Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Shared Fantasy - Cheating in RPGs

As I noted yesterday, there is a significant section in Shared Fantasy regarding the nature of cheating in RPGs.  Fine is very quick to point out that cheating in an RPG is not the same thing as cheating in, say, Monopoly or poker.  That is because it is a collaborative effort, not a competitive one.  It is much more analogous to cheating at a solitaire game.  The line between "cheating" and "rules exception" is a fine one (largely dependent on permission from the GM).  Also, ultimately, cheating in an RPG is more about "doing it wrong" than it is actually harmful to the game.

Fine does spend quite a bit of time discussing the mythology of dice among gamers.  He makes the statement that "these dice are the gamers' weapons."  The random outcomes from the dice is what separates a role-playing game from improv theater or collaborative storytelling.  Of course, we are still telling a story with the game, and occasionally the dice can do more harm than good.  Sometimes we look to superstitions about "lucky" dice to get our characters through.  Sometimes we negotiate with the GM to either modify the results, allow a re-roll, or just outright ignore the dice.

Sometimes, though, we just cheat.

What Does It Mean to "Cheat"

The most common form of cheating in an RPG is, of course, misreporting dice rolls.  You roll a 5 and say it was a 15.  You roll percentile and decide which one is the "tens" die after the roll.  Brutal honesty time: I do this myself pretty frequently.  I'll discuss a bit later just why, but I find that it makes for a better game.  (As an interesting point, though, I am much less likely to do so in games that have some sort of luck mechanic where I can modify the roll or re-roll.  I already have a way to make the rolls fit the story, so I don't need to cheat.)

Another common method of cheating is not properly recording things on your character sheet.  That may be damage incurred, spells used, money spent, or whatever.  I will also admit that I tend to be terrible about keeping track of some of these things, but that's mostly because I just hate the bookkeeping.  More often than not, I tend to screw myself on gear rather than cheat to my benefit.  I've noticed that a shocking number of my D&D characters get around 100gp on their first adventure, and that is pretty much how much they have for their entire career.

A last common method is deliberately mangling the rules to your benefit.  This is not simply "rules lawyering," in which you find loopholes and little-known passages to support your point.  This is intentionally misinterpreting the rules, ignoring certain passages, or outright violating the system.  It may happen during character creation (e.g., using an illegal combination of options) or during play (e.g., misquoting the poison rules so as to imply that your character is immune).  This is generally a less successful method of cheating, as the other players will often put a stop to it.  However, nearly every group seems to have one player who engages in this behavior to one degree or another.

Naturally, there are dozens of other ways to cheat.  Some of them are arguably "playing creatively" or "thinking outside the box."  Some are using "Rule 0" or the "rule of cool" to justify the behavior.  But, in the end, cheating in an RPG is engaging in any behavior that violates the strictures of the game without the approval of the rest of the table.

Can You Really Cheat in an RPG?

Fine has a really interesting quote about this topic:
Since FRP players are not competing against each other, but are cooperating, cheating does not have the same effect on game balance. ... As long as all players are cheating, the game remains in balance.
So, in short, you can cheat.  But, so long as you are cheating to advance the interests of the party as a whole, it doesn't matter.  Cheating can actually serve to enhance the game, rather than destroy it as it does in traditional games.

However, that doesn't actually make it right.  "Cheating, though necessary to some extent, is not formally legitimate."  When a player cheats, he is stepping outside the game.  There are reasons that the rules, and their probabilities, exist as written.  Bending those probabilities alters the game world.  It also can radically alter the balance of power between the players and the referee.  If cheating becomes too rampant, then the referee can no longer control the game.  And, of course, it is very possible for cheating to alter the balance of power between players.  A cheater, especially one with the wrong motivations, can quickly steal the spotlight and run away with the action.

So, Why Do We Cheat?

The reasons to cheat are pretty simple and clear-cut.  We cheat so that our characters are successful (and, often, just so that they survive).  We cheat so that we can feel powerful.  (I, personally, am much more likely to cheat when a series of poor rolls have left me feeling frustrated.)  And, frequently, we cheat to add awesome to a game.  (On more than one occasion I have cheated to make a crazy, over-the-top, desperate stunt succeed.  For no other reason than it should.)

But, if we are going to cheat, why do we even bother rolling in the first place?  Fine has several choice quotes on this:
One might ask why roll dice if they are going to be disregarded; yet rolls are important, even when ignored, because they provide a backdrop of chance that can be altered when necessary.  The game events are not totally decided by the player, but the player must make an adjustment to the "iron law of probability."
Typically cheating on dice rolls is seen as a legitimate and necessary means of structuring game events by the players and necessary in maintaining the players' power in the face of the terrible monsters and demons they must face.
Fine also introduces the term "controlled randomness."  Essentially, what we are looking for is a way to collaborate with the dice.   We want the dice to give us information and inspiration.  But, when that information is crap, we also want to be able to disregard it.

This, ultimately, is why I cheat.  I want to play big damn heroes, in a cinematic action universe.  Little things like probability get shelved with physics and moral uncertainty as fun ideas that can add spice, not governing principles.  If I wanted to just swallow whatever the fates dished out to me, I'd go to work.

Too Much of a Good Thing

There are times when cheating is just bad.  The most egregious example, of course, is when one player cheats at the expense of the other players.  If you are cheating to "win" then you are not just violating the letter of the law, but the very spirit of the game.

Cheating is also bad when it becomes obvious.  If you are going to cheat, practice both moderation and discretion.  Dropping the d20, picking it up before it stops rolling, and declaring a critical hit is just ridiculous.  More than simply being dishonest, you are insulting the intelligence of the people playing with you.  But, "accidentally" reading the d20 as though it were an 18 instead of an 8 makes it easy for the other players to turn a blind eye.  This is especially true if you don't make a habit of it.  If you never fail, people get jealous and complain.  If you fail just slightly less often than average, people may not even notice.  (Especially if you also make a point of failing in flamboyant and entertaining ways.)

Finally, cheating becomes a problem when it makes the GM's job harder.  If your character is an abomination of broken combinations and setting impossibilities, it becomes very difficult to wrap encounters and a story around you.  If you "roll" critical success after critical success, you totally upset the flow and sensibility of the plot.  If you start forcing the GM to work around your cheating, you make it much more likely that she is just going to call you on it instead.


  1. Lol, I thought my posts were long. I'm glad other people are as enthusiastic about roleplaying topics as I am.

    To be dead honest, counting all my gaming time, 99% I have never cheated. I can't say 100% because I've been playing for too long to remember if I have.

    I also play a lot by Skype and I've had players die or suffer substantially from rolls they could have easily fudged over the web. They don't. It's weird because it's not normal, I guess we must be a pretty strange bunch.

    I had an awesome scene with my Bard that I had planned out and my roll failed. It was the worst feeling, I took it like a man but I think the story would have been the better for it if it had indeed happened. I had a 90% chance for success.

    I like the idea of controlled randomness in the extent to where players might be allowed a single re-roll every two sessions or something. The chaos of the dice for me are what make RPGs so interesting because there's a constant not knowing and suspense.

    However, some scenes I feel just need to happen. I usually reward extra situational bonus before a roll or lower the difficulty. I know in World of Darkness they have Willpower which I think was worked in masterfully.

    Hahah, I like your comment about real life because that's how I feel about movies. If I wanted to watch a drama about people dying, crying, and going through hardships, I'd just stick with real life, it's boring enough and dramatic enough. When I watch a movie I want to see something fantastical, I want good endings, maybe not perfect but good.

    I think as our lives become less interesting, we are less likely to commit "hardship-tourism": willingly submitting ourselves to experiences of failure and the mundane. Hence the desire to cheat when a game takes an unnecessary sour turn.

  2. Yeah, I'm wordy. After I finish up the Shared Fantasy posts today, I'm going to try and do shorter posts. I might use Rob Donoghue's 500-word challenge (no post longer than 500 words).

    I'm right there with you on wanting to have some way to skew the randomness to fit the story. There are plenty of times when failure and success would be equally interesting. But, there are also times when I really just need success. I love the introduction of "script control" points in modern games, as you mentioned. I really do cheat a lot less when I have a resource that I can use to legitimately weight the rolls.

    I'm right there with you about movies. I've had that conversation with my in-laws. They can't understand why I want to watch/read stories that can't possibly happen, and I can't understand why they want to watch/read stories that are just as mundane as their everyday lives.

    I like your term "hardship tourism." I think I need to let that one percolate for a bit.

  3. hahhaa, yeah I think I heard something similar somewhere before so I won't take full credit for it.

    Cool posts man, I'll continue reading.

  4. I think Dr. Fine unwittingly stretches his credibility a little bit when he cites Kelley's covariation model in presenting his assertion that players engage in superstitious behaviour over dice, presumably to strengthen the weight of his observation of player engrossment.

    Pg. 94 [hardcover]
    "The belief in the efficacy of dice is so ingrained that players deliberately change dice when the dice are not performing well, in the belief that there are luckier dice:"

    Pg. 95
    "As Kelley (1967) and other attribution theorists have noted, individuals are particularly likely to make disposition attributions in instances in which behaviour is consistent across time and modality, or is especially notable." ....

    "However, the importance of the roll also affects how the dice are labeled on the implicit assumption that the dice are aware of the issues involved."

    Since Dr. Fine did not know dice are manufactured “like model airplanes on a casting runner” which needs to be cut from the individual die, leaving a cosmetic blemish on the dice. By removing this cosmetic blemish, dice actually do tend to stop on specific numbers when rolled. My source on this:

    So it’s not mere “engrossment” superstition. Otherwise, I found the book’s observations and conclusions really spot on. I would like to see a societal contrast of gamers who state a strong preference for OSR tabletop compared to those gamers whose preference is to Rules As Written; and to compare those two social groups to gamers who prefer video games like WoW. I think a study of this could have serious ramifications on the future direction of the whole RPG industry – either steering it to develop a niche market for OSR or to enter the video game market akin 4th edition D&D.

  5. I don't think that the mere fact that typical RPG dice are biased actually negates the fact that gamers have dice superstitions. Many gamers I know do have dice superstitions. I have heard numerous anecdotes of players "training" or "punishing" their dice. And, the bias of the dice is unlikely to be affected by another player touching them, and yet "don't touch my dice" is one of the most common superstitions.

    While I would love to see a lot of studies done on gamer preferences, there are some significant challenges. The biggest is simply data collection. There are numerous indications that there is a "silent majority" of gamers out there who do not interact with the rest of the community in any way. They have three to five friends that they play with, they have a store where they can pick up new material, and that's enough. Heck, fifteen years ago, that just about described me.

    Polling that "silent majority" is going to be nearly impossible. Any other poll is going to have inherent bias based on the sample. After all, right out of the gate you are only going to get responses from people who care about the hobby, and will not be able to cover trends among "casual gamers".

    Then, you are going to need to be extremely careful about bias in the questions you ask. For instance, OSR/RAW is definitely a false dichotomy. Not only are there more options, as I mentioned in another comment, but RAW is a poor descriptor for players with a preference for 3.x/4e D&D. After all, there are a lot of OSR enthusiasts who also like to stick to "rules as written," they just like different and generally fewer rules.