I used to love fudge. Like, to an unhealthy degree. In fact, it was the one thing my parents refused to teach me how to make for myself because they knew in a week we’d go broke on sugar and I’d be out there blocking Route 12, which was sound thinking on their part.
So it’s probably no surprise that I carried that love into GMing. I was terrible with math and anticipating my players, but I still wanted them to have fun, so fudge filled the cracks. I lived by GM screens because I needed the power for the dice to do whatever I wanted them to regardless of what I actually rolled.
And for a long time, my players found it surprisingly easy to digest. But, like my own love of fudge, too much of it for too long finally made those tastebuds rebel, and now I practically recoil at the notion of fudging dice. If I use a GM screen these days, it’s for the system reference on the back and nothing more.
I don’t begin to pretend that the fact that I’ve gotten objectively better anticipating players and understanding game systems plays a big part in the shift, but it has revealed a few important approaches that even my early, really-bad-with-numbers self could make use of to avoid the fudge going stale.
The most critical lesson learned is don’t fudge the immediate success/failure line. If a PC’s dice are on a cold streak and they can’t hit the side of a barn, do not undo that. If a baddie you realized too late is overpowered hits a PC, let it stand. Giving a PC a free hit or taking one away from a bad guy will never not feel cheap – your best bet is to lie about it, and when the PCs are doing the rolling, that gets a lot harder to do (not to mention being largely a jerk move, no matter how well-intentioned).
Instead, fudge what success and failure mean in the scenario. The PC missing several times in a row might cause NPCs to dismiss them, wrongly thinking they aren’t a threat and growing more reckless around them as a result. That may drop the target number on future passes or create new and different opportunities for the PC to hit in the future. It turns an awful streak into a weapon the PC can wield and make the NPCs pay for later.
Similarly, if the big bad hits hard, remember that in almost every system, damage isn’t the only option on a hit. They might be able to hinder the PC instead, disarm them, knock them back or otherwise add chaos to the scene without killing them or knocking them out. If the knock-out isn’t going to leave the PC twiddling their thumbs for more than a round or two, let it stand and build the tension. Use it as reason for the big bad to step down the aggression.
Now, why do all this instead of just keeping the screen up and fudging the numbers?
Because there is nothing that can fight the genuine joy your players feel when they see the result on the die before you announce it. When it’s down to the wire and the big bad has a chance to bring down the last PC standing, and whiffs, there is nothing that tops that feeling. When Popo the Kobold comes out of nowhere with a surprise critical, it feels so much richer when the die lands in the open and the hush falls over the PCs who were taunting the poor underpowered baddies just seconds before.
Because when the dice actually lean into the narrative you want to spin – when they act as the Turn in a scene, in either direction – it feels so much better than when a GM just decides to add a turn on their own.
It also means your more system-savvy players can start to figure out the numbers you’re opposing them with. That thought might terrify you, but if you’re consistent with your numbers (even if they’re bad numbers), your system-savvy players will appreciate it, and can give feedback after. “That orc would’ve been find if he didn’t have so many hit points,” or “I’m not sure you’re using Power Attack correctly” is the kind of feedback that makes you a better GM.
By contrast, if you’re fudging, system-savvy players can quickly tell when the numbers don’t line up. You’ll rarely get feedback from that – it’s clear to them you’re not trying to use the system as written, so why would they give you advice on how it works? They may never mention it at all. They’ll just check out, and few things can turn a game from fun to agonizing faster than having half your table stop caring.
Fudge is good if you keep it in the right places (the dessert, not the meal) and don’t overdo it (or you’ll make you and your players sick). It’s better to fail honestly at building encounters or enemies and then learn from it than to rely entirely on BS to mask the problem.
Because as a GM, it’s important that you remember to fail forward, too.