Aug 23 , 2022
The role of the DM is unlike anything else in any other game. It makes sense, because TTRPGs are unlike any other board game. In most board games there’s a winner and a loser, but in role playing games nobody really “wins”. It’s not the destination, but the story told along the way. Every character has their own backstory, aspirations, and flaws, and each individual player’s story is unique. It’s a story within the main story. The DM’s main job is to incorporate all those side stories into the main story they are trying to tell. It’s a lot of work. Creating a story and working with others to add flavor to that story is a bit more intricate than taking some dice out of storage and letting them run through the dice tower. Even with pre-written modules it takes several hours of planning and preparation to run a game.
All Dungeon Masters will joke with the players at the table about wanting to kill off all of their characters. The truth is the complete opposite. Players spend quite a bit of time creating those characters and even more time with those characters playing the game. There are lots of hours and stories attached to those characters, so a player’s character death is not something to celebrate unless that’s part of the story. That’s not to say the DM should make the game too easy and“let them win”, but it is part of the calculus a DM will have in mind. This took a lot of time and effort to create, do I really want to start from scratch? Is this a satisfactory ending to the overall story? Everyone just dies?
So the question then becomes: should the DM fudge the dice to keep advancing the story? It’s not always a character death. Sometimes players just can’t find that key or that one piece of information. Sometimes the dice just aren’t going to roll how you want. Your favorite metal dice just decided today was the day they were going to come up all 1’s. So, the DM will fudge the numbers a bit. Instead of them not finding anything, it just takes much longer than anticipated. That can have ramifications down the line, but the point is to not have the entire story come to a crashing halt because the players were just unlucky.
The Dungeon Master will have a DM screen. They have these for a lot of reasons. There’s a lot of information the players shouldn’t have. There’s also cheat sheets on the DM screen to help the Dungeon Master run the game. DnD can be a complex game and nobody will have a firm grasp on all the rules, so it helps to have the more common rules close by for easy reference. The DM will keep any module books hidden. If they are using miniatures, they’ll also keep those hidden so players are surprised when they run into that tarrasque. And of course, DMs will roll for the monsters in secret as well. Players don’t have intimate knowledge of the enemies. They don’t know if a monster will hit or miss, it’s all up to the dice roll. This gives the DM a chance to fudge the dice if they deem it necessary. If the encounter is getting too difficult, maybe they start missing those critical strikes. DMs will do this because they have something far more interesting coming up and downing a player at this stage just isn’t in the best interest of the story.
At the core of DnD is the story. If the DM is only interested in “winning”, there’s not much point in taking your dice out of the dice box. This is a game of collective storytelling, and it really is a tragedy if a player feels like their character’s story doesn’t get to be told. The role of the DM is not a confrontational one, they play the baddies set up against the players, sure, but the DM is like a referee. They’re there to call balls and strikes and to be a guide on this adventure.
DMs will also think about fudging dice rolls if they are introducing new players to the game. Brand new players will not have an intimate knowledge of the game, they don't know how their abilities work and most of the time, they don’t even know if DnD is what they want to play. Part of the DMs duty is to get players excited about the game. New players are usually a little timid, they heard about this game and they want to try it out. But is it the right hobby for them? Is it any fun? Well, if that first level character dies in about an hour of gameplay, chances are good you’ll take those dice, put them right back in the dice box, tuck them in storage, and never play again because it wasn’t fun.
Mea culpa. I’ve done it. I’ve fudged dice rolls. I’ve lowered enemy hit points to move the story along. I’ve let players pass on skill checks they probably shouldn’t have. But my motives were always the same. How can I make the story better and more enjoyable? How can I help the players feel like they are accomplishing something? If fighting an army of kobolds for three hours is what you enjoy and it’s what the players want, then I’m not going to judge. It’s a game. Have fun. Enjoy! But for me, it’s all about the story. It’s about progression. It’s about lasting friendships and memorable moments. It’s impossible to script out an entire session of Dungeons and Dragons, sometimes those little moments players remember forever are ones the DM allowed to happen despite the dice.At the end of the day, it’s all in how you play the game. Some people love a strong challenge. In that case, don’t fudge the dice and leave it up to fate. If players die, they die. If they can’t find those tracks they need to track down the baddies, I hope you have a plan B somewhere. It’s a game, play however you and the others at the table want. It’s still my opinion that there is no mechanic or rule that is more important than the story you’re trying to tell.