Why Your Dungeon Master Is a Big Fat Cheater

“Cheating” well can be a skill for a great Dungeon Master.

Before you get mad about me calling out your DM, don’t worry, I’m only assuming they are cheaters. I mean, I don’t know the guy personally, do I? If I do, then yeah, I guess you can be mad. It’s possible your DM is like me, a total rules-and-rolls snob. If they don’t bend even the slightest rule, and you’re still having fun, don’t bother reading this post.

If you’re the DM, and you fit the above category, feel free to ignore any advice you don’t like. But, if you’re like me, and you hate breaking the rules of the game, maybe you could consider what I’ve got to say and see if it has any validity. You might come to some kind of realization. Or not. Your mileage may vary.

Defining cheating.

I suppose we should probably settle a few things up front. For the sake of this argument, cheating is mostly about moving numbers, information, or objectives around in response to outside circumstances or situations. The classic one is when your BBEG is getting pounded and rolls nothing but 1s and 2s on attack rolls. Or conversely, your group is getting pounded and you can’t seem to roll anything other than 20s.

Obviously, if the dealer in a casino rigged the dice for a specific result, we’d be undeniably ticked off. So why is it acceptable at times in our RPGs?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about DMing, spending an awful amount of time over at Mike Shea’s Sly Flourish website absorbing a different point of view. I used to think that I was doing something really bad when I “fudged” the rolls. I also used to BE doing something pretty bad, because I’d fudge for awful reasons.

My view of things was pretty black and white and I wasn’t good at looking at cheating as a tool, but rather as a guilty secret that I used when I didn’t want something to happen the way it was about to play out thanks to the roll of the dice. I was attempting to be the storyteller instead of part of the story.

Dice you see, dice you don’t…

How do we make cheating an acceptable tool, instead of a dirty secret?

The difference is in the intent. When we are trying to pad our pride, or force our friends to take the path we’ve prepared, cheating is a nasty little habit. When we are trying to build up the awesomeness of the characters or bring their players back into the action of the game, it’s a superb tool. In both cases, it’s best if the players don’t know about it… Secrets aren’t great at the game table, but there’s a certain amount of selective ignorance that needs to lay between players and their DM to keep the story exciting.

A few ways that cheating often gets used to the detriment of the game include:

  • Making the bad guy miss because the PC forgot to heal between encounters.
  • Making the bad guy hit because the PCs are rolling great and kicking his butt.
  • Raising (or lowering) the DC because the plot requires the party to fail or succeed.
  • Making players attempts to stop your villain fail because you planned for him to escape.
  • Making your villain do stupid things because you planned for him to die.

Basically, anything that makes the plot of the story, or the pride of the DM, more important than player agency. If we have already decided on the plot of the story, why are we playing a role-playing game, instead of writing a book? After all, the players are just messing up the story we’re trying to shove down their… Err, I mean the story we’re trying to tell.

So what makes cheating acceptable? What rationale can we possibly use to allow the bad guy to miss the PC when he should have hit? Or the DC to change? Or the HP to suddenly run out (or rise)? Cheating is acceptable when it is used to improve the player’s experience and the game as a whole.

But, but… The Rules?!

I have always been a fairly strict, by the rules DM. I kept a pretty tight hold of my campaign strings, and sometimes my players had a great time. Other times, they had a miserable time slogging through stuff that I forced upon them that they didn’t enjoy. I’m probably lucky they’re family, and don’t have much choice but to continue to associate with me.

Mike Shea wrote a great article explaining the concept of ‘beats’ in role playing games as it relates to pacing. While he didn’t author the idea, his explanation made sense and resonated with me. It opened my eyes to the realization that I can, if I pay attention, see how my game is going and do something about it.

I probably need to write more about this another time. For now, understand that the basic concept of beats is that in any story, there are alternating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ moments. Sometimes there can be strings of good things, and the players feel like they’re on the top of the world. Likewise, a string of bad events (or even dice rolls) can have your players wishing they hadn’t showed up to game that day.

In either case, too many of one or the other gets old fast and ruins a lot of people’s fun.

How can cheating improve the game?

When we are cheating to alter the beats our players are experiencing, then, in my mind, it can be a good thing. Consider the player who has missed the bad guy three rounds running. They’ve basically sat there, rolling dice, and getting nowhere. Each round of failure feels like it stacks on the last and the downward beats pile up. When they finally hit, you check off your carefully marked HP, and their attack leaves the bad guy with 4 HP.

Even if you announce that, does the player feel suddenly better?

Hitting is definitely an up-beat vs round after round of missing. But if you want the player back in the game raring to go, a heroically described death to the bad guy, throwing out the HP tracker in the name of the game will have a much more profound effect.

Conversely, the barbarian who is throwing out a hundred damage a round (don’t ask) doesn’t need any help to be on a high. They’ve just cleaved and slaughtered four gnolls in a single round. If their attack would also kill off the big-bad, and up next is a player who hasn’t had a moment in the spotlight for a while, why not wait and give them that chance to be the star. It’ll certainly be a far more memorable moment!

Final Thoughts

I feel obligated to add a few final thoughts on this. While I embrace the idea of concentrating on pacing, and I acknowledge that the DM has control of a number of factors that could allow us to control story pacing by fudging things, I’m still not very good at it. Nor do I do it very often. I actually really enjoy the freedom of having my dice rolled out in the open where everyone can see. That really reduces my “cheating” options, and I think by and large that’s a good thing.

The simple fact is that it is hard to choose the right moments to adjust numbers in such a way that the game table gets the benefit while also maintaining the trust of your players in your consistency. GM pride is hard to spot when you’re in the thick of things.

So I don’t do a lot of cheating at my game table.

Maybe that makes me a bad DM?

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