There are a few people around who have recently made posts about cheating in RPGs — so I’m going to reference a post from three years ago on the same subject. I think the old post addresses the topic better, and the same ideas can be applied to the newer posts.
Anyways, the post attempts to break down who cheats, how they cheat, and why they cheat. To save you from reading a years-dead post and comment thread, here’s the gist of it:
- GMs cheat because it saves players from failure, or makes things more cinematic, or lets the story continue as it ought. This is both right and just, and GMs should feel free to do just so. Players can’t do anything about it and just have to trust that the GM is making the game better.
- Players sometimes ‘cheat’ because they make honest mistakes, or they’re bad at math. These are harmless and probably don’t mean much in the long run.
- Bad players sometimes intentionally cheat, lying about die rolls, re-using expended powers, and intentionally applying bad math. If caught, they probably won’t do it again.
- Very bad players go so far as to doctor their dice or have variant ‘builds’ of their character available so they can address niche situations better. These guys cheat maliciously and will probably keep cheating until there’s an uncomfortable confrontation.
- The best solution to cheating is to not directly punish the offender, but passively punish them by rewarding everyone else.
I have a number of problems with this post.
GMs Cheat and That’s OK
I’m going to go ahead and say that it is in fact not OK for the GM to cheat.
Think of it this way: you’re at a football game, and the visitor team is up by 6 points. The home team gets the ball and carries it down the field, eventually getting a touchdown. The refs throw a flag and call the ball dead at the 2 yard line, not because the ball was dead, but because it makes for a more exciting game if that happened. Then the team plays again and gets a touchdown; they go for the kick but it hits the upright and bounces away. Now the refs call it and say that hitting the upright was ‘good enough’ for the extra point and the home team wins by 1 point. What an exciting victory!
Except that it’s not; it’s not exciting and it’s not a victory, because it didn’t really happen. Sure it’s a cool story, but it’s just a story that the refs are telling and it has nothing to do with the team’s actual effort or performance. And it’s not really a victory because the team didn’t really overcome any obstacles (the refs just declared that they’d done so) and it had nothing to do with their play anyways: the refs knew what they wanted the outcome to be and orchestrated things so that’s how it happened. In a way, the teams were irrelevant.
This is what it’s like when a DM cheats. He can do it easier than any other player in the game because his role is to portray the entire world, and he can justify it by saying “this makes a better story” or “this makes it more fun.” But the cheating player can make the same justifications for why his cheats are OK, too, and now we’re back in 3rd grade yelling “bang, I shot you!” and “no, you missed!” Lawlessness and chaos.
A GM, like a referee, should be impartial to either the success of or methods used by the payers to engage the situations he’s presented them with. If he’s not, if he’s always there to pull their fat from the proverbial fire, eventually they’re going to recognize that what they actually do is irrelevant — the story will progress essentially the way the GM decides it will. And depending on how egregious the GM is about cheating in the name of “fun,” the player’s whole character might well be irrelevant — he’ll catch the ledge or not, hit the target or not, persuade the duke or not based on what the GM has decided, and nothing more. In large doses this is absurd, but it’s frustrating even in small doses.
Players Cheat and Should Be Punished In-Game
Sometimes players cheat. I would hope that it’s always accidental but sometimes it’s not and we need to know how to deal with that. Here’s my solution: don’t play with cheaters.
You don’t always know up-front that they’re a cheater and you should probably give them the benefit of the doubt — take them aside after the game and confront them directly about their cheating and how it’s unacceptable. If that fixes things, great; it never needs to be brought up again. If it doesn’t fix things, politely ask them to leave; and by “politely ask them to leave” I mean “tell them in clear terms that they are no longer welcome to play in your game.” Done.
What you shouldn’t do is punish them in-game for cheating. That’s passive-aggressive and kind of a dick move, especially if you haven’t explained to them what you’re doing and why. It might ‘fix’ the problem, but it’s childish and demonstrates that you aren’t an unbiased GM. If you punish cheaters in-game, now they’re going to wonder if you punish them in-game for other out-of-game reasons, like favoring the wrong sports team, having excessive body odor, or eating the last piece of pizza. Even if none of that’s true you’ve eroded their trust in you, and that’s not going to be good for the game in the long run.
Why Are We Cheating Anyways?
I have no idea why cheating is even a factor. If you’re sitting around a table with your friends pretending to be dwarves and wizards, what exactly are you gaining by cheating?