Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Protect your Gamemasters (and don't call it "fudging")

November last year I went to check out X. I had heard lots of promissing things about the changes there, and the possibilities that come with them. Gotta say, I'm not disappointed. Already met a couple of interesting people and had some inspiring conversations. As far as you can have that on X ... if you can't get your point across as an aphorism, you might just as well not try. I like it. Anyway. Last big discussion was about "fudging" and how bad it is. I was on no side in this argument as my take is somewhat different. Thought I'd share my thougts here.

One more thing: using X I was reminded that there isn't only "right" or "wrong" but that there are many valid truths that might not even be compatible, but nonetheless co-exist. Still lots of bullshit, too, but the reminder that we can be right and not agree was welcome.

The first truth about fudging is ...

Every GM worth something is able to pilot a narrative to where they want it to be and without touching the dice. Doing so by "ignoring" die results is something mostly inexperienced GMs will do, and only as a last resort (what kind of last resort will be explored later). The dark truth about this is, then: if your GM wants to do something you'd feel "robbed" about if they'd tell you, they'll have PLENTY of chances to do so before any kind of rolling is involved, even to a degree where you will NEVER be able to get even an idea that it happened.

Because that's the main thing GMs do: they adjust their games towards the outcome they think appropriate. Always has been like that.

Even if they are not happy with a die result, it is easy enough to find ways AROUND a result that shifts a narrative away from what is happening. Attack targets are switched, special abilities ignored, NPCs make "dumb" decisions ... The list goes on and on. Rolled a heavy encounter but the group is in no shape to deal with it? Have them rest first, trigger the encounter then. I could go on.

Admit it, it's a lot ... [source]

But is that already fudging? Some people seem to believe so.

My point is, part of the game is trusting the GM to make the right call most of the time while being able to adjust all elements towards a good game that might go sideways. Most games even explicity state so: the GM is the arbiter of the rules, in ALL ASPECTS. That includes, imo, the dice, and it is not arbitrarily so, or to do "harm" to the players, but to ensure the integrity of the gaming experience.

There are now those who will say that a GM deciding a roll is "wrong" and therefor can be ignored, "fudges" in the sense of the word because the rules used that led to the roll are ignored, and players playing by those rules are, therefor, cheated out of a legit result.

Well, let me tell you a little something about game design, then.

Because games are machines, too ...

... and machines can go wrong, every now and then. What I'm saying is, there is no role-playing game out there that addresses all possible scenarios, including those it was written for. Add adventures and splatbooks and different authors, even lack of playtesting, and you'll get a collection of rules that will fail a group every so often, IF not a GM steps in to adjust towards the intention of the game. Towards its ideal (or gestalt?).

Mostly it is little things that need adjusting. That's an important part of it for ALL role-playing games, because it is important to realize that GMs need to find consistent ways to play a game WAY before they even introduce "house rules". And for a plethora of reasons, too, like when rules are not well written or clear enough in aspects.

The oldest role-playing games we know are great examples of that. We are, to this day, exploring the intricacies of what OD&D means or how it is played. I'd say it is important to find common ground like that, even if it takes decades to get there. That said, role-playing games are little machines used by individual GMs, and both of them need to click to find their unique version of that game, again, towards the ideal the game proposes.

Switch between groups playing the same game, and you'll find those nuances of interpretations even among those who play RAW. In a sense, GMs are necessary elements of games, just like a driver is a crucial part of a car (again with the car analogy ...).

I'm a great proponent of writing rules in a way that allows those using them the same experience they'd have when the designer is GMing it. Actually quite difficult to achieve, believe it or not, and not done often enough. Even if done properly, the amount of playing a new game needs before a GM can achieve mastery of that game, especially if it is more on the "crunchy" side (say, AD&D is a good amount of crunch many would already shun nowadays), is hours upon hours of play-time and preparation.

What it takes, then, is a series of lessions that is bound to be riddled with misunderstandings and mistakes and short term adjustments, just for playing the game while learning it. At some point all playing in a group will be content with how they play the game (or rather, how they interact with the game).

All part of the learning process. [source]

And then you get an errata that changes some of the assumptions you had to work with, or even a new edition that actually expands on the established! What I'm saying is, playing a role-playing game is always a work in progress, even for those who wrote it.

Which begs the question: what game are people playing, then? And where does the "cheating" in this process start? Is it even legitimite to call it "fudging" or "cheating" if one where to look honestly at what GMs are doing?

The second truth about fudging ...

One thing you'll experience on X is that ALL issues end up being argued along a binary of extremes, even if the issue is not easily divided into just two sides. I feel that is the case here, too, because while one side took umbrage in the idea that a GM might adjust die results and called that "fudging" or even "cheating", the other side claimed it is necessary for "the story" to "fudge" occasionally. For instance to save a PC from death.

And all of a sudden, it was "storygamers" versus "role-players" ... or something along those lines. With the problem framed like that, a proper discussion ended up being impossible and what was left was taking sides.

BUT those are NOT true opposites. Although they understand how they play the game very differently and like to fight over how to play "properly". So a fight it was.

Anyway, the thing is that the original game already relied A LOT on people filling the gaps they found. And it was a game full of gaps, which is easily enough proven, since no one group played like the other, so diverse had the different interpretations been (Gygax, arguably, had to write AD&D to have his interpretation of what they had published originally, canonized). 

In many cases that made additional rules necessary, in other cases gaps had filled easily with, well, narrative tools. I think the original game was seen as a guideline of what to play, not a set of rules how to play, if that makes any sense. What I mean is, D&D is (was?) an idea of a game for and foremost, and that ideal is ABOVE the rules. The source, if you will.

In a sense we never stopped exploring what that first pitch proposed 50 years ago actually means, as far as rules are concerned as well as all social aspects of it and how all of that interacts.

So the "fudging" both sides are talking about is, more often than not, the clumsy attempt to work towards that ideal. I firmly believe that. And while one side sees more the mechanical aspect of the game as dominant (hence the umbrage), it's the other side that is too far into the narrative aspects of the game to see any issue.

Both sides aim for an ideal of a game that the other side doesn't play while ignoring that both ideals are variants of a more removed, a pure ideal of the game. And they all adjust the rules one way or another down the line, just with different preferences.

In summary I'd say that people often confuse WHAT they are playing (role-playing games) with HOW they are playing (the specific set of rules and customs they are using). The one is a meta, if you will, of what the game can be, the other is an attempt towards that ideal in form of a set of rules. If you GMed more than one game in your life, you know you bring that meta to other games.

The "meta" isn't a moving target ...

All right, I think that last point needs some clarification. What's the "meta" or "ideal" or "gestalt" of role-playing games? And how are those two positions not opposites?! In order to answer both, we'd have to answer what lightning actually was in that bottle that is the original game. That's not as easy to pin down as one would think, and maybe something a game designer may have a very different perspective on than most others would.

First of all, if you see D&D as a cultural phenomenon, you'll find very quickly that while D&D was the focus of the hype, it wasn't really about D&D at all. D&D was the entry point to be part of something that went beyond what people knew about games and gaming. And by a huge margin, too.

Remember, no computers to speak of yet, war games had been the pinnacle of complexity as far as board games went but had also been VERY fringe, and beyond that you got some classics (chess, monopoly and so on) and some simple games and toys. Compared to that, D&D was a quantum leap.

But towards what?

Primarily I see two strong basic tenets, the first big one being EXPLORATION with a hint of danger (the UNKNOWN and CHANCE), the second one being the promise of GROWTH (gathering EXPERIENCE and KNOWLEDGE). There are a couple of secondary tenets as well, mostly things put in place to enhance the primary ones, chief among them would be having a guide, of sorts, that evaluates your progress (the GM) AND a group of mutuals that alternate between witnessing and playing.

A third important aspect attached to the original premise would be that it happens by way of cooperative storytelling (in the most basic sense).

And there you have it, the secret sauce that make rpg tick and spawned several billion dollar industries. A bit of gambling, some school-of-life type of learning and a bit of cooperative campfire storytelling in a structured and controlled small group setting. D&D hit the Zeitgeist right on the nerve with its proposal and it would weave its magic through a complete culture for decades to follow.

It is the "what" I was talking about.

The "how", now, are the different expressions that can have. All play around with the dials outlined above, and we saw several surges of innovation in the last 50 years (how about exploring desires? ... Vampire:TM), as well as some setbacks (arguably corporate culture aiming to make role-playing games costly theme park experiences) and some experiments (games without an element of chance, solo rpgs ...).

All of it is fair game, of course, and all of it helped the hobby to nail that higher ideal, BUT we are not yet done doing so. As a matter of fact, we might not live to see that happen.

Think about Chess, for instance, a game already over 500 of years old (older if you take precursers into account). You know when the last revision of the rules we know had been? 2023.


So it's STILL discussed what the "true" gestalt of that game is. But Chess can show you another thing, too: at some point a version gained popularity that appeared to be superiour to all other variants. It's a bit of a transfer to imagine the same for rol-playing games in general, but for D&D it is very much possible ... just not yet done.

Because, although it seems to be pretty easy to pin down an agreeable version of the basic rules, scope, best practice and GM advice are very much still a matter of discourse.

That is to say, all those "how to"s capture aspects of the "what", but not entirely so. And that's important to acknowledge, because (and here we go full circle) all honest attempts carry a piece of the truth and are, therefor, not wrong within their confines. Or rather, arguing one case does not negate the other because both might be true.

In that sense, where a GM "adjusts" in a game and to what degree is entirely up to individual compromise. Higher degrees of compromise are usually not possible, but may occur within certain groups of games. A "final truth" or a "one true way" has not yet been found.

It's not "fudging", then?

"Fudging" is, as far as I'm concerned, a misnomer for what it aims to describe in the context of the work a GM does to make the game happen. There are, for sure, examples of bad practice among GMs out there, but I think all can agree that Gamemasters who actually "cheat" (which would be abusing the rules to achieve something that has nothing to do with the game) should NOT GM a game.

Don't abuse the game for ill goals ... [source]

Other than that, all I see is that it is within the broader idea of what a GM can do or should be able to do, sometimes maybe even HAS to do. Experienced GMs will not even bother with the dice but easily work around any result they might get but not like. Beyond that, if players are bothered by it and want to take the dice as they come, well, that's one way of playing it. Just not the way of playing it.

The whole notion of calling it fudging already implies something fishy is done on the sly, so I wouldn't go and apply it to anything a GM does in the game to begin with. A GM should have the best of the group at heart. Always. And people should agree what that means in their game, of course, but the far more important point is that in order to achieve that, GMs have to work with what they get, which is never perfect.

Can't be, for all the reasons summoned above. It also is a tough gig to do on the side AND for free (in general). People seem to forget that, too. So when I hear arguments like "he cheated the character out of their death" or whatever, I think, what an ungrateful piece of shit do you need to be to bring that to a table and denigrate the good work done for you?

Because that's what it is, most of the time, good work and good intentions.

So I think it'd be a good idea to not call anything a GM does "fudging" or "cheating" as long as they are within the realm of doing their "job". You can still diagree with the solutions a GM finds for the problems a game poses, but it is presumptious that someone got robbed of something because of a difference in taste or approach.

Just be kind to people, for fuck sake, especially if they take the time of their day to do something for you.

Just be nice ...

My take?

I roll all of it in the open, most of the time (there are games with mechanics that make it necessary for a GM to withold the result, however). I also don't need to adjust dice rolls, as I think it is a nice challenge to weave results into the game I don't "like". GMs are players, too, you know. But I'm ALSO doing this for over 30 years now, and it was a long road to get to where I'm right now with it.

Unexperienced me, decades ago, in my teens, maybe even early 20s ... I might have taken a liberty or two with the results every now and then. In ALL those cases, swear to god, it was because I thought I saw a better outcome by ignoring a result. It's, imo, all part of the process of getting this role of being a GM done properly and finding your own voice.

You can't tell me there's anything wrong with that.

There's also the somewhat prevalent idea of "role-playing as sports" that NEEDS consistency in the rules to the degree you'd expect with war games or games like Chess. It is problematic, as you can see outlined above (no rpg is THAT well written, to my knowledge), but that would (again) cook down to something a table agrees on, not a general "truth" or a way of playing that'd protect players from the system failing them at the fringes.

Beyond that I see with concern how our perception what the game is shifted a fair bit away from the idea that the GM is the head honcho at their table, undermining their authority constantly, reducing them to being mere entertainers in the long run.

I don't play that way, and I don't write games for people like that, but I see the opinions behind those shifts permeating through all the discussions. But that and "player conduct" (or lack thereof) may be isues for another post.

In the end, if someone plays the game differenty, ask them how they made that work for their group and what's fun about it, instead of going on a crusade. Maybe you'll learn something about how you play and why in the process. Everybody wins that way.

Let's close with my favorite Bob Ross D&D meme, shall we?

Everyone needs a friend ... [source]


MINIMUS LUDUS by Mark van Vlack is still new on OBS. It is a very lite rules rpg that comes with EIGHT complete worlds to explore and play around with for one shots or even short campaigns. Check it out if you want to support our work here!


I'd like to close this post again with that little mantra I've learned about a couple of weeks ago, Ho'oponopono (a great article about it can be found here). It keeps having a positive impact on my life, and I feel we all need something like this right now (or always, actually), so here you go:

I'm sorry!

Please forgive me.

Thank you.

I love you ...