Table Reflection: Cheating at the Table

Cheating in games is considered one of the prime misbehaviors to occur in a roleplaying experience. As a long-time GM, I’ve seen all sorts of cheating, and there’s probably more that I didn’t see going on. However, as a GM, I’ve learned that the solution to cheating is not necessarily just going and cracking down on players who fudge stuff, but rather to make sure that you create an environment where cheating is not a naturally desirable behavior.

If players want to never fail at your game (note the word order), they aren’t engaged in the story. Risk adverse players are actually not “good” players, though you can usually count on them not bringing the campaign to a grinding halt, at least in moderation. As Dwarf Fortress has so ominously stated, “Losing is fun”, at least when the narrative is benefited by it. And, in this way, all campaigns can learn something from Dwarf Fortress: Failure is engaging, and if players aren’t open to failure your game could very well lack any engaging elements.

Cheating comes about from the desire to win, at least in most cases. Some people argue that cheating comes from a desire to advance the narrative in a favorable direction, but I’ve found from personal experience that the excuse used for that sort of cheating is usually an excuse rather than the core underlying reason. You need to address why players feel like they need to break the rules of your game to win in order to have a truly engaging and enjoyable game.

The first main cause I see of cheating comes from when players suspect that the GM has a blind, unwavering loyalty to the rules of the game. This doesn’t mean that the GM never does stuff by fiat, but when they do they try to model it through game mechanics instead of narration.

What the consequence of this loyalty to the rules is takes shape over a period of time; the players may have “lucky” or “unlucky” streaks, which cause them to realize that the dice are pulling their characters around. Players, as a general rule, hate losing characters, especially ones they’re invested in. I can speak from personal experience on that point. As a result, they will break the rules to mitigate the fickle nature of probability-since the GM doesn’t make calls based on what is best for the story, the players will, and the players’ means of cheating are a lot less subtle. Even if they have an “edge” currency or something like that, players still want a little more certainty against the randomness of the game, and their means of cheating are always on, meaning that they can’t just admit during the middle of the game that their Strength is actually three points lower than they said (at least not believably), so they’ll be acing easy rolls as well as hard ones, and as a consequence the game either becomes too easy, with the GM oblivious to or unwilling to compromise for the character’s exceptional abilities, too hard as the GM has to figure out how to deal with the cheater’s exceptional “prowess” with the game and accidentally crushes the whole party, or unfair as the whole game becomes “ordinary guys immune to X’s schtick”.

A second reason for cheating comes from competition. There are two reasons for competition in your game; either your narrative leans toward competition, or, alternatively, you have players who want to win. If your game is legitimately competitive (e.g. having characters fighting for different factions), you should recognize and prepare for the chance of cheating. If you have players who want to win, there’s usually hope for the mood to pass. Create a narrative in which success doesn’t have to be exceptional or epic; bring character and plot to the forefront instead of “sharpshooting challenges” and loads of dice. De-emphasize the mechanics. Usually players will grow out of this on their own without any encouragement, however, so I don’t worry too much about it-part of being a GM is giving players what they want, and so long as the player remains reasonable and the game is cooperative in nature cheating may not actually ruin the experience.

Sometimes, however, players cheat because they want to see your world burn. They’re trying to ruin your game because they don’t like it. Normally, these players would likely just leave, but I’ve found that there’s often a “what can I get away with?” phase in there before they go away for good. On occasion, these players may even want to get kicked out of the game and blame it on their misbehavior rather than offending you or causing a scene. Don’t take it personally. If you catch someone cheating you should always have a personal discussion with them, in part to remedy the situation and in part to see if this is the cause. Don’t assume malice in these cases; just because they want to change the way the game is going doesn’t mean they don’t like you or the other players, they may just want to open your eyes to new horizons and perspectives.

At some point, however, this article was going to have to come around to the point of how to prevent cheating, rather than just assessing its causes. Have no fear, I’ve got plenty of information on this topic.

The first way to prevent cheating is to not allow any opportunities. Supervise character creation, rolls, and anything else that players could be tempted to modify. Never advertise this as an “anti-cheat” method, though. You’ll just look paranoid and ostracize your players. I like having “character creation parties”, especially with new systems for a group that might have legitimate or “accidentally beneficial” mistakes in character creation. Not only can you bring your players together, discuss the course of the campaign, and get everything off on the right foot, but you can also make sure that everyone follows appropriate processes.

If you have physical character sheets, hold on to them between game sessions. I’ve found that this is typically the best practice anyway, as if you aren’t making it there won’t be a game, so it doesn’t matter if the sheets aren’t there too. On the other hand, players can show up to a game without their stuff and throw a wrench in the work. Keep that in mind when pitching it to your players. Digitally, be sure to keep plentiful back-ups, and compare them to characters in play every once in a while. Keep track of how much advancement your players’ characters have gone through; it’ll help them if they have to roll up another but also allows you to distinguish between real and fake characters. Ask players to tell you each expenditure as you go along, which will help you remember the abilities and roles of their characters when you design or improvise challenges, but also mean that you’re more likely to notice an inexplicable change in things. If players like to “have indecision” about their characters, you may need to give them some tough love and force them to stick with what they have, both for the sake of your sanity and to keep them from suddenly becoming wunderkinds because of a convenient addition error. Alternatively, force them to do a complete character rebuild from scratch; they’ll likely wind up with a better character, but you can follow the rules involved with the changes more closely while making frequent revisions less attractive.

With dice, establish a rolling scheme. Are rolls public? Are you using dice or a random number generator? Who rolls? Answer all these questions consistently before you start your game. I suggest doing this with player input, so that they understand what’s going on on your side of the table, especially if you do a lot of hidden rolls that make crucial narrative changes (I had a player quit once because he thought I was cooking the books, among other things). Not only will this prevent frustration and the appearance of unfairness, but it also has the benefit of making honesty “easier”, and allows you to have a consistent pattern of behavior.

So, in short, cheating is usually the result of a mindset deleterious to play, but you can prevent it easily through a number of easy steps that you probably should do anyway.

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