GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we covered the importance of props and tactile senses and this week we investigate what to do about cheating, dice fudging, and why it can happen.
It happens at tables with your best friends, and it absolutely happens at convention RPG tables. An innocent tilt of the die to turn an 8 into a 10, or perhaps miscounting a modifier to make that critical hit is cheating, and it happens in all aspects of the gaming community. I’ve been guilty of doing it myself over a decade in the past which gives me a unique perspective on motives and why it happens. It’s a touchy subject and often times players and GM’s react poorly to its occurrence. Over the years of storytelling, I’ve had to handle cheating on both sides of the screen and worked with players to put an end to it.
Trust is a fragile thing and once broken it will take many sessions to rebuild. Yet every time a player lands a natural 20 in a critical scene all of us lean over with that aghast “No way!” challenge. When a GM hears a particularly high modifier like a +25 on a stealth check, she may suddenly wonder just how a player got there. Dice fudging isn’t just for success, however; sometimes players will intentionally botch for a more compelling outcome or comedy. It’s not just players fudging numbers though: storytellers are notorious for soft balling their dice rolls behind the screen.
The Methods of Numerical Obfuscation
What are all the ways that players and storytellers can mess with the dice rolls? It’s pretty innumerable, but the most common ones aren’t on single die rolls. Pound-for-pound if a player is rolling a single d20, have a little faith that they are correct. The shenanigans are more likely to occur when adding up the damage. Miscounting math is the most common method. It’s easy to cover up a mistake when adding up 10d6 fireballs and no one is ever going to catch it. Many times, this particular sin is benign or unintentional (math can be hard with that many dice, we all know).
Modifier manipulation is the second most common method where a player will erase a number on their sheet and scoot it up just a tiny amount. This is a common problem in organized play leagues or any sort of game where players take their sheets home and play with new strangers on a weekly basis. If there is any sort of competition on the line or stress has been added to the equation for a challenge or a tournament—then it’s almost a certainty that someone will do this. Unlike competitive card games, RPG storyline tournaments for fiction outcomes are not judged the same way. Other methods can be writing down class features wrong, or leaving out details about the negative aspects of a spell or how an enemy can resist an effect. It’s important to understand the means and methods players do use, just so you can be aware when it happens and then start questioning why.
Why Players Do It
Over the years I’ve come to learn that if a player is hellbent on cheating in a mutual game of collaborative storytelling—then that is probably the least of their problems. The most common reason I’ve seen it happen is the player thought it would be cool at that moment: their character getting a massive fireball in an epic scene so they fudge the damage roll, or they just rolled a natural 1 on a saving throw when they wanted it to go another way. These are ultimately small victories in the grand scheme of a campaign, but dice fudging comes from the pressure to do well; nobody wants to let their friends down, and everyone desires to beat the objective. Players get emotionally attached to their factions, their characters, and the imaginary world and sometimes—can find themselves so swept up in the action they forget why it’s harmful.
In LARP scenarios or games that encourage PVP, cheating takes on its darker guise. In Vampire: The Masquerade games across the country, players hit with the Malkavian discipline of Dementation routinely never play it out. Lie detection powers were known to cause massive fits before the creators had the wisdom to remove most of them. It all happens because there is an intense desire to win, or more precisely, win at any cost. Sometimes when the clan or faction in the fictional world is devious or cunning, a player will take those traits on themselves to push the boundaries.
A storyteller can fix all of this. Not by confronting the players and challenging them on their behavior or public shaming, but by listening to the real reason why players are doing it—investment. Players who don’t care, don’t often cheat, and as a storyteller, there is a major way to prevent all of this.
Win Or Lose, The Story Goes On
Make it known in both announcements at the game, and with actions inside the game itself, that the story goes on if you win or lose an encounter. A total party kill at the table doesn’t mean the game is over, it means that you begin your journey as ghosts in the afterlife for example. Your characters are the protagonists of the tale and thus will continue on in one way or another. Even if permanent death is on the table, make it known that the player will not be punished (but instead rewarded) for a glorious and honest death.
In many game systems when you die, you return with less experience. You see this mechanic in organized LARP’s with floor XP, and you see it with simple resurrection spells bringing characters back at a lower level. Toss them out. Punishing players for being honest and suffering a loss or having an emotional failure isn’t going to bear any positive results. Let players build new characters that can help the party or bring in compelling fully experienced characters into LARP.
The greatest investment a player gives the storyteller is their time and crafting a world where the failures are just as compelling as the wins. Creating those experiences for your players will drastically reduce cheating at your table. It happens in the first place is to create a small victory, but creating rich, rewarding experiences no matter the dice outcome is one tool GMs have to negate fudged dice.
What GM topics have we not covered yet? Throw your suggestions or topics in the comments below!
MORE RPG GOODNESS
- A Guide For Using Digitally-Created DungeonFog Maps in Engaging Ways!
- Beyond Vampire: Shedding Light On The World of Darkness!
- Bring A Fantasy 1950’s To Life With The Americana RPG!
Image Credit: Critical Role
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.