Recently on the Guild I announced I would be happy to take questions on roleplaying and situations that (as an experienced GM) I might be able to help with. I got a few interesting ones to start off with, but this particular question immediately caught my eye and I wanted to answer it straight away.
Question: Do you cheat? If your favorite villain or monster is about to die too early will you cheat to keep them alive? Likewise, do you cheat to keep players alive when they would otherwise die?
Answer: This is actually a really good question and it’s one that comes down to the style of game I run. Generally speaking, I roll all of my dice in the open right in front of my players and so whatever I roll, I roll. If players are quick and do the numbers themselves before me, they can usually tell what’s happened if they are watching closely enough. On the other hand, I’m very quick at my own maths and generally speaking if I want to I can decide to “alter” a result. Would my players even know if I did this? Probably not and I’ve never had anyone actually “call” me on fudging numbers in over 7 years now. Oddly enough, that time period coincides directly with the amount of time I’ve been rolling my dice entirely in the open in front of players.
Of course I should really return to what was asked and the question was “Do I cheat?” and I’m going to say “Probably”. The question with “cheating” when you’re the DM is how strictly are you following the rules of the game? If you roll a 6 and know that it’s going to certainly kill a player character, which will be awkward for the story or game, do you decide to just mentally adjust it to a 5? You’ll get a similarly dramatic result but without a catastrophic narrative or gameplay result. This isn’t to say that murdering a player isn’t out of bounds, I’ve done it more than enough times now with open dice especially, but it can be a real pain in say – a one shot adventure – to remove someone early from the game.
In reality, I’m not strictly adhering at all times to whatever the dice say when they are rolled on my end. I basically never turn a players die rolls that would have hit into a miss or similar, but I do sometimes “math” things a bit differently on my side of the table from time to time. Generally speaking, what I tend to actually do any cheating it’s always simply to end an encounter faster. Enemies will magically become distinctly more incompetent or forget how to defend themselves, or any other number of issues may befall them. A good example is when a player rolls a narrow miss in DnD, just 1 or 2 off, but instead of describing them as missing I let them hit anyway. Maybe that jobber would hit a player character and knock them out, extending the fight, but instead he misses entirely (despite easily hitting).
This kind of “cheating” (often called fudging) is usually done to keep the game moving along at a decent pace. Usually I’ll do it when I feel a fight has been entirely won, isn’t fun for anyone (PCs or me) or I just want to end it for time reasons (very common). It’s also surprisingly hard for anyone to actually notice despite me rolling my dice in the open. This is because I tend to do all the math in my head very quickly, which leaves little time for anyone to pick up what I’m doing. Alternatively, it’s possible the players are realizing what I’m up to but don’t mind because 99% of the time, it’s in their favor*. Besides, if they ever did ask there are always nebulous “penalties” that can be applied and who knows what they were.
Possibly the most interesting part of this question is actually the trickiest: Do I cheat to keep my villains or monsters alive? The answer is simple, I absolutely don’t. After many long winded arguments and discussions about if a party should hold person and coup de grace your key villain in DnD, I simply don’t believe in denying players their victory. Dice can be infinitely cruel to player characters over a campaign, while monsters or villains usually only care about the single encounter they exist to the PCs in. Every now and again, a group of PCs is going to have amazing luck and I’m going to fail to hit the broad side of a barn. Everything evens out eventually in luck and one day it will be the PCs in the receiving end, usually much more often than any individual antagonist.
So denying the players that sweet victory, which they actually managed to earn despite it being improbable is entirely wrong to me. Simply put, while it might put a huge dent in my plans, the games story and any number of other cascading consequences, I don’t erase their excellent rolls or whatever else. Instead they win this time, but next time I’ll get them and their little faerie dragon familiar too!
Essentially in close to two decades of doing this, nothing ruins a game or a vibe at the table more than a clearly obvious Deus ex Machina. Essentially if it’s entirely obvious a villain survives when they shouldn’t have and it clearly is outside the games “rules”, you’ve been caught cheating. Unfortunately, you’ve been caught cheating on the players and basically ruining their idea or moment. Ridiculously improbable sequences or clever uses of spells/abilities can lead to unfortunate deaths of villains too early. In every case, you should not “cheat” or fudge the rules on your players to avoid this, but instead feel free to have that villain die. Yeah the players are going to be thinking “Woo campaign is over, we won!” but that’s never the reality.
The reality is, you’ve got an endless supply of bad guys and you’ve always got someone worse. Maybe not now, but that’s why you’re the DM! Speaking of, this actually sounds like a really great topic to address in future now I think about it…
*The 1% of the time here is where I just make a legitimate counting or maths error for whatever reason, or I plain forgot what the players AC was supposed to be.