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Why I don’t fudge rolls or change stats on the fly

There are a couple of different conversations happening in a couple of the RPG groups I frequent. The two questions asked are both hot button topics among GMs – Do you fudge dice rolls? and Do you change monster stats on the fly? Here is my response and my reasoning, along with a recent example.

Generally speaking I don’t pull punches and I roll in the open, so I don’t fudge rolls. I also don’t change creature stats on the fly. Player choices have to matter and if I change the dice rolls and creature stats whenever I want, I have diminished the consequences of those choices.

Now, if I was setting up an encounter for the group to purposefully meet and didn’t properly describe the situation, only realizing that the PCs were totally outgunned in the middle of the battle – I may try and adjust the behavior of the creatures, do a morale check and see if they flee, or have them make bad tactical choices, or even just blatantly give the PCs a chance to run away/retreat while they still can (and letting them know that as soon as I realize it). But I still won’t fudge the die rolls or change stats on the fly – I just don’t run my games that way.

In other words – if I totally screw up and make an encounter way over the heads of the PCs, then I do adjust things and give them a chance to flee/retreat/run and survive – but what I adjust is the behavior of the enemies, not stats and not dice rolls. I will also say that it has been an awful long time since I have done any of that – we’re talking years.

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The reason is that I try to give my players a VERY good description of a situation, complete with opportunities to reverse course if warranted (before they have committed completely to a course of action), and sometimes I even give them not-so-subtle hints that they might be going into something over their heads (from GM to player as opposed to from NPC/in-game to PCs). If they still choose to wade in, then that is THEIR decision and the dice get to decide the rest.

I don’t purposefully make encounters or situations that are out of bounds for the PCs, but I also don’t balance the things they come into contact with. The story determines how many creatures they will encounter, not the number of PCs or their abilities. And by this I mean that if they wade into the known lair of a dragon, they are likely to meet – surprise! – a dragon. If they couldn’t pick up on that, after ample clues and information was given, then no amount of fudging or balancing can help them.

For example, in my last D&D session the group decided to enter the stronghold of a cult group. They knew they were assaulting the main hide-out of the group. They were offered a bunch of hirelings to accompany them – 15 skilled ratmen who only wanted 1/4 of the treasure spoils altogether (basically the same amount as another PC would have gotten if given a fair share). The group turned down the offer of the ratmen militia and decided to approach the stronghold alone. They decided to use stealth and brains to enter the place un-noticed and make their assault from within.

I didn’t change any of the encounters. They entered the known hang-out of the cultists and attempted to move room to room and defeat enemies fast enough that word of their presence didn’t spread. Were they successful? Nope – but not because I deemed it so, but because their choices matter and the dice decide the rest. They eventually got far into the place and didn’t take out a fleeing cultist before he was able to run out of the chamber they were in. Now the enemies were alerted to their presence and the group had to change their tactics and be more careful.

It was great fun and a couple of the PCs almost died a couple of different times. It would have gone very different if they had approached with the small ratmen militia behind them.

They still aren’t out of the woods yet – and I haven’t reduced the difficulty of anything with respect to the cult hide-out. They are still in danger – especially since they fled a bit so they could find cover and recover from their wounds. But now several hours have passed and the remaining cultists are on the lookout for the intruders!

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If you are making a habit of fudging dice rolls or creature stats on the fly because you think an encounter is too difficult for the PCs, here is my advice to you:

1) Make a few encounters you know to be weak encounters and have the party encounter them. See how they respond, learn the tactics they like to use. Learn what the PCs can and will do.

2) Make a few encounters you know to be very difficult and have the party encounter them. Let the dice fall where they may, don’t fudge rolls or change stats on the fly. You might be surprised how well the PCs perform against what you thought was a deadly encounter.

3) Adjust the way you set up a ‘balanced’ (challenging but winnable by the PCs) encounter to be in between the two types you were just playing around with.

Steps 1-3 were just to give you an idea of the actual abilities of the PCs as the players actually play them. Steps 4 and 5 are actually more important!

4) Don’t fudge things or change stats from now on. Give the players/PCs ample warning when they are approaching a very difficult encounter. Make sure to have a plan B ready if the party accidentally TPKs but trust that they will try their hardest to survive the encounter.

5) Be sure to tell the players that you are shifting the way you run your games and that things won’t always be balanced. Sometimes they might need to retreat if they get in over their heads, and they will have to take responsibility for those choices. Be careful how you phrase this – you don’t necessarily want to tell them that you have been fudging things in their favor all the time – so don’t say that. You still want them to trust you, so simply say that you are trying out a new way to prep and a new style of encounter building. You aren’t worrying about balance any more.

Let your players adjust how their PCs respond through play – you won’t regret it!

Until next time, I wish you good gaming.

~DMSamuel

About

DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

2 Responses to “Why I don’t fudge rolls or change stats on the fly”

  • Good advice, Samuel. I generally don’t fudge dice rolls, although I’ll admit it I’ve done it a few times at the very beginning of a campaign. It’s never fun to see a PC get killed in the first session due to a few unlucky rolls.

  • Thanks Adam! I make exceptions if a player is brand new to the game or if we, as a group, are learning a new system. But the exceptions are always that I walk them through the possible consequences of their choices and explicitly tell them what could happen if the dice don’t go their way. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s first experience at the table, but I still avoid fudging if at all possible.