Well F-f-f-f-fudge!

Richard Penwarden

I saw a post on social media the other day that initially made me laugh, but the further I read the more horrified I became. Apparently fudging rolls makes you a bad GM. Wait, what? Yes, this post was a real rant about how a GM was not using the results of the dice as they fell every time and, even worse, they didn’t even show the player what they were rolling and explain why they were rolling it. Most rolls took place behind a screen. What stunned me was the number of players AND GM’s who were equally horrified that the original GM didn’t let the dice fall where they may and kept the roll hidden from the player. Some GMs were even stating “I always roll in the open in front of players, it’s only fair”. I’m guessing this is more of a new school vs old school kind of thing. Is this a ‘problem’ in your games? How much information should players have about GM rolls and how does that impact the game?

I must admit, it really surprised me the hostility to not strictly keeping the result of a roll. D&D and similar games actively encourage you to ignore certain dice results by their very mechanics. Rolling 4d6 and keeping only three to create a PCs Ability Scores is perhaps the most well-known example of a fudged result; you are deliberately stacking the odds in the favour of a high number (and why not? Your character is hopefully going to be around for some time so you at least want them to be able to do something well). Spending Inspiration to roll with Advantage (2d20, keeping the highest) or using some other boon for a re-roll – these are all ways which we can ignore an actual result for one we prefer instead, but these are okay because they are in the rules I guess. What about aspects not exactly covered by the rules?

I ABSOLUTELY roll dice behind the screen and, as GM, reserve the right to do so. It is true that there are times that I will roll in front of the players if I want them to know I am not cheating, either in their favour or detriment, but I am not obliged to. Sometimes I will roll for absolutely no reason, just to keep the players guessing. It is this idea that they are being cheated out of some aspect of the game by not knowing something that seems odd to me. Honestly, to know exactly what is going on at all times in this way would be incredibly boring. I say this as both a GM and player. It takes the mystery out of the rolls and sucks the soul from the game.

The role of the GM is to create some sort of challenge for the players. This challenge, to me, is not some static thing – you don’t determine everything before the session and stick to it regardless of the harm it does to the story, improvising nothing. It is like creating a recipe and then never stirring or checking/taste-testing whilst it is cooking. You create the story between you as you go along. It is a real shame that the players may never know just how many encounters were unscripted as a result of their off-road actions that added so much to the adventure.

So here is the dilemma, how else do you fix improvised actions without ‘cheating’ story balance? Say the players are in a situation where an important item to the plot is stolen from a nearby NPC. The thief is very powerful because the story requires them to escape with the item and the NPC has abilities/equipment that makes their escape virtually inevitable. Through some brilliant use of resources, however, the PCs are able to unexpectedly catch up with their foe. The DM has to resort to a gang of goons coming to the thief’s rescue. Here’s the thing, the fight was not factored into the original story - so when the players get back on track their resources will be lower than accounted for and the next actual planned encounter will be so much harder.

So I fudge rolls. I fudge not necessarily for or against the players but in favour of the story and challenge. Sometimes I just want to save the players from themselves, why should the whole party die because of one character’s bad decision? This is especially true in retrospect if I as a GM had described things poorly. If the players are breezing through an encounter with a powerful dragon and it looks like it will be defeated in a couple of rounds well maybe I’ll determine one of its attacks hits automatically (after rolling a miss in secret). On the other hand, if I didn’t give the players enough clues about how strong an opponent this is and they just charged in, maybe I’ll go a little easy on them until they realise. Perhaps if one player gets hit three times in a row by a multi attack for two rounds and rolls abysmally maybe the next attack that should hit will miss. A GM has such a hard job building up tension and suspense, it seems ridiculous to lose it all purely by a few (un)lucky dice rolls. Does this mean characters in my games won’t die? Heck no! If you make poor decisions, insist on a doomed course of action or whatever, your character can still die. If you make some good decisions but bad rolls, your character can still die. However, if your character does die it will not be straight away or without at least the chance to do something heroic or memorable.

The problem I have with showing all rolls has been highlighted to me on Roll20 several times. I play 5e mainly at the moment and one of my players, a great guy, is something of a metagamer. Now, learning the rules and how to play the game is a good thing and being able to help the GM explain certain elements to less experienced players can be extremely useful. The trouble is even experienced players cannot help but metagame at times. For instance, he ‘knew’ goblins have 7hp so when he rolled damage one time HE told ME, the DM, that he killed the goblin. Maybe I’m old school but it should be the other way around. Of course, he fell foul when I told him that he hadn’t because I’d rolled individual hit points for the goblins before play and that one had 10 (I genuinely had done this, after all I’d played with him before; but was it fair to just roll and not show them the result before play?!).

Anyway, you can set up various time saving macros that figure in all your bonuses from abilities, items, spells and skills and so on in Roll20. This creates something of a problem. When you roll in the chat as GM, unless you hide the roll, the players can see ALL the bonuses that are applied to the roll. For instance, a ‘red’ indicates a 1 is rolled and a green indicates a max/crit (blue indicates some minimums too). If the players see me roll 1d20, it have a result of red, and display ‘9’ they will KNOW the monster I just rolled for gets a +8 to their attack because it just missed on a ‘1’. So to me, that’s not fair.

It gets somewhat worse. 5e, and presumably many current games, have effects that can affect a roll before the result is known. This is true of something like a Bard’s Cutting Words where they can roll a die based on level (starts with d6) and subtract it from an enemy’s ability check or whatever. This is a super grey area. If the GM doesn’t roll in front of the character, how will they know if it would be effective/useful to use their ability? A Roll20 metagamer would not bother, perhaps, if they saw a roll of green 29 knowing it was a 20+9 and a crit success, therefore, an unchangeable result. It all comes down to the GM. You kind of have to describe it as (for attacks) “it looks like the arrow is going to hit you” and so on – give the player the chance to use their ability but do not let them know that it won’t make a difference is the key.

That is why on Roll20 I show the d20 roll only but mentally add the modifier myself. They will know what the roll is, but they will not know the result. This is the best compromise. It means sometimes they will waste their ability on something they cannot affect, but they wouldn’t reasonably know at the time in that split second decision that this would be so. I also tend to roll damage separately or just use average – sure you can have a macro to roll damage at the same time as attack and this is great for players but if they see a low damage roll they might not use things like Cutting Words and so on where they otherwise would.

Here’s an example. My player’s PC has a Defensive Duellist Feat which allows him to use his reaction to increase his AC from 16 to 19 for one attack (think he gets to add his Proficiency or maybe Dexterity bonus). Anyway, say he is attacked by three orcs and the rolls are 22, 12 and 17 [17, 7 & 12 (+5 each) on 1d20.]. If he sees those totals as is, he would know to wait until the third attack before triggering his ability; essentially turning two hits one miss into one hit two misses. How realistic is this metagaming though? In that split second could you realise which attack would hit or miss in spite of anything you could do? Remember, the round contains everything going on – all your actions, all your allies and foes too.

I would just show the d20 rolls [17, 7 & 12] and instead of saying “I hit AC 22, 12 and 17” I’d say “what’s your AC?” (‘16’.) “Okay the first Orc stabs at you with his spear and looks like he will strike your unprotected neck…” (pause for chance of reaction)… “he hits” (for Xhp)… “the second Orc swings wildly and the spear cuts the air above you head whilst the third orc comes at you from the side and takes good aim at your thigh…” (pause for reaction if not used)… “he just catches you (for Xhp)” or “he is just about to strike when your blade bats his weapon aside”. This way is more realistic to me because the player should be tempted to use their reaction for both attacks that would hit and have to choose between them, even though only one would make a difference to the result. Surely in real life you would try to avoid the first hit? On the other hand, with such a high result would you ‘know’ it would hit anyway?

Rolls I do show the players. Generally wandering monster rolls and treasure rolls but not the results; in a party of lightly armoured rogues and wizards a set of +2 plate mail discovered might not be great, especially if you do not have shops or discourage trading with NPCs. After a tough fight with a wyvern the next wandering monster should be a manticore, well I’ll change it to friendly unicorn and they’ll never know. There is even a school of thought for no such thing as wandering monsters – the GM determines it all beforehand and selects the most suited to the situation.

I must admit, if you hide rolls from the players you can save the really important ones for displaying in front of them like a ‘boss’ style battle. I don’t want them to be killed by kobolds in the first 50 feet of the dungeon; I want them to struggle through the traps to meet the half dragon gladiator and have an epic final battle and so do they! There is something to be said for ‘knowing’ you defeated a powerful foe by seeing all the rolls.

Ultimately, it does not matter if you keep every dice roll exactly as is or change it to balance the challenge. Whether players see all the rolls or not. The most important thing is that you pick a method that suits yourself and your group that you are all comfortable with. I think this has a lot more to do with trust than dice.

How about you? Do you fudge rolls often? Never? Do you always show the results of the dice (or whatever random mechanic is used) or is everything hidden? Do you, as a player, expect to also hide results from a GM and just declare what’s successful and not, how does that work out?