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
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.