Save My Game
Cheating or Metagaming?
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Cheating or Metagaming?

I have one character who always dominates the game in combat and outside of it. In game, he is the only person that is effective in combat, and he metagames. I looked over his character sheet the other day to record some information and noticed that he has far more skill ranks then a 6th-level rogue should. He also had upward of five feats, which he shouldn't. Is he cheating, or did I miss something? If he is cheating, how should I deal with it?

Porter, from AskWizards.com

The answer is yes, he is cheating.

As for what to do about it, that's a good question. What do you do when you catch someone cheating? Or even if you think something's out of whack? You are absolutely within your rights as the DM to call for an audit of a character any time you want. It sounds like that's what you did, and you found out that your suspicions were confirmed.

The simple answer is that you intervene. If the character has too many skill ranks or too many feats, it's time to cut back to the legal limit. Either the player can do it, or you as the DM can do it. The latter is kind of an old-school, punitive DMing solution, but it's more like a threat that the player had better get things straight or you will come in and do it your way -- he might not like that.

Really, this one is easy, because you have the rules on your side, and the player has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He has nothing legitimate to complain about that you busted him. If you wanted to be a little mean about it, you could even slap him with a negative level for a couple of sessions as a penalty from the gods for cheating, or sic an Inevitable on his character -- enforcing the law is what they do, after all.

It sounds as if your player is good enough as a power-gamer that he can get by just fine in combat without extra advantages, which makes it extra lame that he was resorting to cheating. Then again, maybe it speaks to him not being quite as good at power gaming as he wanted to be or as you thought he was. It's easy to be effective when you're cheating!

You could use this as an opportunity to audit everyone's character sheets, not just this one player's. Believe it or not, players sometimes forget to add things they're entitled to and end up cheating against themselves. This usually happens when leveling up, where you add in most of what you've earned but forget to pick a feat, add to your BAB or saves, or even to roll more hit points. I've seen it all.

I believe that metagaming in and of itself is a kind of cheating, because it typically involves using out-of-character knowledge. The player is an expert on the rules, the strengths and weaknesses of monsters, and even the tropes of the genre and the traditions of adventure design. Realistically, it is almost impossible to avoid having player knowledge come into play -- you know the stuff, and that knowledge is going to come out in the way you play your character -- but a good player at least tries to play their character according to the character's intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, and experience. If they want to legitimately play the kind of player knowledge they have, they will invest a lot of ranks in Knowledge and Profession skills to represent their character knowing the things that they know. Failing this, they can at least avoid giving information and tactical suggestions to the rest of the players based on things their character wouldn't know. Just because James knows a lot about magic spells in the game doesn't mean Thak the Barbarian should give tips on the fine points of Spellcraft in the middle of combat. Not everyone agrees with this philosophy, and that's fine. If you think players should use their outside knowledge inside the game, however, you should probably get rid of Knowledge and Profession skills entirely -- maybe even mental ability scores (or at least Intelligence) could go away. Just decide which way you want to go with your game and let it roll.

Cheating in D&D is a problem, because it is easy to do. It is easy to do almost by accident in places where the rules are ambiguous. There are also things that a reasonable DM would probably disallow but are technically allowable within the rules, so players figure they are fair game -- and don't ask the DM before using them. The DM has so much to manage already that he can't possibly keep track of everything that happens with every character, unless you are running a super-regimented system such as Living Greyhawk, where players have to turn in adventure logs regularly.

If you are running a regular game, don't be shy about asking for an audit any time the numbers sound funny to you. It could even be a regular event every level or two, if you have the time and patience. I just recently wound up a five-year-long campaign at epic levels, and in the very last session I called out one character for an audit on his damage. It's epic level -- so what if he is doing ludicrous damage? You're supposed to be super-tough at those levels, and this player is well known for his min-maxing skills. But still, the numbers sounded funny, so I called for it. We went down the list and found that he had double-counted one of his bonuses. The error was fixed and we moved along. He still did sick amounts of damage, but he was doing it within the rules.

D&D is a game, and in games, there are levels of skill and different approaches to play. Still, the combat end of things is almost always important, if not the biggest part of the game, at least in how the game is perceived. It's the place where inequality in character-building will show up the most. It is also where the effects of cheating stack (pun intended) with the effect of a player who is good at the mechanical parts of the game to make the game less fun for everyone else. That is the place where the DM must be ready to step in.

Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.


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