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Appropriately Dealing with Rules Lawyers in RPG's

An Apologetics for Rules Lawyers

Introduction

I have envisioned a series of articles where I discuss the foibles and follies of Dungeons and Dragons (herein D&D) and how D&D is “ruining” our society.

And this is the first of those articles!

However, I want to point out that (mostly) D&D is a neutral set of rules and the application of whether or not D&D is a positive or negative endeavor will be based on how those (mostly) neutral rules are applied.

Just like how a firearm or gun is simply an inanimate object, whose use can be beneficial or detrimental based on how the user employs that inanimate object in their life.

Bad guys with guns use them to commit crimes (obviously).

Good guys with guns stop criminals. (The only way to effectively stop a bad guy is when they are confronted by a good guy with a gun).

As I prepared to sit down and write this article it occurred to me that on the topic of Rules Lawyers, the fault has nothing to do with the rules, but what I'm about to discuss actually unmasks ills in our society.

What is a Rules Lawyer?

In the Role Playing Game (RPG) community the term “Rules Lawyer” is spoken with a pejorative and derisive tone. So you'll hear phrases like:

As a community this label is placed on players as an insult in order to curb unwanted behavior.

As an oft accused “Rules Lawyer” I'd like to point out the three qualities that make a Role Player a “Rules Lawyer.”

  1. This is a player who has read the rules.
  2. This player understands the rules (mostly).
  3. Lastly, this player wants to play the RPG according to the rules.

With that second item, I added the caveat “mostly” because RPG's are complex modeling systems and we don't always get everything right. However, a good rules lawyer recognizes that and will adjust, based on new and enlightened understanding.

Fortunately for RPG's there are references that can be quickly employed to clarify these questions. Uniformly these references are called the “rules.”

However, since Rules Lawyers are mistreated, when their three defining attributes are challenged, new and enlightened understanding is rarely the achieved outcome.

Monopoly Analogy

Here's a good example outside the RPG community.

When I was growing up, most families had house rules for the board game Monopoly and the problem with these house rules is that those games could string the game out for hours on end.

Now if your stuck in a basement during a blizzard or torrential rain storm that lasts all day, having a board game that takes eight hours can be a good thing.

However, in just about every other setting a game that runs that long is not enjoyable! (Let's set aside Twilight Imperium for a moment with it's planned run time of sixteen hours because I love that game).

I was no different, when it came to learning how to play Monopoly and I simply understood that a game of Monopoly would span between six to twelve hours in length. I would just need to plan accordingly.

However, later in life, I sat down with a player completely unfamiliar with the game and my lovely wife insisted that we try out the game of Monopoly according to the rules as written.

Within ten minutes of reading and learning the actual rules to Monopoly we enjoyed a one hour game, which quickly resolved a winner in that relatively quick amount of time. My wife and I have tried this out on a handful of occasions and found that if you play Monopoly as intended, it's just a game that wraps up in an hour or less!

To whit, Monopoly is actually a well written set of rules and nicely models the Matthew/Pareto paradigm quite nicely and quite quickly!

It turns out that playing Monopoly in accordance with the rules as intended, makes the game so much more enjoyable.

What makes Rules Lawyers problem players?

On pains of repeating myself lets review the base qualities of a Rules Lawyer as players who have:

  1. Read the Rules
  2. Understand the Rules
  3. Want to abide by the Rules

So walk with me as we join a group of three to five individuals sitting about a table, enjoying a Role Playing Game.

The Dungeon Master has led the Players into a deep dungeon and a fight breaks out!

An enemy shaman steps out of the shadows and casts a spell!

Spellbound, the Dungeon Master weaves a narrative description of the foul magics that ensorcell the players reducing their ability to press their advantage, in a flowery description that would bring a tear of joy to the eye of William Shakespeare!

And then the Rules Lawyer, scrunches his brow and asks, “What spell is that?”

The Game Master, a bit perturbed by the interruption to his masterful story telling (but usually its story telling quality that falls quite short of anything professional) mumbles out the specific spell.

And in response, the Rules Lawyer points out, “That's not how that spell actually works.”

The rest of the players now find themselves in a quandary! The GM has informed them that their characters are stricken and just so! What notations are they supposed to update on their D&D Beyond character sheet hosted on their tablet?

Yet you have this other player at the table, pulling out a well worn and well indexed copy of the rules and is pointing out chapter and verse as to how the Gygaxian world actually works.

And in response the Dungeon Master is trying to drive his hybrid American/Italian car the “GM Fiat” to resolve this issue!

As such the Dungeon Master will start rebutting with phrases like:

Do you see what's happening here?

The Dungeon Master in his ignorance has willfully abandoned the basic rules.

The community (which is largely moderated by Dungeon Masters) have defaulted toward favoring the ignorant Dungeon Master and to cast aside the Rules Lawyer. After all, the game can't proceed without the Dungeon Master so therefore he's in the right. Right?

Here's the problem that begins to surface.

Those individual games begin to inject house rules into the game. But because the Dungeon Master is making decisions contrary to the rules as written, they are likely unwittingly injecting an imbalance into the game.

Further, as the Dungeon Master continues to run roughshod over the rules with the GM Fiat, the players will find themselves, either incapable of responding reasonably to the gaming world, because the demi-gawd running the table has presented an environment that has the predictable sanity one would expect from an HP Lovecraft novel . . .

OR

The players will respond with like incoherence, injecting wild novelty with reckless abandon and attempt to employ the equally chaotic metric, the “Rule of Cool.” (Be patient. “Rule of Cool” deserves its own article).

Now if you want to play that kind of Role Playing Game, you're free too.

But don't pretend that you're playing D&D.

Let's be honest, at that point, this type of group is just employing a whimsical “theater of the mind” group story telling while occasionally ceremoniously rattling dice in obeisance to Gary Gygax.

Battle of Wills!

One of the other inevitable problems that occurs when the Rules Lawyer and the GM get into a heated argument is that one party is employing source documents as a subject matter expert while the GM is driven exclusively by petulant ego.

Rather than do his homework and read and understand the rules as written (RAW) the GM has spent his time working out some novel story driven concept. While having a good story is a benefit for a Role Playing Game, abandonment of the rules has its own hazards.

Abandonment of Reality

Here's the societal problem that is being laid bare.

When a Dungeon Master abandons the rules as written for a well tested game like D&D which is (as of this writing) in it's fifth edition we demonstrate a willingness to abandon reality.

Go back to the “Theater of the Mind” example that I used earlier. That type of group is trying to devolve into a mental exercise that abandons limitations.

This is kind of like the movie Director (they're calling them Show Runners now-a-days too) who relies on Computer Generated Imagery to lay out a cool looking movie scene, regardless of any practical limitations, hoping that the spectacle will dazzle the audience sufficiently so that they ignore the lack of story telling skills.

To quote William Shakespeare (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5)

“It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing.”

One of the important lessons that professional story tellers need to learn is that good stories are told within the constraints of well understood limitations.

Dungeon Masters who abandon the rules as written are defying the story telling limitations laid out to enjoy a well designed and balanced story.

The D&D rules support a rich high fantasy world with access to wondrous magical effects. In reality D&D has a very specific setting that it supports.

There are many different settings and rules for equally specific gaming experiences and these limitations help Players and Game Masters immerse themselves into the game world and story.

So when ignorant Game Masters abandon these rules and limitations they are literally breaking the game.

Back to my thesis, this drive to encourage Dungeon Masters to senselessly override the Rules Lawyers, is indicative of a society willing to abandon reality.

Unfortunately as this habit to ignore limitations in something as banal as a game is carrying over to real life (or vice versa) it will have deletarious consequenses in real life.

Reality is a cruel mistress.

If you embrace her and understand her, Reality can yield wonderful benefits.

But to ignore her is to invite disaster!

The Broken Rules Exception

While I want to discuss the Broken Rules Exception, I probably shouldn't in this article.

Because ignorant Dungeon Masters who ignore the rules in their arguments aren't sufficiently aware of the rules in order to recognize whether or not the rules are actually broken.

To quote Nick Fury, “Nuff said?”

Appropriate Responses

So to the Dungeon Masters.

When a Rules Lawyer points out that a game effect or rule is being applied incorrectly, LISTEN!!!!

That Rule Lawyer is bringing up this issue not because they are trying to disrupt your game, they're trying to help!

The first thing that an ignorant Game Master should do, is to swallow your malformed ego and open your ears.

If you promised to run a D&D game and if one of your dedicated players has actually expended the effort to understand the game rules that you are negligent in and you ignore that help, you are wrong.

When a Rules Lawyer brings up the rules they are trying to help you become right in the eyes of Gary Gygax.

The Rules Lawyer

If the ignorant Dungeon Master isn't willing to listen to reason this is my suggested response and subsequent action.

If after two or three attempts to point out the rules clearly, your final response should be something like,

I thought that we would be playing D&D. I'm sorry that I was misinformed.

Then pack your bags and leave.

And to the rest of the players at the table
Whoa “Rules Lawyer” it sounds like you actually know the rules for this game. Would you be willing to be the Dungeon Master?

Lastly

And if that ignorant Dungeon Master pitifully asks if they can join this new group, politely decline.

After all, we'll be playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Not some half baked ill conceived home brew.

Actually bear in mind that if the ignorant former Dungeon Master responds with contrition and apologizes for their grievous errors, then you might consider letting them join the new group.

But if they remain petulant and sore, they will only be playing in an attempt to undermine and demolish this new group. So bar that individual from enacting their ill mannered anti-social revenge.