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Can the GM cheat?

S'mon

Legend
Seldom. It's usually anti-climatic. Luke Skywalker does not die to stormtrooper fire.

But Obi-Wan Kenobi dies! And the story goes on. I think most people find that unexpected events including NPC deaths can strengthen rather than derail the narrative, because in an RPG the narrative is created in play, not pre-scripted.
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Folks,

We have had, in the past, threads on "GM cheating" and dice fudging that have devolved into folks beating their heads together for long periods for naught, amidst various folks flinging accusations of badwrongfun and such. This is one of the subjects that often leads to what I have come to call "dichotomy wars" - some (occasionally arbitrary) line is drawn in the sand, and folks line up on opposite sides trying to browbeat the other into submission.

It is okay to have an opinion on the subject. It is even okay for that opinion to be pretty much set in stone. But it'd be awful polite of you to be up-front about it, if it is so. It would help us focus on constructive discussion, rather than allowing folks to beat against brick walls to the point of frustration.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But Obi-Wan Kenobi dies! And the story goes on.

Obi-Wan's death is not unexpected. It's a fairly archetypal thing - the old master and tutor must be removed from the scene for the student to fully come into his own. As a story construct, it is older than dirt.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Seldom. It's usually anti-climatic. Luke Skywalker does not die to stormtrooper fire. I know he could in a dicey game. He could roll unlucky (or the stormtrooper could be very lucky), and yes, you could make a story around it, but it usually kills off more story than it generates.

Well, what you have to realize is that Star Wars was originally the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and how he bring on a youthful ward to go on high adventure. A few sessions into the campaign, the GM had to shift focus...
 

James Eisert

Explorer
But Obi-Wan Kenobi dies! And the story goes on. I think most people find that unexpected events including NPC deaths can strengthen rather than derail the narrative, because in an RPG the narrative is created in play, not pre-scripted.

But much like Star Wars, Obi Wans death, although unexpected to the audience, is still scripted and on purpose.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that you can make these things work, but I think it's the exception more than the rule.
 

S'mon

Legend
But much like Star Wars, Obi Wans death, although unexpected to the audience, is still scripted and on purpose.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that you can make these things work, but I think it's the exception more than the rule.

Do you actually pre-script the on-stage deaths of NPCs? Is there anything left to chance in your games, or is the story entirely pre-written?
 

Neither my players nor I play RPGs to "create a story". We play RPGs to "see what happens." Story emerges from our process of "seeing what happens." I've always hated fudging. I roll my dice right out on the table for everyone to see. My screen (when I use it) is a quick-reference tool, not a curtain to hide mischief behind. I've never been a player, but if I were, I would not play with a GM who fudges.

So can a GM cheat by fudging? I would say yes. If I were to do that, I would be cheating my players out of the impact and meaning of their decisions and the profundity of the outcomes of those decisions. Further, I would be cheating all of us out of "seeing what happens"...because we already know ahead of time, and I'd just rather watch a movie or read a book instead as it will be "better" than any story that comes out of our play (and I think our play is quite good and yields rip-roaring RPG stories!).

< Insert feel-good caveat about different strokes for different folks >
 

James Eisert

Explorer
Do you actually pre-script the on-stage deaths of NPCs? Is there anything left to chance in your games, or is the story entirely pre-written?


Nothing is written solid in a good RPG. And chance events DO happen. But timing is everything in a good story. The main point is that dicey events can ruin a better storyline in the long run, or one that has been going on for along time. Like a hero that wants revenge on an npc that has been evading the character for ages. His party meets the villan in what was to be a small encounter. A small fight ensues with the henchmen but one of the pc's (not the main pc wanting revenge) takes a shot at the vilian...scores a crit and kills him.

Now this would be no problem if they just met the villan perhaps, but this character was the bane of the one PC. It's like Superman killing the Joker. Batman fans would be ticked right?

I'm not saying you can't make it work. And perhaps even in gritty RPG it would be just fine if the idea is that everyone dies a lot, I can see that style in 1st edition D&D style play. That's the way it was and it worked, but even then people did not talk about the level 2 or 3 guys they played with. It always was the EPIC characters that seemed to survive the odds. That does not usually happen without some divine intervention from the DM.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
My screen (when I use it) is a quick-reference tool, not a curtain to hide mischief behind.
...
< Insert feel-good caveat about different strokes for different folks >

Here's a question - if it really is different strokes for different folks, does it necessarily qualify as mischief?
 

JoshDemers

First Post
I know I'm weighing in late in the game, but I think an important element is that the players need to feel like you, the GM, are on their side. I have been in very adversarial games and they are no fun. But when I'm playing a game and I feel like the GM and players are telling the same story, then there is a lot more that can be done and accepted. This can work even for "seeing what happens" sorts of games. The players still need to feel like the GM isn't out to get them, but is even rooting for them.

If the GM makes a roll with a result that is highly unlikely and thus derails the story, then I have no problem with that roll being ignored. Of course I don't want that to happen much - sometimes things go in unexpected directions. But there are also times when a story "feels" like it need to go a certain way.

In the games I've been running recently, I have made an effort to have a lot more group input. I think that addresses your "different strokes" issue. Sometimes it is better to be above board about the "cheating" so everyone knows you're trying to keep the game interesting for everyone. It gets tricky when you have huge power disparities. All the more reason, I think, to get the group in on the behind the scenes stuff so ou have buy-in from the start.
 

Kingreaper

Adventurer
Nothing is written solid in a good RPG. And chance events DO happen. But timing is everything in a good story. The main point is that dicey events can ruin a better storyline in the long run, or one that has been going on for along time. Like a hero that wants revenge on an npc that has been evading the character for ages. His party meets the villan in what was to be a small encounter. A small fight ensues with the henchmen but one of the pc's (not the main pc wanting revenge) takes a shot at the vilian...scores a crit and kills him.
Personally, I don't think this is a time for over-ruling the dice.

The player chose to take a shot. They were clearly aiming to take the villain down, defeat him; taking the success away from them seems bad to me.

Changing the exact details, e.g. having the villain be disabled rather than dead, gives the player their success, while still allowing the guy with the vendetta his moment. Superman doesn't kill the joker, but he knocks him out of the fight, and then it's bats turn.
 

Here's a question - if it really is different strokes for different folks, does it necessarily qualify as mischief?

And here's an answer - If someone poses such a question as "can the GM cheat?", is it only polite to answer with ambiguity and hedging for fear of the answer of "yes" (and the corresponding reasoning) being too incendiary or strident to digest dispassionately? Or, if someone poses that question in good faith (presumably looking for yes answers, and reasoning, just as they are for no answers), is it reasonable to divulge the philosophical disposition of my table as unequivocally "yes" and the reasoning of "it cheats players out of the meaningful impact of their decision-making on a strategic/tactical level and the corresponding narrative imposition that their decisions are supposed to drive?" In this case, mischief as "misrepresenting the player's capacity for (i) meaningful impact via strategic and tactical decisions and (ii) corresponding narrative imposition" by the vessel of illegitimate fortune resolution and circumvention of the weight of PC build choices on that equation.

Mechanically, that is my take and I stand by the reasoning. Nonetheless, this is a leisure pursuit, so, naturally, different strokes for different folks is implicitly appended at the bottom of every post where an issue is presented that might yield discord within our hobby. You can disagree and submit that the reasoning doesn't logically follow or disagree with the tenet as something that even matters to "pretend at being an elf" games. If a person is one of those folks, then they surely wouldn't qualify it as mischief as they either disagree or it doesn't matter to them (irrelevant mischief is no mischief at all). And I would still stridently, yet earnestly, disagree.
 

JamesonCourage

Adventurer
The players still need to feel like the GM isn't out to get them, but is even rooting for them.
I don't fudge, and my players know, explicitly, that I'm rooting for them. I'm always a little apologetic when one of them dies (and it always matters in-game), but I'm not going to fudge it. I've had way too many cool things come out of deaths / setbacks for me to stop it, and I'm not about to fudge things when I know they like earning their wins.

I just had a player die fairly recently (5-6 weeks ago?), and the player was happy about it. He loved that character, and even feared that he'd lose interest in the campaign if the character died. His character was a berserker / paladin type of character (I don't play D&D, so this is the closest analog), and the city he was in had been attacked by a large force outside that had already destroyed the keep with magic. The general said that they would eventually lose the fight due to morale / inferior magic, and so my player sent his character out to duel the very powerful warrior leader (his power and prowess had been well-known for quite a while in-game). But, this guy was responsible for sacrificing a fellow knight to power his ritual to destroy the keep, and his brother (a powerful warrior) had killed this PC's squire and friend during the initial assault, and the bad guy was now getting ready to attack the town, kill everyone, and burn it down (killing tens of thousands of people).

So, he goes out and gets in a one on one duel with a much higher level character, and through good luck, lots of resources, and not backing down, he killed his enemy. However, he died a few rounds afterwards due to the wounds he had sustained from the fight, in the arms of his squire's best friend (a squire to another PC). The enemy force had been united under this warrior leader, and he was the one who knew the ritual magic, so they immediately started some minor infighting, but were organized enough to retreat. In the chaos, though, two hostage knights and a few other captured good guys escaped.

Out of game, the NPC was a level 16 warrior that could transform into a beast (and he did during the fight), and the PC warrior was only level 8. But, I didn't fudge the fight; the player (and PC) knew what he was getting into, and I'm not going to throw the fight. However, like I said, good luck and expending significant resources let him kill the bad guy before dying in his friend's arms (the best friend of the man he wanted to avenge).

I think this is a great story, and my player -while initially sad about his character's death- thinks so even more than I do. Sure, this could have happened if I fudged, but my players aren't stupid guys; we're all above average in smartitude (as many RPGers are), and they can pick up on signs of fudging. But, I rolled in the open, and I was consistent with his attacks. I even showed the player the bad guy's HP when a critical hit dropped the bad guy to 1 rather than 0 or below. But, the players know that the win was earned, and that makes my players (repeat: my players) so much more invested in the game.

In this regards, if I fudged things when they think I'm not going to, I'll be cheating. It's not what we agreed to play, and it's not what they're expecting or what they want.
If the GM makes a roll with a result that is highly unlikely and thus derails the story, then I have no problem with that roll being ignored. Of course I don't want that to happen much - sometimes things go in unexpected directions. But there are also times when a story "feels" like it need to go a certain way.

In the games I've been running recently, I have made an effort to have a lot more group input. I think that addresses your "different strokes" issue. Sometimes it is better to be above board about the "cheating" so everyone knows you're trying to keep the game interesting for everyone. It gets tricky when you have huge power disparities. All the more reason, I think, to get the group in on the behind the scenes stuff so ou have buy-in from the start.
I agree about being above-board about it. If you do that, I don't think it's cheating, and it can certainly make the game better / great for a lot of players / groups. I have absolutely no problem with other people doing it, but, personally, I don't like GMs fudging my stuff, and I don't like doing it as the GM. It's all just preference, though. Which boils down to -as always- play what you like :)
 
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billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Or, if someone poses that question in good faith (presumably looking for yes answers, and reasoning, just as they are for no answers), is it reasonable to divulge the philosophical disposition of my table as unequivocally "yes" and the reasoning of "it cheats players out of the meaningful impact of their decision-making on a strategic/tactical level and the corresponding narrative imposition that their decisions are supposed to drive?" In this case, mischief as "misrepresenting the player's capacity for (i) meaningful impact via strategic and tactical decisions and (ii) corresponding narrative imposition" by the vessel of illegitimate fortune resolution and circumvention of the weight of PC build choices on that equation.

Mechanically, that is my take and I stand by the reasoning.

Except that the dice can also take away any meaningful impact of player decisions because the random generation isn't affected by them. The odd of success might be improved, but in a single trial, any efforts spent to do so may fail, leading to no difference in outcomes from the player's point of view. Example: In the Council of Thieves game I ran, the witch PC tried to scry on a particular NPC. She didn't have any of his personal effects and didn't know him so her chances were low. Still, she had the crystal ball and was willing to give it a try. Her target made his saving throw so she failed. She wanted to improve her odds so she managed to get more information on him and a personal possession, all very useful for undermining his save. Now, suppose I still managed to roll a successful saving throw? How meaningful had her choices been? How meaningful would they appear to her?

In order to make her choices meaningful (and reward a good plan), I resolved to edit that die had it come up with a successful save. That's partly how I see my job. As the GM, I exert editorial control of anything from my side of the screen (and that's a metaphorical screen, no literal screen necessary) from monster\NPC stats and actions to boxed flavor text, from traps and setting elements to, yes, dice rolls.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Mechanically, that is my take and I stand by the reasoning.

And it is a fine, if somewhat floridly written, response.

Nonetheless, this is a leisure pursuit, so, naturally, different strokes for different folks is implicitly appended at the bottom of every post where an issue is presented that might yield discord within our hobby.

And it is only here where you wander into what my dad would call, "horsehockey". :)

In a perfect world, perhaps it could be implicit. Also in a perfect world, it would always be explicit, and the written word would convey all nuance of meaning we actually intend in a finite (and even small) number of words. But, last time I checked, ice cream melted and fell off the cones, people still caught colds, and somewhere a rerun of "Who's the Boos" is playing, thus proving the world to be less than perfect.
 

S'mon

Legend
Here's a question - if it really is different strokes for different folks, does it necessarily qualify as mischief?

It's mischief/cheating if the GM hasn't told the players that he will be fudging when he deems it appropriate. If he has told his players that he reserves the right to fudge in the interests of eg a good story, then it's not cheating/mischief.
 

Jhaelen

First Post
But much like Star Wars, Obi Wans death, although unexpected to the audience, is still scripted and on purpose.
Yes, but imagine for a second that the Star Wars movies were based on the adventures of a RPG group. Then the dice would have decided that Obi Wan died and Luke survived. It might have been the other way around and the story would have been just as interesting, just different.

Now look at the original Dragonlance books: They are actually based on an RPG campaign. When they started playing that campaign the players surely didn't know who'd survive until the end. It's only after the campaign has finished that you know it and can retell the story as if it had been scripted right from the beginning.

Reading the novel you wouldn't be able to tell the difference, i.e. if it was scripted all along or if it was just the (random) outcome of how the campaign played out.

When playing a Star Wars campaign you don't play Luke who's destined to destroy the Death Star. You simply play one of several young adventurers, any of whom may turn out _after the fact_ to have been destined to destroy the Death Star. _Or_ the Death Star isn't destroyed by any of the pcs after all, and the story develops in a completely different way. To me, that's the whole point of roleplaying rather than reading a novel or watching the movie. If my character's decisions and actions cannot influence the story in any way I'd feel I'm wasting my time.
 

airwalkrr

Adventurer
Except that the dice can also take away any meaningful impact of player decisions because the random generation isn't affected by them. The odd of success might be improved, but in a single trial, any efforts spent to do so may fail, leading to no difference in outcomes from the player's point of view. Example: In the Council of Thieves game I ran, the witch PC tried to scry on a particular NPC. She didn't have any of his personal effects and didn't know him so her chances were low. Still, she had the crystal ball and was willing to give it a try. Her target made his saving throw so she failed. She wanted to improve her odds so she managed to get more information on him and a personal possession, all very useful for undermining his save. Now, suppose I still managed to roll a successful saving throw? How meaningful had her choices been? How meaningful would they appear to her?

In order to make her choices meaningful (and reward a good plan), I resolved to edit that die had it come up with a successful save. That's partly how I see my job. As the GM, I exert editorial control of anything from my side of the screen (and that's a metaphorical screen, no literal screen necessary) from monster\NPC stats and actions to boxed flavor text, from traps and setting elements to, yes, dice rolls.
I think this is a great example of the benefits of fudging. I think it is absolutely acceptable to reward players for preparation and well-executed plans. Now I might perhaps still grant the NPC some benefit if he does indeed make his second saving throw, even if I decide to overrule the primary result. Perhaps he automatically notices the scrying sensor. Perhaps he just gets an inkling that something strange is amiss. But this kind of reward-based approach to fudging is great.

In the campaign I describe in the OP, dice were less important than the players coming up with creative solutions to problems. Many encounters could simply be brute-forced by the two super-human PCs. But the other PCs often came up with solutions which were, for lack of a better word, "cool." And when cool solutions are offered by the PCs, I often would not even require a die roll. Maybe the players with the super-human PCs resented this (although I gave them the same reward for their own "cool" solutions). But overall, the rules were just intended as a back-drop for what I wanted to be a cooperative story-telling effort. Again, I am coming back to the idea that the players in question simply weren't looking for what I was offering. I thought the interviews and explanation of my gaming philosophy for that campaign (I do run different types of campaigns, some of which involve no fudging whatsoever), but apparently it didn't suffice.
 

JoshDemers

First Post
I agree about being above-board about it. If you do that, I don't think it's cheating, and it can certainly make the game better / great for a lot of players / groups. I have absolutely no problem with other people doing it, but, personally, I don't like GMs fudging my stuff, and I don't like doing it as the GM. It's all just preference, though. Which boils down to -as always- play what you like :)

I think you have your answer there. If you believe that being above board isn't cheating, that seems to imply that not being so IS cheating. This thread shows pretty clearly that we all have our own "codes" that we follow.

And so "yes," there CAN be mischeif when treating players differently if you aren't being honest about it.
 

I'm curious. If the explicit social contract is in place such that the players at the table are ok with fudging behind the screen such that it isn't "mischief", then what is the point of rolling behind the screen? Is there some inherent value to the theater of the ritual of "behind the screen rolling and verbalizing the outcome or revealing it like a magician" that would be diminished by, say, establishing a "GM mulligan (or 2...or 3) per session" and then rolling out in the open?
 

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