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In Praise of Dice

I don’t think I need to convince anyone that dice are cool. But for those who feel dice are only useful for looking pretty and making a clattery sound behind a GM’s screen, I disagree.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Fudging Dice Rolls​

Recent years have seen an explosion in all manner of gorgeous artisan dice and special editions. It seems every convention I’ve been to I’ve had to add another set to my already over developed collection, whether it was some rainbow dice during Pride at Origins or a set of cool Eldritch Cthulhu dice the next year.

In such articles, the conversation is about taking control of the story and making sure the results do the best thing for the adventure rather than accept a random result. It makes sense, and in many games I’ll ignore my dice (as a GM that is, for a player that’s called cheating) to work in the best interest of the story to get a more satisfying outcome for the players and the game.

But while I do agree with the odd fudging, I have to also council against it, and suggest your story may be a lot better because of the randomness so often eschewed by ardent story gamers. Quite simply, a random result will not only test your storytelling but also get you out of a rut.

Digging Out of a Rut​

We all fall into storytelling ruts. Many players have a certain type of character they love to play, and GMs do the same thing with favourite types of encounter and NPC. There isn’t especially anything wrong with this if that’s what you enjoy playing. But if you are finding your game seems have become a little samey, you need to go a bit random. Instead of choosing character options, roll them by the book and take whatever you get, no matter how unoptimised or odd. Then take all that randomness and make it fit together. Not only will you get a character you have probably taken a lot more time to think about, but also something you don’t usually play. You might hate it, but if so, you can always create a new character, and at the very least you may have gained few interesting ideas you’ll want to use again.

The same goes for the gamemaster. It doesn’t hurt to let fate take over the driving seat now and again. While it might not always take you down the best route, a random dice roll will take your game somewhere unexpected. When the game slides onto a path even the GM didn’t predict, you are all suddenly on a mystery tour. As a GM I find that exciting, because I want to know what’s going to happen as much as the players do. It may mean a little more improvising but that can be part of the fun. Either way, just like creating a random character you will go somewhere you don’t usually go, and tell a story you don’t usually tell. If it isn’t working you always have the option to pull the adventure back onto more familiar ground by fudging the next dice roll. But give it a chance before you do as sometimes the most jarring paths can take you to a very interesting place if you take just a few more steps down that road.

The Glory of Failure​

It’s at this point I should add a note about one of the best things about dice, failure. Failure is good, and possibly one of the best storytelling devices you will ever find. Sure, it might suck to be the thief who fails to pick a lock or the group who fails to take down the villain. But such events only start new stories. If the lock can’t be picked, the party isn’t going to just go home. They must find a new way to get past the door. If they can’t defeat the villain, they won’t just give up (or shouldn’t if they are true heroes). Instead, they will come back again, and how much more satisfying to overcome a problem that seemed insurmountable the first time.

I even include expert characters in this. While your thief might be a world-renowned locksmith, no one has a 100% change of success every time. Even experts fail now and again. So, don’t get hung up on the idea that it is part of your character that ‘they never fail to pick a lock’. Embrace the fact they are imperfect and can have a bad day and ask yourself how they deal with the fact they have failed.

As it often does, Pendragon offers a model for this with the personality traits. Even the most Chaste or Brave knight might fall victim to the charms of an enchantress or be struck by cowardice before a big battle. They are human, it happens. The question then becomes how do they cope with this failure, and how does it affect their position in the group? Can they make amends, will they overcome the lack of confidence, and what will they feel the next time they are called upon to face a similar test?

So, in short, don’t always take too much control of the story. Let go a little and see what fate brings you. It may take you somewhere you never even dreamed possible, and you get to roll a few more of those gorgeous shiny polyhedrons you spent all that money on.

Your Turn: How important are dice in shaping your game's narrative?
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
I never fudge die rolls. The whole point of using a randomizer is to get a random result. If I don't want a random result, I just tell the players what is happening.

I don't feel that it's my job as DM to "tell a good story" as the story is something that should emerge through play. I also don't feel that my job as DM is to entertain the players, the act of playing an RPG is the entertainment. I see my job as DM to be to adjudicate the rules in an impartial manner, and present an imaginary world that functions in a logical manner.

I would also would immediately leave a group if I found out the GM was fudging rolls. I can't trust a GM that fudges die rolls, so I can't trust them to not railroad or eliminate my agency as a player.

Not fudging! Say YES (or NO), or roll the dice (and accept the result)!!!
 

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Kannik

Adventurer
Anyone remember the 'true' d100 that looked like a golf ball? Everyone I know who had one (myself included!) rolled it exactly 3 times in their life: Once, when we got it to try it out, Two, in a game, where it rolled really far and you had to go look to check which of the small faces was pointed upward, and Three, the next roll in game where the die promptly rolled off the table, hit the floor, and broke in two spilling the beads contained within everywhere. :p (But really, even though I never used it again, I still love it. I glued it back together and still have it to this day.)

As for the D30, I have used it almost exclusively as my "Speaking in [language]" indicator. If I'm holding up the die, my character is speaking in [language]. :)

When it comes to 'fudging' rolls, the Buddhist concept of the middle path always works wonders for me. It's the extremes that tend to cause 'problems' and reduce enjoyment. No fudging at all can lead to scrubbed agency and random derailment & death (note that this can be super appropriate for certain game styles and tones, but it is a specific case and thus falls within the middle path idea) while too much fudging can lead to boredom and, interestingly, also lessed feeling of agency (and if used often enough it might call for a different type of system to be used than one that relies on dice rolls).

Fudging also allows for, and works best with, later reflection, especially if it was an error on my part that lead the players to the situation where I felt the need to do some on the spot fudging. The play continues, and if the players are engaged enjoy themselves, great! Then I can see where I or my planning went awry and I can use that for the game going forward.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
In my games every victory is earned and every close call was an actual close call. If I start cheating in favor of my players or monsters, that diminishes the overall excitement. Why roll dice at all then?

See the other extreme now, EzekielRaiden? This is where these discussions always end up - someone from the never fudging camp brings up the argument "why roll at all?" when that's never really an issue.
 



Argyle King

Legend
I prefer to roll in the open.

I vastly prefer not to fudge. I would say that I almost never fudge.

On rare occasions, the dice produce a result which is implausible* -even by fantasy standards. In such a case, I will modify the results.

Also, when dealing with new players (or systems,) I will likely be lenient during the first session or two -if I feel a decision was made due to misunderstanding the game or the situation. However, once we get into the swing of things, the training wheels come off. (I feel similarly about players forgetting to add things. During the first few sessions, I may be lenient about rewinding. However, after a few sessions, I expect that people know their stuff... at least well enough that I'm not halting the game to go back several turns and ad something. I've found that players tend to learn their abilities when not learning means I don't constantly remind them.)

In both cases, even if I do fudge, I attempt to be transparent about it. Most likely, this comes in the form of something like "ok, the rules say Joe should lose his leg from the ogre's frisbee toss... would you prefer that or being knocked unconscious?"

For me, I prefer to not fudge because I believe it helps to keep myself honest, in dividing my role as referee arbiter from that of the role of controlling the actions of antagonists and NPCS.

If a possible outcome of the dice being rolled produces something which ruins the game, I'm of the belief that such an outcome should not be among the list of possible outcomes.


Edit: *when this does happen, I typically take time to look more closely at that part of the system, to determine if maybe the result was due to something other than the dice. For example, maybe a random table contains some weird results which don't fit or a rule is explained in an ambiguous way (which leads to weird results). If it happens multiple times and appears to be due to some underlying design of the game, I would modify the game and communicate that I had done so to the players. ("house rules")
 
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It is trivially important whether players have agency.

It is vitally important whether players BELIEVE they have agency.

I have no moral objection to lying to the players, consistently continually and with a straight face, if it adds to their enjoyment. As DM I am first and foremost an entertainer, not a referee.

And if a potential player ever asked me - in person, rather than under the cloak of internet anonymity - I would respond that no, of course I absolutely do not fudge the dice. Ever. Perish the thought!
If having the players believe they have agency us vitally important, why not take the easiest possible route to supporting that belief? That is, why not have them actually have agency?

As I've said, there is no objective (that isn't deception in and of itself) which can be achieved with fudging but cannot be achieved without it. Speedy play? Just SAY "y'know what, I don't like that result, I'm just going to say what happened," or "eh, shouldn't have rolled, this is what REALLY happened." Preventing a TPK? You have loads of options: divine (or merely powerful-entity) intervention, mysterious magic, unexpected behavior from a signature item, distraction inserted into the story, internal conflict with the monsters, sudden arrival of backup, environment suddenly changes... I'm sure I could come up with more if I sat down to think about it. And this approach also works for altering monster stats, too. Correcting a trend of bad rolls? Give the players opportunities to leverage their abilities and invent unexpected circumstances that weaken the monsters. Get a cool idea (possibly from the players themselves!) midway through a situation? Take a fiver if you need it, and actually build some justification for the shift. Give the players the chance to learn about the thing before you drop it on them, and they'll feel smart for figuring out a threat before it manifested for real.

All of these things fix problems with rolling when you aren't actually okay with accepting the brute, baseline consequences of a failed roll...and yet all of them respect player agency rather than blowing it off so long as you can lie to them well enough that they falsely believe they have agency.

Why rely on an illusion you must maintain and a deception you can never allow to be revealed, when you can reject the dice WITHOUT denying player agency?

Why do something that, if a player ever discovered it, it would ruin their fun, so that you HAVE to lie to their face when they ask you if you do it?

Why make DMs deceiving players not only acceptable but necessary, while making players deceiving each other or the DM a horrific offense?
 


"All of these things fix problems with rolling when you aren't actually okay with accepting the brute, baseline consequences of a failed roll...and yet all of them respect player agency rather than blowing it off so long as you can lie to them well enough that they falsely believe they have agency."

In the context of D&D there is no actual difference between believing you have agency, and actually having agency. In fact I would argue the illusion of having agency by the DM rolling dice and secretly not accepting the results, is actually more enjoyable for the players than the honest but complete denial of agency by a DM saying "No, I'm going to narrate what happens."

In a pastime in which the DM is free to make up whatever they want and throw it at the players, the dice are - and always have been - a thin veneer of "impartiality" where none actually can exist. A lie, but a shared lie that we all tacitly agree to accept in the interest of having fun.

Or to put it another way, it doesn't matter if I roll all my attacks out in the open to be "impartial" when I can just throw another 10 ogres at the party. Or 10 fewer ogres. Or rocks fall and everyone dies. Or the party trips into a pit and finds 90,000 gp and a +3 sword.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Fudging also allows for, and works best with, later reflection, especially if it was an error on my part that lead the players to the situation where I felt the need to do some on the spot fudging. The play continues, and if the players are engaged enjoy themselves, great! Then I can see where I or my planning went awry and I can use that for the game going forward.

Not a fan of the fudging convo because it is a matter of style and there is always at least one person who wants to argue that fudging ever undermines all other dice rolls "So why even roll?" when it is obvious there is a huge spectrum from totally narrated no dice games to "all dice as rolled all the time" and to act otherwise seems absurd whether you are willing to fudge or not.

But for me, what Kannik said above describes my fudging. Sometimes I realize that some encounter I designed was just too hard (or more rarely) too easy and a little behind the scenes tweaking can make the encounter remain challenging and a threat without being an unfair wipeout because of an error. That may not be as common as it was when I was younger, or as common late in an edition cycle as it is when I am still getting the hang of it, but it happens.
 

Richards

Legend
My favorite dice are the 12d6 I call my "fireball dice" - they're mottled yellow and orange, but the 1-2-3 sides are predominantly yellow and the 4-5-6 sides are predominantly orange. Thus, when you roll a bunch of them at once (like, say, when casting a fireball spell), you can tell at a glance whether you rolled some hefty damage or some that was not so good.

I picked them up one year at a GenCon. Now my biggest regret is that I didn't pick up a second dozen of them.

Johnathan
 


Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Why even roll? It was an honest question, seems to have touched a nerve. Though it is part of the scientific method, falsifiability.

One thing though, I think that nobody wants a GM that they can not trust, or will not be fair to them.
That's a fair say, but I also think it's maybe a little overblown. A lot of players are fine with hidden rolls when they understand why they're necessary. I don't do it, but I don't play games where I need to either. Trust at the table is about a lot more than fudging rolls or not.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
My favorite dice are the 12d6 I call my "fireball dice" - they're mottled yellow and orange, but the 1-2-3 sides are predominantly yellow and the 4-5-6 sides are predominantly orange. Thus, when you roll a bunch of them at once (like, say, when casting a fireball spell), you can tell at a glance whether you rolled some hefty damage or some that was not so good.

I picked them up one year at a GenCon. Now my biggest regret is that I didn't pick up a second dozen of them.

Johnathan

An old DM of mine had tiny little red d6s he kept sealed in a glass jar (old parmesan cheese container?) so that none would be lost but they could still be rolled - he called them his "fireball dice."
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Why even roll? It was an honest question,

Because the conditions under which a fudge feels necessary are not that common and the vast majority of times the dice are fine arbiters? That would be my answer, but I think that the answer to that question varies widely from table to table. I just think "no fudging"/"might as well be all fudging" is a false dichotomy.

One thing though, I think that nobody wants a GM that they can not trust, or will not be fair to them.

That we can agree on. When I fudge it is because I want to be fair!
 

"Trust at the table is about a lot more than fudging rolls or not."

Well said. My players trust me* to have their enjoyment - over the long term - foremost, and to choose the appropriate methods to accomplish that.





......
And when they don't, I poison their cheese puffs.
 


dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Because the conditions under which a fudge feels necessary are not that common and the vast majority of times the dice are fine arbiters? That would be my answer, but I think that the answer to that question varies widely from table to table. I just think "no fudging"/"might as well be all fudging" is a false dichotomy.
Falsifiability, asking "why?" Helps to solidify reasoning behind what one is doing. And for sure, we have at my table decided to unanimously ignore some rolls. On the other hand, I have been thanked for not fudging a roll, and letting a character die, by that character's player. To me at least, everything exists on a spectrum or number line, like with the difference between a NPC and GMPC in the other thread. My advice to a GM just starting though, is to try to retain the integrity of the rolls, and if the players like to win, and hate to lose, they can turn on the GM and accuse them of being unfair, by fudging the rolls against them.
 


el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Falsifiability, asking "why?" Helps to solidify reasoning behind what one is doing. And for sure, we have at my table decided to unanimously ignore some rolls. On the other hand, I have been thanked for not fudging a roll, and letting a character die, by that character's player. To me at least, everything exists on a spectrum or number line, like with the difference between a NPC and GMPC in the other thread. My advice to a GM just starting though, is to try to retain the integrity of the rolls, and if the players like to win, and hate to lose, they can turn on the GM and accuse them of being unfair, by fudging the rolls against them.

I think when many people ask "why even roll?" their motives are a sarcastic gotcha more often then they are a good faith attempt to explore the fudging phenomenon - thus my reaction to it. Honestly, I don't think it matters as long as everyone is having fun and the DM is not abusing the trust (whatever form that may take) of the players.
 
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