Player Cheating

Gamblers on the ship of fools

Player Cheating

There are three basic motives for cheating: (1) The desire to “win,” (2) the desire to be better than other characters and (3) the desire to save a character from death.


The desire to “win”

This is a motive most common to new players, especially those who have been suckled on video games where killing monsters and accumulating riches and power is the goal of the game. These players haven’t learned that roleplaying is its own reward—that the “winner” of the roleplaying game is the one who has the most involved interactions with others and who lives the most interesting story throughout the campaign. In a really good campaign, every player is a winner.

To reduce this motive, GMs and other players should place less value on wealth, goods and titles and emphasize derring-do and roleplaying. Experience points should be divided evenly among players, not given individually to the person who killed the bad guy. The players also should consider dividing treasure evenly to emphasize teamwork over self-interest.

The desire to be better than other characters

This motive is similar to the first, but the player’s motive is to outdo the other players—to have the toughest, most skillful, wealthiest character in the group. These players are putting individual success over group success.

To reduce this motive, the GM must give every player a chance to shine—my gaming group calls this “putting the character in the spotlight” or, sometimes, “putting the character on the hot seat.” When creating a new adventure, the GM should try to develop situations that will emphasize each character’s strengths. The spotlighted skills don’t have to be class-specific. If you have a character with a proficiency in rock climbing, provide a cliff to scale; if you have a player with the gift of gab, provide a guard to fast-talk. If every player knows that at some point or another s/he’ll be given a chance to star, the motivation to try to outdo everyone else will be reduced. In addition, praise should be given equally to everybody who does something praiseworthy, and should be given in particular to excellent plan-makers and roleplayers, rather than excellent dice-rollers.

The desire to save a character from death

This motive can be found across the board. Almost every gamer has been tempted to cheat at least once to save a beloved character from certain doom.

The GM can make a point of fudging rolls to avoid arbitrary player character death, and — depending on the game genre — might reduce this motive by making the chances of coming back to life reasonable. Another possibility is that the GM might offer rewards for particularly cinematic deaths that the player’s next character can enjoy, so at least going out in a blaze of glory offers some material recompense.

Method & Opportunity

There are three basic methods for cheating in the game: (1) Reading GM-only works, (2) lying about die rolls and (3) fudging numbers. I will only present the methods here—ways to reduce the opportunity to use these methods are presented under the Opportunity section.

Reading GM-only works

If the player knows the GM is using a module, s/he can fairly easily purchase or download the module and read through it to get an idea of what’s coming up. This method is most likely to be associated with the first two motives—the desire to win and the desire to be better than other characters.

To reduce the opportunity to use this method, the GM could try to avoid using published works, avoid revealing the name of the published adventure, or to change the adventure enough so that reading through it will do little to help the player.

Lying about die rolls

Because die rolls are the basis of many games, this method is ubiquituous and can be associated with all three motives. There are many ways to lie about die rolls. The player can roll the dice far away from others to prevent the GM or other players from seeing what was rolled. The player can use crystal dice, which are hard to read from a distance. The dice can be rolled and quickly swept up again before anyone has a chance to see the roll. The player can roll the dice over and over during the game until a good roll is achieved, and then let the dice sit, claiming that roll the next time a roll is required. The player can choose the best number when a die is cocked. The player can use 2d10 to roll percentages and arbitrarily change the “high” die according to whatever percentage is most desirable (e.g., an 8 and a 2 can be read as 82 or 28). This system of failing to designate a high die can be used in a number of other ways, such as rolling 1d6 and 1d10 for 1d20, failing to designate for the d6 whether 1-3 is “0” and 4-6 is “1” … or odds are “0” and evens are “1.”

The best way to reduce this opportunity is to game around a table, so that players are close to each other and can monitor each others’ die rolls. Players who are spread out over a living room or around different tables have too much opportunity to cheat.

The GM should also set a few ground rules for rolling dice, e.g. “no rolling dice until a roll is called for,” “the GM must witness all rolls,” “don’t pick up the rolled dice until your turn is over,” “a cocked die is always rerolled,” and “always call the high die before the roll is made.” Some or all of these—or other rules—can be set before the game begins to deal with whatever problem the GM or players perceive.

Players who are concerned about somebody lying about their die rolls should make a point of watching whenever a roll is made—this can be done naturally, usually without giving offense. After all, everybody should be interested in whether or not a saving throw is made or a strike succeeds!

Fudging numbers

This method can involve padding a character’s experience points or failing to subtract lost hit points. The player who does the first is probably motivated by the desire to win or to be better than other players, and the player who does the second is probably motivated by the desire to keep a character from dying. Other ways to fudge numbers include adding up armor or resistance bonuses incorrectly. If caught, the player can usually plead that the mistake was an accident. A player might also lie about the types of equipment that s/he possesses.

This is the hardest method to foil without becoming a police officer. The DM can ask to keep all character sheets between games (in addition to preventing cheating, this gives the DM a chance to study each sheet when working on the next adventure), but this does little to prevent in-game numbers fudging.

One technique that both prevents cheating and serves as a useful device in major combat situations is to set up a white board or sheet of paper that lists each character’s name and armor and combat abilities and defenses. Hit points and resistance rolls can be added easily enough. This gives the DM a quick reference and makes it harder to lie about things like hit points.

To help keep players honest about their possessions, including money, one GM I’ve known made a point of crowing “mark it off!” whenever an item was used or destroyed. Although this doesn’t necessarily keep a player from cheating, it certainly reduces the opportunity, since it calls attention to the fact that the item is gone.

If players want to cheat bad enough, they will. There’s a limit to what you can do to prevent it — don’t drive yourself crazy trying to prevent it! Take reasonable steps to prevent it, and after that, just try to enjoy the game.

Originally written August 30, 1998

Image Source: Ship of Fools, 1498

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
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