Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fudging: Fighting frustration or fighting fun?

I see a lot of discussion online about fudging lately. Maybe I am just more attentive to the subject these days, but I don't think so. I believe it comes up because people (on both sides) are re-evaluating its utility.

Back when I started gaming in the late 80s, I fudged freely to help keep things moving smoothly. Sometimes I fudged to heighten the drama or pacing. Frankly I didn't think much of it until the late 90s or so. I began to feel that by fudging I was cheating my players in a way (and as a player I found myself resenting GMs who fudged). Most fudging was done for the players benefit but it still felt problematic. To be honest I wasn't really sure why it bothered me, after all no one likes it when their character dies from a stray arrow or random trap, right?

Part of the problem has to do with when I entered the hobby. Technically I picked up my first 20-sider in 1986 and continued to play (even during a brief parental ban) until the release of second edition AD&D. However, second edition is when I became a serious gamer and the assumptions in play during that time shaped how I approached the game.

AD&D 2nd edition (or 2E) has a bad rap in gaming circles these days. For a variety of reasons I think this is an unfair judgment of 2E, but I recognize there were problems at TSR during that era and they deeply impacted things like GM advice and adventure design. While I am sure much of this predates second edition, there seemed to be more emphasis on fudging in favor of drama. A rule of thumb I kept seeing (and still see to this day) was only kill a PC for doing something stupid or reckless. That is, fudge lethal die rolls to keep PCs alive unless they had it coming. I embraced this but overtime I found it diminished my enjoyment of the game both as a GM and as a player.

As a player I didn't feel like my accomplishments meant anything. We may have saved the world from the Orb of Korlax or Azlin's Doomsday Device but it was a foregone conclusion anyway. The GM was going to make sure we reached the end, and manage the pacing around the climax, to ensure the game was "fun and exciting". Yet there was no real risk and the more I realized this, the less fun and excitement I felt.

As a GM I felt like fudging was just another form of railroading. I wasn't giving my players the freedom to fail, the freedom to face real challenges. It was like playing the game with safety rails and training wheels.

So one day I instituted a "all dice in the open" policy and informed my players the game would be "let the dice fall where they may". I told them upfront I wasn't going to play favorites or protect them. Initially I was worried about taking heat for character deaths, and there was a measure of justification for this concern. In a few instances players did get upset when things didn't go their way but for the most part, because I rolled in the open and was willing to admit when I made a bad call, the players took unconsciousness and death well.

This approach isn't for everyone and Bedrock Games doesn't care whether you fudge or not. The Network system is all about playing the game how you want to play it. If fudging heightens the fun for your group then by all means fudge away. But in my case I discovered fudging was an obstacle to true excitement.

Back to my earlier question: no one likes it when their character fails, right? Sure, it can be frustrating when your character dies randomly or when he doesn't overcome the odds but I think in practice it is more complicated than removing any instance of the game that is "unfun". Sometimes what seems frustrating for one moment is actually critical for broader enjoyment of an activity. Think of sports. No one likes it when their team or player loses. But without the threat of loss, the excitement of the game goes way down. This is why the fun boxing matches or games of baseball are the ones where both sides challenge each other. It is also why we don't like fixed sporting events (even if our favored team wins).

That isn't to say this is an unbending rule on my part. I don't think any GM philosophy or approach should be viewed as a universal panacea. Great ideas can become bad ideas in edge cases so you always want to be flexible just in case. Since I instituted this policy, however, I haven't felt the need to fudge at all. In a way, when you don't fudge you can GM with a clean conscience because you aren't deciding who lives or dies, the dice are.

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