The Colors of Magic - Available Now

April 27, 2015


I have seen a lot of twitter and facebook conversations with GMs about players cheating.  There was a time when I was concerned about it, too.  I want to share with you how I came to not care about it at all.  It's not that I've disciplined my players not to cheat or anything.  I don't even know if they're cheating; and it does not bother me.  Here's all I had to say to them:

Cheating Only Hurts You
I expect you not to cheat, but I will not police you or accuse you; and I don't want you policing each other, either.

If you don't like what the rules or dice say, just ask to change them.  Ask to change the die result or ask to ignore the rule for the moment.  I'll almost always agree; and I think the other players will agree, too.  Sometimes you'll forget a rule or misinterpret a die roll; and sometimes I will or another player will.  That's OK, too -- just "play through."  You can bring it up after the scene is over if you really want.

Cheating is when you ignore a rule or change a die roll intentionally and in secret; and it only hurts you.  It doesn't hurt me if you cheat.  I'm on your side -- I want your characters to face tough odds and win.  For that to be a fun experience for me, you have to stay in character and have fun at the table.  That's all.

But for the game to be a fun experience for you, it needs to generate excitement.  Excitement comes from tension.  Tension comes from the possibility of defeat.  If you start cheating, you'll always know you can avoid defeat by cheating.  Defeat becomes impossible.  So don't start, or you'll take away the possibility of defeat, which reduces your own feeling of dramatic tension, which takes away the excitement you get out of the game, which means you'll have less fun.

Cheating is generally a concern with tactical combat RPGs like D&D or Pathfinder, so I'm going to tag this post for them; but it really applies to any game.  The thing about cheating is that even ethical folks can be drawn into it.  After all, we all know that this is a collaborative game designed as a fun thing to do with friends around the table.  There's no money at stake, and nobody gets hurt if you cheat.  The pressure to "shine" or "contribute" motivates people to cheat; and then once they start, they lose respect for the game and are more likely to do it again.  But it's not the game that's hurt.  It's not the GM, or even the other players.  It's the cheating player that suffers.  Cheating doesn't help you -- it saps the excitement from the game for you.

Failing with Panache 

As a player, there are two situations where there's a temptation to cheat:  First, when the dice aren't going your way.  Second, when the rules are in your way.  You and your GM should work to make those situations more fun and less humiliating.

When the problem is bad luck the solution is easy:  Fail in a dramatic way.  Missing attacks and failing saving throws can often be narrated as humiliating:  "You almost drop your sword in your haste."  or  "The fireball DC was 17." "Ah crap, I'm at -2."

But it's a lot more fun to narrate it as a dramatic moment instead of a humiliating pratfall:  "I swing!  Eight.  Bah.  I lock blades with the bearded devil, my sword against its glaive, and I glare defiance into it eyes.  We're struggling there, neither of us getting the upper hand." or "The fireball DC was 17."  "I leap in front of Roguely, shouting 'GET DOWN!' and shielding him from the fireball with my body.  When the smoke clears, I'm lying unconscious over him, having chosen sacrifice over glory."

Solving the Problem Together

When a single die roll is so bad you want to change it, rather than just avoid disappointment, ask the GM to change it and explain why the game would be more fun with the change.  The GM can make the change to add excitement rather than take it away.

GM:  You fall in the spiked pit trap and take... ouch!  32 damage.

Cleric:  That's enough to outright kill me.  I don't want to die in a random pit trap.  Can we make it 30 damage?  That would mean I'm dying, but not quite dead. 

GM:  I can work with that.  OK everyone!  With a crack and rumble, the floor gives way under your loyal cleric.  He falls twenty feet into three-foot-long rusty spikes.  You see he's gushing blood from razor-sharp spikes through his body.  He's clearly unconscious and he could die in a matter of seconds.  You have one round before he almost definitely dies.  What do you do?

The cleric's player resisted the temptation to fudge some hit points and "accidentally" only subtract 30 by just bringing it up with the GM.

When the problem is the rules getting in the way you can ask the GM for help.  The GM is the rules referee, and the goal of the referee in these sorts of games is to make sure everyone is having fun using the rules.

Let's say you're an archer character and the dungeon is full of skeletons.  You can cheat and add some blunt arrows to your character sheet, or you can ask for help from the GM:  Hey, sorry, I wasn't prepared for an all-skeleton dungeon.  This isn't going to be any fun since I can't hurt them with my shortbow.  What can I do?  There are several ways the GM can help make the rules work for you:

  • Make a temporary rules call to help you out: OK, let's ignore the skeleton's DR this time, but go back to town to buy blunt arrows or try to Craft some before the next encounter.
  • Give you some advice to help you use the rules better to your advantage:  I know your arrows can't do anything to the skeletons, but until you can get some blunt arrows, you can use Aid Another to help protect the cleric.  With 2 more AC, the skeletons can only hit him on a natural 20, so it's a huge help.  It's probably better to protect the cleric than to do 1d6 damage anyway.
  • Change the nature of the problem so that the odious rule doesn't apply:  Three more skel... er...  a single ghoul comes creeping out of the shadows!  Roll initiative!
  • Change your character sheet for you:  If you can narrate a flashback where your character encountered skeletons in the past and suffered a story loss for lack of blunt arrows, you can add 20 blunt arrows to your sheet right now. 

Update: A note on modules and "reading ahead"

Sometimes the GM is running a game from a module, and sometimes players have played or read the module before (either innocently, before they started this game, or intentionally, to get an advantage).  This is no different from reading the last chapter of a book before starting.  Frankly, I don't really care if a player does this.  Like cheating with dice, it only hurts them.

But unlike cheating with dice, reading ahead can hurt other players.  The read-ahead player needs to know not to spoil the game for the other players.  It's OK if they want to go and buy a Flaming Greatsword in town because they know there's a boss monster vulnerable to fire coming up -- again, that only hurts them, because they're taking away some of the surprise and tension.  But if they tell the whole group "hey, everyone, get ice scrolls and weapons because there's a fire vulnerable boss coming!" they're damaging others' fun.  That's when I get ticked off.  That's where you step in and say something like, "Well now you've said that, I'm going to have to change out the fire boss for a different monster.  You've caused me extra work, and you've exposed yourself as a cheater.  Please don't do that again.  We really don't appreciate it."

It can also hurt other players by taking away some of the spotlight.  If the read-ahead player knows the answer to a riddle or where to search for a secret door, or that the Prince is secretly a vampire, he can pretend to have figured it out and steal the spotlight.  That's a jerk move.  This is a rare case of cheating that's 
  1. Only applicable to modules or published content 
  2. Requires a lot more work than faking a natural twenty
  3. Only a problem if the read-ahead player isn't subtle about it
If they are subtle about it, they just come across as "on the ball" and smarter than usual.  That's not a problem because at worst, it inspires the other players to pay more attention and bring their "A game."  And if they're not subtle, it'll become apparent quickly, and the GM can confront them.  Just say something like, "You read the module, didn't you?  Can you pretend ignorance and let the other players figure everything out on their own, or are we going to have to ask you to sit out until the module is over?"  If the player persists, there's nothing you can do but get the entire group to ask them to leave, at least until the module is over.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for this. I thought this was excellent advice!

    I shared your post with my gaming group, and added this note:

    "This is all good advice.

    Remember: when playing or referring a game.. every thing in the entire game is both imaginary AND arbitrary, so deciding that the result of a particular die roll is Unchanging Universal Law(tm), and can't be ignored/modified, for any reason, when LITERALLY everything else in the game is consensual illusion is the one of the silliest possible ways to approach it.

    Yes, rules should exist and be consistent/coherent.
    Yes, use dice to randomize. It adds tension, uncertainty and drama.
    No, don't let either of those two things make the game unfun."