Monday, August 1, 2011

A Different Look At Rules Lawyers

Now, before I begin, I want to point two things out. One, I'm talking about the problem-gamer type of Rules Lawyering here today. You know what I mean, the guys who argue with the GM every few minutes because the GM is doing something that isn't to the letter how the book says to do it, or the girls who go for their setting and game breaking combinations because the rules don't explicitly state those two things can't work together. Two, I'm not defending this behavior. Instead, this is a plea to the people who may be rules lawyering to look at it out of the game, and through that, maybe see why your other friends around the table are sighing and glaring at you when you interrupt the GM with a page and paragraph reference in the DMG.

The Good Side of Rules Lawyering
Yeah, I know I said I wasn't talking about this, but before we can address the bad side of things, we need to see the good side. Why? Because it is important to understand the intention of an action, and I honestly believe that many rules lawyers aren't trying to harm the games they're in. They're trying to help the GM with running the game "right". Something happens, and the book says to handle it one way. The gm, on the other hand, wants to handle it another. Well, the book is the game and that is why people are playing, so the thought process is to just point it out to the GM and fix the problem. Easy peasy, only, there is a problem with this, and it is pissing everyone else at the table off. The problem stems from two things. The first is the literal reading of the rules and nitpicking their meaning. The second is from the constant interrupts. I'm addressing both below.

Literal Reading
I live with three other people, putting four of us in the house. Three of us share the food bill between us, and one person keeps his own food for himself. Nothing wrong with it, he just doesn't want to deal with feeling like he is eating more than his share, or not getting his share out of the grocery trips. Now, to tell the difference between his food and ours, he keeps his stuff in Stop and Shop bags. There is a note posted on the fridge that reads "Food in Stop and Shop bags is XXXX's. Ask before having."

Now, XXXX has other food as well. Cereal and some other stuff that isn't in stop and shop bags. Some of this is marked, some of it isn't. Now, a rules lawyer doing a "literal reading" would  say that it is ok to eat the food not in the Stop and Shop bags, because there is a clear rule posted for that food, and thus - through exception - it is ok to eat first and not ask for other food.

Now, think about that for a second. The intent is clear, "ask before eating my food." However, through rules lawyering, I just ate your food.  You'll likely confront me about eating your food, or stealing it, depending on how dramatic you want to be. I then point out the various byzantine rules of language that show me to be in the clear. Not very fun is it?  This is what you are doing every time you start nit picking over the rules. Yeah, technically it says X, Y, or Z, but the intent is clear and the GM has given their interpretation. So, just let it go and don't eat the food when you know the person wants to be asked first. It's that simple.

Constant Interruptions
Yeah, another anecdote. This time, let's say you're telling a story. It's a fun one too, about the time you and a friend were hanging out at university and almost got caught up in a riot. So, you're telling this story to some new friends, you've got them all smiling, nodding along, and generally hooked. Then you mention something, and your friend who was there - or worse, someone who had heard your story before - cuts in and corrects something you just said. You nod and go with the correction and keep going. Only, they keep doing it. It's your story, but they keep jumping in and messing up the flow; pointing out where you've gotten something 'wrong'. It doesn't take long before the audience is out of the story, and the interruptions are part of the cause.  The story falls apart because there are now two people telling it, and they are in conflict.

This is essentially what you are dong when you keep interrupting the GM for rules. You break the flow of the game, break the flow of the story, and make it harder for the GM to keep everything going coherently. You may mean well - hell, I think you do mean well - but this damage is your cause. Suggest, but don't interrupt. Let the story go, and trust the GM to be the final arbiter of the rules. That is their job after all.

The Point
The point of this post, if you didn't guess, is to give real world examples of some rules lawyering tactics. I'm sure others have other examples, perhaps even better ones. Those are welcome to be posted, but my hope is that by showing real world examples I will either enlighten a well meaning rules lawyer, or give people an example to bring to their well meaning rules lawyer friends. The point here, games are supposed to be fun; so why get in the way of that?


  1. As a former rules lawyer, I think the lawyering stems from fear of loosing control over the PC and the story. I felt that if the GM had a different interpretation of the rules, I wouldn't be able to do the things I wanted to do. The GM could just say "No I don't think you can do that."

    I think the way to help limit it is to encourage the lawyer to feel like they and the GM are on the same side. Sometimes discussing the feel of the game that the GM wants helps to establish it in the lawyer's mind.

  2. Which is a great way to do things, and basically boils down to communication between the player and the GM.

    Like I said, there is good intentions (imo) for most rules lawyers, and I doubt that they want to be annoying, but they can be. Sometimes, you just need to trust, let go, and then discuss after the game.

  3. I thought this discussion was very interesting. I've linked to it and quoted Emmett in my recent blog post. His remarks illustrate some particular points I'm making. Thanks for bringing the subject up!