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Fate, Chance, and Fudging the Dice

Copyright Eric Brad ©2003

Edited by Peter Mork for The Guild Companion

Rolemaster is, in my experience, a very unique role-playing game system.  While it is tremendously flexible and thorough in providing rules for handling virtually any situation or action in a fantasy setting, those same rules can be the source of great annoyance at times. 

Here is one case-in-point.  You can spend the better part of an evening creating a character concept and realize that concept using the Rolemaster character generation rules.  You will likely be very pleased with the result and will eagerly await your first adventure.  Unfortunately, there is a chance that your character will not survive that first adventure due to an unlucky critical roll.  All you did was look around the corner and the arrow from the orc's bow went straight through your eye and into your brain killing your new character instantly.  Kinda sucks, eh?

Game masters (GMs) struggle with the Rolemaster's capacity for sudden and unexpected fatality endlessly in their campaigns.  It is great to have characters develop through the course of the story and make important connections.  In fact, many times key story elements or NPCs become dependent on the player characters in order to have their full effect on the on-going story line.  This creates a difficult situation for the GM.

To me, one of the key elements of enjoying the game as a player is using the character's talents and skills to out fight, out wit, out skill, and generally overcome any obstacle in the pursuit of the game story and character development.  The challenges put forth by the GM each session and the character's ability to deal with them defines the key element of the RPG experience.  If the GM begins to feel obligated to protect or rescue the player characters every time they get in over their heads, a significant element of challenge or danger is removed for the players.  In my view, this can make the game less enjoyable as the element of danger is reduced and the players come to expect to survive everything.  Where is the challenge?  Where is the risk?

There are a number of ways GMs use to deal with this dilemma.  First, and perhaps most obvious, is the use of the GM screen.  Behind the screen, the GM can do anything necessary to facilitate the game.  Some GMs start with written outlines that contain great detail on the adventure for the session and have everything laid out for the game.  Others simply have a clear idea in their head on what the adventure is about and maybe a couple of hand written notes of a few key points.  In either case, once the adventure begins, the players cannot be certain at any point that the GM has not deviated from his original plan in response to the players' actions.

A variety of things can happen behind the screen.  Opponents who normally have 80 hit points suddenly have 55 or 60 as the battle goes significantly against the players.  The open-ended roll that results in the orc scoring a "224" attack result against a player character is ignored and re-rolled.  The "99" dice result on an "A" crush critical is re-rolled or reduced by half to save a key character.  All of these are possibilities.  All of them favor the survival of the players.  And all have the ability to degrade the overall feel of the game by making things seem too easy.

Some GMs place a high value on character survival for a variety of reasons.  For his own reasons, the GM may have given player characters greater protection from the fatal blow or dangerous circumstance.  This can be especially true in games with new or novice players.  However, among experienced gamers, it is expected that they will play several different characters over the course of a given campaign.  The ability to play different characters with different personalities, professions, and skills is an important dimension of role-playing games.

In my opinion, one of the more difficult tasks of the GM is to maintain the illusion of "free will" for the players.  That is, to run the game in such a way that players believe that the GM is exerting no control over their actions or the reactions of the world around them to direct the action in any particular direction.  In the context of this discussion, that means not appearing to save the players when their characters might be killed, captured, or otherwise put in danger.

I often remind my players that the GM is not the adversary of the players or their characters.  By the same logic, the GM should not necessarily be on the players' side either!  Played strictly by the book, the GM is a referee of the rules, an arbitrator and final judge on how the rules will be applied to resolve the current situation.  But, in the interest of increasing the enjoyment of the game for the players, GMs will often find ways to intervene in subtle ways to offer the players small advantages or get them out of an unexpectedly tough scrape.

Every gaming group and GM must find their own level of comfort level with this "fudge factor."  Some GMs run their games such that all critical results rolls or important skill checks are rolled in front of the screen for all to see so there can be no perception of "fudging" the results.  Others will choose to make skill checks for players behind the screen in certain circumstances to increase their opportunity to "fudge" the outcome if the dice roll very badly.  But there are trade-offs to the extremes at both ends of this spectrum.

The group that opts for greater GM intervention risks the game becoming flat and players lose their sense of challenge.  If you are guaranteed to survive no matter what comes your way, why not walk up and slap the dragon on the ass?  The GM will work your way out for you.

The other extreme can be just as bad.  The whims of fate that control our dice can conspire to have the group rolling up new characters every other week as someone in the group meets with an untimely demise due to a lucky critical result roll by the GM.

The question becomes "how much fudging is too much?"  How much do the players want the GM to intervene on their behalf?  Another good question is how that intervention handled?  We have already discussed some of the "fudging" methods employed to one degree or another by all GMs everywhere.  But there are others that permit the players a more or less active role in the "fudging."

Fate Points are a method to fudge the game in favor of the player.  Fate Points, explained in some detail in ICE's Channeling Companion, would allow a player to modify or nullify die rolls by using fate points.  Did your character just get hit with a 66 "E" Slash critical?  Use a fate point and have it re-rolled.  Trying to save the party and you just rolled an 02 on your attack resulting in a nasty fumble?  Use a fate point and have it re-rolled.  Cast a spell above your level and the subsequent spell failure roll blows your brains out?  Use a fate point and re-roll the failure.  How many fate points a player gets, how they are earned, and how they are spent varies from game to game but it is one method of injecting the "heroic" element without depending on GM intervention.

The question of how a given gaming group deals with "fudging" is usually never discussed openly.  The GM usually handles things in the way he finds most comfortable so that the players derive maximum enjoyment from successes and optimum frustration from challenges.  This keeps the game interesting.  I would encourage you as a GM or player to examine the balance of "fudging" in your own games to see how it effects your enjoyment of the game.  Experienced players will be more skilled at detecting when the "fudging" is happening.  Similarly, experienced GMs will be very skilled at distracting players away from any subtle manipulation to maintain the "illusion of free will" in the game.

In my view, "fudging" is neither good nor bad in and of itself.  The appropriateness of GM intervention, however subtle, is a matter best determined by each gaming group.  I would suggest that it happens to one degree or another in every game.  I would also go so far as to say that it is the desire on the part of the GM to provide his players with the best gaming experience possible that drives the GM to use creativity and guile in choosing when and how to influence dice rolls and results to shape their game.  So long as the players do not show any adversity to the GMs intervention, "fudging" can be a good thing.  Maybe even a critical part of keeping a gaming group happy, healthy, and meeting regularly to adventure.

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