Posts Tagged ‘player agency’

On Cheating

Posted: 20 August 2012 in The Hobby
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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?

Sarah Darkmagic has an interesting post up about why random rolling for gender is a good thing for the hobby.  She makes some interesting points which (I hope I don’t butcher this) basically boil down to: most gamers are men, most gamers aren’t into gender-bending, random-rolling for gender would produce more female characters and force us, as a community, to consider female-oriented stories as much as male-oriented stories.

She’s commenting on a tweet from @PelgranePress that said “RPG idea: define your character. Last thing – roll for character’s gender.”  For my part, I think Pelgrade’s idea is kind of great, but Sarah’s strikes me as more than a little abrasive.  Let me explain:

Pelgrade’s idea is essentially to build an entire character and then determine randomly whether your character is male or female.  I think that this is a pretty great idea because I regularly hear gamers saying, “I don’t know how to play a female character” (or, less commonly, the opposite).  And my thought is that, for the most part, if you’re trying to think of “what would a girl do in this situation” rather than “what would a person do in this situation,” you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.  Yes, there are practical considerations to take in terms of the upbringing and personality that men and women might have in the setting of your game.  And it’s probably that women are going to feel threatened in situations where a man might not, and so on.  But in general, I think that once the personality and upbringing of your character is determined, whether they’re male of female has a rather small impact in playing them.  Pelgrade’s idea, from my perspective, ensures that you build your character as a full person rather than focusing on one (obvious) piece of the whole.

Sarah’s point though strikes me as abrasive for (I imagine) the exact reason that she thinks it’s a good idea: it would force people to play as women.  This bothers me for the same reason I don’t want a random roll to determine my character’s race, class, or attributes: maybe I don’t want to play a dunce wizard.  Maybe I don’t want to play a brawny dwarf.  And maybe I don’t want to play as a woman.  Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those, and it doesn’t mean I’ll never play one, but simply because I want to choose the I want to portray.  I don’t want to pick a role out of a hat.  One of Sarah’s basic premises is that most gamers are men and most aren’t comfortable with gender-bending — so the solution is to force them to gender-bend?  That sounds like a wonderful way to turn off a large segment of the community.

I have no problem with women gamers, and I have no problem with female characters.  I regularly gender-bend, and some of my favorite characters etc., etc.  But it’s because I chose to play a female character because there was something compelling that I latched on to.  It may be one thing to encourage game designers and module authors to consider female-oriented stories when they put pen to paper, but forcing players into roles they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with sounds like a bad idea.  Sarah’s comments are a great thing for The Industry to take note of and improve the overall availability of and support for female-oriented play, but it shouldn’t be forced on any given gaming group.

There’s a post up at the Transitive Property of Gaming blog about how the author had a really great idea for a homebrew zombie apocalypse game, and how it didn’t go at all how he planned.  I want to reiterate how awesome this homebrew idea sounds: he has a whole apartment complex and neighborhood that he was personally familiar with, he made up maps of the floor plans, rules for improvised barricades, a flowchart for zombie behaviors, a timeline for how bad the infestation is from one block to the next, systems to encourage foraging outside the fortress — some really cool ideas.

The problem is that from session one the players decided that staying put was a bad idea, and so made it their goal to escape the city.  They knew, as we all do, that most “successful” zombie movies are the ones where the characters escape the populated areas, and movies where characters whole up end with the social unit collapsing and people turning on each other.  But that situation, the one where the characters have to deal with the break down of social bonds, is obviously the game the author wanted to play.  Instead, he had to toss out a bunch of his prep and resorted to believable roadblocks like a military quarantine and making the easiest path be the one that lead back to the fortress — but the players just interpreted this as the requisite obstacles that needed to be overcome.  They thought *that* was the game, rather than the GM’s attempt to get them back to the game.

I wasn’t at this particular game, so I can’t say how well things were communicated or not, but I can say that I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again, in games I’ve played in and games I’ve run.  There seems to be this unspoken rule that GMs aren’t allowed to tell their players what kind of game they (the GM) want to play, which is kind of silly when you consider the amount of effort those same GMs end up putting in to guide/railroad the players back to where they “should” be, back to The Plot.  Back to the Game.

It should be a pretty simple fix: just tell your players before you start before Character creation or anything) what kind of game you want to play.  The GM is as much a player as anyone else at the table, and you deserve to have your fun as much as the next guy.  For most of us, this is a hobby and we shouldn’t treat it like a job.  You aren’t their to entertain an audience, you’re there to play a game with your friends.

“I want to play a game where your characters barricade their apartment building against the zombie hordes and have to deal with each other in the resulting stressful environment.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are professional adventurers who delve into ruins and make a living selling ancient treasures they find.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are small-town folk who are thrust into adventuring when your town is destroyed.”

“I want to play a game where your characters are non-combatants who travel cross-country to reclaim their fallen kingdom from an ancient dragon.”

I’d say that adding “and if you fail you will likely die” to any of those is probably healthy, too, but your mileage may vary.

My only observation is that as GMs we feel like we need to cajole our players into the game, that what they want is more important than what we want, because without players there is no game.  Or because we want to play a game with *those* friends, specifically.  Or some other situation where compromising our fun seems to be the best or only way.  Maybe this post says more about my experiences than any wider phenomenon in the hobby, I don’t know. And while I don’t think the GM should give away all his secrets and twists, I think we’d all be better off if we stopped playing “guess the plot.”

This started as a reply to Brian’s comment on my last post, but quickly ballooned into something too big for a comment thread.  Brian said he likes my notions on the 3×3 Alignment (thanks, so do I) but he feels like there really needs to be consequences for breaking alignment — “If you’re a lawful good paladin and you strike down an enemy out of anger instead of in the name of your deity, there should be repercussions.”

Generally I agree, but I need to do a lot of unpacking to get at what I mean. There are a lot of things going on with that deceptively simple question.  First, yes, there should be repercussions for acting out of alignment; but there should be repercussions for any meaningful action, so this doesn’t really tell us much.  What I think Brian means, though, is that D&D has traditionally had mechanical and class-based penalties for breaking out of alignment, and this has traditionally meant that a Paladin can not lie for fear of losing their powers and being reduced to less-than-a-Fighter — how would I deal with that actuality?

I think that there are a few things going on here.  There’s how how Alignment affects a class, Alignment affects a character, and how Alignment affects the world.  I’ll address them in reverse order.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: it gets long.


I feel like I’ve been talking about alignment a lot lately. Maybe it’s just me.

There’s a post today at Wizards of the Coast’s D&D Website about how every group needs a moral compass “to remind his or her adventuring companions that they’re heroes.”  I would tend to disagree — there are some play styles and some campaigns where having a moral compass might be useful or encouraged, but I think it’s a stretch to say that every group needs a moral compass.  After all, who ever said that the PCs have to be “heroes”?

There was a time when I would have agreed with the WotC article, when I would have shaken my fist and said “yes, that’s what my group needs.”  In those days, I developed campaigns not unlike movie screenplays or novel outlines, and a lot of the time my players messed it up.  They wouldn’t go where I wanted them to go, they wouldn’t act the way I wanted them to act.  I found myself building barriers to discourage the “wrong” choices and trying to suss out what kind of sticks or carrots I could use to get my players to go the “right” direction.  Did they want money, or glory, or fame?  Could I kidnap a family member, or threaten them with the King’s Justice if they didn’t obey?  Those were very stressful times for me, and I’ve been moving slowly but steadily away from them.

The point is, an adventuring group only needs a moral compass if there are wrong choices for them to make.  And more and more, I feel that framing things so that any choice can be wrong kind of misses the point of Role Playing.  Sure, if you have a certain style of game you want to play — say a heroic quest where the PCs fight against the Big Bad Evil Guy — then there are guidelines you need to set down so that everyone (including the DM) has fun with the game.  But the heart of Role Playing is making choices based on who your character is, and for me the best role playing is when your character has to make a tough choice — and that usually requires the character to choose between Good and Evil in some way.  If the going-in assumption is that Evil is always the “wrong” choice, then there’s no choice at all.

In my games, all choices have consequences.  All choices change the world in some way, and that change will come back to affect the characters in some way.  Good acts will sometimes have negative consequences, sometimes doing bad things makes achieving your goals easier.  Players are free to choose to be the Heroes, and that can be awesome and fulfilling, but if my players want to fracture the party and raise armies against each other, I think that should be just as valid.  If players choose to be villains we should let them, and they should reap the benefits and consequences of their actions regardless of what those actions are.

I had a conversation about alignments yesterday, and in particular the problem of “monster” races, and how such-and-such race is “always chaotic evil.”  I agreed that this was a problem, that things would be different in my games, that it shouldn’t be reasonable that a Lawful Good Paladin slaughters an entire village of sentient (if ugly) creatures without a twinge of guilt.

Now, in my system of alignment, “evil” isn’t evil, per se.  It could be argued that none of the traditional labels are particularly good fitsBut then we actually started talking about specific races, what the differences are between goblins, hobgoblins, and orc; what their cultures were like.  I started saying things like, “goblins are scavengers; they’re frenetic and lazy and they take things rather than build them.”  “Hobgoblins are militaristic and expansionist, more like an army than a society; they constantly seek to expand and subjugate other nations.” “Orcs are a brutal, tribal people who function on a ‘might makes right’ basis.”  So even if “evil” just means “willing to actively hurt others to achieve your goals,” aren’t all of these — goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs — simply evil creatures?  What would a good goblin look like?

As with my concept of alignment generally, I think the answer is a complicated one full of nuance.  I think that these societies that I’ve outlined are evil, and I think that being in that environment will tend individual members towards a matching alignment — after all, my notion of alignment is essentially short hand for characters’ values, and people derive at least some of their values from their society.  But just like I can envision a Lawful Good villain doing terrible things because “it’s for the best,” I can see a Good goblin who’s no less inclined to go raid a neighboring settlement.  In a way, both come down to rationalization, and if either one thinks too hard on it they might find themselves conflicted, wracked with guilt, or even choosing to change their alignment.  An Evil goblin raids a neighbor because he can, because he wants what they have, and he doesn’t care if (or possibly looks forward to) others get hurt in the process.  A Good goblin raids a neighbor because he has too, because they have things that his community needs, and he would rather (or possibly acts to ensure) nobody gets hurt in the process.  Both of them are raiding their neighbors and potentially having violent confrontations, but they have different reasons and different attitudes.

In the end, the point is that societies have an identity and alignment that is composed of but also more than the identity and alignment of their individual members.  Could there be a whole tribe of Lawful Good goblins who respect tradition and honor and don’t like hurting others?  Sure, but they’ll probably still raid their neighbors, because they’re frenetic and lazy.

My last post was about time, and how keeping track of things allows you, the DM, to coordinate events in the game-world without falling to fiat or “dramatic timing.”  I noted that it opened up a lot of possibilities, the most obvious of which is a reliable way to determine if the players make it to the demonic altar in time to stop the evil ritual.  In the comments, dhlevine proposed a third way of using contested game stats and a die roll to see if players make it in time.  I acknowledged the idea as an alternative, depending on the mechanics available to you and the desired effect, but after thinking about it I think I’ve concluded that reducing time to a die roll is as bad as DM fiat.  It’s arguably less biased, but if you’re going to roll a die to determine the time things take you might as well not keep track of time at all.

The key piece that’s informing my determination here is player agency.  It’s a term that I’ve only recently come upon, thanks to either Hack & Slash or Papers and Pencils (I can’t remember which I saw first). The basic idea is that players have ‘agency’ when they are given meaningful choices and the choices they make have consequences (good or bad) in the game world. It’s the notion that players can control their own destiny. When a DM or game mechanic takes away options, negates choices, or ignores consequences it results in a less engaging, less fulfilling game experience for the players.  This is why railroading doesn’t work.  Players denied agency become frustrated.

Bringing us back to the question of time, if the answer to “did we make it in time” reduces down to a die roll, then you’ve essentially negated any choices the players have made that would affect timing.  I suppose you could hand-wave it, or have penalties or bonuses based ion player choices, or do a preemptive roll to see if the character can/do take time to prepare…  But it all ends up with the dice, rather than the players, making the final determination.  That just strikes me as poor form.

I’d like to take a moment here and note that I don’t hate die rolls.  They are a useful method of conflict resolution, especially if well formed mechanics are built around them and used appropriately.  My point here is that using dice to determine timing is an unnecessary and inappropriate use, and you might as well simply declare timing by fiat as leave it up to the dice.