting as they are for modern day horror films. Nice for the kids, dull for grown-ups.

Trap fetishism is one of those things that helps define a low-quality game. If these people are still playing on the level of thinking traps are pretty keen, they haven't progressed very far.

Moreover, most of the time when thieves in my game find the traps, there's always a big discussion about the serious risk that's taken in removing them. The removing is the scary, tension-filled part. Look at any film. We know about the bomb in the first five minutes. It takes two hours to FIX the bomb.

What people don't understand about tension continues to astound me.

Alexis Smolensk said...


You covered most of it except for this, that you touched on: the people who started writing story games turned to that because it was the EASIEST solution. They saw the problem in the same light as the commentor: "How do I pick the perfect number of monsters to make the combat challenging without killing the party?"

The ACTUAL problem is that this ISN'T the DMs decision. It never was. For the story makers, however, it has to be because every damn time the encounter is FORCED on the players. They never see it coming. They open the door and BANG! encounter.

The decision needs to be shifted to the players. There's a great big giant over there. Do you want to kill it? Say no, and we'll go do something else. Say yes, and its your tough shit if it kills you. You knew there was a giant.

How about an ambush? Is that fair? See that forest over there? That's a DANGEROUS forest. Not kidding. Dangerous. Want to go through it? Yes? Then it's your funeral, buddy. Not My Problem.

But DMs consistently think that "total surprise" is the best way to initiate EVERYTHING - without giving the players time to roll. That's not how it's done . . . but you can't tell these people anything.

Anonymous said...

That's exactly what I was getting at in the end of my first comment. Advocates of the unilateral flow of faux awesome are afraid that players won't do anything interesting. The "My players are passive so I need to force the action." defense is really weird. People who want me to entertain them without interaction would rather hear me play guitar. And more importantly, I think the DM style fosters the passivity at least as much as the other way around.

As far as traps go, you make an excellent point. They're kind of one dimensional. Maybe better to think in terms of environmental factors that aren't limited to two basic outcomes.

Dennis Laffey said...

I've been doing a "cover to cover" close reading of the Mentzer Basic Set over on my blog, and I've noticed because of it just how often the new DM is advised to fudge the dice. That's how I learned to play, and it took me years before I felt like there was a problem with fudging.

I will say, sometimes the advice in the Red Box is an early version of "say yes or roll the dice" where Frank advises the DM to just decide if the thief finds the trap or the elf finds the door or that the orc's sword only does 2 points of damage, then roll a secret die just to keep the players guessing. The DM has already decided to say yes, they're just trying to hide it by rolling some dice for no other reason.

Other times, though, it's just "If you don't like the number you rolled, you're free to change it to a number you do like."

I don't know if other early editions of the game were so blatant about it, but I think there must have been a lot of young DMs like myself whose first instruction manual on how to DM had quite a bit of commentary about fudging the dice to "make the game more fun."

It might be interesting to poll DMs who fudge and find out how many of them started in the mid-80's with the Red Box or later. I suspect there may be a correlation.

Matt said...

As a former dice fudger, I understand the compulsion to 'protect' the players from circumstances outside of their control. Part of the solution is: yes, make sure that the circumstances are in their control. This means being transparent with your players. This means telling them "Those woods are dangerous. There are monsters in those woods. If you go there, it is likely monsters will attack you. If you are not able to defeat them, and you very well may not be able to, they will kill you."

Most modern tabletop and videogames are built with the players as heroes who will absolutely win the day when all is said and done. Many players have an expectation that there will be obstacles, which they will clear in a way that shows of their characters' very special abilities, and then there will be treasure. If the players have a real chance of dying they need to know that the "hero" scenario is not the expectation. Otherwise its like asking them to play cards, and then telling them that they owe you $100 real dollars for the chips they lost in the game.

If, however, you don't want death to be the expectation of your game, there are still better ways to handle that than by fudging the dice. If you don't want the characters to die, make them Highlander esque immortals only able to be killed in specific ways, or undead revenants cursed to ever rise from the dead until their purpose is complete, or avatars of the gods tasked to do their gods' bidding in the mortal world, or just make resurrection potions cheaply and easily available at the local item shop.

Hell, you could even tell them "I am not going to kill you guys. When your HP drops to 0 you are instead unconscious. If you are all unconscious you will be rescued by some 'lucky' turn of events, with the only price being failure at whatever task you were doing." At least then you are being honest, and any players who want to play a game where death is a threat will know that your game is not the game for them.

JB said...

@ Dennis:

There is no mention of "fudging" dice rolls in Moldvay. On the contrary, most of the textual examples of play feature PCs dying due to unfortunate dice rolls. I don't recall seeing any calls for such dice manipulation in the original books, nor AD&D.

@ Alexis:

This is an excellent post...both constructive and empowering.

Looking forward to the next podcast.
; )

Anonymous said...

Advising fudging in Red Box is odd. The rules are inherently lethal, so if you will need to do it all the time.

In Moldvay, the examples of play demonstrate what might really happen, in contrast to the heroic dragon slaying in the introduction which is highly unlikely at best.

@Matt: Understanding expectations and assumptions are key. I'm fortunate that my players are mostly new to the game. They might compare things to video games, but they don't expect the things other D and D players might assume.

Anonymous said...

Alexis had some good advice about player assumptions and pc death in the comments here:

Anonymous said...

Edit: The rules are inherently lethal, so if you *want to save the pcs* you will need to do it all the time.