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The Problem of Cheating

There is some difficulty in attempting to discourage player cheating in a decade in which the majority of undergraduate students admit that they have cheated at least once in their college career, corporate embezzlers are enrolled in tennis camp—er, low-security prisons—and the president of the United States shows little to no remorse for having cheated on his marriage. However, there are very good reasons why neither players nor DMs should tolerate a cheater—the cheating player causes resentment among other players, annoys the DM and reduces everybody's enjoyment in the game and trust in each other.
Experts say there are three factors involved in the commission of a crime: motive, method and opportunity. The motive is the reason to commit the crime. The method is the way to commit the crime. The opportunity is the chance to commit the crime. DMs and honest players can and should take steps to reduce motives and opportunities for cheating in their campaigns.


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, DMs and other players should place less value on wealth, magic items 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 monster or claimed the Staff of the Magi. The players also should consider dividing treasure evenly (see my earlier essay on Divvying Up the Loot for some ideas on how to do this) 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 DM 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 DM should try to develop situations that will emphasize each character's strengths—a chance for fighters to fight, thieves to sneak or pick locks, mages to use their spells, clerics to apply their religious knowledge, and so forth. 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.
Fortunately, AD&D is a game where death is seldom permanent, and this motive can be reduced. First, the DM must remember that players don't want their characters to die. My feature on Ask Not For Whom the Die Rolls discussed how DMs can avoid arbitrarily killing characters.
The DM can also reduce this motive by making the chances of coming back to life reasonable. Raise Dead or Resurrection spells should not be beyond the financial reach of most mid- to high-level characters. Most churches are willing to take magic items in lieu of cash, some may exchange a Raise Dead for a promise of help in the future (this is especially useful for low-level characters and provides the DM with an easy way to motivate characters to go on an adventure at some point in the future), and many churches will provide discounts to devout members. Because time is an issue for the Raise Dead spell, our DM created a special magic Preserve salve that can be rubbed over a corpse to preserve it in a sort of Temporal Stasis—necessary if the characters face a long trek back to the nearest high-level temple!
Players can help reduce this motive by being willing to go out of their way to bring characters back to life. After all, it may be their character who dies next, so there's good reason to develop a norm of everybody pitching in money for a Raise Dead each time a member of the adventuring group dies.


There are three basic methods for cheating in the game: (1) Reading DM-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 DM-only works. If the player knows the DM is using a module, s/he can purchase the module or borrow it from somebody else and read through it to get an idea of what's coming up. If the player knows a certain monster is going to be encountered (perhaps the main villain is a shadow dragon), s/he can read the monster's description in the Monstrous Compendium. 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.

Lying about die rolls. Because die rolls are the basis of the game, 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 DM or other players from seeing what was rolled. The player can use crystal dice, which are very 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."

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 class or saving throw bonuses incorrectly. If caught, the player can usually plead that the mistake was an accident. A player might also lie about the number of healing potions, arrows, or other types of equipment that s/he possesses.



The opportunity to read DM-only works. This method is used most often when an adventure continues from one session to the next, giving the player a chance to "do some homework" on the dungeon or monsters.
To reduce the opportunity to use this method, the DM should try to avoid using published works. However, most DMs are too busy to create original dungeons for every session, so the alternatives are to avoid revealing the name of the module or Dungeon adventure being used or to change the module enough so that reading through it will do little to help the player. The first way of reducing opportunity can be difficult, especially if the players buy modules for the DM (big boxed modules are standard Christmas gifts to the DM in my gaming group). The second is the best, and in fact there are few DMs who will run a module exactly as it was written. For example, when my adventuring group went through Dragon Mountain, we ended up facing a retriever instead of a dragon in the final showdown! We would have preferred the dragon.
The DM can change NPCs, monsters, traps and treasure to keep players from gaining any significant advantage from reading through an adventure before the game. In addition, a DM who suspects that a player is reading monster descriptions before a game can give the monster special abilities, strategies, or magic items that will help reduce the advantage the player has gained from reading its description.
As an aside, the players in my group have long since stopped subscribing to Dungeon magazine because the DMs in our group use it. Since both my husband and I are DMs at various times, we look over each new issue that comes in and initial the adventures that seem most appropriate for our groups. Neither of us will read an adventure that we have not initialed.

The opportunity to lie about die rolls. 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 DM can nip cheating in the bud by insisting on witnessing all character-generation rolls. A good way to do this is to call a "character generation session" in which everybody gets together to work on their characters at the same time, allowing the DM and other players to monitor the rolls.
The DM should also set a few ground rules for rolling dice, e.g. "no rolling dice until a roll is called for," "the DM 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 DM 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!
Players who are concerned about being accused of cheating should make their rolls in the open and let the dice sit, use dice that can be easily read from a distance, and stick to a method of rolling mixed dice (for example, when I roll percentages, I always call the palest die the high die—when I use my own dice it's the clear die, but if I need to use somebody else's dice, I simply make sure to use dice of different colors, one paler than the other).

The opportunity to fudge numbers. 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.
DMs can keep track of experience points themselves without too much difficulty. However, it's considerably more work for them to keep track of each character's hit points and saving throws, especially during combat situations. I certainly wouldn't want to bother with it, although DMs who use computers as they run a game might be able to set up a simple program to keep track of these numbers.
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 class and special abilities and defenses. Hit points and saving throws can be added easily enough. This gives the DM a quick reference ("what armor class does the monster need to hit?", "is the mage's Stoneskin still up?") and lets players monitor their spells, erasing each as it goes down or expires.
To help keep players honest about their possessions, including money, one DM in our group makes a point of saying "mark it off!" whenever an item is 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 somebody wants to cheat hard enough, s/he will. There's a limit to what you can do to prevent it. But reducing the opportunity for cheating is part of the DM's many responsibilities, and these suggestions should help.

originally written August 30, 1998


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