Everybody Cheats?

Gary Alan Fine's early survey of role-playing games found that everybody cheated. But the definition of what cheating is when it applies to role-playing games differs from other uses of the term. Does everyone really cheat in RPGs?

Yes, Everybody

Gary Alan Fine's work, Shared Fantasy, came to the following conclusion:

Perhaps surprisingly, cheating in fantasy role-playing games is extremely common--almost everyone cheats and this dishonesty is implicitly condoned in most situation. The large majority of interviewees admitted to cheating, and in the games I played, I cheated as well.

Fine makes it a point of clarify that cheating doesn't carry quite the same implications in role-playing as it does in other games:

Since FRP players are not competing against each other, but are cooperating, cheating does not have the same effect on the game balance. For example, a player who cheats in claiming that he has rolled a high number while his character is fighting a dragon or alien spaceship not only helps himself, but also his party, since any member of the party might be killed. Thus the players have little incentive to prevent this cheating.

The interesting thing about cheating is that if everyone cheats, parity is maintained among the group. But when cheating is rampant, any player who adheres slavishly to die-roll results has "bad luck" with the dice. Cheating takes place in a variety of ways involving dice (the variable component PCs can't control), such as saying the dice is cocked, illegible, someone bumped the table, it rolled off a book or dice tray, etc.

Why Cheat?

One of the challenges with early D&D is that co-creator Gary Gygax's design used rarity to make things difficult. This form of design reasoned that the odds against certain die rolls justified making powerful character builds rare, and it all began with character creation.

Character creation was originally 3d6 for each attribute, full stop. With the advent of computers, players could automate this rolling process by rapidly randomizing thousands of characters until they got the combination of numbers they wanted. These numbers dictated the PC's class (paladins, for example, required a very strict set of high attributes). Psionics too, in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, required a specific set of attributes that made it possible to spontaneously manifest psionic powers. Later forms of character generation introduced character choice: 4d6 assigned to certain attributes, a point buy system, etc. But in the early incarnations of the game, it was in the player's interest, if she wanted to play a paladin or to play a psionic, to roll a lot -- or just cheat (using the dice pictured above).

Game masters have a phrase for cheating known as "fudging" a roll; the concept of fudging means the game master may ignore a roll for or against PCs if it doesn't fit the kind of game he's trying to create. PCs can be given extra chances to reroll, or the roll could be interpreted differently. This "fudging" happens in an ebb and flow as the GM determines the difficulty and if the die rolls support the narrative.

GM screens were used as a reference tool with relevant charts and to prevent players from seeing maps and notes. But they also helped make it easier for GMs to fudge rolls. A poll on RPG.net shows that over 90% of GMs fudged rolls behind the screen.

Cheating Is the Rule

One of Fifth Edition's innovations was adopting a common form of cheating -- the reroll -- by creating advantage. PCs now have rules encouraging them to roll the dice twice, something they've been doing for decades with the right excuse.

When it comes to cheating, it seems like we've all been doing it. But given that we're all working together to have a good time, is it really cheating?

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Actually, an Apple II or TRS 80 could probably handle a complete AD&D PHB 1st level character generator sans equipment and spells, and would have no problem rolling dice as many times as needed.
There was a character generator, written in basic, in one of the magazines back then, maybe the Dragon. I remember programming it in and saving it on a floppy.
 

Manbearcat

Adventurer
Hm. I wonder if anyone can find me a quote reference of that from a game.
I guess you're looking for evidence of design explicitly calling out the use of GM Force as problematic or anathema to playing that game? Alright. pemerton named a few. Here are a few more.

Dogs in the Vineyard
How to GM p137-138, 143

"Don't play the story..."

"You can't have plot points in mind beforehand...what if the PCs reconcile Brother Ezekiel and Sister Abigail? You've wasted your time. Worse, what if, because you've invested your time, you don't let the PCs reconcile them?

You've robbed the players of the game.

Leave 'what's going to happen' to what happens."

"If you have a solution in mind, the game rules are going to mess you up bad.

I hope I've made that clear enough. If you're GMing by the rules, you have absolutely no power to nudge things toward your desired outcome. Its best for everybody, I mean especially its best for you too, if you just don't prefer one outcome to another."

Beyond the Wall
How to GM p 42

Avoid Illusionism - A section about not obviating player decision-points and choice by using covert GM Force to funnel them along a prescripted course.

Every Powered By the Apocalypse Game ever

1) All dice rolled by GM

2) Some iteration of the same axiom the is set out in Dogs above; "Play to find out what happens." You can find it on page 82 in AW, 187 in Blades, 126 in Masks, I can't find my copy of DW presently but the section in the SRD is here (and supported heavily in the rest of the text and design).

I hope that is enough. There is plenty more, but those are what I have right next to me.

In any event, as we all know, what the designers claim is always absolutely true! Wait... no... that's not right.
I don't know who "the designers" are. There are lots of different designers. Some make better games than others. Some games are very well systemitized and when you follow the rules and the GMing ethos, its crazy, but stuff just works.

Given the number of times I see threads where people berate, insult, and vilify game designers for getting things wrong, I don't think we can rely on what the game tells us.
Or. We either (a) can't rely on those people decrying those designers or (b) can't rely on those designs. It can be both of those things and what I've written directly above.

Specifically, "working" is context dependent. I would take the word of a GM considering their own group about what works for them a whole lot more than I take the word of a designer who has never seen the group.
My context is pretty simple. If a game, say Dogs above, says "follow the rules...you'll be much better off for it and the game will fight you if you don't" and it turns out to be true...well, that game is working. If a game says "you're the lead storyteller and you know what is best for each moment of play and play collectively so change rules/outcomes as you see fit"...and the players understand that play paradigm and are good with it and everyone has a great time...well, that game is also working.

Should the GM tell players before the start of the campaign that they reserve the right to fudge, or any other major rules changes, so that players who cannot stand playing a game that isn't strict can avoid it? Sure. But that's not the real question at hand.
Well that is what I was talking about with respect to the social contract. So I would definitely beg to differ. System + integrity of social contract/trust + enjoyment by the collective are definitely the component parts of "the real question at hand" when it comes to cheating (by anyone at the table, GM included).
 

Manbearcat

Adventurer
The anchor of your argument is "If players expect".

If there are no rules to back up that expectation or a social contract through session 0 conversation that gives them reason to expect that; and they are simply assuming - then the GM isn't cheating. It's a matter of bad communication.

Of course, if there are rules or a social contract in place, you're correct. However, in most cases were there such things the players that don't want to play that way wouldn't be there and the chance of such cheating is minimized.

2c
KB
I don't think I disagree with anything here except I would change your first sentence to:

The anchor of [the] argument is "If the system designs around/makes explicit or the players expect".
 

Les Moore

Villager
This example is useless for anything in the context of DMing. DM fairness is not established in the individual situation. It's established in the consistency of the application of rules or rulings to similar situations.

Determining the DC for a skill check, and the results of success and failure, is 100% within the realm of the DM. But that the rule. There isn't a rule that says "This cliff much have a DC of 15 or higher." Determining the difficulty of that cliff is the rule and that rule says the DM gets to make the call on what that cliff's DC is.

Lets say the DM decides the cliff is "hard", DC 15. Billy the Rogue rolls 15, and climbs the wall. Joey the Fighter rolls a 15 but this time the DM declares that he fails.

There's also a game for people who don't feel the rules matter at all: it's called Calvinball.

The rules are there for a reason: because we've discovered that there is a certain degree of "rules" and "fair application of the rules" that makes for good gaming, and that Calvinball, while fun in the short-term, is not a terribly great system for RPGs. It can be, with sufficient buy in, with players agreeing to general "rules of decorum" aka: no god-moding. But D&D printing rules bypasses that, instead of having to hold a forum to discuss what rules we're going to use this week, we all say "Hey I think this D&D thing has a good set of rules!"

Sticking to the rules consistently is necessary for a healthy game. We may not all apply the same rules, we may not all read the rules the same way, but what matters to make a DM not an arbitrary thing is consistent application of the rules we're applying, and consistent reading of them.

If Joe and Jim are constantly trying to figure out if they're playing D&D or Calvinball, they're going to have reduced enjoyment. PICK ONE. Apply the rules or don't. I don't really care which any DM decides to do, but don't apply the rules one day, not apply the rules another day, and then apply them differently the next. The rules are there for a reason. Just because they can be ignored, doesn't mean they should, but if you do, be consistent in ignoring them.
Dostoevsky once wrote:"If God did not exist, everything would be permitted." By extension, play
WITHOUT a DM would be your "Calvinball". I can't imagine a game where even the most scrupulous
DM applies the rules with perfect uniformity. I'd wager it would either be either the very best or worst gaming
experience. More than likely, the latter.
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
Dostoevsky once wrote:"If God did not exist, everything would be permitted." By extension, play
WITHOUT a DM would be your "Calvinball". I can't imagine a game where even the most scrupulous
DM applies the rules with perfect uniformity. I'd wager it would either be either the very best or worst gaming
experience. More than likely, the latter.
Uniform application of the rules applies to intent not action. Understanding that DMs are humans and sometimes make mistakes is necessary. It is the desire and consistency of that desire in applying the rules evenly.

Playing with a DM whose every ruling could be different is tantamount to playing with no rules at all. Why? Because rules establish a shared set of expectations. If one minute a player can do A, and the next minute they cannot, for no discernible reason other than DM whim, it leads to an inability to develop a set of expectations. The human brain likes expectations, it's what allows us to judge once situation against another and make an informed decision. Imagine if Tuesday gravity was only 7.4 m/s and then Friday there was no gravity at all, but next Tuesday gravity was 18 m/s you'd never be able to establish a set of expectations about gravity. But if every Tuesday gravity got weaker, and every Friday there was no gravity it would allow players to establish a set of expectations about how the game-world operates. This set of expectations is what allows the players to make decisions within the context of the game-world.

Without those expectations, the players literally can't make decisions. They might as well flip a taco and if it lands on Tuesday then it's a baby.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The only survey I saw in there was the one about DMs fudging, and since DMs can't cheat...
The very first sentence of the OP is, "Gary Alan Fine's early survey of role-playing games found that everybody cheated. " It then goes on to discuss and take some quotes from Fine's work, Shared Fantasy.

Yes, you have to actually go get the book (300 pages of it) to see the details. Fine did research on the early days of RPGs, the first to look at the people who play as a community.

So, if Fine came to the conclusion that cheating is common - how do you wish to counter his statement? Or do you wish to say, "I haven't read the book, so I will take my own personal experience over these research results."? Or what?
 
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S

Sunseeker

Guest
Honestly I don't understand why people are so surprised, or upset.

Has anyone ever seen those surveys on cheating in high-school? Or in college? The answer is the same: everyone cheats.

Why? Because humans cheat.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I can't imagine a game where even the most scrupulous
DM applies the rules with perfect uniformity. I'd wager it would either be either the very best or worst gaming
experience. More than likely, the latter.
Yeah. Online conversations have this tendency to have the topic drive to polar extremes. The game with strict and absolute adherence to the rules is chess! The game with no adherence to the rules is Calvinball!

Well guess what folks - we live between those extremes, not at them, so that those statements aren't actually relevant to us. There's this thing called the "middle ground", which is what we should probably focus on.
 
Really? No way. Why should I cheat as a player? It ruins the fun.

The only time I cheat is as a DM, and then in both ways, for and against the players - but surely not to kill them.
Either to challenge them more (monster was too weak, so let's tweak it "online" or send some help), or to save them from some undeserved super bad luck (bad luck and / or stupidity still can kill a PC!).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I don't know who "the designers" are.
I am sorry, but that comes across as a little obtuse.

YOU were the one who said games had statements not to cheat. Those games popped into existence from the quantum vacuum, or were they designed by somebody? Come on.

However, I was speaking in general - that the words written by a designer who has never met your players cannot be just trusted. Designers have implicit assumptions about play. Is that set of assumptions going to fit *ALL* players? Unlikely. It then follows that their statements about the system working, as written, is apt to be incorrect for some. Designers are (to date) human beings. Since when do human beings make flawless things?

Some games are very well systemitized and when you follow the rules and the GMing ethos, its crazy, but stuff just works.
For some. "Works" is subjective, as already noted earlier in the thread.

Dogs in the Vineyard, for example - I have played one session, and watched several others. Not a one of the "worked" in any meaningful sense. The players took so much time with dice and bidding that one conversation took 3 hours to resolve. I know some folks swear by the game, but I know others swear at it. And that's really the point I'm making here.

One size does not fit all.


Well that is what I was talking about with respect to the social contract. So I would definitely beg to differ.
When there are folks in the discussion saying that a technique has bad results, irrespective of the social contract, then the social contract isn't really the question of the moment.

I daresay, when someone is telling me that a game just works if played as written, all the time, for everyone, again, I don't think social contracts are the main question at hand.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
The very first sentence of the OP is, "Gary Alan Fine's early survey of role-playing games found that everybody cheated. " It then goes on to discuss and take some quotes from Fine's work, Shared Fantasy.

Yes, you have to actually go get the book (300 pages of it) to see the details. Fine did research on the early days of RPGs, the first to look at the people who play as a community.

So, if Fine came to the conclusion that cheating is common - how do you wish to counter his statement? Or do you wish to say, "I haven't read the book, so I will take my own personal experience over these research results."? Or what?
I don't know anything other than the article made a claim of research, which I will take at face value. However, I do not know what sort of methods were used, or the demographic(s) involved in the research. Without knowing those things(and the numbers), I really can't give the research a whole lot of weight.
 

Gibili

Villager
As a DM I fudge rolls all the time. It isn't cheating as my job is to make play fun and exciting. I fudge rolls to both help and hinder the players as necessary, depending on the needs of the situation. If my dice are hell bent on a total party kill then unless that really, really suits the story line, there's no way I'm going with those rolls. If combat it totally going the players' way when it should be close and tense, e.g. against a key enemy as opposed to a random encounter situation, then I fudge a few rolls the other way to up the ante.
Similarly I DM Cheat by fudging the rules too! To my mind DMs cannot cheat, i.e. what they do for the sake of fun is not cheating. That having been said, I think that if you are basically ignoring the random element all the time then your probably pushing, or rather forcing, the game in the direction you want it to go in which can be aparent to the players and restricts their freedom of choice. It's not about you, it's about your players.

Players can cheat and a very rare fudging of the dice roll on occasion isn't going to have a negative effect on the game, especially if you have been incapable of rolling over 6 (D20) the entire game. On that point though, I usually find abject failure is a greater source of fun and laughter than huge success. You just have to go with it and roleplay it. Why is your character so crap today? Make something up that helps explain it. It gives you, the DM and perhaps the whole party something to work with and it can become something that the party them have to work to help. Do they, in addition to fighting the bad guys, trekking across the desert, also need to get you to a hospital whilst in enemy territory? That's just me and they way my group tends to play though.
If your game is very combat focused then I can see that a player might feel hugely frustrated and feel that they are not contributing. There are also times when you are in that heroic situation that you just want to pull that rabbit out of the hat. As a DM I wouldn't mind if a player fudged their roll, because again, it is contributing to the story. It does however have to be very rare and under special circumstances. Cheating in all things just spoils it for everyone including yourself. What's the point in playing a game with a large random element if you are just going to cheat all the time?
Cheating on creating a character are definite no-nos to my mind. As a DM I let players re-roll characters if they are clearly terrible, especially if the system means that certain classes are not then open to them. I want my players to come up with fun character concepts of their design, with backgrounds etc, not be forced down a particular route by the dice. That's one reason I quite like character point pools rather than random. I have one frankly over-powered character in a campaign but I work hard as a player not dominate. My character is aloof, does what he has to do and doesn't step in all the time. I'd just end running roughshod over all the other players otherwise. Simiarly I have characters who aren'y that great, and that it great fun to work with too. To overcome that ball and chain can be very funny and rewarding.
 
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Imaculata

Adventurer
As a DM I fudge rolls all the time. It isn't cheating as my job is to make play fun and exciting. I fudge rolls to both help and hinder the players as necessary, depending on the needs of the situation.
Does that mean that you'll let a monster hit a player, when he actually missed?

Does that mean that you'll turn a normal attack into a crit, and vice versa?

Does that mean that if a player succeeds at a save or check, you'll change it so they fail?

Does that mean that if a player fails at a save or check, you'll change it so they succeed?
 

pemerton

Legend
Dogs in the Vineyard, for example - I have played one session, and watched several others. Not a one of the "worked" in any meaningful sense. The players took so much time with dice and bidding that one conversation took 3 hours to resolve. I know some folks swear by the game, but I know others swear at it. And that's really the point I'm making here.
I don't understand your point. I don't really enjoy poker. Does that mean the rules for poker don't work? And it needs a "referee" to fudge the game so I will enjoy it? Or does that just mean I should't play poker?

In the RPG sphere, as I've often posted I'm not very good at classic D&D, and don't really enjoy it that much (either as player or referee). My solution: use different RPG systems that I do enjoy! It seems weird to me to say the solution is to keep using Gygax's rules (for some value of "use"), but fudge/nudge/ignore them so it's more fun.
 

bluesguy

Villager
One of the reasons I prefer to play using Hero Games is that I can create the character I want within the boundaries of a set of points. The GM has to approve the character build. I also prefer it as a GM.

When it comes to the actual play and dice rolling I believe a good story (which generally means everyone is having more fun) is more important than dice rolls.
 

Gibili

Villager
Does that mean that you'll let a monster hit a player, when he actually missed?
Yes, if it helps the fun of the game to have the monster hit when the dice say that it missed, then I say the monster hit. If the monster is missing all the time and so is no threat to the players, then I might well ignore the dice and say that it hit. If one small hit on the player will say, knock him into the cauldron of hair remover, then yeah, I might well bias the outcome :) Let's face it, the rest of the players will be braying for it anyway.

Does that mean that you'll turn a normal attack into a crit, and vice versa?
I very, very rarely convert an ordinary DM dice roll into a crit. Sometimes it can be done to great effect though. If you actually tell the players that your NPC has crited then it usually gets a sharp intake of breath from the players, which is great. Use this with suitable care I would say. Less is more effective. If you fudge a crit, and then roll a real one on the next turn, make a judgement about whether to convert back the other way. Maybe two crits in a row would be very effective. It might mean a sudden and exciting shift of power in the encounter for example.
If a crit on the part of the NPC and the subsequent damage or effect is going to have a detrimental effect on the play, then I might well back it down to an ordinary hit.
If a fumble on the part of the NPC would be funny, appropriate, help the story, then I might well make that happen.
If a fumble on the part of the NPC would spoil a tense situation or be contrary to the nature or skill of the NPC, then I might well ignore it.

With all these things, using it sparingly is the key. The randomness of dice rolling on NPCs can be just as much fun and throw up new and unexpected situations as it can for the player characters.

Does that mean that if a player succeeds at a save or check, you'll change it so they fail?
Does that mean that if a player fails at a save or check, you'll change it so they succeed?
No, never, ever! What the players do and roll is entirely up to them. As the DM you are there to create a fun environment for your players to mess around and have adventures in. You should never be a film director working to your own script and storyboards and forcing your players to adhere to them or changing what they do or roll to suit your own preconceptions about how things should go. That is absolute death for a fun game.
As a DM though you do have some influence on events before you get to the player's dice roll, so you don't have to back your players into a corner, and similarly, if you want them to go a certain direction in the story, there are subtle ways you can do it. Carrot is always better than stick!
If the game system has it, you can always make the DC (target difficulty of the action) a little less or more. If you think the players roll is close enough, then go with it, either as a success on their part or as a failure on their part. Players of course have a pretty good feel for what makes sense though so don't push it. :)
 

Les Moore

Villager
One thing I've observed, during my time on this rock, is that statisticians and survey takers are some of the worst cheaters of all.
They create statistics or take surveys only to the point where it will prop up a stance, supposition, or opinion.

Sunseeker, I wholly agree, a DM who changes their position on rulings or parameters, 180 degrees, would be difficult to work with. But DMs aren't always going to
resolve a given problem in a manner with which you completely agree, and that isn't necessarily cheating, un-uniform, or in any way wrong.

But let's look at that fighter trying to climb that hill, again. The Rogue succeeds, but on a equal roll, generally the fighter should fail. He succeeds.
And when he does, maybe patience is the key, and it needs to be discussed out of game. Perhaps the DM is taking into account 5 other attempts
where the fighter missed out by a whisker, and the percentages are in his favor, for success, on this attempt. Or maybe there is a reason he
came out on top, which will come to light, shortly down the road.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
One thing I've observed, during my time on this rock, is that statisticians and survey takers are some of the worst cheaters of all.
They create statistics or take surveys only to the point where it will prop up a stance, supposition, or opinion.
What percentage of them make up statistics based on your informal survey?
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
I think a lot of people are misunderstanding what cheating fundamentally is.

There's "feeling cheated" which happens when cheating may or may not have occurred. Perhaps you just rolled low on something that should have been simple, or at the worst possible moment. This can make a player, regardless of the "fairness" of the situation, feel cheated. It's one of the faults of a random dice-based system, which is why, as DM, I often "cheat" on my side of the screen to smooth over the flow of events. IMO, it's terribly unfair and unfun to leave too much up to a die roll.

Then there's "cheating", which is breaking some established rule in order to, usually, gain advantage. The thing about this kind of cheating is that it may not leave anyone feel cheated. You may not even know it happened. It may actually improve the overall perception of play, depending on how the cheating plays out for everyone at the table. Perhaps the cheater killed the bad-guy about to kill the downed player. How does the DM feel about this? How do the other players feel about this? Do they feel cheated, in the sense above?

Cheating is, and always has been, party about actual rules violations and partly about perception. You can't do much about the perception of cheating, as this thread clearly demonstrates that some people have much stronger views on cheating than others.

Personally, the perception is the only thing that matters to me. If the players feel cheated, I'm going to avoid doing things that make them feel cheated, even things that aren't cheating! If the players don't feel cheated, I'm going to keep doing things that may even include cheating! Because "fun" is not defined by adherence to the rules, "fun" is defined by a positive collective experience. If the players have that, who cares?
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
What percentage of them make up statistics based on your informal survey?
There are lots of good statistics quotes.

98% of all statistics are made up. ~Author Unknown

Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. ~Aaron Levenstein (I like this one)

Statistics can be made to prove anything - even the truth. ~Author Unknown

Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say. ~William W. Watt
 

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