A couple of weekends ago, I went up to Stoke to play Amber (see journals passim.
and much fun was had by all. I stayed over, and the next morning had the pleasure of having a long chat with Steve, the GM, about gaming; why we both do it, what we get out of it and so on.
Steve used to play a lot of Runequest. (For the non-gamers who are still reading; all that's relevant at this point is that in Runequest, like most role playing games, randomness is generated by using dice - so in a combat, for example, dice are rolled to see if someone hits their opponent when they swing a sword at them, and so on.)
Runequest has quite a reputation for lethality; it's possible for an attack to hit and for the blow to land on the head or torso doing a lot of damage; often killing the target outright. And Steve realised that his characters were getting a hit a lot on the arms and legs; an annoyance, but with magical healing and regeneration, it's a lot easier to regrow a hand than a head. And loss of a limb (from a literary point of view) can be character building - consider Long John Silver or Captain Hook, for example.
The problem was, Steve's character was getting hit in the limbs far more than probability would suggest. Or, perhaps more importantly, he was getting hit far less in the lethal locations than he should have been.
In short, his GM was cheating.
We don't call it that, of course. It's cheating if a player 'misreads' a dice roll; if what would have been a failed saving throw nudges over into a success, or if the sword blow tilts from a 15 to a 19 to hit. But when a GM does it, it's sort of magically okay. It's called 'fudging' as if it was somehow sweet behaviour.
And, as you've probably guessed if you're a GM at all, Steve was doing exactly the same when he was GMing. He didn't want to kill off characters 'at random'. He didn't want his players to have to generate a new character just because the dice said 'bye bye'.
His reaction was to start GMing Amber.
Amber is a diceless roleplaying game; there's no randomness for event resolution. It's all down to GM fiat after looking at the statistics of the characters in question. So if you're running a duel, and two characters have a Warfare of 15, then it's a very close run fight. They'll go back and forth and it will probably be a deadlock until one or the other does something to change the playing field. Go corps a corps, and make it a contest of Strength. Play it out, and make it a contest of Endurance. Do something.
It's a good system, as long as you trust the GM and the other players (which I do) because essentially, whatever the GM says goes. The situation that had brought up this was a duel I'd had with another character the session before, where his character had a higher Warfare than mine, but I (not my character) had a much better situational awareness, and am much, much better at describing what I'm doing. (Oh, and coming on for 20 years experience in fighting situations - LRP, kendo, fencing and aikido). Essentially, I talked my character into almost winning the fight when really, I shouldn't have been able to.
And that's the weakness of Amber. (Though it was a damn entertaining fight, for both me and my opponent.)
I've hit the same dilemma, of course. But I approached it a different way. In fact, a couple of different ways.
Firstly was an Unknown Armies game where all dice rolls were done in the open - mine and the players. This brought a frission to the table as I was essentially saying "I'm not pulling punches here. If your number comes up, you'll die. Life in this game world is nasty, brutish and short". And that worked, even though demonstrably it had no effect on character fatality. Why? Because the GM can always stack the deck. It's all well and good saying 'all dice rolls are in the open' but if the players don't know what the target number is, it doesn't matter if they know what the number rolled is.
Ultimately, the UA game was better for the open dice rolls. But it didn't really address the fudging / cheating issue.
So why do GMs fudge? And why do players cheat? In both cases, I honestly believe it's for the same reason. To make the story better. The GM is (often) fudging to keep players alive, to let the story continue. But the GM has control over the whole world, and the player only has control over their character. So the player 'cheats' to survive, to do more damage, to win in a combat. Because, with the limited tools they have at their disposal, those all make the story better.
I think I found my home with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG.
BTVS-RPG differs from many traditional RPGs because it gives the players (not the characters) Drama Points - boosts they can use to make a score higher (to hit in combat, to do damage, or to do something flash like jumping a chasm that the player thinks that the character might have failed on if just left to the dice). And that in itself takes away one of the reasons for players to cheat.
But the player can also use the Drama Points to interact with the world in the same way that the GM does all the time. Adding things in, taking them away. I ran a scene in a museum where Vampires burst in on a school trip to steal a suit of Samurai armour. One of the characters (played by caddyman
if I'm recalling correctly) rolled under a stage to get away.
"I reckon", said Bryan, "That there's likely to be a master switch for the spotlights under here. It's the kind of awkward out of the way place that lighting boards get put."
"Reasonable," said I, intrigued as to where this was going. "No need to spend a Drama Point for that."
"I also reckon that the curator of this place has fitted the spotlights with daylight simulation bulbs", he continued. "To give a medieval ambiance to the place."
I couldn't help but grinning. "Go ahead, spend the points."
So his character, desperate to get away, knocked against the master switch and powered up the spotlights. And daylight simulation bulbs in a Vampire milieu are going to be ... effective in a room full of Vampires.
The important point for me there is that his character didn't do anything clever. But the player certainly did. Something that I hadn't thought of. Something that, in a regular RPG, he couldn't have done.
But he cheated within the rules, and he definitely made the story better.
And that's when, IMO, cheating becomes fudging. And it doesn't have to be the sole purview of the GM.