Archive for June, 2010

On Improv…

OK, I’ve spent some time talking about fudging.  Now let’s look at the other side of the coin: improv.  Back in college I had a friend who spent a lot of time building background for his games.  As players, we delighted in taking the game in bizarre directions he never fore-saw, forcing him to toss all those notes and create something brand new from scratch.  Sure, we may have taken this too far once by all creating Zulu warriors for his frozen tundra setting.  At the time we thought it a form of good-natured ribbing of our friend.  I think though we were actually on to something, as the game was invariably more fun when he was forced to make it up as we went rather than actually present his prepared material.

Improv and fudging are both methods a GM uses for the same purpose.  They both speak to the flow of the game.  The GM uses them to try and help mold the game into a pleasing story arc.  That’s pretty much where the similarities end though.  Fudging implies a preconceived story, and the GM’s efforts to guide the game in such a way to follow that story.  I’m speaking here not just of detailed dice fudging, but general fudging of any game mechanic outcome, as is apparent in the previous post’s quote from The Shattered Isle:

Yes, a gamemaster is supposed to be neutral, but you know how you want the adventure to go, so make it work out.

The inverse is improv, used when the adventure is in a place the GM never imagined.  He must make things up as he goes, create new content on the fly that may or may not hook in to what he already had prepared.  Another interesting difference here is that in general fudging happens when the plot is mostly GM driven, while improv happens when the plot is player driven.

It should be apparent now that I’m clearly favoring improv over fudging.  There’s probably one key difference between the two that explains why the latter does seem to occur more frequently: fudging is easy, improv is difficult.

Spoiler Alert – What follows includes details about my adventure Come What May, which I ran once when Delta came up to visit a while back and am scheduled to run at the upcoming GenCon.  I may run it again for another group of locals either before or after GenCon.  If you are one of the people scheduled to play it at GenCon, or are someone who plays in my local one-shots who did not play the first time I ran this, you may want to stop reading now.

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About Fudging…

The impetus for my previous post was an odd serendipity between an actual play report by BigFella and a post by Maliszewski.  Maliszewski presents us with a quote from a 1987 period RPG publication that encourages fudging to the extreme.  Not just ignoring or changing the outcome of a dice roll, but actively re-interpreting the scene to make things go the way you want them to go.  The line he emphasizes states:

Yes, a gamemaster is supposed to be neutral, but you know how you want the adventure to go, so make it work out.

Meanwhile, in BigFella’s play report, he mentions a scene where his character was on the cusp of death.  The only thing between him and inevitable doom was the party magic-user and a lucky thrown dagger.  From his report:

The hit was SO fortuitous that I had to get confirmation from Paul, for which again I apologize, since it IS poor manners to accuse a DM of fudging, especially if it benefits you. Paul doesn’t run that kinda game though, and this is Old School gaming, baby. Fudging is for bake sales! He showed me the HP tally and by golly it was those 2 hps that made the difference.

OK, I was pretty proud that I stuck by the book there.  BigFella’s character is one of the few that remains from the original party, and darn it I’d be pretty sorry to see him go.  What would I have done if the dice hadn’t fallen just so and saved his bacon?  The fact is, I have no idea.

Dice fudging is something I constantly have to fight against.  1987 was pretty much around the time I seriously got into GMing.  As much as I dig the old school these days, silver age D&D really is my background.  There was a time when I would have read Maliszewski’s quote up there and agreed with it 100%.

My previous post may have been a bit more flowery and forceful than my usual postings here.  Perhaps to some degree I’m trying to convince myself.  There is a certain irregularity introduced by not fudging.  Sure, you have moments like above where it’s simply astounding that a lucky shot saves the day.  On the other hand, you have the party henchman who manages to save the day in a glorious fight against an owl bear, where his death would have held real dramatic impact, but manages to stay alive only to be cut down in the very next battle in a random fight with some troglodytes.

But I think the pay-off is worth it.  Knowing that anything really can happen makes the moments that do sing, sing even louder.  Sure, you’ve got to grimace through the bad parts too, but what’s the alternative?  Something thoroughly scrubbed by the GM that eventually feels so false that it falls completely flat.  Even if I did fool every player, the fact is that I would know I cheated, and that would make the game less exciting for at least one player: me.

I guess I just have to keep fighting that demon that tells me when it’s not the time for someone to die.  Maybe I should start rolling my dice out in the open.