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Encouraging Cheating at the Table

770523_dices [1]So, this is a completely horrible idea for several reasons, but it’s not without it’s own twisted charm: Why not as a group, decide that everyone should be able to cheat as much as they want, provided that they don’t get caught?

Of course, the first question is: “Why in hell would you want to do this?” For the most part, we’ve all played with the guy who constantly cheats and no one ever likes it, so why would I suggest that everyone cheat? The thing is though, that Role Playing Games are based on the concept of the heroic exploit, Tales of derring-do, of testing your wits and mettle against the forces of evil (or at least the forces barring your way). And the further thing is, that wit and cunning are a big part of that tradition. Heroic tales routinely hinge on the hero tricking his foe into a fatal error, or manipulating them into serving his best interest. Consider also, that heroic archetypes exist whose major function is to cajole fate and the spirits into supporting their cause. So what is cheating but an example of these heroic traditions? By cheating you test your wits and skill against those who would catch you, and you manipulate the fates (or their dice-shaped representatives) to act in your favor.

Of course, we’re still playing a game, and that game has to actually function, so oddly enough, there have to be rules to support cheating. While it may not seem fair, there’s such a power imbalance and difficulty in proving a GM is cheating, that it’s probably best – even in a system where everyone is encouraged to cheat – that the GM remain mostly honest. Instead, scenarios should be designed on the harder side to take into account that the players will be cheating little bastards, and GM dice should be rolled in the open with no mercy or second chances. If they can’t beat the challenges while cheating their hearts out, they don’t deserve any mercy, just ridicule. Player cheating, on the other hand, is encouraged but needs to be challenging to pull off or both the cheating and the game are meaningless. Thus, someone needs to actively try to catch cheaters. Given that all the players are trying to cheat as much as they can get away with, it’s too much to ask the GM to both run the game and try to police them all, so some additional system has to be in place to catch cheating. Fortunately, one of the reasons we’re considering encouraging cheating in the first place is because it allows the players to test their wits against their peers. This means that cheating is meaningful only if you’re not caught, and that players have an incentive to catch one another. But, while we can assume that catching another player cheating may provide some incentive on it’s own, that incentive is at least partially at odds with a player’s motivation to beat a scenario and “win the game”, so players can’t be relied on to police each other out of the goodness of their heart. Instead, players who catch and rat out other players should be rewarded to encourage this behavior. This reward system might take the form of extra experience or bennies of some sort, or might even take the form of social stigma (a player caught cheating has to fetch drinks, wear the hubcap of shame, or address other players with titles until another player is caught), economic incentives (every time a player catches another, a dollar changes hands), or other benefits (the player who caught the most cheaters gets to pick the pizza toppings next time).

While on the surface, this seems like a pretty awful idea that will lead to broken friendships, if not broken noses, there are existing games that actively encourage cheating and don’t suffer for it (take Munchkin [2] for example). The important thing is that all players agree to play this way and understand that the game is being played as much for the cheating metagame as for the game itself.

Some games definitely lend themselves more to this “play style” than others. Games with lots of crunchy rules, tons of tiny bonuses, lots of dice, and exception based rules have plenty of opportunities for cheaters, whereas simpler games do not. Serious games where players are trying to complete a plot arc or role play with one another will only be distracted and ruined by rampant cheating, while classic monster-killing dungeon crawls are a much better vehicle. One-shot games are probably the best way to play around with a novelty system like this. Encouraging cheating mid-stream in your 2-year running campaign is probably not a good idea.

So while the cheating metagame is not for all games, and not for all gamers, it promises fun, frantic, screw your neighbor action, creates less work for the GM than it would seem on the surface, and probably won’t require the police to come to your house… probably.


P.S. I’m at Gencon right now, so I won’t be able to reply to any comment until I get back. Feel free to discuss among yourselves though. I know this is a hot button, so I fully expect to come back to everyone telling me how wrong I am.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Encouraging Cheating at the Table"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On August 15, 2012 @ 2:50 am

I’ve got to imagine that a side effect of this could be convincing players who do actually cheat in non-cheating games might see just how much the games balance is tipped when no one plays to the rules, and maybe, just maybe, start thinking that playing fair is the best way to get the most out of RPGs.

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 21, 2012 @ 8:23 am

It might also have the side effect of making your group better at detecting cheaters and less tolerant of them outside of games where it’s accepted.

#3 Comment By BryanB On August 15, 2012 @ 9:41 am

I agree with two points:

The cheating metagame is not for all games and not for all gamers.

You can fully expect to come back to everyone telling you how wrong you are. 😀

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On August 15, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

I think cheating is a signal that the game is not giving a player what they want. What they want may be completely unreasonable–to be the sole star of the game, or the person who always makes the dramatic kill–but it’s a sign.

This reminds me of an article about [3] settings in video games. Sometimes–if the game involves a great plot, but I don’t have the controller skills to “earn it”–that mode would be appealing. Similarly, a tabletop player might want to be as effective as the other players without researching the proper feat/equipment/etc. to get what they want.

If everyone’s fudging their numbers to be more dramatic, or to avoid failing the “or die” part of saving throws, maybe your next game should empower your players more, be played as a lighthearted romp, or should involve god-like abilities. (Time for an Exalted or Wushu game, maybe?)

#5 Comment By bridiculous On August 15, 2012 @ 10:49 am

I don’t hate this idea.
As a GM, I cheat constantly. Usually to favor the players, but sometimes just to favor the absurd. In fluffy games with easy-going players I may not even look at the dice. We are dealing with heroes of legend and fantastic monsters, drama and plot; dice and rules should add to the fun of the game, not restrict it.
I have noticed that cheating is most common in crunchy games among people who take it most seriously. I never call cheaters out at the table. I just cheat back, and see how far they are willing to get. Divine intervention can explain anything too outlandish for the mood of the game, and a friendly note can bring a cheater back to order.
Honest players are likely to be more harsh upon catching a cheater, and may demand some sort of justice. Maybe the cheater will get a curse or the tattletale will get a boon, or everyone not cheating will have a right to reroll in future sessions. Lots of games these days have mechanics to work that stuff in anyway.
Having a set system of meta-rules for cheating allows for resolutions without arguments. All I want to do is resolve the issue quickly, it can really sap the fun out of the game.
Even I am afraid to encourage cheating among players, but it could be fun, especially if it teaches cheaters a lesson.

#6 Comment By danroth On August 15, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

I think this is a fantastic idea for a one-off with everybody on board. If you’re in an intense, dramatic campaign, it would be an appreciated break to have an absurd gaming session occasionally.

However, I don’t really see how it would work–what do you mean by “cheat?” Are we talking about players blatantly lying about their equipment? I’m used to hiding behind a DM screen, so I guess I can’t really see beyond fudging dice rolls (which players obviously cannot do, unless it involves picking the dice back up really quickly after the roll, which is pretty obvious).

#7 Comment By Norcross On August 16, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

There’s the classic “accidentally” rolling the die off the table, into a book, or whatever. If it shows a good result you just say “cool, I got a 17 (or whatever)!” before anyone says anything. If it shows a bad result you pick it up before anyone can react, say “oops, it went off the table, I better reroll it” and then roll again. This is a good way to get the reroll you mentioned, since if you pretend you didn’t read it and noone else saw what it was, there’s really nothing they can do – and they can’t prove that you were “really” cheating.

#8 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 21, 2012 @ 8:26 am

For your group you can define cheating however you like. Lying about equipment is one way. Cheating with dice is another. Heck, you could go early in the turn, disrupt the turn with a soda spill, then go again afterwards. It all depends on what kind of shenanigans your group is up for. Hell, you could even buy fixed dice if you want.

#9 Comment By Furnacewhelp On August 16, 2012 @ 4:10 am

While I wouldn’t call myself a cheater per-say, I have, in the past, taken advantage of mistakes that are commonly made at the table.
Phantom bonuses can be given under the guise of bad math. A nearly imperceptible finger movement, while picking up a die for a closer inspection, can result in a higher roll. Abilities that can only be used once per encounter can be used again by mistake. They can also accidentally provide situational bonuses in the wrong situations.
These are all innocent mistakes that all players make from time to time. When used sparingly, the intentional use of these mistakes will usually be seen as just that, an innocent mistake.

That brings up something that the article didn’t mention, proving that the player was in fact cheating and not just simply making a mistake. Bad math and a loaded die can both give an unfair advantage, but proving that a die is loaded is easier to do than proving a phantom bonus was added intentionally.
If you don’t require your players to prove that another player is intentionally cheating the game will quickly turn into a bunch of baseless accusations.

I also see this type of game play encouraging players to develop better ways of cheating that they may be tempted to use during normal play. If no one spots the cheat during a game where everyone is actively looking for cheats, what are the chances they will spot it during a game where everyone is assumed to be playing fair.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On August 16, 2012 @ 9:35 am

While I enjoyed making my contrarian point to Bryan above, in practical experience, nothing good has come from cheating.

Often fellow players (rather than the GM) are the ones most annoyed–in large part because cheating wrests more spotlight time for that character–which means the other players lose out. Unfortunately, spotlight is (usually) zero sum–as a GM you can’t add more focus, more moments to shine–so if one person “steals” all of the dramatic moments, the other characters get none.

Similarly, the character who always makes impossible saves, or who “somehow” has an AC 5 points higher than they should encourages the GM to increase threats to match… which means that the non-cheating players miss (of ineffectually hit) more, are wounded more often, and their “dramatic moments” shine less brightly in comparison.

As a one-off, with explicit ground rules, a cheat-fest might be fun. As an ongoing effort, I expect frustration with frequent cheating to increase as the experiment goes on.

#11 Comment By BryanB On August 16, 2012 @ 11:20 am

That was more sensible. 🙂

#12 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 21, 2012 @ 8:32 am

You’re still on the mindset that some players are cheating and some are not. That’s not the situation I’m proposing and you’re right when you say it’s a bad place for the non-cheater.

If we’re all cheating, then we (theoretically) all have the same advantages. Of course, you can argue that you’re not good at cheating, so you get left behind, but that’s the danger in ANY situation. We’ve all seen the player who just can’t build an effective character to save his in-game life.

#13 Comment By xavplusplus On August 19, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

This seems to sound a lot like paranoia. That game is bad news.

#14 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 21, 2012 @ 8:33 am

Now there’s a thought. Play Paranoia this way and both the characters and the players can be constantly paranoid.