How cheating completely destroys good tabletop gaming groups, how to recognize it, and some ideas for handling this very tense situation.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Cheating may be reviled throughout most of the gaming world, but all too many players seem perfectly comfortable with doing it. Entire websites exist whose entire function revolves around providing cheat codes and methods to interested gamers. In turn, multiplayer online games fight constantly against cheating.

The smaller the venue, the more intimate the players’ connection—and the more annoyed and upset players get with someone they realize is cheating.

The losing battle against cheating

A long, long time ago, I played on and built stuff for a particular MUD (Multi-User Dungeon/Domain; they’re like World of Warcraft, except all in text). It required a focus on roleplaying. It also featured permadeath, which means that if a PC (player character) died, the player lost that PC for good and had to make a new one.

One day on this MUD, one of my fellow admins, Kryss, told me she’d found someone cheating.

Every time the MUD rebooted, which it did periodically to add new built items and code, this guy made a beeline to one particular alley in the main town. There, he’d follow a particular guard around until the guard was alone and isolated. And then, he’d attack the guard, kill him with one shot, and loot his body. Afterward, he’d saunter off to sell his ill-gotten gains to the town’s NPC (non-player character) shopkeepers.

Town guards were supposed to be almost unkillable. However, whoever had built this one ages ago had given him a full set of top-level gear but had forgotten to increase their stats and skills from entry-level default to hellishly-hard.

By the time Kryss had realized what our cheater was doing, his noncombatant PC had already become one of the wealthiest in the game with this routine.

Not only was this player acting drastically OOC, or out of character, but he was deliberately abusing a builder’s mistake. (At least, we hoped it was a mistake. We never found out who’d built the NPC.)

Correcting a cheating exploit

This kind of cheating is called an exploit. The players who exploit bugs and mis-set stats are getting a drastically unfair advantage compared to their fellow players.

“What are you going to do about it?” I asked Kryss.

“I just corrected the guard’s stats,” she replied. “One sec. Gonna reboot so it reloads him.”

“You aren’t gonna tell [Cheater] that it’s fixed?”

“Why would I? He didn’t report it. So officially, I don’t even know he knows about the problem.”

Then, knowing he was online right then, she rebooted the MUD.

It could not have been more than 30 seconds later that I saw a downright heartwarming system notification:

[DEATH: Cheating Cheater Who Cheats All Cheatily-Like has died to NPC Guard 4500 in Room 1020, A Twisting, Dark Alley.]

It was glorious. And yes, the guy was very sore about losing his incredibly wealthy PC, but also yes, he knew exactly why he wasn’t getting a rez (resurrection). When he made some noise about the loss, Kryss innocently asked him why his good-guy merchant PC was attacking town guards in an alley in the first place. That response quickly led him to reconsider the wisdom of pursuing any complaints much further.

This cheater was lucky that his denouement amused an admin so much. If it hadn’t, she’d likely have simply banned him forever. Nobody likes cheating—except, I suppose, for cheaters themselves.

The difficulty of exposing cheating in a tabletop roleplaying game

It’s a lot easier to eject someone for misbehavior from a big multiplayer online game. Chances are very good that the admins don’t know that cheater personally or have any personal connection with them.

A tabletop roleplaying game is usually a whole other ballgame, however.

In tabletop games, everyone usually knows everyone. They’re looking at each other across a table. They may have tight friendship bonds with each other. Sometimes, they might even be in a romantic relationship or have other serious entanglements.

When someone cheats, it can put the game’s other players and its GM (Game Master) in a really awkward, uncomfortable position. Resolving the situation often requires a great deal of social finesse, which many gamers simply do not possess.

Worse, a good resolution often flies in the face of the Geek Social Fallacies that direct the lives of all too many roleplaying games’ players. Gamers often don’t have the very best conflict-resolution skills. When someone acts decidedly out of order, their group might not have any idea how to proceed.

When I realized someone in my party was cheating

Years ago, my then-boyfriend and I joined a promising tabletop roleplaying game. All of us worked at the same tech job in town, so we knew each other very well. Our games took place at the home our GM, Jen, shared with her parents. (It looked strikingly like Wayne Campbell’s home in Wayne’s World.) In addition, a few months previously, Jen’s parents had taken in Dirk, one of the party members and Jen’s very good friend.

Though the rest of us were veteran gamers, this would be Dirk’s very first tabletop game.

From the very start, it looked like Dirk considered himself the main character of every game session. He really should have been playing a solo game with just him and Jen. Instead, we got stuck with him swanning around and doing stuff on his own without talking to the rest of us.

We were already getting fed up with Dirk’s behavior when we all began to suspect that he was fudging dice rolls.

He only rolled dice on a little end table next to the end of the couch that he’d marked as his property for each session. He refused to roll the dice on the coffee table that was central to all of us. As well, any time he really wanted to succeed on a roll, he absolutely positively succeeded grandly at it. He got a strikingly high number of critical successes, as well.

Most gamers indulge in some magical thinking where dice are concerned, sure. But Dirk’s successes went far, far past random chance.

Unmasking a cheater

At first, we mentioned our suspicions to Jen. She tried ineffectually to force Dirk to use the communal coffee table, but he whined about how uncomfortable it was to get up and sit back down again every time to do that. He seemed to know exactly why she was making that request, and he flat refused to do it.

So at the next session, I went to the bathroom right before a big fight between our characters and the bad guys. When I emerged, nobody was looking at me; they were all intent on the fight. Sensing an opportunity, I stood behind Dirk’s seat within easy line of sight of the end table he used for his rolls.

Dirk didn’t notice me at all, but Jen saw me there. Briefly, our eyes met. I knew that she knew exactly why I was there.

A moment later, she asked Dirk to roll to see if he’d hit what he was aiming at with his weapon.

I watched Dirk roll a 20-sider. He needed a really high roll. But the die settled on a dismally low number that indicated a completely missed swing.

After taking in the result of his roll, he looked up at Jen. Smiling, he brightly announced that he’d rolled a perfect 20. Hooray!

Jen looked past him to me. I shook my head in disgust.

Her lips set in a firm line. I stayed there for a few minutes, just shaking my head anew after each roll while he lied about it.

It’s often hard for GMs to handle cheaters

Jen now faced a difficulty that wasn’t unique, by any means. GMs everywhere have always discovered cheaters in their midst.

All over the internet these days, one can find advice for dealing with cheaters at the gaming table. When this incident happened in the late 1990s, it was a lot harder to find that advice. If the GM didn’t already have the people skills and conflict-resolution skills to handle the cheater, then it could break up the entire game.

Nowadays, we can find GMs discussing their tactics all over the internet.

Officially, what cheaters like Dirk do might be considered a victimless crime, so to speak. After all, if a cheater’s willowy magical ninja elf slices and dices her way through an entire enemy army in 1.25 rounds, the cheater might well reason that this cheating benefits the entire party in the form of easier fights, faster accumulation of rewards, and the always-effervescent thrill of victory.

But most tabletop gamers aren’t in it to minmax effort and rewards. They’re there to enjoy a story together, not compete with the game and their GM to see how fast they can complete the story and win all the loot. As one person put it on a gaming site:

[The cheater’s] problem was that he thought that he was playing a competitive game, with the other players as his competitors, and never quite understood that our game was about teamwork during the experience of a fictional world, not about winning against other players.

rust at the Steve Jackson Games Forums, 2013


… And what happened after the confirmation of cheating in my game

As I passed by his seat, it slowly dawned on Dirk that I had been behind him for at least one of his rolls. But he didn’t know for sure what I’d seen. While he visibly stressed out, I nonchalantly sat down by the coffee table. The game proceeded as normal.

After that session, my then-BF and I approached Jen to tell her what I’d seen and what we needed her to do. If she couldn’t hold Dirk accountable for his cheating, she at least needed to ensure he wouldn’t do it again moving forward.

Even at the time, I understood what a fraught personal situation this was for her. To a very large extent, she felt responsible for her new roommate. They were also extremely good friends. If he took offense or got petulant over the conflict, it could make their living situation unpleasant.

But we just weren’t willing anymore to suffer with a cheater in the game.

We asked Jen for a progress report before the next session.

We did not receive it. She seemed intent on pretending nothing had happened.

At that point, my then-BF and I told her we were just too busy to make Gaming Night anymore. Very quickly, the rest of the party dropped out as well.

Who knows? Maybe Jen and Dirk got to run that solo game he desperately needed after that.

When it’s the GM who’s cheating with dice

Incidentally, some tabletop roleplayers make a distinction: When GMs lie about dice rolls, it’s “fudging,” but when players do the same thing, it’s “cheating.” Many GMs roll their dice behind a screen, so that players can’t see what’s happening. That habit only makes fudging more possible and less detectable.

Attitudes toward fudging vary. Some players would never tolerate a GM who does it. Others accept that sometimes, in the name of overall enjoyment of the game, a GM can easily be excused for it. Whether a player allows or condemns fudging seems to depend greatly on how much importance they lay on dice as the final arbiters of the game’s direction.

Fudging also seems more acceptable to players if the end result really does improve the party’s enjoyment. If it’s done in ways that break suspension of disbelief or to favor one particular player over others, it’s much harder to excuse. As one player put it:

The worst game session I’ve witnessed was one where the response to a cautious plan was one player saying: “Don’t worry. We’re not that far into the campaign yet. The GM won’t allow us to die.” . . .

Fudging to make sure that no one dies except during suitably dramatic moments means that most of what you do in game doesn’t matter. It’s just filler. The consequences are scripted.

Icelander, at Steve Jackson Games Forums

And I agree. Of course, fudging ranges between extremes. Some GMs fudge in only minor ways. Others feel free to do it any time they don’t want a bad dice roll to wreck their campaign.

Before someone joins a tabletop game for the first time, it might be worth their time to consider how they feel about fudging, and then to make sure their GM thinks similarly.

Prevention of cheating is worth a pound of cure

Conflict resolution is not a skillset that most people automatically pick up by osmosis. It isn’t a set of natural-born talents that combine to make someone effortlessly good at defusing cheating situations—or any other negative behaviors , for that matter. My advice, then, is to do your best to cheat-proof your game.

First, know the rules of your game well enough to spot when someone’s having vastly better luck than usual. If you know that it should be next to impossible for a low-level ranger to make their roll to, say, hit a tiny vulnerable spot on a vampire’s armpit, then you will know something’s wrong when that character manages this feat three times in a row.

As well, note the behavior of that oh-so-lucky person. Do they insist on using little bitty dice whose numbers are difficult to detect? Call out results, then quickly snatch up their dice again before anyone else can see those results? Do they somehow and unaccountably keep forgetting to write down the damage done to their PC during fights?

Accordingly, make sure all dice rolls occur in a place that can be easily seen by everyone in the game, using dice that can be easily read, and having the group verify each roll’s results. That might mean rolling on a literal table or asking everyone to use the same software in a tabletop simulator app. However it’s done, everyone needs to see the rolls. If the GM has committed to no fudging, then the GM’s rolls must also be done in this way.

Third, make the penalties for cheating crystal-clear and consistent. Hopefully, players who might be tempted to cheat will be dissuaded by knowing in advance that the risks are simply too high.

Cheating at the gaming table happens for the same reason it happens everywhere else, after all. Cheaters notice an opportunity to violate the rules to their own advantage, don’t care how their cheating will impact others (or think they can mitigate that damage), and perceive little risk in doing it. Closing off one or more of those contributing factors can prevent cheating from occurring in the first place.

Handling cheating once it’s caught, as players…

If someone does get caught cheating despite these preventive measures, like physically shifting the dice to change the results, then we move into the conflict resolution part of the equation.

Personally, I suggest talking to the GM after the session. Nowadays, many GMs seem to pride themselves on taking firm action in these matters. Perhaps a couple of decades of Jen-like behavior causing the implosion of countless gaming groups made them realize what an utter disaster it is to ignore cheating in the vain hope that the cheater will spontaneously decide to clean up their act.

How the GM responds to this crisis⁠—because a “crisis” is precisely what it is⁠—should tell you everything you need to know about whether or not you should remain in the game.

A GM who can’t quickly and meaningfully address cheating will probably not deal well with a host of other interpersonal issues at the table. Sooner or later, one of those issues will impact you as bad as⁠—or worse than⁠—someone else’s cheating.

…and as GMs

If you are the GM who’s just been approached, then you need to be firm and decisive about the situation. Because it is going to happen sooner or later.

If you GM long enough, you’ll eventually encounter a cheater lying about dice rolls at your table. When players approach you with a cheating situation to report, they will likely be extremely anxious, angry, even hurt. Emotions will be running hot as it is. They need to know that you’ll handle it in a good way and that you’ll get things back under control.

So it’s best if you’ve already figured out how you want to handle cheating. Educate yourself about how more experienced or people-savvy GMs deal with cheating. You don’t need a master-level course in conflict resolution, but do be aware of some ways you might approach the situation. Gather the facts your players present, then consider how to approach the problem player.

The solution may be as simple as removing whatever opportunity has opened the door to cheating (like instituting transparency rules for dice-rolling). Or making the player submit a copy of their character sheet to the GM ahead of every session, so there’s no doubt about the PC’s abilities and stats.

The reason we’re all there: the joy of shared storytelling together

If you don’t feel confident in your abilities as the group’s GM to rein in the cheater, however, or you feel their continued presence will be a problem for the rest of the group, then it’s perfectly okay to ask them to leave the game. While you’re studying ways to address cheating, also study ways to kick players out of your group. Plenty of advice exists online for that, too. Find approaches that feel right to you, and do your best to stay even-headed and focused on the group as a whole.

Keep that focus in mind, too, because the group as a whole is really why everyone’s at that table. Its players could be doing anything else that day, even nothing at all. They don’t have to haul their cookies all the way to this one particular gaming table. It’s not their job to play this game. Similarly, nothing forces the GM to spend upward of 20 hours a week working on the next gaming session. Nobody’s forced to buy, read, and learn the information contained in all those gamebooks. We could all find other stuff to do with that time and money.

Everyone at that table is hopefully there because they all share a deep passion for exploring a story together.

If someone’s there for some other reason, and they let that motivation get in the way of everyone else’s enjoyment of the resources spent, then there’s no shame at all in telling them to find somewhere else to meet that need.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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