Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Lord of the Dice: A Fudge GM's Toolbox

by Paul Tarussov (paul.tarussov @ mail.mcgill.ca)
Fudge, as a roleplaying system, offers its fans and adherents a remarkable degree of freedom in creating the sort of game they want to play. Indeed, the flexibility of Fudge is so great that it cannot be rated on the Fudge scale -- in other words, it can only be considered a Gift.
However, many GMs find themselves in a bind when it comes to handing out modifiers. A +1 or -1, in the spirit of most other RPGs, is a huge leap in Fudge, and there seems to be no way for a GM to affect the dice in a more subtle fashion. This article will explore the properties of Fudge dice, and how a GM can use these properties to influence the outcome of any roll.
The basic dice mechanic of Fudge (4dF) is unique (or at least highly unusual) in several ways. The results it generates can be separated into three categories: positive, negative, or zero. Moreover, each die itself generates a result that can be classified into each of these categories. Since each die returns an average result of zero, we can always add or subtract a die from a roll without shifting the centre of the probability curve.
A d20 roll, for example, can only be adjusted with the addition or subtraction of a numeric modifier (such as a -4 for a difficult task, for example). In Fudge, however, all these factors conspire to allow a GM to manipulate the outcome of the dice in many different ways. Here are the methods I have come up with, along with examples of suitable contexts. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and I would love to hear about any other ideas from fellow Fudge Factor readers.
Please note that all the probabilities listed in this article are approximations, NOT exact percentages. They are included in some of the examples below to give the reader a rough idea of how a particular method will affect the probability curve.

Numeric Modifiers: +X/-X

This type of modifier, the direct addition or subtraction of a number of levels, has been well used by many roleplaying systems. Numeric modifiers also work well in Fudge, as long as the GM is aware that they can very quickly take you outside the realm of the Fudge scale. Many Fudge GMs find numeric modifiers to be an awkward tool, and try to use them sparingly.
A numeric modifier has exactly the same effect as shifting the character's trait up or down the same number of levels -- it does not change the probability of rolling any given result on the dice.
There are many examples of numeric modifiers within the standard Fudge rules. A Hurt character, for instance, suffers a -1 penalty to his roll on any action that would be hampered by his wounds.

Virtual Plusses and Minuses

Sometimes characters operate under circumstances that limit their chances of achieving unusual success without affecting the probability of failure (or vice-versa). Using a virtual plus or minus can help handle such a situation without changing a character's skill as drastically as a +1 or -1.
A virtual plus or minus is applied after the roll is made, and can only be used to bring the result closer to 0. The virtual sign can only be used to cancel out an opposite sign -- never to add to a result. In other words, a virtual plus is only used if the Fudge dice roll a negative total, and a virtual minus only comes into play if the outcome of the 4dF roll is positive.
For example, if a player is making a roll with a virtual plus, and he rolls a 0 or a positive result, there is no change. However, if he rolls a negative result, he may count his virtual plus to cancel out one minus, bringing him one step closer to a 0. Thus, if he were to roll a -3, the virtual plus would raise his final result to -2, while if he rolled a +1, it would not take effect at all.
Note: In all cases, it is important that the virtual plus or minus is only taken into effect after the total of the 4dF roll is calculated (i.e., all pairs of plusses and minuses have been removed). If you allow a player to use a virtual plus to cancel a minus rolled by any of the dice (before pairs are cancelled out), the effects will be much more powerful. For example, if a roll results in three plusses and one minus {+,+,+,-}, a virtual plus used to cancel out the die that rolled a minus would raise the final result from a +2 to a +3! Using virtual modifiers in this manner could also be a useful tool, but their effect will be much more drastic -- almost as much as that of a full +1 or -1.
Three unaccomplished climbers are attempting to scale a cliff. However, they were smart enough to bring along a rope and have tied themselves together. The GM decides that the rope won't make the climb any easier, but will make it less likely that any given character actually falls of the cliff. She allows the climbers to make their rolls with a virtual plus. The climbers are no more likely to succeed, but the virtual plus will "buffer" any negative roll, making them much less likely to experience serious failure.
Other examples:
Modern software, or computer programs from science fiction, may be designed to look for errors in a human user's work and to correct them. A spell checker won't make you a better writer, and a de-bugging script won't make you a better programmer, but they can certainly make it easier to avoid mistakes. The GM can hand out a virtual plus or two to simulate their effect.
On the other hand, low-grade equipment could be represented by a virtual minus. A master musician trying to play a student-quality instrument won't suddenly become a bad musician, but he may find it difficult or impossible to produce an extraordinary performance. Likewise, a character operating technology from a less advanced era may be able to keep up with competitors whose gear is up-to-date, but may be held back when attempting really difficult tasks.
Virtual plusses and minuses also offer the Fudge GM an easy-to-remember way to handle "thirds". A character with a trait that is rated with a plus (ex: "Good+") makes all rolls with a virtual plus (thus failing less often than a character who is just "Good"), and a character whose trait is rated with a minus (ex: "Superb-") makes all rolls with a virtual minus (thus achieving results that are only occasionally inferior to someone who is actually Superb).
A roll made with both a virtual plus and a virtual minus is equivalent to a padded roll (see next section).

Padded Rolls

A padded roll is desirable when the GM feels that the outcome should not vary as much as that of a normal roll. While a straight 4dF roll produces unpredictable results suitable to a high adventure genre, a padded roll rarely produces outcomes greater than a +1 or a -1, and is more suitable to a "realistic" situation, such as a character using his skills under routine circumstances. Its distribution is a rough approximation of a median roll (e.g. making three rolls and throwing away the highest and lowest result). A padded roll will most often result in a "0", and will never create a result greater than +3 or -3.
To make a padded roll, you roll 4dF as usual and then shift the result one step towards zero. Thus, a +2 becomes +1, a -4 becomes a -3, and a +1 becomes a 0. For example, a character who has a skill at a "Good" level would need a +2 to achieve a "Great" result. As mentioned earlier, this is exactly like making a roll with both a virtual plus and a virtual minus.
Probabilities for a Padded Roll:


A powerful queen is traveling through the wilderness with her retinue, which includes a famous chef (William, a PC with Superb cooking skill). One morning, the queen demands that William bake her a cake by nightfall. William has all day to create an appropriate confectionary delight, the guards have brought along all the equipment he could possibly need, and the situation is not overly stressful (the PC can take his time). However, William only has enough ingredients for one attempt. The GM considers the circumstances, and, deciding that the quality of the cake is highly relevant to winning the queen's favor, tells the player to make a padded roll.
An Alternative Padded Roll:
If you feel that the standard padded roll results in a "0" too often, you can try this slightly less intuitive method. It can be easily memorized if it is often used in a game, but may confuse players if it is only used occasionally. As the table below shows, it is like a normal 4dF roll except that outcomes of+/-2 are ignored (same as a "0" result), and outcomes of +/-3 or +/-4 are "padded", or nudged one step closer to zero.


This method could be used as an optional damage roll, rating each weapon on a damage scale, as shown below. A +1 moves the effective damage of the weapon up one level, a +2 up two levels, and so on.

None -- Scratched -- Hurt -- Very Hurt -- Incapacitated -- Near Death

A knife's damage might be based on the "Hurt" level. Whenever a character is hit by a knife, the alternative padded roll is made to find the final damage level. Under this system, the probabilities for the various possible levels of damage of a knife strike would look like this:

Very Hurt20%
Near Death1%

Setting the Dice

This method allows either the GM or the players to "preset" one or more dice before the roll is actually made. If you see the 4dF roll as representative of all the random factors that can affect a character's performance, it makes sense that if some of those conditions were known, not all the dice would need to be rolled! One way of thinking about it is that some of the dice represent variations in the character's natural abilities while the rest represent the current circumstances.
A GM might decide, for instance, that two of the dice represent the current conditions.When the GM is unsure, he can ask the player to roll the dice as usual. However, if it is pretty clear in the GM's mind that the situation is decidedly advantageous or disadvantageous, she can ask the player to "set" one or more dice instead of applying a bonus or penalty to the roll. On the other hand, sometimes the GM may allow the player to choose whether or not to "set" one or more dice.
If a character can control their circumstances to some extent, the GM can allow the player to "set" a number of dice to "0" before rolling the rest. This is exactly like allowing the player to decide how many dice he or she wants to roll. Some may decide to roll 4dF or more, perhaps hoping for unusual success. Others may state that their characters are trying to perform as consistently as possible and "set" several of the dice to "0" before rolling, leaving little up to chance.
The GM, on the other hand, can ask her players to "set" a die as a "+" or a "-" instead of the usual +1 or -1. The difference is essentially that while a numeric modifier keeps the spread of 4dF (only adjusting the basic trait level), a preset die also limits the possible range of outcomes. A character rolling 4dF with one die set to a "+" is essentially rolling 3dF with a +1 modifier. Some GMs may find this to be a more realistic means of handling modifiers because the range of results will not change as significantly. If you find it logical that a character working under specifically advantageous or disadvantageous conditions will find his or her performance to be more consistent (consistently good or bad, that is), this method is a good way of representing that effect in your game.
For instance, under normal circumstances, a Mediocre character will never achieve anything better than a Superb result. Rolling with a bonus, the same character could easily achieve results outside the range of the Fudge scale. However, while dice preset to "+" results will make it easier to reach a Superb performance, they will never allow the Mediocre character to surpass Superb. For instance, rolling 4dF with two dice set to "+", the Mediocre character's roll can only generate a result between Mediocre and Superb. If the same character was rolling at +2, the final outcome could range from Terrible to Superb+2!
In other words, this method draws a subtle distinction between a character with Good skill and another character with Mediocre skill and a bonus of +2. The standard Fudge rules make no distinction; there may be times when you find one method more appropriate than the other.
Here's how it might look in a game: Andrea, a soldier in a futuristic anti-tank brigade, is defending her home town against impending invasion. She has the "Gunnery" skill at a Good level. Her squad has set up their artillery on a ridge overlooking the narrow canyon where the enemy is expected to appear. The GM decides that this advantage is sufficient to allow each gunner in the brigade to set one die to a "+" result before making their roll. In addition, Andrea's player informs the GM that she will be firing at the center of each target instead of trying to strike vital areas, which might have been more difficult but potentially more devastating. The GM interprets this as an attempt on Andrea's part to keep her performance more predictable, and allows the player to set one die to a "0".
Finally, Andrea's player has two dice already on the table: one shows a "+" and one shows a "0". When it is time for her to fire, the player will roll the two remaining dice, generating a result somewhere between Fair and Superb+1.

Into the Realm of Arithmetic

Sometimes, the simple application of basic arithmetic can be enough to achieve the desired effect. By deciding whether the positive or the negative is to be modified, these different effects can be tailored to the needs of your game. You may want to alter the final result of the 4dF roll or surgically correct the outcomes of individual dice (see "Another Example"). This method can allow the GM to introduce some interesting modifications into his Fudge recipe.
A futuristic battleship mounts laser cannon turrets to defend it from smaller threats. The turrets, while operated by humans, also possess a sophisticated target tracking system. The GM does not want computers to replace humans in her game, but she does want to model the fact that a human aided by such a system is much less likely to miss. The GM decides to simulate this effect by ruling that any negative result rolled by a gunner firing such a cannon is divided by a factor of two (bringing it closer to zero).
The same GM also runs a fantasy game where magic is a powerful but dangerous force, and any magic user is always at risk of terrible failure. She decides to set up her magic system so that any negative result rolled when casting a spell is doubled! This means that even a Legendary spell-caster, while he might usually be formidable, could roll a -4, which, doubled to -8, resulting in Abysmal failure!
Another Example:
In an earlier Fudge Factor article, "Solving the +1 Dilemma", Steven Hammond suggests assigning coloured dice as modifiers. The smallest bonus that can be granted to a character under the suggested system is achieved by replacing a normal Fudge die with a green die. The green die is treated like any other Fudge die, except that any "-" results that come up are ignored. The next step up is a purple die, which effectively has two "+" sides as well as a side that reads "0". The former example is exactly like adding one to any negative roll on a single dF, whereas the latter is equivalent to adding one any time that die rolls anything but a "+".


Sometimes a character will have a chance to approach a problem from a slightly different angle, or to touch up a job he has already completed. A character in this situation could easily improve on a job badly done, but the chances of improvement upon an unusual success result should be much lower. If the dice are still on the table, the GM may offer the player to re-roll one of them.
This will not always be possible, but a GM who likes this method could write down the results of important actions (instead of just writing down "Bob - Camouflage result Great", you would add "+,+,0,-" or however the dice had come up). If you are not in the habit of keeping track of such minutiae, you could adopt a rule of thumb instead: if the outcome was equal to or lower than the character's trait, it is assumed that a die showing a minus may be re-rolled. On an outcome one, two, or three levels higher, the dice being re-rolled defaults to a "0" (so that the action has an equal chance of improving or damaging the final result). On a roll of +4, there is not much point in using this option, but if the character is unaware that he had succeeded so dramatically (for instance, the character suffers from amnesia), he could be re-rolling a "+"!
You might find circumstances where a different character could use this method, substituting his trait for the original (see the second example)!
A Mediocre film director is trying to shoot a groundbreaking thriller. The player had rolled {+,0,-,-}, for a total of -1. The GM informs the player that the film was up to the character's expectations, except for the last scene, which really didn't turn out well. The director decides to re-shoot the scene in hopes of improving the movie's pacing. The player is going to re-roll one of the dice that showed a "-". He or she rolls 1dF: on a result of "-", the movie will remain of Poor quality; however, on a "0" the new scene will improve the movie sufficiently to make it Mediocre, and a "+" could make all the difference, raising the film's quality to Fair.
Second Example:
Leila, a daring space hero, wants to escape her pursuers by using the prototype warp drive aboard her vessel. Unfortunately, her astronavigational skills are Terrible. During their last (and highly successful) warp-speed voyage, the navigational computer had been set by a friend of hers. Leila decides that, rather than risking a failure due to her own incompetence, she will use most of the old settings, only adjusting a few appropriate dials.
What Leila doesn't know is that her companion also didn't know what he was doing. Her friend had been operating at a default skill of Abysmal and only managed to get the craft to safety by sheer luck, rolling a +4 on the dice. Leila's relative expertise will help her a little, but she can only make things worse by fiddling with the controls. The GM tells her player to roll 1dF, and will base the final result on Fair (the outcome of her friend's lucky roll). However, because her friend had rolled a +4, Leila can only achieve a Fair by rolling a "+". A "0" will create a Mediocre result, and a "-" could mean disaster -- it is better not to find out what happens when an experimental warp drive is operated at a Poor level.

One at a Time

If a character has a chance of undertaking a task in a leisurely and methodical manner it can be simulated by allowing his or her player to roll 1dF at a time. This method is favorable to the player (and character) because he or she has more control over the outcome than in a straight-up 4dF roll (Most specifically, GMs should be aware that high-skill characters will probably choose to stop after rolling one die, knowing they cannot fare any worse than a -1). The presumed situation is that the character is capable of continuously assessing his or her success and may choose to stop at any time. Alternatively, the GM can roll the dice instead of the player, giving hints about the outcome of each roll, until the player is ready to stop and see the final result.
A sculptor is chiseling away at a block of marble, attempting to "free" the beautiful shape she envisions inside. The sculptor's player rolls 1dF, representing the first stage of her labors. If the character is satisfied with the rough shape she has hewn so far, the player can decide to keep the result. The sculptor would now switch to a finer chisel and add the details of the sculpture. However, if the artist felt that she could do better, her player might elect to roll another die. Taking off some more stone could improve the sculpture, but she would risk marring the shape she has carved out so far.
This method could also be used to model a master painter restoring an ancient fresco, a frightened hobbit seeking a safe hiding place by a roadside as time runs short, or a gambler who must decide how far to push his of her luck. Each die rolled represents a stage of the work or game, and is followed by a moment where the character may decide to be satisfied with the results so far or to keep trying.

The *dF Roll

The *dF method is basically an open-ended roll made with 1dF. It generates a distribution similar to 4d6.1, and can be used as a substitute for 4d6.1 by Fudge gamers that are so committed that they no longer carry anything but Fudge dice. Its results are less variable than 4dF (being somewhere between a straight 4dF roll and a padded roll), and have the feature of being open-ended.
To make a *dF roll, you roll one Fudge die. If your result is a +1 or a -1, you roll another dF. If the second die comes up with the same sign as the first die, you add it to the total and roll a third time. You continue in this fashion until your luck runs out. It is important to note that you only count matching results -- any other result is simply ignored. If you have rolled two plusses and your third die comes up with a minus, your total is +2, and not +1 (which you could come up with if you counted the two plusses and then subtracted one for the minus on the third die).
The GM of a modern-day Fudge game wants characters in her game to perform more predictably than in her last campaign (which was highly cinematic), where the group used a normal 4dF roll. She decides to use the *dF roll for most actions, the padded roll for routine operations, and reserves the 4dF roll for highly stressful situations.
Bill, a character in this game, is trying to shoot a fleeing assassin. His Firearms skill is Fair and the target is already far away. The GM sets the difficulty for the shot at Good. Bill's player rolls one die, and it comes up with a "0" -- Bill has just made a Fair shot. Having just barely missed the assassin, Bill reloads and fires again. This time, the GM rules that the difficulty is raised to Superb, as the target has just run behind some partial cover.
The first roll is a "+" -- so far, so good! Bill's player rolls a second die, and it also comes up with a "+". Now his total is a +2, almost enough to hit the assassin. The third roll, miraculously, is also a "+"! The total is already a +3, enough for success. Bill's player, however, is hoping to deliver as serious a wound as he can. He rolls a fourth die. It comes up showing a "-", so it is ignored. Bill's final result is a +3 -- a Superb shot. The bullet hits the assassin, but without enough relative degree to be anything but a graze.
Probabilities for *dF:


Since all the brain has to do is match "+" signs or "-" signs, it is very quick in practice. Also, as you rarely see results outside the +2/-2 range, you will seldom ever roll more than two or three dF's.
A coincidental benefit of using this method is that if you use it exclusively, you'll only need one dF per player!

Ignoring Penalties

A useful method of representing a slight edge over the competition, this approach is often forgotten by GMs. A character who has a slim lead over another can be difficult to model in Fudge. Allowing the advantaged character to ignore occasional penalties can resolve this dilemma, as long as the exemptions are applied judiciously -- this requires careful judgement on the part of the GM.
Two age-old rivals crash-land their spaceships on a distant planet and are captured by a barbaric tribe. The barbarian chief decides to amuse his clan by forcing the spacemen to fight in an arena. The longtime enemies square off in the ring. Both have been trained in hand-to-hand combat with a variety of arms, but neither is familiar with the rather unusual ceremonial weaponry used on this planet. The GM rules that both will have to apply a -1 to their skill rolls in combat. However, one of these characters is an amateur anthropologist and has taken the time to handle many exotic weapons from many cultures over the course of his travels. Taking this into account, the GM decides to lessen the second character's penalty from a full -1 to a virtual minus.


Do not be afraid to experiment by thinking outside the box. Fudge may be highly granular, but its unusual dice mechanics allow a GM to tinker with the system in many ways. There are options available to a Fudge GM that most other games' dice mechanics would not allow. While most Fudge players exercise little restraint in modifying the underlying system before and after actual play, it is all to easy to forget that it is also possible to fine-tune Fudge in the heat of the gaming session.