Friday Favourite: Cheating in Dungeons & Dragons

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 4, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From April 17, 2009, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Cheating in Dungeons & Dragons.

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.

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1 Cent October 4, 2013 at 10:18 am

In the description above a DM cheat seems to be an action that benefits the players. Though I can think of instances in which the DM acts/cheats in such a way that it does not benefit, or outright harms, the players.

Favoritism. Consistently singling out certain player(s) for special rewards or considerations, while excluding other player(s) from such benefits for no discernible reason.

Typically this kind of favorable behavior is observed over more than one or two sessions of a campaign. You need a large enough sample size of sessions for it to become clear that at least someone in the party is getting the shaft.

Retroactively changing something (combat round, RP interaction, etc…) that has already occurred. For example, the DM forgets to calculate a flanking bonus for a NPC during a round of combat. A round or two later the DM realizes his/her mistake and retroactively applies the bonus. Turning what was a missed attack into a hit on the PC.

I’ve seen this done more than once and by different DM’s. It’s in really poor taste to do this, especially when the DM then crits on the hit and/or outright kills the PC that way.

Those are two examples of abuses of power by the DM in ways that are detrimental to players. I guess I consider those to be bad/irresponsible DM ‘cheats’.

2 dan October 4, 2013 at 4:46 pm

I wouldn’t call misclaculating something accidental cheating. I would rename this part mistakes. In such instances, I have seen the DM retroactively apply anything minor that was effected, but usually not to the players’ detriment. Another example of mistakes are forgetting a class feature or extra effect that should be applied, such as extra damage during rage for barbarians. This also applies to things that change from packet to packet in the next playtest, as they can seriously mix people up.
Fortunatelely, I haven’t seen much in the way of more serious cheating, so we’ve never had the awkward conversation, though I like your positive reinforcement solution.

3 Brian October 6, 2013 at 4:42 am

As a DM, I roll in the open and I’ve quit fudging dice. I don’t even use a screen anymore. I think a lot of DM’s “cheat” because they have a plot lined up in advance, and any deviation from the plot might throw them off. So, they wind up being committed to specific outcomes on encounters and skill challenges, and cheat to make those happen. The secret is to not have a plot planned out in advance, and to try to create encounters where both sides have goals other than “kill everyone else before they kill me” and where success and failure both advance the story.

I don’t really watch for cheating. Instead, I work to train my players to realize that both success and failure will be fun, so there’s not really a need to cheat.

4 Games October 8, 2013 at 11:14 am

I agree with Brian. DM’s will cheat just as often as players all just to preserve the story they have in their mind. I can understand the urge, but then again, isn’t it just as awesome to have the character die for doing something dumb (heroic) or to one shot the big boss after a great roll?

Don’t use dice if you aren’t going to allow for random elements in the game. Just sit around and tell a story. If you want random things to happen, obey the dice.

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