Friday, December 2, 2011

The Ecology of The Cheating Player

One of the most difficult things a DM will have to deal with over the course of his gaming lifetime is the cheating player. One cheating player can cause your game to become unbalanced very quickly, spoiling the fun for everyone! How is a DM, especially a beginning DM, supposed to deal with this destroyer of game worlds. In my years of playing this, and quite frankly dozens of Role-Playing Games, I have had more than a few players cheat. This article will provide new DMs with a few tried and true techniques to minimize the effects cheating will have on your game.

Before we begin, I want to make something clear. If you suspect a player of cheating it is NEVER a good idea to point it out over the gaming table or in earshot of the other players. You should always approach this subject delicately and discuss it in private. It may even be better to avoid bringing it up and instead use the tools mentioned in this article to make cheating difficult. The game is never more important than your friendships and putting a friendship in jeopardy over this or any game solves nothing.

When a player feels the need to cheat it usually comes from a fundamental lack of understanding of how a role-playing game works. As the DM, it is your job to ensure your players understand the rules and how they are applied. Your players need to know that you are not competing with them. In fact, you are there to make their gaming experience better. Dungeons and Dragons shares many storytelling techniques from movies, television and books. The good guys usually win in the end but the story has twists and turns and more often then not the heroes will lose a battle or two. When I explain this concept to new players, I often give them a little homework. I ask them to watch The Empire Strikes Back. This movie perfectly demonstrates the power of the heroes having their butts handed to them. The rebels are in retreat, Han Solo and Princess Leia have been captured and Luke has been seriously wounded. The list of setbacks is pretty long. You probably know the story well enough yourself but you get my point. All of these setbacks are the reason The Return of the Jedi was such a riveting movie. You need to explain to your players that missing an attack role or having the wrong spell memorized isn't a bad thing at all and might even make the game more enjoyable for everyone. The easiest way you can do this is to be as dramatic as possible when describing a miss or a failure. When the players roll misses, rather than say "Thats a miss", say something like "Your sword cuts through the air barely missing the Skeleton's shoulder." You don't have to describe a miss like this every time but its good to mix a few in. When you hear a player mumble about not having a certain spell memorized, explain to the player that rather than speak under his breath it would add to the story if he vocalized it for the party to hear. This will provide role-playing fodder for the party both now during combat and when the party is sitting around the fireplace at table in the local tavern.

Unfortunately, some players just won't understand the concept of the game no matter how hard you try to explain it. When faced with a player of this type there are a couple of things a DM can do. Firstly, a DM can ensure all the characters a player is going to use are approved by you. Do not be afraid to insist on changes to the character before you let the player use their character. It is also a good idea to request a second copy of all character sheets for your records The very least a DM should do is to mark down all the information you think is relevant. You will make it far more difficult for a player to cheat when you have the same information they do.

As much as Dungeons and Dragons is a cooperative game, it is your world. If you are not comfortable with the power of a character for its level, you are within your right to deny its use. I have seen far too many players try and sneak characters in with magic items that were way to powerful for them to have at their current level. For example, a few years ago, one of my players brought along a friend. We had just started a new campaign and the characters were around 4th level. When I asked to see the sheet for the new character I was shown a 5th level Paladin with a +5 Holy Avenger and Full Plate +5, two very powerful magic items. I gave the player with a choice, lose the magic or find a new character to play. He chose the latter and we rolled him up a new 5th level Paladin more appropriate to my campaign. I wasn't rude with the player about my decision but I was firm.

Die rolling provides a fairly easy way for a player to cheat. I have observed players cheat by lying about a roll or bonus, by attempting to manipulate the way in which they roll the die and even one case of a player physically doctoring one of his dice. As long as you have a copy of the character sheet this is a relatively easy fix. The easiest thing to do when you suspect a player of cheating is to provide a box top for all players to roll into. You might even feel the need a rolling cup or some other standardized rolling technique. Some players will not like this but if you feel the need to use this strategy, do it.

As a rule, I hide all my roles from the players. I do this to ensure I have control of the story. More often than not, any die rolls I modify are almost always for the benefit of the players. Don't be goaded by your players into always rolling in front of them. As the DM your job is to create the story and sometimes you need to change the results of your die rolls. It seems like a double standard, and maybe it is. The difference is you should only modify die rolls for the benefit of the story. For example, in one particular low level encounter I was running, I was rolling a disproportionate number of hits and a higher damage than the average. I decided to start changing the out come of some die rolls. I would still so the players wouldn't have any idea what I was doing. The players won a battle they were sure to lose and the adventure would continue.

It goes without saying that as the Dungeon Master, you play a crucial role in Dungeons and Dragons. You are the players eyes, ears, noses and even their gut feelings sometimes. The final thing a DM can do to reduce the temptation to cheat is to remember that the Dungeon Master is not a god, he is a high level Bard spinning a story that will last through the years. If ever you feel as if a game is becoming unbalanced, you have the power to fix it. Use the power wisely and your players will reward you with an excellent session and stories you will be able to tell your grandchildren!


  1. You are quite welcome. It actually inspired me to write a DM Advice article on my blog.