Whether or not a DM should lie about or alter their rolls to change the outcome of an encounter is an issue that splits the DM community. Many feel that the dice dictate the story and fudging rolls makes the narrative disingenuous. Others have a more casual approach to game mechanics or feel that bad rolls shouldn’t get in the way of story telling.
Here at Master the Dungeon, we typically try to stay away from fudging rolls, but understand that there might be instances for DM intervention. Ultimately you’re free to choose either side of the debate. But for the sake of argument, we’ve outlined a few instances when you should or shouldn’t change the outcome of dice rolls.
Why You Should Avoid Fudging Rolls
People play D&D for different reasons, but one of the best parts of the game is getting to roll dice. Players put a lot of effort into their carefully crafted characters. It does them a disservice if you make their effort meaningless. Players may become bored or disinterested if their rolls no longer mean anything.
Let the Dice Dictate the Narrative
Much of the appeal of the game is the random outcome of the dice deciding the fate of the players. For the most part, players don’t like being railroaded and appreciate how their actions affect the game. If the dungeon master has a “correct” way that the story has to go, then what purpose does it serve to have players at the table? Players want to be able to affect the world and the story. If you take agency away from them, you’ll take the fun too.
With D&D, the risk is part of the reward. Your main role as a dungeon master is to be the arbiter of the story. Let your players help you tell it, regardless of how the dice fall. The tension of not knowing the outcome won’t exist if your players know you’ll save them. Sometimes the things that happen because of dice rolls lead to events that are richer than you had originally imagined. Just a word to the wise: if something needs to happen or requires a certain outcome, then don’t make your players roll for it.
Setting Bad Precedents
If you expect your players to be honest about their dice rolls, you should probably be honest about yours. Many DMs complain about players who they catch fudging their dice rolls. It would be hypocritical of those same DMs to then alter their own dice rolls. If the whole table is going to be dishonest about their rolls, you can get to a point where it doesn’t even make sense to use dice anymore. Without random chance, it makes the rest of the mechanics of the game worthless and your story hollow. And that doesn’t make for a very fun game.
Exceptions to the Rule
From time to time you may find it necessary in your own game to fudge a roll. While we can’t recommend doing it often, we understand if there are certain circumstances that lead you to make that choice. Of course, we would never recommend fudging a dice roll when it hurts or hinders your players. It’s important to remember that D&D is meant to be a cooperative game, not DM vs. Players. So if you make a mistake or want to reward your players, there might be reasons to fudge your roll.
You Messed Up
Even with the listed CR, balancing encounters can be tricky, especially for new DMs. Perhaps you forgot to take into account condition immunities or damage resistances that your monsters have. Maybe you didn’t read a spell description carefully enough or didn’t understand how a certain mechanic worked. It happens to the best of us. If you meant for an encounter to be easy or medium difficulty but your players are suddenly dropping like flies, chances are that something was wrong with the balance.
Typically we try not to make players pay for our mistakes, and a surprise TPK can leave a bad taste in the whole table’s mouth. In these cases, it might be acceptable to fudge your monster’s rolls. A few monster misses might be enough for your players to stabilize themselves and get a come-from-behind victory. Just make sure you’re not bailing your players out of every situation they get themselves into. If you’ve made it clear that they’re not prepared enough for an encounter or if they make terrible, illogical choices, let the dice fall where they may.
Rewarding Excellent Role Play
Sometimes your players will do an excellent job at roll playing and the dice roll just doesn’t work in their favor. One of the biggest complaints that we hear from DMs is that their players don’t roll play enough. Well, if you want more roll play, you’ve got to reward it when it happens. That means even when the dice disagree with you.
An easy way to do this in 5e is by awarding advantage to a roll or giving the player an inspiration dice to add to their roll. Wizards goes further into this mechanic on page 240 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Small perks like this are easy ways to incentivize the habits you want to see in your players. Just make sure you’re not doing it too regularly, and also be sure that you reward all of your players. Otherwise some of them may feel left out or become jealous.
Ultimately, it’s up to you as a DM to decide whether or not you will be fudging dice rolls. But you should be honest with your players from the get-go about if you plan to be fudging dice rolls for the sake of game play, narrative, or fun. Being open about dice manipulation and fudging roles from the onset can stop problems of player distrust before they begin.
Try your best to keep honest though. After all, you expect your players to be honest about their dice rolls. Fudge sparingly and learn to roll with it when things don’t turn out like you imagined. Above all, try not to back yourself into a corner where your only option is to fudge rolls.