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Every time a gamemaster picks up the dice, he is toying with fate - the fate of the players, the fate of the adversaries, the fate of the campaign world. When the dice come up in ways that were unexpected or create situations that are uncomfortable or unwanted, the temptation hangs omnipresent to say the dice said something they did not - to fudge.
Back in my article "Judging the Game," I explained why you should never fudge a meaningful die roll, noting "the desire to fudge is founded on the faulty premise that you need to make sure people have fun. But it's a mistake to believe that letting a character die destroys fun... It's fudging the dice that destroys fun, by destroying the ability for the players to make meaningful choices."
In today's article, I want to discuss when you should fudge. Obviously, if you should never fudge a meaningful die roll, the universe of available fudging is limited to meaningless die rolls. But many die rolls are meaningless, or seemingly meaningless. Should you fudge some of them? All of them? The short answer is that you can fudge a die roll when it benefits play without impacting the ability of the players to make meaningful choices.
As an illustration of this general point, here are three situations where fudging makes sense.
#1: Fudging for Speed When the Outcome Is Virtually Certain
Sometimes, the outcome of a situation is virtually certain. For instance, imagine that there are eight player characters about to attack one easy-to-hit adversary with only 2 hit points remaining. The first player character, Marcus, hits and inflicts 1 point of damage. In this circumstance, it might be appropriate for the GM to "fudge" Marcus's damage to be enough to kill (2 points), in the interest of speed of play. After all, the adversary is going to die regardless, and depending on the system, going through the attack routine of another character will just waste a lot of time that might be better spent on more meaningful play.
Note that I said it might be appropriate to fudge. But it might not be. If the adversary is a notorious warlord, and whoever lands the killing blow will earn much honor, then who lands the killing blow is meaningful. Or if Marcus wanted to kill the adversary, but his comrade Quintus, acting next in the round, wanted to capture him, then the fact that Marcus didn't kill the adversary is very meaningful indeed.
A quick way to determine whether fudging for speed is appropriate is to ask, "If I just narrated this outcome without a die roll, would anyone be upset or deprived of gameplay?" If the answer is no, fudge away. I frequently make use of this when random encounters dictate that high-level characters meet very low-level monsters. ("Your archmage quickly dispatches the giant rats and moves on.")