The following is an interview for the Guild Companion with Steffan O'Sullivan, the creator of Fudge.
GC: Can you explain the events that lead you to developing Fudge?
Steffan: The role-playing game Fudge was born in the newsgroup rec.games.design, in November, 1992. My fourth book from Steve Jackson Games, GURPS Bunnies & Burrows, had just come out a few months earlier and I was "between projects."
I wasn't really consciously dissatisfied with GURPS, which had been my system of choice since Man to Man was published in 1985. However, I had previously had the contract to write GURPS Faerie, and eventually gave it up. Part of this was due to the limitation of GURPS: it doesn't scale well. When you try to make a race with an average Strength of 2, you find some real problems right away. For example, it only costs ten points to get your Strength at 1.5 times the racial norm - that's the equivalent of ST 15 for a human, which costs much more than ten points. And then it really didn't matter: even with a Strength one-and-a-half times the racial average, you're still not going to make very many ST rolls when you have to roll your ST or less on 3d6.
I don't remember exactly when the newsgroup rec.games.design was created. I'd been reading it since its beginning, though, and enjoyed it back in those early days before it was taken over by computer game designers. Twice in the past there had arisen threads of "let's make our own role-playing game - everybody can chip in!" I'd seen them both die due to the logical result of such a statement: no one can agree on anything, there is no unified direction, and the project eventually peters out through chaos and flame wars.
So the third time it came up (November 1992), and people were happily debating about incredibly detailed and complex skill rules, I decided to try an experiment. As I said, I wasn't consciously dissatisfied with my current RPG, so I'm not sure what unconscious forces prompted the experiment. Nevertheless, I posted a statement to the effect that I was creating a splinter group: I wanted to create a rules-light, freeform type of game, and I wanted people's input in such a game to make it the best possible game we could. But in order to prevent it from dissolving into chaos, I would take control of the project and make all final decisions. In return for people's input, I promised the game would always be found free on the net while I was alive. In order to do this, I would have to copyright the material, and if this bothered anyone, then they were warned not to contribute to the thread.
So I posted my first skeletal proposal for Fudge, and the input started. (Fudge was actually known as SLUG at first, by the way - the name change came later.)
My first post on Fudge, after the introductory stuff mentioned above, started with:
-----begin quote from earliest Fudge post:-----
Here's what I think net.rpg.freeform should have:
1.A catchy name.
2.A loose character creation system that can be as brief or detailed as the player wants.
3.A single, easy to remember, non-chart-bound game mechanic to handle all actions that need resolution, including combat.
4.A way to incorporate supernormal abilities (magic, psi, cyber, etc.) without unbalancing the game.
5.A smooth and logical way for the character to grow in experience.
6.Open for suggestions . . .
-----end quote from earliest Fudge post:-----
I then proceeded to give suggestions of the first five of those things. The whole post was around 1600 words - a far cry from Fudge today.
One thing that hasn't changed except in name: the seven-level system. The level names changed a few dozen times, and literally hundreds of words were proposed. My first post included the suggestions:
-----begin quote from earliest Fudge post:-----
Terrible, Inferior, Poor, Average, Good, Superior, Excellent.
-----end quote from earliest Fudge post:-----
Only three of those words survived, but that's actually not bad, when I think about it! The hardest for me to let go of "Average" - but more than one person was confused by it, since a character Good at something would return a Good result on the average...
The early contributors to Fudge were great. We had some fun and even deep discussions about game design theory, and a lot of thought went into every part of Fudge, and not just my thought. Some of the key contributors are named in Fudge itself. Andy Skinner was especially active and helpful - the Scale system, which fixes the problems I found in GURPS, is largely his work, based on my crude beginnings. Andy was also most helpful for bouncing dice ideas off of.
GC:Speaking of dice, the Fudge dice system is unlike most other dice resolution systems, can you give us a little detail into its development?
Steffan: Oh yes, dice. Fudge was originally proposed with a card-based action resolution system, and I tried to make that work a few months before scrapping it. The deciding factor, oddly enough, was shuffling. I playtested so many variants of card-based mechanisms that I came to realize that frequent shuffling was a pain compared to rolling dice over and over, and so finally scrapped the idea of using cards.
But then I really wanted Fudge to be able to use some easily found, normal dice. Six-sided dice, preferably, but ten-would do (d6 and d10 in the jargon). I honestly believe that Fudge has had more dice techniques proposed for it than any five other games put together. Andy and Reimer Behrends and I came up with over a hundred just between the three of us, for example, and there were other people making suggestions, too. In fact, they still do! Every now and then someone proposes another dice technique for Fudge and my eyes glaze over...
For a long time, we used 2d6, one positive, one negative. The lower number rolled is your result - ties give a zero result, as does a result with either die showing a "6". This was actually published in the December, 1993, version of Fudge which can still be found somewhere on the net. I used it in home and convention games extensively for over a year before deciding I had to scrap it. It simply returned a 0 result too frequently. (Without the "6" clause it didn't return a 0 result often enough.) Since no other use of normal dice would do what I wanted, I reluctantly turned to designing my own dice.
Oh, there were many, many designs once I had decided I had to make new dice. And I played with many types of dice: d4s, d6s, d8, d10s, etc. I still have, lying around in drawers somewhere, various d10s, d12s, and d20s with little labels stuck on half the faces, or some faces dyed with permanent marker ink. I stumble on them now again and they always evoke weird feelings. I think I put too much energy into dice mechanics.
By this time, my friend Ann Dupuis had decided she wanted to found a game company and wanted to publish Fudge as the flagship product. I was willing, so long as it was still to be available for free on the net, and she agreed. So with someone willing to have dice manufactured, we began to talk to dice manufacturers.
This was an eye-opening experience, and is directly responsible for the current design of Fudge dice (dF). Most of the designs were simply too costly to consider - they required new dies [as in "tool and die," not as in dice] to be made, large minimum orders, and other expensive considerations. So when I saw Koplow Games' d6s with three plus signs and three minus signs, bells and whistles went off in my head. It would not require any new dies at all simply to remove one plus and one minus, and 4d3-8 was one of my four or five top choices for a distribution curve. It quickly rose to the top when it proved that using plus and minus signs required no numbers at all: the fewer mathematical calculations used to figure out a dice result, the more likely you are to stay in role-playing. So Fudge Dice were born, and I like them a lot. They're a joy to use and don't slow the game down at all, one of my early design goals.
(I'm not fond of dice systems with a flat distribution, by the way - I'm solidly in the bell-curve camp.)
Ann Dupuis deserves more than the brief mention above. It was Ann who sparked me into doing the major rewrite that is now the current version of Fudge: the June, 1995 version. It was a lot of work, but worth it from my point of view - I think it's much better than it was. I haven't edited it since, though I have amended it with the Author's Latest Thoughts file on my web page and with Five-point Fudge. At any rate, much of Fudge's popularity is due to Ann's promotion of it. She even hunted up as many of the people listed as contributors as she could find and sent them a free copy of the book version! Since her company wasn't even founded at the time those people were contributing, I consider that great generosity.
Ann has suffered a lot at my hands, I'm sorry to say. Although I'm usually a nice guy in the day-to-day world, I can be an ornery cuss when my words are at stake, and some things I do or say can sting (though I've never intentionally hurt her). Amazingly enough she has put up with me over the years and has remained a friend, and her company, Grey Ghost Games, still publishes Fudge. Thanks, Ann!
The good folk on the fudge-l mailing list also deserve some mention. Carl Cravens started it long ago - I don't remember the year, but it's been a while. The list folk are great - we've had some great discussions over the years, and lots of good variants of Fudge have come out of those discussions. It's really an excellent mailing list, since the traffic is just right: not too much to drown your mailbox, just enough to give you something interesting to read now and then. And the quality of the folk on the list is high, in my opinion.
GC: You mention GURPS, what other RPG’s influenced the elements of Fudge?
Steffan: Unfortunately, it's been so long since I wrote it that I can't really be sure anymore which games were a conscious influence, beyond the few listed here. There may well be others. Also, some parts of Fudge were suggested by other people, who may have gotten the ideas from other games unbeknownst to me.
GURPS was the primary influence on Fudge. It really is an elegant game, and most of what is wrong with it has nothing to do with the core rules, which are quite lovely. Obviously, the whole Gift, Fault, Skill thing is a direct descendant of GURPS, fully acknowledged.
Melanda from Wilmark Dynansties was another conscious influence. This game was first published in 1980, many years ahead of its time. Fudge's character creation and magic systems are strongly influenced by Melanda.
Tunnels & Trolls, Dinky Dungeons, and Prince Valiant influenced Fudge in their conscious decision to be simple games, a goal near to my heart. I can't think of any mechanics that came from these games, but there are strong "spiritual" influences. Prince Valiant's use of binary dice made a deep impression on me, though, and fueled the search for Fudge dice.
And, of course, Bunnies & Burrows. Had it not been for this game, my first RPG, I wouldn't have written any RPG materials. It's the game that brought out my love for RPGs, and still my favorite genre to play and GM ... human PCs are boring after playing Bunnies ...
GC: What do you feel differentiates Fudge from the other RPG's out there?
Steffan: There's no one thing that differentiates Fudge from *all* other RPG’s - there are just ways it's different from *some* RPG’s, and some other ways it's different from others, etc. For example, it's free – but there are other free RPG’s. It's customizable, but there are other customizable RPG’s. It's skill-driven as opposed to class/level-driven, it uses a bell curve as opposed to a flat distribution, it uses adjectives instead of numbers, it assumes the GM knows what she wants in a game and is willing to change the rules to get it, it can be played at a very simple level or at a fairly complex level. There is some RPG or other out there that can do each of these things, too. But I think the sum total of these things is unique to Fudge - I could be wrong, however - there may be another game that has all that. There are lots of games published, and I haven't read but a small fraction of them.
GC: Some people claim that Fudge is not a true RPG, they say that it is only a metasystem and that it is incomplete. What do you say to this?
Steffan: I quote many boxes you can find in various department stores around the world: "Complete in this package. Some assembly required." I actually go into this topic at some length in http://www.io.com/~sos/rpg/fudcomplete.html.
Basically, there are a few different types of people who claim it's not complete, for different reasons. So there is no one rebuttal. There are those who think it's missing rules because it doesn't have rules for falling damage, for example. To these people I say that *all* RPG’s are incomplete because they don't have rules for damage from 23rd-century dental equipment, for example, which I could have used in one SF game I ran.
There are others who say it's not complete because you have to customize it before you can use it. To those I say that's irrelevant to "completeness" - there's a complete game there. Having to decide whether or not you want to include an Intelligence attribute doesn't mean the game isn't complete - it's there if you want it. Let's say you buy a bookcase that requires assembly, and allows you to choose between a four-shelf or five-shelf configuration. The package is complete - five shelves are included - but you have to decide if you want to use the fifth shelf or not. In my view, it's foolish to claim the bookcase is incomplete because it doesn't require you to use a set number of shelves.
And there are those who say it isn't complete because there isn't a game world included. I can't really argue with these people. If that's how they define a complete RPG, then Fudge is indeed incomplete. I don't define complete to include game worlds, myself, but I don't claim I have the ultimate definition.
GC: While most RPG's use linear die results for resolution, Fudge dice create a bell curve distribution. Why do you feel this is the way to go for action resolution?
Steffan: I'm not sure most RPGs use linear die results, to be honest. Most that I have played in the past use bell curves, or at least pyramids. I'll agree there are certainly many RPGs that use flat distributions, however.
There is a basic dichotomy in taste in distribution systems: flat vs. bell-curved. I have never understood the flat-distribution fans' point of view on this issue, I confess. The flat-distribution games I've played have always bothered me - so much so that I don't play them anymore (except Sherpa, which is constrained by using a stop watch as a randomizer). Bell curves just work so much better in my world view: a bonus is more effective to a moderately trained person than an amateur or expert. For example, the idea of adding 5% to a complete novice's chances and 5% to a journeyman's chances and 5% to a grand master's chances because each of them has better footing than their opponent seems foolish to me. It won't help the complete novice that much - they'll fight poorly regardless of footing. It won't help the grand master that much - they're already so skilled it's a piddling little difference. But it will help the journeyman quite a bit: they'll be able to use their learned skills much more effectively with good footing. This just makes sense to me.
GC: Why did you choose to release Fudge as a free system downloadable from the Internet?
Steffan: Partly because I wanted help from the rec.games.design community, and I couldn't afford to pay for it. So it only seemed fair to give them the game. And partly because there have been over 600 RPGs published in the past 25 years. Very few of them are commercially viable. I don't think Fudge would be commercially viable without the free aspect to spread the word. It's turned out to be great advertising, and gotten the game known a fair bit in the gaming community. But had it just been released commercially without that free advertising, I think it would have died a big death, sales-wise.
With the open nature, many fans have customized and expanded Fudge in many ways, and that many of these fans web pages are well worth hunting up. Links to many of them can be found on either my web page or Grey Ghost Games web page.
GC: Despite Fudge being available for download, do you know how sales of the commercially available products are doing?
Steffan: I think Ann is pleased. I don't know the figures - I don't ask, and when she tells me I tend to forget. I don't get any money from it, you know, so it's not like I'm counting my royalties. But I think it's doing okay, largely due to Ann's hard work promoting and supporting it. She's got two more products on the dock as we speak, and when they come out, it'll spark more interest in the basic product.
GC: Now that you are familiar with the history and story behind Fudge, you may want to check it out. It is available for free download on the internet at http://www.io.com/~sos/fudge.html (and several other web sites which any search engines should provide links to), or in a commercial format (actual books) from Grey Ghost Games at http://www.fudgerpg.com/. Products available from Grey Ghost include Fudge Expanded Edition, A Magical Medley, Gatecrasher (a high-fantasy meets high-tech game setting for Fudge), Believe It or Else! (an adventure supplement for the "Gatecrasher" setting), Santa's Secret (a Gatecrasher adventure with Santa’s Secret Service), and of course Fudge Dice.