I am DMing the Lost Mine of Phandelver Starter Set campaign for 5e with my two friends, and one of them is bringing his two friends. They use D&D Beyond, and their character sheets contain almost all 16 or 18 stats with tons of manually input gold. One of them is also a druid with 24 health. So how to persuade my players not to cheat?
Don’t run the game. At least, not like that.
“Guys, these characters aren’t legal. I’m not running a game with them.”
If they persist, don’t be drawn into an argument. “I’m not running it,” and “I’m still not running it,” and is all you need to say.
When arguing doesn’t get what they want — when it gets them less in the form of no game — they’ll have to make up their mind whether they really want to play.
If they don’t, you’ve dodged a bullet: they were going to make the game all about their favourite ways to break the rules to get uber-powerful characters, which is a headache even for experienced DMs. That won’t be fun for you, judging by the existence of your question.
If they do want to play, great. Make characters together, instead of on their own. Consider using the standard array method instead of rolling, if you doubt their ability to roll openly and fairly.
Expect that they’ll try something else, though. If they don’t, great, if they do, remind them you’re runnning D&D, not whatever made-up rules they want.
There’s a natural balance between DM authority and player agency, but them wanting you to be a doormat is not in the range of healthy balance. If you want to enjoy this too, they need to not walk all over you.
Don’t run the game. Unless they’re willing to play the game that you all agreed to in the first place.
I have three simple rules for character generation at my table:
All characters are approved by the GM before they are eligible for play
I reserve the right to allow and disallow certain character generation methods, and I nearly always disallow random roll methods.
All characters are designed together in conjunction with other players and the GM at the first session.
I can credibly state that exactly zero of these rules are intended to curtail character generation cheating, because, honestly, none of them are. The second rule stems from bitter experience as a player rolling badly, and annoying experience as a GM listening to players complain about bad rolls. The third is a long standing policy that helps me get characters that work together instead of against each other, and characters that I understand. The first rule reinforces the other two and gives me an obvious way to weed out non-cheating munchkin characters, my-guy characters, or characters that just don't fit the game. (There's always someone that wants to play a Viking in my ninja game....)
These rules do also give you good ways to clamp down on any... excessively optimistic characters... from a mechanics standpoint. And the nice thing is, they do so without you ever uttering an accusation of cheating. And this is important for two reasons:
- You don't actually know they're all cheating, no matter what you suspect, or even if the blatantly illegal character is the result of cheating or misunderstanding, and
- It's really hard to persuade someone, in the immediate- and short-term, not to cheat. People are mature enough, ethical enough, and principled enough not to... or they aren't. That sort of real-world growth of character is slow, too.
Your challenge in your situation is to, as gracefully as possible, shift over from this idea of bringing in pre-made, un-vetted characters, to the idea of group/supervised character creation under your rules. And, if you really think they're cheating, to watch them like hawks going forward.
Use the Pregenerated Characters in the Starter Set
The people who first played this edition, using the Starter Set, often used the pre-generated characters. And they had fun.
Have a Session 0. Let your friends know that "I am happy to run the starter set adventure with the Pre-generated Characters. Let's have fun with that!"
FWIW: there are pregenerated characters for all of the PHB classes at the WoTC web site.
Make that the opening to a conversation. Go with @SevenSidedDie's excellent answer if the conversation goes much further than that in a direction that you don't care for, or adapt Novak's answer to fit your situation.
It's extremely possible they didn't cheat
Hopefully you haven't already accused them of doing so. The most likely explanation is that they didn't understand how character generation works, and just put in numbers that seemed good. There are a ton of ways they can make mistakes from misunderstanding rules to being bad at math. And, they could also have gotten lucky on their roles if they rolled their stats.
Fix it by having a Session Zero
You'll want to (if it's still possible) approach the situation from a teaching standpoint, not one of accusation. I'd suggest saying something like, "Your enthusiasm in having made characters is great, but I think it would be best if we all made characters together." Assuming this is met with approval (if not, see below) you'll want to discuss stat generation, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Either everyone should roll stats, or everyone should use point buy. If there's any pushback here ("What if I don't roll as well the second time") let them know that normally any roll not witnessed by the DM (and any die rolled on the floor) is not considered an actual roll. You might well ask, What is Session 0?, and fortunately you wouldn't be the first.
If they won't play fair, don't play
Finally, they may claim they rolled legitimately and don't want to reroll or put up other reasons they don't want to make proper characters. Especially if you accused them of cheating they'll be more resistant to listening to reason. That's fine, don't play with them. Don't make it an ultimatum, and if they change their mind, you change yours. You could say something like "I'm not prepared to run such a high power level campaign, if I can't convince all of you to make normal balance level characters I don't think I can run this; what do you all want to do instead?"
Your Fact Pattern is Problematic
In your circumstances, it is not a "given" that the players are cheating. It is possible that the just got lucky on their rolls. Assuming otherwise risks your relationship with your players, because you're accusing them of being untrustworthy.
That said, it is a common rule at many tables that players must roll in front of the table. Even in my current online game where our DM lets us roll physical dice, this is only after the game has continued for over six months and we have a good and trustworthy group together (and even there, I probably would have had the players roll in the interface). I certainly require my players to roll stats at the table in my in-person game, and I usually play with close friends/family.
If everyone has to roll at the table, nobody gets accused of being a cheater. Your rolls are your rolls, and everyone can focus on having a good time.
Cheating isn't Fun
Part of the fun of a game is the real risk (and often eventuality) of failure. If you can't fail, where's the challenge. This is persuasive argument in vacuum.
That said, at this point pointing out the benefits of "not cheating" is almost guaranteed to cause problems. Make everyone roll stats at the table and or do point buy.
Tell them to use the standard array or point buy system and specify how starting equipment and gold should be based on their classes. This will alleviate those problems. Let the players know that you are going to run the game as intended and not as a homebrew. You can also check over the character sheets as they level up.
Note: It is not possible to start at level 1 with more than 18 hp. 18 hp is only possible if stats are rolled and they roll an 18 or 17 for con and use variant human for the tough feat and the class is a Barbarian.
If you're running a game where stat rolling is the norm...
Have Them Roll Their Stats In Front Of You
This is the normal way to determine stats for a campaign. I assume all the other players did the same for you, but if not then make it clear this is the standard you're going with from now on. It prevents any form of stat-gen cheating. Be sure to look up the stat rolling rules, and allow for rerolls as you see fit.
Also Review Their Sheet For Any Discrepancies
Mistakes happen in character creation all the time, even for seasoned players. It's even more common for new players. Go over their sheets one-on-one and address discrepancies like excessive gold or incorrectly written/calculated stats.
Reviewing player sheets for inaccuracies or outright cheating is a normal DM process - make it a normal practice for yourself as well.
Make It Clear You Won't Tolerate Cheating
If you notice anything that is obvious cheating, and not something that could be chalked up to new players or crazy good stat rolls, make it clear that it won't be tolerated. Be polite, but be firm. The game should be fair for everyone, and if these players won't play fair, then you're under no obligation to roll over for them.
Make an overpowered campaign
The other answers discuss various ways to make the players accept less powerful characters.
I say: Go the other way.
First make sure that all the players have equally overpowered characters.
Then scale up the opposition to match.
This will be a different game from standard, but it can be fun in its own way.
Just in regards to the stats and gold, I'd say have them roll the stats in front of you, use the standard array or point buy. If they're using DND Beyond, that's a super easy thing to do. Same for the gold, it sort of sets out how much gold you will have as a starter character. It takes all of just minutes to create/edit a character.
Biggest thing I learned from past DM's is to make sure you have access to their character sheets before the whole thing begins to address these kinds of issues.
For any RPG game, the most important rule is "everybody should have fun. And anything goes as long as all concerned people are ok with it". It's a fictional world, the standard rules are there to guide players, but it's totally ok to have your own amendment rules and deviations from "the standard" - whatever rule set you play by.
That said, players are different. Some people just want fun and like to have overpowered characters to easily do nearly-impossible deeds. Other players are ok with average characters and enjoy using their wits and story-telling talent to jointly craft a story which is not always all honey-eating and happy ending for their ingame character. Having these different mentalities in one group is difficult to reconcile as game master and it might turn out impossible - depending on the flexibility of the players to accept the game master's final rule of judgement.
My advice is: talk to them. Don't accuse them of cheating. But tell them that the story is geared to less powerful characters. Don't necessarily request new characters, but sit together and jointly reduce their stats until it suits your vision of how it would fit - ignoring any fixed character generation rules in the discussion (you may however in your mind have an idea of what is realistic).
1.) PCs created by players
controlled by with the GM guidance.
Let the players create their own PC but under your guidance. If they try to cheat, simply say: "Cheat or play. You can select one."
2.) Make it hard for cheaters
You are the GM so you can create any encounter. I would recommend some very powerful monster for the players who cheated. Maybe you could create some content where the players should go into a labyrinth where every player should go on their own way. There you can still make a party based session, like one opens a door for the other, but they should fight 1v1 for it. Every player should take other monster, but cheaters get the hardest ones. If their PCs are died (+1 tip: don't kill them, just make it harder for them, so they become the feel: "I cheated, but I reached nothing with it), you can offer them to create a new PC(, but now you can "control" them).
3.) Create a curse for them
Let's create an encounter where the cheaters become a curse which will "balance" their stats. It could be anything what your imagination let you to create. And if you want to make it more better, you could make a quest from it, but you should make it the part of the main mission, like the end-boss will cure the curse. (Just make the curse incurable by other spells/potions/...)
Keep it balanced
If you decide to balance them in the game and not to prevent the cheat, you should be aware of the PCs. If they level up or if they become some new power/buff/... you must take control. But I think its not the only way to banish them before the game starts. Just keep in mind, that you are the GM, so you can do whatever you want (but without breaking the enjoyment of the game).