Thursday, October 9, 2014

Can a Dungeon Master Cheat?

I saw this question somewhere on the web a couple of days ago, and I can't find it anymore. Incidentally, that's my biggest problem with social media as opposed to blogs and message boards, but that's a topic for another day.

Can a DM cheat? In other words, does the DM so completely rule the game that there is no recourse under the rules themselves for a player?

It's an interesting question when you get into it, partly because when you try to break down what "cheating" means, there are many different possibilities, and it's all mixed in with the fact that the DM certainly is in a position to make rulings. But to break rules, is that simply a "house rule" or a "house ruling" when the rule snaps in two?

I would tend to say that while a DM can't cheat, there are certain things that are "cheap shots." Depending on how you run the game, some things might be cheat shots at one DM's table, but not so much at someone else's table where the base expectations of the game are different.

The "killer DM" isn't cheating, but he's taking cheap shots that will ultimately destroy his game. Still, I am so much in favor of the word "Referee" as opposed to "Dungeon Master" that just the mental vocabulary tells me that somewhere ... I think a DM could be accused of cheating. Hmm.

Just a thought.


  1. I'm not sure I quite understand the question. Surely virtually every Referee has given his or her players a break at least once by, say, 'fudging' a die roll. And surely that would count as 'cheating' if anything would. Or am I wrong on that? (or is it that you're asking the more metaphysical question as to whether cheating is logically possible where the referee always has final say?) I suppose one interesting question is are you allowed to go the other way? For example, if that carefully designed scenario is turning out to be much easier than anticipated, and is thus boring your players, can you fudge a die roll in the other direction, or just invent a monster? And is inventing a monster any different in principle from fudging an actual die roll?

  2. I would be inclined to say that unless the game is specifically intended as an adversarial "players vs. the GM" style game then while the GM may fudge, he can't cheat. But then, I tend to think of cheating more in terms of doing so with the intent to win.

  3. I think "cheat" is not exactly the right word. Cheating is where one participant gets away with breaking the rules in order to gain an unfair edge that would increase his chances of winning. Since RPGs generally don't have victory conditions there is no way to win them. Ergo, the GM can't actually "cheat," since the game can't be won and nothing the GM does will increase his chances of winning. He can however, be a jerk and take "cheap shots" as you say.

    An alternative way of looking at it is that many games do explicitly say something along the lines of "you win if everybody has a good time." If we take this as an actual victory condition, then again the GM can't cheat, because he can't win by taking unfair advantage. If he spends his time being a jerk to the players and taking cheap shots, then everyone will nothave a good time. Ergo, he actually loses (as does the whole group), because the victory condition is not being met.

    Either way, I'm guessing not too many people would play with such a GM for any length of time. So in the long run, that type of GM loses.

  4. I think A GM cheats when making ufair and aribtrary rulings beyond those already established in the campaign. A GM also cheats when favoring or slighting one or more players at the table for reasons that really have nothing to do with the game or conduct at the table.

  5. Matt, I think it's a spectrum and certainly a Your Mileage May Vary sort of proposition. Personally, while I'm not a guy who waves around the "player agency" banner, a DM who strips a player of choices, and sends him down a set of rails is cheating, in a sense. Others may call that sort of thing narrating or storygaming, but as I said, it's a spectrum. Another form of this kind of cheating would be do funnel the players to a particular predetermined outcome, thereby removing the choice of the sort of adventure the character would have. By the same token, I don't think the DM should depopulate the Troll Fens of trolls, just because some knucklehead 1st level players decide to wade in hip deep. Again, it's a spectrum, and each table and player have varying expectations.

  6. I'd say it's possible, if the referee (my preferred term, as well) takes a certain kind of approach. Once they create win conditions for themselves, and thus cease to be an impartial arbiter, they could be considered to be cheating. For instance, the killer DM is playing to win, he has a desired effect (kill off the PCs, make them lose). If he alters the game to ensure he wins, then he has cheated. Similarly, a softie who makes it his goal to ensure that the PCs never die or a storyteller who wants his carefully crafted plot to run smoothly could fudge dice or toss in some quantum ogres to guarantee a desired result. A fair referee just wants to run a fun game, whether the players make out like bandits or all get killed trying, they should feel challenged and stimulated. It's no different than the role of a video game designer

    I can't really think of a situation where fudging die rolls wouldn't be cheating, but I won't discount the possibility. It just seems unnecessary, considering the ref decides the conditions to begin with. If you want players to succeed or fail, don't ask them to roll dice, and if you want there to be an element of chance, set it to a level you're comfortable with. If you're gonna give players a 55% chance of success, just tell them, don't say 50% and decide they're "close enough". As a player, I hate that, and even if it works in my favor, I feel cheated

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