I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, March 18, 2024

Fudging, lying and cheating

[D&D] is a game, and outcomes shouldn’t always be predictable! Removing the risk of failure also removes most of the fun. (From an upcoming random encounter book).

"Fudging" is a very contentious topic; most people reading this might have an strong opinion before reaching my conclusion. But before we discuss it, we need some definitions. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as to avoid a direct answer or "to cheat about something slightly, esp. by not reporting facts accurately or not telling the exact truth".

In the context of RPGs, most of the fudging discussion refers to the moment when the GM secretly changes the results of the dice (or other statistics of the game, such as monster HP) - usually in combat - in order to save players characters (PCs) - or even NPCs - from a fate that the GM deems inappropriate, anti-climatic, etc.

There could be other definitions (and I'll discuss some), but this is the most common.

The debate has two vocal sides: the ones that say fudging is cheating, as per the dictionary, and the ones who think fudging is necessary to avoid anti-climax or to save the PCs from fates they do not deserve. Curiously, the first camp is full of "old school" gamers like myself, despite the fact that the 1e DMG suggests saving "undeserving" PCs from death.

I believe both sides are too extreme and there is some nuance to be considered.

First, a small caveat - this is NOT a moral judgment

In the past, I've seem people get offended by discussing this topic. I'm not calling anyone a cheat for fudging - it is your table, not mine.

I think every GM has fudged in some circumstances, and I certainly did. 

But I also think this is usually a mistake, should be almost always be avoided, and it can ruin games. I'm not saying it is "evil", but I think it is fair to say it is "bad form".

This discussion is akin to asking "is sugar bad for your health?". It probably is, but I'm not calling you unhealthy or forbidding you to eat a cake when I say that. I eat too much sugar myself...

Please skip this post if you don't like the idea of criticizing fudging.

Is fudging cheating?

The dictionary seem to indicate so, although some seem to think it is "cheating with good intent", and therefore shouldn't be considered cheating. 

RPGs are a cooperative game; between a GM and a player, there are no winners and losers, which is why the "cheating" term feels inadequate. 

To that I often reply that GMs who defend fudging in never had to deal with a fudging player. I have, and it is exhausting. I also noticed a GM was fudging and it almost ruined that game for me (but there are exceptions - read on).

[I didn't expel the player or quit the campaign, FWIW; but I avoided these situations in future games]

Or put it in another way: fudging is NOT cheating if you are honest about it. "So, I rolled a natural 20 here, and that would probably kill your PC... but you know what, that goblin encounter shouldn't be that hard, my bad, let say the goblin missed".

On the other hand, if you're fudging and constantly lying about it, then it is probably cheating, even if "cheating with good intent". 

After, why would you lie is what you're doing is good and expected?

Maybe you can START the campaign by saying that "look, I want to provide a good time to everyone, so I will occasionally change the result of the dice to avoid that any PCs die by accident. I'll try to use it sparingly and you guys try to avoid abusing the system".

I'm not sure I'd play in such a game (I probably would!), but I'd like it one hundred times better than being duped into that.

PC death is a problem

The death of a PC is a problem. That is why HP were created - people get attached to their PCs. 

A TPK (total party kill, i.e., the death of ALL PCs at once) is a big hurdle in a campaign unless you already have other PCs/NPCs involved in the campaign to avoid starting from scratch.

Fudging is one solution, but not the only one. You can also:

- Create a new PC.
- Turn hirelings or NPCs into PCs.
- Use some form of resurrection.
- Make 0 HP mean unconsciousness/maiming as suggested in the 1e DMG.
- Have immortal PCs (examples: Toon RPG, Dark Souls).

I wrote an (unpublished) RPG (with some story-game influence) that actually required the player to DECLARE his PC is willing to die for this fight. If the answer is negative, the worst that can happen is capture, failure, unconsciousness, etc. If positive, you get some temporary bonus but risk death, let the dice fall where they may.

This solution is as good as any of the above, depending on the kind of game you're playing.

The best way to address this is make it explicit. Talk to your players in the beginning of the campaign. What do we do if a PC dies? Or in the event of a TPK?

Do PCs ever "deserve" death?

Many GMs fudge to save PCs from an "unfair" death. Maybe two or three enemies hit in the same round, all with near maximum damage, not giving the player option of running away.

What is more, maybe it was a surprise attack and not a battle the players chose. Maybe the PC lost initiative and didn't even get to act or parlay.

I find that most of these cases enhance the fun of the game by adding risk and unpredictability. But if you believe otherwise, the best policy is, again, discussing this with your players beforehand and even changing the rules in advance to match your play-style.

In addition, judging if a PC "deserves" death is an extra burden to the GM. The GM is not there to morally judge the PC's choices, but to present a coherent setting. In any case, a brave PC might be more "deserving" of an heroic death than an NPC who decided to be a farmer instead.

In short, let the PCs decide what risk they are willing to take. Sometimes, simply traversing the wilderness can be deadly. If you don't find that fun, let your players know that they will always have the option of running before the battle starts (which is NOT the case for most D&D systems; surprise and initiative can kill you before you can act).

What about "unfair" challenges?

Fudging is sometimes related to the idea that encounter difficulty should match the PCs level. I usually advise against that, because:

- It makes the setting feel “fake”, as if it was built around the PCs.
- It robs the players of the satisfaction of finally facing stronger creatures that were once too powerful for them.
- It misrepresents the (RAW) danger of wilderness travel.

The last point is especially relevant here. If you keep fudging the dice, the players will never learn how dangerous a group of orcs really is.

Fudge now, and you'll fudge forever

This brings us to another problem? if you misrepresent the danger of these orcs once, it is unfair to expect your players are more careful next time. Then, you`ll need to fudge again.

Also, if you save ONE PC from death, it is unfair to not save ANOTHER PC under different circumstances - no matter how you justify it, it might feel like you're playing favorites.

Honesty is the best policy

My PC was recently on the receiving end of a critical hit by a zombie that "should" be easily defeated. The DM was a bit apologetic, but for me it was the first time in the game that I felt my PC was in danger (he lost an eye). It made he game more interesting to me.

As a GM, I don't like the burden of having to lie about dice results. I always roll in the open and never use a DM screen in order to avoid temptation (as someone else commented, would you like your players bringing "player screens" to hide heir rolls?). 

[In fact, if you use a DM screen when you make attack rolls I will assume you are fudging. I might even agree that your players should know you're fudging, although I'd prefer if you said it out loud. Online play brings a number of related issues that we will have to face soon - will there be "fudging tools" for the GM in RPG apps such as roll20? I wouldn't know, but I find the idea interesting.]

I let the players choose the risk they are willing to take, and the dice decide if the risk materializes.

If I am "saving" the PCs whenever I want, I am to blame whenever I don't.

Fudging and story-gaming

I have said before that "fudging" in D&D is the result of a misconception, since the role of the GM is not to protect the plot or the pacing of the story". 

Fudging seems more common in people that want to play D&D as a story-game, using it as a tool to provide a "satisfactory narrative".

Again, if that is how you like to play, it doesn't matter what other people say, have fun.

I will just remind you that actual story-games usually do not encourage fudging either. You don't get to choose your rolls in Fiasco or with Rory's Story Cubes AFAICT.

In fact, these games often have no DM, or at least include multiple tools to allow the players to meaningfully participate in the creation of the setting without directly controlling their PCs.

Fudging in D&D seems to create a weird, asymmetric situation in which the DM is playing one kind of the game and the players are  doing something different; as if the DM could change the dice at will, but PCs will be seems as cheaters if they do the same thing.

Fudging players seems to be an ignored point in this topic. Can players "fudge" too or they always cheat? How come DMs get to "save" PCs and NPCs, while the player cannot simply decided that letting his barbarian die against a lowly goblin would not be appropriate to his "character arc"?

If changing the result of the dice is cool for GMs, it should occasional be permissible to players - unless they agreed beforehand only one person gets to change results.

Fudging and random tables

There is at least one example of "recommended fudging" in the 1e DMG: ignoring random encounters rolls to spare the PCs who are "undeserving" of more danger.

Curiously, many people do not see that as fudging. Even GMs that are vehemently against changing an attack roll to save a PC can feel comfortable by planning encounters beforehand and ignoring results that feel "too hard".

In any case, you can see the method and results are very similar: changing dice rolls to save PCs from danger.

I do not like this idea, for the reasons described above ("What about "unfair" challenges?"), but I don't think it is exactly the same situation.

There is an oracular quality to random tables - which could be an interesting discussion, but this post is too long already. For now, I'll just say I'd happily "fudge" the results of a random table when creating a dungeon, for example.

For random encounters, I'd prefer to have better tables then to fudge results. I'm working on that...

"Acceptable fudging" - or "not-fudging"

There are cases in which the GM is expected to be able to change the dice or mechanics as he sees fit.

I often change stats from monsters in published modules. I think it is important to say I change the monsters when I do that - these are not super-strong goblins, but morlocks, etc.. 

I ignore encounters I don't like and even erase entire sessions of dungeons.

I am not sure I'd call this "fudging", but I don't mind if you do - in any case, this is not what people usually refer to when they say fudging (instead, it is a part of "prep"), so I see no reason to make things more confusing. 

There are other examples, as pointed in Jens post. Changing the rules, even during the game, can be more or less expected when play-testing, or getting to know a system. As he suggests, "don't call it fudging".

But I'd be careful with that too. I often think of my Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, in which the PCs almost suffered a TPK in the FIRST adventure by fighting A SINGLE GHOUL. It was certainly "unfair" - nobody had played this game before and they were coming from an "heroic D&D" background.

But it DID set the tone for the rest of the campaign. They immediately realized SotDL is a hard, gritty game. If I had changed the dice (or HP etc.) at that moment, I would ruin the player's understating of the system - unless I explained what I had done.

I still think the first adventure in Tales of the Demon Lord is too hard, and I'd change it if I were to run it again - but I'd avoid misdirecting the players or they'd never really get to experience the system.

In conclusion...

I find fudging a dangerous tool.

Letting the dice fall where they may takes a heavy burden of my back when I GM.

Ignoring this tool has a cost, but it creates new and interesting opportunities.

In any case, you should always talk to your players about which kind of campaign you're planning to run. Don't assume they expect this or that.

This feels like an endless topic, and don't feel like I considered every angle. I only hope this post has helped to make my opinion on the subject clearer.


  1. Knowing that the DM will not fudge, knowing that if your PC dies, then he dies - that makes the game so much more worthwhile IMO. Your victories are real victories, then. As a result I never fudge as a DM - unless I make a mistake that would harm the PCs. In that case I'll bail them out as subtly as I can. If it's their mistake - or just bad luck - then let the dice fall where they may.
    Also I never cheat as a player. A grownup should be ashamed to do that.

    1. Yes, I find games with less fudging more enjoyable too. Stakes are higher, more emotion.

  2. I'll admit to having fudged once in a while for what I felt was a story/player benefit: First adventure, first character, 1 hour in, I just happened to roll max damage on a critical hit... it would've been a 1 hit kill.. That would have been it for the player... instead i made it a MASSIVE hit that put them into the low single digits... they were terrified rather than just dead and I felt this added to the drama since now they had a VERY wounded companion and nowhere safe to rest.

    In another situation it was a fighter that just flat out couldn't hit for the entire session... I don't think they saw more than a 7 on the d20 for about 3 hours. The simple statitical anomoly of being slaughtered by foes that they should have been able to dispatch by the droves they were just getting overwhelmed so similarly i left them injured but not dead... this wasn't supposed to be a heroic last stand, it was clearing a basement.

    1. I think everyone has fudged at some point... It has its pros and cons, but most times it will make things harder IMO.