Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #491
When Players Cheat: Game Master Tips to Keep Them In Line
This Week's Tips Summarized
When Players Cheat
A Brief Word From Johnn
Tips Request: City Play
I'm writing tips about GMing cities. So far, I have:
- Generating NPCs Fast
- Faction Play
- Scale, Movement, Pacing
Do you have any tips on GMing city-based campaigns? Hit
reply, send in your tips, and I'll append them to the
Cheaters Never Prosper
This week's article is a tricky one. I debated putting it in
the ezine. I haven't gamed with a cheater in decades.
However, I know other GMs are plagued with players who take
the game too seriously, who hate to lose, or who have low
I'm still on the fence about this issue, but in case you
have a cheating player hopefully Scott's advice can help, so
that settles it. In addition, this topic gets formal
treatment in the newsletter now, and it can flesh the
archives out with this topic.
If you have any feedback, I'd love to hear it.
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The contest theme is items you'd find when picking pockets.
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Deadline is Monday, May 31. Email entries to
Each entry is one pick pocket item that has an interesting
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- A key with a symbol of Kane on it.
- A rock made of some strange flecked material with the word
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Have a game-full week!
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When Players Cheat
By Scott J. Compton
I'd like to talk to you about a touchy subject, which I'm
going to call, "the cheating player." Have you ever stopped
to think about why some players will go to great lengths to
cheat in a role-playing game?
They use older or weighted dice, forget to remove hit
points, play dumb on how to subtract, cast a spell already
previously cast, call out a rolled number that's actually
another number, or even seek out and memorize the module you
are currently running.
Direct Confrontations Against Cheaters
The last thing a game master desires is to directly confront
the player and outright say, I know you're cheating. That
often leads to tensions between the GM and player, as well
as other players who may favor or empathize with the
cheater's complaints behind the scenes.
However, a direct method can be the best method if it's
handled in a mature and polite way, and everyone is aware of
it without any finger pointing.
Blanket statements just before a game starts can be
something like, "Welcome, I'd like to set some ground rules.
Even though I know all of you are honest, I've had games in
the past where I've seen players cheat. I won't tolerate
cheating because we're all playing a game, and another
player's cheating can actually hurt other players in
unforeseen ways. Just as you expect me, the game master, to
run the game honestly, I expect the same from you as well.
There are many methods that are commonly used, and I have an
eye for them, such as quickly picking up the dice after they
are rolled, or not keeping track of number changes
When the game master says these types of things initially,
it establishes a candid outlook and shows GM experience as
well. As the campaign unfolds, if a cheater is discovered,
the GM can remind the players a second time, without
pointing fingers, that "a case of cheating has occurred last
game, but it's no big-deal because it was an unintentional
action, so I'll let it slide. But if it happens again, I'll
let the player know directly what is happening. Please be
aware and cautious of your actions to play as honestly as
possible. Also, if you feel you've cheated and didn't intend
it, come talk to me at a later time."
Even if the specific cheater denies it until eternity, the
GM usually knows the situation at hand. Even if the game
master does not have conclusive evidence, there are other
threats that can be imposed to reduce cheating that
doesn't cause much disruption.
If a game master owns a webcam and the computer is near
where the game transpires, ask the players if it is okay to
have them recorded so footage can be reviewed at a later
time to remember what may have transpired. Surveillance
helps to prevent cheaters. However, it can be bad if some
players feel camera-shy, so check with your group first.
Tell A Story As A Warning
Working into the conversation at some point the cheating-
example helps to quash the cheater from trying it a second
For instance, if the cheater is nudging the dice after
rolling to make another number appear, the game master could
concoct something like:
"You know, that reminds me about a funny thing that happened
a long time ago! When I was at GenCon back in 1994, I was in
a game where this one player kept nudging the dice after
every roll because the game master's vision was horrible. It
was fun to watch, but another player that was really honest
sitting next to him ratted him out after the game and told
the GM what was going on..."
This type of 'player to player' threat can often be
effective since the player may start to fear the eyes of
other players in addition to the GM's eyes.
Track One PC Per Game
GM rule verification excuses. The GM needs to have on-hand
the stats and numbers of all of the player-characters, as
well as NPCs and monsters. But if the GM simply tracks one
character per session, it can be an effective means of
keeping everyone inline.
Similar to a random airport check, the GM can randomly ask a
player from time to time, "I have your hit points at 38 at
the moment...is that correct?" Or when the game first starts
up, the GM can simply run down the current hit points of all
characters, verifying if his numbers are updated correctly.
The more specific in this case, the better, because it makes
it appear all numbers are known to the GM.
For example, when a character is just about to use a skill,
the GM could say, "I see your Sensing Skill is 12 now that
you leveled up." This makes it hard for the cheating player
to use that method of cheating if the player feels the GM is
extremely knowledgeable with the stats of all of the
Seven Years Of Confusion
Some players are bookworms of pre-made modules. They
memorize every last secret door, how to best approach a
monster, and where to find the rarest of treasure hordes.
Here is a tip to counteract players who appear to have
advanced knowledge of situations. In the places where the
cheater thinks there is something of significance, have
magical mirror fragments in that place instead. Each piece
shows a reflection of only the cheater's character. You can
do what you like with these mirror fragments. Make them
cursed, for example, so fragments cannot leave the PC's
possession. When other characters look into the mirror, make
it clear they don't get any reflection at all.
As the cheater assembles the mirror fragments, he sees more
of his character within it, but notices that his character
is animating and looking for something as if the reflection
is a new character itself. Once most of the mirror fragments
are completely assembled, the character realizes he's
assembling an extraordinarily greedy and possessive version
The mirror can show many things depending on what you'd like
for the particular campaign, such as the character seeing
the actual objects expected where the mirror fragment was
found, but only to see that object snatched away by
something else due to the character's greed.
When the character goes to someone to get the mirror
analyzed, the character learns seven years of bad luck has
befallen him, and this is going to be a time of barren
poverty due to karmic debt. As a subplot, a knowledgeable
mage suggests there is a way to remove the curse earlier
than seven years, but it will take great, personal
sacrifices, such as donations to temples, looking out for
others in need, and so forth - acts that are extremely
[Comment from Johnn: This is a weird tip from Scott, lol.
It's a bit passive aggressive for my taste. I like his other
suggestions below better, as I think changing things around
teaches players that reading modules will be a waste of
time. So, rather than adopting a punishment mindset, just
remove the benefits the cheating used to have.
I've left this idea in, though, as it might inspire you with
some different way to counter a module-memorizer.]
Although it will take more time and effort to research on
the GM's part, find additional modules similar in 'setting
and difficulty rating' to your main module. Places in the
module that are more compartmentalized, like rooms, groves,
and specific places can be torn away from the main module
and substituted with another.
If you'd rather leave the module's geography intact, it
might be useful to use an add-on system of expanding the
areas around it by adding a door or link here and there, and
then moving some of the monsters and rewards into those add-
Varying up the main module with offshoots from similar
modules will create a unique experience. Keep good notes
about what you've done (whether you've substituted,
subtracted or added on) to the main module so that in future
adventures nothing is forgotten.
This is probably the first idea that comes to mind. Mix up
the module. Instead of thinking about details that can be
changed (this is usually the first instinct), think about a
giant elements that would alter the entire module.
For instance, a wizard went through the module three years
ago and destroyed the monsters. Now, three years later when
the party of adventurers appear, there are strange magics
around (due to the wizard) as well as new monsters that feed
on the residue of the wizard's magic.
Anything that adjusts and changes the overall ecosystem of
an area helps to alter things, creates a new history since
the ecological event has occurred, and transplants new
inhabitance into the area with new types of goodies.
Cheaters can crush an entire gaming group if it gets out of
hand (or if cheating catches on as an accepted behavior). If
the game master has already stated the cheating policy for
the game ahead of time, and it's still happening, drastic
action may be needed to nip it in the bud.
If the cheater is ruining the game for the game master and
players, the GM may need to take action and improvise by
saying to all players at once:
"It's hard to start the game out this way today, but it's
been brought to my attention by another player that there
could be cheating happening among us. I'm not one to put
blame on anyone and I still don't suspect it. Although I
hope no one is cheating, I would like to give you some
examples of how one might be cheating (listed out).
Ultimately, cheating ruins the fun and storylines for me and
for everyone playing in the interactive story. I do not give
the NPCs an extra advantage and I attempt to be as fair as
possible so we can have the best experience possible. I know
all of you are upstanding, decent people. It's still unclear
if cheating is happening outright.
It's a common temptation to fudge a little or cheat in
situations that really count. If the habit is not contained
early on, the behavior can get worse, which is something to
If the cheating continues, the GM may need to eradicate the
problem with a direct warning, and maybe even a real
suspension or dismissal of the player. Sometimes it cannot
be avoided, depending on the maturity level of the player.
* * *
I encourage you to come up with your own anti-cheater
methods. This article I wrote may seem harsh, but if you let
your players cheat it will only get worse in the future. Not
only will you lose control of the game's balance, you will
ultimately look back on those adventures as being second-
rate. Do not allow anyone to downgrade your campaign into a
hollow, sugar-coated, meaningless experience.
If I was a player and knew another player was cheating (and
the game was going well), I'd feel like I was spending time
with people who have issues and are immature. As a result,
if I saw it on a constant basis, I'd probably confront that
person alone and ask, "come on, what's up?" and explain to
him why it undermines the fun. If the GM allowed it too, I
know I'd bail and find a different group due to the
The aspects of cheating in video games is an interesting
analogy to the role-player. If a video game designer allows
the player to get through every level without any difficulty
for the player, then the player wouldn't enjoy himself and
never go out to spend the $49. Games made without challenges
are not really games, but more like mindless activities.
Game masters can explain to their players that players who
enable the cheats in a video game right when they buy it are
the players that are not as good as the other ones because
they are not learning anything. Also have players
contemplate why designers have created easy, medium and hard
difficulty levels in video games at all, and why a player
would choose anything above easy.
Challenges are also at the root of our human feeling of
accomplishment. Explain that games without challenges (or
minimized challenges because of cheating) diminish the
overall fun as well as the feeling the reward was
Any board game that requires you to roll the dice would not
be a game if the randomness was eliminated. If all a player
did was roll the dice and the number came up the same each
time, yes it could be fun for a moment or two, and the
player may feel empowered, but soon the player would be
bored knowing that every outcome would be the same old bland
thing. Ultimately, the player's strategy would be non-
existent and there wouldn't be any meaning to playing the
Cheaters don't understand this because they are just making
the game more bland with more expected outcomes. Characters
without challenges, obstacles or the need to improvise or
use tactics become godlike, and boredom ensues.
If a player wishes that type of powertrip, this is my last
piece of advice. "Why don't you play some solitaire at home
and cheat, then come back later and tell me about it. Within
5 minutes, you'll feel like you're wasting your time. When
you cheat in your gaming group, understand you're wasting
This analogy is at the heart of why people don't spend a lot
of time playing a game of chess against oneself. If one
brain knows both sides of an outcome, then there is no
challenge. Without challenge, you're no longer playing a
meaningful game. This is why the mature player can accept
any outcome when playing a game, whether it is deemed
winning or losing. The mature player also understands that
experiencing the conditions that lead to losing will help
prevent losing in the future.
GMs need to be mindful of setting up situations that allow
for success *and* failure. Not providing enough failure
makes the game easy, which is a reduction in overall
challenge and minimization of the feeling of overcoming
obstacles and justifiably earning rewards.
In campaigns where the GM just lets everything be a
cakewalk, players get bored and feel like they are almost
cheating because rewards have been given too easily and
strategy hasn't been required. The players feel like they
are in the backseat and not making a difference.
Likewise, overly hard situations can make players feel they
are being treated unfairly. This can drive players down that
dark path of cheater if they think there is no other
alternative to win except by cheating.
This is why it is important for mature players and mature
GMs to have conversations about the challenge levels so
proper balance is maintained. Getting player feedback is
important (both during game and after a game), since the GM
can often be tied to the goals of the campaign and not keep
in mind the outlook of the players.
As a final tip, this is where it would be good to pass out
an evaluation form after the game that are anonymous, which
could look something like this:
- % of role playing to combat: More Roleplaying? More
Combat? Balance good?
- Challenge levels: Too hard? Too easy? Just about right?
- Rewards given: Not enough? Too many? Just about right?
- Clarity of goals at hand? Too many goals offered? Not
enough? Just right? More direction needed?
- Game system complaints: Please list.
- Other comments that could benefit the GM: Please list.
(Scott has been a video game and RPG designer for the past
14 years. His profile can be found here at IMDB and his personal website
is Attack the Darkness).
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For Your Game: Sources of Wealth
Source: GM Mastery: NPC Essentials
The list below is an excerpt from the book, and the context
is Power Bases - where does an NPC get his power, resources
Pick or roll an NPC's wealth source and then let it inspire
world building, faction creation, personality, relationships,
goals, and actions.
- A building (building value plus possible rent income)
- A business
- A foreign trade mission
- A road or bridge (and collecting tolls)
- A school (and collecting fees or services)
- Bank accounts (earning interest)
- Collectibles (such as books, spells, monster pelts)
- Collecting taxes
- Financially supporting a ruler or politician
- Hiring PCs for quests (where they return with
something of value)
- Lending (and charging interest)
- Livestock and animals
- Permanent magic items
- Slaves, indentured servants, serfs
- Stocks, bonds, and credit notes
- Vehicles and ships
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The Power of Organization
From Ronny The Modular Gameworld
Have you ever had that moment while GMing when you realize
you forgot something important? Not just important, but
integral to the plot? You panic for a second while you think
up workarounds to fix your mistake, or simply write it off
and fly by the seat of your pants for the rest of the night.
You can fix the mistake, but what can you do to make sure it
never happens again? Be organized.
Organization seems to be a dreaded word to some people. It's
like a black hole that sucks in time and energy and emits
misery and frustration. I'm telling you now that organizing
doesn't need to be like that. Organization before and during
your session can save you time, make you work faster and
easier, and best of all, takes no more time or work then
Here are some of my favorite campaign organization methods.
Keep a checklist of your session
Checklists are an amazing way to keep track of your night's
session. Write down all the important plot points, new NPCs
you need to introduce, and encounters the players should
have, and check them off as the session progresses.
Always leave extra space towards the bottom to write
campaign notes on unexpected actions the players took. This
checklist gives you a quick look back on what happened or
didn't happen during that session.
After the session ends, review your checklist and add
anything that didn't happen and is still relevant onto your
next session's checklist.
I keep old checklists in my campaign binder. They are an
amazing resource to use in long-term campaigns.
Outline your session before you start writing
Outlines are just as important when crafting your weekly
campaign sessions as they were back during high school in
your English class. They help you to see the big picture
while you are planning your game, which keeps you from
elaborating endlessly on the small stuff and instead
concentrate on what's really important.
For example, once I detailed every person in the inn my
campaign started in, just in case my players talked to them.
The players ended up spending 5 minutes in the inn, while I
spent at least an hour on those details.
Use your outline to keep things in perspective. Never lose
sight of the big picture. After all, you can always go back
in and fill in the smaller details later on. Remember, time
is not a renewable resource; we only have so much of it in a
day. Spend your time wisely while creating so you can have
more to spend doing the important things (like enjoying a
good book, spending time with friends and family, or simply
Keep a campaign binder
Keeping a campaign binder might sound like a basic item, but
there are still GMs out there who don't do it. Having
everything for your campaign in one place keeps you
organized and ready to play at a moment's notice.
Use tabs or folders inside your binder to organize the
In my campaign binder I keep a section for up-to-date copies
of my player's character sheets, a section for my previous
session's outline and checklist (I staple them together so I
always know what goes with what), a section for notes and
character sheets for NPC and monsters, and a section to keep
all my future notes and ideas.
I keep the back of the binder filled with loose leaf paper
and extra character sheets, so I'm never short on what I
need for a campaign.
Keep a notebook and pen with you, always
This is as much of a life habit as it is about GMing
organization. I've gotten into the habit of keeping a small
notebook and pen with me at all times. It allows me to jot
down notes about campaign ideas no matter where I am (heck,
the first half of this article was written while I was on a
walk through the woods).
Whenever you get home you can add the new ideas to your
campaign binder, clearing out your notebook for new ideas.
I use a moleskine notebook (these amazing little buggers
will withstand anything) and a fisher bullet space pen (when
capped, it's half the size of a normal pen but expands to
full size, and will even write upside down).
Chicago D&D Examiner: Organizing Your Campaign for Free or
Cheap. This is a great overview of some of the electronic
tools you can use to organize your campaigns.
Building a New Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Diary #13:
Organizing. This is a great example of how to organize a
campaign binder, it may not be ideal for you but it can
definitely give you some ideas.
GM Binder Tips for the Organized Gamemaster. A gem from
Johnn, this is the best resource I have found on creating a
DM's binder. Even if you think you're organized now, take a
look here and you'll probably find a new idea or two.
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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books
In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have
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