Since there are other great articles detailing snake-like characters or monsters to inhabit or terrorize your campaign, I figured it would be interesting to discuss a different type of behavior that may slither about your table – cheating. When you are busy running a game there are a great many things to monitor, and it is entirely possible that your players may on occasion be tempted to cheat in some way to get an advantage. They may lie about a die roll or conceptualize and execute their stats and abilities in “creative” ways to deceive you. Hopefully, cheating behavior is non-existent at your table or perhaps only happens when players feel they are in dire straits and need to cut some corners. Below, I talk about the motivations for cheating and some methods you can use to minimize the likelihood that it will appear at your table.
Understand that cheating is a possibility at your table. Do not assume that just because you are playing with (a) adults, (b) friends or (c) family that cheating will not occur. Numerous studies have demonstrated more than 50% (sometimes as much as 80%) of college students self-report cheating, although there is certainly variation by situational and personal variables. Collective cheating, which is lying in the name of the collective good, occurs commonly in the adult world. These lies can range in severity, and the situational factors at the gaming table can influence their presence.
For example, a five-player group of players is in the midst of a battle with several monsters. The group has dealt with a combination of poor rolls and questionable tactics that has led them to the brink of serious consequences, including possible player character death. One player, Jack, utilizes an important resource or power and all players at the table realize a good roll can change the tide of battle. In this situation, not only the player rolling the die, but all players are invested in the roll of the die. Perhaps Jack rolls a 10 on a d20, which is an average roll and gives him approximately a 50% chance of hitting. Jack may increase the result and call out “12” instead to give him a better chance of success. The players to Jack’s right or left, Tom and Jill may allow the lying to pass since their fates are also tied to the outcome. This is just one example of how collective cheating can play out at the table.
The gaming environment, which can result in player death or other negative consequences, provides pressures to cheat, rewards cheating, and may only institute a small risk for adverse outcomes for cheating. In the example above, imagine you viewed Jack’s die roll of 10 and are well aware that he is lying by saying 12. How would you react? What are the consequences for cheating at your table? You could penalize Jack by enforcing penalties to future rolls or some other type of in-game mechanic to discourage cheating. However, if you ignore the cheating or just give out a friendly warning, it may not be enough of a deterrent to prevent future cheating. Finally, even with clearly-outlined consequences for cheating, impulsive cheating, which refer to the tendency to act without considering the logical consequences of one’s cheating actions, can also appear at your table.
If the first step is to acknowledge that cheating can occur, then the second step is to plan to prevent cheating from affecting your game. There are a variety of factors you and your game may contribute to cheating behavior. Simple matters such as seating arrangement can have a big impact on whether or not a player cheats. If the most competitive and impulsive player is the furthest from you at the table, then perhaps change the seating order to keep that player closer to your location. If you are concerned about players fudging die rolls, then encourage players to roll out in the open for all to see. There can be no question on a roll if you are able to view the player’s actions. It can also be helpful to model this behavior by rolling in the open so players know you are also not cheating them.
There are differing opinions about whether the Game Master should roll out in the open or not, but rolling in the open is one method to reduce the likelihood of your players cheating in your game. Rolling in the open will increase your level of credibility at the table. Your credibility is defined by your players’ perceptions of your competence, trustworthiness and caring. It is likely that players who perceive you as being highly credible will be less likely to engage in cheating behaviors. But the opposite is also true, if your ability to run a game is questioned by your group, then cheating is more likely. Think about your style in terms of how you organize the game. Are you late to sessions? Do you cancel sessions often or at the last minute? Do you get distracted and involved in side conversations that take away from the flow of the game? Do you not pay attention to your players when they are acting in the game?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you may be conveying a level of disrespect to your players. As a result, they may not view your level of credibility as high, and may be more likely to cheat in your game. Be mindful of how you are treating your players; if you are heavy-handed or unfair, then your players may respond by cheating.
It is also helpful to know the traits, abilities and characteristics of the player characters in the game, but this can be incredibly difficult in some game systems. For example, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition offers players the option of 40 races, 64 classes, 3,066 feats, 7,791 powers, 9,014 items, 547 Paragon Paths and 107 Epic Destinies. I’m not a math wizard, but I believe a 30th Level character could be any one of over a quintillion combinations. I once joked that my players could create various powers or abilities on the fly at my table because there are so many options available and I do not have the time to ensure all of them are legal.
The good news is that you will likely play with less than 10 players, so keeping track of each character’s information is less daunting. If your game system has character sheets, request a copy of them so you can be familiar with the player’s options in and out of combat. This does not mean you should always second guess your players, but it can help you run a smoother game and it is likely to speed up play as you will have less need to check applicable rules for characters’ powers. In closing, if you are familiar with each character’s strengths and weaknesses, then you will have a better indication if any shenanigans are attempted by your players!
- Acknowledge that players – even adults, including close family and long-time friends – may attempt to cut corners and cheat during a roleplaying game. Various situational factors can lead to collective and impulsive cheating. Be aware that it can take place at your table.
- Actively plan to prevent cheating at your table. First, set a positive example for your players by not cheating yourself. Do not skew the results to allow yourself to get “one last cool attack” with your monster if it should already be dead. One possible solution is to make all rolls at the table in the open, including your rolls as the Game Master.
- Second, respect your players and their time. If you are scheduling the games, be prepared to start on time. Arriving late and showing up for the session unprepared communicates to players that you may not care about the group or take the game seriously. Take steps to increase your credibility with the group of players.
- Third, be knowledgeable of the abilities of the player characters in the game. There is no need to memorize all of the statistics for each player character at your table, but a general understanding of each character will likely speed up the action, limit potential rule discussions and prevent cheating.
- Finally, speak openly to your group if you are worried that cheating could be taking place in your game. Ensure that all players are aware of the consequences of cheating, which can range from something light-hearted (“Your treachery has angered the gods, and you suffer -1 to all future rolls for the rest of the night”) to something more serious (“Cheating will result in a warning with the second occurrence resulting in being asked to leave the gaming group”).
- Remind everyone that you are playing a game to have fun. If an ultra-competitive vibe develops in the group, ask yourself how you are contributing to that environment. Work to ensure that players are primarily concerned about hanging out and enjoying a good time; not solely on “winning” the game.