Sunday, October 22, 2017

Poll Results: Can the DM Cheat?

(Fair warning: there will be some anger, and some accompanying strong language. Online interactions not rated by the ESRB.)

So, a little while back I asked Ozymandias if I could borrow a survey he had made on a Facebook page, to ask some of the gamers in my own alma mater's tabletop club; he graciously agreed. I made it into a Google survey, and posted it in the group chat... and was promptly informed that I was apparently supposed to ask the officers' permission before doing so. (A fact which was never indicated in writing anywhere, in the official rules channel or in the general chat - but as you can see below, I shouldn't really be surprised.)

Quick note: I did modify the wording of some of the choices slightly, to make them more consistent and clear. I waited just over two weeks before closing the survey, and at that point had received only 10 responses, one of which was my own (made to ensure that the poll was working). Here is the complete text of what I posted for people to respond to.
Given any or all of the following definitions of the word "cheat": (1) to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud; (2) to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice; (3) to practice fraud or trickery; (4) to violate rules dishonestly; is it possible for a DM to cheat at D&D?
  1. No. The DM has responsibility for maintaining fun at the table, and they may do anything in support of that goal.
  2. No. The rules serve as a guide for the DM but their (the DM's) authority makes them exempt from cheating.
  3. Depends. Really, there are so many different variables that it's difficult to say for certain one way or the other.
  4. Yes, but only if the DM takes away player agency by dictating PC actions.
  5. Yes. Game rules apply to a DM just as they do to the players.
  6. Other (please comment).
Google Forms has an option to shuffle the order of the response options, which I think is great. Here's a pie chart with the percentage of responses; keep in mind that exactly 10 responses were received, so 10% = 1 person.

For those who can't see the image, here's the breakdown: #1 got two votes,
#2 got one vote, #3 got two votes, #4 got three votes, #5 got one vote, and
#6 (Other) got one vote.

There were two comments made; interestingly, only one person voted for "Other", so the second commenter must have wanted to expand on their rationale for voting the way they did... except that these are anonymous, and so not linked together. Here are the two responses in their entirety.

Response #1: "Unless the DM is an asshole"

Thank you, that is extremely helpful.

Response #2: "It depends on the intent of the action that could be considered "cheating". I occasionally fudge rolls at my table, both for and against the players. That could be considered cheating in most games, but here the objective is to use the rolls for storytelling. We don't want a level three player getting crit to instant death, but we also don't want the end boss of a cool dungeon to go down in one round without him doing anything significant to a party member.
"There are ways a DM can cheat however. A few examples include: 1) allowing dice that shouldn't be used if the table doesn't agree to let him do so occasionally, and 2) if the intent of the game is that it's DM vs players. The first would have the example of "loaded dice" or dice that favor a number. If the players ask for visible rolls at all times, and one uses a loaded die, it is breaking the player DM relationship of trust for the sake of a better roll more consistently rather than having the dice fall where they may. In a player vs DM mentality, the intent in the game I run where I occasionally change numbers for story would change drastically if my objective for the party is to throw them in a pit Fighting arena society where I control their lives. Dnd is not a game designed for pvp, and that goes for players and DM's."

Wordier, but has more content. I have no idea who wrote this (as I ensured that the responses were anonymous), so this will be based entirely on the response, and the assumption that this DM is referring mostly to D&D 5th Edition - and, considering I had the DM role removed from my profile in the group chat because I don't run their 5e organized play thing, that seems extremely likely.

If this person fudges both for and against their players, and doesn't consider that cheating, then why would it be considered cheating for a player to fudge their own rolls? After all, they're using the rolls for "storytelling", too; in their own preferred version of the story, their character doesn't get killed. If "storytelling" is the entire point, then why use the dice at all? Why roll a random number generator if you're going to ignore the number that it generates?

They go on to say that a 3rd-level character dying is not desired. Why? Is it because the player will throw a temper tantrum and quit the game? (I've had this happen with two 1st-level characters, for crying out loud.) Is it because this DM has, rather foolishly, based the integrity of their entire game world around a particular set of player characters? (This is foolish for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that both the player and the character can drop out suddenly.) Or is it because it will take too much time to create another 3rd-level character from scratch? (And this is how it's done in the club's organized play system for 5e; none of this "1st-level" crap for them, no ma'am!)

Also, if you don't want a 3rd-level character to be "crit to instant death", you might want to think about revising some of the rules that would let that happen, rather than lying about the result of your dice roll.

There's a brief refrain that "we" don't want this or that. Who exactly is "we"? Am I to infer from this that there are multiple DMs who think this way? Well, considering that six out of the ten responders apparently think so, that isn't exactly an unfair inference. (I was going to make a reference to The Big Lebowski, but I'm saving my quota on that for another point.)

This person goes on to enumerate that, while fudging - either for or against the players - isn't cheating, there are things that are. The first is deliberately using unbalanced dice, and I agree wholeheartedly with this; some DMs I've played with tend not to allow so-called "spin down" dice, the kind that are used for keeping track of points in Magic: the Gathering. While I haven't yet seen enough evidence that these dice are unfair in their results, I'm willing to concede the point and use a different icosahedron until further results are in.

The other thing that is cheating is "if the intent of the game is that it's DM vs players". Apparently fudging against the party is fine, so long as you're not actually against them.


The whole point of using dice is that it takes the arbitrariness out of the DM's hands! If reactions, hits, misses, and the choice of whether to surrender (or flee) are determined randomly, and not on the whim of the DM, there's a lot more reason to trust the DM's decisions as being fair. On the other hand, if the DM says that their super-powerful evil blood-sorcerer NPC boss was successful in an attack, when the numbers say that they were not, then that's fucking cheating!

Jeez... And making certain legal attacks not hit, for the purposes of "the story", is considered a perfectly valid behavior for someone who's supposed to be fair. Just imagine someone pulling that crap in a game of baseball, or chess, or a wargame. Is it any wonder that other gamers' opinion of tabletop RPGs is so low?

Things like this are what make me refer to myself more often as a "Referee" than a "Dungeon Master". My goal isn't to "tell a story" or "maintain fun at the table" at the expense of playing the game according to consistent procedures. It's to facilitate a game - that is the service I provide to my players, and sometimes we don't win at games. But that's no excuse to throw a tantrum like a fucking five-year-old until the facilitator can't stand your whining any more and gives you what you want just to shut you up.

And this ties in to what happened when I so much as posted the poll. The president of the club chided me for breaking a "rule" that had not been written down anywhere, and only existed in their head. Previously, they temporarily banned one of my friends from the chat for doing something that was not covered in the official club rules or constitution (and also misgendered them multiple times). Considering the attitude that most of the respondents had - admittedly, ten isn't a big sample, but I've seen enough of this attitude in person - is it any wonder that the "Dungeon Master" of the club feels free to fudge the rules of the club just as freely as they fudge the dice rolls of their games?

1 comment:

  1. Micro vs macro: a survey of a Facebook group suggests this attitude exists across the spectrum, while your survey to a smaller group yielded pretty much the same results.

    How dare we question the established order?