The Importance of Trust and Honesty in D&D

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 21, 2011

I think that the vast majority of people who play D&D take for granted just how important trust and honesty are to the game. In order for everything to work we have to assume that everyone playing is honest and trustworthy. Of course, we don’t come right out and ask this of the other players; you merely accept it as fact. If players cheat or abuse the trust we’ve given them in good faith, then the system won’t work and the gaming experience will be tarnished.

Just this past weekend I was playing a Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventure at my FLGS and something happened that really highlighted the importance of trust in D&D. It was an unusual situation, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that perhaps it’s time to discuss just how vital trust and honesty are in D&D.

The LFR Fiasco

We should have expected that things would be unusual after one of the PCs was killed during the first encounter. Normally, the party would chip in and get this character brought back to life as quickly as possible. This way the player wouldn’t have to suffer because the character died. The cost was only 600 gp and as fortune would have it the deceased PC had more than this on him.

The rest of the players agreed to find a Cleric to perform a Raise Dead ritual and bring him back to life, especially since none of us would incur any expense ourselves. The player with the dead PC refused to pay. He said he’d rather invoke the Death Charity clause. Doing so meant that he forfeited any awards or treasure and could not replay this adventure again using the deceased character after being brought back to life.

The DM then gave the player another option. He let him bring in a new character to complete the rest of the adventure. This was deemed acceptable. So although the party lost one PC during the first encounter, we picked up a new PC before beginning the second.

The rest of the adventure ran smoothly. Everyone who played and survived the entire adventure got full XP and treasure. The player whose character died got pro-rated rewards for the encounters his new character completed successfully (basically everything except rewards from encounter #1 which the PC wasn’t present for anyway).

The DM then reminded the player that even though he invoked the Death Charity rule for his original character, that PC would still suffer the normal penalties associated with a Raise Dead ritual (-1 to all attacks, saves and skill checks until reaching 3 milestones).

The player was outraged. He said he’d do no such thing. As far as he was concerned it was as if the first (deceased) character was never there. The next time he used the original character he had no intention of applying any penalties. And because he invoked the Death Charity rule he wouldn’t suffer any loss of gp either. Basically he wasn’t willing to suffer any consequences for the original character’s death.

Although I actually had very strong feelings about how this was developing, I wisely decided not to insert myself into a situation that I had no business being part of. We’ll see in subsequent weeks how this situation plays out. Since this player only plays LFR at the FLGS with essentially the same people we’ll see if he abides by the actually LFR community rules or if he just does what he wants, what is best for him and his characters, rules be damned.

I stand firmly beside the DM on this one. In-game the character didn’t weigh the consequences of his actions. He chose to rush ahead of the party despite our warning against doing so. As a result all of the monsters in the room attacked him and only him. The result was a character death in the first round of the first encounter.

If the character is allowed to come back into LFR play without consequence then this player essentially got to play his character poorly without penalty. I’m all for playing the character the way you want to, but you have to be willing to accept the consequences. Those who act cautiously survive. Those who rush in without thinking risk death.

Without Honesty There’s Chaos

What this really highlighted for me was just how much trust is involved when playing D&D (or any RPG). Every time you play you make a lot of assumptions based on trust. You trust that the players at the table have built their PCs honestly and according to the rules. I know as a DM I’ve never once wasted time verifying that a PC is built to spec. I just assume that my friends have followed the rules or the agreed guidelines when creating and maintaining their characters.

Dice are rolled every time there an attack is made or damage is dealt. Both the players and the DM assume a) that the numbers are being called off accurately, and b) any modifiers are being added appropriately. Again, I rarely monitor anyone else’s dice rolls. I have enough to worry about running my own character. When I’m the DM I’m too busy running all of the monsters to check that your roll was actually a 15 and not something else.

Recording damage is another aspect of the game that requires truest. When I used to play D&D 2e back in high school I had a few players who tried to pull one over on the old DM and didn’t record their damage correctly. After a while I just tracked all of the damage myself. It was so cumbersome it ruined the gaming experience. Eventually I said that for the game to work there had to be trust. If they weren’t willing to be honest then I wasn’t interesting in playing. After that the damage was recorded accurately.

So many elements of the game rely on honesty and trust. There’s a social contract, an understanding that everyone will abide by the rules. As soon as one person decides that they don’t have to abide by these rules then things fall apart.

In the case of LFR there is a much greater element of trust required. In all of the time I’ve played LFR I’ve never once been asked to provide any proof confirming my character’s XP, level, treasure, magic items or story rewards. We all know that for the system to work we all have to play by the same rules.

Looking back on how things played out this past weekend I have to admit that I’m disappointed that one player felt he didn’t need to follow the rules. He made a bad decision and paid dearly with a character death. But his decision to cheat and pretend that this adventure didn’t happen for that character (and that his death never happened) sullied the experience for me. As I don’t know the player very well I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to say anything right there and then. However, if I’m the DM moving forward I think I’m going to talk to him and ask that he not play at my table, after politely explaining the reason why.

I think we can all agree that for things to work there needs to be trust. What kind of negative implications have you experienced first hand when players abuse the truest of the group? How have you resolved these issues? How might you have handled the situation I experienced? Would you act differently if you were the DM than you would as just another player at the gaming table?

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dixon Trimline March 21, 2011 at 9:31 am

Wow. Just wow. My heart breaks when I read this sort of thing, since I’ve experienced my share of loophole players (both as DM and co-adventurer), and there’s just no convincing them that they are killing the game for everyone.

As you say, you’re entering into a contract, and it’s not a one-to-one (player to DM), but one to many (player to everyone). You play by the rules, we all have fun. You subvert and skirt the rules, and we all have to drink that bitter poison.

2 Erik March 21, 2011 at 10:11 am

In my experience, it all comes down to people play table-top RPGs to do things they can’t normally do in real life. The dark side of that is some players use it as an excuse to do things that are absolutely socially inappropriate (killing random villagers, telling off authority figures, etc.). Such actions are fine within The Game (as long as they don’t disrupt the experience for everyone else) but occasionally such actions bleed over from the “character” side of the equation to the “player” side of the equation. The PLAYER then does things that are absolutely socially inappropriate (lying, cheating, backstabbing other players, etc.) and hurtful to the other players.

It’s one of the dangers of any social interaction that some people aren’t going to play by the assumed rules of that type of interaction. As Mr. Trimline said, it’s also very hard when someone is being socially inappropriate to convince them that they are being such.

3 Alton March 21, 2011 at 11:24 am

I truly believe in honesty at the table. I have a couple of players who come and play with handwritten character sheets and their characters are extreme. I have been playing with these people for years and find that they always have the most outrageous characters that are extremely cumbersome. Their spells are written half-assed on their page, they have an out for every situation with tons of damage and I finally got sick of it.

I told them to put their characters on a bonified character sheet (v3.5). I downloaded HeroForge and SpellForge for them and told them for next session to have it done up.

They tend to come up with ridiculous bonuses and feats and items that I cannot seem to find.

Honesty and trust are very important when you are gaming. If you cannot trust them then a couple of things happen.
1. You question everything about their characters
2. It slows down gameplay
3. It ruins the game for DMs and players alike.

Thanks for the reminder.

4 Geek Fu March 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm

This is something I haven’t really put much thought into before. I’ve been playing (usually DMing) with a group of friends for more than 10 years now, and it’s never really come up about lying or cheating. Everyone is open and honest, except for me. The only ‘lying’ I find acceptable is when the DM fudges rolls to make the encounter either more interesting, or to “miss” with an attack at just the right moment.

I DMed a group of players at a local game store for a few months. They all seemed to personify you situation where everyone plays as they wish, rules be damned. It was my worst D&D experience ever. They were all out to win no matter what. I couldn’t stand the arrogant liars who could do no wrong and defended all the absurd abilities and bonuses with obscure rules they couldn’t remember where they saw it, loopholes that were violating the spirit of the game, or flat out lying. If there is no honesty, there is no fun.

5 Sean Holland March 21, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I just find it sad that a player would be such a bad sport and so disruptive over a temporary -1 penalty. If it was something serious, like the loss of a limb or vital magic item, I can see trying to avoid it but this was such a minor penalty it hardly seems worthwhile to be a jerk over it.

Personally, I think it would be sort of fun to play the ‘disoriented by death’ characters, even with minor penalties.

6 Lahrs March 21, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I joke with a few members in my group about their ‘cheating,’ usually after they pull off some big hit or some amazing power, but I am fortunate enough that I can trust my group and to the best of my knowledge, no cheating actually occurs. There are too many natural 1’s and missed skill checks over time that I never get that feeling that someone is consistently rolling too well.

However, when Essentials was released, one of my newer players created a rogue and was doing ridiculous amounts of damage at level 1. After two sessions of him laying waste to the enemies, I decided to look more closely at the Essentials characters and realized, Essentials rogues put out some serious damage and that he was not cheating.

Before this, the last time I thought someone in my group was cheating was back in 2000 with 3rd edition. After a few sessions, it has hard not to notice that this person never missed an attack and despite taking solid damage, never seemed to be in trouble. When I asked for his character sheet to check over his stats, he refused to hand it over and I decided it was in everyone’s best interest that he did not return. As a DM, I put in way too much time to be cheated, not only is it not fun for me, but to everyone else in the group as well. I find it incredibly selfish.

Since then, I have been blessed. I agree with Alton, it takes too much time and energy to question everything about a character and players actions. Plus, since we are so role playing heavy in my groups, there isn’t much that can’t be fixed if things go south. Besides, if you are going to cheat, why even play the game? I can just announce that they are the most badass character around, hand him his +20 Vorpal blade and then play the game with people who actually want to play the game.

As for the situation you are in Ameron, I too would have asked the player to leave, if it were in my power. After his argument with the DM, I would be hard pressed to believe either his character sheet was correct (with the -1 penalties) or if he wasn’t fibbing the numbers on his rolls to overcome the penalty. If at any point I feel I cannot trust my players, it is time for them to go.

I will admit though, last year I used some loaded dice to win a bet from one of my group members and won a Coke, but I then turned around and bought everyone drinks and candy bars, so I do not feel too bad. However, since then, my players have banned me from using any red dice.

7 Kilsek March 21, 2011 at 2:39 pm

You’re right on about it feeling like such an implicit, expected part of the game that we never really talk about it except for some table rules that are somewhat related.

Beyond the issues of honesty and trust, this article raised another few questions for me on the more mechanical/game management side of things:

How prominent should penalties and penalty tracking be in general, in a game as tactically rich and tracking-complex as D&D 4e?

What about when related to character death, which is already a sort of “ultimate penalty”?

8 math_geek March 21, 2011 at 3:03 pm

The person in your story certainly seems to be acting like a jerk. I don’t really know how to respond to someone who openly ignores basic rules of the game.

I think trust in LFR is a super-big issue, because everyone is responsible for his or her own character. This really comes into play as the rules around LFR change. At one point in time it was legal to buy uncommon items, and now it isn’t. Given that most items in the game are uncommon, this is a highly significant change. I was highly tempted to retcon some purchases for characters (and I definitely made purchases on everything I could think of before the rules changed). Things like the Oil of Flesh returned consummable is something I want all of my Paragon level characters to have, and now I have to hope I find it in some mission.

9 mbeacom March 21, 2011 at 4:14 pm

You made the right call.

Me, I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut. I’d probably have asked the guy to buck up and take his lumps. If he refused, I’d have just shrugged it off.

But yeah, we all need to trust that we’re in this together, and act accordingly.

D&D is a group activity and when you have individuals are are in it for individual gains, this can happen. Its unfortunate and I’d hate to think this guy is out there in the community potentially turning off new gamers, but what can you do?

Would like to revoke his RPG card.

10 Feeroper March 21, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Yeah that is unfortunate. If I were in your position, I would have done the same thing, and like you, if I were to DM a future game with that player, I would also have a talk with him. At this point its a case of “time will tell”. Maybe he’ll realize he was being unfair with that reasoning and will end up following the rules. Its jusy not fair for everyone else to have someone cause this kind of grief.

11 Sunyaku March 22, 2011 at 1:07 am

Ugh, hopefully the situation doesn’t get ugly at future encounters. I think one of the most common “cheating jokes” I see is when players are rolling well with dice that are practically unreadable. I trust my players, but I hate illegible dice.

12 Neuroglyph March 22, 2011 at 7:08 am

I have to agree with your points concerning trust, and it is one of those things that really puts a strain on your game and, sadly, occasionally on friendships, when it rears its ugly head.

I read what Alton said, and I had a similar situation with a Player having a character I did not approve of – and this sheet was created by Character Builder and was completely legible! It was my fault for not checking it out, as this Player was both an old friend and one of my most experienced gamers, and I just assumed he followed my rules. But after several sessions of noticing that the character seemed unusually potent, I found several feats which I had specifically said I did not want in the campaign. Not only was it highly frustrating, but brought on an argument at the table questioning my judgment about banning those feats – of course my ultimate defense for the ban was pointing to how overpowered that character was compared to the rest of his companions, and that if I raised the “encounter bar” to challenge his character, it would frustrate the other 4 players.

Of course, now I feel I can’t trust my players to have common sense with character generation, and over-scrutinize the character sheets. I hate doing it, but once trust is broken, it’s hard to replace.

13 Naz March 22, 2011 at 8:58 pm

As I read through the many responses I see to this story, I notice that they seem to fall into 2 rather different categories. First, those that deal with ‘TRUST’, whether you are a DM or a player, you have to know that you can trust the other players who share the table, and the game experience with you. Modern convienences such as Laptops, I Phone Aps, even the Character Builder, have greatly changed the dynamic of trust in a game. Does that “Random Number Generator” really work as effectively as a trusty ol’ 20 Sider? Is there a “Houserules” notice on the charter sheet of the player sitting next to you? Did a player recently ‘Retrain’ a character due to a level up, and maybe slip in a new feat or power that they shouldn’t have? These are things that can bring about trust issues (along with all the other non-technilogical types of cheating), and ultimately it is up to EVERYONE at the table to decide what is acceptable and what isn’t. Obviously the DM should have the final say, but I think, whether it is comfortable to do or not, the players should also have a say in this.
The second type of ‘prominent’ response here seems to deal with exploiting rules, or working with or against houserules. 4th Edition seems to me to lend a great deal to the problems that we encounter with this type of ‘trust’? If you are a powergamer, then Essentials was basically your greatest wish come true. If fellow gamers, or more importantly, The DM, aren’t very particular about what is and isn’t being allowed, then you can end up with some really outrageos characters at your table. But, to play Devil’s advocate, is this really a “Trust” issue? If WoTC (or any gaming company) gives us a set of rules, and they put a stamp of approval on it as ready, which one may take as meaning its balanced, then assuming its not something that is fixed in an errata post, is that player really breaking the trust of the other players? I recently had to “Nerf” a rule that a player and I had discussed within my game and came to what at the time seemed to be a mutual understanding of the rule. The factor I didn’t account for, after initially agreeing with the players view on the matter, was that 10 to 20 levels down the road, that rule, which looked so harmless when initially presented at 1st level, would become an absolute game breaker. I invited him and his wife out to lunch, and we discussed the issue. After presenting both sides, he and I came to a better understanding of the rule. Hopefully, by having this discussion ‘away from’ the table, and by making sure that he was given an opportunity to have his say, the trust of player and DM won’t have suffered.
Finally, as to the trust issue from the original story. The response sounds as though it was very much in-appropriate, and to be honest, I wouldn’t want this player back at my table, my question would be was this played out and completed at the table, or did the party or DM attempt to step away from the situation and follow up later? I agree the player should have the penalties, but did he or she honestly think that playing the other character was a “Do this Not That” solution. As I read it they had already opted to take the death penalty when this other option was presented, so, well, I’ll let everyone troll me to death on that one, but I’m just saying. Sometimes an extra 5 minutes of communication can save you not just hours, but possibly the entire future life of a campaign.

14 Scott March 1, 2013 at 9:53 am

Trust is crucial for just about any gaming experience but something as free form as D&D it is doubly so. I played with a group of five or six friends and we rotated DM’s. Someone would buy a module and DM it. We would drag “their” character along as a semi-NPC so when they returned to play their character would be near an appropriate level to play it.
Now in this case we were playing Beyond the Crystal Caves. I had a Paladin who was probably one of the weakest characters in the group. The DM’s character was a Druid, one of the strongest. We had a divergent alignment mix that probably would have sent my character off on it’s own anyway. Still we spent a day getting past the waterfall which was the first clue we weren’t the right group for this module. Day two of adventuring we meet some happy woodland beasts. Then we investigate a sunken boat full to the gunnels with treasure. Well I don’t want any part of this, it’s got nothing to do with why we were there. A portion of our group is agitating to take the “free” treasure lead by the NPC, DM’s Druid. . Fine I make my opinion known and then cast my augury spell, twice. I want to know if this action is good for my character yes or no and is it good for the party yes or no. Well DM straight from my god says yes these are good things to do. For a Paladin, stealing unprotected treasure. Well of course next thing we know bunnies have grown fangs and I’m being trampled from behind by enraged dimension dooring unicorns and end up in a battle in self-defense with a series of magical LG creatures. Disastrous. Not what I envisioned for my Paladin but again endorsed by my deity so I sort of have to get in line and follow orders. This is what my god wants me to do.
We ran the unicorn encounter twice, basically with the same result. An eventual TPK ended the module for all of us. I’m asking the DM afterwards what the heck happened and how could this be good for my character. Well he said the gold and the stuff was good for my character. Except of course my paladin doesn’t want gold or you know a wand of wonder if he has to fight unicorns for it cause it is theirs. He finally admitted well he wanted the stuff for his character so he modified what I heard from my augury spell. Don’t think we had him DM again. It’s not a crime he was just too invested in his character to adjudicate the game properly. Gotta trust the DM to be fair. I still need to get a copy of the module to see if I was being unfair to him. Maybe the module was supposed to go that way but it didn’t seem right to me. Yes if you can’t trust players it can be bad. If you can’t trust the DM it all breaks down. Still sticks in my craw 20 years later

15 dan March 15, 2014 at 12:53 am

I know that as both a player and a dm, I have been tempted to cheat. Whether that included fudging rolls, making my stats prettier, or adding content that was in more of a grey area without consulting the DM first. Usually, the reason behind the temptation is frustration at my dice, fellow players, or whatever. Generally, I am most temped when I have a good idea or feel like I’ve been rolling low all night and just want one thing to go my way. However, I never take it into my own hands.
It seems like cheating can stem from a few places. First, the feeling of inferiority or bad luck. If I’ve had a bad day at work (or bad week), I often just want to enjoy my game, and escape into the fantasy world. When that is your escape, your fantasy, it is hard not to get frustrated and make something go your way for a change. The same can be said of a string of really low rolls. If you decide to try something different for once, you really want it to succeed.
Another source is found in all kinds of games: you just want to win. People hack video games to get rare or collectible content, or even swipe some monopoly money from the bank when they are losing. It is petty, but a temptation we all can feel.
The main difference between a cheater and an honest player is that an honest player resists the temptation, and can even over time learn to do so without realizing. But for new players, the temptation is right there all the time until they give in or get used to resisting it. It is a fine line.
As to the issue at hand, the player seems to want special treatment because he made a bad choice. If he was warned, then he should own up to his mistake and either deal with the consequences (both in and out of character), or he should acknowledge that this is not the right group for him. However, I feel like the conversation should be one-on-one with the DM if either feels like there is something wrong, and if it is not addressed, then the other players have the right to approach either party for the sake of the group. If the cheater can be shown the light, then forgive and forget (unless he pullsmanother stunt). If not, then he can be shown the door instead. Distrust between players can make any game lose its enjoyment.

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