Cheating in Dungeons and Dragons

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 17, 2009

People always look for short cuts or ways to get something for nothing. Why wouldn’t you take an opportunity to get ahead should the right circumstances present themselves?

Role playing games are not exempt from cheating. In fact, the game relies a lot on trust (something we’ll be exploring in a coming article). But what happens when players and DMs decide to cheat? How does that affect the game?

DM cheating

The DM is allowed to cheat. In fact it’s often encouraged. The object of the game is to have fun and if the PCs are in a situation that will lead to a total party kill then it’s up to the DM to help the PCs survive. It could be something subtle that goes undetected by the players, like fudging a few rolls so that monsters don’t hit as often. It could be with hit points, lowering a monsters maximum by a few points to allow the PCs to kill it sooner, or just deciding that one more hit will drop this monster regardless of how many more hit points it has left. All are acceptable and are done to make the game fun.

Player cheating

There are many ways for a player to cheat but most player cheating can be broken down into these three categories.

  1. Accidental
    • bad math
    • misreading a number on your character sheet
    • forgetting to apply a negative modifier
    • accidentally moving your character an extra square
  2. Subtle
    • lying about a roll
    • reusing a power that has already been exhausted
    • using an item that you don’t have recorded on your character sheet
    • not applying damage accurately
  3. Blatant
    • buying or creating “loaded” dice
    • doctoring dice to guarantee better rolls
      (like painting 1s in front of single digits on a d20)
    • having multiple version of your character sheet, each one slightly different to accommodate certain situations

Spot cheating

If the DM is caught cheating there’s not really much the players can do about it. You have to hope that whatever the DM is doing to cheat is motivated by a greater good, usually the survival of the players. However, if your DM needs to cheat often to help the party then perhaps the DM needs to make the encounters easier. What’s the point of preparing encounters that will defeat the party if the DM has to keep cheating to ensure the party’s success?

If players are caught cheating it’s a whole different story.

Accidental cheating is just that, an accident. It’s unlikely that this kind of cheating will continue deliberately. I think we’ve all realized after the fact that we accidentally cheated in one form or another.

Subtle cheating is not likely to happen all the time, but when it does it usually has a very beneficial outcome for one particular player. Over time this kind of cheating will reveal itself as one player always makes just the right roll at just the right time. Usually when subtle cheating is detected by another player or the DM the cheating stops immediately. If caught, it’s unlikely that the same player will try cheating again any time soon.

Blatant cheating is done deliberately and with premeditation. If a player has taken deliberate steps to cheat they’ve probably taken similar steps to avoid getting caught. Greed is the ultimate enemy of the blatant cheater. After they get away with it a few times they’re likely to get greedy and try it more often. Catching a blatant cheater usually results in an uncomfortable confrontation and the expulsion of the player from the group. It can become an ugly situation. No one likes a cheat, especially a DM.

Deal with cheating

Years ago I discovered that a couple of my players were deliberately cheating. When caught, we talked about why they were doing it. After a lengthy discussion and a promise of no more cheating we started fresh with a clean slate. But I knew that these guys got a kick at trying to pull one over on the DM so I decided that any time I caught them doing something dishonest, intentionally or not, I wouldn’t punish them. Instead, I rewarded the rest of the party for playing honestly. It didn’t take long for these guys to figure out that treasure horde after treasure horde contained no magical items suitable for their characters. After that the cheating stopped all together.

Have you experienced cheating at your gaming table? Did you pull a fast one and get away with it? Have you discovered someone else cheating? Tell us about your experiences with cheating in D&D.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 MJ Harnish April 17, 2009 at 8:27 am

The DM is allowed to cheat. In fact it’s often encouraged. The object of the game is to have fun…
I can’t agree with that belief. DMs are not allowed to cheat, anymore than the players are. Otherwise, what is the purpose of even using dice or following the rules? If it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander, as they say. This is another one of those throw backs to rolling dice behind screens and fudging results so “the story turns out the way I want it to” which eliminates the actual purpose of the game. If failure is going to ruin the story, the purpose of or the approach to the conflict probably needs to be re-examined, rather than simply cheating.

As for the “object of the game is to have fun…” excuse, players who cheat could use the exact same argument. They cheat because they want the game to be fun and for some the definition of that is “winning” which is an issue of play and what the group (or that player) wants to get out of play, more than anything else.

2 Questing GM April 17, 2009 at 8:47 am

My players always try to cheat, from character generation and in game. Nice thing is something they ask for your permission to do something which is cheating by RAW but hoping that DM’s permission justifies their ‘cheat’. This keeps the DMs sharp but when fatigue sets in during long sessions, they get away with it sometimes.

3 Ameron April 17, 2009 at 9:02 am

@MJ Harnish
Thanks for visiting Dungeon’s Master.

I agree that cheating shouldn’t be encouraged or condoned. And you’re absolutely right, if the DM thinks he’s allowed to cheat then the players should be afforded the same latitude. I think you’ve identified the same solution I was getting at, if the DM has to cheat to keep the story moving forward then maybe the encounter was just too hard. In this case, the DM needs to lower the power level of the monsters so that he doesn’t need to cheat to save the players.

@Questing GM
Your PCs sound like my guys. They always want to get more than the rules allow and try to get the DM to allow it as a house rule. They don’t call it cheating, they call it “creative character building.” If the PC has come up with a good reason for the exception and it doesn’t sound unbalanced, we generally allow it.

I’ve also found that the introduction of the Character Builder has greatly reduced accidental cheating and bad math.

4 Quid April 17, 2009 at 9:04 am

In all fairness, I really didn’t expect to get away with it at all. My hastily painted on 1 in front of the 7, 8 and 9 on the d20 (with White-Out, I might add!) was about as passable as RuPaul. I figured that the first time a doctored number came up Ameron would spot it right away, we’d have a good laugh, I’d scrape the crusted White-Out off and he’d mock up some odd, harmless punishment like not giving my character anything good to fight with his two handed sword +1/+3 vs. Lycanthrope and we’d carry on.

I didn’t count on rolling the doctored numbers so darn often and Ameron NEVER noticing. Doctoring numbers on a d20 is like gateway cheating…it led to doctoring the d12, and then I hit rock bottom when I started experimenting with the d8 and figured I could mirror the 3 to make it look like an 8. For the record, you can do it, but the numbers are big and it starts to become obvious. Turning the 1 on a d8 into a 7 is when I knew I needed help, and also when I first heard Ameron say, “Hey….wait a minute!” as I tried to snatch the die away.

Ahhh…good times. Remind me…did I cheat at this before or after you set up CDs behind me to act as mirrors so you could see my cards in that gin rummy game? Hmmmmm?

5 The Last Rogue April 17, 2009 at 12:36 pm

This is a tricky discussion, yes? On one hand the almost all DMs may have to fudge a die at some point in a campaign (or game … or encounter …), but when the player does it, it comes across as cheating.

The question is for me less about why they do it, because that answer seems to have an obvious branch. Either they want to ‘win’ or/and they want their character to be successful. There is nothing wrong with that. The fact they feel they must cheat to achieve it is the issue, however.

I think if caught up in this type of situation, it is best to pull the player aside and let him know that his player will be fine regardless of dice rolls. Not necessarily that he will be safe, but that his failures will be no greater than the rest of the groups simply because of an occasional miss. In addition, it would seem that spending time on these type of players misses and failures by describing them in a general fashion, ie giving as much time and merit to their failures as well as their successes may alleviate some of the desire to cheat.

Then again, I am just thinking off the cuff.

6 Underminer April 18, 2009 at 8:42 am

Can’t say I’ve ever caught a player cheating in game. Did have a problem once with a character in my Champions campaign that altered his character every other week. Kicked him out of the game.

7 Ameron April 18, 2009 at 10:24 pm

@Quid
Although I was pretty ticked off at the time, I’m glad that we can look back and laugh at it now. Using CDs as mirrors to gain an advantage was my way of illustrating how cheating takes the fun out any game, be it an RPG or cards.

@The Last Rogue
You raise an interesting point. If cheating does occur in your game perhaps better communication is the best way to resolve the problem. After all most gaming groups are made up of good friends so you’d hate to damage a long-term friendship simply because one of the guys feels it’s necessary to fudge a few rolls.

@Underminer
We had similar problems with people frequently adjusting how their skill points were allotted in 3.5 e D&D. The new rules in 4e regarding retraining every time you level and the introduction of the Character Builder have reduced (and with any luck eliminated) the occurrences of cheating at my game table.

8 Chase Dagger April 19, 2009 at 3:30 pm

This is a good article on a good topic.

In General:
When it comes to cheating I think everyone should consider the experience of the group in general. If the players don’t fully understand the rules, playing fair can quickly become unfair. The important thing is to learn from the mistakes and head in the direction of fair. The more experience the actual people in the group have (DM included) the less cheating should occur (strive for zero cheating).

DM cheating:
My players take great pride in calculating what a creature’s AC and HP are (I really like that about them.) So at times it can be very hard for me to fudge the actual numbers without them noticing.
That being said I think role playing a cheat is really the most acceptable when it comes to fun factor. Bad guys make mistakes, feel cowardly, and have accidents, sometimes they even turn on one and other (I mean if action cartoons taught me anything a major weakness of bad guys is their teamwork skills).
I had a sniper fall off a wall just the other day, I rolled damage for his fall and it killed him, what can I say other he should have been more careful. :)

9 Ameron April 20, 2009 at 7:39 am

@Chase Dagger
1) When I was composing the reasons for cheating, I never considered cheating because you didn’t understand the rules. Good addition.

2) I wouldn’t call poor teamwork skills by the enemy cheating. The scenarios you described seem plausible and certainly made me laugh. Sounds like you already have a pretty good idea of when fudging the numbers is acceptable for the DM.

10 Dungeon April 20, 2009 at 9:19 am

Oh– Cheating in D&D. my DM does that. BIG Time! In my campaign, he constantly uses different characters, makes his own races and adjustes existing ones. for example, he “made” the moon elf. he allowed them proficiency in spiked chain, and wanted them to have a “Power bonus” when the moon was full. so he makes new characters every … 3 weeks, and expects me to level it up to the rest of the group. this makes me mad.
Plus, he takes advantage of many situations. DMing and not.
my brother has been playing a half-elf fighter for about 2 years and my DM wants me to make his character the same level. My brother Earned his level. his gold, his equipment. Remember the good old days, “when you had to EARN your copper pieces?”

11 Ameron April 21, 2009 at 7:54 am

@Dungeon
It sounds to me like this DM just doesn’t get it. If the players are frustrated (or possibly even angry) with his DM-ing style, then perhaps he needs to give up the responsibility of being the DM and pass the reigns over to someone else. Tweaking the rules to give your pet project an advantage doesn’t sound like a fun experience for the players.

As for earning your level, I think we could fill an entire post on that topic. So not wanting to get off topic too much, I agree that it doesn’t seem fair to the PCs who have earned their level and items, but the mechanics of 4e sort of force you to have PCs all around the same level. I agree that it doesn’t seem right, but there aren’t many alternatives.

12 Dungeon April 24, 2009 at 10:02 am

An entire post on the topic: Earning your level.
that actually sounds like a good idea. :)

13 Dave May 12, 2009 at 6:57 pm

I think a lot of people who come down on DM cheating perhaps have an old-fashioned idea of what the DM’s role is. The DM should never cheat except to make the game more fun and interesting for everybody. For example, let’s say that the players are fighting a ghuol that was created from the corpse of the ranger character’s dead husband. It would awesome and cinematic if the ranger character was the one to put the ghuol down, laying them to rest. If the bard or something is going to make the killing blow, I would expect that the DM would just not have that hit kill the monster so that the ranger can do it. That’s effective DM cheating that makes things more fun for everyone. The DM can also cheat to prevent a character from dying in an ignoble way or dying at a time when it would heavily interrupt gameflow in an undesirable way. Ideally the game should be set up so that for any given dice roll the story will not be ruined by any result that might come up, but especially in combat it’s hard to predict that kind of thing.

Dungeon: No offense, but what on earth is wrong with your DM? Why is he making you play his characters? If he wants there to be a level 12 moon elf archer, he can just decide that there’s a level 12 moon elf archer. He’s the DM. He gets to make up NPCs. It makes no sense at all to create a character by making it at level 1 and then making some player play it.

14 Ameron May 13, 2009 at 8:22 am

@Dave
Very nicely said. Thank you.

15 ryan November 23, 2009 at 12:56 am

heh as DM for a group of 6, i find that even when the encounters are appropriately leveled i have to cheat to make the monsters BETTER or my party just walks all over them =) but i generally stick to my “1 fake crit per encounter” houserule that i’ve forgotten to tell everyone else about….

16 Hierophant Druid January 29, 2010 at 10:15 am

A good way to solve cheating with rolls, especially vital ones is just to concentrate everyone’s focus on the roll.

I play DM and all my players know that when something important happens, they can’t roll until I am watching and ready. And all other players, ofcourse in a critical situation are watching with the player who makes the roll.

So they could never change their rolls that way.

17 Ameron February 2, 2010 at 11:31 am

@ryan
Cheating done to make an encounter or a campaign better and more fun is perfectly acceptable (in my opinion). However, if you change something from the rules as written and it will impact the PCs, make sure you give them a heads up first and be consistent.

I usually roll enough crits that I don’t need to fake it. On the other end of the spectrum, I usually have one 20 become just a regular hit every game. Especially if one PC seems to be getting hit a lot more than normal.

@Hierophant Druid
Your approach to rolling is probably the norm, however when time is of the essence there are occasions when DMs allow pre-rolling. Half the fun of playing is watch the roll succeed or not so I’ve never subscribed to the whole pre-rolling idea myself (as a DM or player).

18 mbeacom June 29, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Sorry to necro this thread but I just now found it as it was linked from a more recent post.

I’m with Ameron on this one (and categorically disagree with MJ Harnish), although I might go even further.

Ameron says, “The DM is allowed to cheat. In fact it’s often encouraged.”

I would actually say, in my mind, it’s almost impossible for a DM to cheat. In my understanding, the DM is the ultimate arbiter, not only of the rules, but of the story and the universe. If the DM says a beam of holy light appears and smites the bad guys (or even the GOOD guys), damnit, it appears. How is it even conceivable for this person to cheat? Are you telling me that as a DM I can decide there is an earthquake that swallows the entire party but I can’t decide if a demons attack is a miss?

As far as I’m concerned, the DM should do their best to create encounters that serve the purpose of the adventure in advance. Maybe you want an encounter to be easy for the story, or you want it to be an incredible challenge, or whatever, so you design it accordingly. But then, it turns out you miscalculated, or you are rolling crits like crazy. That means that your efforts are going to be wasted and the balance in the encounter and the world is NOT as you designed. IN those cases, I think it’s the DMs job to CORRECT the encounter to be the balance he intended. This is not cheating. This is DMing.

Now, while I don’t think it’s possible for a DM to “cheat” per se, since the entire world is of his design and creation, I DO think it’s possible for a DM to be a jerk. If a DM is doing things that are unnecessarily punitive, wildly unfair, or singles out certain players, then they’re being a jerk, even if they’re not necessarily cheating.

Now, with regard to my game table, I always try to make on-the-fly balance adjustments in creative ways. In a pinch, sure, it’s a hand wave now and then, or a faked miss/hit, but generally, I like the role play solutions where the bad guy makes a mistake or the environment heavily favors the PCs (I recall reading someone else mention they let their PCs topple a tree onto the enemy for massive damage). Technically speaking, there is no real difference between the two as far as cheating goes, but I find that my players and I both enjoy the latter more than the former.

19 Alton July 11, 2010 at 11:40 pm

Same as mbeacom.

I am so scared for my character, that I am changing characters for P2: Demon Queen Enclave. I am currently DMing P1 and we are currently having the discussions on DMing styles. I tend to agree with the occasional fudging of circumstances(cheating is too harsh a word). The DM for P2 is a rule follower, believing that the modules are playtested for any situation. 4 people in the party right now are saying that if he kills their characters for some stupid reason they are quitting. To quote some of the things he says:

“Rules Adherence. By now you are all very aware of my rather strict by-the-book way of playing. This is not going to change very much. If you think this is unfair then you need to remember the rules apply to monsters just as they apply to you. In that respect, the playing field gets levelled very nicely. Don’t worry, this is the approach I followed for the Yuan-Ti trilogy and FOTS where normal mortality rates were seen.

How fair is that to know he is going to kill at least one character. D&D is for fun and excitement. Winning without a challenge is boring, but (in my opinion) a good DM knows how to adapt to make the challenge fun and exciting. Sometimes PC’s do get killed and that is part of the game, but for a DM to do it to satisfy his MONSTER needs(pun intended) is just no right.

20 Dustin Postlewait September 14, 2010 at 8:09 am

A great example of how to deal with a cheating player came up in our star wars d20 game last week. Our sullistan scoundrel was playing cards with a bunch of corellians on Cloud City and was winning crazy amounts of credits. Turns out, he was adding the wrong modifier to his gambling skill. Instead of taking all of those credits that he had won, our GM made a perception roll to see if the opponents caught on to the cheating. They did, and what could have been a problem ended up in a terrificly fun improvised bar brawl!

21 LordOcampo October 4, 2013 at 11:31 am

I once saw a cheating player in Costa Rica. He had a d20 with no 1 and two 20s. He was immediately expelled and banned from the LFGS.

22 Advice please February 21, 2014 at 8:21 am

What should you do about players who abuse cheap methods to get out of bad situations? Basically players in my group take advantage of their abilities by summoning minions to fill in for them or giving them unfair abilities to destroy my enemies. Are there any tips for dealing with these types of people?

It isn’t only unfair to the player in charge, I think it takes the fun out of the game by beating a powerful enemy in 5 seconds flat when it could be turned into a memorable battle. I do feel using minions as scapegoats to keep themselves out of danger or using some super powerful skill to beat through a powerful enemy is cheating in itself.

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