Friday, October 17, 2008

To Fudge or Not?

Even though most RPG systems allow a GM to fudge a die roll when the result would otherwise spoil the fun, I've never been a fan of arbitrary rules violations. When all is said and done, the "G" in RPG stands for "game," which means that rules need to be upheld, or we all might as well sit around a campfire and tell stories. I guess this would place me near the "tactical" end of the Tactical/Roleplaying continuum of playing styles.

Yet, it does seem rather unfair that a 1st level party member could be killed with a single roll of a die. In fact, let's weight the Pros and Cons of a strict, "live by the dice, die by the dice" policy:

PRO: It's realistic. Orcs, even at 1HD, are supposed to be formidable. Otherwise, why would half-orc PCs be so strong? This is especially true in gritty, low-magic, Tolkenian campaigns. You should expect a common, low CR monster to dispatch any novice adventurer on a regular basis. Where do you think all their treasure comes from?

CON: It violates the Rule of Fun. Even with my handy-dandy, time saving PC Motivations index, character creation is hardly worth the trouble when your character is snuffed during her first encounter. Many players, especially the better ones, have very deep ideas for their characters that they'd like to see in play. Killing their characters takes away what your players might percieve as an important part of the game.

PRO: Low low-level life expectancy doesn't replace the opportunity to create deep characters. Rather, it encourages players to start with a relatively blank slate and develop the characters in-game.

CON: Of course, this places more of a burden on the shoulders of the GM. It's easier to tailor your campaign for the players' expectations than to expect them to hone their characters within the frameworks of your scenarios.

PRO: It evens out the PCs' power at all levels. Because it's likely for a GM to be more reluctant to kill a new character, he may be more likely to fudge damage at lower levels. Why should a character be harder to kill at level one than at level seven?

CON: In a campaign with strict hit point rolls at level one, it is possible for a character to begin play at one hit point. Rules are rules, but one hit point is kind of ridiculous; it doesn't even leave the amount of damage inflicted by a successful hit up to chance. You're down after 1d1 damage. There should be a way to compromise between the randomness of a realistic approach to hit points and the players' desire for a cinematic, heroic experience.

PRO: It encourages creative problem-solving. A first level party shouldn't be kicking down doors and charging blindly into combat. And the GM should be providing non-violent options for the players -- escape routes, special opponent weaknesses, etc. -- even though he need not make these options obvious.

If we think long enough, we could fill several pages with pros and cons. So let's just pick an approach and stick with it. If you're a GM who can sleep at night knowing that you've faked some rolls, then you're a better man than I. As for me, I have a difficult time with the idea of implementing life-saving fudges outside of the framework of the rules. But if I'm going to institute a strict, by-the-dice policy, I still need an escape hatch for when things just seem unfair. So here's a proposed system for fudging, one that is still rules-based, because it is a rule in itself:


At the beginning of each session (regardless of in-game time), the GM allows himself a limited number of Fudge Points, according to the following formula:

((N-m)(r/P))/P = Fp

= Total number of PCs in the adventuring party.
m = Sum of all constitution modifiers within the party.
r = Ratio between all PCs' total potential HP and max HP at their respective levels. Constitution bonuses do not count toward potential HP.
P = Average PC level.
Fp = Total Fudge Points allowed for current session, rounded to the nearest non-negative whole number.

This formula is a work in progress. Believe it or not, it was originally more complex. Ideally, it should result in fewer Fp as a party's average level increases, and fewer Fp for strong (i.e., having more HP) characters than for weaker ones. If there are any statisticians out there who feel they can improve on this, please drop a comment.

Here is how you use Fp: When an NPC, monster, trap, or magical effect render a PC near death or worse, and the GM deems the result premature or needlessly tragic, he may spend a fudge point. A fudge results in the same event occuring, but to a lesser degree. Examples of how fatalities can be reduced to major inconveniences include the following, but the GM is encouraged to be creative:
  • Instead of killing the PC, the villain's blow destroys a helmet or shield, rendering it ineffective. If the PC doesn't wear a helmet or shield, her weapon is damaged.
  • In the case of a magical effect, the damage incurred is subdual damage.
  • Instead of losing hit points, the PC suffers a debilitating injury, like a broken arm, which results in severe Dexterity and Strength penalties, and perhaps a temporary loss of Constitution points.
In any case, the result should still incapacitate or seriously inconvenience the character. If the GM describes a fudge as a blow that was absorbed or shrugged off, or in any way ineffective, then the result is no different than a miss.

Example: Boris, Fafnir, Eleanor, and Pitkin are members of a brand-new 1st-level adventuring party. Boris is a Fighter with 11 HP and a Con modifier of +2. Fafnir is a Wizard with 1 HP and a Con modifier of -1. Eleanor, a Cleric, has 4 HP and a Con modifier of 0. Pitkin is a Rogue with 4 HP and a Con modifier of 0. Because a Fighter uses d10 as his hit die, Boris' max HP (not counting any Constitution bonus) is 10. Fafnir's is 4, Eleanor's is 8, and Pitkin's is 6. This makes the ratio (r) between the party's potential HP and max HP at (10+4+8+6):(11+1+4+4), or 28:20, which equals 1.4. The sum of all their Con modifiers (m) is 1. With 4 PC's averaging 1st level, we get ((4-1)(1.4/1))/1, or (3*1.4)/1, or 4 fudge points to spend on the first night's session.

This works out as I might have expected -- about one fudge per session, adjusted up or down depending on the overall strength of the group. The fudge points should dwindle away as the party increases in level, because at higher levels the GM can scale an encounter down. At level one, there isn't much wiggle room for scaling down.

When fudge points aren't being spent, the players are playing well. Therefore, for each fudge point not spent during a session, the GM increases the XP earned during that session by any surviving members of the party by five percent.

I don't recommend using fudge points in systems that automatically grant max HP at first level, especially in a system like D&D 4.0, where you've got to work pretty hard to kill a character, even if you desire to.

This fudge system gives the GM a chance to play, not just adjudicate. By carefully deciding when and where to spend these points, he is working with the players, albeit behind the scenes, in helping them achieve their objectives. And he doesn't have to worry about whether any arbitrary, impromptu fudges were appropriate or necessary. Is this a ticket out of having to put any creative thought into being a GM? No, it's just a way of quantifying something most GM's do, in a way that keeps the results objective and balanced.

I'll be trying this, and I'll keep you posted as I go.

1 comment:

Lyle said...

Upon further review, I still like my system; but I want to simplify the algorithm.