One interesting dynamic of games such as Dungeons & Dragons is that only one player at the table is allowed to break rules in ways that are not available to the other players. The Dungeon Master (DM) is allowed, if not downright encouraged, to cheat.
Perhaps cheating is too strong of a word – as I imagine many of you react strongly to reading it. How does a DM cheat during the game? First, the DM can change the details of non-playable characters (NPCs) or entire adventure plot points on-the-fly in service of any number of motivations such as streamlining the story, highlighting the abilities of a specific player character (PC), or pacing as a session nears conclusion. Second, the DM can modify monster abilities, hit points, and statistics to tinker with the level of tension in combat. Third, the DM can fudge rolls to produce desired results. While the first two DM actions may not even qualify as cheating, since making things up is “the very essence of the game,” the third seems to fall more firmly in that category.
For example, two sessions ago in our current campaign, the players were attacked by a number of ghouls while exploring a dungeon. As the DM, I rolled the attacks for the ghouls and missed with three of the four during the first two rounds of combat. When I did hit, the players easily saved against the paralysis effect. Meanwhile, the party was hitting quite well and the combat was not terribly interesting. During the third round, I had to roll the ghoul attacks again, and I had at least two options available to me:
- Roll as normal and take the result, regardless of the outcome. A hit is a hit, and a miss is a miss.
- Adjust the result of the roll to suit my desires for the flow of the session.
Below I talk about the option I selected, and why. In addition, I discuss my motivations for bending or breaking rules during a session, and what it means for the game that I’m allowed to do this while other players are not. In other words, I address why I sometimes cheat!
Combat In the Theater of (My) Mind
One tool I use in my professional life as a psychologist is immediacy. When working with a client, immediacy is addressing something that is going on during the therapy session right in the present moment between the client and I. For example, I may notice a client that is visibly anxious when talking about her career or another client that is inattentive during a session. Immediacy allows me to address those behaviors as they happen while also affording me the opportunity to share my reactions to the client.
“I notice that as you’re talking now about your job, your face is getting red and you seem to tense up. Could you tell me what’s going on for you now as you’re speaking with me about it?’
“It seems that your full attention isn’t here at the moment. I’m wondering if you feel like this is a waste of time?”
Immediacy can be paired with self-disclosure, which allows me to share my reaction to the client in real time to assist with increasing awareness of the present moment. To continue with the above examples:
“I want to let you know that as you’re talking about the stress at work, I’m even feeling a bit overwhelmed by all you have to juggle right now.”
“It’s important to me that we use our time in session in a productive way, and I sense that we are not on the same page at the moment. What are your reactions to me sharing that with you?”
Sometimes these interventions work fabulously because it brings the client very much to the present; it gets away from talking about external events and focuses our attention in a tight laser beam on the current moment. The reason I mention it here is because monitoring the players at the table is an extremely useful skill to have as a DM, and interpreting and responding to the player reactions immediately will improve the level of enjoyment for everyone involved.
Each session, I have some ideas of situations or monsters that will provide some challenge and drama for the players. However, events do not always go as planned. The players may zig when I expect them to zag, or an encounter that reads wonderfully in a published adventure may fall flat for whatever reason during a game. If I find that I am bored or disinterested during a segment of a gaming session, then it is a very safe bet that other players are feeling the same way.
Returning to the fight with the ghouls, I was aware of my lack of energy. I was not rooting for the fight to be a slugfest, though I preferred some back-and-forth drama before the end of the night as I knew this would be our final encounter before the session concluded. I decided before rolling that I would fudge the results so at least get two of the ghouls connected with their attacks.
The players perked up a bit when one of the PCs suffered an attack from a ghoul that dropped his PC perilously close to 0 hit points. They still mopped up the ghouls rather quickly, but fudging a couple of attack rolls in favor of the ghouls during the third round of combat made the encounter a bit more exciting for everyone. Had I stuck with the rolls, the ghouls would not have challenged the players at all and the session would have ended on a rather dull note.
I fudged die rolls to line up with the drama I was hoping for in my mind, and I believe this decision increased the players’ enjoyment at the table. I have no regrets about the decision.
But should I?
The topic of fudging die rolls has been a recent conversation on social media, with various DMs contributing his or her methods for handling similar situations. An excellent series of tweets by @dungeonbastard discusses how a lack of dramatic tension in combat may result in “…DMs to consider maxing out [hit points], or fudging some damage, or otherwise tweaking the combat… That’s a dangerous path, especially if your players ever catch on, or if you misjudge and some flukey misses/failed saves take out the party.” Two months ago, I polled DMs about how often they fudge die rolls; the results above demonstrate that this behavior is far from uncommon. Less than 25% of DMs responded that they never fudge rolls, and while the most-common response by respondents was fudging rolls once every few sessions, 43% of the respondents voiced that they fudge rolls at least once per session.
Fudging die results is a tool in the DM’s arsenal, and it is likely best used sparingly. As a DM, be aware of when you are changing the results of a die roll, and why you are doing it. And be mindful of the following questions: What purpose does it serve? What are the benefits and consequences of fudging a specific result?
Now take a deep breath and read the following paragraph from the perspective of a player in a campaign, and monitor the emotions that come up for you:
The session was going along okay. We were having fun exploring the ruins but we were suddenly at a breaking point. I knew the DM was trying to really push us with this last fight, and I could tell the other players were stressed out about it. A few of us missed with good attacks, and it felt like the monsters weren’t missing much at all. It was time to let loose with my best power because it would help to turn the tide of the battle in our favor. If I missed, one or more of us were probably going to die. I rolled poorly the last two rounds, and I didn’t want to let people down. I knew my next attack roll missed the target AC by 2 but I fudged to make sure it was a hit. My target was eliminated as a threat, which shifted momentum back to us, and we were able to survive the fight. I don’t think the DM was planning for a total party kill with this battle, and we still only barely made it through the fight, so fudging the roll didn’t hurt the session in anyway.
How are you feeling right now?
I imagine near-universal condemnation of this player’s decision to adjust their attack roll. I repeated the poll about fudging rolls this week and simply exchanged “player” for “DM” in the question. My hypothesis was the results would look very different, but even I was surprised by the outcome. The difference in results below is quite remarkable as 80% of respondents voiced they never fudge rolls as a player. Another 14% voiced they fudge a roll once every few sessions, with only 6% of respondents claiming they fudge rolls at least once per session. There is a lone individual voicing that he or she fudges rolls often each session; responses are thankfully anonymous so I cannot report this behavior to the DM Police!
Behavior that seems perfectly reasonable (or at least somewhat justifiable) for a DM is considered out of bounds for a player.
I find that dynamic fascinating!
Dungeon Master as Director
Returning to the comment from Chris Perkins above, “make it up” seems to be “the very essence of the game” for the DM while the expectation is the players will abide by the rules while responding to events in the game as presented by the DM. I encountered a similar set of feedback when discussing options for players improvising the plot for the campaign or other player characters. It seems players can improvise some elements of their character, but there are boundaries to what that improvisation can affect. One commenter to the previous article wrote, “I could never play in a game where the players have too much control over the world because I’d be constantly on edge, waiting for one of them to insert something completely awful and the table just running with it either out of passivity or because they think it’s funny.” The DM has tools available to her that the players do not, and with those tools comes great responsibility.
I believe we can all run more-effective gaming sessions once our awareness of these issues is increased. Fudging die rolls is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be misused and abused. The key is to monitor what is happening around the table. Determine when the players are most engaged in the action. Notice when you are feeling bored or sluggish. Feel free to “make it up” and go off-script to add drama and flair. If that means fudging a die roll as a DM, then so be it.
For example, I adjust monster hit points and attacks at times, most often in the service of adding to the drama of any given encounter. I take efforts to spread out kills amongst the party members; I do not do this every encounter (as I believe the party’s Monk eliminated all the ghouls above) but I monitor which players are being most successful at the table. It can be entertaining for everyone when one player is epically failing (see Binwin’s poor rolls from the old Penny Arcade/PvP series for an example) but I see it as my job to make sure that everyone has a chance to shine. If I have a monster near death, and is unlikely to get off another attack in the initiative order, then I’ll have it survive a hit from a player that is racking up kills to allow another player a chance to finish it off.
If I did this all the time, then it would likely become a problem as players may begin to suspect that their rolls and actions do not mean anything because they are all at the whim of whatever preferences I have in my mind for the course of the encounter. Fudging and “making it up” can be a slippery slope, and this can be guarded against by a DM that is paying attention to his own motives and using ongoing “perception checks” to monitor the reactions of the other players around the table.
As always, I am curious to hear your reactions!