When Players Cheat: Game Master Tips to Keep Them in Line — RPT#491
From: Scott J. Compton
I’d like to talk to you about a touchy subject, which I’m going to call, “the cheating player.” Have you ever stopped to think about why some players will go to great lengths to cheat in a role-playing game?
They use older or weighted dice, forget to remove hit points, play dumb on how to subtract, cast a spell already previously cast, call out a rolled number that’s actually another number, or even seek out and memorize the module you are currently running.
Direct Confrontations Against Cheaters
The last thing a game master desires is to directly confront the player and outright say, I know you’re cheating. That often leads to tensions between the GM and player, as well as other players who may favor or empathize with the cheater’s complaints behind the scenes.
However, a direct method can be the best method if it’s handled in a mature and polite way, and everyone is aware of it without any finger pointing.
Blanket statements just before a game starts can be something like, “Welcome, I’d like to set some ground rules. Even though I know all of you are honest, I’ve had games in the past where I’ve seen players cheat. I won’t tolerate cheating because we’re all playing a game, and another player’s cheating can actually hurt other players in unforeseen ways. Just as you expect me, the game master, to run the game honestly, I expect the same from you as well. There are many methods that are commonly used, and I have an eye for them, such as quickly picking up the dice after they are rolled, or not keeping track of number changes accurately.”
When the game master says these types of things initially, it establishes a candid outlook and shows GM experience as well. As the campaign unfolds, if a cheater is discovered, the GM can remind the players a second time, without pointing fingers, that “a case of cheating has occurred last game, but it’s no big deal because it was an unintentional action, so I’ll let it slide. But if it happens again, I’ll let the player know directly what is happening. Please be aware and cautious of your actions to play as honestly as possible. Also, if you feel you’ve cheated and didn’t intend it, come talk to me at a later time.”
Even if the specific cheater denies it until eternity, the GM usually knows the situation at hand. Even if the game master does not have conclusive evidence, there are other threats that can be imposed to reduce cheating that doesn’t cause much disruption.
If a game master owns a webcam and the computer is near where the game transpires, ask the players if it is okay to have them recorded so footage can be reviewed at a later time to remember what may have transpired. Surveillance helps to prevent cheaters. However, it can be bad if some players feel camera-shy, so check with your group first.
Tell A Story as A Warning
Working into the conversation at some point the cheating- example helps to quash the cheater from trying it a second time.
For instance, if the cheater is nudging the dice after rolling to make another number appear, the game master could concoct something like:
“You know, that reminds me about a funny thing that happened a long time ago! When I was at GenCon back in 1994, I was in a game where this one player kept nudging the dice after every roll because the game master’s vision was horrible. It was fun to watch, but another player that was really honest sitting next to him ratted him out after the game and told the GM what was going on…”
This type of ‘player to player’ threat can often be effective since the player may start to fear the eyes of other players in addition to the GM’s eyes.
Track One PC Per Game
GM rule verification excuses. The GM needs to have on-hand the stats and numbers of all of the player characters, as well as NPCs and monsters. But if the GM simply tracks one character per session, it can be an effective means of keeping everyone inline.
Similar to a random airport check, the GM can randomly ask a player from time to time, “I have your hit points at 38 at the moment…is that correct?” Or when the game first starts up, the GM can simply run down the current hit points of all characters, verifying if his numbers are updated correctly.
The more specific in this case, the better, because it makes it appear all numbers are known to the GM.
For example, when a character is just about to use a skill, the GM could say, “I see your Sensing Skill is 12 now that you leveled up.” This makes it hard for the cheating player to use that method of cheating if the player feels the GM is extremely knowledgeable with the stats of all of the characters.
Seven Years of Confusion
Some players are bookworms of pre-made modules. They memorize every last secret door, how to best approach a monster, and where to find the rarest of treasure hordes.
Here is a tip to counteract players who appear to have advanced knowledge of situations. In the places where the cheater thinks there is something of significance, have magical mirror fragments in that place instead. Each piece shows a reflection of only the cheater’s character. You can do what you like with these mirror fragments. Make them cursed, for example, so fragments cannot leave the PC’s possession. When other characters look into the mirror, make it clear they don’t get any reflection at all.
As the cheater assembles the mirror fragments, he sees more of his character within it, but notices that his character is animating and looking for something as if the reflection is a new character itself. Once most of the mirror fragments are completely assembled, the character realizes he’s assembling an extraordinarily greedy and possessive version of himself.
The mirror can show many things depending on what you’d like for the particular campaign, such as the character seeing the actual objects expected where the mirror fragment was found, but only to see that object snatched away by something else due to the character’s greed.
When the character goes to someone to get the mirror analyzed, the character learns seven years of bad luck has befallen him, and this is going to be a time of barren poverty due to karmic debt. As a subplot, a knowledgeable mage suggests there is a way to remove the curse earlier than seven years, but it will take great, personal sacrifices, such as donations to temples, looking out for others in need, and so forth – acts that are extremely selfless.[Comment from Johnn: This is a weird tip from Scott, lol. It’s a bit passive aggressive for my taste. I like his other suggestions below better, as I think changing things around teaches players that reading modules will be a waste of time. So, rather than adopting a punishment mindset, just remove the benefits the cheating used to have.
I’ve left this idea in, though, as it might inspire you with some different way to counter a module-memorizer.]
Although it will take more time and effort to research on the GM’s part, find additional modules similar in ‘setting and difficulty rating’ to your main module. Places in the module that are more compartmentalized, like rooms, groves, and specific places can be torn away from the main module and substituted with another.
If you’d rather leave the module’s geography intact, it might be useful to use an add-on system of expanding the areas around it by adding a door or link here and there, and then moving some of the monsters and rewards into those add- ons.
Varying up the main module with offshoots from similar modules will create a unique experience. Keep good notes about what you’ve done (whether you’ve substituted, subtracted or added on) to the main module so that in future adventures nothing is forgotten.
This is probably the first idea that comes to mind. Mix up the module. Instead of thinking about details that can be changed (this is usually the first instinct), think about a giant element that would alter the entire module.
For instance, a wizard went through the module three years ago and destroyed the monsters. Now, three years later when the party of adventurers appear, there are strange magic’s around (due to the wizard) as well as new monsters that feed on the residue of the wizard’s magic.
Anything that adjusts and changes the overall ecosystem of an area helps to alter things, creates a new history since the ecological event has occurred, and transplants new inhabitance into the area with new types of goodies.
Cheaters can crush an entire gaming group if it gets out of hand (or if cheating catches on as an accepted behavior). If the game master has already stated the cheating policy for the game ahead of time, and it’s still happening, drastic action may be needed to nip it in the bud.
If the cheater is ruining the game for the game master and players, the GM may need to take action and improvise by saying to all players at once:
“It’s hard to start the game out this way today, but it’s been brought to my attention by another player that there could be cheating happening among us. I’m not one to put blame on anyone and I still don’t suspect it. Although I hope no one is cheating, I would like to give you some examples of how one might be cheating (listed out).
Ultimately, cheating ruins the fun and storylines for me and for everyone playing in the interactive story. I do not give the NPCs an extra advantage and I attempt to be as fair as possible so we can have the best experience possible. I know all of you are upstanding, decent people. It’s still unclear if cheating is happening outright.
It’s a common temptation to fudge a little or cheat in situations that really count. If the habit is not contained early on, the behavior can get worse, which is something to avoid.”
If the cheating continues, the GM may need to eradicate the problem with a direct warning, and maybe even a real suspension or dismissal of the player. Sometimes it cannot be avoided, depending on the maturity level of the player.
I encourage you to come up with your own anti-cheater methods. This article I wrote may seem harsh, but if you let your players cheat it will only get worse in the future. Not only will you lose control of the game’s balance, you will ultimately look back on those adventures as being second- rate. Do not allow anyone to downgrade your campaign into a hollow, sugar-coated, meaningless experience.
If I was a player and knew another player was cheating (and the game was going well), I’d feel like I was spending time with people who have issues and are immature. As a result, if I saw it on a constant basis, I’d probably confront that person alone and ask, “come on, what’s up?” and explain to him why it undermines the fun. If the GM allowed it too, I know I’d bail and find a different group due to the favoritism.
The aspects of cheating in video games is an interesting analogy to the role-player. If a video game designer allows the player to get through every level without any difficulty for the player, then the player wouldn’t enjoy himself and never go out to spend the $49. Games made without challenges are not really games, but more like mindless activities.
Game masters can explain to their players that players who enable the cheats in a video game right when they buy it are the players that are not as good as the other ones because they are not learning anything. Also have players contemplate why designers have created easy, medium and hard difficulty levels in video games at all, and why a player would choose anything above easy.
Challenges are also at the root of our human feeling of accomplishment. Explain that games without challenges (or minimized challenges because of cheating) diminish the overall fun as well as the feeling the reward was meaningful.
Any board game that requires you to roll the dice would not be a game if the randomness was eliminated. If all a player did was roll the dice and the number came up the same each time, yes it could be fun for a moment or two, and the player may feel empowered, but soon the player would be bored knowing that every outcome would be the same old bland thing. Ultimately, the player’s strategy would be non-existent and there wouldn’t be any meaning to playing the game.
Cheaters don’t understand this because they are just making the game more bland with more expected outcomes. Characters without challenges, obstacles or the need to improvise or use tactics become godlike, and boredom ensues.
If a player wishes that type of powertrip, this is my last piece of advice. “Why don’t you play some solitaire at home and cheat, then come back later and tell me about it. Within 5 minutes, you’ll feel like you’re wasting your time. When you cheat in your gaming group, understand you’re wasting everyone’s time.”
This analogy is at the heart of why people don’t spend a lot of time playing a game of chess against oneself. If one brain knows both sides of an outcome, then there is no challenge. Without challenge, you’re no longer playing a meaningful game. This is why the mature player can accept any outcome when playing a game, whether it is deemed winning or losing. The mature player also understands that experiencing the conditions that lead to losing will help prevent losing in the future.
GMs need to be mindful of setting up situations that allow for success *and* failure. Not providing enough failure makes the game easy, which is a reduction in overall challenge and minimization of the feeling of overcoming obstacles and justifiably earning rewards.
In campaigns where the GM just lets everything be a cakewalk, players get bored and feel like they are almost cheating because rewards have been given too easily and strategy hasn’t been required. The players feel like they are in the backseat and not making a difference.
Likewise, overly hard situations can make players feel they are being treated unfairly. This can drive players down that dark path of cheater if they think there is no other alternative to win except by cheating.
This is why it is important for mature players and mature GMs to have conversations about the challenge levels so proper balance is maintained. Getting player feedback is important (both during game and after a game), since the GM can often be tied to the goals of the campaign and not keep in mind the outlook of the players.
As a final tip, this is where it would be good to pass out an evaluation form after the game that are anonymous, which could look something like this:
- % of role playing to combat: More Roleplaying? More Combat? Balance good?
- Challenge levels: Too hard? Too easy? Just about right? Recommendations?
- Rewards given: Not enough? Too many? Just about right?
- Clarity of goals at hand? Too many goals offered? Not enough? Just right? More direction needed?
- Game system complaints: Please list.
- Other comments that could benefit the GM: Please list. (Scott has been a video game and RPG designer for the past 14 years. His profile can be found here at IMDB: Scott J. Compton and his personal website is http://www.attackthedarkness.com).
A Brief Word from Johnn
Tips Request: City Play
I’m writing tips about GMing cities. So far, I have:
- Generating NPCs Fast
- Faction Play
- Scale, Movement, Pacing
Do you have any tips on GMing city-based campaigns? Hit reply, send in your tips, and I’ll append them to the article. Thanks!
Cheaters Never Prosper
This week’s article is a tricky one. I debated putting it in the ezine. I haven’t gamed with a cheater in decades.
However, I know other GMs are plagued with players who take the game too seriously, who hate to lose, or who have low self-confidence.
I’m still on the fence about this issue, but in case you have a cheating player hopefully Scott’s advice can help, so that settles it. In addition, this topic gets formal treatment in the newsletter now, and it can flesh the archives out with this topic.
If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it.
Just One Day Left to Enter:
Pick Pockets Contest = Win NBOS Software
The contest theme is items you’d find when picking pockets.
But there’s a twist: add an interesting plot or encounter
hook to the pocket contents.
Thanks to new ezine sponsor NBOS, three winners will be selected at random and each gets their pick of one NBOS software title. Visit to see what GM software you can choose if you win.
How To Enter
Deadline is Monday, May 31. Email entries to [email protected]
Each entry is one pick pocket item that has an interesting hook or detail that would enhance a GM’s game.
Example Entries, Item + Hook:
A napkin with a crude map on it, and the name of the tavern where the napkin came from.
A claw from a monster the PCs are about to quest for.
A pair of ladies’ gloves with the initials A.L. on them.
A key with a symbol of Kane on it.
A rock made of some strange flecked material with the word “Barakus” written on the bottom.
For Your Game
Sources of Wealth
Source: GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
The list below is an excerpt from the book, and the context is Power Bases – where does an NPC get his power, resources or means?
Pick or roll an NPC’s wealth source and then let it inspire world building, faction creation, personality, relationships, goals, and actions.
- A building (building value plus possible rent income)
- A business
- A foreign trade mission
- A road or bridge (and collecting tolls)
- A school (and collecting fees or services)
- Bank accounts (earning interest)
- Collectibles (such as books, spells, monster pelts)
- Collecting taxes
- Financially supporting a ruler or politician
- Hiring PCs for quests (where they return with something of value)
- Lending (and charging interest)
- Livestock and animals
- Permanent magic items
- Slaves, indentured servants, serfs
- Stocks, bonds, and credit notes
- Vehicles and ships
The Power of Organization
Have you ever had that moment while GMing when you realize you forgot something important? Not just important, but integral to the plot? You panic for a second while you think up workarounds to fix your mistake, or simply write it off and fly by the seat of your pants for the rest of the night.
You can fix the mistake, but what can you do to make sure it never happens again? Be organized.
Organization seems to be a dreaded word to some people. It’s like a black hole that sucks in time and energy and emits misery and frustration. I’m telling you now that organizing doesn’t need to be like that. Organization before and during your session can save you time, make you work faster and easier, and best of all, takes no more time or work then being unorganized.
Here are some of my favorite campaign organization methods.
Keep a checklist of your session
Checklists are an amazing way to keep track of your night’s session. Write down all the important plot points, new NPCs you need to introduce, and encounters the players should have, and check them off as the session progresses.
Always leave extra space towards the bottom to write campaign notes on unexpected actions the players took. This checklist gives you a quick look back on what happened or didn’t happen during that session.
After the session ends, review your checklist and add anything that didn’t happen and is still relevant onto your next session’s checklist.
I keep old checklists in my campaign binder. They are an amazing resource to use in long-term campaigns.
Outline your session before you start writing
Outlines are just as important when crafting your weekly campaign sessions as they were back during high school in your English class. They help you to see the big picture while you are planning your game, which keeps you from elaborating endlessly on the small stuff and instead concentrate on what’s really important.
For example, once I detailed every person in the inn my campaign started in, just in case my players talked to them. The players ended up spending 5 minutes in the inn, while I spent at least an hour on those details.
Use your outline to keep things in perspective. Never lose sight of the big picture. After all, you can always go back in and fill in the smaller details later on. Remember, time is not a renewable resource; we only have so much of it in a day. Spend your time wisely while creating so you can have more to spend doing the important things (like enjoying a good book, spending time with friends and family, or simply relaxing).
Keep a campaign binder
Keeping a campaign binder might sound like a basic item, but there are still GMs out there who don’t do it. Having everything for your campaign in one place keeps you organized and ready to play at a moment’s notice.
Use tabs or folders inside your binder to organize the content.
In my campaign binder I keep a section for up-to-date copies of my player’s character sheets, a section for my previous session’s outline and checklist (I staple them together so I always know what goes with what), a section for notes and character sheets for NPC and monsters, and a section to keep all my future notes and ideas.
I keep the back of the binder filled with loose leaf paper and extra character sheets, so I’m never short on what I need for a campaign.
Keep a notebook and pen with you, always
This is as much of a life habit as it is about GMing organization. I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping a small notebook and pen with me at all times. It allows me to jot down notes about campaign ideas no matter where I am (heck, the first half of this article was written while I was on a walk through the woods).
Whenever you get home you can add the new ideas to your campaign binder, clearing out your notebook for new ideas.
I use a moleskine notebook (these amazing little buggers will withstand anything) and a fisher bullet space pen (when capped, it’s half the size of a normal pen but expands to full size, and will even write upside down).
Chicago D&D Examiner: Organizing Your Campaign for Free or Cheap. This is a great overview of some of the electronic tools you can use to organize your campaigns. http://www.examiner.com/x-7763Chicago-Dungeons–Dragons-Examiner~y2009m5d22-Organizing-your-campaign-for-free-or-cheap
Building a New Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Diary #13: Organizing. This is a great example of how to organize a campaign binder, it may not be ideal for you but it can definitely give you some ideas. http://www.rpgdigest.com/2008/02/25/building-a-new-dungeons-and-dragons-campaign-diary-13 organizing/
GM Binder Tips for the Organized Gamemaster. A gem from Johnn, this is the best resource I have found on creating a DM’s binder. Even if you think you’re organized now, take a look here and you’ll probably find a new idea or two.