Whoops, what did I just say? How can you cheat at D&D? It’s a game of the imagination! But we all know how it’s possible – here are a few ways:
1: Not tallying Encumbrance properly, so the character can carry more than it should.
2: Fudging the amount of money on the character sheet, which is difficult for the DM or other players to track because each player spends different amounts and sometimes takes in different amounts.
3: Fudging the experience points, which is difficult to track if there are individual XP awards or if you can spend your XP in some way (such as to create magic items), or if the player composition of the group changes regularly (character deaths, new or infrequent players). All of these mean every player will have a different XP amount.
4: Not taking time into account properly. This can range from having a castle built too soon, or a magic item completed too soon, or not adding a year to the character’s age, or acting twice in a round during a complicated and confusing melee, or not tracking casting time or weapon speed properly.
5: Not marking off equipment that’s been used up (such as food, water, torches, oil, spell components, holy water, potions, scrolls, charges from magic items, etc).
6: Fudging the character generation rolls (higher ability scores or starting funds, perhaps mutations or spells known at the start). This also includes not tallying up the skill points or whatever other character-building process is used.
7: Fudging dice rolls during the game when nobody is looking.
Clearly there are many ways to subvert the integrity of the game. Players might do these things to get ahead, while DMs may have more complex reasons. A DM may not want to see a character perish that he likes. Or he may have given a monster a magic treasure to use, but he doesn’t want the PC party to acquire it.
And it is possible for the DM to cheat, even if it is his game. The players and the DM join into an unspoken agreement that, if the game calls for accurate tracking of money, weight, time, experience, etc that all people at the table will try their best to accurately track those things. And that if a roll is called for, the die will be rolled and the result honestly reported. These are the inherent bases of a game like D&D, and without these there is no point to character sheets or dice: you might as well just sit back and socialize instead.
The result of cheating, on the part of the player or the DM, is dissatisfaction. A player who cheats and is caught reduces the enjoyment for all the players and the DM. A DM who cheats and is caught likewise reduces the enjoyment for all. But if the culprit goes unnoticed, that person still receives less satisfaction from the game.
Feeling good about your accomplishments requires that said accomplishment be difficult. You don’t feel great about successfully tying your shoes – unless tying your shoes is a struggle. And part of the difficulty of D&D is uncertainty. You don’t know if you will survive the fight, or overcome the environmental hazards, or whether you can seize some treasure. If the outcome was certain, one way or the other, you wring far less enjoyment from it. At that point you’re reading a book or watching a play, rather than playing a game. Perhaps an uncertain outcome at the start is one definition of what a “game” is.
The character that achives great things, and becomes the thing of which stories are told, is like a baseball player with a character sheet for a baseball card. The baseball players with impressive statistics are much less impressive when you notice the asterisk next to the score. You find out that the player used a corked bat, or was on steroids, and so the accomplishment feels moot. We don’t know if this was really the best baseball player, because he cheated. Fudging dice rolls is the corked bat of D&D, and dishonest character generation rolls are its steroid scandal.
This is why I think cheating by the DM is just as bad as cheating by the players. Discovery that the DM cheats sometimes happens suddenly, if he lets it slip, but often it will happen as a slow realization. Your character has Story Driven Invulnerability, or perhaps he has no agency in the game world because the DM’s story is going to happen no matter what, or the DM’s way of getting you to adventure is keeping you poor all the time. Regardless of how it manifests, the player suddenly realizes that he isn’t playing the game he thought he was. And maybe he’s okay with that.
And that’s one good point. If the DM says he’s going to see to it that slain PCs are able to be raised from the dead, then it’s not exactly cheating anymore. It’s a publicly advertised game design decision. If the players don’t like it, they don’t have to play. Likewise, the DM could tell players to bump their ability scores to the minimum requirements of the class they want to play. Again, it’s not a subversion of the chargen process if the DM included it in his rules.
And we can talk about how a character generated using “9d6, sum the three highest, arrange as you like” seems less legitimate than “sum of 3d6, rolled in order”. But that’s a play style issue, rather than a cheating issue.
And of course some players will be able to cheat and not feel bad about it. Here I cannot help but lay down a value judgement, and say that I hope such a player matures eventually. D&D is not so much about your character sheet and the strings of numbers that spin endlessly along its neat little lines. D&D is about how you play, the skill of the player overcoming the difficulties presented by the game environment and the shortcomings of the character. If you don’t believe that, try to imagine the enjoyment to be found in a game environment that offers no challenge, playing a character that is all-powerful.
Again, perhaps some young players enjoy that kind of game. But they’re missing out on 95% of the fun, and I hope they discover it eventually. But to reap the rewards of D&D, you need to just roll those dice and see what happens.