I Roll in the Open
One really common piece of GM advice is to roll your dice behind a screen, so your players can’t see what you got.
This lets you decide if what you rolled is actually what’s best for the story right now, and to adjust the result if it’s not. For example, to prevent the Big Bad you’ve been hyping up for the campaign fumbling their dodge and being unceremoniously slaughtered in a single round of combat. This is called “fudging”.
I completely disagree.
Why do we roll dice?
Apocalypse World, a game I don’t particularly like but which has some good ideas, says in its GM Principles:
In order to play to find out what happens, you’ll need to pass decision-making off sometimes. Whenever something comes up that you’d prefer not to decide by personal whim and will, don’t. The game gives you four key tools you can use to disclaim responsibility: […]
In Apocalypse World, the GM can’t just call for a roll, and when a mechanic is triggered it’s the player who rolls, not the GM. The system is fudge-proof by design, and doesn’t seem to suffer for it.
Why do we have dice, cards, bags of tokens, or any other randomiser in an RPG? It’s so we can disclaim decision-making.
Sometimes it’s just more fun to play to find out what happens, rather than to decide by GM fiat.
The two flavours of fudge
There are two distinct situations which can call for a roll:
When the rules require it. For example, most games have fairly strict combat rules which give specific options the players can choose from, and corresponding dice rolls which must be made.
When the GM wants to disclaim decision-making. For example, a PC is trying to bluff their way past a guard, but both success and failure would be interesting outcomes, so the GM doesn’t want to just pick one.
Many GMs treat fudging in these cases the same: if a dice roll gives a “bad” result, fix it by saying you rolled something else.
But I don’t think they’re the same at all!
If the rules specify how to resolve a situation, and you fudge, you are cheating. I’m sorry, it’s as simple as that. If you want to use some variant of the rules instead, you should discuss and agree that explicitly with the players.
After all, you don’t let them fudge their rolls, do you?
There’s also a risk of making the players feel like their actions don’t really matter. If the players succeed against all odds against some terrible foe, and you tell them “great fight guys, you know, you technically died three rounds back, but I decided to make the dragon miss instead, and didn’t that lead to such an awesome climax?”, doesn’t that cheapen the victory? A victory the players thought they earned was, in fact, just given to them.
Even pro-fudging GMs recognise this, and advise that you should never tell your players when you fudge.
On the other hand, if the GM called for a roll which they weren’t required to, and isn’t happy with the all of the possible results, well, maybe they shouldn’t have called for it. That’s an understandable mistake, and certainly one I’ve made.
When do we roll dice?
So, a PC wants to do something, and you’re not in a situation where the rules dictate what to do. Before calling for a roll, ask yourself: is the outcome in doubt?
The success of the action is in doubt
Are there consequences for failure? If there aren’t any, or if the PC can just keep trying with no consequences, then it’s not really in doubt: they can just succeed automatically.
It’s the combination of challenge and potential consequence which makes this a situation worthy of a roll. Keep that in mind and you’ll never end up in a situation where the player fails the roll and you have nothing to say.
Success is a given, but how good the success is is in doubt
For example, if the bard wants to tell the story of the last stand of the king’s son, they will succeed (telling stories well is what a bard does). But you might want to roll to see if they manage to bring the king to tears.
Tell the player that they succeed, and what they’re now rolling for:
Ok, you launch into your tale, and soon the audience is entranced. You glance over at the king and see he is literally on the edge of his seat. Roll performance to see how moved he is.
Failure is a given, but how bad the failure is is in doubt
If the barbarian wants to threaten the king into surrendering his crown, they will fail (you don’t get to remain king if you give it up to random wanderers). But you might want to roll to determine whether the king decides that this great hulking beast of a man might be a good addition to his troops, or whether to just have him dragged to the dungeons.
Tell the player that they fail, and what they’re now rolling for:
The king looks at you like you’re mad, but there’s also a calculating glint in his eye. Roll intimidation to see if you might have impressed him with your bluster.
Rolling in the open?
I’ve talked a lot about fudging here, but the title is about rolling in the open. Rolling in the open prevents you from fudging, but it’s not necessary. What gives?
Well, I also roll in the open. I figure that if I’m not going to fudge, there’s little point in hiding my rolls.
Some people advise hiding all your rolls so that players don’t know if they’ve succeeded at something, and so avoid metagaming. A common example is skill dogpiling, where one character says “I want to search the room”, and fails; then their companion says “I also want to search the room”, and fails; then yet another member of the party says they also want to search the room!
You can solve dogpiling without hiding your rolls. Just tell the players that they can’t, unless there is some special reason in the fiction why their character would want to do an additional search. After all, don’t they trust their party members?
But I’ve been fortunate so far to have players who are fine with keeping player knowledge and character knowledge separate. They’re even good with character secrets, without me needing to pass around hidden notes.
Maybe my opinion would be different if I had players who were less good at that but, for now at least, hiding my rolls doesn’t gain me anything, whereas rolling in the open keeps me honest and shows that I’m being honest.